By Joelle Diderich
PARIS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The latest instalment in a series of hugely popular French films about a speed-crazy taxi driver opened on Wednesday to criticism from road safety groups who said the "Taxi" movies glorified reckless driving.
Road safety awareness has become a hot topic in France since the government declared war in September on the drivers who have made its roads the deadliest in Europe, with some 8,000 victims per year -- more than twice the number in Britain.
But that is unlikely to stop audiences flocking to see "Taxi 3", starring Sami Naceri as a cab driver who helps a bungling police inspector fight crime thanks to a Peugeot 406 customised to speed like a bullet.
With its formula of high-speed chases and spectacular crashes, "Taxi 2" drew more than 10 million viewers in France in 2000, making it the top box office hit of the year, ahead of Hollywood blockbusters such as "Gladiator".
Added attractions this time around include criminals on in-line skates and a cameo appearance by Sylvester Stallone.
The League Against Road Violence said the films were a dangerous influence on young drivers and criticised Peugeot for endorsing the series.
"These films are flooded with testosterone without any counter-argument, and the counter-argument is that road crime is the primary cause of death among young people in France," the group's spokeswoman Genevieve Jurgensen said.
Film director Luc Besson, who produced the series, has also been accused by some crew members of skimping on safety measures to limit the film's budget, which at 11 million euros ($12 million) is modest compared to similar U.S. productions.
Besson was put under official investigation in June for manslaughter and injury over the death of a cameraman during filming of "Taxi 2" in 1999. A stuntwoman is seeking compensation for injuries she suffered on the set of "Taxi 3".
Besson, director of worldwide hits including "The Big Blue" and "The Fifth Element", has denied the allegations. He defended the new movie as pure escapist fun.
"Audiences expect to see things on screen which they can't do in real life, like flying through the air, landing on the moon and speeding down a motorway at 400 km per hour (250 mph)," he told the weekly Paris Match.
"The millions of viewers who will see "Taxi 3" will not drive home as fast as Sami Naceri," Besson added.
Although the number of road deaths fell by six percent in 2001, French motorists remain notoriously reckless. In central Paris, it is not uncommon to see drivers ignore red lights and motorbikes dodge pedestrians on the pavement.
Conservative President Jacques Chirac, re-elected last year, has made road safety one of three big social priorities for his new five-year term, alongside fighting cancer and improving conditions for the handicapped.
Transport Minister Gilles de Robien last month unveiled measures including tougher penalties, more frequent alcohol and speed checks and rigid testing for new drivers.