Home Living in France Transportation The French breathalyser saga
Last update on November 11, 2019

An expat examines the thought(lessness) behind France’s latest attempt to curb drunk driving.

The word “couac” (false note or mistake) is being bandied about a lot in the French press. The hapless Premier Ministre, Jean-Marc Ayrault is making his fair share of them. He apparently endorsed a return to the 39-hour week and spent all day mopping that one up. Who’d be a politician? Their sayings in an unguarded moment come back to haunt them. And the laws individual ministers sponsor bear their name forever in France.

The previous government was certainly not immune to blunders. One such was decree no. 2012-284, issued on 28th February 2012. This stipulated that from 1st July all motorists should procure a breathalyser (éthylotest), which they should keep in their vehicle. If it were positive when used, they would presumably have to find other means of getting home. Failure to possess said éthylotest would carry a fine of €11 from 1st November 2012.

Well-intentioned but…

The impracticality of this should have been manifest from the start. First, it said you always had to carry an unused éthylotest. So if you were civic-minded and used it you risked being fined for not then having an unused one if stopped. So, in theory, you should carry at least two. Second, there are around 36 million drivers in France and it wouldn’t take Einstein to work out that an awful lot of éthylotests were required at short notice. Practical result: retail outlets, including pharmacies, supermarkets and service stations ran out. This paved the way for internet scams or exorbitant prices for an item that costs only 50 centimes apiece to make. You can also buy an electronic version, but that will set you back €100-€200.

We also wonder about their accuracy. Last year we bought one out of interest from the supermarket. After a dinner at home with no plans to go out, the SF was definitely over the limit. He blew into the mouthpiece. The device registered nothing. So what do you do? You know you’re sozzled but the test says you aren’t. Of course, any responsible driver wouldn’t get to that stage – but you see my point.

Now we have a stay of execution for four months before the fines go live. In recognition of the impossibility of getting hold of sufficient éthylotests by 1st November, the government has extended the fine-free period to 1st March 2013. But beware: only those tests that comply with the norms are acceptable. If you have one that doesn’t you still have to stump up the €11. However, a review of the practicality of the decree overall is also mooted, apparently.

Combating drink-driving

Attempts to reduce drink-driving in France have got to be welcomed but they need to be thought through more carefully. This one has turned into a farce. Around 17,000 people died on the French roads in 1971, many of them owing to alcohol abuse. That figure dropped to below 4,000 in 2011 owing to many factors, including the wearing of seatbelts. But alcohol is still a major cause of road deaths.

France first introduced a legal alcohol limit in 1970. However, newspapers helpfully informed motorists of the time and place of police contrôles, somewhat reducing their effectiveness. The SF lived in Limoges in the late 1970s and witnessed this for himself. Driving in France on holiday in the early 1990s I was breathtested at 10.30 am – hardly a time when you would expect to catch many drink-drivers.

Back to 2012 and drivers in France are already supposed  to carry a warning triangle, fluorescent safety vest, first aid kit, fire extinguisher and spare bulbs (have I forgotten anything?). Soon, a trailer to carry all this kit will be obligatory.