DRIVING

Not so much as a can of beer

Spain's road-safety agency says it is considering a total ban on drivers drinking before getting behind the wheel

In Spain, 38 percent of drivers admit to taking the wheel after drinking.
In Spain, 38 percent of drivers admit to taking the wheel after drinking.Carlos Rosillo

Like much of the EU, Spain allows drivers up to 0.5 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. But the country's Directorate General of Traffic (DGT) has recently proposed imposing a ban on drivers drinking as much as a single drop of alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

At present, the punishment for exceeding the alcohol limit, depending on the levels, can involve a fine of up to 500 euros, six penalty points from your license, or a driving ban of up to four years if the alcohol level exceeds 1.2 grams.

A new study by the University of Murcia shows that "driving ability is affected" by alcohol levels of more than 0.5 grams per liter of blood. The Health Ministry decided in 2007 that the alcohol limit beyond which one's driving ability is impaired is a mere 0.3 grams per liter.

The DGT says that its research shows that even the smallest amount of alcohol can increase the risk of an accident when driving. It claims that the chances of an accident are doubled when a driver has 0.3 grams of alcohol per liter of blood, and by five times between 0.5 and 0.8 grams. Beyond 0.8 grams the risk increases ninefold, and above 1.5 grams by up to 20 times.

The DGT has toughened its stance on alcohol consumption over the last two decades. In 2001, it suggested in a magazine article that the average male driver "could drink" two whiskies, or two-and-a-half glasses of wine, or two tins of beer and still be within the legal limit. The amounts were halved in the case of women. Now the message is about zero tolerance.

The DGT has gone from "two whiskies only" to "not even a snifter after lunch"

"Not even a snifter after lunch" is the DGT's new slogan: "It simply isn't possible to calculate whether two beers is going to take someone over the limit," says a source at the DGT. The message is to stop taking the risk. For the moment, however, the DGT isn't planning to introduce zero-alcohol tolerance, saying such an approach is not viable. María Seguí, the DGT's new director general, says that a total ban will be looked at "when the technology allows."

Bosco Torremocha, the head of FEBE, the body that represents the country's alcohol industry, says that current technology is still not sufficiently reliable to establish whether somebody has absolutely no alcohol in their bloodstream. "Somebody who has been drinking, and who only sleeps six hours, could test positive either for the amount of alcohol in their blood or simply on their breath," he says.

The problem is that some non-alcoholic substances will test positive. For example, some inhalers used to alleviate asthma symptoms can test positive. Similarly, many so-called non-alcoholic beers contain a small amount of alcohol that in certain circumstances can result in a positive test.

Most EU member states have the same alcohol-per-liter limit as Spain: 0.5 milligrams. In a number of Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, as well as in Russia, where alcohol traditionally plays a big role in traffic accidents, governments have imposed a zero limit.

But Eugenio Dobrynine, head of the European Automobile Commission, says that zero tolerance doesn't work: "It's inoperable. Other countries have tried to implement this and all it has done is to make things more complicated." He says that the problem isn't so much imposing "alcohol limits" but investing in resources to make sure that the level is respected by motorists.

"Chile has just introduced a zero level, but they have already realized that it is impossible to monitor, and that it simply leads to more red tape," he adds. "The solution lies in educating people to be aware that driving after drinking is simply not an option," he concludes.

A zero level is impossible to monitor and leads to more red tape

The Catalan branch of Spain's RACE motorists' association argues that only professional drivers and people who have recently passed their tests should be prohibited from consuming any alcohol before getting behind the wheel. It also recommends campaigns to increase awareness of the dangers of drink driving.

The Spanish government has been warning of the dangers of drink driving for decades, and has now introduced random breath testing. Last year, 80 percent of drivers stopped by the Civil Guard in random breathalyzer tests were below the limit. The National Toxicology Institute says that 73 percent of the 969 road death victims it tested had consumed alcohol, and of them, more than 76 percent had more than 1.2 milligrams of alcohol per liter of blood.

The under-30s still constitute the majority of such cases. A scheme set up by FEBE is aimed at encouraging groups of young people heading out in a motor vehicle for the evening to designate a driver who will not drink. Its initial survey showed that 38 percent of under-30s say that they have drunk alcohol before driving. Road deaths are the main cause of death among the under-30s in Spain. "Almost half of those deaths take place in the evening and at weekends, and around half of those killed were over the limit," says María Seguí.

"Drinking alcohol in moderation is neither a good nor a bad thing, but there is no denying that consumption changes us," says Francisco Canes, president of the DIA association of accident victims. "The problem is when we combine drinking with activities that require our full attention," he adds. DIA has thrown its weight behind the DGT's proposals for a total ban on alcohol for drivers. "Driving after the consumption of alcohol should have been banned years ago," he insists.

Driving after the drinking of alcohol should have been banned years ago"

The Spanish Highway Association (AEC) also backs zero-alcohol tolerance. "Any measure that will contribute to reducing road deaths will be given our complete support," says Elena de la Peña, the AEC's deputy technical general director.

"Surgeons are not allowed to drink before performing an operation, pilots cannot do so before flying, so why are we more permissive about the roads?" asks De la Peña, who while admitting that there may be some opposition within society to imposing zero-alcohol tolerance on drivers, still says a ban should be imposed "as soon as possible."

Drink driving in figures

- Levels. In Spain, it is permitted to have up to 0.5 milligrams of alcohol per liter of blood, or 0.25 milligrams per liter of air in the case of breathalyzers. For drivers who have recently passed their test, or for professionals, the permitted levels are lower: 0.25 milligrams and 0.15 milligrams respectively.

Sanctions. Having more than 0.5 milligrams per liter of blood is a serious offense and can be punished by fines of up to 500 euros and up to six penalty points. The sanction for having more than 1.2 milligrams can be up to six months in prison and a driving ban of up to four years.

Accidents. Alcohol increases the risk of suffering a traffic accident: twofold from 0.3 milligrams per liter of blood; by five between 0.5 and 0.8; by nine between 0.8 and 1.5; by 20 between 1.5 and 2.5; and by 40 between 2.5 and 3, according to the DGT.

Behavior changes. Alcohol consumption influences our ability to drive. With between 0.3 and 0.5 milligrams per liter of blood we show signs of mild drunkenness, and our psychomotor skills are affected, and our ability to judge distances and lights are distorted. Between 0.5 milligrams and 1 milligram is the equivalent of mild drunkenness, while reducing our ability to coordinate and lengthening our response time, our impulsiveness and our aggressiveness. Between 1 and 2 milligrams per liter of blood we are drunk - we have blurred vision and are unable to coordinate our movements. Between 2 and 3 milligrams we are now completely inebriated - we have blurred vision, and our psychomotor skills are severely impaired. Up to 5 milligrams means that we are liable to fall unconscious, and are physically incapable of driving a motor vehicle. More than 5 milligrams per liter of blood can lead to a person's death.

Eliminating alcohol from the body. An average man weighing between 70 and 90 kilograms requires up to four hours to eliminate the equivalent of two 33cl bottles of beer; in the case of three such beers, the time which must elapse is up to six hours. Two rum and cokes requires up to five hours, and three up to seven hours. For a woman weighing between 50 and 70 kilograms, it takes up to seven hours to process two beers; up to 10 hours to process three beers, and up to eight hours for a couple of rum and cokes, and 12 hours to eliminate three such drinks.

FEBE's Torremocha, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not back a ban. He says that the scheme it ran to encourage groups of young people to appoint a designated driver is the best approach to dealing with drunkenness behind the wheel. That said, he believes a continual cutting back on the amount of alcohol that can be consumed gives the impression that society "is moving backwards. The limit a few years ago was three times what it is now: what makes a difference in reducing accidents produced by drink driving is education and awareness," he insists.

All the experts agree that education has a big part to play in reducing drink driving. There are no shortage of myths about alcohol consumption: that it is mitigated when taken on top of a heavy meal; that drinking large amounts of water and coffee can help dilute its effects; that experienced drivers are better able to deal with the impact of alcohol on their judgment and reactions; or that simply waiting a couple of hours after a drink is enough. "The maximum effect of alcohol comes around one hour after consumption," says the DGT. Tests show that the speed with which the body can eliminate alcohol from the body varies greatly from individual to individual, and between the sexes: the average man requires up to four hours to overcome the effects of two 33cl bottles of beer; in the case of women, that time frame can extend to up to seven hours.

Awareness campaigns have undoubtedly played a significant role over the last two decades in reducing the number of road deaths in Spain and drink driving is now widely seen as unacceptable. Programs such as the EU's Designated Driver awareness scheme have helped to cut by half the number of young people who drink and drive. On the question of whether to impose a total ban on alcohol consumption for car drivers, experts agree that, if nothing else, discussing the issue will continue to raise awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.