Driving in France? Regardez bien!

Road accident deaths in France shot up by nearly 4% last year, hitting a total of close to 3,400. And the French government is determined to prevent them going up again in 2015.
To that end, it has introduced a raft of measures designed to stop people putting lives in danger by drink driving and using their mobile phones at the wheel – something you’ll need to be aware of if you’re driving on French roads this year. As well as lowering the legal alcohol limit for young drivers, the new regime bans the use of hands-free kits used by drivers to make calls at the wheel and lowers the age at which teenagers can start driving under supervision.

France – a dangerous place to drive

The number of people who died on French roads in 2014 rose 3.7% year-on-year to a depressingly high 3,388. Compare that to the 1,713 people killed on UK roads in 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are available). France has a slightly bigger population (66 million) than the UK (64 million) but it’s a larger landmass with more roads, so you’d think the number of fatalities would be on a par. But perhaps the most telling statistic is that UK fatalities in 2013 actually fell by 2.3%, and the long term trend in the UK is downwards. Apart from 2011, deaths have fallen in number every year since 2004. So why this evident French malaise.

Drinking problem

Perhaps it plays to national stereotypes, but it turns out that alcohol-related accidents came out as the number one killer in France. And as someone who has spent years living in France, that doesn’t come as a great surprise to me. French people have a rather different attitude to us Brits when it comes to drink-driving. While getting behind the wheel when you’re tipsy here is fast becoming a deep social taboo, it’s widely accepted in France – or at least it is in the rural areas where I have spent most of my time. That’s why I welcome efforts to crack down on drink driving. And I reckon the most effective way to prevent alcohol-related road deaths, at least in rural areas, would be to invest in better public transport or find a way of lowering the often astronomical cost of a taxi ride.

How the government is tackling the problem

In February, Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Interior Minister, announced details of no fewer than 26 measures designed to cut the number of accidents and fatalities by 2020:
  • Zero tolerance on alcohol for young drivers
The legal alcohol limit is being slashed from 0.5mg/ml to 0.2mg/ml for young drivers, meaning even one half pint – the ubiquitous French “demi” – will push them over.
  • Breathalysers in late-night off licences
Shops selling alcohol between 2am and 7am must offer customers breathalysers or face penalties and potential closure.
  • Earphones and headsets no longer allowed
The use of all kinds of earphones, headsets and hands-free kits "that limit the attention of drivers" is being banned for those in the driving seat.
  • More “double-face” speed cameras
While the number of speed cameras in France – 4,150 – is not set to rise, there will be more "double-faced" speed cameras that can snare drivers travelling in both directions.
  • Tinted windows to be banned
Only tinted windscreens are forbidden at the moment, but Cazeneuve intends to extend this ban to cover all car windows in the coming years.
  • More space around pedestrian crossings
Only mopeds and motorbikes will be allowed to park within five metres of pedestrian crossings.
  • Younger drivers on the roads
French teenagers as young as 15 will be able to drive under supervision under the new rules.

To France?

If you’re driving to France this year, make sure you check what’s required and expected of you before you set off. Pay particular attention to setting your headlights correctly and carrying the right equipment in case of an accident. You must also carry an approved breathalyzer. Full details can be found in this two-part article.

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