In the second column of his series on the engineering and other peculiarities of French motorways, Vitali shares his observations on driving in France.
“It is of course a commonplace to say that France is diverse to the point of absurdity,” Fernand Braudel, France’s leading 20th-century historian noted in his book ‘The Identity of France’.
Having recently completed a 2,000km coast-to-coast drive across that country, the purpose and the beginning of which were described in my previous column, I couldn’t agree more. France’s mosaic of landscapes is surprisingly versatile – from the vast plains of the north to the meadows of the Loire valley, the hills of Provence and the snow-capped peaks of the Alps.
And yet, alongside this amazing variance, there exists one gratifying sameness – the never-changing uniformity of French national ‘autoroutes’. After several hours of driving, your fast-moving vehicle (in my case, a campervan converted Toyota Alphard nicknamed Alphie) starts feeling like a stationary carousel figure, with changing landscapes spinning around it endlessly. The other constantly evolving feature is the colour of the skies; from watercolour-ish satin-grey in the north to deep navy-blue above the Mediterranean coast.
The origins of modern French ‘autoroutes’ go back to 1820, when the first network of major national highways, most of which were of exceptionally high standard for the time, was completed. All of them led to Paris, no doubt.
Shortly before then, in 1794, France passed the very first right-hand driving (or rather riding) laws, which, due to the subsequent Napoleon conquests, quickly spread all over the predominantly left-hand-riding world. The countries that hadn’t been conquered (like Britain and its colonies) refused to adapt and stayed left-handed – which helps to explain French drivers’ obsession with ‘Priorite a droite’, i.e., ‘sticking to the right like glue’.
Another common feature of French roads is ‘le rond-point’, or a roundabout, of which France has, by latest estimates, over 60,000, i.e. one for every 45 intersections, and many more than any other country. Britain, for instance, has ‘only’ about 10,000, half of which seem to be in Milton Keynes… The moment you exit the motorway in France, you are likely to be confronted with several ‘rond-points’ waiting to be negotiated – from the right, no doubt, while bearing in mind that one has to give way to all the traffic already in the roundabout.
Not a member of Britain’s influential Roundabouts Appreciation Society, but a proud resident of the English town claiming to be home of the UK’s ever first roundabout (‘circa 1909’), I feel a bit jealous of France’s domination in that field. My only consolation is that Kevin Beresford, the distinguished president of the above-mentioned society, aptly nicknamed Lord of the Rings, himself acknowledged in a recent interview that his own favourite roundabout, featuring a clock and a wheel of cheese on the traffic island, was not in the UK, but in Morbier, France!
Then we come to the motorway tolls, designated by the perfunctory ‘Péage’ (‘Payment’) signs. When you drive onto the toll road approach, you press the button on the vending machine to collect a ticket, which you insert at another machine when leaving the toll area. The problem is that the machines are all on the French driver’s side, i.e. on the left, and if a UK car does not carry passengers, its driver has to get out to get the ticket and also to pay the toll charge – to the accompaniment of the waiting French cars’ angry honks and, at times, some hushed expletives from the drivers, with no excuses for their colloquial French.
Luckily, Alphie was carrying two passengers: my wife Christine and Tashi the dog, so we didn’t have that problem, albeit the role of the latter in procuring the ticket and paying the fees was limited to growling at the French cars behind us, which seemed to make their drivers a tad less impatient, or so it seemed (or rather sounded).
Although the smooth journey from Calais to Marseille and back cost us well over €150 in toll fees alone, it was preferable to negotiating the potholes and enduring endless queues on the M25 or A1M back home.
As for the French drivers, they impressed me as being, indeed, impatient and at times prone to colloquialisms, yet predominantly polite and disciplined. And it is not just my own impression. Let me refer you to the no longer live, yet still lively and topical, engineers’ online forum ‘French Roads – Engineering Peculiarities’, mentioned in my previous column. One of its participants, having noted duly that “the following entry is not about engineering, but driving habits”, openly admires French drivers, who habitually “sweep up to your rear bumper, pull out to overtake at the last moment, and pull back in immediately. No cruising along in the outside lane, as Brits tend to do.” Very true!
Here’s another keen observation: “My trips to France have revealed a comical attitude to speed cameras. If the limit is 90kph, I’ve seen drivers braking to 70-ish; if it is 70kph, I’ve seen them crawling along at barely 60. Funny. It’s like they don’t trust the police.”
Here I can add that, according to my own impressions, the French traffic police, in their turn, do not hold a lot of trust in the motorists. Numerous proofs of that are the ubiquitous ‘Rappel’ (‘Reminder’) signs, the purpose of which had escaped me until recently, when a French friend explained: “They simply reminded you that the restrictions specified on them (like speed limits or no stopping, say), were still in force in that stretch of the motorway. Just in case some amnesiac drivers forget about them!”
I may be wrong, of course, but, to my mind, such mutual mistrust is good for road safety. I often remember my first Australian driving instructor (I got my driving licence in Australia at the tender age of 37), whose main dictum was: “Trust no one, trust nothing!” Not in everyday life, but while driving, no doubt… I’ve always tried to comply with it, and that was probably why, apart from hitting an innocent fire hydrant in Melbourne during my very first lesson, I never had another accident, fingers crossed.
Coming back to our journey across France, I am happy to conclude that it was 100 per cent safe. Not so much due to my superb driving skills, as to the superior engineering and other qualities of French roads and motorways.
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