The Zebra Crossing and the Hesitant Hedgehog
For visitors and newcomers to France, the proper approach to zebra crossings can be mysterious, exhilarating, death-defying and probably always confusing.
For while in some European countries just standing at a zebra crossing is enough to bring approaching motorists gliding to a halt, in France pedestrians often need to be somewhat more proactive.
One has for instance, to step onto the crossing in order to indicate one aims to cross the road. (The law changed recently however giving pedestrians a more “free range” option. This has added considerably to driver strain. Pedestrian anarchy running rife in large conurbations means motorists now need nine pairs of eyes to avoid accidents. Read more about these changes here.)
Editorial note: To make the interaction between people and moving traffic even more challenging a number of large towns and cities in France, Belgium and Switzerland have been rolling out Sharing the Space or Zones de Rencontre road space management which counter-intuitive Dutch research suggests exploits the greater risk of an accident to make all parties in the interaction area more careful! (See Sidebar story below).
Well as any urban dweller can attest there are motorists in France as elsewhere, who tend to resent any attempt to delay their journey. This species will therefore grit teeth, squint eyes and press down on the accelerator in the hope of scaring any intrepid zebra-crossing pedestrian back onto the pavement where of course they belong — after all who pays the road tax round here? (In truth no one does but don’t let that interfere with the story – “…the French vignette-based vehicle tax was introduced in 1956 but abolished for motorcycles in June 1981, and for other vehicles in 2001. An electronic toll is charged on motorways and expressways, and additional charges are paid for passing through certain tunnels and bridges.”)
So one of the early rules life-loving pedestrians learn is that to be safe at a marked crossing one must first make eye contact with the approaching driver and look as determined as possible about the planned manouevre, all the time maintaining just the correct amount of balance and readiness should one need to leap back to pavement safety.
It was thus with some surprise, while walking recently through the suburbs of Bordeaux one evening, that I spotted a small hedgehog on a zebra crossing in the middle of a built-up area and a long way from his natural environment.
While he had clearly grasped the concept of stepping onto the crossing he lacked the height to make the necessary eye contact, thus clearly risking being ironed flat by the first motorist who suspected him of not paying road tax.
I was able to capture the little guy and after some walking located a large park into which I released him while soothingly humming the theme music from Born Free. Technically it is illegal to touch, harm, transport or otherwise interfere with a French “herisson” but given the circumstances I felt it was a legitimate rescue mission and indeed a citizen’s obligation under French Good Samaritan rules, to come to the aid of a fellow pedestrian ‘en danger’ as it were.
In 2009 an estimated 10,300 hedgehogs were killed on roads in France and this figure does not include those injured and who will have moved away from the road to die. Throughout Europe the hedgehog has had a hard time in recent years. In the UK — where most research has been done — hedgehog numbers declined by one third between 2003 and 2012 reducing their population to less than a million, considerably down from the 36 million of the 1950’s.
There are many anecdotal stories of gypsies eating hedgehog as a delicacy after baking them in clay to remove the prickles. Whether this is true or not, excavations in the UK have proven that this little creature made up a significant part of the protein intake in Neolithic Britain. At that time only the extremely rich would have had access to beef.
It is estimated that in France 26% of hedgehogs that are killed die from pesticides and another 24% in road accidents. The rest succumb to more natural deaths from predators and parasites. Habitat loss is of great concern. Often habitat is fragmented by roads or other transport routes and small trapped communities of hedgehogs are then more vulnerable to outbreaks of parasites and disease.
New protection laws were introduced in France in 2007 making the outlook slightly brighter for the hedgehog but if these creatures are to survive there will need to be a rethink of our overall agricultural policies. A one third decline in the hedgehog population over the past 10 years makes for an unsustainable species over time.
Story: Mike Alexander
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SIDEBAR: Sharing the Space or Zones de Rencontre
A zone de rencontre in Belgium, France and Switzerland, is an urban area where priority is given to pedestrians and to a lesser extent to cyclists with the aim of sharing the space between various users including motorists and drivers of other motorised vehicles and where a maximum speed of 20 km/h pertains.
Recently Mathieu Deslandes writing in Rue 89 posed the question so what are these new zebra crossings (see photo at the top of the page) dotting Paris: “They resemble giant confetti or a shamble of rectangles painted on the ground where just a day before there was a pedestrian crossing. What on earth is going on? A call to Alain Boulanger ex-“M. Velo or Mr. Bike” at Paris City Hall soon make things clearer. Today M Boulanger is in charge of a Paris pilot project to share the public space. “What you see is not confetti, no it is pixels,” he said, “and they are there to highlight that road and pavement users are entering a ‘meeting or shared zone’.”
The Zones de Rencontre innovation was introduced by amendments to the Highway Code in 2008. In a Zone de Rencontre pedestrians have priority and can walk wherever they want. Motorised vehicles are restricted to a top speed of 20 km/h. Warning signs were erected to alert users when they enter these shared spaces.
But says Alain Boulanger, “the problem is that people do not see these signs. We carried out a lot of research and realised that motorists do not see more than 10% of all road signs. They do however see a lot more of what is painted or built on the ground. Thus for areas where the speed limit is 30 km/h we multiplied the number of sleeping policemen, we introduced raised intersections and other similar sophisticated restrictions, but these are very expensive solutions and the message they convey is not clear to everyone.
“Hence we came up with this idea of special markings painted on the road surface: similar to pedestrian crossings but in a rather more weird format , showing when users are in a shared space where all must learn to coexist and speed is restricted, a particular kind of new visual code if you like. Traditional zebra crossings are of classic appearance (50 cm by 4 meters strips on average), and everyone knows that under normal circumstances, speed in their vicinity is limited to 50km/h. Furthermore we needed to find the right kind of marking, one that would not take road gangs too long to paint! (See the photo gallery below for pictures of all the new markings. Enable java script in your browser )
“For the record, the pixels idea was conceived by a trainee planner at Paris City Hall. one Maureen Gouverneur, and were designed by an architect called Blanche Rivière.
“Four other types of marking are being tested on the streets of the capital including white circles that evoke nails; an inscription in the middle of white bands and mini-rectangles says Alain Boulanger. For now City Hall is taking notes and consulting road users of all kinds for their reactions, to see whether the marking offers confusion or clarity.
“Later Paris will present the findings to the Ministry of the Interior which if it is seduced by the concept, could well introduce it to all ‘shared areas’ country-wide. Hey presto a shower of pixels will descend on the streets of France!”
City Hall is inviting residents of and visitors to Paris to respond online to the various new markings proposed.
Good Samaritan law explainer: Maître François JAECK, Avocat à la Cour and DAN LEGAL NETWORK National Coordinator for France explains the Good Samaritan law: “The French Law, not only does not seek to exonerate the rescuer of any liability in the event of inappropriate help, but quite to the contrary it intends to punish – both in criminal and civil law – the bystander who, directly witnessing a dangerous incident, does not intervene even though to do so would pose no risk to him or a third party. Criminal Code Art 223-6”.
(Additional reporting by Ken Pottinger)
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