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World

Zero tolerance proposed as new drink-drive limit

According to a recent survey, most Germans would favor a total ban on drinking alcohol for drivers. Experts have long proposed lower alcohol limits, but so far, the politicians have not followed the recommendations.

A glass of wine to go with a nice dinner at your favorite restaurant, or a mug of beer in a beer garden - and then drive home? So far, that hasn't posed any problems in Germany - as long as the designated driver did not exceed the legal alcohol level of 0,5 parts per thousand in their blood.

Again and again however, this comparatively tolerant regulation has come under fire, with some critics postulating zero tolerance. Such critical voices tend to belong to opposition parties, this time the Greens: "Within our society there is a clear preference for a zerol drink-drive limit ", boldly stated the Greens' traffic expert, Stephan Kühnen, in an interview with the daily "Saarbrücker Zeitung". A new survey conducted by the magazine "Stern" supports his claim: a total of 61% of those questioned in the survey spoke out in favor of a total alcohol ban for drivers. Yet another opposition party in the German parliament, the Left Party, spontaneously welcomed the proposal.

Numerous experts have long favored a much lower legal limit than that which the current regulation provides, among them the 'Deutsche Verkehrswacht', a traffic control institution, which keeps pointing out that a large portion of the auto accidents in Germany occur under the influence of alcohol. For years, the institution has therefore demanded that the drink-drive limit be lowered to 0,2.

Scared of populist outrage?

The traffic expert of the Social Democrats, a coalition partner in the current German government, Kirsten Lühmann, shares some of these views: "Our society needs to discuss tougher alcohol limits", she told DW. She hastened to add however: "I also believe that such new regulations should not simply be forced on people". Furthermore, Lühmann pointed out that a quick realization of a zero limit was highly unlikely as it was not a part of the government's current coalition agreement.

Traffic Minister Alexander Dobrindt (left) and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Bavarian folk festival: Is drinking beer a part of German culture?

Traffic Minister Alexander Dobrindt (left) and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Bavarian folk festival. Drinking beer is part of German culture.

Her concerns were immediately echoed by the federal Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt (CSU) reiterating that, for the time being, the existing 0,5 regulation would remain in force. And even some leading members of the Greens have come around: "The Greens will certainly not propose a bill which would punish car drivers for the consumption of a chocolate candy containing a drop of alcohol ", stated their leader Cem Özdemir in Berlin. Obviously, the Greens are worried to once again come across as a party of prohibitions dictating to people how they should live. The party already went through that experience during the last election campaign when it proposed the so-called 'Veggie-Day', a weekly vegetarian day in public canteens.

When it comes to zero alcohol tolerance for car drivers, most German politicians seem to be worried about a possible backlash. "Many politicians are concerned that such tough regulations would not be accepted by the majority, and that some people would be deeply angered by it, even though various surveys seem to suggest the opposite", concludes Oliver Malchow, chairman of the German Police Union (GdP), while underlining his union's support for it.

Whereas under the current regulation, many car drivers felt insecure about whether or not they had had too much to drink, a zero limit would rule out such ambiguities: "No alcohol when driving!" According to Malchow, various investigations have clearly shown that concentration and the ability to react quickly were already significantly reduced in a motorist once he or she had reached thed 0,5 level of blood alcohol. Apart from that, the reaction to alcohol greatly differs from one person to the next, depending on that person's overall health status, their weight and the specific circumstances under which they consumed alcohol.

More unreported cases instead of a change of conduct

The Chairman of the German Police Union, Oliver Malchow: Good intentions are there, but not the necessary personnel

The Chairman of the German Police Union, Oliver Malchow: Good intentions are there, but not the necessary personnel

In spite of all the evidence, Malchow doubts that a zero alcohol limit for drivers can be implemented: "Even with the current regulation in force, we do not have enough personnel to catch those drivers who have violated traffic rules."

Malchow suspects that tougher regulations could even produce an even greater number of drivers who ignore the alcohol limit. "It is rather unlikely that we can change the behavior patterns of people", he explained, adding that, after all, the consumption of alcohol was a normal part of daily life, and even of German culture as such - especially in traditional wine growing or beer brewing regions.

The same can certainly also be said for other European countries, and yet, some of them have introduced stricter laws. In some Eastern European countries, such as Hungary or the Czech Republic, where zero alcohol tolerance for drivers has been practiced for years, even tiny amounts of alcohol in the blood may result in very heavy fines, in Hungary up to 980 euros.

First blowing, then driving?

Traffic control in the Czech Republic: Stricter laws in other countries

Traffic control in the Czech Republic: Stricter laws in other countries

Poland, where alcohol consumption is notoriously high, has gone yet another step forward in the struggle against drunk driving: In order to make sure that the existing 0,2 regulation is really observed, a so-called "Alkomat" must be installed in every car by 2015. This device is supposed to enable motorists to make sure they haven't exceeded the limit. So far, however, the law only stipulates the installation of the device - not its actual use. France has followed the Polish example by creating a similar law prescribing an alcohol testing device in every vehicle.

What really counts in the end,concludes Oliver Malchow of the German Police Union, is raising general awareness. Perhaps, he argues, a general alcohol prohibition for drivers can be pushed through even in Germany, "simply because, over time, people would get used to it".

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