A lot of the English expats I know here in France tell me that heavy traffic and aggressive driving in the United Kingdom are realities of life there that make driving in France a pleasure in comparison. I hear horror stories from English friends about short daily commutes in England that take hours every morning and evening.
It's not surprising to me, having lived and commuted long distances in California for years, to hear that commuting is a major source of stress in many peoples' lives. And when I think about England, which has 50 million or more people packed into 50,000 square miles of territory... well, that makes for a lot of cars.
By comparison, North Carolina, my home state, is also 50,000 square miles but has a population of "only" 10 million. Even New York State, the same size, has a population of less than 20 million. Imagine the congestion in England! France is four times bigger in area — 200,000 square miles — with a population now of 65 million.
And then imagine how many more cars there are on the roads, in all the European countries and in North America, than there were 30 or 40 years ago, when many of us "young retirees" started driving. It boggles my mind.
A day or two on France 2 television's news reports, I saw a report on the relative safety of the highways in all the European Union countries as measured by the number of deaths in automobile accidents annually. Figures were given for the EU countries as the number of highway deaths per million inhabitants in 2010. I just found a report on the web about it.
Here's the result. The country with the safest roads in Europe turned out to be Sweden, with 28 deaths per million people. It was followed closely by the United Kingdom with 31 and the Netherlands with 32. Ireland and Germany came in at 45 highway deaths per million inhabitants.
And France? Well, it was number 11 out of the 27 countries in the Union, with 64 deaths per million inhabitants. The good news is that the highway death rate in France, which was 138 per million in 2001, has been cut by more than half over the past ten years.
In raw numbers, many fewer people are killed — half as many — on French highways now than back in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the fact that there are a lot more cars on the road. Speed limits, seat belts, air bags, safer vehicles, improved roads, and tighter law enforcement have made a difference.
The highway fatality rate is down by more than a third in all the Western European countries over the past 10 years. The EU average is 69 highway deaths per million inhabitants, making France about average. Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece), where driving is the most dangerous, still have long way to go to catch up.
I haven't found equivalent statistics for the U.S., but the report on France 2 news said EU highways are safer than US roads by the deaths per million inhabitants standard.