On the right road

Jacqueline Davies throws the spotlight on the drive to improve road safety in France and reveals the advice for staying safe on the roads

Travelling through France is getting safer. In the first six months of 2013, there were 15.1% fewer fatalities on French roads compared with the previous six months, according to the Ministère de l’Interieur. The country has taken a tough stance on road security. Long gone are the leisurely lunches accompanied by wine for those that drive. While the obligation to use a breathalyser kit before driving your car was temporarily suspended in January, the police still carry out regular routine breath tests, and technically, it remains a legal obligation to carry a kit. Legal levels for driving after the consumption of alcohol are 0.5 mg/ml, nearly half the UK rate. With France determined to continue to improve road safety and reduce speed levels throughout the country, more than 400 extra radar cameras have been installed since the beginning of 2012, although the government now says they will stop at this level.

For those of you with time to spare on holiday, it is well worth considering taking the RNs or route nationales. These roads are indicated with green road signs and provide a chance to visit French towns as you travel. The maximum speed will be 90km/h with speeds automatically limited to 50km/h as you pass into a village or town. In rain, speed limits reduce to 80km/h and in fog to 50km/h. Always remember to put your headlights on in bad weather. Watch out in towns for traffic pulling out from the right. It is used as a very effective traffic calming system, with traffic slowing as it watches for traffic emerging from the right.

Autoroutes charge tolls. Costs vary and can be paid for in cash or by bank card if you prefer. If your car is right-hand drive, passengers get to participate as payment machines will be situated on your left. Alternatively, if you need to get out, give a friendly nod to reassure the motorists behind. The legal speed for motorways is 130km/h, reduced to 110 km/h for rain and 50km/h for fog. If you have a system warning where certain speed limits apply, this is legal. However, the use of equipment to detect speed traps is not. French drivers frequently flash other motorists as a warning of police speed traps, but it is not advisable to do this yourself.

With so many beautiful parts of France to see, try to plan your journeys in the daylight. Not only do you get more out of the experience that way, but you will be much less likely to be involved in an accident as most occur when drivers are tired. Stop at least every two hours to enjoy one of those wonderful French coffees and take a nap if you are tired before starting out again.

Security and safety on French roads is a major priority for the government, so wherever you drive, you will have the reassurance of the roads being protected by either the Gendarmerie, the Police Nationale or the Police Municipale. The Gendarmerie covers rural areas and autoroutes between the tolls booths. They are part of the military and are usually in blue vehicles. After the toll booths, the Police Nationale or CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite) take on responsibility. They work for the Ministère de l’Intérieur and drive white vehicles. They are also a mobile police force for tackling riots. Finally, policing in town falls under the responsibility of the mairie with the Police Municipale taking on this role. All police in France are armed. You may also see police in plain vehicles. If they require you to stop, they will put on a blue light and police signs will appear on their windscreen.

So if you are stopped by the police what might they check? Papers are the main priority. Remember, in France it is a legal requirement to carry your passport or identity card with you at all times – driving or not. French people see this as a bonus for identification in emergencies and also carry their blood group and medical insurance cards as in France medical assistance is frequently administered at the site of the accident.

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They will also ask to see your vehicle registration documents and insurance papers. While all vehicles should carry high visibility vests, these don’t need to be over your seats, just within easy access in the front of your vehicle. You should also carry a warning triangle, have headlight adaptors and carry spare light bulbs. Rest assured that UK drivers are seen by the French police as being generally law abiding so, contrary to popular belief, they don’t target UK number plates.

If you are given a traffic fine and are a non-resident, this will be payable on the spot in cash. If you don’t have the cash, they usually drive you to a cashpoint to collect the money. If anyone is unable to access the funds, they face the alternative of themselves or their car being detained. Such occurrences are incredibly rare, however.

Going through a red light will cost you €90, while speeding tickets start from €45. To avoid fines, also remember age factors. Children less than 10 years old need to be in the rear of the car in an approved car seat, and drivers must be 18. As in the UK, the use of mobile phones is prohibited when driving in France.

The police are there to help ensure your continued safety on France’s roads. A senior policeman advised me of the procedure should you need to stop in an emergency after a breakdown or following an accident on the autoroute.

He said: “Firstly put on your high visibility vests and ask passengers to wait behind the safety barrier. Walking back to place a warning triangle should only be done if it is safe to do so. If in doubt, don’t do it, but always put on your hazard lights.

“Wearing your high visibility vest, walk to the nearest SOS phone, which should be within one to two kilometres. Calling from this point enables police to pinpoint your location accurately and quickly. If needed, we will send a dépanneur with a pick-up vehicle to tow away your vehicle.

“All breakdown companies are selected by the préfecture and charge a fixed fee. We will also send police or firemen if appropriate. If someone is injured, call 18 for the fire service and if visibility is poor, call 17 for the police. Remember, they will need to know the name of the road/motorway. On autoroutes there are numbers to help on the central barrier. These give the exact location. Les pompiers provide emergency medical assistance.

“Accident management and response is quick, so be reassured that someone will be with you ‘tout de suite’. Usually there is someone who can speak basic English, if needed, although smartphones with translation apps have also come in useful on many occasions.”

It’s good to know that driving in France is an increasingly safe experience, and with the population density at just 118/km², you can also experience the joys of motoring that have long been forgotten in the UK.

Jacqueline Davies, is a Property Finder for the Vendée, La Rochelle and Ile de Ré. www.mamaisonparfaite.com