My own private breathalyzer

2012-05-14 12:42

My neighbour, Bernard, has just delivered two little green packets to my door containing the DIY breathalyzer kits that, from July 1, will be compulsory for all drivers in France to carry in their cars.

I know it’s still only May, but Bernard doesn’t trust me, and I can’t blame him.

Being South African, I am naturally inclined to lawlessness and moving to a country where laws are actually implemented hasn’t been easy.

Bernard is constantly worried that I will fall foul of some French regulation and get arrested.

When I first arrived he confiscated my car keys on learning that, a week after buying a car, I was still shopping around for an insurance deal. Miming the universal sign for “handcuffs”, followed by the universal sign for “you will be f**ed”, he made me understand what would happen if I got caught.

So I insured the car and he gave me back my keys.

Then he made me drive to the supermarket to buy an emergency triangle (for visibility in case of a breakdown and also compulsory) and two unflattering fluorescent jackets that came with instructions to be kept inside the car – not in the boot – and visible at all times for police inspection.

Which answers another French mystery: why so many drivers hang these hideous day-glo jackets over the back of their seat, as if they actually like them.

The thinking behind this rule is that if you break down at night you, and possibly a passenger, will be required to put on these jackets before climbing out of the car. If the jackets are in the boot, it means you’d have to climb out of the car and walk the length of your vehicle to get them. Unless you were wearing an LED lampshade on your head at the time, this would be dangerous.

“Dangerous?” I say, my Jo’burg brain struggling to wrap itself around this new definition of the word.

“Yes, because you won’t be visible to other road users while you’re walking to the back of your car,” says Bernard, with infinite patience.

“Yes-no, but, you see …” My French is not up to explaining to Bernard that if your car breaks down at night in Johannesburg, the last thing you want is to be visible to other road users.

Climbing out of the car in a pulsating orange jacket holding up a red triangle would be like saying “Woohoo, I’m over here!” to every gang of highway robbers with keen eyesight. Minutes later, stripped of your worldly goods, you’d be left standing there shouting “help” in your emergency jacket because Jo’burg criminals wouldn’t see a market in such a hideous thing, especially if they’d just got your Camper shoes.

OK, so now I’ve got my two fluorescent jackets, my red triangle and enough compulsory paperwork in the glove compartment to start a forest fire (insurance papers, licence papers, roadworthy papers). Now I have to make room for two breathalyzer kits.

Why two? Because if the cops stop you and make you use one on suspicion that you’re over the limit (a preamble to them using their own breathalyzer equipment if your DIY ballon goes ballistic), you’ll still need an unused one in order legally to complete your journey.

That’s if you’re sober. If you’re over the 0,05% limit, this will be academic. Standing on one leg and saying things like “Blow into this bribe, officer,” apparently doesn’t work here.

There is corruption gossip: the tender for making the breathalyzer kits that sell for €1 a pop went to an acquaintance of Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president who introduced the law before being ousted from office.

But the main aim of the new law is to get people to buy into the idea of policing themselves.

Those who think it’s a good thing, like Bernard’s wife, Françoise, say it will make you think before you drink before you drive – or let anyone else.

I’m skeptical about this part of the plan. Giving yourself a breathalyzer test before you leave a bar after a Big Night Out requires the kind of thoughtfulness, maturity and clarity of vision that people chucking it down in bars are not so famous for.

After a few drinks we all think we’re brilliant drivers as we fumble for our car keys and note, with surprise and delight, how the other patrons appear much better looking than they did three hours ago.

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