Drunk Driving Draws Global Wrath


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

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.

And while research is sketchy, it appears fewer drivers get behind the wheel drunk in Europe than do in the US. One study conducted in the late 1980s indicated that about 8 percent of US drivers on the road at night had blood-alcohol levels of 0.05 or higher. The comparable number from France was 5 percent; for Britain, 3 percent; and for the Nordic countries, a remarkably low 1 percent.

Experts say that almost all industrialized nations reported declining incidents of drinking and driving during the 1980s, as awareness of its dangers mounted. More recently, the rate of decline has decelerated. In the US, deaths from drunken driving began to rise again in 1995. They have since plateaued at 17,150 per year.

This does not mean the US is the only place where driving under the influence is a problem, however. As European anti-alcohol activists point out, even their levels of drunken driving are dangerous. And in some areas - such as Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union - the problem may be fast getting worse.

Despite an official "zero tolerance" edict, drunken driving is becoming a serious problem in Russia, for instance, as increased prosperity brings wider access to cars. Moscow alone has seen 4,200 drunken-driving accidents this year.

Russian law stipulates that drivers may have no alcohol whatsoever in their bloodstream. Police administer roadside tests via Breathalyzers, but arresting officers are also empowered to set fines on the spot, which gives wide opportunity for corruption. It is by no means uncommon for a drunken driver to persuade a policeman to let him go and ignore the offense on payment of a bribe of between $10 and $20.

In Germany, by contrast, the current front line in the fight against drunken driving is getting breath-testing devices accepted as the equivalent of blood tests for determining illegal levels of alcohol consumption by motorists.

Under current German law, police are allowed to use breath-detection devices to pull aside suspected drunken drivers at checkpoints. But to charge the drivers with an offense, the breath tests must be confirmed with blood tests.

That means antidrunken-driving checkpoints dissipate as police escort suspects to labs for further tests. As a result, only 1 in 300 German drunken drivers actually gets caught, says Wolf-Dieter Beck, head of the legal department at the Munich auto club ADAC.

British activists are already using the Diana tragedy to push for a legal limit of 0.50 grams of alcohol per liter of blood, as opposed to the current 0.80. One in 7 United Kingdom road deaths involves drivers over the current legal limit.

In Brazil, few drunken drivers are jailed. Blood tests are not routinely given and drives can refuse a breath test. "Anyone can drive drunk, knowing they will not be harassed by the police," the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil wrote recently.

* The following writers contributed to this report: Scott Baldauf and Skip Thurman in the US, Peter Ford in Moscow, Alexander MacLeod in London, Ruth Walker in Bonn, Jack Epstein in Rio de Janeiro, and Takehiko Nomura in Tokyo.

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