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Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- French drivers call it “la guirlande de noel” -- “the Christmas wreath” -- but it heralds anything but good tidings.
Near the town of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, on the Swiss border, there’s an automatic radar detector that emits a bright flash like a sparkling Christmas light each time it catches a speeder. And it nabs a lot of them: More than 250,000 in 2011 and 2012, according to French motoring magazine Auto-Plus.
“These radars are just cash machines to fill state coffers,” said Laurent Hoff, a 39-year-old engineer who has been “flashed” twice by the wreath while driving his Renault Scenic minivan above the 50 kilometer-per-hour (30-miles-per- hour) speed limit. The damage: 90 euros ($122) in fines and two points on his driver’s license.
Like Hoff, many French drivers say it’s unfair that they’re getting flashed -- from the light of a camera that records the license-tag numbers of offenders -- ever more frequently. In the 10 years since the speed traps were introduced by former President Nicolas Sarkozy (during his tenure as interior minister), their number has increased to 4,200 on autoroutes, two-lane highways, and secondary roads across the country.
In meeting their original goal of cutting traffic fatalities and countering France’s reputation for tolerating wine drinking and reckless driving, the speed traps have been a resounding success. French highway deaths fell below 3,700 last year from about 8,000 in 2003, according to the Interior Ministry, which largely credits automatic radar for the change.
Some drivers, though, say the primary focus of the speed traps is no longer road safety, but increasing revenue as President Francois Hollande seeks to shore up state finances. Automatic radar systems are expected to yield 800 million euros in fines next year, up from 453 million euros in 2007. The speed traps will account for more than half of the total driving and parking fines in France in 2014, according to the Finance Ministry. The government aims to trim the total budget shortfall to 3.6 percent of gross domestic product next year from 4.1 percent this year and 4.8 percent in 2012.
The growing anger over the speed traps has spurred the motorist lobbying group “40 millions d’automobilistes” to set up a website called “raconte-moi ton radar,” or “tell me about your radar.” The site has gathered 67,000 stories from drivers detailing why they felt trapped after being flashed. The site has anointed the “Top 10” radar locations and has a map showing those it deems most hazardous. Some 10 percent of the stories concern the Saint Julien “wreath.”
Even some police are starting to reconsider the wisdom of the speed traps. Two officers from Lyon were suspended this month after they were filmed by a French news channel covering up a radar device. The pair were seeking to highlight what they say is pressure on cops to continually increase the number of traffic citations they issue, according to Gabriel Versini- Bullara, an attorney for one of the officers, a police union representative whose name wasn’t made public.
Securite Routiere, the traffic-regulation agency, defends the speed traps. The department says the radar detectors are located in areas that are accident-prone or where speed is the main cause of accidents, and that they continue to be effective in saving lives.
The speed traps became a focus of last year’s presidential campaign after Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the anti-euro National Front, pledged to end the installation of new radars. The current policy, she said, amounts to “hunting for motorists” simply to raise funds for a poorly governed state.
The National Front won a local by-election yesterday in the town of Brignoles, a warning to rivals that the party may be turning into a force for the dissatisfaction of a population grappling with the highest unemployment in 14 years.
The leading candidates in last year’s presidential election, Hollande and Sarkozy, responded to Le Pen with a pledge that money from speed-camera fines would be entirely allocated to road safety.
Frank Arroua isn’t convinced. He was driving his VW Golf on the A6 highway near the Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes, where the speed limit drops from 110 kph to 90 kph. When he had slowed to 95 kph he saw the telltale flash, and four weeks later he got a 45-euro fine in the mail.
“I got flashed for driving only five kilometers above the speed limit,” said the clothing store manager. “It creates a feeling of injustice.”
--With assistance from Mark Deen in Paris. Editors: David Rocks, Chad Thomas