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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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BREXIT

‘So stressful’: How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple’s Tuscan dream

One couple from Manchester found the home of their Tuscan retirement dreams, but the stalemate over a UK-Italy driving licence agreement is throwing their future into question.

'So stressful': How Italy-UK driving licence fiasco threatens couple's Tuscan dream

Iain and Lynn Gosling lived and worked all their lives in and around Manchester – at a bank, where they met, then in various schools – but had always dreamed of retiring in Tuscany.

In 2018, with the Brexit clock ticking, they decided to take the plunge, and after a lengthy Place in the Sun-style hunt, they finally found their ideal home.

The podere (farmhouse) they chose just outside the town of Pomerance, in the province of Pisa, checked all their boxes: it had an olive grove, was close enough to the beach, had a friendly local community, and the town was particularly invested in green energy, sourcing most of its power from renewables.

Most importantly, it was just over an hour’s drive from Pisa airport, meaning they could regularly go back and visit family in the UK.

READ ALSO: ‘We bought the cheapest house in Piedmont and live mortgage free’

“We’d holidayed in Tuscany for 20 years, and the views and everything were even better than where we’d been holidaying. So we kind of thought we struck gold really,” says Lynn.

“When we saw it, we just knew, and when we went into the town it was such a good, welcoming feeling.”

Iain and Lynn's podere in Pomerance.

Iain and Lynn’s podere in Pomerance. Source: Iain Gosling.

The couple began building a new life, learning Italian and befriending local residents. They were careful to take the necessary steps to secure their future in Italy before the Brexit deadline, registering with the town hall and later obtaining carta di soggiorno residency cards.

But – like many other British nationals in Italy – the pair didn’t anticipate that almost two years on from Brexit, negotiations for a reciprocal driving licence agreement between the two countries would have stalled. It’s an ongoing state of limbo that threatens to make their retirement dream unworkable.

While with hindsight the pair would have exchanged their driving licences before the Brexit deadline, they believed a deal would soon be reached – especially as the UK allows EU licence-holders to drive with almost no restrictions.

“If we cannot drive in the short term, I’m sure we can find a way round it somehow,” says Iain. “Longer term? No, not really.”

READ ALSO: Do you have to take Italy’s driving test in Italian?

A 12-month grace period granted in 2021 is due to expire in January unless an agreement is reached, forcing UK drivers to choose between taking an Italian driving exam that could well turn out to be unnecessary, or gambling on a last-minute deal that risks leaving them without a valid licence if it doesn’t materialise.

For Iain and Lynn, who live a four-minute drive from the town on hilly country roads without access to public transport or pavements, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice.

“I’d be absolutely lost without driving,” says Lynn, who judges that without a car the couple would have to make daily hour-long round walks into town to buy basic necessities.

They decided that Iain would take the exam so that at least one of them would still be able to drive in the absence of a deal, and booked his theory test for November to give him time to prepare.

As a minimum of 32 days must pass between passing the theory test and sitting the practical exam, he’ll only just secure his Italian licence in time in the event that there’s no agreement – if he manages to pass both on the first go.

READ ALSO: Some of the best learner sites for taking your Italian driving test

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse.

Iain and Lynn outside their Tuscan farmhouse. Source: Iain Gosling.

“So – no pressure on the theory test,” says Iain, who plans to fly back early from Christmas holidays in the UK to sit his practical exam if he succeeds in passing the former.

The couple know they could have begun the process earlier. But the test requires answering the same theory questions as a native Italian speaker and a taking mandatory six hours of practical lessons, and it isn’t cheap – Iain and Lynn estimate the total cost to be just under €1,000.

What’s more, those who pass an Italian driving test are classed as new drivers (neopatentati) for three years, which comes with a range of restrictions on speed limits and vehicle engine size, and a zero tolerance policy on alcohol.

READ ALSO: Driving licences: Are the UK and Italy any closer to reaching an agreement?

All this has made taking the test a last resort for people who believed the UK and Italian governments would have reached an agreement by this point – or have at least issued clear guidance as to what action UK licence-holders should take.

The UK’s ambassador to Italy stresses that negotiations continue – though has encouraged British residents to book an Italian driving test.

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Rome told The Local in October: “Since August we have continued and intensified further our work with our Italian colleagues and have made progress towards our shared objective.”

Lynn says: “Over the last six months it was very optimistic, everything we were hearing. It’s just in the past two months that we’ve thought, well, wait a minute.”

If Iain doesn’t manage to pass the test before the deadline and no deal is reached, “we are stuck,” he says.

“This situation is so stressful.”

READ ALSO: How UK drivers in Italy face new problems after passing Italian driving test

The couple fear that without the ability to drive, their current lifestyle would be unsustainable.

“You wake up thinking about it, and you go to bed thinking about it,” says Lynn. “Anxiety, that’s how it makes you feel.”

“Someone will turn around and say, well why didn’t you take your driving tests 12 months ago so you’re not in this situation?” says Iain. “But if all the signs were encouraging from the ambassador, we thought well OK, we can keep our benefits here and we don’t want to lose them.”

While the embassy insists that negotiating the agreement is its top priority, Iain worries that the recent political upheaval in both the UK and Italy has pushed the issue on to the back burner.

“We have no choice but to have faith in our British representatives to deliver and soon too, because the previous regulation extension was far too late,” Iain says. “We need to know now so we can make definite plans and contingencies.”

Despite the stress, Iain and Lynn are determined to do all they can to find a way to remain in Pomerance, where they say they’ve been embraced by local residents and have become good friends with their Italian neighbours who occupy the other half of their semi-detached property.

“We don’t want to give this up,” says Iain. “We love it here and we want to stay.”

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