Are we now going to learn DIY policing from the French?
Lately, many changes to our driving codes have been mooted. However, few people realise that all such changes, good or bad, ape continental practices, especially French ones. I don’t know whether the inspiration has come from the EU, but it might as well have done.
I welcome one proposed change: increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, just as it is in France. Actually, the French limit is 130 kph, which is 81 miles, but I suppose the EU will allow us to round it off as a courtesy.
Car haters oppose the greater speed limit, paradoxically citing France as an example of the carnage supposedly caused by fast driving. True enough, depending on which statistic you look at, the death toll on French roads is two to three times higher than ours. But French drivers don’t kill one another because they drive fast; they do so because they drive badly.
Tailgating at high speeds, failure to adjust speed to road, weather and traffic conditions, poor concentration, stubborn refusal to give way, ill-considered overtaking, eagerness to die defending their right of way and, in general, being French are the real reasons. And of course let’s not forget the rule of la priorité à droite, which is clearly designed as a way of keeping population growth under control.
According to this rule, anyone on your right has right of way – even if you drive on a major road, and he comes in from a side alley. Just imagine: you drive at 60 mph, whistling a merry tune, when an old codger, twice as old as his rusty 1963 Renault, comes across your way from a dirt track slowly but deliberately. You brake, swerve, scream nique ta mere! and, if you’re lucky, manage to live another day, just. The old boy meanwhile continues on his way at the same snail’s pace, unaware that his eventful life was almost cut short. He never even looked your way, and nor did he hear your shouted obscenity.
This rule has been rescinded on many roads, but people like the hypothetical codger typically haven’t cottoned on. French country folk are extremely conservative, which is good, and rather obtuse, which is less good. Where we are, most locals still quote prices in old francs, which went out of circulation back in the early sixties. That gives English visitors a nasty shock when they are told that a room at a modest B&B will cost them several million. So watch out: as far as the French countryside is concerned, la priorité à droite will remain in place everywhere for at least another 50 years.
So far our government has managed heroically to resist introducing this homicidal rule here. I suppose it’ll come in when they decide that we’ve driven on the left long enough and switch to the Napoleonic right-hand system. That’ll possibly happen when we abandon the English Common Law for the Napoleonic Code, which probably means not for a couple of years.
What will come in much sooner is the change in MOT frequency, which again will be harmonised with the appalling French model. As you know, in Britain a car must undergo the MOT at three years of age, and then every year thereafter. In France it’s respectively four and two years, and this is what we’ll have soon. Our motor organisations, including the AA, are screaming themselves hoarse in opposition to this measure. They show, irrefutable statistics in hand, that the lower MOT frequency is a major contributing factor to the greater death toll on the continent in general and particularly in France.
I haven’t studied statistical data as diligently as the AA has, but empirical observation suggests that half the cars in rural France aren’t road-worthy. Even reasonably new vehicles are suspect, which isn’t surprising. A six-year-old car in Britain would have had at least three MOTs; the same car in France would have had one, or not even that if the driver knows the local gendarme. As a result, one is regularly stuck on French rural roads behind cars sounding like a Singer treadle and laying behind them a black smokescreen behind which they hide their bald tyres about to come off.
On top of it all, the French have just introduced another innovation, which one hopes we won’t import in a hurry. As of last week, all drivers are supposed to carry their own breathalysers – and use them before getting behind the wheel after a glass of rouge.
Now this DIY policing is a hell of a good idea, except that it doesn’t go far enough. Having breathalysed himself, and found himself over the limit, the driver should then arrest himself, beat himself up should he resist himself, then lock himself up until he has coughed up the required fine and endorsed his own licence.
Fines for such egregious crimes as drinking two glasses of wine instead of the permitted one can be quite high in France, running into high four digits. But mercifully the flics accept all major credit cards, so there’s no reason for the self-arresting driver not to take his own plastic. To that end, drivers should be forced to carry their own credit-card terminals, but for some unfathomable reason this measure hasn’t been proposed yet.
So on Monday I’ll have to buy a breathalyser at our village pharmacy, provided it’s open, which it seldom is. There are two machines on offer: one costing €3, which doesn’t work but is sufficient to satisfy the requirement, and a digital one costing €100. You won’t get any prizes for guessing which one I’m going to get.