I thought someone may be interested in this one - also published in the BMWCC magazine.
PEDESTRIAN CROSSINGS AU FRANÇAIS Mike Fishwick
French motorists have long been known for their somewhat cavalier attitude towards pedestrians, which is never better illustrated than at a pedestrian crossing. I can still remember the fear which spread amongst a group of tourists in Paris, who found that the crossings across the Place de l’Etoile from the Arc de Triomphe were simply zones where, perhaps, they may not be killed before reaching the safety of the other side. Any other path would definitely result in instant death, or the prospect of ending one’s days as a bonnet ornament on a Parisian bus, spread across the inevitable sign which encouraged the populace to ‘Buvez Pschitt!’
That was 1961, and during subsequent years the problem became steadily worse, until during 2000 over half of the French pedestrian deaths took place on crossings. Even a near-miss on a pedestrian did not cause the average pilote to think again, as one British journalist living in Paris discovered. After being nudged at speed by a car’s mirror as she fearfully used a passage des pietons, she was then chased by the irate driver until he cornered her, and had to cower in a phone box until he was chased away by a local shopkeeper!
French law did not clearly state that the humble pieton had any rights at all on a crossing, and it was not uncommon to see one trapped in the middle of a busy road. Wheelchair users, blind persons or others not up to Olympic sprinting standards simply did not feature in the average French motorist’s game plan.
The situation was not helped by the manner in which the French defined their crossings, as they were invariably marked in faded white paint covered with skid marks, which provided little contrast against the well-polished road surface. In most cases a less than vigilant driver would be over the crossing before even realising it was there, particularly when wet. It was common to find crossings sited at bus stops or on corners of busy junctions. Even when sited at traffic lights there was no delay on rouge to enable safe passage for pedestrians. Another Gallic speciality was to position several crossings close together, which helped no-one.
In spite of the traditional French disregard for speed limits, particularly in urban areas, it is worth remembering that the British kill almost twice the number of pedestrians, in spite of their comparatively sedate driving style. Perhaps this is due to the realisation by French pietons that, once they step off a pavement, they become targets! It certainly makes one wonder about the validity of the continuous ‘Speed Kills’ propaganda aimed at the British motorist. Perhaps a little more safety propaganda aimed at British pedestrians – rather than the motorist – would not be a bad thing, as would a few hefty damages actions against careless or drunken pedestrians for colliding with cars.
Things eventually had to change, and a few years ago French pedestrians were finally given priority whilst on a crossing. This simple fact does not however seem to have been accepted by the motorist, with the result that in many towns the Gendarmes can be seen lurking in the vicinity, ready to pounce upon the unwary or inconsiderate motorist – particularly if they are not locals!
It seems that government policy has finally persuaded local authorities to repaint some of their crossings, in alternate green (or yellow, or red) and white triangles (or rectangles) bordered by a white line across the road, while many of the adjacent crossings are being allowed to continue gracefully fading away.
Nowhere, however, will you find the standard of crossing which we are used to, with parking and overtaking forbidden on the zig-zag lines at each side, flashing beacons, pedestrian floodlights, and studs across the road.
Overtaking and parking in the vicinity of crossings remains commonplace, and one can often see vehicles parked up to and sometimes on top of a crossing! Needless to say, the concept of pedestrian-controlled crossings is regarded by many drivers as a personal insult.
If you are planning to travel in France, be prepared for this change in the law, but also be prepared for the driver behind to become upset at your weakness as you give way to pedestrians. You will probably find that as you slow down for the crossing you will be beeped at, and often overtaken, in spite of the basic requirement that overtaking in built-up areas is 'interdit.'
For a nation who otherwise have a high regard for good manners and etiquette in general, it seems strange that they should be so different when behind the wheel of a car. Much as I like the French on a national and individual level I have to admit that driving in their charming country can sometimes be more than a little fraught, particularly after lunch, when even the Italians seem to be more competent.
Perhaps we should just remember that in spite of their generally civilised nature, the French still have a strong drink and driving culture, for it is quite common to see all types of drivers – including the police – enjoying a glass of wine or a beer during a mid-morning or lunch break. This, coupled with a general lack of concern for the welfare of others, is probably at the root of the problem. It was not for nothing that Marie Antoinette was famed for proclaiming ‘Aprés moi le deluge,’ which can be roughly translated as meaning ‘I’m all right Jaques!’
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