France’s New “Breathalyzer In Every Vehicle” Law

Cedric HughesOn February 28th, 2012 the government of France decreed: "Every driver of a motorised land vehicle, excluding mopeds, must possess an unused and immediately available breathalyzer." Anyone not carrying the breathalyzer kit will be subject to a fine of €11 ($15). The law comes into effect on July 1st, but the police will delay active enforcement until November 1st.

The new French law applies equally to vehicles from outside France. The kit is not an interlocking device that prevents impaired drivers from starting their cars. The purpose of the new law is to ensure that every time drivers (native or tourist) get into a car after drinking alcohol, they will have a device for testing whether or not their blood alcohol content (BAC) is over the legal BAC limit for driving in France of .05.

Only a decade ago, France had one of the worst road crash fatality rates amongst the most highly motorized countries in the world. Beginning in 2001, however, it set goals to change this shameful distinction by means of tougher legislation and law enforcement. And the diligent pursuit of this goal-setting has had led to dramatically good results, producing a steady annual decline to the point where it now has one of the safest road systems in the world.

But alcohol impaired driving has remained a thorny problem. The French cultural tradition of consuming wine with midday and evening meals has meant that despite exceeding the world's best practices in every other area of road safety, it has maintained a much higher rate of alcohol involvement in fatal crashes than its major European neighbors. In 2008, World Health Organization statistics concluded that the proportion of road deaths attributable to alcohol was 17% in the UK, 12% in Germany, and 27% in France.

The latest French statistics have also highlighted the problem. In 2011, 3,970 people died on French roads, down barely 0.5 percent or 22 lives from the 2010 total. The improving trend appeared to be plateauing along with alcohol impairment as a contributing factor increasing to about one in three fatalities or 33%. Ending alcohol impaired driving was estimated as potentially saving over 1000 lives a year in France. With French President Nicholas Sarkozy having set the ambitious target of reducing annual road deaths to 3,000 by 2012, resolving the problem of alcohol impaired driving had to become a priority. Hence the new ‘breathalyzer kit’ law.

Road safety experts will watch this unique initiative with great interest. Critics say imposing an obligation to stock the kit, use it, and then abide by the results … and then restock it (etc.) is a fussy nanny state regulation more likely to be ignored than incorporated into driving routine after media attention and enforcement efforts inevitably fade.

The widespread non-compliance with anti-cellphone use laws comes to mind. Supporters argue that drivers will shrewdly weigh the benefits of compliance over the increasingly onerous sanctions including imprisonment for impaired driving, not to mention their appreciation for what the statistics say about the risks involved in continuing to engage in the behaviour.

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