Driving Dilemma - a Cautionary Tale

This piece was sent to us by a reader who, although she is known to us, wishes to remain anonymous. We will be following up with some links and texts that you should keep in your car if you're driving on an EU licence and some tips about the necessity to take photos if you have an accident and try to fill out the "constant à l'amiable" on the spot when possible.

Driving Dilemma - a Cautionary TaleI was driving home from shopping at just before noon on a July day on a main road in a small town in the back country of the French Riviera. I put my left blinker on to show I intended to turn left, and proceeded to do so. (I had taken this turning at least 7,000 times before, as it was my way home to the house I had had in that area for the previous nineteen years). I had seen a motorbike coming along the main road from the opposite direction, but he appeared far enough away to permit my turn.

The next thing I knew, the biker had jammed his brakes on and was flying through the air, crashing into my windscreen and ending up on the ground groaning, several metres behind my car. My car was a total wreck, but I managed to get out and miraculously I was physically unhurt, but extremely shocked and sobbing uncontrollably.

Someone called the Gendarmerie and the Fire Brigade, who examined the biker, said he would be fine as he wasn’t seriously hurt and took him away in an ambulance. A fireman asked if I wanted to go to hospital too, but I said no, I just wanted to go home. The biker’s girlfriend appeared (she hadn’t been on the bike) and tried to reassure me that her boyfriend would be OK. She gave me his mobile number, so that I could call to get news of him.

One of my neighbours, who had seen my car after the accident had happened, came and transferred my shopping into his car (as mine was going to be towed away by the police), and he brought me home.

That same night I tried to call the number the girl had given me, but the phone was on voice mail. I left a message. The next day, the girlfriend called and said there was no point in my calling the biker again as he didn’t want to talk to me. The day after that, a Monday, I went to the Gendarmerie to see if I could get news of the biker, but instead the Gendarme who had been at the scene of the accident took a statement from me, and when he saw my licence was an Austrian one he said it wasn’t valid. I said it was valid, and promptly produced the information sheet on European licences I had obtained a few years ago. The Gendarme said I should have a French licence, and I said no, as my licence was Austrian and perfectly valid, as France was also in Europe. The Gendarme noted everything in my statement and after signing it I was allowed to go.

Five months later, just before Christmas 2010, the Gendarme called and told me the biker had filed a complaint against me for involuntary injuries, that this was a penal offence and I could go to prison! I contacted my insurance company for advice and told them I wanted to file a complaint against the biker too, for speeding (which the Gendarme had admitted, but I don’t know if it was in the police report as I wasn’t allowed to see it), and for having no light visible on his bike (which is the law, day and night). The answer of my insurance company was: “If you file a complaint, we shall NOT defend you!” As I couldn’t afford an independent lawyer, I had to accept the lawyer appointed by the insurance company – who immediately made it very clear in no uncertain terms that I was NOT allowed to defend myself! I was the villain and the biker was the good guy, as he was the one who was hurt. He said this case would cost the insurance company tens of thousands of euros, as the biker was only 25. He said I should under no circumstances say anything against the biker in front of the judge, as my sentence would depend on my behaviour before her.

When the Summons was finally issued, there were two charges on it: 1) Involuntary injuries; and 2) Driving without a valid licence! I asked my lawyer to find out why they were saying my licence wasn’t valid, as there is so much information about this proving the contrary, but he refused, saying we just had to wait and see on the day.

So for a year I trembled in case I would end up in prison! My case finally came up before the Tribunal in Grasse – and the first thing that happened was that the Procureur had to admit my licence WAS valid! But she still asked for a two-month prison sentence, plus a year banned from driving! The judge asked me what happened, and I said only what I’d been told to say by the lawyer, with no mention of anything concerning the biker, only that it was an inexplicable accident.

She also asked if I had contacted the biker to find out how he was, and I said I had tried. At this, the biker (who had been told by his lawyer not to intervene) shouted out from the back of the court that it wasn’t true, that I hadn’t tried to contact him at all! The judge waved him to the front of the court, and I then told the judge that I had indeed tried, but his girlfriend told me not to try again as he didn’t want to talk to me. I said it was difficult for me to phone anybody in French, let alone speak to someone who didn’t want to talk to me, and on such a difficult subject so I hadn’t tried again. She saw I was sincere – and she saw also that the biker was walking about with no apparent injuries! So I was grateful for that, and she also saw he had tried to incriminate me even further. In the end, she banned me from driving for six months, and gave me a suspended fine of 3,000 euros, to be paid if I have a similar accident within the next five years (four remaining now).

My driving licence was confiscated – completely unjustly, because I was only banned from driving in France, and I could still have driven in the rest of Europe! After the driving ban was over, I had the devil of a job getting insured again. When I finally did, the insurance exec said I had been very unjustly treated, because on the scale of accident injuries the broken leg of this biker merited neither the driving ban nor the other punishment.

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