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Why are there more people dying on French roads?

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Why are there more people dying on French roads?
All photos: AFP
13:06 CEST+02:00
The latest figures reveal that the number of people dying on France's roads continues to rise, despite a raft of new measures. One road safety group is blaming smartphones and Facebook.

At around 10pm on Saturday evening two cars smashed head on into each other on a country road near the western city of Rennes.

The collision left two dead – the latest fatalities to occur on French roads, which are the scene for thousands of deaths each year.

And the numbers are rising year after year, month after month.

A total of 3,464 people died on French roads last year, a 2.4 percent increase compared to 2014. 

That came after a 3.5 percent increase on the year 2013. Although it's a long way from the figure of 18,000, who died in the "année noire" (black year) of 1970, new data suggests 2016 will be another black year.

In March 2016 some 257 people were killed on the roads in France, a rise of just over 14 percent on the same month last year.

So what's going wrong? Why, despite numerous measures brought in by the government to cut road deaths, is the number of victims actually increasing?

For Anne Lavaud, general delegate at the French road safety organization Prevention Routiere, the main reason for the “very worrying” rise is smartphones.

Speed camera detectors lead to more speeding

“Speed is the number one cause of fatal accidents in France and what we've noticed is that there's an increase in the average speed on French roads,” she told The Local.

“Since 2014, the average speed on motorways in France has gone up by 4km/h and on other roads, it has increased by 2 km/h.

“Our explanation for that is the number of smartphones apps that exist that warn drivers about the location of speed cameras on roads. These days drivers are equipped.”

Apps and TomTom navigators that point out the placements of speed cameras are in theory illegal in France, but drivers are clearly prepared to flout the law.

If motorists know exactly where the cameras are then they will generally drive at a faster speed and as Levaud points out “speed is the number one cause of deaths on French roads”.

“They feel freer and are driving faster,” Levaud said.

Facebook communities driving authorities mad

(Inhabitants of Mazamet, southern France, lie in the road during a demonstration to raise public awareness about road accidents, on May 17, 1973. The number of road deaths in France in 1972 amounted to 16,545)

It's not just smartphone apps that are helping drivers detect the placement of speed cameras.

Levaud says there are 33 different Facebook groups in France, with a total of around half a million followers, that are dedicated to pointing out where cameras are, even mobile ones operated by police.

“The online communities talk to each and they help to reduce the effectiveness of speed cameras,” she said.

And they seem to be having an impact on the number of people being caught for speeding

In 2014 there were 13.5 million drivers “flashed” by speed cameras in France, but that number dropped to 12.5 million in 2015.

To counteract the apps and the growth of online communities Lavaud says French authorities must move away from fixed speed cameras to having more mobile “radars” hidden in unmarked cars.

The fact France is privatizing its legion of mobile speed cameras in a bid to get them into use more, suggests the message has got across to the powers that be.

But is the rise in deaths, which is threatening to scupper France's promise to get the number under 2,000 a year by 2020, down to apps and Facebook groups alone?

Lack of respect on the roads?

In January this year Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said French drivers were getting “taking more risks” and blasted their “irresponsible behaviour”.

And a report by Axa insurance in April 2015 concluded that basically French drivers were getting worse and were less respectful of the rules of the road.

In the survey, a worrying numbers of drivers admitted to using their telephones at the wheel, while others admitted to having an alcoholic drink before driving.  

However the 2016 survey released on Tuesday, suggested behaviour had improved on the roads despite the rise in the mortality rate, although perhaps not by enough.

Some 23 percent of drivers admitted to drinking "two glasses of an alcoholic drink" before getting behind the wheel.

Meanwhile many foreign drivers in France (at least those who frequent our Facebook page) insist the lack of respect and politeness shown on French roads makes accidents more likely.

Prevention Routiere's Lavaud says it's hard to determine whether a lack of politeness among French drivers was a real cause of fatal accidents, although she accepted it was “disagreeable for foreign drivers”.

“I don't think there's a correlation. Remember we are talking about fatal accidents here. The real causes are speed, alcohol and drugs at the wheel.

Alcohol was detected in around 30 percent of fatal accidents in France, even if it may not have been the determining cause.

Lavaud did accept however that French drivers may have less respect for rules than in other countries.

“It's forbidden to use a mobile phone while driving, but we see people doing it all the time,” Levaud said.

Delay in measures having an impact

Lavaud also pointed out that there is a delay between the government announcing measures to crack down on road deaths and those measures having an impact on statistics.

For example, in January 2015 a new law was announced that would oblige motorcyclists to wear fluorescent vests, but that rule has only just come into place in April 2016.

While the French government has announced a flurry of measures in the last two years, very few of them are in place.

Interestingly, her association is trying to persuade the government to include an amendment to its controversial labour reforms that would allow workers to “switch off from work at the wheel”.

The bill already includes an article allowing workers the right to basically turn off their work phones once they at home. The Prevention Routiere said this should be extended to workers who are driving.

“When people are driving and the boss rings they feel obliged to answer it, because they are worried it will look bad if they don't, but we want the government to give them the right not to respond while they are driving,” she said.

If their idea is accepted it will no doubt take a while for it to come into force.

However, given the pressure the French government are under to cut road deaths it would be surprising if it wasn't adopted.

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