Driving in France, I religiously stick to the posted speed limit. This is largely because speeding fines suck. Also – as a foreigner – I prefer to avoid contact with French law enforcement as much as possible. Life is just simpler that way …
Of course, this often makes me the slowest thing on the road, and French drivers let me know this by climbing up my tailpipe until I pull over and let them speed on by. Still, it’s better than having to explain myself in bad French to a gendarme along some rural roadside.
So it was quite the surprise when, out of the blue, I recently got a speeding ticket, without ever even seeing a gendarme. It went like this …
Ani and I get a phone call from Sylvan. He’s a nice young guy who works at the supermarket where we lease our car (yes, in France you can lease a car from the supermarket; and at very attractive rates, too …).
Sylvan regrets to inform us that his office – as the registered owner of our Fiat Panda – has gotten an avis de contravention; basically, a notice that our/their car was recorded exceeding the speed limit. Notice I didn’t say the “posted” speed limit. That’s because – as I now know – the speed limit within any town or village is 50 kilometers per hour (about 31 mph), whether it’s posted or not (it’s usually not).
Now, French people, who learned to drive in France at French driving schools, all know this. Americans, by and large, do not; at least not until they get clobbered with a 90 euro ($120) fine. It seems that on our way back from our camping trip in August we were clocked by an automatic camera as we entered some little village at 64 kph (40 mph). Our plate was duly photographed, and the avis duly sent to Sylvan’s office.
It didn’t really seem fair that – after months of getting persistently tailgated by every driver between Strasbourg and Brest, I’m the one who gets nailed for going too fast.
After that, I got paranoid about my speed, especially in little villages, which I suspect make a fair amount of money during tourist season in the speed trap business. I drove with one eye always on the speedometer.
So imagine my dismay when – a couple of weeks ago – after returning from another camping trip – we get another friendly call from Sylvan.
“Monsieur Moriarty? Vouz avez un autre contravention …”
“Non!” I shout in disbelief. “Ce n’est pas possible!”
“Ah, oui, c’est vrai …”
It seems that in some other flyspeck of a village – this time in the popular chateau country of the Loire — we were clocked doing 54 kilometers per hour in a 50 zone. That’s 33 and a half miles per hour in a 30 zone. I’m quite the speed demon, non? Nonetheless, 45 euros, down la toilette…
It could have been worse, I suppose. Friends tell me that if you’re clocked by an actual live gendarme, they want you to pay the fine – in cash – on the spot. No cash? No problem. They’ll accompany you to an ATM and watch as you pull the money from the wall.
So, now I’m really spooked. I start to sweat as soon as I get behind the wheel. I find myself looking for excuses to not go out on the roads.
I wonder if they can clock me on my bike …