What I Did On My Summer Vacation 2008 – Part Deux

French Flag

A town with 50,000 people, two traffic lights and seemingly 45 roundabouts
Getting from here to there on Roman roads – tailgating as a foreign concept – The yield sign, properly used – bad karma with a scooter –

The first part of the trip was actually spent in the south of France, in this little town called Frejus (which is a French interpretation of the town\’s original Roman name, Forum Julii, go figure).

It was a nice little resort-like town that was located between more famous places like Nice & Cannes. A thousand years ago, it had everything a Roman could want: an aqueduct for water, a coliseum for entertainment and a forum, for business.

Now, a thousand years later, there\’s a French town imprinted on the top of all this, and streets that were designed and built to handle oxcarts and horses now have to handle modern cars and trucks and buses driven by Frenchmen and tourists.

One of the ways they handle this was particularly impressive: there were only two traffic lights.

Think about that for a bit. A town of 50,000 people, and not without considerable traffic at times, and they don\’t have more than two traffic lights.

The answer? Roundabouts.

I\’ve always enjoyed roundabouts, since they\’re sort of like public skidpads, but a lot of Americans look at them with a certain amount of fear. There\’s something about being \”stuck\” in the inner lane forever that freaks some people out … I\’ve also noticed these are the same people that have trouble with yield signs and merging onto freeways.

Anyway, that\’s Frejus\’ answer to traffic: Roundabouts.

They\’re all over the place. Small, single lane ones about the size of a normal intersection up to big, boulevard-accommodating designs that are 3 or 4 lanes wide.

So getting from one part of town to another is really a pretty quick deal, since traffic is always flowing. You might have to slow down and yield to get onto a roundabout (they have the right-of-way, you do not), but you rarely have to come to a complete stop.

Another thing that I noticed in their driving behavior: tailgating is an alien concept.

Regardless of speed, it seems like it\’s an unwritten requirement that you set 18 inches off of the bumper of the car in front of you. So, you see packs of Renaults and Peugeots and Fiats easing up to rotaries at 30 MPH, blending in, then each of them peeling off to go on their own way. Sometimes you\’ll see the same pack of 4 or 5 or 6 cars merge onto a freeway, and stay bunched up as they drive off into the distance.

I have no idea what drives this behavior, but it\’s fairly obvious that each driver is paying attention, and they\’re not doing this out of absentmindedness.

It\’s also pretty damn clear that they\’re paying attention to not just what the road signs say, but how the roads are best used (a novel and alien concept for Americans).

Take that whole roundabout deal I mentioned before. Say you\’re approaching a two-lane roundabout with both lanes occupied, and you\’re facing a yield sign, what do you do?

If you\’re a doofus, you stop and wait for a gap … if you\’re an average French driver, you do just what the sign says, you slow down and then you blend into the flow of traffic. That way the people on the roundabout can get on with their business, and you don\’t bunch up people behind you (which is a bad mistake, and they\’ll let you know it), and everyone gets down the road quickly and efficiently.

That yield sign business also works at normal intersections … and also at crosswalks. They always, always, yield to pedestrians. And crosswalks are not right at the corners in intersections, but set about one car-length back; so when you are driving, and you go through an intersection, you have got to pay attention until you are way clear.

It is, however, not a perfect system, since imperfect people have to use it.

One time we were going form here to there, and we come up to this roundabout. As we approach, there are two French kids on a scooter already on the roundabout (about 40% of the vehicles are scooters). They are in the inside of the two lanes. We pull up to the yield sign and start to merge in, just as the scooter pulls from the inside lane to the outside lane, without signaling.

This is a huge mistake on their part, even though they do have the right of way, and Renee (who was driving, and should have noticed) continues on into the roundabout. Now there\’s a scooter a foot from the right front corner. The rider guns the engine (as much as you can with one of those things) and now he hits his turn signal. The passenger on the back starts gesticulating with one free hand and kicking at our car with his right foot, talking loudly in French. 35 feet after we entered there is another road, which the scooter, with gesticulating passenger still on the back, takes, and they ride off into the sunset, a tragedy narrowly averted (although Renee seems blissfully unaware of the whole proceedings).

It\’s tempting to want to apply this idea of less lights/more roundabouts to America, but I fear it would never work – or at least not initially. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, after numerous accidents, acrimony and bad car karma it would finally sink in and our traffic would flow better, but that 10 or 20 years would be terrible and we\’d probably never make it past that.

Worth thinking about though…

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