Print Posted By Lost in France on 22 Sep 2005 in Real France - French Life

Mad car disease

We all know that the French take their grub seriously. So it should
perhaps come as no surprise that the vocabulary of gastronomy should have crept into the language of the road. My crime was to have 'grille'
(grilled) a Stop! sign - that is to say not to have come to a complete and utter halt. Pulled over by a couple of gendarmes, I tried to schmooze my way out of it. Only to realise that I was 'cuit' - cooked. The police were out to get a couple of dozen motorists that morning in Montpellier, and I was but one of their haul.

It seemed to me as if the French gendarmes were on a major fund raising drive that sunny autumn day, as one motorist after the next was flagged down. "It'll cost you about 1000 francs (£100) and you might well lose 4 points off of your licence", the unyielding flic informed me. "If your licence is clean, you've got 12 points - so it's not too much to worry about." And then in an unconscious demonstration of the increasing Americanisation of French society, he rounded off with a hearty 'merci et bonne journee!'. What on earth was he talking about, my journee had already been ruined, as I drove off convinced that I was the innocent victim of a flagrant injustice. Bloody French!

{loadposition contentad}It took several months before the appropriate paperwork came through, bureaucracy in France being notoriously long and
cumbersome. There was a choice. You could either attend a two-day 'stage' (training course) on the subject of road safety (cost £145) and not lose any points on your licence - or you could elect to allow the matter to proceed to the courts where you would inevitably lose a minimum of four points and receive a hefty fine of anything up to £300. I chose the former - and last week found myself sitting in a classroom at 8 'o clock on a Monday morning with 18 other non-stoppers, light jumpers and assorted criminals. At the beginning of the stage I considered the entire exercise a ridiculous waste of time and money. By the end of the stage I did not.

The course was run by two very able officials from a government agency called La Prevention Routiere - one a psychologist, the other a driving professional responsible for training future motoring instructors. This imaginative scheme was set up in 1991 as part of an ongoing government drive to reduce France's appalling road safety record. The latest figures reveal that 8,533 people were killed in France in 1998 (that's one person every hour of every day) - in a country that sees 2.5 million road accidents per year, including 33,977 serious injuries. That's twice as many people killed on the roads as in the U.K. Not that I was unduly shocked by these figures - I have been living in France for over seven years and regularly witness serious road accidents because - not to put too fine a point on it - the French tend to drive like lunatics, especially down here in the sunny south.

But any one expecting to be shown a series of bloody video recordings of dramatic car accidents soon found himself disappointed. Nor was there any trace of hectoring or lecturing on the part of the group leaders. Quite the contrary, in fact, for the atmosphere of the group was a mixture of confessional, therapy and plain old-fashioned instruction. Within a couple of hours the initial hostility of the group had changed to an atmosphere of reflection and constructive participation. All right, maybe it was a bit harsh to have been picked up for not making 'le stop absolu' at that Stop! sign. But the truth of the matter is that, English though I be, I was as guilty as the rest, having got away with thousands of speeding offences - and much more besides - over the years. Despite the rather strained relations between England and France at the moment, in view of the ongoing meat war in respect of la maladie de la vache folle (mad cow disease) the message was
unyielding: if the French could only learn to drive as well as the English, then that would be a fine thing.

"What we need to do", Monsieur Charignon, the psychologist told us, "is to stop blaming car manufacturers, the way our roads are built and so on - and to start looking at our own behaviour. The English seem to have learnt this long ago, that it's not just the Highway Code that needs to be respected, but its spirit as well. Our task here is to learn to modify our own behaviour - and that is something each one of us can do."

{loadposition contentad-left}To begin with the message doesn't go down all that well. The unarticulated retort is that I am the best driver in the world, its everybody else's fault but mine, and when it comes to driving after twenty years on the road there really is little learn. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The group is divided up into 3 small sub-groups. Case studies are examined. 'He was going too fast', calls out Alain Fourestier, a 79 year old doctor attending his first stage, 'that's what caused the accident'. 'No it was not', Isabelle Delroi, a 36-year-old light-jumping violinist in the Montpellier philharmonic orchestra interjects, "it was because he had had three glasses of red wine which put him well over the legal limit."

And slowly, slowly, the message begins to get through. After 16 hours of classes, we have all emerged not just more knowledgeable in respect of statistics relating to breaking distances and so on, but determined to modify our own behaviour at the steering wheel. By Tuesday evening friendships had been formed, telephone numbers were exchanged, and there was even a hearty round of applause for the two course leaders, who had been perceived as our incarcerators not so very long ago.

"Monsieur Josephs", the driving instructor told me with an impish grin on his face as I was about to set off for home. "You really have no cause to complain. There is just one word in English to be found
amongst the 4 thick volumes of the French road safety regulations. Do you know what that word is?"

"No, no", I reply, aware that I was being set up.

"It's the word Stop! Merci et bonne journee.'

Jeremy Josephs is an English freelance journalist who lives in Montpellier in the South of France, when he's not busy writing he also runs a B&B


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