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Motorists 20 times more likely to be breathalysed in France than in UK

France also has a lower drink-drive limit. Being just over the English limit can result in a €4,500 fine and prison sentence

Drivers are 20 times more likely to be breathalysed in France than they are in the UK Pic: Stephen Barnes / Shutterstock

Motorists are 20 times more likely to be breathalysed in France than they are in most nations of the UK, police figures from the two countries show. 

The higher frequency of breathalyser checks in France also comes alongside a lower drink-drive limit, meaning that British people driving in the country could find that they have drunk too much to get behind the wheel without realising it.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the drink-drive limit for non-professional drivers is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood (or 0.08% blood alcohol content (BAC)).

In France, the limit is 50mg for every 100ml of blood (0.05% BAC), although if you have had your licence for less than three years it is 0.02% BAC. 

However, only 17% of British drivers are aware that France has a stricter limit on motorist alcohol consumption, a survey conducted by breathalyser firm AlcoSense has suggested.

In Scotland, the limit is also 50mg for every 100ml of blood, so Scottish drivers may be better prepared for the French rules.

Read more: France is country where alcohol is drunk the most often, poll finds

Drivers stopped more regularly in France 

French police test 108 drivers for every 1,000 of the population each year on average, according to the European Transport Safety Council, while in England and Wales, the rate is five tests for every 1,000 people.

If you are found to have a blood alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg per 100ml in France, you may face a fine of up to €750, although it will normally be €135.

You may be prevented from driving your vehicle and if you have a French licence six points will be taken off it. In France, licence points are lost, rather than gained, for driving offences.

If your blood alcohol level is above 80mg for every 100ml, you will be viewed as having committed a more serious crime, and may be summoned to appear in court. 

In a worst case scenario, the fine associated with this offence goes up to €4,500, six points will be taken from your licence and you will risk up to two years in prison.

Your driving licence could also be suspended for three years or more.

To prevent people from reoffending, the authorities can also require drivers to use a vehicle fitted with an alcohol ignition interlock, which prevents the engine from starting in the case of an illegal BAC.

“Taking a personal breathalyser with you on holiday removes the guesswork about whether you’re clear of alcohol,” AlcoSense Founder and Managing Director Hunter Abbott commented.

“It’s far easier than you think to still be under the influence in the morning after a few drinks the night before.  

“If you drink four pints of medium-strong beer or four large glasses of wine, it can take as long as 14 hours for the alcohol to completely clear your system.” 

Tricky to calculate blood alcohol level by estimations alone

Mr Abbott told The Connexion that it is not easy to make a comparison between French and British drink-drive limits just by assuming you can have one drink less or similar. 

“BAC in the UK and BAC in France are not the same,” he said. “Breathalysers measure the amount of alcohol in breath (unit of measure = mg/L = milligrams of alcohol per litre of breath), which is then converted into a blood reading (unit of measure BAC = Blood Alcohol Content). 

“However, the UK and France use different formulas to convert from a breath alcohol reading to a blood alcohol reading. 

“It produces a difference of 13% between a UK BAC reading and a French BAC reading. 

“For example, 0.05% BAC in the UK is 0.22 mg/L in breath, but 0.05% BAC in France is 0.25 mg/L in breath. 

“Therefore you either need to make sure your breathalyser reads in a breath reading, or buy a single use product designed for France.

“The number of drinks it takes to reach a set blood alcohol level varies significantly from individual to individual based on height, weight, body fat, sex and if they drink at the same time as eating or not. 

“Drinking on a full stomach will decrease the peak alcohol level, but increase the time the alcohol is in the body. It also varies greatly depending on over what period of time the person drinks. 

“The human body will process alcohol out of the body at a relatively constant rate once it gets to the lower intestine. 

“So if you had four pints over eight hours you would be unlikely to get anywhere near the limit, but if you had four pints in two hours you would be well over the limit, which is why you cannot really give an accurate estimate of how many drinks it will take to stay under the limit.”

You can find out more about the penalties risked by drinking more than the French limit using the graphic below. Make sure to choose the 'Permis standard' option by clicking the top right-hand box, unless you only have a provisional licence.

Does the body process one unit per hour? 

It is also not always correct to believe that alcohol passes through your system at a rate of one unit per hour. “This applies to around 75% of people, but it is a bell curve,” Mr Abbott said. 

“The remaining 25% can sit at the extremes of processing more quickly or slowly than the average.

“This can also change from day to day depending on the condition of the individual. We have seen some individuals taking up to two hours to process one unit of alcohol.”

Even if you sit within the 75% processing alcohol at an average rate, “The most important part of this is understanding the risk curve,” Mr Abbott added.

“At 0.05% BAC you are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than when sober, at 0.08% BAC you are 13 times more likely!

“Even at 0.01% BAC you are 37% more likely. Any amount of alcohol affects your ability to drive and significantly increases the risk you pose to yourself and others on the road. 

“Being under the limit isn’t necessarily being safe. That’s why it’s important to use a reputable personal breathalyser to tell when the alcohol has cleared your system.”

Mr Abbott added that some of the breathalysers sold by AlcoSense have “full graphical user interfaces, traffic light colour schemes along the readings, and some will even estimate the time until you will be sober,” so can be very easy to use.

When can French police breathalyse you?

In France, police may choose to breathalyse drivers if:

  • They have been involved in an accident
  • They are suspected of having breached the Code de la route in some way 
  • They are chosen as part of a random check.

In the UK, police have to suspect that you have been drinking, committed a traffic offence or that you have been involved in an accident.

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