Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

February 20, 2002 - Driving in France

Despite the best efforts of Rousseau and Voltaire, they missed the two most important rights of man in their writing. The first is that every Frenchman has the right to go as fast as he wants in his automobile. The second is that every Frenchman is entitled to a free unimpeded right-of-way while exercising the first right. These rights are not recorded anywhere but they are sacred nonetheless.

I first became aware of these unwritten rules while driving on the autoroutes of France. The posted speed limits are merely guidelines and not laws. Big trucks generally stay in the right hand lane and obey the posted limits but everyone else is testing the sound barrier. Speeds in excess of a 100 mph are common in the far left lane where the timid never venture. A tiny speck in the rearview mirror can be on top of you in a matter of seconds. Little French cars tailgating at 90 mph unnerve my friends from the States who ship their Porches over to enjoy the freedom of speed.

Despite this devotion to speed, the French who are the most aggressive drivers in the world become very cautious when entering the highway. They will do everything possible to avoid impeding the speed of the cars already on the road. It is not because they are courteous. It is because right-of-way is an essential element of speed. The French revere both these rights but the subject of right-of-way is much more complex.

In the nearby village of Les Roches, a truck slammed into the seven hundred year-old church while passing through the village. The village sued for damages but the court ruled in favor of the trucking company stating that it didn't matter that the church had been there for seven hundred years, it should not have been in the right-of-way of the truck.

I notice this phenomena everyday as I chug along in my diesel Mercedes at incredibly slow speeds of 75 mph and less. Little French cars are always attached to my rear bumper trying to catch a draft and slingshot around my lumbering beast. And why not? Dragging along behind me for two blocks to the supermarket might cost them fifteen seconds of their life.

Passing the car in front is the most important part of a French driver’s life. My friend Fai has been trying to get this French drivers license for over a year. He drove for years in New York City while working for the Treasury Department but he was not prepared for the French boot camp called driving school. His instructor shows nothing but contempt for Fai’s refusal to go faster that 80 mph. Fai explains that such speeds on narrow, winding country roads with no shoulders is too dangerous. He says that 80 percent of the course is concerned with overtaking and passing the car in front.

The written part of the test is even harder and is full of trick questions. For example: When approaching a pedestrian crossing with a pedestrian standing at the curb, do you stop and yield to the pedestrian? Fai answered yes. The Answer is no. The instructor explained that since the pedestrian has not shown any intent to enter the crossing, he is fair game. If he has a foot in the lane, then you must stop because the advancing foot shows intent. Another example: If you are following a vehicle going the speed limit, do you have the right to pass it? The answer is yes, always.
The exam is reputed to be full of such trick questions but Fai never got a chance to take the test. Instead of giving him the actual address of the place of examination, his instructor insisted that he follow him in his car. At the first tollbooth, the instructor sped off and was never seen again. Fai decided not to signup for the test again after he learned that the supposedly non-Francophone test was is French.

Those who actually graduate from driving school have to display a large red Hawthornian A in the rear window of their car for one year. The large red A means that the driver is a trained killer and is on probation for the year. I have learned to keep my distance from the big red A’s. They are either pissed off about the A or inspired from the course but they are the most aggressive drivers on the road.

Many people elect not to drive in France. Aprille who loves to drive in New York City, refuses to drive in France. I have met many other people who have made the same decision. The French have the highest death rate in the world. The local newspaper has daily articles about single car accidents where all of the occupants are carbonized from the ensuing fire. These cars go so fast that fires are common when they crash.

Those drivers who aren’t carbonized are usually crippled for life. The government recognizes this problem and has setup rehabilitation centers around France. There is one just across the river in Montoire. As summer approaches the streets are full of these paraplegics motoring around in exotically outfitted wheelchairs that they steer by blowing in a tube. I once saw a man who could not sit in a chair in a motorized bed driving around in downtown Montoire. It is a great program for people who would otherwise have no life but life on the motorways of France is always risky.

Last summer a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair was struck by a speeding car in our village and knocked over. The collision caused his life support tubes to become disconnected and he died. I never saw anything else about this incident in the newspaper. I suspect the driver was never punished. After all, he has the right to drive as fast as he wants and is entitled to a clear right of way to do so.

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February 13, 2002 - The Circus
February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
December 19, 2001 - Relais d’Antan
December 12, 2001 - Winter Foods
 December 5, 2001 - Steak and Kidney Pudding
 November 28, 2001 - Pigs III
 November 21, 2001 - Pigs II
 November 14, 2001 - Pigs
 October 31, 2001 - The Ghost of Chateau Chevre
 October 25 - Battle of Poitiers
 August 22, 2001 - Confrerie
 August 15, 2001 - Liberation
 August 8, 2001 - Le Cyclop
 August 1, 2001 - The Finger
July 25, 2001 - La Resistance
July 18, 2001 - System D
July 11, 2001 - The Accident
July 4, 2001 - Ange Pitou
June 27, 2001 - Feu de Saint Jean
June 20, 2001 - Geoffroy Martel
June 13, 2001 - Saint of the Day
June 6, 2001 - Escapade dans le Berry
May 30, 2001 - Learning French
May 23, 2001 - Pete and Manny
May 16, 2001 - Les Journees des Aubepines
May 8, 2001 - Armistice Day
May 2, 2001 - May Day
April 25, 2001 - Les Manouches
April 18, 2001 - Trôo
April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules
April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
Archive of Weekly Columns Jan-Apr 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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