[Updated to reflect changed regulations]
Driving in France can present some unique challenges. Drivers who are new to France who have to transit the massive roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris receive a rude introduction to some of the passion, terror, and luck that can surround the French driving experience. The Arc de Triomphe presents no more difficult a driving challenge than other large cities do but it is different. Such is life.
Even though the élan and speed of French drivers can take time to comprehend, the fact remains that driving in France is much safer today than it was twenty years ago. As detailed in this report, road deaths in France fell from 7,720 to 5,332 between 2001 and 2004. The figure continued to fall to 3,994 in 2010 and is still hovering around this level. Another interesting way of looking at the issue is to review the top 20 departments for road deaths in France in 2010, which shows that Bouches-du- Rhône is highest in terms of numbers (150) while Charente-Maritime is highest in terms of deaths per million inhabitants (118.4). Both of these departments see a fair number of tourists and this might be a contributing factor.
Part of the success in reducing road deaths is due to the increased monitoring of speed by the police backed up with a widespread network of fixed and moveable radar-controlled cameras. However, I suspect that a lot more is due to the steady reduction in the blood alcohol limit to its current level of 50 mg/l. The France where many glasses of red wine are consumed over lunch followed by a digestif and slow drive home is steadily disappearing because people can afford to drink no more than one or two small glasses of wine and remain under the limit.
Although substantial progress has been made to reduce road deaths, French roads are still more dangerous than those other European countries (the U.K. is about twice as safe) and further action is being taken by the government. A new development is that from July 1, 2012 France requires all drivers to have a breathalyzer device in the car (décret n° 2012-284 du 28 février 2012). The requirement to carry a breathalyzer adds to the collection of other safety equipment that must be in a car driven in France including a red safety triangle, at least one reflective yellow vest (which must be in the car, not in the boot), a first aid kit (not strictly required but a great thing to have available), and a set of spare light bulbs (again not absolutely required as long as you don’t have a blown bulb when the police stop you).
Originally the idea was that the French police would fine drivers who did not have a breathalyzer in their car after November 1, 2012. The requirement was to produce a suitable device, meaning that it must be stamped with “NF” to indicate that it meets the “norme française” (is deemed suitable for use in France). Failure to comply would result in an 11 Euro fine. The fine is not a lot, but you can bet that the time wasted while the police pour over your car to possibly locate other faults that might lead to more painful fines, will heap insult onto the 11-Euro injury. However, various implementation problems created a situation where the French government decided in February 2013 that the police would no longer fine motorists for not having a suitable breathalyzer in their car but that the requirement to have the device in the car still exists. Confused? Join everyone else…
The question then is where to obtain a suitable breathalyzer before you drive in France. Car ferry companies do a good business selling the devices in ferry ports and on board ship, at a higher price than in France. Another option is to buy through companies that can supply suitable devices in your home country before you travel to France. For example, the aptly named FrenchBreathalyzer.com is happy to sell disposable devices at £2.45 each in the U.K. or £10.99 for a five-tube kit. You can also buy both individual breathalyzers and packs on Amazon.co.uk.
By comparison to prices outside France, Feu Vert, a well-known car part company throughout France, sells the same disposable breathalyzer for €1.25 (£1.05), while Amazon.fr offers Lot de 3 éthylotests chimiques homologués sous sachets individuels (set of 3 breathalyzers) for €9.90. Mind you, when I visited Feu Vert on 9 May 2012, they only had a breathalyzer costing €1.75. I guess these must be better than the ones advertised online.
Interestingly, Amazon also offers fairly cheap reusable devices such as Clatronic – AT 3260 – Testeur d’alcool (£18.90) as well as the more expensive devices like the ETHYLOTEST Détecteur d’Alcool Electronique CA2000 PX-PRO GOLD (€119). The problem with buying any electronic device is that you absolutely have to make sure that it meets the NF standard as otherwise you might have problems if stopped by the police. In fact, given the love of all things bureaucratic in France, it’s fair to predict that a failure to meet the designated standard will lead to much unhappiness.
Feu Vert’s price is more in line with what you can expect in other French outlets (supermarkets such as Intermarche sell breathalyzers cheaper at around €1.10 each), although the price in autoroute rest stops is likely to be higher.
Unless you buy a reusable device you will have to buy at least two disposable breathalyzers because if you’re stopped by the police and have to use one device, you have to have another to comply with the law when you start driving again. In fact, you’ll probably want to try out one of the breathalyzers “just to see how it works”, so you’ll end up buying at least three. Disposable breathalyzers do have an expiry date and you might prefer to buy a reusable breathalyzer. However, these cost quite a bit more (for instance, Feu Vert offers the same device as advertised on Amazon.fr (see picture) for €119.90, while other suitable models can range up to €500 and beyond, depending on their features).
Car hire companies who operate in France have to provide breathalyzers along with the high-visibility jackets and red warning triangle required by law. Normally you will find a breathalyzer in the glove compartment (only one, though). Of course, it remains to be seen whether these items “disappear” from hire cars as souvenirs or simply because people want to use the breathalyzers themselves. I doubt that les flics will accept the excuse that a previous renter removed the breathalyzer so this now becomes one of the “must-check” items for car rentals along with a walk-around to look for scrapes and bumps.
It will be interesting to see if other countries decide to follow France’s lead and introduce a mandatory requirement to carry a breathalyzer in every car. I guess it all depends whether this initiative succeeds in driving down road deaths even further. Let’s hope that it does.
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Update 7 May 2012: For those travelling from Ireland to France on the Irish Ferries ship “Oscar Wilde”, you can buy a two-breathalyzer set on the boat for €7.50. This is obviously more expensive than waiting until you actually get to France and can buy breathalyzers in a shop, but they are stamped “NF” and seem to meet all the requirements.
Update 9 July 2012: Halfords sells a two-item pack for €7.49. I noticed that the pack is prominently positioned beside the cash registers. The same product is available from their UK web site for STG5.99, so the Irish price uses a pretty reasonable conversion rate, unlike many other UK-based retailers that operate in Ireland.