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DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?
A policeman gives a contravenor a breathalyser test during a roadside check focused on speed near Nantes on June 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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DRIVING

8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Taking a roadtrip through France is always a popular holiday option, but make sure that you're ready to take to the French roads.

8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Black weekends – as with all countries, France has certain weekends when the roads are likely to be especially busy. These generally coincide with school holidays, public holidays and opportunities to ‘faire le pont‘ – as well as the traditional ‘crossover’ weekend when the July travellers return and the August travellers set out.

There is a helpful traffic forecasting website called Bison futéfind it here – which publishes a calendar of days that are likely to be especially busy on the roads. Avoid red and black days if possible.

Fuel prices

It seems likely that fuel prices will remain high around Europe this summer, and France is no exception despite the government fuel rebate of 18 cents per litre.

The government publishes an interactive map of fuel stations and the prices they charge, so if possible you can plan your journey to fill up in the cheapest area.

MAP Where to find the cheapest fuel in France

Crit’Air stickers – if you plan on driving into or through a city, check whether a Crit’Air sticker is required for your vehicle. Initially the province of the big cities, more and more towns now require these. 

The sticker gives your vehicle a rating based on the emissions is produces, vehicles that get the highest ratings of 3, 4 or 5 are banned outright from some cities, while other cities limit their movement in days when air pollution is particularly bad.

The sticker costs less than €5 but must be ordered online in advance of your trip – here’s how.

Yellow vest – yellow vests in France are not just for demonstrators, they form part of the kit that you are legally obliged to have in your car. A red warning triangle and a high-vis yellow jacket must be carried with you at all times, although it is no longer compulsory to carry a breathalyser.

If you’re coming from the UK your UK driving licence is enough – there is no need for an International Driver’s Permit – but check that your insurance covers trips to France. Insurance ‘green cards’ are not required. 

Péages – if you’re driving on autoroutes you will likely need to pay, as most sections of the French highway are covered by tolls. When driving you will see warning signs that the péage (toll booth) is coming up and that is your signal to get your money ready.

The cost varies depending on which road you are on and how far you drive.

Usually you take a ticket at the first toll booth and then when you exit that section of road you drive through another station where you pay. The pay stations take either cash or debit cards – some but not all allow contactless card payments – and as you approach the pay station you will see signs with either a coin or a card on them, to ensure you’re in the right lane for your payment type.

Naturally the pay stations are on the left of the vehicle. If you’re driving a right-hand drive car and don’t have a passenger this can be a little awkward, so there is an option to buy a pre-paid radar device – known as télépéage – that allows you to drive straight through the péage.

Speed limits and alcohol – obviously you will need to keep an eye out for speed limits (which are of course in km/h not mimes per hour) but if you’re on the autoroute there are two different limits – 130km/h for fine weather and 110 km/h for bad weather.

As well as police officers doing speed checks, also keep an eye out for radars (speed cameras) which sit at the side of the road and are usually grey.

If you’re in certain parts of rural France you might think that drink-driving laws don’t apply in France, since unfortunately there is still a culture of drinking and driving in some areas.

In fact, however, France has strict limits on drinking and driving and they may be lower than you are used to. If you are stopped and breathalysed you face losing your licence and saying ‘well everyone else in the café had two glasses of wine and then drove’ is not a legal defence.

READ ALSO Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive laws?  

Fake police – Speaking of police, it is an unfortunate fact that every summer, some tourists fall victim to scammers who pretend to be police offices and demand cash for ‘fines’.

Real French police officers do stop drivers – either if they have been speeding or committed another driving offence or simply for a random check – but if you incur a fine you will be given a ticket that you pay later. Genuine police officers will not demand that you hand over money in cash at the roadside.

Priorité à droite – France’s most notorious road law is still in place in certain areas, but not everywhere. The priorité à droite rule (priority to the right) essentially means that you give way to the vehicle that is approaching from the right unless there are road signs or marking in place telling you to do otherwise.

In practice this means that on most major routes and in towns you simply obey the street signs, road markings and traffic lights to determine who has the priority.

It’s really more on smaller, country roads where there are no markings that priorité à droite applies, although it’s also in place on smaller roads in residential areas of cities and on Paris’ famously confusing Arc de Triomphe roundabout (although there are plans afoot to pedestrianise the area around the Arc).

You can read a full explanation of the priorité à droite rule HERE.

. . . and French drivers.

It pains us to peddle a cliché, but a lot of French drivers do live up to their international stereotype of being terrible drivers. Not all, of course, but certainly don’t assume that your fellow drivers will give way or let you join a queue of traffic. Also just because a vehicle isn’t indicating, that does not mean that it’s not just about to turn. Also, for the American readers out there – though automatic cars do exist in France, they are typically more expensive to rent and stick shifts tend to be the norm in France. 

Bonne route!

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