In the middle of Spain there is a road sign written by someone who has faith in the capacity of dangerous drivers to mend their ways: ‘Respect the signs’, it says.
Drivers who do respect the signs must wonder what the point of this one is. Drivers who do not respect signs will not even notice it – it is just one more sign to disrespect.
The French government should bear that sign in mind as it decides whether or not to reduce the speed limit on main roads from 90kph to 80. It believes such a move will bring down the numbers of road deaths, which have been rising for the last four years to almost 3,500 per annum.
It is a laudable idea but it is only going to slow down careful drivers. The reckless driver who drinks before driving, talks on a phone while at the wheel, and wilfully exceeds speed limits will probably not notice or care.
The problem is one of social acceptability. Driving in France is largely perceived as an act of individualism and bravado. Too many people regard the regulations as state interference in personal freedom and radar traps as a way for the traffic police to earn easy money.
A nice person commits an infraction, the reasoning goes, so it cannot be that bad, can it? It is not uncommon to hear someone who has lost points from his licence bragging about it as if the only thing he did wrong was to get caught.
A way has to be found to educate society into seeing driving not as an ‘everyone for themselves’ activity but as a social interaction in which all road users are part of the same community.
If the casualty rates are to come down it will not be severe speed limits that do it; it will be an evolution of attitudes.
Deliberately slowing down and not touching the phone must be promoted as virtues worth adopting for noble reasons, not through threat of punishment (which does not work). This will only happen if these virtues are consistently spelled out by friends, family members, colleagues, sporting heroes, rock stars and media celebrities.