The Light is Red - On Air Quality

by Ric Erickson
Number 1.11 - Metropole Paris, Friday, 3. May 1996:- Parisians have been advised, in Tuesday's Le Parisien, that they are not the only ones 'in hell, behind their steering wheels.' A German study has found that regardless of local variations, it's a tough life for those who drive.

In Madrid, just as in Paris, there is little respect for red lights; while in Berlin and Brussels stopping at red is universal custom.

Between the paragraph above and this one, I went out to the local supermarket. The main street has a stop sign on it, while the blind side street does not, nor does the exit from the apartment park. While crossing, to the supermarket, two drivers barely slowed for the stop sign. I crossed on the stop-line itself rather than the striped cross-walk; figuring drivers are more likely to stop for it than a mere pedestrian - but this is pure theory.

On the way back, a lady-driven gold-metallic BMW 535 made no more hesitation than the auto trans shifting down to hard-charge - no hesitation at all, in other words. Granted, she looked to the right, were I was, but not to the apartment exit, which also has technical right-of-way. A cop with a radio leaning against the wall there, would need a crew of buddies 50 metres further on to write tickets all day on this stuff.

It is not easy or cheap to get a driver's license in France or Germany. You have to be able to read to pass the check-the-right-answer test, and 50 hours or more of theory plus umpteen hours of practice are required. Driving teachers do not get performance pay, so re-taking the theory and all of the practice driving are common swindles.

Thousands of francs later, when you finally get your license you are set for life because that is the license validity - for life. In France, if not elsewhere, all the lessons, theory, practicing, are forgotten forever and instantly - they all belong to a past life; the life 'before the driver's license.'

Driving in France is like -not- using the crosswalk while walking; not believing in or following the rules - the 'code de la route' - could keep you alive.

As we all know, life is dangerous and everybody dies in the end anyway. What life is about is trying to stay alive for as long as possible - and you do this by paying attention to where you are and what is going on around you. This is also a description of driving in France.

You will be sadly deceived if you think for one minute that the police have any function as umpires or referees; no, this game runs on survival instinct and only you can do it for you. If you get into a bad situation as a result of a moment's inattention, then you might see the police - and the paramedics and the firemen cutting away the twisted steel - if you are still able see anything.

If I say that in twenty years I have had one parking ticket and no moving violations, it does not mean a thing other than I didn't get caught red-handed, by say, parking for a week in a no-parking zone in front of a police station. Of the hundreds of thousands of parking tickets written every week, most are thrown away - everybody is prepared to wait for the next presidential amnesty, even if it is six years and 11 months off.

But now that computers are coming into widespread service, you might find, on taking an international flight out of Paris - that the machine that reads your passport can also print out a totalized bill of -all- your past unpaid parking tickets. Until you pay this 'note' you won't be allowed on the plane. And don't pay up with a bum cheque - Interpol will be waiting for you when you get off the plane if you do.

Meanwhile, back to Le Parisien's German survey: Roman drivers only waste six percent of their time in stop-and-go traffic while Parisians lose 23 percent. Add to that the 20 percent of time spent waiting for green lights - the drivers in Berlin, Brussels and Rome hit the gaspedal on green - but the French are so flustered about having stopped at all; they are the slowest to launch. The result is, half the time spent driving across Paris is spent stopped, or nearly so.

This could make life expectancy somewhat longer - if you do get hit, the car might not be going so fast - but plays hell with the air quality. Until recently, Paris' air was measured in only a few places, like out at the airports and at the observatory - but the newspapers are starting to have regular features... and the news is not good.

This is not only bad news for Parisians, but it is bad news for visitors - who may be walking a lot - and it is bad news for me, because I am supposed to writing about what an attractive place Paris is to visit.

The reason why I've decided to say publicly that Paris air quality can be terrible, is because I don't have the impression that the authorities are seriously concerned about the problem, concerned enough to do something about it right away.

The Greeks closed Athens before it became a complete ruin and the Italians closed Rome. So far the Paris administration has merely opened up a couple of bicycle lanes in Paris - on Sundays.

This initiative has been welcomed by bicyclists. The 'pedestrian zones' set up by the City of Paris during the summer season have been welcomed by visitors, and the few Parisians still in town - and their general removal at the end of summer has been regretted by many.

The current forecast is for a long hot dry summer. If the city administration decides to do something to seriously improve the quality of air in the city, I will report it here as soon as I hear of it.

If I can permit myself to repeat that life is about trying to stay alive for as long as possible - and you do this by paying attention to where you are and what is going on around you - I hope I am not making Paris sound too dangerous.

However, if you want to be reassured, write to me and I will pass the message on - to whom it concerns.

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contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
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