What are you most likely to crash into? A tree or a drunk driver? Safety, EuroNCAP and Road Conditions in Rural France.

Right now I’m thinking about car safety. I don’t want to drive something around here if it puts the family at risk. But what are the risks around here?

An article from Time magazine in 2002 tells us France is the deadliest country in Europe when it comes to road accidents. “Auto deaths per million last year were 57.6 in Britain, 84.9 in Germany and 137.7 in France.” Old data but there’s something to it. That’s thousands of extra people dead that year compared to their similarly sized neighbours. That’s a tragedy.

Has anything happened since 2002? This report from the European Transport Safety Council says that France is getting better: “France is first in the EU for cutting the most road deaths between 2001 and 2007 achieving a 43% reduction.” Driving under the influence of alcohol is the main factor in French road accidents, ahead of speeding.

When they crash, they’re not just over the limit, they are way over the limit. “In crashes involving injuries average levels of alcohol in drivers involved were found to be 1.7 g/l.” That’s more than three times the legal limit of 0.5 g/l.

I can’t tell if that data is about collisions between vehicles or if it includes single vehicle accidents too. I want to know how many accidents are single-vehicle vs. multi-vehicle. Are deaths all drunk folk ramming people at city intersections or drunk folk driving themselves into a tree? For the former you need a car that can withstand collisions, for the latter you just don’t drink and drive. Maybe you drive something with good frontal crash safety too.

Now this data is national data and I am driving on local roads. Living in the country means you drive some distances to get a good baguette, but you might not see another car on the road. There is some driving in the local big town, maybe 5% of what it would be if we still lived in the city. On the way to the supermarket we drive the following:


1. 10km of tiny, twisty country road. You have to slow to pass oncoming drivers with your wheels on the grass verge. If you make a mistake you are in a three foot ditch, rolling down the hillside or planted into a tree.

You don’t meet oncoming cars very often. Still, there is one dangerous crossroads with a blind approach where someone died a couple of years ago driving through it at the same time as a crossing car. Overall I think the biggest risk of death here is driving into a tree. We take that crossroads slowly. 


2. 10km of well constructed arterial country road. There is more oncoming traffic, maybe ten cars. Often they are optimizing for corners and driving down the middle of the road despite lane markings. When they see oncoming traffic they move back over.


This is the same as I remember driving in rural Australia – few cars and you drive down the middle of the road. Night driving lets you see oncoming cars from their headlights. If a car comes up to you from behind it often overtakes you in less-than-optimal conditions. I am terrible at overtaking, I am getting happier at just slowing down, leaving a gap to the car in front and enjoying the ride.

3. 1 km of town driving. I stick to the town speed limit of 50kmh, unlike most other drivers. The risk here is small given the low speeds and tiny lanes. [The image here is of Toulouse, but the streets are this small everywhere.]

Any crashes will likely be panel damage only, or maybe from road rage because I am driving too slow.


When you drive on the country roads, your speed is limited by road conditions and driving ability. It is easy to drive too fast and get into trouble on a tightening corner. Breaking speed limits is not an issue in itself; in two months I am yet to see a single gendarme within twenty kilometers of our house.

This breakdown is close to typical. A drive has some distance on a tiny road and some distance on an arterial. So given this recipe for driving, where does the risk lie and how do you counter that risk?

The roads I drive are mostly ‘one-star roads’. Fifth Gear, the ‘other’ British car show, has a great segment where they talk about one-star roads and to show you why they are so dangerous they crash a five-star Renault Laguna into a tree to see what happens. That’s a five star car in a frontal crash – what happens if you are in a three star Alfa 147? I crossed the Alfa off our list.

I’m a big believers in active safety, where a car can avoid an accident through its design rather than just surviving one. The best recent invention for active safety is Stability Control (or ESP or VSC or some other abbreviation). When you watch the Fifth Gear where they tested ABS, traction control and stability control on ice you can’t help but put yourself in that position driving on an icy or wet road trying to avoid a deer, bicycle or wandering cow. The IIHS believes this reduces the risk of single-vehicle crashes by 33%. In years past it was limited to high-end models but now it is becoming more available further down the range.

One big accident fear when we lived in Seattle was having a big pickup truck or SUV hit us on the side of the car at an intersection. That made curtain airbags a requirement. Check out the side impact and pole test in this tiny Toyota iQ. In rural France the SUV risk is minimal, but there is still a risk that you will connect with a tree sideways. The pole test may be a better representation than the side impact test.

So I end up with a want list like this:

  1. Stability Control/ESP to help avoid single vehicle accidents.
  2. Good frontal crash safety with four or five stars on EuroNCAP’s rating scheme – for hitting a tree straight on or an oncoming car with a drunk driver.
  3. Curtain airbags for hitting a tree sideways would help things too.

Now that makes a car an expensive proposition. Used cars with that equipment are either fancy marques like Mercedes or BMW or high-end models on other brands. ESP is often only fitted on cars with the more powerful engines. For example, when buying a Skoda Roomster (one option for me) you can only get ESP on the bigger 105cv engine.

Now I am figuring out the myriad options of what to buy. Small and cheap but with ESP and crash safety? Does such a car exist? What big, high-utility vehicles with ESP are there, and are they safe? Maybe some big Dad wagon, but you don’t want to spend too much? Having this safety demands as a start cuts down the choices really fast. No 2CV. No AMI. No R4.


0 Responses to “What are you most likely to crash into? A tree or a drunk driver? Safety, EuroNCAP and Road Conditions in Rural France.”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

brentcu on Twitter:

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.


%d bloggers like this: