French taking their road safety seriously

If you are planning to drive in France this summer then be warned that our continental friends have decided to take road safety very seriously these days. Amongst the things you will need to bring are a hi-viz jacket, a self-breathalyser and a carefully respectful manner, en francais si possible, when dealing with French police.

Every year we deal with drivers going abroad, either for insurance or just for general advice. France is the most common port-of-call, after the UK where the rules are very similar to here.

In times gone by the French used to be very poor on road safety and regarded the entire matter with one collective shrug of gallic shoulders. Drink driving and speeding violations were not policed as vigorously as in Germany or Britain. Citizens felt it their birthright to avoid paying parking fines.

In fact it was something of a French tradition that whenever a new president was elected almost his first act was to grant amnesties for outstanding parking and speeding tickets. Not any more. Laws and their enforcement have become a good deal tougher in recent times.

In fact the French are on a road safety mission. Enforcement is much more vigorous and much more common. If you have a rosy ‘Year in Provence’ image of charming rural Gendarmes going easy on drink drivers, think again.

The French traffic police are notoriously stern and unsympathetic, and tourists find them merciless. Anyone who has had the experience of being stopped by a Garda at home will be in for a rude awakening if they expect to meet the same sort of decency in France.

Sometimes this can be excessive. There is a new law in France this year that means that all drivers are obliged to carry a breathalyser kit in their cars at all times. These are fairly cheap and are available in garages throughout France (ask the AA if you want to get hold of one before you leave ).

Quite what purpose this is supposed to serve is debatable. In fact I do not think it will do any good at all for road safety and the AA has no enthusiasm for a similar law here.

But there is no debate about the fact that you must have one. The law comes into force in July but the €17 fine for non-compliance does not come into effect until November.

Certainly don’t ever take a risk with alcohol. The drink drive limit is the same as our newly-lowered level of 50 milligrams but the punishments are tougher. Fines can be very severe and you can wind up getting your car confiscated.

They are also tough on phone use – a subject close to our hearts as it is an endemic problem here as well. Get caught and you will be fined €130 on the spot.

French roads though, are brilliant. The Autoroute network covers the country and the quality is superb. It is a toll-network though, and expensive. A drive from Le Harve to Bordeaux, for example, is about 650 kilometres and will set you back €60 in tolls.

Toll routes are marked as ‘péage’. You can avoid the tolls by taking alternative routes, and these are actually pretty good and many cases as good as the motorway. Hard to avoid fuel prices though – French petrol and diesel are no better than ours. Don’t fill up at Autoroute service areas if you can avoid it as they tend to be pricy. If you find a hypermarket you will save a packet.

In summer even their superb infrastructure can be choked with traffic. Come August, the French population head south in such numbers that border crossings to Spain and Italy develop massive traffic jams that can hold you up for hours.

But for all that, France is a very easy country in which to drive. Irish AA members have loved it for years, and the more it rains on us here at home the more tempting it becomes.


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