Perhaps you’ve read about France’s new law that requires drivers to carry at least two single-use breathalyzers in their vehicles — the goal being to reduce fatalities caused by impaired driving. In other words, people driving in France are being asked to act as their own Liquor Control Board. (Okay, I stole that line from Ontario, Canada.)
The law took effect July 1, so it’s probably a bit soon to analyze the statistics and see how well the measure is working. I do know that the kits are in short supply — the drugstore in neighbouring Cénac has a sign in the window saying that they won’t have any more kits until September. I also figure that a number of people are making a good bit of money from making and selling these things; the kits aren’t terribly expensive (we bought two for less than 5 euros) but there are a lot of drivers in France buying up these things.
In any case, based on a relatively small sampling of opinion from various friends, I’d say that reactions are decidedly mixed. They range from grudging acceptance (“Well, it’s the law.”) to bemusement (“Seems a bit crazy, don’t you think?”) to downright disbelief (“Rubbish!” said one couple simultaneously, when I asked them what they thought).
Despite the news coverage and the friendly discussions, one thing I haven’t seen or heard is how the breathalyzers actually work. How easy are they to use? Will people really go into their cars after a night of dining out or partying with friends, retrieve their kits, and test themselves? So I decided to do a little experiment of my own, because I honestly had no idea how little alcohol it might take to push someone (like me, for instance) over the legal limit.
Let’s start with the basics. First, the kit itself. It’s sold in a cardboard box, a bit larger than a pack of standard playing cards. And here’s what it looks like:
Now let’s move to my experiment, which I tried to make as realistic as I could. I started by pouring myself a small kir (white wine with cassis) as an apéritif before a recent lunch at home. Then as my wife and I enjoyed our lunch, we shared a bottle of rosé wine between us, as well as drinking some sparkling water (Perrier). Finally, before starting the test, I waited precisely one hour.
What do you think so far? To me, the single kir and a few glasses of wine seemed like what a fairly normal guy might have with a nice lunch, whether he was out in a restaurant or eating at home. Waiting an hour seemed sensible as well. So now, let’s move on to the breathalyzer itself — which is where the surprise came in.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I figured some sort of tube (to blow through) would be involved. As it happened, this is what I found:
And here’s how it goes down. First, you break off the plastic bits at both ends of the tube. Then you carefully pour out the “harmless white crystals” (I know — what is that all about? What if you were in your car — would you roll down the window and pour the “harmless white crystals” onto the street? I guess so.).
Then you blow into the bag and fill it, with one exhalation. Next you insert the chemical-filled tube into the bag. Then you slowly and carefully press down on the bag, so that the air (your breath) is expelled through the tube in about 20 seconds. Then you wait two minutes or so.
Are you following this? Don’t worry — the instructions are printed on the inflatable bag, with French on one side and English on the other.
After all this, and waiting the necessary two minutes, I looked at the tube. If I were “over the limit,” the crystals in the tube would have turned green. And in fact, they barely changed colour at all, even at the end closest to the bag. To put it simply, I was in the clear.
Now, what did I take away from all this? A few things:
No need to panic about some wine with your meal. Whether we eat out or at home, my wife and I have our “big meal” at lunch rather than dinner. One of the reasons for this habit is that I don’t relish the idea of driving home on dark country roads after having wine with dinner, even if I’m not “over the limit.” So my experiment shows that a moderate amount of wine isn’t a problem, at least for me.
This is pretty fussy stuff. I’m not sure, based on my own use of the kit, whether this new law is going to be of much practical benefit. Reasonable people probably will behave reasonably (as before). And people who drink way too much and then get into their cars will probably be as unreasonable (and deadly) as ever. It’s hard to imagine someone who is actually drunk going through all the fiddly steps of using the kit, and then “discovering” that he’s had too much alcohol.