The Weekend to Avoid Driving in France

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Every long August Bank Holiday weekend, the pattern is the same: too many people trying to get somewhere all at once resulting in gridlock

The first time I was ever in a motorway traffic jam, I couldn’t quit believe it. With the exception of ring roads, in Ireland, the notion of a motorway simply grinding to a halt because of the sheer volume of traffic is pretty much non-existent.

Three years ago, however, I did find myself in such a situation as I tried to negotiate the Autoroute du Soleil south of Lyon. We had been forewarned of how bad it can get on the motorway on August Bank Holiday weekend before we set off. What about avoiding the motorways altogether and taking the national primary route? I wondered. With a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, I was told that the spill-over from the motorways would be just as bad, if not worse. Camper vans and agricultural machinery on those roads would mean that they might even be worse.

So, as a toss-up between the two, we went for the motorway, thinking that at least, you would keep moving on a motorway, with maybe some queues at the toll booths.

But no. About 100km into the journey close to where the A7 meets the A72, the stream of mechanised vehicles that normally flows along at 120kph started to grind down really fast until we were all stopped.

What was happening? we all wondered. Teenage boys in the back took their heads up from hand-held games, removed headphones and craned their necks to see ahead of the sea of cars to understand why were suddenly stopping. It must be the toll booth up ahead, I reasoned. Or else, we’re close to where there’s a large junction. I checked the all-knowing sat-nav. We were 10km from the nearest toll booth and 6km from the nearest junction. And that was only a small side road – not another motorway.

We sat incredulously along with countless thousands of others in the still traffic in temperatures touching 30 degrees.

This Bank Holiday weekend just gone was no different to so many others in France. Despite the real attempts to spread out the grand departure of the busiest holiday weekend, the problem of too many trying to get to the same place too quickly still persists. It’s the grand clash of the juillettistes (those who holiday in the second half of July) and the aoûtiens (the ones who wait for the beginning of August to go on a break). Even those who leave in the middle of the night to avoid the motorway jams still run into difficulty. On AFPTV last Saturday morning, Antoine from Paris said that even though he left at 1 am to get to his holiday destination in the Ardèche, he still ran into trouble: “Since this morning, it’s just a scene of carnage. I’ve been stopped in traffic for 2 hours on the A6 this morning.”

One of the largest motorway companies – Vinci – has been using drones (see video below) to monitor the traffic situation – their filming devices buzzing over the stagnant traffic like an irritating bee.

This weekend was one of the worst in terms of the estimated length of traffic jams. It was a total of 880km: immense but for the all-time record, you only need to go back to last year’s August Bank Holiday clash, when the figure was 996km – the equivalent of a traffic jam stretching from Lille (near the Belgian border) to Biarritz (in the extreme south-west near the Spanish border).

Vinci motorways drone footage of the A7/A9 intersection on the 31st of July showing a calm situation before the storm.

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