Editorial: Check your breath — it’s the law

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A controversial law has recently been passed in France that’s making people ask who’s in charge of safety on the road. The new law, which went into effect July 1, requires every driver to carry not one, but two self-breathalyzer devices at all times. This includes visiting drivers (unless you want to drive a moped when you visit, which is the only vehicle exception to the law).

According to the BBC, about 4 000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year in France, with 30 per cent of all road fatalities being alcohol-related. While it is commendable to put laws in place that potentially could save lives, we still need to ask if self-policing is really the best option when it comes to drunk driving.

Can someone who is too inebriated to operate a motor vehicle really be expected to have a clear enough head to self-breathalyze, check the result and then decide, “Nah, I’ll just leave the car on the street overnight and have it towed”? It seems more likely that the most dangerous drivers, the ones who could potentially add to the already high number of road fatalities every year in France, are the type who won’t think twice before getting into their vehicle after a few too many bottles of Beaujolais.

The kicker is that the law doesn’t even require drivers to use the breathalyzers. Drivers merely need to have the devices in their vehicles.

Critics have suggested that the law was passed after heavy lobbying from the two companies in France that manufacture these breathalyzer kits, an allegation that French President Daniel Orgeval doesn’t necessarily deny. Instead of suggesting the lobbying was done to line industry’s pockets, Orgeval suggested in an interview with Europe 1 radio that the lobbying was for “road safety and for road users,” adding that “if it helps create jobs for a French company, then so much the better.”

A cheap, single-use chemical breathalyzer costs under $1, which doesn’t sound so bad — until you add up every night you might have a drink and then drive. Fortunately, there’s a reusable digital model — only that one costs around $200.

As for those caught without the mandatory breathalyzers, the on-the-spot fine works out to a meagre $14 — hardly a deterrent, and definitely not enough to make people take it seriously. Fines only get more serious if your blood alcohol content is greater than 0.5 grams per litre of blood — something police can test with their own breathalyzers.

So, why have the law?

Do self-policing policies such as the French breathalyzer requirement mean that government can move away from more traditional methods such as roadblocks? Are we meant to feel safer knowing that people have the ability to know just how drunk they are, and then, in that state of mind, make a judgment on whether or not to drive home?

Get real.

In addition to the breathalyzers, drivers in France must carry a first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, spare light bulbs, a safety triangle and a fluorescent vest. It’s nice to know that the nation’s haute couture designers have an alternative if France’s austere economic climate proves too chilly for them. The Chanel logo would look splendid rendered in reflective tape on some orange mesh. Perhaps Karl Lagerfeld can lobby the government for an exclusive safety vest contract.

In the meantime, if you’re planning on driving in France, get ready for a few extra costs. If you don’t use the breathalyzers while driving, at least you can tell your friends you blew a 0.18 under the Eiffel Tower.

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