A sobering initiative from France but can we do more?...

The use of a motor vehicle, when combined with the use of alcohol and/or drugs, is a 'deadly cocktail' and one of the major factors in the continuing (albeit falling) death toll on our roads. Embracing new technologies such as telematics, reducing blood-alcohol limits and automated traffic law enforcement e.g. speed cameras have, thankfully, contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of deaths on our roads, but - have we gone far enough? Should we not be looking to pro-actively force drivers off the road when they are proven unfit, due to being 'under the influence' of alcohol or drugs?

As of July 1, all motorists and motorcyclists driving in France will face an on-the-spot fine unless they travel with two single-use breathalyser kits as part of that government's drive to reduce the number of drink-driving related deaths on French roads. Such 'do-it-yourself' kits have been around for a while but they can only ever be used as a guide as they do not guarantee the driver will pass an 'official' roadside test. 

As such, is this French initiative the way forward for all EU countries? Is it workable or is it just a case of more French bureaucracy - adding to their existing rules on adjusted headlights, use of warning triangles, luminous vests and sat-nav restrictions? No doubt, cynics may even say it is more about the French government generating additional revenues from a nation famed for its wine drinking than it is about road safety.  

Whatever the motivation, it does however reopen the wider debate around the link between drink/drug driving-related accidents and insurance. Personally, I have always felt that anyone who is found to be over the drink-drive limit should not be able to make a claim from their insurer for damage to their vehicle or themselves. Why? Because drunk driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is illegal.

UK insurers have been criticised in the past for introducing seemingly unworkable policy clauses relating to drivers involved in accidents when under the influence of alcohol or drugs (whatever that means?). Now, if you are injured in a car accident but the insurer alleges you were aware that the driver had been drinking but still got in the car with them, any compensation you are entitled to could be reduced by 20 to 30 per cent. The problem with the current approach is not the concept but the execution and in particular the (unclear) definition of 'under the influence' and how insurers can effectively use this as a 'get out of jail' card to deny an otherwise valid claim even in the most innocent of scenarios.

If governments are serious about tackling drink/drug-related deaths on our roads then there needs to be a more pro-active approach to the solution. The French initiative, though commendable, only scratches the surface in terms of what is required i.e. an all-encompassing approach. Such a unified-approach would need to address the imposition of common EU blood-alcohol levels (preferably zero!), the use of DIY breathalysing kits, the adoption of alcohol-vapour-linked ignition technology, an agreement on insurance policy wordings, a cross-border use of penalty points and much, much higher fines and penalties.

In an ideal world, this unified approach should be a pan-European initiative but given EU governments’ current inability to agree a unified approach to the banking crisis this may be a step too far. For now, a combined effort by the UK and Irish governments and the relevant local regulatory and supervisory bodies would be a good start which, if successful, could then be used as a template for other EU countries to follow.

In the meantime, if you’re planning a driving holiday in France you’ll have to add breathalyser kits to the list of equipment you need to carry with you this summer!