VIVE LE FRENCH DRIVER
November 15, 2010 6 Comments
« Ah … so many pedestrians, so little time. » Robin Williams
The French may not be the craziest drivers in Europe, as I would put the Portuguese and Bulgarians well ahead, but I would definitely put the French drivers in medal contention.
France still has one of the highest road fatality rates in Europe, and the Gironde region of France (Department 33) where we live, has one of the highest road fatality rates in France, making it one of the most dangerous places to take to the roads.
It appears to be mainly the result of a mixture of speed, small winding country roads, alcohol consumption and the fact that amongst young drivers in particular the levels of testosterone are seriously greater than the driving skill.
For visitors to this region there are some things that are important to remember.
1. The Girondines do not keep to their side of the road on bends.
It is as though cutting a left turning bend is their way of laughing in the face of death. I have become so committed to hugging the verge on a right turning bend that I am more of a hedge trimmer than the local Council. It is not unusual to suddenly be faced with a crazed housewife taking up the entire available road as she wrestles with her steering wheel on the way to collect her children from school.
2. In the main they drive cars with engines that were designed to run a Husqvarna sewing machine.
Despite this lack of available power to get them out of trouble if needed, they will overtake you on a blind bend, with the rubber bands driving their engine stretched to breaking point. The fastest moving car on the French freeways is generally the 1.2 litre Renault Clio which is basically an aerodynamically enhanced cardboard box on wheels. Their top speed is meant to be about 150 kph with a strong tailwind, but this doesn’t seem to stop their owners believing that there is a secret Ferrari engine under every Clio hood, despite the fact that at high speed they sound more like a nest of angry bees.
3. They love to tailgate.
Tailgating is their way of letting you know that they have run out of cigarettes and have to get to a Tabac before they close, or that they have to get to lunch before the restaurants start turning everyone away (See Vive Le cheap and cheerful posted Sept 9, 2010 ). The only way to get rid of them on a winding road is to throw a full packet of Gauloises out your window.
4. They will throw themselves in to roundabouts despite oncoming traffic.
On roundabouts the law states that you have to give way to the traffic already in the roundabout. There are some exceptions such as Place de l’Etoile at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris where you have to give way to trafic entering the roundabout, as well as anyone who has a mattress strapped to the roof of their car or anyone on a motor scooter who is carrying more than 4 baguettes. Despite these specific rules there is also a belief that you always have the right of way on any roundabout as long as you have not actually made eye contact with any other oncoming driver.
5. Many French drivers are SAGs (Self Appointed Gendarmes).
I was once chased by a taxi driver on a freeway after I had passed him at about 140 kph in a 130 kph zone. He immediately sped up to over 160 kph so that he could catch up to me, and so that as he went past me, he could make « slow down » gestures at me out of his window, after which he dropped back to normal speed content in the knowledge that he had done his SAG duty for the day. Oncoming cars will quite often flash their lights at you not because in a moment of camaraderie they are warning you of a speed trap, but because they have decided that they have been given a mandate to slow down all other traffic on that day.
6. Pedestrians don’t automatically get right of way on zebra crossings.
Pedestrians are not necessarily safe on a zebra crossing. This will depend on whether the driver is running late and/or how attractive is the pedestrian. It can also depend on whether the pedestrian happens to be carrying a hunting rifle with telescopic sights.
On top of this it is worthwhile knowing that one of the most dangerous times on the roads is 11.30-12.00 when everyone is rushing towards lunch. The French are not big breakfast eaters, a normal breakfast being a coffee and a cigarette (for a big breakfast add a croissant and a second cigarette), so by about midday their blood sugar levels are dangerously low, and the headlong rush to the one main meal of the day can make for some agressive driving.
It is also prudent to keep off the roads during school drop-off (8.45-9.00)and pick-up (16.30-16-45) times, as the ability to give birth gives mothers of young school children the right to do whatever they want in an automobile at these times.
When we first moved to France we thought that we would never get used to the local driving conditions, but after nearly a decade here, we have become just like everyone else.
If you visit the Gironde keep an eye out for me. I will be flashing my lights on the bends at middday.