The French are cracking down on motoring offences, says Nick Trend.
(Filed: 13/05/2006)

"The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement!"

driving in France
Ici La France: British drivers will no longer be able to escape fixed-penalty motoring fines

If Toad's intoxicated vision of the glories of the open road still has any basis in reality anywhere, it is surely in France. The autoroutes remain reasonably free of tailbacks, those poplar-lined D-roads are empty of traffic, and an old-fashioned motoring holiday can be one of the most pleasant ways to explore the countryside.

The trouble is that too many French motorists also tend to drive like Mr Toad. Reckless speeding and a widespread disregard of drink-drive limits have ensured that the casualty rate has, historically, been roughly twice as high as in Britain.

According to Bert Morris of the AA Motoring Trust, the problem in France has been cultural. Speeding was seen as socially acceptable, traffic regulations were not consistently enforced and it was common for local mayors to cancel speeding tickets.

Not any more. In the past four years, President Chirac, with a lot of elbowing from his wife, who heads the road safety board, has got tough. Hidden speed cameras have been sprouting like mushrooms - there are already more than 1,000 across the country and by the end of the year there will be 500 more.

Meanwhile, more and more gendarmes have been jumping out from behind bushes with radar guns and setting up roadblocks for random breath-testing.

Last month, on a long cross-country taxi journey in south-east France, my driver was breathalysed at the first roundabout, and spent the entire journey pointing out to me the many concealed speed cameras. He had been flashed several times over the past two years; one more flash and he would lose his licence.

The new zeal for enforcement has paid dividends. In 2001 there were 7,720 deaths on French roads. The number has been falling every year since and last year was down to 4,990.

So, the good news is that the roads in France are much safer than they used to be. The bad news for those who inadvertently break the speed limit is that they are less likely in future to get away with it. From next March new European regulations will make it possible for fines on foreign drivers to be enforced.

It is not a good idea to break the law when you are driving in France, but it is easy to do unless you remain alert to differences in the culture. For a start, speed limits in many villages are significantly lower than the 30mph typical in Britain.

Often, with little warning, you will go from an empty country road with a limit of, say, 90kph (56mph) into a zone with a limit of 30kph (19mph). If there is a camera just after the speed limit sign - and most cameras in France are hidden, not painted yellow as here - you stand a high chance of being flashed even as you attempt to slow down. Another point to remember is that speed limits are lower in the rain than when the roads are dry.

At 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, drink-driving limits are also significantly lower in France and much of the Continent than in Britain, where you are allowed up to 80mg. A large glass of wine or a pint of strong lager could easily push you over the French limit and make you liable for at least a fine.

If you are caught speeding this summer, what happens will depend on how you are spotted. If you are stopped by a gendarme with a radar gun, you will normally have to pay an on-the-spot fine. According to Bert Morris, technically this is a "bail bond" of usually 100 (68), which you forfeit if you don't answer the court charge. You won't have much choice about this, because the police will take your passport away until you cough up. If you are found to be over the drink-drive limit, things could be more serious and you might be arrested and charged.

If you are flashed by a speed camera, the consequences will depend on the car you are driving. If in a French hire car, you are responsible for the ticket under the car hire agreement and the hire company is almost certain to follow it up. If you are in your own, British-registered car, you are likely to escape. There is currently no system for collecting fixed-penalty fines from foreigners - just as French drivers in Britain are not generally followed up for speed camera offences except in the most serious cases.

That will start to change from March 22 next year when a new EU directive comes into force. The French authorities will be able to ask their British counterparts to identify the car registration. If you are then issued with a penalty notice and don't pay it, the case can be followed up by the British courts and you will be obliged to pay.

According to Bert Morris, there is still some uncertainty about exactly how the new system will work. But British drivers should be aware that their days of immunity are numbered.