Driving in France: why are the roads more deadly than in the UK?

The number of fatal accidents is high despite good infrastructure

Plane tree alley in St Remy de Provence. France, inset road death numbers for the first three months of 2024
The plane trees on rural French roads still cause hundreds of deaths each year
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There are more drivers and more roads in France than in the UK - but the number of fatal accidents is disproportionately higher, a fact again confirmed by new figures for March 2024.

We look at the factors that make French roads almost twice as deadly as those in the UK.

At 1.09 million kilometres, the French road network is more extensive than that of the UK (422,100 km) and while there are also six million more drivers (40m in France, 34m in the UK), intuitively French roads should be emptier and safer.

However, the number of road deaths is far higher in France and has been since modern records began in 1952.

“Road safety in France essentially means speed cameras,” the spokesperson for drivers’ rights group La Ligue de Défense des Conducteurs, Alexandra Legendre told The Connexion. “There is little political desire for much more than that.

“Of course, for real improvement they would need to pay for more police officers, more road markings and better infrastructure, but they would rather just use automatic speed cameras and blame drivers for going too fast”.

In the year ending June 2023, there were 1,633 UK vehicle accident deaths (down 9% on the previous year), compared to 3,170 in France (down 4%).

New data from French road safety agency la Sécurité routière reports 254 deaths in March 2024. This compares to a monthly average of 135 in the UK (2023 figures).

The increase of 30 more road deaths in March than in February could be due, it has been suggested, to a new rule stopping points deductions for drivers who speed below 5km/h above the limit.

However, the drivers rights group the Ligue Défense des Conducteurs told The Connexion that associating the slight increase in road deaths with the removal of the points deductions was “absurd”.

“There was an extra weekend in the month,” said spokesperson Alexandra Legendre. “Associating the removal of the points deduction with an increase in deaths is a caricature of a real desire for road safety”.

Read more: ‘New French speeding rule encourages aggressive drivers’ 

Why are French roads so deadly?

Rural roads

A disproportionately high number of the fatal accidents in France happen on rural roads. 

Drivers in the rural areas of France are 1.5x more likely to have a fatal accident than those in towns, according to the European Road Safety review 2019. Moreover, they are 2.7x more likely to have a fatal accident than drivers in cities.

This could of course be a statistical anomaly due to France simply having more rural roads than many other countries.

However, it is true that rural roads are more likely to be poorly marked, lit, signposted or maintained than those in towns, and present more hazards such as plane trees and ditches.

Plane trees, which were planted to provide shade alongside French roads at the start of the 20th Century, lead to hundreds of deaths each year. While these numbers are falling - as is the number of plane trees - from 750 in 2004 to 350 in 2015, they are known to be particularly dangerous on the dark country roads outside small towns and villages.

Read more: MAP: Where are drivers most likely to have an accident in France? 

Bad French road habits (and their fines)

Foreign drivers may notice a clear discrepancy between the road rules and people’s everyday driving habits.

However, you are by no means expected to be like the locals. In fact, all of these common bad habits can be sanctioned by on the spot fines:

  • Speeding in 30km/h zones - a fine and points (depending on speed)

  • Tailgating (non-respect des distances de sécurité) - €135 on the spot fine and 3 points on licence

  • Failing to indicate - €35 on the spot fine

  • Overtaking on roundabouts - €135 on the spot fine and 3 points on licence

  • Double parking - €35 on the spot fine

Drink driving

France has an alcohol limit lower than that of the UK, at 0.4g/l, as opposed to 0.8g/l.

However, alcohol is nonetheless responsible for 30% of French road accidents, according to la Sécurité routière.

The temptation to drink-drive remains strong in France, in large part due to the configuration of French towns, where nightclubs and music bars are frequently located outside of the centre of regional towns. 

Read more: Why do people in France say they are Sam when they are called Jacques? 

In addition, taxis are considerably more expensive, and private taxis (such as Ubers) are less common outside of the major cities.


Whether it be lorry drivers or holiday makers, people are also tempted to travel vast distances in France.

However, drivers overestimate their capacities and underestimate the danger of fatigue, which is the cause of 23% of fatal accidents on the motorway, states the Association des sociétés françaises d’autoroutes. 

Are road deaths getting worse?

In 1972, before car seatbelts and helmets for motorcyclists were mandatory, 18,034 people were killed on French roads. By 2010, this number was 4,270, and in 2023, 3,170.

Overall, French roads are becoming safer and the number of deaths is falling despite an increase following the end of the Covid lockdown in 2021.

Indeed, during 2020 had the fewest road deaths since the 1920s due to the Covid lockdown.

However, the numbers are falling far more slowly in France than in the UK, which has set an ambitious target of zero road deaths by 2040.

In recent years the rate of improvement has stagnated which, the Ligue de Défense des Conducteurs says is a result of the government’s policy of drawing a false equivalence of road safety and speed.