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France's bold drink driving legislation - every car to carry a breathalyzer


February 24, 2012

Future generations will no doubt wonder at the  carnage we have allowed to develop on our roads

Future generations will no doubt wonder at the carnage we have allowed to develop on our roads

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It is a great irony that alcohol should be legislated into becoming man's most commonly used recreational drug, as it's the ONLY drug that causes more harm to others than to the user.

This is most evident on our roads, where even in first world countries with low road tolls, alcohol still accounts for between a third and a half of road deaths. Now France is to attempt a novel solution - from July of this year, it will become law in France to have a working breathalyzer in every car on the road, with enforcement beginning November 1.

It may sound extreme, but the world is fast running out of tolerance for the massive global road toll in general and the part of the road toll directly related to alcohol in particular.

A 2006 report entitled Alcohol in Europe by Anderson and Baumberg estimated the cost of alcohol-related harm to the EU's economy at EUR125 billion in 2003. At the time, that was the equivalent of 1.3% of GDP for the entire Union. That's a high price to pay, particularly if alcohol is not your poison of choice.

The total was derived by including all factors, including losses due to under performance at work, absenteeism, premature death ... not just road deaths.

This article focuses on drink driving - the part of the road toll which would disappear if people did not drink alcohol then drive cars. In the broader context of suitable drugs to legalise for public consumption, it must be said that alcohol is the least suitable of all drugs as more harm is done to others than to the user.

Check out this remarkable insight into scientific research done into the real harm drugs cause, done without the meddling of Government and the alcohol lobby.

There are many ways of measuring the fiscal impact of the road toll - most Asian countries are estimated to spend between 2 - 3% of GDP just on the medical aspects of their growing road toll. That's more than the amount of aid they get from foreign countries. It is an epidemic that if it were cal

It's a bit harder to measure the misery and hardship caused by road trauma.

As a rule of thumb, for every one road death there will be somewhere between 20 and 100 seriously injured people, though this ratio varies depending on the ratio of cars, motorcycles and pushbikes.

There are 1.3 million deaths each year, and around 50 million people seriously injured. The people who are getting killed and injured are the most active, the young, the most productive members of our society, and the resultant mass misery from a global road toll of 1.3 million human beings a year is worth contemplating.

So cutting the road toll is becoming an important election cry, partly because public sentiment is shifting, and partly because it makes economic sense to reduce needless overheads.

At some time around a century or more ago, it seems the public accepted road trauma as the inevitable cost of having a motorized personal transport system - that perception appears to be changing, and it seems inevitable that the penalties for those who do not respect the safety of others on public roads will become ever harsher from this point forth.

That's fair! The roads are there to facilitate public transportation. Using them to put other innocent road users at risk is unacceptable behavior, and drinking and driving does just that. Indeed, the propensity of human beings to take risks increases dramatically with alcohol intake over 0.04% and those risks are being undertaken on public roads and killing innocents.

The French road safety push

The French Government may have been a bit late in fully embracing the concept of road safety, but its spectacular rise towards world's best practice from its former mediocrity indicates that France now means business.

Little more than a decade ago, France had one of the worst fatality rates in the civilized world. Since 2001 though, it has systematically worked its road toll downwards with legislation and logical safety measures aimed at reducing speed.

Its diligence has seen it reduce fatality rates every year for a decade to the point where it now has one of the safest road systems in the world.

Lives are still being lost though, and President Sarkozy, with an election looming, has promised to reduce the road toll significantly again by targeting drink driving.

France's culture has been so strongly linked with the taking of wine with midday and evening meals though, that despite exceeding world's best practice in every area other than alcohol, it has maintained a much higher rate of alcohol involvement in fatal accidents than its major European neighbors.

So now Sarkosy is targeting drink driving, and he wants to save another 1000 lives a year - the aim is from the current 4000+ road deaths a year, to 3000 a year in short order.

The numbers support him. In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) put the proportion of UK road deaths attributable to alcohol at 17%, Germany at 12% and France at 27% - if Sarkozy could stop drink driving entirely in France (reenacting the parting of the Red Sea might be easier), they will indeed, save over 1000 lives a year in France alone.

Police will begin issuing fines in France from the beginning of November, and it's interesting that the required "kit" includes not just a working breathalyzer, but a range of accessories that we should, as good citizens, always carry on board a car anyway: a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and and spare bulbs for both headlights and blinkers.

Also compulsory fare will be a warning triangle and a fluorescent safety vest carried inside the car for every vehicle occupant. Failure to comply will cost another EUR90.

Last month, the French authorities also introduced a new law banning satellite navigation systems that show the location of speed cameras, and are apparently very keen on plans to track speeding vehicles by satellite.

The authorities are being very clear to the French road user that it is no longer acceptable to have a vehicle that is even temporarily unroadworthy and at the same time defining the limits of the law - the Government is emphasizing the dangers of public roads and ensuring its citizens meet their obligations.

As far as the breathalyzer required by French authorities, a US$2.00 disposable item will be acceptable, but already everyone is being encouraged to buy such items in pairs so that one can be used to test, or for a friend to use, and still to have the required one to drive home with.

In all likelihood, reusable digital breathalysers will become standard fare when drinkers realize they are paying $2 every time the go for a drink.

The French alcohol allowance is 0.05% blood alcohol content which is far less than in many other countries, even neighboring countries. Deux vins or trois bières and you're approaching the limit.

Regular self-testing must surely become habit for all recreational drinkers, because the laws are slowly closing in as well. Drivers found with more than 50 mg and less than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood can be fined EUR135 and they will lose six of the 12 points of a clean driving license. Two offenses will cancel your license - less than an other countries. Beyond 80 mg of alcohol, it's a minefield, with fines up to EUR4,500, the loss of license and prison sentences of up to two years available.

The benefits of self-monitoring

Hopefully, it will work, but the area I'm tipping will bring an even great understanding about our relationship with alcohol is the sudden focus on actually measuring what we drink and what the legal readings would be.

A few years ago, we ran an interesting experiment with a digital breathalyzer at Gizmag - I took it down to my local and tested an array of people about their perceptions of how much they thought they had drunk, and what the breathalyzer said.

Based on what I learned from the breathalyzer, I am certain that integrating a breathalyzer into anyone's lifestyle, will be enlightening and at the same time help them to regulate and monitor their risk taking.

The breathalyzer laws in France will be strictly enforced, with lots of spot checks and failure to provide a working breathalyzer when requested by a traffic policeman will attract a fine of EUR11.00 (US$14).

The idea is that every time a French driver gets in their car after having a drink, they will have a device with which to test if their blood alcohol content is over the mandated blood alcohol limit for driving in the country - 0.05%.

With drink driving penalties being so much more costly than the "no breathalyzer" fine, the idea is that drivers will inevitably self-test before driving, even if they then risk a fine for no breathalyzer at a spot check - at least they'll be under the limit.

France is the first country to enact such legislation and when the new laws come into effect on November 1, the world will be watching to see what happens to the road toll. The expected vigorous enforcement of the law will naturally bring such a focus on drink driving in France that the toll will trend down.

If the toll stays down, which means the new legislation is saving lives, the law might well be something that's tried in your neck of the woods.

The saddest irony of all

The world is starting to realize that the 1.3 million lives lost each year (and growing), is totally unnecessary, and France's novel way of ensuring everyone has a way of checking their legal ability to drive might prove to be effective enough for the same laws to be considered everywhere else.

That's because the world is beginning to rail against the enormous burden of the road toll on society, and in particular on the people who perpetrate it.

If these measures don't have the desired effect, then there may even be a push for the zero tolerance approach.

The saddest irony of all is that by world standards, France is one of the top 5% of countries in terms of road safety standards ... and it might still save 1000 lives next year alone with not unreasonable demands on the public or its lifestyle.

These new laws are designed to significantly reduce France's high rate of alcohol involvement in accidents - 28% - COMPARED TO ITS NEIGHBORS.

France already compares favorably with Canada (30%), Australia (31%) and America (39%), and even these countries are still in the top echelon of best practice road safety.

Beyond Northern Europe and North America, the standard of roads declines dramatically, the levels of respect for drink driving laws quickly declines to zero. If the world's roads were as safe as French roads, it would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

In many countries there is no policing of the drink driving laws, and remarkably, there are countries that still don't have any laws governing the use of alcohol at all. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, bus and truck drivers routinely smoke hash.

Imagine how many lives could be saved every year if something were done?

The World Health Organisation did just that when launching its Decade of Action for Road Safety initiative.

All of the country fact sheets used in this story and in the image archive are drawn from the WHO Global Status Report on road safety.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon

lol, sucks to be a Frenchmen.

goodbye freedom.

Derek Howe

This is a really important step in protecting people from people who drink and drive. I am happy to see France step up and take care of this avoidable and preventable problem.

Carlos Grados

If they lowered the speed limit to 25MPH and put governors on every car they would save MILLIONS of people! When will the world wake up and realize driving fast in your car cost lives and puts a burden on the state. All you people who want to tool around in your cars at 55 are death mongers who are deaf to the toll speeding cars places on society...... Of course bicycles, skate boards and roller blades can go faster than 25, so everyone will have to have a GPS bracelet strapped to their leg. And there should be roadblocks every few kilometers to make sure the car governors are not tampered with or people have removed their leg bracelets.


According to their chart, France only scores 4 out of 10 for enforcement of blood alcohol driving levels.

Putting a lot more cops on the road at breath testing stations might be cheaper, and in the short term more profitable to the French government.


With many year's experience in vehicle research, I am the last one to rail against drink-driving. However, what we really need is a more technologically informed legislature. Consider what is already possible given the political will:

Sat Navs automatically updated with mapping and road work/diversions, plus traffic conditions on a minute by minute basis. Part of this updating would be speed limits for wherever the vehicle is, including temporary ones determined by road accidents etc. and even for car parks. Instantaneous traffic light status could be transmitted to road vehicles and even location of all vehicles in the vicinity so that overtaking etc. can be negotiated safely. From this, all that is needed is vehicles to have a fly-by-wire throttle (common in many vehicles in production today). Some vehicles are even fitted with automatic braking. With electric cars it is even possible to have the throttle as an on/off switch.

Link all that information into a car's control electronics and it would be very difficult to crash a motor car by accident. For instance, it would be impossible to jump traffic lights, emerge from a junction until it was safe to do so; any deviation from the traffic lane when it would be unsafe would be conveyed to the driver, such as by vibrating the steering wheel up and down, thus waking any driver who has dozed off. (This mechanism could also be used as an enhancement to following sat nav directions.)

The above is only an indication of what is possible. If vehicles are made safer, it would be possible to consider relaxing the drink driving laws for drivers of vehicles so equipped. Part of life's enjoyment is having a drink with friends. Unfortunately, the combination of draconian drink-driving laws in some countries and cheap alcohol in supermarkets has led to drinking in the home and that is causing a significant rise in drink problems with, as with drink driving, associated other people being harmed. Instead of it being other road users and pedestrians, it is the spouses and children that end up in hospital or the morgue.

I forgot one other essential piece of equipment: gaffer tape to put over the mouths of motoring correspondents, who almost universally have yet to catch up with the fact that the world is changing and leaving them behind. Peak oil, climate change and an aging population are the factors that are going to dictate motor vehicle development, along with some prodding from those politicians brave enough to reflect the needs of the whole population instead of those of the over-grown children among us. It will not be based on how quickly any given vehicle can go, or reach a given speed, and thus consume expensive fuel in the most uneconomic and polluting manner.

Mel Tisdale

I expect drivers will be nearly extinct in 10 years. Robots will take over.

Stewart Mitchell

They may claim the purpose behind this is "public safety", but the real reason is greed. Lucrative contracts to supply all of the Breathalyzer's needed for every driver or every car will be sold by the politicians to the highest bidder. Just like the red light cameras and the desire to monitor speeders by GPS in the car or by satellites in space, the name of the game here is revenue. "lots of spot checks and failure to provide a working breathalyzer when requested by a traffic policeman will attract a fine of EUR11.00 (US$14)." The police officers unions will be happy because it will take more officers to man those spot checks. The police department, city, and/or municipality will be happy to receive the funds generated from these tickets. It won't result in less people driving drunk though. People who are breaking the law do not plan on getting caught. Had this article followed the money trail on this topic, it might have come off as less biased. It's almost as if the writer is trying to sell the idea to the general public instead of reporting on the subject.

Gene Jordan

I think car makers should sell cars that can't kill us. Crash proof radar is on some cars and should be on all cars. That would solve the alcohol problem.

John Russell

most of Europe's laws are based off of the Napoleonic code where laws are created and if you violate them, it's up to the accused to prove their innocence...whereas here in the USA, we have the law of precedence which says that laws have not been written yet until a societal quorum dictates a modification of behavior is required to prevent injury to life, limb or property. Then you are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Putting a breathalyzer in a to a vehicle of an innocent person violates due process and makes the presumption of guilt without substantiation. So, no....this won't fly in the USA...it is a violation of our constitutional rights. This has been implemented though on vehicles of habitual offenders, but in those instances, due process has been met.


Future generations will no doubt wonder at the carnage we idiots inflicted on our personal liberties and human rights. The battle to FIX all this rampant oppression is something Gen Z+N is going to have alllll the fun of carrying out.

Hoyt Famayl

I have just noticed a rather fundamental mistake in my first sentence. It should have read: "... I am the last one to rail against drink-driving legislation."

Mel Tisdale

By their very nature, governments must institute laws to protect their citizens from other members of their societies that constitute either a hazard or problem to the general population, or themselves. I am not a teetotaler (actually, quite the opposite, belch...), but I do have zero tolerance for drunk driving, and understand that it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. But, seriously, does anyone actually believe that having a $2 breathalyzer in a vehicle is going to stop anyone from drink/drunk driving? I've been drinking for 40+ years, and human nature, unfortunately, tells me no. Heck, here in the USA, I bet deaths related to cell phone use while driving cause more deaths than drinking, but you don't see people putting their cell phones down, even in states where it is against the law...

I'll go sideways here and tell you just how stupid and hypocritical some of the laws borne out of political correctness can be. Here in Florida the law requires a car driver and all passengers to wear seatbelts (click it or ticket bs), and the feds have instituted 1000's of other vehicle safety laws (airbags, etc), ostensibly for the sole purpose of protecting us dummies. Yet, each and everyday, while stopped at some stoplight in my computer designed, crash resistant, airbag protected, steelclad car interior, I watch in disbelief as some bare-footed motorcyclist with nothing but shorts on pulls up beside my car with his bikini clad beauty in tow, arms wrapped tightly around him, each talking on their cell phone. And yet, for some sickly perverted and illogical reason, I'll get ticketed and fined for not wearing a freakin seatbelt??!!??, or if this ridiculous law was ever instituted here, for not having my government mandated breathalyzer with me -- c'mon, what's wrong with this picture?

The bottom line is that, right here and now, cheap technology exists to test the BAC of drivers, and immobilize a vehicle's starting system if they are found to be over the legal limit -- Problem solved...

Lastly, as for what the writer says all "good citizens" should carry in their vehicles, he forgot to mention a handgun (with a built-in breathalyzer, of course).


Another solution to consider is autonomous (robot-driven) vehicles. See, for example,



Joseph Doniach

so if you use and fail the breathalizer and cause a death the charge would murder not manslaughter!


Brrrr, all authoritorian reactions. A sign of the times I am afraid.

1 - Drunk driving is only one of many forms of dangerous driving. It is impossible to legislate against all forms of dangerous driving as your mother in law would never go out again.

2 - The world isn't perfect. Good is the same for all people, perfect is very specific to a few. A perfect world is not as nice as a good one. Accidents happen, dangerous driving happens. That is what should be dealt with. Not pre-emptive and after the fact and dealt with severely.

But this is my biggest point in this specific case:

3 - By forcing a tester in every car, all drivers are now equipped to drink more! Most people I know would simple leave it at 1 or 2 beers and assume that more would put them over the limit. Now, they pull out the tester and conclude that a third drink will just fit. Also, if they are just over they wait till the results are just within the limits.

What you get is a lot more technically almost drunk drivers that have gone beyond their personal limit but not beyond the technical limit.

This will massively backfire and increase the road toll.

Paul van Dinther

This is a bad idea for a number of reasons. 1) People drinking "up to the limit" therefore making the risk of accident even higher. 2) People who get someone else to do the test for money/etc.

I think breathylsers are inefficient, when there are other methods which also test for tiredness (even more dangerous!) and other nondetectable drugs.

Better to use flicker fusion test, set to say 50% of the current drink drive limit. This also tests for tiredness+alcohol, and plain tiredness. Also it can be calibrated to the user, so there are fewer false positives.

Andre de Guerin

Completely useless law.

First - only a small fraction (5-10% depending on the country) of accidents are actually alcohol-related, and this what doesn't mean that the alcohol even was a deciding factor in these cases.

Second - The law doesn't change anything, because drivers are already forbidden from driving under intoxication and are not obliged to use their breathalyzers. I agree with Andre de Guerin - a good practice is simply not to drink at all, and breathalyzers showing 0.045% may give drive a sense of false security (although driving with this BAC is illegal in e.g. Poland and Czech Republic, so it is hardly "safe" from the legal standpoint).

Third - The head of the pro-breathalyzer lobbying group I-Test, Mr. Daniel Orgeval is a high-ranking executive at Contralco, the biggest producer of breathalyzers in France. I suppose there are no further comments necessary here.

@Ed - No, in EU countries legislation is based on the rule of presumption of innocence. It is always up to the court to prove suspect' guilt.

Tobias Meiner
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