This is the holiday season and quite a few of us will be driving to or through France.
As usual we can enjoy the better roads and apart from the usual bottlenecks, less traffic, but beware: the French have reduced national speed limit on single carriageway roads to 80kph. Crossing France on those straight routes nationales at no more than fifty is a challenge especially as the fine if not the points will now find its way to Blighty.
In the past going to France was an adventure: on the autoroutes you could cruise at 85-90mph and except at holiday weekends, anticipate fast progress and there were always interesting alternative routes with occasional wild overtaking and delays because of crashes, but it was always fun.
In fact we never realised how dangerous it was: 1972 was the worst year: road fatalities reached 18,000. Since then the toll has fallen to 4,500 where it remains. (UK 1700). The French have achieved this improvement through a huge re-engineering of the road network realigning hazardous carrefoursand building new roads. But with this re-architecting of its highways has come massive repression.
The authorities decided long ago that the French would simply have to be coerced into safer driving. Les flics achieved notoriety for their speed traps and would fine you for doing 140 kph on their expensive, empty autoroutes. The fact that these transactions could be paid only in cash simply antagonised the French motorist further. Now repression is even greater with cameras everywhere and an infraction of 5kph resulting in a fine. Driving through France in a gaggle of cars all sticking rigidly to 80 kph France is no fun.
I used to think that Britain’s safer roads were not just the result of more crowded traffic conditions, but also the local temperament, which is easier going – someone will always let you in, and reflecting this, traffic policemen who made their presence apparent – disusasion rather than entrapment.
But now the police have gone: there is no one to stop tailgating or rank bad driving as it happens and the motorways are patrolled by speed cameras. Whereas my generation was brought up to respect the rule of traffic law (especially as many patrolmen believed privately that the 70 mph limit was as ridiculous as the rest of us did and acted accordingly) my son’s generation regards the proliferation of cameras simply as a means of raising revenue.
Taking the human element out of the law will end up making us as contemptuous of it as the French are. That is not in our nature and it would be a shame.
As a wise school master once wrote on my report: he has understood that self discipline is always preferable to imposed discipline.
Kieron Fennelly | Vice-chairman WGMW