PARIS (AFP) - The French government said on Tuesday (Jan 9) it would lower the speed limit on two-lane highways to 80 kmh from 90 kmh, hoping to reverse an alarming rise in road deaths in recent years.
Several previous governments had toyed with the idea as a means of reducing highway deaths, which reached nearly 3,500 in 2016, but backed off in the face of widespread public opposition.
About 55 per cent of those deaths - 1,911 victims - occurred on the 400,000km of so-called "secondary" roads across France, two-lane routes with no separating guardrail.
"Excessive or inappropriate" speed was involved in 32 per cent of those fatal accidents, which far exceeded those in urban areas.
The government says the lower speed limit could save 350 to 400 lives a year.
"Unsafe roads are not inevitable," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said after a meeting of the government's road safety council, adding that road accidents had killed 105 people in France over the recent year-end holidays.
"Lowering speeds reduces the number of accidents, as well as the severity of these accidents," he said.
The government has compared the 80kmh limit, which goes into effect on July 1, to the laws enacted since 1973 requiring the use of seat belts, and the installation of automatic speed radars in 2002.
'WILLING TO BE UNPOPULAR'
Those laws also drew the ire of thousands of drivers, but contributed to nearly four decades of declines in automobile deaths in France, which reached a historic low of 3,268 in 2013.
But in 2014 the toll began rising steadily once again.
The trend looks set to continue for 2017, with deaths up 0.9 per cent for the first 11 months of the year compared with 2016.
"There are 3,500 deaths and 70,000 injured each year, 70,000! After decades of progress, the toll is getting worse," Philippe had told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday.
"If saving lives means being unpopular, I'm willing to be."
In 2012, the government of former president Francois Hollande announced a plan to lower the number of automobile deaths to under 2,000 a year by 2020, and in 2015 began a test of the lower speed limit on about 80 kilometres of highways.
The test was completed last July, and while the government has said it did not lead to more traffic jams, it has not released the results in terms of accident mortality.
Opponents say speed isn't the problem, but rather the dangerous behaviour of many drivers.
"There's no reason to change speed limits: cars are getting better, as is road quality," said Daniel Quero, president of the 40 Million Drivers advocacy group.
Signs already warn drivers to slow to 70 kmh in dangerous sections, Quero said, calling the government's plan "one more penalising measure".
According to Harris Interactive poll released Tuesday for RMC and Atlantico, 59 per cent of respondents said they were against the lower limit and 83 per cent said they thought the main goal was to increase revenue from speeding fines.
But Philippe said any surplus revenue from speeding tickets would go toward care for victims of automobile accidents.
The government also plans to crack down on the use of cellphones while driving, an infraction that currently results in a 135-euro fine (S$215) and the loss of three points from the 12-point driver's licence.
Police can now suspend a licence if the driver is found to have broken other laws while using a phone which could "endanger his own security or that of someone else."