Since 2002, when President Chirac declared road safety a ‘national priority’, the annual death toll on France’s roads has dropped drastically. Effective enforcement and an increased acceptance of the rules have been the two key components to what has been hailed as a big success story.
But there are signs that the downward trend is over. In 2010, the French police forces managed to reduce the number of deaths on the roads, reaching for the very first time the symbolic figure of fewer than 4,000 deaths. These results followed a nine-year constant drop, thanks to a strong political will and the daily action of both police and non governmental organisations.
In the wake of this positive result, 2011 was expected to be another year of decrease. However, the situation after the first two months is a far cry from this expectation. The roads have claimed 48 lives more than in 2010, meaning an increase of 10%.
Facing this stark reality, the police are trying to prompt politicians to introduce much wider uses of the fledgling Automatic Number Plate Recognition system – they call it LAPI in France. It’s currently on a nationwide trial for detecting and sanctioning traffic infringements.
Additionally, the Gendarmerie’s road policing units are tackling high-end speeders with the use of 65 Renault Megane 300 RS cars, replacing the former fleet of Subaru Imprezas. It is hoped the vehicles will provide extra assistance for the Gendarmerie in its fight against speeding, which in 2010 was once again the first cause of death on the French roads.
Before using the Renaults, officers will receive a special four-day driving course at the ‘Circuit de Bresse’’, a racing track used by famous drivers including world rally champion Sébastien Loeb.
Other countries are watching the French efforts closely. Tough new casualty reduction targets are in place, and the aim is to reduce road deaths across Europe by 50% by the year 2020. Any signs of upward casualty trends are sure to be regarded with alarm, especially in countries most affected by public service budget cuts and dwindling road safety resources.
It is hoped that the French efforts with LAPI – and the fleet of new cars – will provide an effective deterrent to drivers who might otherwise flout traffic laws. The next few months will be crucial in determining whether France is experiencing an unfortunate blip in a longer-term downward trend, or whether the ‘honeymoon is over’ and a fundamental reappraisal of road safety policies is now required.