When we moved to France in 1997, we had to give in our UK driving licences to the Préfecture and apply for new French permis de conduire. I did feel a twinge of regret at having to hand over my licence but the new ones arrived reasonably quickly and they looked very similar. However, there are some significant differences between the UK and the French systems.
First, if you commit a contravention in the UK you gain points on your licence, up to 12, at which stage it’s taken away. In France, you lose them. You start with 12 points and lose them for every contravention. There’s a tariff according to how serious the offence is – more of that below.
Second, you get the French licence for life – there’s no expiry date. In the UK, it’s renewable every three years from age 70, provided you are medically capable of driving. This issue has caused some controversy in France. There are a number of cases of séniors driving the wrong way up busy motorways or ploughing fatally into pedestrians. This has led to calls for restrictions after a certain age. On the other side, people point out that testosterone-laden youths are equally likely to cause accidents, especially when fuelled with drugs or alcohol.
For the moment, though, you can drive aged 100 if you want to. In fact, some of the old chaps around here driving rusting 2CVs, wearing a beret and barely able to see over the steering wheel, can’t be far off that age.
Big Brother is watching you, even down here
We have rarely had to produce our driving licences, except on a couple of occasions when a routine police contrôle stopped us. The SF had a little brush with the authorities when caught speeding by a radar camera a couple of years ago. These have sprouted like mushrooms during the past five years or so. The locals regularly demonstrate the unpopularity of the one near our village by spray-painting it black or wrapping it in gaffer tape.
On the fateful occasion, the SF had picked me up from the airport late at night. Driving back round the Montauban by-pass, he started fulminating about Gordon Brown. Unfortunately, this made him put his foot down, just at the point where there is a speed camera.
The authorities allow a certain margin for error, but he had the bad luck to be going 2kph faster than that. Result? A €45 fine and a point off his licence. He got the point back after a year so he now has the full complement. So far, and touching wood hard when I write this, I haven’t lost any. No doubt I am tempting providence. But we’re both very careful about keeping to the speed limits.
Each driving offence has its penalties, normally a fixed number of points taken away plus a fine or imprisonment in more serious cases. There are the obvious ones, like speeding, burning a red light or drink-driving. But did you know that you can face a maximum fine of €750 for keeping your full beam on at night when a vehicle is coming from the opposite direction? You have to be caught doing it, of course, so I suspect that one doesn’t get imposed very often.
I was surprised to see from the official website that driving while using a mobile phone incurs only 2 points and a fine of €35. Since the same website says that this is the 4th cause of death on the roads in France the mildness of the penalty seems a little perverse. One constantly sees people driving around here with mobiles clamped to their ears.
Here’s one that I’m all in favour of. Changing direction without indicating incurs 3 points and a €35 fine. This particular offence drives me nuts and I’m afraid to say that the French are exponents of it par excellence.
Since writing this, here’s another one close to my heart. If you don’t give way to a pedestrian crossing the road you get 4 points off and a fine of €135. A recent change in the law says that you have to stop even if they simply show clearly that they are planning to cross. The pedestrian can cross the street wherever they like, except if they are within 50 metres of a pedestrian crossing, in which case they are obliged to cross there. Their penalty for not doing so – €4.
You take you life in your hands crossing the street in our village, which has a major road running through it. You can even be halfway across the crossing and they don’t stop. Where are the gendarmes when you need them?
A Few Figures
According to official figures, motorists were caught committing almost 22.5 million driving offences in France in 2010, 4.9% up on 2009. This has led to people trying to avoid losing their licence by getting their spouse or partner to take the rap for them. This is not unknown in the UK, of course, especially among pillars of the community who ought to be giving a better example. The number of people driving when banned has gone up here, too.
Hearteningly, deaths on the French roads have more than halved since 1999 from around 8,500 to just under 4,000 in 2010. The number of injured has halved, too. People are driving more slowly and more safely. This doesn’t mean that you won’t regularly get White Van Man driving right up against your rear bumper or budding Alain Prosts overtaking you on blind corners. But it does make the French roads more pleasant to use, at least around here. I can’t answer for la Périphérique, which is no doubt still the driving equivalent of Hell.
See also my tongue in cheek post ‘How to drive like the French’.
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