I can't say I wasn't warned. My French partner has for a while now been warning me that I do actually have to stop at a “Stop” sign in France (despite my impression that most French drivers seem to be oblivious to them).
But I ignored all that advice whilst passing through a small village on the outskirts of Paris on Saturday. I did what the French call glisser un stop or more formally non respect de l'arrêté au stop.
It's difficult for English speakers to claim they don't know what this means
In other words, I rolled very slowly through a Stop sign, making sure of course nothing was coming the other way.
I've heard stories about the Gendarmes lying in wait at “Stop” signs in tiny French villages, waiting to snare motorists ignoring the sign. But I didn't think they'd be lurking in Sivry-Coutry on a cold, wet day in November.
But there they were. About 8 of them all waiting about 100 metres past the Stop sign, out of view of course.
One signalled for me to pull over and hand over my driving license and car registration details.
“Do you know why you've been pulled over?”
“No,” I replied innocently.
“For not stopping at the stop sign,” he replied.
I thought about playing the foreigner card.
“Look I'm English, I just didn't understand the sign…. I thought Stop might mean something else in French, you know like preservatif doesn't mean preservatives… car doesn't mean car and a pub in English isn't a pub in French…”
But I decided against it and accepted the verbalisation – not a verbal warning as the word would suggest but a fine.
“What's the punishment,” I asked the gendarme?
“Four points and a €135 fine,” he said.
“Quoiiiiiii… that's a heavy punishment.”
“It would have been a heavier punishment for the person you could have crashed into after not stopping at the stop sign,” the gendarme hit back.
Fair enough. He had me bang to rights, along with what seemed like every other driver who passed through the village at the same time – judging from queue of drivers waiting in their cars to be fined.
Rolling through Stop signs is a common driving offence in France, it seems.
In fact some 100,000 drivers in France were fined in 2016 for not respecting a Stop sign.
So in 2016 over 400,000 points were taken off people's driving licences for the infringement.
The stop signs are there for a good reason; to prevent accidents.
Photo: WIkicommons/François Goglins
But many drivers in France clearly feel it's enough to slow down and check for cars approaching from other roads rather than stop altogether.
So what does the law actually say?
A French urban legend says you must halt for three seconds at a Stop sign, but that isn't quite true. There is nothing in the law that identifies a specific duration. That said, the law states you have to come to an actual stop before the big thick white line on the road, meaning your wheels must not be moving forward.
“They must then give way to the vehicles driving on the other road or roads. Drivers must only move on after the other vehicles have passed and if it is safe to do so.”
Not only does a failure to stop at a stop sign cost you four points on your licence but you have to wait three years before you get the points back.
All this to say that it really is worth following the instructions on the “Stop” sign next time you see one. Not least for your own safety.