01 March 2018
Fatalities on French Roads
Why do more people die on the road in France than in the UK?
By Richard Pooley
How would British drivers react if told that the speed limit on ordinary roads outside of built-up areas was going to be reduced from 60 miles per hour to 50 mph? There would be a lot of grumbling, of course, but perhaps soon an acceptance that in traffic-choked Britain a speed of 60 mph on most roads has long been unattainable anyway.
Here in France, however, the decision to impose from 1 July this year an 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph) limit on some 400,000 kms of roads continues to generate a lot of criticism. You might expect this from the motorists’ lobby group 40 millions d’automobilistes. They, together with their colleagues in the French Federation of Angry Motorcyclists (yes, that is an accurate translation of the 38-year old FFMC), have been organising large demonstrations all over France against this “nouvelle menace”. But there are plenty of road-safety experts who doubt the wisdom of this decree, too.
The number of people killed on roads in France last year was 3,693. This was 45 fewer than in 2016 but is still higher than the record low of 3,427 of 2013. And it is still way short of the Government’s long-standing target of having no more than 2,000 road deaths by 2020. French governments have long been troubled by their country’s poor road safety record relative to other countries in the European Union. There are currently 5.5 road deaths per 100,000 French people. This rate is not as high as European driving danger zones such as Greece (9.1), Latvia (10), Poland (10.3) and Lithuania (10.6). But it is higher than Germany (4.3), Spain (3.7), the Netherlands (3.4), the UK and Sweden (both 2.8). Laws have been introduced banning the use of mobile phones while driving and making it almost impossible to drink a glass of wine without going over the maximum amount of alcohol per litre of blood (0.5 mg/ml, compared to 0.8 mg/ml in the UK). Yet, twice as many people die on French roads as on British ones.
The Hollande Government decided to conduct a two-year trial on three notoriously dangerous stretches of road totalling 86 kms. They reduced the speed limit on these roads from the standard 90kph (56mph) to 80kph. On the basis of the deaths and injuries which occurred on these roads during the five years preceding the trial, the authorities calculated there would have been 43 injuries and 6 deaths over the two-year period had the speed limit remained at 90kph. In fact, there were 42 injuries and 3 deaths. I am not alone in finding this result underwhelming. Yet the Macron Government deemed it sufficiently significant that it was used as the main justification for the new speed limit. Apparently they think it will save 350-400 lives a year.
Sceptics argue that the Government would have been better advised to ensure that the ban on smartphone useage was enforced by the police. Certainly it is still all too common to see drivers in France nattering into a phone clamped against their ear as they hurtle down the road. Cynics believe the new measure is simply a money-raising scheme; 83% of respondents in a recent opinion poll thought it was designed to make more money from speeding fines. I have some sympathy with this latter view. I have twice been caught speeding on a motorway where the speed limit, when not raining, is 130kph (81mph). In both cases the limit had been reduced to 90 kph but with little warning and for no obvious reason.
I have often wondered whether elements of the French highway code could be to blame for some deaths on French roads. La priorité à droite has not entirely disappeared in France, even though our French friends admit that it is a stupid and dangerous rule. But there is one piece of common behaviour which puzzles and frightens me: tailgating. I was astonished to discover a couple of years ago that French learner drivers are advised to do this by their driving instructors. Apparently the French consider it safer to get as close as possible to the car in front before overtaking. That way you will spend as little time as possible on the overtaking manoeuvre on the wrong side of the road.
I suspect British readers who have got this far are wondering when I am going to acknowledge that the main reason more people are killed on the road in France than in the UK is because the French are simply more aggressive and less patient than the stolid and sensible Brits. But if this were ever true, it certainly is not now. Both my wife and I find driving in the UK these days a vile experience. It’s not just the clogged roads and endless traffic jams. It’s also the inconsiderate and self-defeating behaviour of so many British drivers – cutting in, switching lanes, blocking entries and exits. Driving in France is a pleasure by comparison.
Perhaps the reason why more people die on French roads than British ones is a very simple one. They are emptier. France is 2.6 times the size of the UK (and over 6 times the size of England) yet has only 2% more people. See one or two kilometres of rural road rolling away ahead of you, empty of cars, and the temptation to break the speed limit is just too strong. I drove into our nearest town, Brive, two days ago and deliberately stayed at 80kph on all those stretches of road which are currently 90kph but will be 80kph come July. It was maddening. Maybe 40 millions d’automobilistes are not so crazy when they say that the answer could be to increase the speed limit. They point to an experiment in Denmark which showed that when the speed limit was raised from 80kph to 90kph on some rural roads, deaths dropped by 13% over two years.
Edouard Philippe, the French Prime Minister, has promised a review of this change after two years: “If the results do not match our high hopes, the government will take its responsibilities.” I am not sure what this really means but it does not sound like a confident endorsement.