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France: Mandatory Car Driver Breathalyzers in Bid to Reduce Accidents

[All external links forward to French language sites] 

Update – December 2012: The mandatory holding of breathalyzers in cars has been postponed several times, due to shortages of the devices and doubts about the efficiency of those put on the market.

Starting July 1, 2012, based on an official edict published by the Journal Officiel on Thursday March 1, every vehicle driver in France will need to carry a breathalyzer. This measure is aimed at diminishing the number of accidents caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol.

Implications of the new law

Mathieu Sicard explains the new regulation on Nouvel Observateur's site, Le plus:

Il faut obligatoirement pouvoir en présenter un en état de marche au policier qui vous arrête. Si vous avez opté pour le modèle à cristaux, vous devez donc en avoir au moins deux (celui dans lequel vous aurez soufflé avant de partir, et un neuf à présenter). Sa durée de vie est de deux ans. Pensez donc aussi à vérifier sa date de péremption.

It is mandatory to present a working [breathalyzer] to the officer who pulls you over. If you opted for the model with crystals, you will need at least two (the one you would have used before leaving, and a new one to present to the officer). The breathalyzer lasts for two years. Make sure you check the expiration date.
Knowing whether to choose the bar or the steering wheel. Author's picture.

Knowing whether to choose the bar or the steering wheel. Author's picture.

Jean Baptiste le Dall, a lawyer at the Court and Vice President of the Automotive Club of Lawyers reminds us that the law to keep a breathalyzer in the vehicle dates back to 1970; this clause has gone unheeded due to the lack of implementing provisions. Even so, he is wondering if it is enforceable:

Que pourra-t-on dire alors d'un automobiliste qui se croyant en règle après avoir utilisé son vieil éthylotest qui traînait depuis plusieurs mois au fond de la boîte à gants se verrait poursuivre devant le tribunal correctionnel pour alcool au volant ? Que dire alors de l'élément intentionnel du délit de conduite sous l'empire d'un état alcoolique ?

What can we then say about a driver who thought was within the rules when he used an old breathalyzer that's been laying in the glove box for a while when he gets dragged in front of the court for driving under the influence? What to say about the intent to drive ‘illegally’ when under the influence?

The following video uploaded to YouTube by user  explains how the breathalyzer would work for French commuters:

There are many accidents around urban centers that are due to drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which has created much outrage in the public opinion.

Repeated fatal accidents

In France in 2010, more than 450,000 drivers did not have driving licenses. In all the following accident examples, the hit-and-run drivers did not have driving licenses and their blood alcohol level was between 0.5 and 0.8 grams.

On July 22, in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, a hit-and-run driver at the wheel of a fast car hit a woman and her 11 year-old daughter, who were crossing a street on the designated pedestrian crossing. The driver and the four passengers ran from the scene but were pulled over a few minutes later by the police. According to a post published on forum-politique.org, the driver is a repeat offender:

Présenté comme un «voyou multirécidiviste», Jiyapirasanthan J. était connu pour 22 affaires. ….le chauffard était aussi connu pour usurpations d'identité, vol à main armée et aussi par des troubles commis à l'occasion d'une manifestation sportive.

Presented as “multiple offender hoodlum”, Jiyapirasanthan J. was known for 22 cases… the hit-and-run driver was also known for identity theft, armed robbery and also reported troubles during a sport manifestation.

In another accident, on the same day, a 24 year-old driver caused the death of a 22 year-old woman in Boulogne-Billancourt (Hauts-de-Seine). This was also a hit-and-run incident. During that same weekend, in Saint-Georges of Oléron, a man was seriously injured in a car accident, while his son is still seriously injured.

Based on the website “Plan B”, below are the possible sanctions for blood alcohol levels whilst driving:

Si votre taux d’alcool est compris entre 0,5 et 0,8 gramme par litre de sang : vous risquez une amende forfaitaire de 135 euros et la perte de six points du permis de conduire.

If your blood alcohol level is between 0.5 and 0.8 grams per liter of blood: you risk a fine of 135 Euros and losing 6 points from your license.

Last July 30, an 11 year-old boy was killed on the sidewalk in front of his parents’ house by a driver with a blood alcohol level of 1.18 grams/liter. With a blood alcohol level higher than 0.8g/l, the penalty is a suspended driver's license, up to two years of a jail sentence, a fine of 4,500 euros, car seizure and the loss of six points on your license.

The inter-ministerial National Observatory for Road Safety also discloses:

La conduite sous l’emprise de l’alcool demeure, pour la cinquième année consécutive, la première cause infractionnelle de mortalité au volant : en 2010, plus de 30 % des personnes tuées sur la route le sont dans un accident en raison de l’alcool. Si aucun conducteur présumé responsable n’avait conduit avec un taux d’alcool positif, 1 150 vies auraient pu être épargnées.

Driving under the influence remains the number one cause of road fatalities for the fifth consecutive year: in 2010, more than 30% of people killed on the roads were in an alcohol-related accident. If none of the implicated drivers had gotten behind the wheel with positive blood alcohol levels, 1,150 lives could have been saved.

These news stories caused a wave of protest in the media. Many listeners called their radio stations to express their indignation, or submit comments on the many news sites. KrisVador writes:

Pourquoi seulement 10 ans de détention pour quelqu'un qui -si l'on considère que la voiture est une arme par destination- a délibérément tué deux personnes ? De mon point de vue, c'est un homicide, l'arme étant le véhicule, volontaire ou non

If we consider the vehicle as a weapon, why only ten years of jail time for someone who deliberately kills two people? In my opinion, it's a homicide, the vehicle is the weapon, whether the crime is voluntary or not.

A leparisien.fr reader comments on one of the posts on one of the accidents:

Je “connais” une personne qui a fait 1 an de prison pour avoir percuté un ado, sous l'empire de l'alcool et sans permis, de plus délit de fuite.

I “know” someone who served one year in prison for a hit-and-run on a teenager when under the influence of alcohol and without owning a driver's license.

Grund responds to another reader, who also commented on the same post:

Si il y a décès sans intention délibérée de donner la mort, cela sera considéré comme homicide involontaire, que ce soit avec une voiture, un couteau, une arme à feu ou un râteau. Pour reprendre l'exemple que vous citez, je tiens déjà à préciser que l'état alcoolique ne changerait rien aux faits puisque la situation peut tout aussi bien se produire à jeun. Je dirais même que cela serait ou pourrait être un élément dépénalisant puisque le suspect pourrait invoquer la perte de contrôle de ses faits et gestes.

If a death occurs without the intent of killing someone, then it would be considered second-degree murder, whether it is with a car or a knife or a gun or a rake. To recapture your example, I would like to pinpoint that being under the influence doesn't change anything to the facts since the situation can happen whilst sober as well. I would even say that this is decriminalizing since the suspect can invoke loss of control over the situation and over his/her movements.

Mumbly, a reader of liberation.fr adds:

Quand la justice enverra-t-elle ces assassins en taule pour 20 ans minimum, là, peut-être qu'ils commenceront à y réfléchir à deux fois avant de prendre la route pour un circuit 24…

When is the court going to send these murderers to jail for at least 20 years, then maybe they will think twice before using the streets as racing tracks…

The struggle for safer roads has helped diminish the number of deaths on the streets since 1970; however, accidents caused by people under the influence of alcohol or without a driver's license have continued to increase from 1999 to 2010.

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