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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?
A policeman gives a contravenor a breathalyser test during a roadside check focused on speed near Nantes on June 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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READER QUESTION

Reader question: Does the new EU automatic speed limit apply to Switzerland?

From July 6th, an EU rule requiring cars to install automatic braking technology when they cross the speed limit will come into force. What does this mean for cars in Switzerland?

Reader question: Does the new EU automatic speed limit apply to Switzerland?

The rule will only apply to new cars sold on or after the deadline, i.e. cars will not need to be retrofitted with the technology. 

What is an intelligent speed assistance system (ISA)?

Pursuant to Regulation (EU) 2019/2144, all cars sold in the EU must be equipped with an intelligent speed assistance system (ISA). 

This is a technology that automatically slows down cars breaking the speed limit. 

READ MORE: The roads and dates to avoid driving in Switzerland this summer

It uses GPS and speed cameras to determine whether a car is exceeding the speed limit in that area, and then prompts the driver to slow down before gently pushing back on the acceleration pedal and automatically reducing engine propulsion.

From July 2022, all new car models sold in the EU will have to have this technology installed. From 2024, even older car models being sold will have to have to be equipped.

From July 6th cars will also be required to have a black box which records a range of driving parameters like speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

This information will be available to the police only in the event of an accident and will not be accessible by insurance companies. It will also not be available to the police for the purpose of checking speeding fines. 

What about cars in Switzerland? 

The rules will also apply in Switzerland. 

While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is a party to several agreements which mean certain EU regulations apply here as well. 

This means that all cars sold in Switzerland after July 6th will need to comply. 

Why is the rule coming into place? 

The major reason is road safety. 

READ MORE: What is Switzerland’s ‘traffic calendar’ and how can it help me save time?

In Switzerland, along with several other EU countries, speeding is the most common cause of accidents. 

The rule hopes to reduce accidents by 20 percent. 

While many modern cars already have this technology on board, this will be the first time it is mandated. 

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