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Drunk Driving Draws Global Wrath


By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1997


Alcohol and automobiles are a combustible combination all over the world.

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Cultural attitudes towards drinking and driving do differ, nation to nation. Penalties vary widely, too: In Bulgaria and El Salvador, driving under the influence can bring the death penalty. In Turkey, offenders may be simply driven 10 miles from town, dumped, and forced to walk home under police escort.

But as the apparent involvement of alcohol in the Princess of Wales's tragic auto accident death shows, drunk driving is a global scourge that touches all classes. And it's a problem that stubbornly resists authorities' best efforts at eradication. Statistics from many industrial nations show that drunk driving declined markedly during the 1980s, but has since leveled off, or even begun to resurge.

Though it is a heavy price to pay, note experts, Diana's passing could help refocus world attention on the problem.

"There are still far too many incidents of drunken driving accidents in western Europe and the world," says David Turner, international projects manager at the International Council on Alcohol and Addiction in Switzerland.

At press time, new details of Diana's last ride were indicating that alcohol may have played a larger role in the Paris accident than first believed.

French prosecutors said her chauffeur, Henri Paul, had far too much alcohol in his bloodstream to drive legally. One French newspaper reported that a police toxicology test had established the level as 1.87 grams of alcohol per liter - higher than initial reports and the equivalent of drinking at least nine shots of whiskey, quickly.

The London Times reported that Mr. Paul, who was also killed in the crash, had told waiting photographers that they would never be able to catch him. French authorities continue to investigate the role pursuing paparazzi played in the accident, however. On Tuesday a judge placed at least four photographers under formal investigation for involuntary manslaughter and failing to aid victims trapped in the car's wreckage.

If the tragic crash is determined to be alcohol-related, it will unfortunately not be an isolated incident, experts say.

"What the public needs to realize is that while this was a horrible thing, it happens everyday," says Bob Shearouse, director of public policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Irving, Texas. "It happens every 30 minutes [in the United States]."

Americans may think that Europe has a more relaxed attitude towards drinking and driving than does the US. In general, that is not the case, says Mr. Shearouse.

Most US states set the level at which a driver is declared legally drunk at 0.10 percent alcohol in his or her bloodstream. Fifteen have a lower limit of 0.08, which equates to about four drinks per hour for an average size man.

European nations tend to have lower legal blood-alcohol limits. Countries that set the bar at 0.08 include Austria, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland, and Spain. France's legal limit is 0.05 (0.08 percent risks time in jail). (Using this method of measurement, Paul's level was about 0.23.) Other nations with this relatively low limit include Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, and Norway.