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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Buckingham-Winslow Cycle Path

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Google Maps

It was heartening to see this cycling infrastructure being put in a couple of years ago. It was a shame, in a way, that I had changed jobs and would have no real reason to use it. It’s a cycle/pedestrian path which has been installed all the way from the Tesco roundabout in Buckingham to Winslow, as part of an integrated transport scheme which includes the opening of a new railway station in Winslow.

It’s only about 7 miles, but it runs parallel to the A413, which is a busy road between Buckingham and Aylesbury (via Winslow), and it is completely separate from the main carriageway, making it, in theory, safe and accessible for cyclists of all ages and abilities. That’s the good news.

So since my wife had just taken delivery of her new Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike, we thought we’d go on a family outing to Winslow and back, with my teenage daughter the only one moving by pedal power alone.

To reach the cycle path involved crossing Buckingham, which we did via the park and though the Badgers housing estate. This brings you out onto the A413 close to the Tesco roundabout, and you can cross the ring road on the pedestrian crossing.

The first bit of bad news comes right at the beginning of the cycle path: it’s closed by roadworks, and there’s a sign directing pedestrians onto the opposite footpath. But cyclists? Who knows? So we used the road for a short stretch, then back onto the cycle route.

As all cyclists know dedicated cycle routes can be a pain to ride on because you are constantly required to Give Way to motor traffic, which often involves uncomfortable contortions as you try to turn your head like an owl in order to see over your shoulders. In my ideal world, it would be like the rules on water, where motor boats give way to sail boats. Motorists, who are not having to crane their necks to look behind them, should be giving way to the cyclists (that might be) in front of them; not the other way around.

Anyway, I lost count of the number of junctions/crossings where we, the cyclists, had to look over our shoulders to give way. They were helpfully painted red, but then this is a brand-new scheme, and we all know what happens to coloured tarmac and painted lines if they’re not regularly maintained.

The next bit of bad news concerns detritus. The narrative that cyclists are the ones breaking all the rules of the road is of course a convenient foundation myth for the Clarksonites, who are the real sociopaths, throwing McDonalds boxes, empty drink bottles, plastic bags, and other rubbish onto the grass verges and ditches that line this nation’s roads. As well as plastic, glass, and cardboard waste, passing vehicles throw up huge numbers of loose stones, and the trees at the side of the road drop their leaves, seeds, and fruit onto the cycle path for good measure. In short, you’re riding through a lot of crap, even though the underlying surface is pleasantly smooth in comparison to most British roads.

It’s also not a particularly pleasant ride because it does run parallel to a very busy A road, along which the Clarksonites do drive way too fast. You see them screaming past, on their way up to the rear end of a visibly slower vehicle, and you see their brake lights go on, and you wonder what can be going through their heads.

In Padbury, the cycle route is forced to cross the road twice, because there was clearly a reason why it couldn’t run alongside the local allotments. Crossing for the second time, I was very much aware that the oncoming Jaguar was doing at least 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver didn’t noticeably slow down, either, even though there was a cyclist crossing the road in front of (I’m going to guess it’s a) him.

The next bit of bad news was that the cycle route was blocked again by roadworks at Adstock, where signs had been erected indicating that Main Street into Adstock was closed ahead. And in spite of there being many other options available, the Road Closed Ahead signs were smack in the middle of the cycle path, necessitating a detour around them, on the bit of the road where the signs could have been placed.

Riding back, there was an additional hazard caused by a workman who had parked his van on the cycle path at the same junction. He could have easily driven around and parked on the closed bit of road, but no: easier for him to block the fricken’ cycle route, which is also used by pedestrians, invalid carriages, pushchairs etc.

Another aspect of riding back was that we were now on the “wrong” side of the road, riding into the face of oncoming traffic. Although we weren’t sharing the carriageway, it was still hairy as we were buffeted by the slipstreams of oncoming trucks.

All in all, a useful commuting route, but too stressful and irritating for a pleasant leisure ride. And too many reminders that cyclists don’t matter and motorists are scumbags.

Port Designs LED backpack

IMG_9213Although I only recently bought a new backpack for work, when I saw this in my favourite shop (Nature et Découvertes), I thought about it for a few days and then went back and bought it.

My requirements are quite simple these days. I’m a teacher but I travel light. If I need to transport a set of books, I just carry them in a plastic crate. If I’m given a piece of paper in a meeting, I “lose it” quite quickly. This time last year, when I found myself in the unaccustomed position of not having a classroom base, I found myself having to lug all kinds of shit around (you can’t trust that board markers or blank paper will be in your next classroom, for example), and it was depressing and heavy. Now I have a base again, I need my laptop and a few spare ink cartridges. I take a bottle of water, but I rarely bother with lunch these days.

So the small backpack I bought (in the same shop, oy) in February was fine, and I’d been steeling myself to cycle to work as soon as the weather was better. To push myself, I’ve also added front and rear lights, and even purchased a lock, just in case I couldn’t fit my bike in the cupboard at the back of my classroom.

But then, as I say, I saw this bag. Same as the old bag, really, except it has a built-in LED light that can be used to signal left and right, straight on, and, um, !, I suppose for danger.

It cost €150, which is a bit steep, but I was so tickled by its novelty that I bought it anyway.

It comes with a built-in USB cable for charging, and on-off button and has a supposed battery life of up to 40 hours. There’s a small plastic remote control for switching the lights on and off, but you’d better not lose this, because there’s no other way to do it.

The remote will clip over something, or slip inside a mesh pocket on the rucksack strap, or can be attached to your handlebars. You hold the centre button for a couple of seconds to turn the thing on and off, and then you can push the buttons to signal.

Here’s the thing. You’re on your bike, right, and you want to signal left. Is this thing on? You think so. But the light on the remote flashes whether it is or not. So you don’t know. So you stop, heave of your backpack, and check. Yep. Working. When not signalling, it kind of cycles through the LEDs in a pattern. So you carry on again, and you get to a dangerous roundabout on the A43 and you signal right, look over your shoulder, and use a clear hand signal, and you hope it’s on, right?

I think it was on. I like the idea of having a clear signal as well as my hand signals. Sometimes, you need both hands on your handlebars after signalling, and it’s nice to have the backup. But the fact that you can’t really see it’s working is an issue. I suspect drivers will find the thing a novelty.

Most people would say panniers are better for commuting, and they are. But my main bike is not one to put panniers on. So if you need a backpack, this is one. And it has lights.

Bit expensive though.