Oct 15th, 2017, 05:15 PM

Pedestrian Perils in Paris

By Amanda Taylor
Place Saint-Michel, Paris. Image Credit: Flickr/Aleksandr Zykov
Moving to Paris involves many cultural shocks — but none like the city's culture of careless driving.

Not having a car in Paris I felt I would be avoiding all of the hectic issues that came with the driving culture here. I was soon to learn, however, that as a pedestrian not only was I not free from this culture, but that I held the most vulnerable position within it.

I found myself experiencing an array of emotions all at once. Shocked, angry, embarrassed, but more than anything, just completely distraught. I stood there in disbelief at what had just occurred. Here I was crossing the same street I cross everyday at the corner of my block, when a car hit me.

Now thank God the car wasn’t speeding or I would have found myself badly injured or even worse. However, the car did hit me with enough force that the side of my torso and right hand was throbbing with a bit of pain. I perceived the car slowing down in my peripheral, which is why I proceeded to walk, but it seemed as if at the last second the woman driver sped up. Upon later inquiry, I found out that not only does Paris not have any stop signs (oddly, they used to have one, which has reportedly disappeared since), but there only seems to be one main driving rule, referred to as priorité à droite. This rule figures for only one concern in the driver’s mind, and that’s the question of whether there is a car coming from the right, in which case the driver should stop. My guess is that the driver that hit me was completely focused on the right, and when she didn’t perceive any coming cars, she was ready to make her turn without ever turning to see me walking across from the left.

Image Credit: Flickr/ Jacques Bourdette

Regardless of what was going on in her mind, the incident happened and there we were. The woman had her window down and looked at me waiting for a response. I was trying to find the right words for the situation but only managed to get out, “What are you doing?!” My thought at the time, not knowing about the rule, was maybe she had been looking down at her phone or something else that could have distracted her from my whole visible being crossing the street in broad daylight. She replied very unmoved with “I’m driving.” I was standing there still trying to figure out what to say and she asked me was I ok, to which I replied, “No I’m not ok!” By now I was yelling, so I began to walk off becoming aware of the scene I was causing in the middle of the street. As I was walking past her car, something told me to turn and memorize her license plate number, which I then proceeded to do.

Only once I began walking up the stairs to my apartment did the reality hit me, no pun intended, that I had just been hit by a car. At this point my American thoughts kicked in that I needed to pursue legal action against the lady. Now as I’ve stated, aside from being mentally battered by the event, my body wasn’t injured to the point that I needed immediate medical attention. However, I felt that the woman’s reaction was what needed to be addressed more than anything else. How could she have shown such a complete lack of remorse? She didn’t seem concerned at all, and even more, she acted as if she was actually irritated with me— like it was MY fault that she had hit me with HER car. All of these thoughts were bubbling up like hot magma, so I decided to call the police to file a report.

Thankfully, up until this point, I have had no reason to contact the French Police. This was my first time calling, and as someone who doesn’t understand French fluently, paired with the fact I was totally discombobulated, I was apprehensive about calling anticipating that this would be a trying process. I worked up the courage and decided to call anyway. After asking the operator if they spoke English, which was met with the response of “a little,” and confirming that yes I intended to call the police, I was put on hold for what felt like eternity. When a new operator finally returned, I hurriedly explained what had just happened and that I needed to see the police. My request was aggravatingly met with a “Can you please talk more slowly I can’t understand”. I repeated what happened and the operator finally asked for my address and told me the police and fire service would be on the way and hung up. The first culture difference was all too apparent; the operator didn’t even bother ask me my name.

I headed downstairs to wait for them in front of my building. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to hear the sirens approaching. The truck, in what I assumed to be their version of an ambulance, pulled up and slid the door open. They asked did I phone for medical and I told them yes. They had me take a seat, took my vitals, and checked my levels of pain.

Image Credit: CreativeCommons/Alf van Beem

The main purpose of my call was not to receive medical attention, but to make a report with the police. After originally phoning asking for an English speaker, I assumed they would send English-speaking cops, but surprise surprise, they didn’t. So there I was, explaining my story to the only medic who could speak English (barely), so that he could in turn translate to the three cops who had now arrived. Upon relaying the story paired with the fact that I had the woman’s license plate number, I was blown away to find out that there was nothing that could be done, not even a police report. I was told that in order to make any kind of report I had to have the driver present with me.

My response to this outlandish fact was that she had driven away, to which they said they still couldn’t do anything about it. The officer said that even if they could track her down, which he seemed to imply was something that would simply be impossible for them to do, she would just deny everything. They advised me to “next time call the police right away and don’t let the driver leave” and sent me on my way, as if I should be preparing for there to be a “next time.” At this point, I was just struck by the lack of effort that I felt they were exhibiting towards me and my situation! If I had thought I felt powerless before, standing in the middle of the street when I was hit initially, I felt even more powerless now.

Aside from the very fact of this incident happening to me, I walked away with more shock at the lack of measures taken by the French police in the aftermath. Living in Paris for a year, I’ve had my share of culture shocks; from the food differences, unpredictable hours of services, the smoking, to just “the attitude” of French people in general. It has been a challenge to adjust to the French way of life, but I believed my adjustment for the most part had gone well and at this point, there couldn’t be too much of anything new to get used to. Well, now I know that dealing with the legal system here is definitely something to get use to, because the idea of this type of response happening back home is unimaginable. Even if I couldn’t go forth and sue this lady, at least I could find solace in making a report against her to be on record in case she ever left someone else in this same situation, which I think is entirely plausible.

Image Credit: Flickr/ Aleksandr Zykov

Not only does Paris not have the proper rules in place to deal with reckless drivers in the first place (given the lack of driving rules and no stop signs), but from what I experienced, they also have no system in place to properly handle things like this when they do happen. I did my part in getting her license plate number, and yet they provide no system to actually track their drivers? Then what is the point of even having license plates? For a city that is mainly a pedestrian one, it's hard to understand why there seems to be an air of complacency when it comes to the driving culture. I worry for the many tourists, especially the American ones, who come here used to a system that gives the pedestrian the right of way. I learned the hard way that no such thing exists here. If you find yourself in any situation with a bad driver, your best bet is not to worry about “causing a scene,” but instead make sure to not let them leave until the cops arrive. Above all else, prepare yourself mentally for the possibility that justice won't always be done.