French police step up watch on British drivers

French police can issue on-the-spot fines to British drivers

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It is the height of the French holiday season and, under a scorching sun, a police team watches for speeding drivers on a highway near Toulouse.

For tens of thousands of tourists from northern Europe, the A64 marks the final stretch before reaching their holiday destinations.

Most are heading for the Pyrenees mountains or seaside resorts like Biarritz or St Jean de Luz. And often they are in a hurry to get there, especially after spending hours on the road in northern France.

French police say many foreign drivers break the speed limit because they know they can avoid a fine. EU figures show that foreign drivers make up 5% of road traffic but account for 15% of speeding offences in the 28-nation bloc.

But new EU legislation is coming into force this year, aimed at tackling that anomaly. The deadline for implementation across the EU is 7 November.

Member states can now exchange data on motoring offences, to track down guilty drivers. So if a French camera catches a Spanish motorist speeding, that driver will still have to pay a fine in Spain - provided the driver is the owner of the vehicle.

Even before the EU directive came along, France had adopted such cross-border arrangements with Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, which is not in the EU.

However, the UK, Republic of Ireland and Denmark have opted out of the EU directive.

So the only way motorists from those countries can be sanctioned on French roads - and there are many more from Britain than Ireland or Denmark - is if they are caught in the act by the police and made to pay on-the-spot fines.

'Pay up now'

A 32-strong special division of the gendarmerie is equipped with special binoculars that can calculate speeds. They watch discreetly, about a kilometre before a toll booth, on a section of the A64 where the speed limit is 110km/h (68 mph).

French police speed check Special binoculars are used to spot speeding drivers

French motorists are given a fine that they can pay at a later date, but foreign drivers are in for a surprise. They have to pay cash up front.

Lt Benjamin Dupain runs the operation. "They have to pay on the spot. If they don't have any money on them and they are on their own, they will be driven to the nearest cashpoint machine. If they really have no money at all, then an on-duty judge will be called to decide what to do. But that can mean waiting around for up to three days and the car will not be allowed to move," he says.

British motoring association the RAC told the BBC that "finding you are liable for an on-the-spot fine of up to 375 euros (£323) when holidaying in France, with no option to have this transferred back to the UK, can be a very unwelcome surprise".

An RAC spokesman said British drivers should "do their homework before they leave" to comply with French rules, for example, the need to carry a reflective jacket.

French rules of the road

  • Maximum speed on motorway is 130km/h (80 mph)
  • On-the-spot fine of 90 euros if driver goes up to 40km/h over limit
  • If speed breaks limit by more than 40km/h, police can seize car and demand 750-euro fine
  • Driver must have a reflective jacket and warning triangle in car - fine can be 90 euros if either is missing
  • In-car radar detectors are illegal

Foreign truck drivers are also frequently stopped. One British driver, Richard Parker, was pulled over and his lorry was weighed, his paperwork checked. He told the BBC that the police are very fair, providing you abide by the rules in France.

Pretending not to speak French will not help drivers here. The police I followed had a more than adequate level of English. One had spent a year training with the British army and another had worked as a home-help in Buckinghamshire.

British police sometimes even join their French counterparts on missions in northern France, though they do not have the authority to issue fines on French territory.

The French police stress that British drivers are not the worst offenders - they say some of the fastest drivers are Dutch and Swiss.

Other driving offences also come under the new cross-border agreement, such as drink-driving or using a mobile phone at the wheel.

The UK government has several reasons for staying out of the new EU data exchange. It is not happy that the directive means exchanging vehicle owner information, rather than driver information - and often, it argues, the offending driver does not own the vehicle.

The UK government also says fines are a poor deterrent for bad driving, compared with points on a driving licence, or the threat of losing a licence altogether. And the government wants to assess the cost of setting up the EU-wide data exchange system before joining in.

But the UK opt-out means that foreign drivers on British soil are also unlikely to be fined for offences, unless British police catch them on the spot too.

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