Thousands of people across France owe their lives to Geneviève Jurgensen though few are likely ever to realize it. Since co-founding France's League Against Road Violence in 1983, Jurgensen's efforts to change French driving habits and laws have helped cut accident fatalities by well over half.
Rampant disregard of speed limits, glib attitudes toward drinking and driving, and a macho pride taken in rudeness behind the wheel had made the country's roads among the deadliest in Europe. Tighter enforcement of laws against these practices and more severe punishments have helped slash road deaths from nearly 12,000 the year the League was founded to 5,232 in 2004. But just as dramatic, Jurgensen says, has been the public embrace of road safety. "It's been as unexpected, inexplicable and unbelievable as it is irreversible," beams Jurgensen, 58.
Jurgensen's campaign grew out of personal tragedy. In April 1980, Jurgensen, a journalist, was in her Paris apartment when she got word that her two infant daughters, Elise and Mathilde, had been killed in an automobile accident while on a trip with their aunt. The Jurgensen girls were thrown from the car when a vehicle attempting to pass at high speed cut back to avoid hitting an oncoming vehicle.
During his trial for reckless driving the following year, the 23-year-old responsible for the accident "didn't seem to think he'd done anything wrong, nor understand why he was even there," Jurgensen says. The accused was fined a mere €182 for provoking the accident, and then drove away. "I saw then that this callous attitude toward driving and recklessness was entrenched across society," Jurgensen recalls. "Changing that would have to occur from top to bottom."
It didn't happen fast. Jurgensen and other campaigners launched educational and public-awareness programs, but could only advance so far without legislative action by politicians, many of whom were unwilling to anger French drivers. But she and her colleagues persevered, and in the early 1990s a succession of laws to combat reckless and drunk driving were passed.
The most poignant for Jurgensen was a 1990 bill requiring children to be buckled into back passenger seats or specialized child chairs to prevent them from being thrown from cars. "Even now, when I see a child's seat in a car, I feel it's almost a gift from Elise and Mathilde to the children born since," she says. But there is still a lot to do. "The U.K. has 3,200 [average yearly] road deaths with a similar population and infrastructure, and there's no reason France can't do just as well," Jurgensen says. Her next goal: getting car companies to limit the speeds that powerful motors can attain.