Friday, February 11, 2005

French Roads

Mon Dieu, the roads in France! Every morning I drop my daughter off at the bus and then walk to the train. Within five minutes this causes me to encounter two zebra crossings that have a green man signal indicating that it is safe to cross, but, get this, NO LIGHT TO STOP THE TRAFFIC! Thus, while I am being told it is safe to cross, the traffic thinks it is allowed to go straight on, not even stopping if I gingerly put my foot onto the crossing.

This experience sets me off each morning thinking about how crap French roads are. Firstly, the almost complete absence of roundabouts. If you ask a Frenchman about roundabouts, he will tell you they are only good for English idiots. Why do they think that? Because on the few french roundabouts that exist, complete chaos reigns. Why? Because they have different rules for different roundabouts. On some of them you have to giveway as you come on to the roundabout, on others you have to giveway while you're on the roundabout and let others come on. CRAZY! How do you know what kind of roundabout you're on? You watch other people of course.

The absence of roundabouts is most bitterly felt when you're on some high speed road like the Peripherique which circles Paris or any of the fast roads which surround major cities. In Britain, if you decided to leave one of these roads, you would normally take a slip road leading onto a roundabout positioned above the major road. If you made a mistake, you would simply go round the roundabout and follow the slip road back down onto the major road. If you do the same thing in France, you've had it. You're slip road is certain to merge rapidly onto another major road leading you to God knows where.

This happened to me once outside Toulouse. I wanted to go to Biarritz on the west side of France, took the wrong slip road and before I knew it I was on a peage (paying motorway) half way to Barcelona. I ended up taking a connecting road between where I was to the nearest point on the road I wanted to be and spent three hours crawling behind a truck through the foothills of the Pyrenees. One thing you can be sure off in France is that if you leave the peage you will end up following a truck at 50 km/hour. Why? Because there are never more than a dozen trucks on the peage at any one time. Don't ask me why. The peages always seem quite reasonable to me, but perhaps the pricing is more severe for trucks.

As I walk to the train station, I pass several traffic black spots. The first is a long, curved bend on a major road with a minor road feeding onto it at the bend. The minor road has dotted white lines across it. You might think that traffic coming to these white lines would be obliged to stop and give way. This would be the case in Britain. But, think again. the traffic on the minor road has the right of way because it is coming from the right of the traffic on the major road. The traffic on the major road has to halt and let the traffic on the minor road out. this is called priorite a droite (priority to the right). Again, it is not present universally. How do you know if priorite a droite applies? You watch everyone else of course. Every morning I hear someone tooting their horm because another driver has not respected their priorite a droite.

The next junction I come to, there are about six road all meeting at a point, four of which have priorite a droite. this means that traffic on the main road is almost always backed up while people negotiate their way on to it from the four minor roads. People have to pull on from the minor roads, even if the situation is not particulalrly healthy, beacuse there will be a driver on the major road waiting for them to do it. Not so long ago I saw a car and a motorbike caught in this situation. Both drivers were forced to pull onto the major road at the same time and collided as they crossed halfway. It was a crash caused by correct adherence to the rules of the road.

I then have to cross this major road. Not surprisingly, the drivers, having waited for all the minor roads to empty, are not particularly keen to wait for pedestrians to use a zebra crossing. Years ago, stopping wasn't enforced at zebra crossings. Now it is. unfortunately, many French drivers preferred the earlier situation and any pedestrian would be ill-advised to step out onto a zebra crossing believing that the driver is bound to stop. Unfortnately, a driver is very unlikely to stop if you merely stand by the side of the road. As a result, French zebra crossings can be considered almost useless.

And if you have a car with British number plates. Watch out! French drivers will assume you are an idiot. They will drive in crazy ways to try and prove you are an idiot who shouldn't be allowed on French roads. If you really do something wrong, you may well find someone overtaking you at high speed then cutting over and gesticulating.

Annually, France has twice as many car accidents as Britain, despite having a population of about the same size. Personally, I have had around three times as many accidents in France as in Britain, mainly not my fault, and despite driving in France for only a fraction of the time I have driven in Britain. There is hardly a car on the road in France without a dent in it. I could go on...

POSTSCRIPT Friday 20th May 2005

Walking home this evening, I encountered a major accident at the traffic blackspot I mentioned above where six roads meet. I arrived just in time to see a cyclist being stretchered into an ambulance. His bike lay where it had fallen on the road. It seemed that a motorcyclist and a car full of Africans were also involved. Walked on with a sick feeling in my stomach. I wonder how many accidents there have been at this junction in the last year if I have encountered two in the few minutes of my presence there each day?

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