Although touted officially as a way to “help drivers”, the department’s move has been seen as a sign of resistance against the government’s unpopular move to reduce the speed limit on secondary roads from 90kph to 80kph.
Now, the majority of roads in the Hautes-Alpes will have a limit of 80kph - even those that previously had a limit of 70kph or less. Just 25% of roads with a limit of 70kph will remain as such.
President of the Hautes-Alpes conseil départemental, Jean-Marie Bernard, who helped unveil the first new 80kph signs, said the government’s decision “makes no sense”.
The nationwide reduction from 90kph to 80kph was spearheaded by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and came into force this month on July 1.
It was first proposed as part of 18 road safety measures back in January, and proponents say it could save 400 lives per year.
Yet, a recent survey found that almost three quarters (74%) of French people were against the move, with many seeing it as an attack on their personal freedom.
Mr Philippe has acknowledged the backlash against the move in a statement from official residence Matignon, and also defended the change this week in an interview with radio news source RTL.
He confirmed that any money collected from speeding fines on affected roads would go towards hospitals that help care for people injured in road traffic accidents, and reminded people that the change was intended to improve road safety.
He said: “[The fines] will not go towards the State budget. It will go towards establishments that help tend to the injured. The money will go towards hospitals, not to pay back State debt.”
He added: “To say this in a straightforward way, my objective isn’t to annoy everyone. The objective is to reduce the numbers of deaths and serious injuries.”
And while the move by the Hautes-Alpes is perfectly legal, road safety group L’Association Prévention Routière has criticised the change, saying that it could lead to more accidents.
The accident rate in the Hautes-Alpes is already higher than the national average, the group said.
Fabrice Nurth, cabinet director in the Hautes-Alpes conseil départemental, defended the move, saying: “If the measure doesn’t work, then of course we will re-evaluate it. We may even drop the limit a little in an especially accident-prone zone. But we are keeping 25% of the roads at 70kph - that’s not for nothing.”
The council has said that the lowering of the national speed limit to 80kph will punish rural areas, make overtaking more dangerous, and add considerable time to journeys.
The Hautes-Alpes is not the only department to have resisted the change.
Creuse (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) said that while it “would not oppose the implementation of the new speed limits by the services of the State”, it had locally refused to install any “means, financial, technical or human” to support the new move.
“Let the State deal with it,” said Valérie Simonet, president of the Creuse conseil départemental.
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