Don’t Hold Your Breath – the French Breathalyser Saga

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 at the moment. Yesterday 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.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. I see you’ve instigated lots of comments and it’s not surprising. The whole idea is flawed and we thought it was just another way for the manufacturer and the gov. to make money. Of course we all agree drink-driving is not on, but this isn’t the way to clamp down on it. Let’s hope they have a re-think before next March. Thanks for reminding me – I’m off to check if we have an extinguisher and the bulbs! Can’t remember, our boot is so full of all the other stuff we cart around with us.


    • I haven’t yet met anyone who thinks it was a good idea. And, of course, as you say there is the issue about making money out of it – a bit like the fences/alarms etc that you have to install if you have a swimming pool. I need to check on the extinguisher since it was news to me but we certainly have to carry some kit these days.


  2. Hmmm. crazy? Most definitely yes!
    But not restriceted to France as we have some equally crqzy laws here in Australia, with politicians to match!!


  3. Silly law, isn’t it? Of course, I have my mandatory two in the glove box along with my extra set of bulbs, my fluorescent vest draped over the headrest of the front passenger seat, and my triangles in back. What? I need a fire extinguisher as well? It’s so hard to be a compliant ex-pat!


    • The fire extinguisher was news to me, actually, and I think I’d better check up on it since I got it from another source that might not be entirely accurate. Will report back.


  4. My goodness what a crazy law! Did nobody sit down and work it through? We have some crazy traffic and driving here – the worst element being that very few people actually sit a driving test. According to a recent newspaper reports 60% of drivers have a fake licence (it didn’t say how many drive without a licence at all!) But at least, being a Moslem country, drink driving does not appear to be a problem…I hate to think what would happen if drivers drank! I’ll be interested to know how your new legislation works out.


    • Unfortunately, even the laws with the best intentions are let down by the rules governing their practical application – and this is no exception. Increasing numbers of people are driving without a licence in France, having lost it for various reasons. I certainly wouldn’t like to drive where you live! Paris is probably sedate by comparison.


  5. I don’t think the individual fire extinguishers would have been very effective yesterday, an articulated lorry hurtled out of control and crashed on the main bridge over the Seine in Rouen which links the autoroute N and S – Its cargo – petrol of course! The ensuing inferno took 80 firefighters all day to control. I wonder if he had used his breathalyzer before he set out! I was lucky and bought a ‘handipak’ of 2 breathalyzers in the UK whilst heading N. I imagine all the S bound would have run out!!


    • I watched all about the Rouen crash on yesterday’s news. It looked absolutely horrendous – a real conflagration. Not something one small fire extinguisher could cope with. How much did you pay for breathalysers in the UK? We’ve heard all sorts of stories of the fear of God being put into UK motorists planning to come to France so they have bought them at exorbitant prices in the UK, not realising that you won’t get fined until – now – 1st April next year. Correction – 1st March.


      • About £7 for a pack of two. Probably cheaper N bound out of Folkstone than S bound, I imagine!
        The Rouen bridge is going to be closed for weeks or more as the steel expanded. You can imagine the traffic through the city centre at the moment – to be avoided!!


        • £7 sounds a bit of a rip-off to me. We’ll see what happens when/if they review the law. I can imagine the chaos in Rouen. I have driven around it a few times and that was bad enough.


  6. My husband said that when he had a flat on the motorway and had to change the wheel with lorries hurtling past his bent back he was very pleased to have a fluorescent vest on. However he was warned by the driver of a breakdown truck that warning triangles can be lethal, they can be flipped into the air by passing cars do a lot of damage if they land on someone.


    • Yes, I agree the fluorescent vest is a good idea. I remember when they first became obligatory, everyone drove about with one draped over the passenger seat to prove they had one! I’ve always thought the triangles are a bit flimsy and I’m not sure other motorists even see them.


    • I’m not saying that everyone does, of course. In fact, the fire extinguisher was news to me and I think we might be a bit light on some of the other things.


  7. I think the best policy is not to have any ethylotests in the car. That will cost you 11 Euros.

    But if you are caught driving over the limit without having used it or, worse, if you are caught driving over the limit, have used it and it showed that you were over the limit; that – if anything – must be severe aggravating circumstances.

    The Statistics Freak – SF


    • Far be it from me to condone any suggestion that people should break the law – but you probably have a point. Of course, the penalty for being caught driving over the limit is pretty hefty but no doubt there would be an additional penalty for the infractions you mention.


  8. It has to be one of the least thought-out and ineffective laws of all time. I hope it will be quietly swept under the carpet before March since I can’t see it having any impact at all on drink driving. I’m still not sure I’ll ever buy a test anyway since in 33 years of driving, I’ve never once drunk and driven and I have no intention of starting now.


I'd love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.