25 March 2012

Driving in France I

Speed limits

First of a series of occasional posts on driving in France.  (This post is NOT about how the French drive - no comments on that, please. I'll write about it another time.)

Perhaps most importantly for Americans, the speed limit is always expressed in kilometers per hour.  Now, a kilometer is 0.62 miles, that is, about 5/8ths of a mile.  In practice, that means that long distances seem to go by faster. <chuckle>  So, 30 mph is 50 km/hr and 65 mph is almost 105 km/hr; fortunately, your speedometer is in kilometers per hours.  From now on, rather than adding km/hr when talking about French speed limits, I'll just cite a number.

Warning: I've never read the Code de la Route or taken the driving exam (I do have a driver's license obtained through a license exchange).  What follows is based on observation and conversation with licensed drivers.  If I get anything wrong, please leave a comment.

See above for the distinctive French speed limit sign.

Speed limits here are not always posted - the assumption is that if you're driving here, you know certain basic rules.  Here are the two basic rules: 
  • Inside urban areas the speed limit, unless otherwise posted, is 50.
  • Outside urban areas the speed limit, unless otherwise posted, is 90.
OK you say, what's an urban area?  Urban area are defined by a particular kind of sign.  To the left you see the signs marking the beginning (no crossbar) and the end (barred) of an urban area.  In case you don't remember what the speed limit is in an urban area, just after the urban-area-begins sign you often find a speed limit sign with the word RAPPEL (reminder).

Most commonly (at least here in the Gironde), 90 means it's a two-lane, non-divided road.  When it's four-lane and divided, the speed limit goes to 110.  On an autoroute (beautifully landscaped, no billboards, high-speed expressway) outside urban areas the speed limit goes to 130 (a tad over 80 mph)!

In urban areas the speed limit, while normally 50, often drops to 30.  That's particularly true in congested cities that are trying to reduce the number of cars in town.  I think the idea is to make it so annoying to drivers that they switch to foot, bikes and public transportation.  In Bordeaux we've had an excellent tram sysem for 10 years, an increasing number of bike paths, more and more pedestrian areas; yet, as a percentage of urban trips, cars are still the highest at over 80%.  Frustrating for city planners and drivers alike!

Since the French can be as casual about speed limits as Americans, France keeps putting more and more automatic radars in place.  Until recently, they were kind enough to alert you to the presence of one a little further down the road (left photo).  The photo to the right shows the original and most common model of radar.  They're fairly easy to spot - big ugly grey boxes.  They may be in the center of a divided highway or to either side.  They take pictures of the license tag and are equipped with a flash to take pictures at night.  More recently, some warning signs have been removed; thus, not all are marked.  

In addition, radars can be hand-held, tripod-mounted, or in or on cars.  Note also that radar detectors are illegal in France, though widespread.

It's the owner of the car who gets the ticket and the process is completely automated - no court appearance, no jury, no officer's testimony.  And if the ticket isn't paid, the fine goes up.  You also lose points off your driver's license.  (I'll cover points another time.)

The increased attention to speeders and drunken drivers means the number of traffic deaths in France have been slowly dropping for several years:
  • 1973 : 17,000
  • 2008 : 4,275
  • 2009 : 4,262
  • 2010 : 3,994 
  • 2011 : 3,970

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