It is a great irony that alcohol should be legislated into becoming man's most commonly used recreational drug, as it's the ONLY drug that causes more harm to others than to the user.

This is most evident on our roads, where even in first world countries with low road tolls, alcohol still accounts for between a third and a half of road deaths. Now France is to attempt a novel solution - from July of this year, it will become law in France to have a working breathalyzer in every car on the road, with enforcement beginning November 1.

It may sound extreme, but the world is fast running out of tolerance for the massive global road toll in general and the part of the road toll directly related to alcohol in particular.

A 2006 report entitled Alcohol in Europe by Anderson and Baumberg estimated the cost of alcohol-related harm to the EU's economy at EUR125 billion in 2003. At the time, that was the equivalent of 1.3% of GDP for the entire Union. That's a high price to pay, particularly if alcohol is not your poison of choice.

The total was derived by including all factors, including losses due to under performance at work, absenteeism, premature death ... not just road deaths.

This article focuses on drink driving - the part of the road toll which would disappear if people did not drink alcohol then drive cars. In the broader context of suitable drugs to legalise for public consumption, it must be said that alcohol is the least suitable of all drugs as more harm is done to others than to the user.

Check out this remarkable insight into scientific research done into the real harm drugs cause, done without the meddling of Government and the alcohol lobby.

There are many ways of measuring the fiscal impact of the road toll - most Asian countries are estimated to spend between 2 - 3% of GDP just on the medical aspects of their growing road toll. That's more than the amount of aid they get from foreign countries. It is an epidemic that if it were cal

It's a bit harder to measure the misery and hardship caused by road trauma.

As a rule of thumb, for every one road death there will be somewhere between 20 and 100 seriously injured people, though this ratio varies depending on the ratio of cars, motorcycles and pushbikes.

There are 1.3 million deaths each year, and around 50 million people seriously injured. The people who are getting killed and injured are the most active, the young, the most productive members of our society, and the resultant mass misery from a global road toll of 1.3 million human beings a year is worth contemplating.

So cutting the road toll is becoming an important election cry, partly because public sentiment is shifting, and partly because it makes economic sense to reduce needless overheads.

At some time around a century or more ago, it seems the public accepted road trauma as the inevitable cost of having a motorized personal transport system - that perception appears to be changing, and it seems inevitable that the penalties for those who do not respect the safety of others on public roads will become ever harsher from this point forth.

That's fair! The roads are there to facilitate public transportation. Using them to put other innocent road users at risk is unacceptable behavior, and drinking and driving does just that. Indeed, the propensity of human beings to take risks increases dramatically with alcohol intake over 0.04% and those risks are being undertaken on public roads and killing innocents.

The French road safety push

The French Government may have been a bit late in fully embracing the concept of road safety, but its spectacular rise towards world's best practice from its former mediocrity indicates that France now means business.

Little more than a decade ago, France had one of the worst fatality rates in the civilized world. Since 2001 though, it has systematically worked its road toll downwards with legislation and logical safety measures aimed at reducing speed.

Its diligence has seen it reduce fatality rates every year for a decade to the point where it now has one of the safest road systems in the world.

Lives are still being lost though, and President Sarkozy, with an election looming, has promised to reduce the road toll significantly again by targeting drink driving.

France's culture has been so strongly linked with the taking of wine with midday and evening meals though, that despite exceeding world's best practice in every area other than alcohol, it has maintained a much higher rate of alcohol involvement in fatal accidents than its major European neighbors.

So now Sarkosy is targeting drink driving, and he wants to save another 1000 lives a year - the aim is from the current 4000+ road deaths a year, to 3000 a year in short order.

The numbers support him. In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) put the proportion of UK road deaths attributable to alcohol at 17%, Germany at 12% and France at 27% - if Sarkozy could stop drink driving entirely in France (reenacting the parting of the Red Sea might be easier), they will indeed, save over 1000 lives a year in France alone.

Police will begin issuing fines in France from the beginning of November, and it's interesting that the required "kit" includes not just a working breathalyzer, but a range of accessories that we should, as good citizens, always carry on board a car anyway: a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and and spare bulbs for both headlights and blinkers.

Also compulsory fare will be a warning triangle and a fluorescent safety vest carried inside the car for every vehicle occupant. Failure to comply will cost another EUR90.

Last month, the French authorities also introduced a new law banning satellite navigation systems that show the location of speed cameras, and are apparently very keen on plans to track speeding vehicles by satellite.

The authorities are being very clear to the French road user that it is no longer acceptable to have a vehicle that is even temporarily unroadworthy and at the same time defining the limits of the law - the Government is emphasizing the dangers of public roads and ensuring its citizens meet their obligations.

As far as the breathalyzer required by French authorities, a US$2.00 disposable item will be acceptable, but already everyone is being encouraged to buy such items in pairs so that one can be used to test, or for a friend to use, and still to have the required one to drive home with.

In all likelihood, reusable digital breathalysers will become standard fare when drinkers realize they are paying $2 every time the go for a drink.

The French alcohol allowance is 0.05% blood alcohol content which is far less than in many other countries, even neighboring countries. Deux vins or trois bières and you're approaching the limit.

Regular self-testing must surely become habit for all recreational drinkers, because the laws are slowly closing in as well. Drivers found with more than 50 mg and less than 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood can be fined EUR135 and they will lose six of the 12 points of a clean driving license. Two offenses will cancel your license - less than an other countries. Beyond 80 mg of alcohol, it's a minefield, with fines up to EUR4,500, the loss of license and prison sentences of up to two years available.

The benefits of self-monitoring

Hopefully, it will work, but the area I'm tipping will bring an even great understanding about our relationship with alcohol is the sudden focus on actually measuring what we drink and what the legal readings would be.

A few years ago, we ran an interesting experiment with a digital breathalyzer at Gizmag - I took it down to my local and tested an array of people about their perceptions of how much they thought they had drunk, and what the breathalyzer said.

Based on what I learned from the breathalyzer, I am certain that integrating a breathalyzer into anyone's lifestyle, will be enlightening and at the same time help them to regulate and monitor their risk taking.

The breathalyzer laws in France will be strictly enforced, with lots of spot checks and failure to provide a working breathalyzer when requested by a traffic policeman will attract a fine of EUR11.00 (US$14).

The idea is that every time a French driver gets in their car after having a drink, they will have a device with which to test if their blood alcohol content is over the mandated blood alcohol limit for driving in the country - 0.05%.

With drink driving penalties being so much more costly than the "no breathalyzer" fine, the idea is that drivers will inevitably self-test before driving, even if they then risk a fine for no breathalyzer at a spot check - at least they'll be under the limit.

France is the first country to enact such legislation and when the new laws come into effect on November 1, the world will be watching to see what happens to the road toll. The expected vigorous enforcement of the law will naturally bring such a focus on drink driving in France that the toll will trend down.

If the toll stays down, which means the new legislation is saving lives, the law might well be something that's tried in your neck of the woods.

The saddest irony of all

The world is starting to realize that the 1.3 million lives lost each year (and growing), is totally unnecessary, and France's novel way of ensuring everyone has a way of checking their legal ability to drive might prove to be effective enough for the same laws to be considered everywhere else.

That's because the world is beginning to rail against the enormous burden of the road toll on society, and in particular on the people who perpetrate it.

If these measures don't have the desired effect, then there may even be a push for the zero tolerance approach.

The saddest irony of all is that by world standards, France is one of the top 5% of countries in terms of road safety standards ... and it might still save 1000 lives next year alone with not unreasonable demands on the public or its lifestyle.

These new laws are designed to significantly reduce France's high rate of alcohol involvement in accidents - 28% - COMPARED TO ITS NEIGHBORS.

France already compares favorably with Canada (30%), Australia (31%) and America (39%), and even these countries are still in the top echelon of best practice road safety.

Beyond Northern Europe and North America, the standard of roads declines dramatically, the levels of respect for drink driving laws quickly declines to zero. If the world's roads were as safe as French roads, it would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

In many countries there is no policing of the drink driving laws, and remarkably, there are countries that still don't have any laws governing the use of alcohol at all. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, bus and truck drivers routinely smoke hash.

Imagine how many lives could be saved every year if something were done?

The World Health Organisation did just that when launching its Decade of Action for Road Safety initiative.

All of the country fact sheets used in this story and in the image archive are drawn from the WHO Global Status Report on road safety.

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