03/08/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Drinking And Driving, Mon Dieu! New French Law Requires Breathalyzers In All Cars

I've spent many an afternoon driving through the countryside of France -- my mother's homeland -- in a small Peugeot rental car. Together, my mom and I have pulled over alongside a field of sunflowers or a stretch of sandy beach to lay out a picnic where we'd eat and sip the locally made wine. On my next trip, however, I'll not only think twice about taking the wheel after a picnic, but I'll also be blowing into a Breathalyzer to be certain my blood alcohol level is within the legal limit.

Beginning July 1, a new law in France will require all motor vehicles (except mopeds) to have a breathalyzer on hand. The new rule can be found in French at Legifrance. It seems unexpected that a country like France, known for its love of le vin, would spearhead this campaign against drinking and driving, but perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 30 percent of all road fatalities in France are alcohol-related -- a higher rate than in Germany and the UK. In fact, alcohol has been the leading cause of road deaths in France since 2007.

To bring these numbers down and save lives (and there is an election coming), French President Sarkozy has chosen to target drunk driving. According to numerous reports, French authorities will accept a one-time disposable type that costs less than two dollars. They are recommending, however, that motorists buy them in pairs so there's an additional one in case a fellow-imbibing passenger is in need.

The French police will begin strictly enforcing the new law as of November 1, with many spot checks on roads. The idea is that every time a driver (native or tourist) gets into their car after having a drink, they will have a device with which to test if there blood alcohol content (BAC) is over the mandated blood alcohol limit for drinking in France, .05 BAC. That is a much stricter limit than the U.S. limits of .08 in 17 states and 0.10 in 33 states, according to a US government survey.

Because the drunk driving penalty in France is much higher than the "no breathalyzer" fine, the hope is that drivers will eventually begin to self-test before driving. They may risk not having the breathalyzer on hand if they are stopped, but at least they'll know if they are under the legal limit and the fine will be less.

It's possible that this new law may pose some linguistic challenges for non French-speaking tourists who wish to cruise around the countryside. A piece in Budget Travel magazine reports that Hertz rental cars will provide the breathalyzers for free; Avis and Budget had no comment yet on the situation.

France is the first country to enact a breathalyzer on-hand legislation, and I imagine the rest of the world will be watching to see how it affects the road toll. If the new legislation saves lives, the law might be something to consider on this side of the Atlantic. Vive la France ...?

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