Sunday, April 19, 2009

Driving with a British Accent

When we came to France in 1977, we were appalled by French driving.
Aggressive, selfish & pig-headed, just about summed it up.
And this was around Strasbourg, not in notorious Paris.
Nobody (except visiting Germans) would ever give way for a pedestrian, even on a crossing.
Nobody would pause or slow enough to allow a car out of a side road if it didn't have "priority on the right".
Cars all seemed to have dents & scrapes which were not worth removing.
There were no roundabouts, except the famous one in Place de la Concorde in Paris, which had priority on the right so would lock solid as soon as there was enough traffic.
Just traffic lights which seemed to have only an advisory role.

There has been a huge improvement since then, and it seems to be accelerating.
Contributing factors have been the widespread adoption of radar speed traps (in spite of advanced warning signs for the fixed ones), widespread application of breathalyzer testing, hesitant then plethoric introduction of roundabouts, reduced speed limits in towns, speed humps & traffic-calming chicanes, etc.

None of the above really explains that not only the accident rate, but also the attitudes have changed.
I don't have an explanation either, and I just hope it continues.
That trend seems in opposition to the rapid increase in all other kinds of violent behaviour, particularly gratuitous violence by youths.

One certainly positive factor has been the introduction of "conduite accompagnee" (accompanied driving).
Previously, a learner driver, who needed to be 18 before starting, could only be on the road with driving instructors in dual-control cars, so typically only had 20 hours of driving experience, and in very restricted conditions, before taking the driving test & maybe being let loose on his own, with inevitable consequences.
About 20 years ago, they introduced "accompanied driving" which allowed 16-year-olds to take 20 driving lessons with an instructor, then to cover at least 3000 km with one or two named drivers over 28 (normally parents) with a couple of intermediate check lessons before sitting the driving test at age 18.
This has resulted in a big increase in pass rate & a big decrease in accident rate.
I think it has also meant that young drivers see driving in a family environment rather than as some macho rite of passage to adulthood.
Drivers passing their test after accompanied driving get better insurance terms & only need to display an "A" (apprentice) plate, with its associated lower speed limits, for 2 years instead of 3.

We have "accompanied" all 4 kids now, which has not been too stressful…
Of course, we tried not to pass on our less-good habits & short-cuts, so it was good for us too.
We had to fit in with most prevailing methods, even when we don't 100% agree, like staying down in 3rd gear all the time in towns, because otherwise they would not have passed their tests.
But we did add a couple of safety items which are never included here:
1.Keeping the clutch pedal depressed when starting the engine.
2.Using the handbrake for hill-starts.
The French are taught to do hill starts without handbrakes, by feeling for the clutch biting point, then jumping the right foot from brake to accelerator.
It works OK on slight slopes but almost invariably causes some roll-back on steep ones, often with engine stalling too.
It makes hill starts a critical affair when they don't need to be.
So we taught hill starts using the handbrake.

When one of the kids had a check lesson with a new instructor & used the handbrake on a hill, he immediately said "You must be British."
Apparently he teaches lots of non-French kids related to the European Parliament/Council & recognises the British because they use the handbrake at every stop & start.
That's one peculiarity I will stand up for.

Parting thot: "If at noon the King says it is midnight, admire the stars." – Persian proverb which I find very regrettable & the source of many problems

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