One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as my Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.
Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.
Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; it’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.
I would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.
Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.
It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.
In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by that well-known screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.
The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.