Hit the road, Jacques

They drive on the right and have a faster motorway speed limit, but what else is happening on the roads in France? Kate McNally takes a test drive

At the turn of the millennium, France had one of the worst road safety records among the major European countries. Attitudes to speeding and drink-driving were lax and road traffic accident deaths stood at more than double the number in the UK.Former French president Jacques Chirac initiated a serious clamp-down on dangerous driving in an effort to reduce the 8,000 plus annual fatalities. Nicolas Sarkozy, in turn, took up the baton together with his prime minister, Fran�ois Fillon, unfazed by the potentially politically unpopular move. Sarkozy’s stated aim was to get the figure of road accident deaths below 3,000 by 2012.The clamp-down resulted in a 35% reduction in road traffic deaths between 2003 and 2007 and numbers have been falling, albeit more slowly, over the ensuing years. The success is largely due to increased roadside stops by traffic police, the introduction of speed cameras – there are now 3,500 across France – and the implementation of more serious reprisals for those found guilty of speeding offences or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.Achieving this turnaround in a relatively short space of time is no mean feat given that, arguably, French culture and geography were always likely to forge a negative impact on the roads. The country is, after all, a wine-producing land where for many un coup de rouge’ to unwind at lunchtime and after work is part of the daily routine, plus there are large areas of rural France where the only viable transport for inhabitants is their car. Add to the mix a spartan but expensive taxi network and an almost non-existent evening bus service in rural areas, and you have a dangerous and sometimes lethal cocktail on the roads.Despite recent progress, alcohol is still responsible for the majority of road deaths in France, especially in the 18-24 age group. However, the message is clearly hitting home – nearly all drivers questioned in the latest Axa road behaviour survey said they believed driving after a couple of drinks to be dangerous, even if a quarter still admitted doing it. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the French love their cars – and they enjoy driving them fast! When the first speed cameras were introduced in 2005, many were vandalised. Meanwhile, tailgating is almost a favourite pastime in some areas, whether on the spacious autoroutes or a winding, mountainous road. The French tend to accept the practice more readily than in the UK, usually opting to pull over at the first opportunity to let the speedsters on their way, probably aware that this is the safest course of action. As for overtaking on a blind bend, you could be forgiven for thinking that some locals see it as an irresistible challenge!Surprisingly, given their clear enjoyment behind the wheel, the French are less likely than many of their European counterparts to hit the road for a few days and see where it leads. “No, I don’t think many French people would travel around Europe in their cars like the Dutch or the English," says Franck Coellier, owner of several campsites dotted across France. "When the French get away, they prefer to know exactly where they’re going, want to get there as quickly as possible, and then stay there.”Similarly, they like a certain amount of stability when it comes to purchasing a car, and the French car market continues to be dominated by home-made products. The two largest French car manufacturers – Renault and Peugeot-Citro�n – account for half of all new car sales in France. The top-performing brand from the export market – Dacia – is effectively French, as the Romanian car maker was bought by Renault in 1999 and owes its Europe-wide resurgence to Renault’s technical know-how and market knowledge. Otherwise German cars are popular in France – Ford and Volkswagen leading the way – while Nissan is making strong in-roads in the French market, no doubt thanks to its alliance with the Renault stable, also dating back to 1999. In general, it is towards the top end of the car market where foreign cars appear to have more appeal for the French buyer. “Audi and BMW are popular with people who can afford a more expensive car,” says Franck. “High-end quirky cars, too, like Ford’s remodelled new Mini and the resurgent Volkswagen Beetle, are definitely becoming more popular – I’ve seen quite a few of those on the road recently.”

Financial crisisIn France a far greater proportion of cars have a diesel engine – and diesel fuel (gasoil in French) is around 20 cents (16p) cheaper than unleaded petrol as it is taxed at a lower rate. Tax on fuel is a hot topic in France at the moment, with Sarkozy’s government reneging in March on a promise to environmentalists to introduce the now infamous carbon tax’, which would have increased tax at the petrol pump, among other measures. Already somewhat scuppered at the end of 2009 by the constitutional council’s rejection on the grounds of too many exemptions, the plans for a national carbon tax were put on hold indefinitely following Sarkozy’s UMP party receiving a thumping in the regional elections earlier this year.It appears that before the financial crisis, when the carbon tax initiative was first put forward, the French public was generally pro a more green mandate. However, with continued doubts about how revenues from a carbon tax would be redistributed, together with a tightening of the average household purse strings, the idea became an increasingly sensitive issue on the election agenda.As well as enjoying lower taxation on car fuel than in the UK, French car owners currently don’t pay an annual road tax as do their UK peers. There is, however, continued speculation that 4x4s and large luxury cars will soon be taxed at around €160 (�137) per annum. This shouldn’t provoke any fears of an outcry as it would affect a minimum of car owners and almost no French car manufacturers, although some might consider it the start of a more wide-reaching annual car tax in the near future. Another difference in the French road system compared with the UK’s is, of course, the toll motorway network. Most of France is reached via an autoroute (indicated by the blue signs), enabling fast and – peak holiday periods aside – congestion-free journeys around the country. An obvious downside is the cost, with long or frequent trips on the autoroutes soon racking up the euros, but a major benefit of these private-public partnership roadways are the wonderfully equipped roadside stop areas (aires) which pop up with incredible frequency every 15km or so. As the autoroutes website (www.autoroutes.fr) says, these service stops – equipped with toilets and pleasant outside spaces, as a minimum, and often with restaurants, shops and children’s play areas – are there for the weary, hungry or uncomfortable road traveller to:

relax – in the green, shady picnic areas, or in the children’s play area;eat – whether a snack or a full three-course meal with table service; ordo some shopping – food, gifts, books, clothes, electrical goods can all be found along the way.

Anyone undertaking a car journey to the furthest corners of France cannot fail to be impressed, and often relieved, by the regularity and comfort of the network of aires. They are a great enhancement to the autoroutes and worth a good part of the toll money alone – especially if travelling with small children who require frequent stops.So the next time you drive in France, you know it’s more dangerous than in the UK but getting better; you know that around half the cars you meet are home-made French ones and quite possibly diesel; you know that petrol is cheaper in France and the veinards (lucky devils) don’t pay road tax, yet; although they do pay on the motorway but, hey, they’ve got great service stops. Rules of the road

Drivers in France must keep their driving licence, motor insurance documents and a valid MOT certificate (contr�le technique) in their cars available for inspection at all timesEvery car on a French road must carry a warning triangle in the boot and a reflective yellow security vest in the front of the carUK tourists bringing their own cars across to France are expected to use adhesive glare reducers on the headlights as UK cars are calibrated to reduce glare for on-coming vehicles on the right-hand side, as opposed to the left-hand sideIf a French driver flashes his headlights at you, don’t think thank you very much’ and move on ahead. Flashing headlights in France means stay there, I’m coming through’!Be aware that priority is given to cars approaching from the right, although often cars joining a clearly major road from a minor road will slow down to give way so it can be rather confusing. It is definitely best to be safe than sorry, so always be ready to allow cars looming on the right to pass in front

Crime and punishmentThe alcohol limit in France is 50mg per 100ml of blood, equivalent to two glasses of wine or two demis (half pint) of beer, significantly lower than the existing 80mg limit in the UK

A level of between 50mg and 80mg will most likely incur a fine of €135 (�115) and six points on the driving licence

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Anyone found driving with a level of alcohol in the blood greater than 80mg risks a fine of €4,500 (�3,863), six points and up to two years in prison

In most cases, anyone refusing to take a breath test will be treated as if the test proved positive at a level greater than 80mg

The courts are at liberty to revoke a driving licence for up to three years if they decide the offence merits such actionIf a driver is found to have consumed extremely high amounts of alcohol or drugs, he or she could receive a fine of €9,000 (�7,727) and face up to three years in prison.

Anyone who causes an accident on the French roads as a result of drink-driving could be fined as much as €30,000 (�25,759)

And if the accident results in serious injury to a third party, the fine could reach €150,000 (�128,799) with up to 10 years in prison

Equally, anyone driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, driving without a valid driving licence, or guilty of repeat speeding offences, could have their vehicle confiscated Picture � Wadeytravel.com