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Thirty-Seven Departments Increase Speed Limit

Monday 29 November 2021

Thirty-seven departments in France have re-introduced a 90km/h speed limit on some of their roads.

Since 1st July 2018, a maximum speed limit of 80km/h has been in place on all French highways that have no central barrier, and where road signs indicate no other speed limit applies. The limit on autoroutes remains the same (130km/h) - at least, for the time being.

Improving road safety has been a key priority of most French governments since the early 1970s, when there were around 17,000 deaths each year, one of the worst records in Europe.

As a result of the introduction of safety belts in 1973 and other later safety measures, the number of road deaths is now down to around 3,500 each year (3,289 in 2019), a figure that has remained relatively stable since 2013.

The decision to introduce the lower speed limit was hugely controversial, particularly in rural areas, opposed by most departmental councils and one of the sparks that ignited the yellow vest (gilet jaune) protest movement.

Surveys carried out have shown that around 80% of the population have expressed a wish to return to the 90kp/h limit.

In the face of widespread opposition, the government subsequently changed the law, granting departmental councils the discretion to revert to the 90km/h speed limit.

However, tight conditions were imposed that in practice make it difficult for them to make use of their new discretionary powers.

The change in the speed limit was the subject of an evaluation report by consultants appointed by the government on the first two years of its application. This report, published in July 2020, showed that the lowering measure had saved 349 lives in 20 months. The report was, however, widely criticised for not taking into account other causes of road accident fatalities - alcohol, drugs, inattention, drowsiness and poor road conditions. 

Some roads affected by relaxation of the law are also under the control of central government, not the departmental councils, and the government has stated that it is not its intention to reduce the speed limits on these roads.

A report from the Ministry of the Interior published earlier this month shows that 37 departments have decided to increase the speed limit to 90km/h on certain roads, representing over 33,000 km of the network.

The authors state that departments have made their decision to increase the speed limit "to fluidify traffic and remedy the increase in queues of accumulation of vehicles, especially behind heavy goods vehicles, generating risk-taking when overtaking", and "to reduce travel times to fight against the isolation of rural areas". 

For the most part the departments concerned are mainly located in the central area of the country, characterised by a low population density, as shown on the graphic below.

There are significant differences between departments in just how far they have gone or been able to go; the department of Allier increased the speed limit on over 5,284 km of road, while in the Haut-Rhin it was limited to 22 km.

Eight departments - Allier, Aveyron, Cantal, Corrèze, Côte-d'Or, Creuse, Lozère and Orne have increased over 1,000 km of road to 90km/h (coloured dark brown on the graphic below).

However, in 21 departments the limit was increased on less than 500km of road (lighter shades of brown).

In 21 departments, the increase to 90km/h is less than 10% of the highway network in the department. In only 5 departments - Allier, Cantal, Corrèze, Creuse, Lozère – has the increase been over 80% (dark green on the graphic below). In Allier and Creuse the departments increased the speed limit on 100% of their network.

The result is a patchwork of different speed limits that apply on departmental roads across France, although in all cases, the speed limit will be clearly indicated on all roads.

Officials consider that it was not possible to yet draw any conclusions in terms of accidents, especially since the health crisis has had a strong impact road traffic and that the increase in the speed limit had only been in place for a few months in some departments.

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