Crazy Days in the French Lane

It seems that the fundamental purpose of driving in France is not to get from place to place but to pass the person in front of you, no matter who he is or how fast he is going. Given that as the fundamental purpose, this leads directly to the following three well-known principles of driving: First, always drive at the maximum possible speed; second, fill up all available space; and third, when in doubt, accelerate.

With respect to the system of lateral markings, that is to say, curbs and lanes, the following principles apply: First, lane markers are to be used only as a rough guide for general direction of traffic flow; second, the lane markers themselves, that is to say the white lines, are the exclusive, private domain of the motorcyclist; third, if the markings are not laid down in concrete, drive over them, and if they are in concrete, drive over them as carefully as you can.

A word on mobylettes (mopeds). Mobylettes are fairly numerous, highly manoeuvrable, and extremely slow. These simple facts lead to "The First Law of the Mobylette." This law states that the mobylette rider (he really isn't a driver) has the right, when he finds himself in a line of traffic that is either stopped or moving slower than he is, to advance immediately to the front of the line, going up either side but preferably the left side, and positioning himself immediately in front of and perpendicular to the vehicle at the head of the line.

This usually poses no problem, because the driver at the front of the line can always see the mobylette rider, who is normally no more than six centimetres (two inches) away from his front bumper. However, this can lead to problems if there are three of four mobylettes, all executing the same manoeuvre at the same time.

The real problem comes when the mobylette rider graduates from automobile driving school and obtains a Renault 5. At this point, he still thinks he is on his mobylette and he still comes down the left side of a line of stopped cars and pulls in front of the first car in line.

This behaviour gives rise to yet another principle of French driving, to wit, there is no such thing as first come, first served. In fact, the biblical phrase may well apply: the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

The widespread use of mobylettes lead to a principle called the helmeted ostrich. All mobylette riders and motorcyclists are required in France to wear helmets. This tends to make the mobylette rider or the motorcyclist think that he is protected, and certainly his head is. But he seems to have the impression that he is protected all over, and that no harm can befall him as he drives haphazardly down the highways of France. It appears that the helmet serves the motorcyclist like sand serves an ostrich. He simply sticks his head into it and nothing can go wrong.

Some words on stopping: The general attitude seems to be, stop wherever you like. No need to pull off the road. Or, stop whenever you like the more unlikely a time the better. After you have stopped, be sure to open wide the door on the side of the car nearest the flow of traffic. For extra credit, place your posterior in the open doorway, or beyond it if you can, and pretend to look for something inside the car.

Of course, stopping is a short-term phenomenon. Something needs to be said about the longer term phenomenon of parking. As everybody knows, the fundamental rule is, park anywhere you want. Of course, parking tickets will be obtained. But then, parking tickets are only issued to keep meter maids employed. They are under no circumstances to be paid. The second rule of parking is, park closely. It is generally accepted in France that two objects can occupy the same space at the same time.

One further thought on stopping: Stopping is usually done suddenly, quite often violently, but surprisingly, it seems to be done fairly frequently without collisions. On avoiding collision, the principle is, a millimetre is as good as a mile.

There are, of course, seasonal variations in traffic flow. It's fairly well-known that Parisians leave there beautiful city in August, almost to a man, and flock to the Côte d'Azur. This means, in effect, that driving in Paris in August can be beautiful, while driving (or doing almost anything else on the Côte d'Azur can be horrible.

There are even large fluctuations in the way traffic flows on a daily basis. Rush hour and weekends are well-known phenomena, but there exists something that can only be called "crazy days." On crazy days, you will notice as you leave your garage or your parking space at work that things somehow seem a little different. You know this because you find you've had three close calls in three kilometres (two miles). That's a crazy day. There's no reason for it, it just happens.

There is a corollary to the first principle of driving. You'll recall that the first principle is always drive at the maximum possible speed. The corollary is, no matter how fast you drive, it's never fast enough. Even in the fast lane on an autoroute at 140 kilometres an hour, there will be somebody in your rearview mirror. He'll be there with his left turn signal blinking or his headlights flashing.

Headlight flashing s a very interesting phenomenon. It's a signal given by one driver to another which requires that the person being flashed immediately disappear. This is particularly true when you are being flashed by someone approaching you head-on. Another theory with respect to the head-on flasher is that he thinks in so doing that he has erected some sort of force field around himself, thereby rendering himself impervious to harm. Headlight flashers come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but there are several that are worthy of mention. By far the most dangerous is the black Golf with the thin red lateral striping; he drives faster and closer than anybody else on the road. Second and third are the BMW and Mercedes Benz, respectively. They both think they can go faster than anybody else on the road, and they can. But the most irritating flasher is the large Citroen driver. He is convinced, without a doubt, that he is the fastest, most manoeuvrable, and best protected vehicle on the road. He isn't.

If you drive long enough in France, you will go though several phases. The first of these is shock; the second is fright; the third is indignation (you can't do that to me, fella), and the fourth is resignation. There is also a fifth phase, which is, after you've learned how to do it well yourself, a certain kind of camaraderie. In short, if you can't lick 'em (and you can't), join 'em. If you can't join 'em (because he's going faster than you can) let him in front of you, he's going to get there sooner than you think he is anyway.

Bonne Route.

C. A. Freck, an American working in France, has been dictating notes into a tape recorder while driving 50 minutes back and forth to work each day.