A spokesman for the French Ministry of the Interior told CNN that 60% of fixed speed cameras have been damaged by gilets jaunes demonstrators since November 17, when the protests erupted.
“I saw on social networks a few fools who appear next to burnt speed cameras. I do not wish for them to one day face the reality of a death on the road. It’s not about figures, it’s about life,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters Thursday.
Emmanuel Barbe, the head of France’s road safety agency, also warned that vandalism of the country’s speed cameras will likely lead to more deaths. “This damage to the speed camera network… will lead to deaths. And that makes me profoundly sad,” he told France Inter.
French news agency Europe 1 estimated in December that around half of all speed cameras in France had been put out of service for either a short or long period of time, while close to 300 devices had been completely destroyed — in most cases after being burnt. Other devices have been spray-painted or covered in film.
In some departments including the Vaucluse in southeast France, upward of 90% of speed cameras were put out of service following protests in November and December.
The French government’s road safety association, Sécurité routière, previously refused to release official statistics on the precise number of speed cameras that had been affected during the protests. The organization has not responded to a CNN request for comment.
This spike in vandalism is seen as a response to the French government’s controversial decision in July 2018 to lower speed limits to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) from 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) on two-lane highways in a bid to reduce a sharp rise in road deaths.
The change affects 40% of France’s road network, and around 250,000 miles of roads. The French government indicated that the measure could help avoid between 350 and 400 road deaths a year.
“Unsafe roads are not inevitable,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said in 2018. “Lowering speed reduces the number of accidents, as well as the severity of these accidents.”
He also told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper: “There are 3,500 deaths and 70,000 injured each year — 70,000! After decades of progress, the toll is getting worse.”
Many people around the country have nevertheless revolted against the speed limit reduction, and it formed a key trigger for the roundabout blockades that brought France’s road network to a halt at the height of the yellow-vest protests.
“The outcry is strong because it is such a tangible issue for ordinary people,” Jérôme Fourquet from the Ifop polling agency told the BBC. “Around 70% of the population is opposed, and there is no sign of that abating.”
The ensuing damage to France’s speed cameras is costing road agencies and local councils millions of euros. The cost of repairing speed cameras ranges from 500 euros ($574) for minor damage, up to between 60,000 euros ($69,000) and 80,000 euros for the cost of totally replacing a device, according to the French business magazine Capital.
France also faces the loss of billions of euros worth of revenue derived from speeding fines.
Protesters found guilty of vandalizing or destroying speed cameras face fines of up to 75,000 euros and prison sentences of up to five years.