All Slow Down

The new speed limit of 80 kph on roads that used to be 90 kph has been in force for ten days now. These roads are routes départementales – single carriageway roads with no central reservation i.e. minor roads. I’m getting used to trundling around 11.11% slower than previously, and it’s a testament to the general law-abidingness of people that most other folk seem to be taking it in their stride too. There are, of course, those to whom rules apparent don’t apply and they’re continuing to blast around at whatever speed they like. They’re a distinct minority but they continue to pose the danger they always did.

That said, the roads of Creuse aren’t particularly dangerous. They’re some of the safest in France. In 2016 there were 54 accidents in Creuse (an increase for of 3 from 2015) in comparison to departmental average of 581. That’s not even 10%. These 54 accidents resulted, regrettably, in 5 fatalities, compared with the departmental average of 36. Most accidents happened during the day in good weather, and 64% involved another vehicle. Despite the number of deer Chris and I have to slow down to avoid each year, as they have a tendency to leap out and scamper across the road just as you’re approaching, only 3.8% of accidents in Creuse involved animals.

Creuse has 11,038 km of roads (using 2011 figures, the most recent I can find, although I have seen a figure of 400,000 km mentioned a few times!) of which 4 km are autoroute and 89 km route nationales (major roads – dual carriageways with central reservation). These two types of road have not been affected by the speed limit decrease but the remaining 99.2% of Creuse’s roads have.

Creuse’s only route nationale is the RN145. Last year this stretch of road saw an awful accident in which three people died, accounting for 33% of all road deaths in Creuse in 2017. An 80-year-old man set off in the wrong direction down the dual-carriageway and caused a crash. Yet there’s no speed reduction on this road.

It does seem a very arbitrary ruling, just to reduce the speed on certain roads. It’s claimed that it will save between 300 and 400 lives, but there’s never been any detailed statistical back-up for this. If speed really is the main cause of accidents then it would have been far more persuasive and credible if all speed limits had been decreased by 10 km. That would indicate a convinced and determined policy. At it is, it’s half-cocked and affecting roads that aren’t especially dangerous. The minor roads in Creuse are generally very quiet. It’s possible to drive 30kms or so without seeing another vehicle. Often when we go on our bike rides we don’t meet any vehicles at all!

Creuse is not happy about being affected on all but 0.8% of its roads. The Prefete has refused to allocate any resources, financial or human, to enforcing the new policy although will not impede national bodies from doing what they need to. She is worried that the 80 kph limit will marginalise this area even further.

What’s also disingenuous is how politicians, the president included, have been saying how the new speed limit only adds a few minutes onto a journey. Let’s have a look.

A trip to Gueret from here is approximately 45 km. On one route we take, which has 35 of those 45 km on roads affected by the 80 kph speed limit, a theoretical driving of time of 23.3 minutes becomes 26.3 minutes. (It was nearer 40-45 minutes under the old limit since there are many villages with 50 kph limits, and sections of narrow, bendy roads where you can’t go above 60-70 anyway.) Another route is purely on minor roads so 90 kph roads all the way. From a theoretical 26.6 minutes, this rises to nearly 32 minutes. That’s a 5 minute difference. But it will inevitably be more. If stuck behind a slow vehicle doing 70 kph, and trust me there are many of those in Creuse, plus tractors and other farm machinery, whilst it was possible to overtake and not break speed limit at 90kph, that won’t still be the case at 80 kph, so dawdling convoys will build up. Overtaking at 80kph will mean you’re on the wrong side of the road for longer, which is obviously more dangerous to yourself and other road users.

You may still be thinking that up to an extra 10 minutes on a journey really isn’t that much, but how come in cities it’s all about faster trains, bigger ring-roads and more public transport so that people can get around quicker?

Personally I think that to save lives and prevent accidents generally there’s a need for better road markings. Many roads here are without central line, so cars do tend to drift. Cat’s eyes or luminescent paint on roads would help tremendously.

Recently, there’s been a spate of digging ditches alongside roads (which seems contrary to the general advice about stopping spread of tiger mosquitoes by preventing the accumulation of standing water, but who I am to point out the obvious). These deep ditches to either side of the road mean you now have no wiggle room. So when a vehicle flies round a bend towards you in the middle of the road – something they’d be less likely to do with that central line marked, to emphasise my previous paragraph – you no longer have the option of veering onto the verge to avoid a collision. You’ll end up in a ditch, and given their depth you’d wreck your car and be quite shaken up if not badly hurt. Meet a tractor – you have much less space to manoeuvre in, and so does the farmer. It’s absolute lunacy and a major step back regarding road safety, a far bigger one that this alleged step forward with lower speeds.

Motorcyclists have been particularly annoyed by the speed limit drop and have staged a number of go-slows on major roads.

There are still too many other variables out there that need addressing such as phone usage while driving (and we’ve all seen drivers on the phone), sheer stupidity and laziness which make drivers do really dumb and dangerous things (reverse down slip roads, do U-turns on busy roads, not indicate and so on and so on). So, we’ll have to wait and see how this new speed limit actually impacts on road safety, and if it does then frankly I think it will be through good luck rather than good judgement.