Alastair Dalton: French could teach us about road safety

Should we be thinking of a new Auld Alliance for road safety. Picture: AP
Should we be thinking of a new Auld Alliance for road safety. Picture: AP
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There’s nothing like driving on the other side of the road in a foreign country to heighten your concentration.

I’m just back from a week in France, where everything behind the wheel seemed very familiar, yet in certain respects was unsettlingly different.

There was the spatial awareness to contend with in driving on the right, charting a safe course between oncoming traffic and either parked cars or the edge of the road.

Then there was the potential hazard of failing to see traffic lights, since they are positioned only on the right hand side of junctions, rather than on both sides or directly in line of sight, as in the UK.

Some aspects of French motoring behaviour were unsettling, like motorcyclists weaving past on either side of other vehicles at high speed.

There also seemed little courtesy displayed by motorists to let fellow drivers pull out in front them from side roads.

But, overall, I detected far less everyday road rage and impatience than back at home, and a generally greater compliance of speed limits.

However, that was only a snapshot from a small area of the country, and France has a far bigger road safety problem than Scotland, with about twice the death rate for those in cars.

Interestingly, the opposite is true for pedestrians, with proportionately far fewer killed in France than here.

I wonder if some of the other differences on French roads might be a factor – and worthy of consideration here too?

One of these was the significantly larger traffic islands I encountered when entering and driving through villages, often with chicanes that force drivers to slow down – or otherwise collide with the high kerbs on either side of each carriageway.

These may look expensive to install, but offer a highly visible deterrent to speeders which are arguably far more effective and more acceptable to motorists than speed bumps.

In built-up areas, there also seemed to be far more opportunities for people to cross the road safely, thanks to the widespread use of zebra crossing-style black-and-white lines, including at every junction.

The beauty of these is their simplicity. Without the need for flashing beacons or traffic lights, they give pedestrians the opportunity to take precedence over vehicles.

Crucially, they make both drivers and those on foot more alert to each other’s presence as both approach a crossing, so everyone is forced to use observation rather than rely on technology to prevent a collision.

Yes, they may not be as safe as light-controlled crossings, but are far more numerous and don’t require long waits for the green man, which is likely to reduce jaywalking.

Elsewhere, some clever innovations could be helpful here too, like countdown timers integrated into temporary traffic lights at roadworks that seem stuck on red. The one I saw in France told you how many seconds remained until it turned green. That would certainty calm driver frustration and the temptation to jump the light.

On motorways, the speed limit is lowered during rainy conditions, from around 80mph (130km/ph) to around 70mph (110km/ph). A simple idea. Surely we too should be slowing down when it’s wet on our roads?

It could all add up to a new Auld Alliance for road safety.