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Safety Concerns Overshadow French Vacation Season - 2002-08-02

This weekend, France experiences one of the most anticipated and dreaded events of the year. Most of the country goes on vacation. Authorities say Friday and especially Saturday, will be the busiest days of the year on French roads. The weekend is one of the most dangerous for French motorists.

It is time for the annual migration of those the French call Augustians: the millions of people who leave for vacation the first weekend of August and come back at the beginning of September.

Since many of them drive to the south of the country, the major highways are expected to be hopelessly clogged. Saturday has already been designated a black day, meaning the worst possible traffic. It is the only day of the year to get that dubious distinction.

In the past, this has been a black weekend for traffic fatalities. The worst traffic accident in French history took place on August 1 in 1982, when 55 people, including 44 children, were killed in a bus accident. Again this year, there will be a complete ban on buses carrying children on the auto-routes on Saturday.

France has one of the worst traffic fatality rates in Europe. About 8,000 people died in accidents on French roads last year, more than double the number in Britain, which has roughly the same population.

French President Jacques Chirac said he is horrified that France's roads are the most dangerous in Europe. The government is planning tougher measures to crack down on speeders and on drunk and reckless drivers.

Those measures will not go into effect until after what is called the "re-entry" at the end of August; the second most congested weekend of the year.