Your mother did teach you to look both ways before you cross the street, right? She was right, particularly so in Paris where the drivers, while perhaps not as aggressive as in some other places in the world, all seem to be very determined to get where they’re going and fast. Waiting for the green light and the “walk” signal and looking both ways (even if you have the right of way) are probably the two smartest things any pedestrian can do. If you think this seems absurdly simple, you are right. Only given the number of near misses I have seen in Paris, I figured it was worthy of a post.
Be aware of a couple of the vagaries of Parisian traffic before stepping off the curb. First of all, just because the light is red in one direction doesn’t mean that the traffic coming from the other direction has a red light too. When the sign says feux décalés, that means, for the purposes of keeping traffic flowing, the lights are staggered. On an east-west street, for example, the traffic coming from the east may get a red light a full minute before the traffic coming from the west. A pedestrian assuming that both directions will stop at the same time risks getting mowed down by a driver who has a green light. The safest thing to do: wait for the walk sign. It will not illuminate until both directions have red lights.
Some intersections are marked by a sign reading traversez en deux temps. In such cases, there is usually an island in the middle of the road and two sets of traffic lights and walk signs. Cross over to the island on the “walk” sign and then wait on the island until the second “walk” sign illuminates.
You should also pay careful attention to cars entering and exiting traffic circles. Often the lights are placed so that traffic exiting a traffic circle must come to an abrupt stop just after exiting. Visibility can be poor in these situations (for both driver and pedestrians) so it’s best to be double sure that the traffic coming off the circle has a red light before stepping off the curb.
Pedestrians should also look out for bicycles and motorcycles on the sidewalk. Although technically these vehicles are prohibited from driving anywhere but the street, better safe than sorry.