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France defies motorists' rage, slashes speed limit on secondary roads

Pascal Pavani, AFP | Employees of the DIR (Interdepartmental Directions of Roads) set an 80 km/h speed limit sign up on the national road RN2 in Grenade in southwestern France, on June 28, 2018.

Despite months of rife debate in France, a controversial new measure slashing the speed limit on secondary roads from 90 km/h to 80 km/h came into effect on Sunday in a bid to curb crash deaths.


The change affects 400,000 km of France’s roads -- two-way, one-lane-each roads without medians, or the 40 percent of the French network where 55 percent of road deaths were reported to have taken place in 2017.

Since the move was announced in January, critics have organised demonstrations to fight it. Pierre Chasseray, of the 40 Millions d’automobilistes group that lobbies on motorists’ behalf, has deemed it “useless” and “political”.

National lawmakers and local elected officials of all stripes have slammed the move as a “Parisian-ist” one that penalises rural regions, where most of the affected roads are located. Even within the government, two cabinet ministers – Interior Minister Gérard Collomb and Minister of Territorial Cohesion Jacques Mézard -- have made no secret of their reservations about the change.

But Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has stood by the measure, insisting he was “ready to accept its unpopularity”. Despite an ad campaign deployed to explain the change, 74 percent of those polled were opposed to it in a survey released last week.

“The objective is not to irritate people. The objective is to ensure that there are fewer deaths and fewer seriously injured,” Philippe said Friday, recalling the “terrifying human cost” of road accidents that led to 3,684 deaths and 76,840 people injured in 2017.

The government contends that lowering the speed limit by 10km/h will save up to 400 lives a year. The French road death count hit a historic low in 2013, but rebounded upward from 2014 and 2016, worrying authorities.

“Speed is the top cause of fatal accidents and when it isn’t a cause, it is an aggravating factor in accidents,” said Chantal Perrichon, the president of the Ligue contre la violence routière (League against road violence), who has long campaigned for this change.

The government has pledged to assess the results of the measure in two years’ time.

Still, resistance is rife. Hundreds of motorcyclists demonstrated against the move in Paris on Saturday. “It is just a monstrous racket. They have run out of ways to find cash. It’s going to piss everyone off, it’s going to create traffic jams and accidents. It’s completely absurd,” said Gilles, a 59-year-old protester.

Since the order was signed into law on June 17, the vast majority of local elected officials have yielded to their obligation to post signage signalling the new limit in their districts.

But a few objectors persist. In the Creuse department, for one, Valérie Simonet, the conservative Les Républicains council president, has said she will devote no means – “neither financial, nor technical, nor human” – towards this reform.

“These elected officials are placing themselves outside the law, which hampers public authority. Not giving the right indications puts motorists at risk of a fine or, worse, an accident,” lamented Emmanuel Barbe, the inter-ministerial delegate for road safety, noting there are legal means available for contesting the measure. Indeed, three appeals have been filed against it with France’s Council of State.

Writing in 'La République des Pyrénées', a regional newspaper in France’s southwest, Jean-Michel Helvig editorialised on Monday, “Even if one concedes that road safety problems are not just a matter of speed, is it so bad to lose a few minutes per journey to know that these 350 to 400 people [that experts estimate will be saved], who could be loved ones, will live?”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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