Prenez-le à la limite

 

My wife drew my attention to this news, which I missed when the Guardian covered it a month ago. In short: from 1 July 2018, the speed limit on a two-lane French N- or D- road is being lowered from 90kph to 80. This is a reaction to an increase in road deaths in 2016, and a steady rise since the historic low of 2013.

90kph is 55 mph, which (if you stick to it) already feels slow compared to the British equivalent of 60mph. On the other hand, I’ve always admired the rationality of French speed limits, which rise in 20kph increments, from the town-centre pedestrian friendly 30kph (which most people ignore) to the standard 50, then 70 for built up areas on open roads and 90 for two-laners in the open country side. Hit a dual carriageway, and you get 110kph or 130kph on a motorway in fine weather.

Throwing in a new 80kph limit feels wrong, for a lot of reasons. I think that most of the avoidable accidents come down to the bizarre habits of French motorists.

Statistics show that 32% of the 3500 road deaths in 2016 were caused by excessive speed. That’s the way the Guardian article reads, anyway, although it’s ambiguous enough to suggest that we’re talking about a smaller subset of 32% of the 55% of deaths that occur on N- and D- roads. Which is more like 18% of the total. And the French government says that the lower limit could save up to 400 deaths per year, which is an even smaller percentage.

I’m no defender of speeding: it’s irrational and anti-social, and generally the marker of an ignorant or nasty person who feels no empathy. If you’ve ever lived anywhere where motorists regularly pass your windows doing inappropriate speeds, you ought to be mindful when passing other people’s windows. Think of the children, and the pets, and the grown ups, too. Speeding not only destroys lives, it damages infrastructure. You get more potholes in heavy breaking and acceleration zones, and on bends, where the mechanical grip of tyres tears at the road surface.

We’re talking here not about speeding through villages or towns but open road speeding, which is another matter. I’ve been driving in France for long enough and regularly enough to know a number of bad habits of French motorists, including but not restricted to speed. While speed is always a factor in a road traffic accident (how could it not be?), the insanely bad judgement of many motorists is to blame for most of them. These bad judgements include:

  1. Following too closely (tailgating)
  2. Driving in the middle of the road
  3. Dangerous overtaking – usually from a position of (1)
  4. Drink-driving
  5. Mobile phone use
  6. Speeding
  7. Not knowing how to signal at roundabouts

(1) is a habit I’ve been observing for nearly 25 years. They do it to intimidate, often, especially on motorways, especially on those mad “black weekends” when everybody in France is driving to the South (or back to the North). But they also do it thoughtlessly, or because they don’t understand that thing about dropping back from the slow lorry in order to see past it in order to overtake it safely and give yourself more room to accelerate. To achieve (3), your typical French driver will follow excessively closely, then swing blindly out into the opposite carriageway and hit the gas.

I’ve observed (2) with puzzlement for the same period of time. Because I’m driving a right-hand-drive car, I can of course judge my position relative to the verge/shoulder more easily. But French drivers seem to have a phobia about being close to the verge and instead drive everywhere in the middle of the road, with two wheels on the white line or even in the opposite carriageway. Points (1), (2), and (3) together are why huge stretches of road heading towards the Dordogne have been fitted with fixed bollards down the middle of the road (many of which, of course, have been mown down). They will even remain on the wrong side of the road when taking a blind bend at speed. I have long adopted a passive approach, where I am prepared to take evasive action at all times. It’s a wonderful life.

It’s also astonishing, in 2018, how blasé French people still are about drink driving. This is the country, of course, where it’s compulsory to have two self-test breathalysers in your vehicle, but that doesn’t stop people. They still act surprised when I refuse a drink because I’m driving. And the fact that so many French people still take two hours for lunch means that two o’clock in the afternoon is prime time for being shitfaced on the road.

But speed, (6), the disease of motorists everywhere, is as big a problem in France as it is in the UK. Frankly, until all of us deal with our attitude to speed, our righteous outrage over the American gun problem is pure hypocrisy. People are so affronted if you slow down to the speed limit when you hit the village. I had one lorry driver, a couple of trips ago, try to overtake me – in a village – on a hill, just because I was still doing 50kph and he wanted to prove something (I guess?). You end up being tailgated by a possibly drunk truck driver who really wants to make a point, like being in Duel.

So will slowing the already-ignored 90 limit to 80 make a difference? Who knows. There are already many stretches of 70kph limit for zig-zag sections or junctions, and unless there’s a camera, they’re generally ignored. There’s a bridge near our place in France where an Argentinian general died in the river on a bend in the road, and in spite of the enormous marble memorial that marks the spot, people still end up in the river there, including a truck driver recently, which prompted the introduction of a 50kph limit (which was subsequently raised to 70 when people ignored it – logical).

Me? I’m busy calculating the impact on our journey time. The truth is, that over an 11-hour, 600-mile drive this new limit won’t make much difference. It’s in the day-to-day shorter journeys that it will have an impact, and even then, you’re talking about one or two minutes on a 20-minute drive, aren’t you? Maybe it will make cycling more pleasant, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s the irrationality of speeding that gets me in the end. The insistence on doing it as if you have a right to do it, and wilfully ignoring the reality of what happens when you do it. We’ve all been there: you overtake the slow lorry and go screaming up the road, only to encounter another slow lorry a few km ahead. And then the slow lorry you overtook is behind you, in your rear-view mirror, reminding you of the futility of your manoeuvre. You can do that three or four times, and you don’t really get anywhere any faster, but you do stress yourself out.

But when you’re looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care, do they?

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One of the kids took this photo of the sky as the thunderstorm hit

While I’m lucky not to have a long commute these days, I still undertake epic drives on a regular basis and it’s getting harder, I have to admit. This summer there were several brutal drives – the worst of which involved being blind on the road in poor weather conditions.

On the trip over, drive one, we were about to reach the end of the motorway section of the journey when we were hit by a thunderstorm so severe that the road disappeared under several centimetres of water. I’d experienced similar rain just once before, back when I was commuting 80 miles to Nottingham. I was on the M1 and it was chucking it, and the scariest bit was when I hit the brake and realised the discs were wet and — nothing happened for an extended moment.

But the M1, like most British roads, has catseyes™, those reflective glass balls of British genius, one of the few things to be proud of in this country (which is why I get the rage when they’re removed). So even on the darkest night, in the nastiest weather, you can see your lane.

When the thunder hit in France, I was driving up an incline with one of those slow vehicle lanes, but then I was at the top of the hill and the lane finished, and I couldn’t see the road, or the white lines, or the edge of the road, or the car in front of me, or the one behind me.

So I slowed down. But such caution is itself terrifying because not everyone seems to respond to danger. Or do some people just have x-ray vision? Anyway, you slow down to 50, 40, and then someone screams past you in what you think might be the outside lane, still doing 80.

And that was daylight.

The next brutal drive was when we left the East for a week on the Ile d’Yeu, and drove across France to get there. That’s 935km, 580 miles. London to Edinburgh is 396 miles, so driving across France is like driving London to Inverness.

We did it overnight, and the thunderstorm hit quite early in the drive, just as the sun had set. One minute we’re saying, ooh, look at those clouds, as we pass a service station, and within a kilometre, we were in the blackest night and I was again creeping along at 20 mph because I couldn’t see the flaming road. I crawled along for a few km, terrified of someone ploughing into our rear end at speed, and then pulled into a rest area (the kind without a service station). But it wasn’t for long, because the storm passed over and I drove on, heading away from the mountains as quick as I could.

You know when those French farmers drop loads of manure across the road in protests? I feel like dumping a lorryload of catseyes™ outside the APRR HQ.

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Our final brutal drive was this weekend, driving home. After a lot of warm weather, it had rained, and there was fog. So of course I was driving through the night (on 30 minutes sleep), and struggling to see the road in the absence of catseyes™. Even worse, there was a (long) diversion, taking us onto tiny, windy country backroads, which often didn’t even have white lines.

Bring on the self-driving cars, yes please.