France tries to cultivate good manners behind the wheel
By JENNY BARCHFIELD
12 April 2006
PARIS (AP) - Cutting off pedestrians in crosswalks. Chatting on cell phones behind the wheel. Racing down highways at breakneck speeds.
These hallmarks of France's motorways are the targets of a media campaign launched Wednesday by the country's Ministry of Transport aimed at persuading France's harried motorists to slow down and be nice.
Billboards, TV commercials and radio spots admonish drivers to "stay Zen at the wheel" and respect the 90-kilometer (55-mile) per hour speed limit on many French highways on the eve of the Easter weekend -- when fatal road accidents traditionally soar.
"Driving transforms many of us who in other walks of life are respectable people into barbarians," said Josselin Edouard, president of an association that promotes good driving habits.
"For a culture that values good manners, we French are shockingly impolite behind the wheel," said Edouard, whose group helped organize the two-pronged campaign.
Recent efforts to crack down on traffic offenders -- like the installation of radar guns -- have almost halved the country's traffic deaths over the past four years, he said.
But with nearly 5,000 traffic fatalities in 2005, France still has among Europe's deadliest roadways.
Not surprising, observers say. In a 2003 Gallup poll, the French rated themselves as Europe's most aggressive drivers, with about 60 percent of French motorists surveyed confessing to being discourteous drivers.
It's no wonder, then, that nine out of ten French people surveyed in a poll this February said they had a hard time crossing the street -- even in crosswalks. No sample size or margin of error for either poll was available.
"We're taking out life into our hands every time we cross," said Jo Burger, vice president of the Pedestrians' Rights Association, who added that almost 1,000 pedestrians died in traffic accidents in 2005.
While previous public awareness campaigns helped improve the situation, French drivers have still a "long way to go," Burger said.
"Drivers here in France lack a sense of civility," he said.
Associated Press reporter Cecile Roux contributed to this report.