French drivers call it “la guirlande de Nöel”—“the Christmas wreath”—but it heralds anything but good tidings. Near the town of Saint-Julien-en-Genevois on the Swiss border, an automatic radar detector emits a bright flash like a sparkling Christmas light each time it catches a speeder. It nabs a lot of them: A total of more than 250,000 in 2011 and 2012, French motoring magazine Auto Plus reports. “These radars are just cash machines to fill state coffers,” says Laurent Hoff, a 39-year-old engineer who has been “flashed” twice by the Saint-Julien detector while driving his Renault Scénic minivan above the 50 kilometer-per-hour (30 mile-per-hour) speed limit. The damage: €90 ($122) in fines and two points on his driver’s license.
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Like Hoff, many French drivers say it’s unfair they’re getting flashed—the light enables a camera to record the license plates of offenders—more frequently. In the 10 years since the speed traps were introduced by former President Nicolas Sarkozy (during his tenure as interior minister), their number has increased to 4,200 on autoroutes, two-lane highways, and secondary roads across the country. The original goals were to cut traffic fatalities and counter France’s reputation for tolerating wine drinking and reckless driving. In that, the speed traps have been a resounding success: French highway deaths fell below 3,700 last year from about 8,000 in 2003, according to the Interior Ministry, which largely credits automatic radar for the change.
Some drivers say the primary focus of the speed traps is no longer road safety but revenue, as President François Hollande seeks to shore up state finances. The government expects automatic radar systems to yield €800 million in fines next year, up from €453 million in 2007, as it struggles to trim the budget shortfall to 3.6 percent of gross domestic product next year from 4.8 percent in 2012.
The growing anger has spurred the motorist lobbying group 40 Millions d’Automobilistes to set up a website called Raconte-Moi Ton Radar (tell me about your radar). The site has gathered 67,000 stories from drivers detailing why they felt trapped after being flashed. The site has anointed the top 10 radar locations and has a map showing those its editors believe entrap the most drivers. Some 10 percent of the stories concern the Saint-Julien “wreath.”
Even some police are starting to reconsider the wisdom of speed traps. In October two officers from Lyon were suspended after a French news channel filmed them covering up a radar device. The pair staged the stunt to highlight what they say is pressure on cops to increase the number of traffic citations they issue, according to Gabriel Versini-Bullara, an attorney for one of the officers, a police union representative whose name wasn’t made public.
Sécurité Routière, the traffic regulator, defends the speed traps. The department says the radar detectors are located in areas where drivers are accident-prone or where speed is the main cause of accidents.
The traps became a focus of last year’s presidential campaign when Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-euro National Front, pledged to end the installation of new radars. The policy, she said, amounted to “hunting for motorists” to raise funds for a poorly governed state. The leading candidates, Hollande and Sarkozy, pledged to Le Pen that all money from the fines would go to road safety.
Frank Arroua isn’t convinced. In August he was driving his VW Golf on route A6 near the Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 110 kph to 90 kph. When he had slowed to 95 kph, he saw the telltale flash. A month later he got a €45 fine in the mail. “I got flashed for driving only five kilometers above the speed limit,” says the clothing store manager. “It creates a feeling of injustice.”