Index French Driving

Some car and driving anecdotes

A big mistake.

I consider the automobile to be one of the worst inventions of the Victorian age. No doubt Mr. Benz thought he was doing something that would be a great benefit to mankind. I do wonder, if he had been able to foresee the eventual economic and social consequences, whether he'd have kept quiet about his infernal combustion engine.

Many car lovers extol the "freedom" that cars offer them. I'm not convinced. Sure, to some extent, cars allow people to go where they want when they want. There are, however, plenty of downsides.

I believe a large proportion of urban journeys are unecessary in cars. Are people so lazy that they can't walk 2km, or they can't cycle 10km? Are they so soft that they have to drive when it's cold or raining? Most towns have buses as well, but car owners never seem to consider them as an option.

More French driving

Even if I liked driving from a moral and social point of view, I'd still probably hate it due to the sheer nastiness of driving in towns like Grenoble.

Let's start with a gross stereotype of a French driver.

He (the women are almost as bad) has just come off the bypass, and he's on a 2 lane avenue heading into the town centre. He's drunk three times more alcohol than is legally permitted for a person in charge of a motor vehicle. The speed limit is 50km/h (30mph), but he's driving at 85 (53). He pulls out to overtake (without signalling), overtakes, then cuts back in 1m (3 feet) in front of the car he just overtook, needlessly to say, without signalling. He then jumps a red light 5 seconds after it has changed. He arrives at a roundabout, slows down to 70km/h (40mph) and turns off at the first exit without signalling. Lastly, he arrives in the town centre and parks on a pedestrian crossing.

I lived in the UK for 30 years, in that time I saw ZERO cars parked on pedestrian crossings. In Grenoble, I see something like a dozen a day. Most people seem happy to park on pavements and street corners, where they are at the best an inconvenience to pedestrians, and at the worst, they block the view of other drivers causing a menace. As for people in wheelchairs or parents pushing prams, what are they supposed to do when there's a car illegally parked on the pavement? If they're lucky, the pavement might be wide enough to get past, or there might be a patch of grass. If they're unlucky, then the pavement runs alongside a wall, and there's no space to get between the car and the wall. The only alternative is to go around. How can we expect people that can't even park to be able to drive correctly?

A just penalty for illegally parking on the pavement would be to spend 100 hours going up and down car-blighted pavements in a wheelchair. See below for the contempt I have for government at all levels.

Similarly, in my time in the UK, I've seen perhaps 2 or 3 drivers pass red lights long after they've changed. In Grenoble, I see 2 or 3 drivers jump red lights every week, and I only spend 20 minutes a day driving in urban areas. Sometimes the driver is as far as 100m away from the lights when they change to red, but they still go through (speeding, as if I needed to say so). Sometimes they stop at the red light, look around, then jump the light. Sometimes they've been waiting in a queue, and theirs is the first car that is behind the traffic light when it turns red. 10 seconds later, the queue of cars starts advancing again, including some of the cars that were behind the red lights. The worst that I've ever seen was in the city centre. Two cars stopped at a red light for a pedestrian crossing. The driver of the rear of the two cars then started honking his horn to try to get the 1st car to go through the red light. A few seconds later, when the rear driver realized that the 1st driver wasn't going to move, he put his car into reverse, went back a few metres, then manoeuvred into the bus lane and roared through the red light. As I said, I have virtually never seen such a thing in the UK, despite having lived about 9 years in Manchester, which is quite a large city.

Another "feature" of French driving that I have never witnessed in the UK is going around roundabouts the wrong way. In order to turn left, the law abiding driver goes 3/4 way around anti-clockwise. The nutcases in a hurry go around clockwise and only have to take 1/4 of the roundabout.

As a rule drivers don't stop for pedestrians, not even on pedestrian crossings. More on that in a bit.

Stop signs in France are rarely respected, and most drivers don't even slow down when they approach a Give Way sign.

Lane discipline is never practiced here. I would have thought that the simple act of going round a corner, and keeping the car inside the white lines is not too demanding a task. No, it seems as though a large proportion of French drivers are incapable of it. It doesn't help that they don't slow down when they approach the corner. Even when the road is straight, and they want to overtake or change lane in order to take a turn, then it's usually done with complete disregard to other road users - no signalling, just pull out or in.

Waiting in turn at a junction is not in the nature of many Grenoble drivers, and neither is letting someone who is waiting pass. If I see someone waiting, then I try to let them out around half the time, which I consider fair. I try to avoid driving at rush hour, but when I do, I have the impression that at every junction there are 3 or 4 drivers who don't have the right of way who force their way into the traffic, and they beep their horns if the other drivers don't let them. I do my best not to let them force their way in front of me, though not to the point that I'd crash.

Speeding in 50km/h and 30km/h zones is the norm. The government claims that only 10% of drivers respect the speed limit. I'd put that figure at much below 1%, so low in fact that it's difficult to distinguish from 0%. In the UK, many drivers break the speed limit, but neither as often nor by such a margin. In the USA, most drivers respect the speed limit.

Why are things so bad? The education system is quite good, and I don't think that it is simply that everyone is so stupid. No, I think that there are two roots to the problem. Firstly, its a cultural thing. In Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries, the education and culture is to respect the law. In Latin and Mediterranean countries, this seems to be less the case.

The other factor is the system itself. The police and government do little in reality to stop speeding. The average Grenoble driver, if they drove in the same way in either the USA or the UK, would soon have quite a collection of speeding tickets. In France, parking fines are derisory (70Fr or 12Euros). In the UK, if your car gets clamped then you'll probably have to pay something like 15 times more. If you are so stupid as to park your car on a pedestrian crossing in Britain, then the chances are very high that it will be towed away, and it'll cost you a lot of money.

Most French municipalities seem to love painting pedestrian crossings everywhere. Perhaps they hope that it will increase road safety. The result that I see is that pedestrians are still too lazy to walk 10 metres to get to a crossing, and the drivers simply ignore them if they do. It doesn't help that the pedestrian crossings are often located in the worst locations, for instance at road junctions. It's a recipe for disaster, having cars stop in the middle of a junction to give way to pedestrians just as the cars behind are accelerating to go through. In the UK, the Green Cross Code says to 'find a safe place to stop'. Whan I was a kid, we were told that 'safe' meant not on the corner of the street, and away from parked cars, and to use a pedestrian crossing if possible. In France, the pedestrian crossing is on the street corner, and has 2 or more cars parked on it. No very auspicious.

The government does have token campaigns, and they do seem to be getting a bit stronger, but they've a long way to go to cover as many aspects and have as much impact as campaigns in the UK and Australia, for instance. Recently (mid 2001) a law was passed allowing for the automatic suspension for drivers caught breaking the speed limit by 40km/h or more. I have two problems with this. Firstly, it's not enforced. If a law is not applied, then of what use is it? Secondly, 40km/h over the speed limit in a town is enormous. If a driver runs over a child outside a school whilst speeding at 70km/h in a 30 km/h, then that child has little chance of surviving. Similarly, hitting a pedestrian at 90km/h (in a 50 zone) leaves the pedestrian with only a few percent probability of living, and virtually no chance of not being either killed or crippled.

Drink driving also seems to be tolerated socially in France. When I've been on the booze in Manchester, I don't remember seeing people piling out of the pub at closing time and getting into cars. In Grenoble, on Friday and Saturday night, every inch of pavement in the city centre has a car illegally parked on it, and from 11pm to 2am, plenty of tanked drivers seem to get into them.

The police aren't much better, I've seen them speeding, driving down bus lanes and jumping red lights, even when they don't have their sirens on and presumably there is no emergency.

North of the Channel

Whilst the UK has been tougher on motorists in the past, Tony Blair now seems to be kowtowing to the motor lobby. The police asked for a 'zero tolerence' policy to speeding, saying that with new technology, it is now possible to prosecute someone breaking the speed limit by even small margins. Phony Tony is a pure demagogue ("Focus Group" is the name of the game, please don't mention things like principles or honour) and there are more speeding motorists than RTA victims. Children can't vote, and nor can dead pedestrians, so why should Mr. Blur do anything for them? Another issue is the use of speed cameras. The sad wankers that like to break the speed limit like to claim that the speed cameras are only there to raise money, and that they don't make much difference. There was an experiment in 8 regions on the UK to allow money raised by fines to be ploughed back into the cost of the cameras - previously the local authorities frequently didn't have the money to run the cameras, which rendered them rather ineffectual. This had a positive effect on RTAs. It also meant more people were caught breaking the law. Blair's New Labour, as of September 2001, seems unlikely to generalize this scheme across the nation. Rather than being a question of right and wrong, it seems to be more an indication that the government being afraid that the measures would be unpopular. If I could, I would spit on them with disgust.

The Anecdotes

First one happens a few times a week. At the junction of Bd. Mal. Foch (westbound) and rue Marceau.

Zoom the map
Here there are 3 car lanes, a bus lane (and another lane set back between the pavement and the buildings to access parking places, but that's another story). On the opposite side of the junction, there are only 3 lanes, so the 3 car lanes shift over from the outside lane as the road narrows. The bus lane merges with the inside lane. The council have had a few goes at arranging the lanes on the opposite side of the junction, but have now given up, and it's a free for all without lane markings (3 lanes wide, but with a bus lane re-opening 200 yards further on, so the car lanes are down to 2). The junction is controlled by traffic lights, one for cars, one for the buses. Obviously, they are on a different cycle. The buses go first, then the cars, so both buses and cars aren't merging in the inside lane at the same time. But this is France, bus lanes for buses is a bit too much to ask. What I see frequently is a knob head speeding down the bus lane (which is usually almost empty), jumping the red light for the bus line, and forcing their way into the inside car lane. Since I wrote this, that part of Grenoble has been substantially altered by running a tramline down the middle of the boulevard, so it may no longer be true.

The other one is just after the A41 motorway exit when heading into Invallee from Grenoble, eastbound.

Zoom the map
(You'll need to zoom the map a bit and drag it a little North). There are exits on both sides of the motorway, the side I take has a sharp 270 degree bend and a blind humpback bridge crossing over the motorway (where sometimes I get overtaken, again another story). The two exit lanes then rejoin (but not merge, so still 2 lanes) before a roundabout 200 metres further on (South of the green arrow on the map, where the two yellow lanes join). At the point where the 2 lanes join, there's a solid line down the middle for about 30 metres because there's zero rear view visibility from the lane coming down the bridge to the lane coming up from the motorway (and vice versa). The solid line doesn't stop French drivers crossing it at the nearest point at 70mph. Usually this is just scary, but about once every 6 months I see 2 or 3 mangled wrecks where 2 bozos tried to do this stunt at the same time. For a couple of days after, there's usually a gendarme on the grass verge, but it's soon business as usual.

Copyright © Paul John Floyd 2002.

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