Life in the fast lane

In a recent edition of Late Night Woman’s Hour, business woman Hilary Devey was asked whether she followed her instinct in her professional life. She described walking away from a deal with someone after he had revealed that he frequently drove from Brussels to Paris despite being banned from behind the wheel for drunk driving: at this, her instincts told her that the man was untrustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m with Hilary. I, too, would have turned down the deal. Given that the meeting took place in Paris, however, in her place I would have been neither shocked nor surprised. Since moving to France, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen someone get behind the wheel after several glasses of wine (although it does not excuse the behaviour, British readers should remember that a French glass of wine is a mere 125 ml compared to its bucket-sized UK equivalent). No doubt the man in question made his disclosure so openly because he did not think there was anything particularly unusual about it. If Hilary were to rule out doing business with anyone who had a string of driving infractions to their name, she would never do business in the hexagone again.

The French don’t let a drink get between them and their car

Eadred and I consider ourselves to be scrupulously law-abiding citizens. Our children are the sort of annoying progeny who, having heard us drone on about respecting public spaces, loudly voice their disapproval of people who drop litter or tag walls. Since our brushes with Madame Lipstick, they have added speeding to the list of antisocial behaviours about which they are generally appalled. They have even been known to wind down the back windows of the car and yell disparagingly at drivers striving for the speed of light, mais vous êtes en retard pour la fin du monde ou quoi ?

Of late we have had to admit that our self-righteousness is starting to lose its sheen as the result of a number of speeding tickets, which are beginning to drop into our boîte aux lettres with sickening regularity. They turn up despite earnest attempts to remain within the speed limit at all times.

The fines are uniformly exasperating, doled out for doing a speed of 56 km/h in a 50 zone, or 117 km/h in a 110 zone. “Well,” my formerly upright British self would have tutted at these protestations, “speeding is speeding. It’s a fair cop. You only have yourself to blame”. Oui et non responds the lax Gallic half of my brain. The panneau announcing the 50 zone, for example, was erected precisely 20 metres before the camera which caught me frantically braking in response. The 110 zone was on a section of motorway that alternated between limits of 130, 110 and 90 km/h with bewildering frequency and no discernible logic. One momentary lapse of concentration on the side of the road (when arguably you should looking straight ahead) and you’re liable for a ticket.

The first speeding ticket to arrive (mine, incidentally) prompted much hand-wringing. “We have each been driving for nearly 20 years,” wailed Eadred “and we had clean licenses until we came to France”. I made repeated trips to the filing cabinet to fawn nostalgically over the virgin expanses of my paper licence, soon to be sullied by my first-ever point. I felt it as a great stain on my character. Now that we have received a combined total of five such missives, however, our response is markedly different: oh putain I muttered at the last one, casting it aside in frustration. I have become so acclimatised to my illegality on the road that I have even downloaded a fine-paying app onto my mobile phone. Eadred had to report to the Mairie just this morning with paperwork to appease the police who had stopped him for speeding last week. Whereas three years’ ago he would have been appalled at this brush with the law, now he is principally irritated by its inconvenience.

A screen that pops up on my phone all too often

Speeding is, you see, a French national pastime, but then so is the creation of zones in which the speed limit varies unpredictably. It’s like a vast game of one-upmanship. Where can we hide zis new spiiid limite panneau ? chuckle the authorities as they daily shift the speed zones around on a completely random basis. ‘Ow fast can I goh wizzout getting cotte ? say the drivers, rubbing their hands with glee. At work I have heard colleagues boasting about the number of points they have on their licence, and reminiscing about the happy time they have spent on the special stage you can pay to attend so that the points are taken away. When I attempted to join the discussion, my musings were waved away on the basis that my three points were too meagre to count as a meaningful contribution.

As with school and tax, it seems that the rules of the road proliferate for the sheer pleasure of seeing them broken. Whether we like it or not, for the first time in our straight-laced existence, Eadred and I are being forced to acclimatise to life outside the cadre.


Thank you to all of you who pointed me towards the excellent post by France Says on speed cameras in France. She expresses the view that many cameras are simply cashpoints for the State and has given me some excellent new French terminology to boot. The post is well worth a visit, as indeed are all her posts, if you want to read more about speeding in France…

24 thoughts on “Life in the fast lane

  1. FranceSays recently wrote about speeding as well–pompe à fric. It’s a weird passive-aggressive game. They want to catch somebody, but the rules say they can’t hide to do it. Since they are easily seen, either drivers slow down in time or flash their lights to other cars to warn them. That leaves the cops with the dregs–the person who hasn’t slowed down to 50 right at the panneau for 50, or the person who happened to be changing lanes or dodging an erratic driver at the moment of passing the panneau for 110 instead of 130, and they nail them at a couple of kph over the limit. Like a big game of gotcha. And law enforcement loses respect for grabbing people who are trying to respect the law (like braking from 56 to 50) while scofflaws routinely zoom through little villages at 70 or 90 kph.
    I am the designated driver when we go out (called the Capitain de la soirée here, but in Belgium they have given it the clever name Bob), and drink only water. Driving home from his birthday dinner at a resto, we were pulled over at a barricade and I had to blow into the Breathalyzer. The cop was decidedly unhappy that I came up negative and made me do another.
    Luckily most of our friends live in the village and we go to our soirées on foot.

    1. You’re right: the game is no fun if you try to abide by the rules. Everyone is disappointed. Very odd. And worrying where sobriety is concerned…

      1. In my circles, people seem to be a bit more careful about not drinking and driving. But all the same, I try to stay off the roads on Friday and Saturday nights, especially out in the countryside.
        FWIW my brother got hit by a drunk driver in the U.S. His whole family (including our mom) was in the car. He saw the car weaving and slowed down and tried to evade, but got hit anyway. Nobody hurt, because the speed was minimal. But the driver tried to run away. A helicopter came to track him down amid the cornfields. Many apologies by the parents of the driver, but pleas for rehab, not jail time. I would think both are in order. Rehab without jail is a slap on the wrist, and jail without rehab is pointless.

        1. I am so sorry to hear that. An awful story. In the UK there was a massive drunk driving campaign which made it quite taboo, thank goodness. In France, I think it’s still quite macho to drink a couple of glasses and drive. And then there are the people with problems. Neither is ok.

  2. Do not even get me started on tickets. I got one a few weeks ago for going 44 in a newly 30 zone in front of a school. It was a pop-up radar that was only there for a few days. 90 euros down the drain. I know I was in the wrong but damn, maybe a French cop or two — you know, an actual human — could sit in his car waiting and physically pull someone over once in a blue moon. The radar setups are sneaky and guess they bring in a good profit for la belle France but just seems lazy to me. And yes, I’m still pissed off (mostly because 2 months prior I was turning right just as the light was changing from yellow to red. Another 90 down the drain).

    1. Oh yes, I am still very annoyed. Not least because I nearly get knocked down daily by insane people and they’re busy ticketing someone for doing 56 in a temporary 50 zone that was not advertised in advance…

  3. Reminds me of a recent tweet by Sir Henry Brooke, retired Lord Justice of Appeal, in response to someone who’d pointed out an error in one of his blog posts:

    “It’s a fair cop. You’ve got me bang to rights. I will put my hands up to this one. As Russell LJ said to a PC who stopped him for speeding”.

  4. It does seem like a popular blog topic at the moment-speeding. I wonder why? Needless to say, I fall in the ‘do the right thing’ category and get tail-grated, flashed and overtaken wildly quite routinely. Then again, the last truck driver who tried to push the limits around the Annecy Lake ended up in it and no more. It had to happen and, thank goodness he veered into the lake rather than crashing into the cars in front.

    1. I also do the right thing and have to endure endless honking and near-death experiences as drivers zoom past me, missing the side of the car by millimetres. That has not prevented me from getting ticketed although it has given me a good armoury when it comes to dealing with idiots who drive too fast. My favourite way to treat the honkers is to honk back…

  5. So you, too, have had close encounters with the ‘pompes à fric?’. It’s truly a national sport. By the way, I like your kiddies’ sense of humour!

    1. One of your few blog posts that I have not yet read. I am going to hot foot it over there to read it today. And yes, the kids are quite droll.

  6. The drink driving thing has always got to me in France, but I tell you it’s definitely better than it was 20 years ago. At least there are some campaigns against it now and occasionally you see someone not drinking in a group. I’ll never forget my father-in-law offering us his car for a big night out and when we said no we’d take the bus and a taxi back he said why? We replied because we would be drinking and he replied back….”so?” He simply didn’t get it. As for speeding…well I’m just like you, started off all righteous and have got too many fines to count now. You’ve hit the nail on the head once again! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    1. Yes, when I am the designated driver, it can be quite difficult to turn down drinks without causing offence as many people are surprised at the idea of total abstinence behind the wheel. And everyone drives everywhere at all times. It’s not helped by the extortionate rates charged by taxi drivers… Thanks for stopping by. #AllAboutFrance

  7. Oh la la! I’m probably about to jinx myself here, but we’ve lived here for almost 13 years and I haven’t been fined, my husband, however, who also had a clean licence in UK has had two speeding infringements here. I will agree that there are more and more cameras popping up and mobile gendarmes, hiding in the bushes! #AllAboutFrance

  8. I got my first ever speeding ticket in France (or anywhere for that matter) last year and I was absolutely MORTIFIED – now I realise that I approached this all wrong and I am in fact I am in excellent company and also a valued contributor the to French economy 😉 #AllAboutFrance

  9. We haven’t come across the pop up speeding cameras yet. The fixed cameras are known to our GPS so there is always plenty of warning… so far!!

    1. Aha! I got caught despite the GPS once, and usually get caught more locally when I am not using the GPS, or when there are roadworks without warning. Fingers crossed for you. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. This is such an interesting read – and the comments too. I agree that each generation, certainly here in the UK among people I know, is far more law-abiding with regard to drink driving. I would never do it but my parent’s generation were definitely of the ‘you’re ok if you’ve just had a couple of glasses’ camp.

    My husband has only eve had one speeding ticket – and that was when we were on holiday in Austria. The ticket was sent to our home once we were back home and we’re still baffled as to how it happened.

    1. Yes, the bafflement is familiar, though my French friends just laugh at me and tell me it’s just another form of tax and I’d better get used to it… thank you for stopping by. #AllAboutFrance

  11. My GPS warns me of “danger zones” which has saved me many a ticket! Half the time I don’t even realize that I have sped up, I’m just keeping up with others. What really gets me is that the French think that the car lanes are just “suggestions”…

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