Sunday, 10 January 2016

Should EU road rules be harmonised?

Here's a thought to wake Nigel Farage in a cold sweat: how about harmonizing Europe's motoring laws? Huge swathes of rain forest have been sacrificed in pursuit of harmonising consumer protection, for example, yet the EU's road regulations remain a mess of inconsistencies.

Why, for example, should "hogging the middle lane" be looked upon as a sin in the UK when it doesn't seem to raise an eyebrow across the Channel? Why does Germany impose no permanent speed limits on some two thirds of its total Autobahn length while the French impose an autoroute maximum of 130 kilometres per hour, which is roughly 11mph higher than Britain's top legal speed of 70mph, reducing it to 110kph in bad weather, or about 68mph?

Millions of vehicles are driven across EU borders avery year. Getting rid of such inconsistencies would at least take some of the stress out of taking the car abroad on holiday.

Of course there's nothing quite like motoring to bring out the worst daftnesses and xenophobia in otherwise reasonable people. The UK's lane discipline rule is a classic symptom. If you drive in the middle lane at the relevant speed limit you harm nobody save those who want to speed illegally. Anyway, isn't it safer to stick to one lane rather than continually pulling in and out? As for 70mph limit on British motorways, I have heard it argued, quite seriously, that you might as well up it to 80mph because everyone treats that as the maximum already. What if it were increased? Would 90mph become the norm?

Perhaps I should no longer be surprised, after the excesses of personal greed which have characterised the past few decades, that those who define themselves as motorists should still demand the right to pilot a lethal weapon without restrictions. A foreign based, British hotelier once grumbled to me, in genuine outrage, that he had been caught speeding by a camera after he had passed it. So in his book dicing with a law designed to protect lives was no different from winning a penalty by diving, provided the referee was fooled, or failing to walk after nicking a ball to a catcher in the slips, so long as the umpire didn't raise a finger.

As for xenophobia, the British, on the whole, believe they're better at driving than Johnny Foreigner and that standards elsewhere tend to be worst in France and the Mediterranean countries. Is there any truth in this? According to the most recent EU research 48% of British driver exceed the motorway speed limit while 34% and 15% respectively exceed the lower and higher limits in France. Between 2011 and 2013 the average number of deaths per year on German Autobhanen was the highest in Europe – more than four times that in Britain and some 75% greater than that in Italy. However, a much more reliable comparison is based on deaths per billion kilometres driven in cars and vans. Between 2011 and 2013 there were 0.8 in the UK, 1.7 in France, 1.9 in Germany, 2.9 in Belgium and 3.1 in Italy (it should be noted that across Europe there are many more deaths on rural roads than on motorways).

Even these statistics take no account of the quality of roads weight of traffic, the average safety of vehicles driven – or even weather. The German Autobahn network for example, which once attracted international envy in measure equal to the revulsion felt for the Nazi regime which hastened their introduction, is now bedevilled by dual carriageway bottlenecks. Because of Germany's central position in Europe the proportion of foreign vehicles using them is higher than that on similar roads in other European states. One recent trip took me from Weimar (it was during the brief life of ill starred Weimar Republic that the Autobahns were conceived) to the Austrian Tirol. This was bad planning on my part as it was a Saturday in the peak July holiday period. The journey was a nightmare of roadwork jams to rival the worst of those experienced during the great French summer escape to the countryside and coasts. It’s perhaps not surprising that when they escape from these bottlenecks, German drivers are tempted to put their feet down. French statistics are surely skewed by that annual summer emptying of towns and cities.

In the absence of unimpeachable comparisons figures one tens to fall back on empirical evidence and the temptation to generalise about national traits is hard to resist. The Belgians, I surmised flippantly while driving there recently, must be required to demonstrate an ability to tailgate at high speed in order to pass their driving tests. The Germans have a similarly nasty habit of zooming up to within inches of your back bumper in the outside lane when it's obvious you are overtaking a slow lorry and will pull over as soon as you can. In Greece a driver once overtook me on the left while I was signalling to turn off in that direction left and in Palermo I witnessed a Sicilian driver overtake another in the same lane. In mountainous countries such as Austria drivers display a disturbing tendency to cross the centre line while negotiating tight bends.

Just as Britain's motorway speed limit continues to prompt demands for a review, so Germany's comes up, from time to time, for debate. During a conversation with representatives of the German tourist industry I suggested that visitors might be deterred from repeat trips by the white knuckle experience of Autobahn driving. On the contrary, one replied, the lack of constraints might actually attract them. Besides, the land of "das Auto", slowing drivers down would cost too many votes. When one German politician suggested it a commentator retorted that he might has well have proposed a ban on sausages.

I suspect that, not very deep down, most drivers know very well that the measures which provoke their ire, from speed cameras to speed limits, save lives. Setting consistent, Europe wide regulations would not be easy. It would mean cherry picking the most effective from a range of member states.That shouldn't be used as an excuse for not making the effort.

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