Should France lower the speed limit on motorways?

Should France lower the speed limit on motorways?
Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP.
French Presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo caused a stir by saying she supported reducing speed limits on motorways from 130 km/h, but is it really such a bad idea?

“I’m in personally in favour of reducing speeds, 130 km/h is a lot,” Hidalgo told BFM and RMC. “Speed equals accidents.”

The Mayor of Paris added that a reduction in speed limits should not be imposed on a national level, but most of the reaction has focused on her affirmation that she supports reducing limits. Lowering the limit on motorways to 110 km/h is a recurring debate in France, and the fact Hidalgo’s comments have been so widely commented upon in the French press and on social media is proof that it’s a topic many feel passionately about.

But how do speed limits on French motorways compare to other countries?

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How France compares to the rest of Europe

At 130 km/h, France currently has one of the highest speed limits in Europe, behind Poland and Bulgaria where the speed limit is 140 km/h, and of course Germany where there is no limit on motorways.

Several countries then join France at 130 km/h, including Italy, Austria and Denmark, according to European Commission figures as shown by the map below from Le Parisien.

If the limit was reduced to 110 km/h, it would be the same level as applied in Sweden and Estonia, and still higher than Norway, Cyprus and Malta. The limit on British motorways meanwhile is 70 mph, which works out at just under 113 km/h.

Reducing accidents

Most of the debate has so far focused on safety, with Hidalgo herself citing accidents as her reason for wanting to lower speed limits, but are motorways really that dangerous?

“It’s automatic: the more you lower speeds, the fewer accidents there’ll be,” Dominique Mignot, director of the transport, health and security department at Gustave Eiffel University told Le Parisien. “But the issue is on secondary roads. The measure we recommend is going from 90 to 80 km/h on this secondary network.”

Of the 2,541 people who died on French roads in 2020, just 201 (8 percent) of those accidents took place on motorways. The majority were on secondary roads outside of towns. This is not simply a result of reduced long-distance trips due to the Covid pandemic, either, since the percentage was almost identical in 2019.

In addition, limits are already reduced under certain circumstances. France is also the only EU country to reduce speed limits for bad weather conditions. When it’s raining or snowing, the speed limit on motorways is reduced to 110 km/h, and where fog reduces visibility to less than 50 metres, the limit on all roads is no higher than 50 km/h.

While the speed limit is 130 km/h, cars on French motorways drive on average at 120 km/h, and according to the French road safety observatory, excessive speeds were present in 16 percent of fatal accidents on motorways in 2017, compared to 41 percent on roads limited at 70 km/h. Speed does though have an impact on the seriousness of accidents.

Protecting the environment

Reducing the number of accidents is not the only reason many are calling for lower speed limits, however. There is also an environmental argument. In 2020, the 150 members of the public who participated in the Citizens Convention for Climate adopted with a margin of 60 percent a proposal to reduce motorway limits to 110 km/h, which they said would reduce resulting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, but the suggestion was discarded by Emmanuel Macron.

It also provoked the anger of the motorists’ association 40 millions d’automobilistes. Their petition, called “No to 110 km/h on the motorway”, gathered more than 700,000 signatures. According to a franceinfo survey at the time, 74 percent of people are opposed to reducing the speed limit.

In January 2018, local authorities reduced the speed limit to 110 km/h on a 7 km stretch of motorway near Toulouse to test the effect on pollution. In August 2019, the change become permanent after Atmo Occitanie, the organisation responsible for testing air quality, concluded that it had had a “significant positive impact on nitrogen dioxide levels”.

Political battleground

Motorways are not the only point of contention when it comes to speed limits.

In July 2018, France reduced limits on secondary roads, which are mostly found in rural areas, from 90 km/h to 80 km/h. But after discontent led to a majority of the country’s speed cameras being covered up or vandalised, with speeding fines a common bone of contention during the early days of the “yellow vests” movement, the government gave local authorities the power to return to the previous limit.

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Many cities, including Paris, have also reduced limits on city-centre roads from 50 km/h to 30 km/h, in a bid to reduce accidents and encourage more people to use public transport by making journey times by car longer. The measures have angered motorists’ associations, but according to a recent survey, over 60 percent of Parisians support the change.


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