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DRIVING

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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DRIVING

EXPLAINED: The traffic signs you need to know about when driving in Italy

When you start driving on Italy's roads, you'll need to get to grips with a host of new signs and symbols. Here are some of the most common ones you should know about.

EXPLAINED: The traffic signs you need to know about when driving in Italy

If you’re a visitor to Italy or are new to the country, you might be confused by the various traffic signs and what all the different symbols mean.

People who get their Italian driving licence have studied all these in-depth, but if you’re driving on holiday or you haven’t the need to sit the Italian driving test, you can easily get into trouble if you don’t understand the country’s particular rules of the road.

Here, we decode some of the most common traffic road signs you’ll come across.

Parking

Not knowing where you can park and for how long can land you with numerous types of fines.

Generally, if you’re not using a dedicated car park, you’ll need to take care and watch out for the colour of lines you see on the road and the signs you see on the street.

Blue lines mean you have to pay to leave your car there, usually via a parking metre.

Take care with yellow lines, as they are reserved for certain users, such as residents, workers or for going to the pharmacy. 

READ ALSO: How visitors to Italy can avoid driving penalties

If you see parking spots indicated by white lines, anyone can use those and they are usually free – but always check the roadside for any signs or instructions in case.

As you may expect, parking spaces are indicated with the letter ‘P’ (for parcheggio in Italian). In Italy, this is usually displayed on a blue background.

On the photo below, there are a few symbols you need to understand.

Starting from the left, this icon denotes a parking metre and means you’ll have to pay for a parking ticket to leave your car in that zone.

This is valid on workdays – demonstrated by the crossed pick-axes, while the cross means the rules also apply on ‘giorni festivi‘, which covers national holidays, as well as Sundays.

The dates and times below the symbols show when these rules are valid – here, it means from April, 25th to September, 30th, from 8am – 8pm, therefore.

Italian traffic sign showing when and how you can park. Photo: Karli Drinkwater
 
There is much more information in the following parking sign, including the changing tariffs for the days of the week and the weeks of the year.
 
We see the parking metre symbol again, with 8-20 written underneath – meaning you need to pay for a parking ticket between 8am-8pm.
 
 
Below that, there are different sections of the year where the rules on parking change.
 
The first part concerns ‘prefestivo di Pasqua‘, which means the day before Easter marks the start of this tariff, and it runs until May, 31st.
 
On holidays (festivi) or the day before a holiday (prefestivi), the tariff is 80 cents an hour or €4 for the whole day.
 
Feriali‘ means workdays (not to be confused with the similar sounding word, ‘ferie‘, meaning holidays), so from Monday to Friday in this period, parking is free (gratuito).
 
The next one down is valid from June, 1st to June, 30th and from September, 1st to September, 15th. The holiday and eves of holidays are the same tariff, but this time, workdays are also paid parking – 50 cents an hour or €2.50 for the day.
 
Below that are the rates for peak season, defined here as July, 1st to August, 31st. The cross and pick-axes can be seen again, meaning that this applies to all days and there are no free parking days in this timeframe.
 
Finally, this sign indicates some extra instructions for camper vans – in this case, the tariff is 50 percent higher.

In the following parking sign, it’s indicated that only 30 minutes of a stop are allowed and the man pushing goods means that parking for this reason is only allowed for loading and unloading.
Photo: Karli Drinkwater

In the following sign, the red circle with a line through a blue circle indicates that parking is prohibited.

In the absence of any other symbols, the parking ban is valid 24 hours a day on roads outside of urban areas.

On urban roads, without any other instructions, the ban is in force from 8am to 8pm. Supplementary signs with figures, symbols or short inscriptions may limit the scope of this.

In this case, we can see a parking symbol next to an icon denoting the police. This indicates an exception to the rule for police vehicles.

The image below that showing a car being towed indicates that parking constitutes a serious obstruction or danger and that any vehicle parked there may be removed and transported to the municipal depot.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

This parking ban sign is 24 hours a day, indicated by the numbers below the ‘no parking’ symbol.

Again, we can see that any vehicle found parked there may be removed.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

In this example of a parking sign, you are allowed to park your car for 15 minutes, indicated by the 15′.

The symbol to the left of the number represents a parking disc, which you must display in the window of your car at your time of arrival.

If the time on the disc shows that you have been parked longer than 15 minutes, you could incur a fine.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

You may come across so-called ‘pink parking’ (parcheggio rosa)while driving in Italy.

Be aware that these are reserved for pregnant women and parents with children under two-years-old, so don’t park there unless that applies to you.

Since Italy’s Highway Code was updated, you’ll also need a permit to prove you’re eligible for these priority parking spaces.

Find out more about Italy’s pink parking here.

Italys pink parking permit allows pregnant women and parents with children under two years old to park in priority spots. Photo: Karli Drinkwater

ZTLs

Beware of the ZTL – this is one sign you’ll need to learn before driving anywhere in Italy, as there are a lot of them and infringing the rules can sting.

They catch out the best of us; they can be easy to miss as you may not even know what they are.

If you see a round road sign, a red circle containing the letters ‘ZTL’, don’t drive down that street unless you have a special permit.

If you’re just visiting Italy, it’s unlikely you will.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I buy a car in Italy if I’m not a resident?

ZTL stands for Zona Traffico Limitato (Restricted Traffic Zone) and you’re most likely to find them around congested areas and inner cities. The government introduced them to reduce pollution and so the only vehicles allowed to enter a ZTL are residents or businesses in the area.

If you unwittingly sail past one, the camera will take a shot of your registration number and you’ll get a fine of between €83 and €332, plus administrative costs, according to article 7 of the Highway Code.

In this road sign, we see that the ZTL applies 24 hours a day (0-24), but the extra information below shows there are some exceptions – under ‘eccetto‘.

You can drive down that ZTL without a permit if you’re on a scooter or motorbike, are disabled, a taxi or in this example, travelling to the two streets specified for services only.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What are the longer-term alternatives to car hire in Italy?

You would need electronic access to reach these streets in any case, which is something you’d receive with a permit.

Generally, if you’re just visiting Italy, don’t drive down a ZTL.

The red cross over the blue circle below that means no parking or stopping. In the absence of additional information, the ban is permanent and 24 hours a day. Your vehicle will be removed if it’s found stopped in any area where this sign is displayed.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

The following sign indicates that the ZTL has ended and you can drive beyond that point without needing a permit.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

Residential areas

Take care when driving through residential areas, as the rules may differ compared to driving in a town centre.

The top traffic sign of a house and tree with children playing indicates the start of a street or residential area where special rules apply, which are shown on another sign. We can see them right below.

Driving through this area is restricted to a max speed of 30km/h, followed by a sign prohibiting the transit of goods transport vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of more than 3.5 tonnes – unless it’s for loading and unloading goods.

That is unlikely to apply to you but the sign below might. It informs you that, if parking, you must park in the provided spaces.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater

Pedestrian areas

You can’t drive down areas that are meant for pedestrians only, which is displayed with a round, blue sign containing a figure of a person walking.

It might also be accompanied by the description ‘area pedonale‘, meaning pedestrian area. Here, there are no times specified, so assume that it applies 24 hours a day.

There are exceptions in this sign, though. Cyclists may use that route, shown by the cycle symbol and the description ‘velocipiedi‘ (any form of pedalled vehicle with two or more wheels), as may authorised vehicles (veicoli autorizzati).

That could mean street sweepers or residents, for example. If you’re in doubt, it’s unlikely you can drive down that area.

Photo: Karli Drinkwater
 
See full details of Italy’s highway code here and visit our travel section for the latest updates.
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