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A revolution: speed cameras cut speed

At a time of high unemployment and religious tensions, one issue grips the French: speed cameras. According to one poll, they are the top subject of conversation, put there by 82% of respondents. To the indignation of drivers who had so far escaped these devious devices and their fines, some 100 cameras were installed last autumn. A further 900 are coming in the next two years. For people used to speeding with impunity, the shocking thing is that they work.

Last year, for the first time in 30 years, the number of deaths on French roads fell below 6000—a drop of 21% from 2002. Ministers have fallen over themselves to claim credit. Reducing road deaths was one of Jacques Chirac’s election pledges. And with reason: every year, more than twice as many people die on the roads in France as in Britain.

But the efficiency with which these machines have deterred speed junkies has baffled the French. A critical survival skill in a rule bound society is to know how to break the rules. The country suffers from what Jean-Louis Debré, president of the National Assembly, calls “legislative inflation”. The yearly statute books have grown in size from 1020 pages in 1989 to 1600 in 2002.

In general, the more rules, the more they are broken. No smoking in the office? No dog poo on the pavement? No double parking? Pouff! Such intrusions into personal liberty are met by a shrug of indifference. The French even have an expression—faire sauter les PV (skipping fines)—for getting speeding fines waived by pulling political strings, a practice that automatic fines have stopped. “Violating legislation”, writes Béatrice Houchard in Road Delinquency, a new book, “is a national sport”.

Hence the perplexity over the speed cameras. “It’s a small revolution”, commented LeMonde, noting the “incredible fact” that the French seem to be driving more slowly, even on Paris’s ring road. Rémy Heitz, a road safety minister, calls the change a “veritable psychological rupture”. A case study in the transformation of a national psyche? Or a simple lesson that zero tolerance works? (contributed by Peter Jacobsen, from The Economist).

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