petite anglaise

January 7, 2005

behind the wheel

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaise @ 12:20 pm

I abhor the way so many French people think drinking and driving is acceptable behaviour.

Mr Frog rolled in merrily at midnight the other night, after dinner with a friend, reeking of alcohol. He claimed to have drunk only a couple of glasses of wine. I will concede that he is the only person I know who after drinking one beer often smells like he has knocked back an entire bottle of whisky. There is apparently a phrase for this in French, avoir l’haleine qui marque facilement (breath which ‘marks’ easily), which I’m not sure has a direct equivalent in English. This means that I never really know whether he has had two drinks or ten. But on many occasions I have witnessed the difficulty he has turning the key in the front door lock, heard him crashing around the apartment like an injured rhinoceros, and seen how ropey he is feeling the following day. So I suspect that his definition of ‘a couple of drinks’ differs quite radically from mine.

It’s not the drinking that worries me. It’s the fact that he cheerfully rides home on his Vespa when he’s had a skinful. It’s the fact that when I wake up briefly in the night and see that it is 4 am and his side of the bed is still cold and empty, I am filled with terror at the thought that he might be lying in a hospital somewhere, or, worse still, undiscovered at the side of the road. It’s the fact that he is a daddy now, and I wish he were a little more aware of his own mortality, not to mention the damage that he could do to some innocent pedestrian or driver if he loses control of his scooter.

And let’s face it, vintage Vespas are not the most stable of vehicles. It’s easy to tip over, especially if the road is slippy or wet, and he has already had one accident (sober) which involved the wearing of a very attractive leg brace (une attelle in French) and receiving early morning visits from a nurse for injections to prevent blood clots caused by wearing said brace.

My own experience when living in the UK was that although we Brits do drink to excess, and indeed have an alarming tendency to consider getting drunk as The Whole Point of an evening out on the town, the person driving usually doesn’t touch a drop. Not even one measly little shandy. Despite the fact that it is a shockingly expensive business buying soft drinks in a bar. If there is no ‘designated driver’, we get taxis. Or a night bus. Or walk. If anything, the younger generation tend to be even more sensible about this than our parents’ generation.

Ever since I’ve lived in France, I’ve been consistently dumbfounded by the amount of drinking and driving I have encountered. Which includes middle aged people driving 80 km home from weddings and New Year celebrations, a doctor and father of two driving back from an extended drinking session which had been rounded off with several tequila slammers and Parisian friends driving from restaurant to bar to home on a night out in Paris. It’s true that the French tend to drink in moderation and at a wedding, for example, eat a four or five course meal over as many hours and don’t tend to get as inebriated as a British person would, but I think that this is precisely where the danger lies. Because someone who has had three or four drinks is simply not qualified to make a decision about whether they are fit to drive or not. Short of taking a breath test kit with them (and I did once see these handed out at the end of a wedding celebration to all drivers) it is not a judgement they can make. Moderation can be a treacherous thing.

There have been some hard-hitting television ad campaigns over the last few years targeting this problem, and statistics show that these have had some success in increasing awareness and reducing the number of casualties. But I think there is still a long way to go. Articles I have read point out the French (along with some other European nations like the Germans and Austrians) do not believe in ‘designated drivers’, they believe in drinking up to the limit (which some think should be increased) and crossing their fingers that they won’t get stopped for a random breath test. A Frenchman’s right to a glass of wine or two with his meal cannot be challenged.

Who am I to challenge this very different drinking culture? I will simple continue to pray, every time Mr Frog goes out with friends, that he won’t have to learn his lesson the hard way.

  • Playing on my Ipod: nothing. I haven’t received it yet. And when I have, I won’t be telling you, so there.
  • Missing Blighty: Bez on Celebrity Big Brother. Can someone tape it for me?

40 Comments

  1. I noticed the same phenomenon at a New Year party in France. On New Year’s day we had a big lunch preceded by the obligatory “apéro” plus several glasses of wine during the meal and, no doubt, a “digestif”. My ex frog then drove us back to Lyon in the afternoon. I was horrified and, if I had the choice, I would have refused to travel with him, but we were in the middle of rural Bourgogne and I had no other option of getting back, unless I drove myself (I don’t drink) but at that time, I had never driven “on the wrong side of the road” before and wasn’t insured, so it was a case of the lesser of two evils…

    As you say, “moderate” drinking is so ingrained in the culture, I wonder if it will change…

    Comment by witho — January 7, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

  2. I think it’s even worse in “province”. At least you can get a cab easily in Paris.
    But for young people going out in medium town, it’s not easy. No night bus, no cab and that habit of having nightclubs set up in the middle of the countryside just because they don’t want too much noise in the quiet city centre.
    Quite a lof of people have a designated driver when they go out. But people are sometime irresponsible.
    When I was a child, growing up in the countryside, I remember that my parents used to check the local Sunday paper to see if there was any young people they knew who crashed their car on the way back from the clubs. And almost every weekend someone died that way.
    A few years ago, they decided to put up a sign ( a real size black man) at every spot where someone died in a crash. The side of the road to the most popular nightclub nearby was quite crowded. It’s really sad that it didn’t change the people behaviour.

    Comment by Chninkel — January 7, 2005 @ 1:02 pm

  3. I saw those signs with the silhouette at the side of the road when driving to Bordeaux through the Dordogne. They also had the number of deaths on that road on a sign…

    Comment by witho — January 7, 2005 @ 1:05 pm

  4. Very few things infuriate me as much as drunk drivers. I actually “don’t care” if they kill themselves, but when they kill other people…it just seems like the epitome of egotism. Now, Mr. Frog may drive a vespa which, granted, limits how many he could kill but he also has a responsibility to to stay alive for Tadpole. There are so many freak accidents that can happen, why go out search out the easily preventable ones? :evil:

    Comment by Elin — January 7, 2005 @ 1:10 pm

  5. I just wrote a long comment, then submitted without using the security code…

    Summary: I was amazed when I discovered the “designated driver” tradition in England. How eccentric. Where I come from (rural South-West France), it is perfectly normal to drive, however drunk you are, and to be outraged when given a ticket by the police (fascists!!). This attitude feels totally unacceptable now, I must be turning English.

    Celebrity Big Brother?? Where are the celebs? Out of all of them, I only knew Germaine Greer and Brigit Nielsen. Can’t you get it the same way you get Eastenders?

    Comment by céline — January 7, 2005 @ 1:11 pm

  6. I have also seen those black figures at the side of the road in Bordeaux. I found them very frightening to see.

    As a student I lived in the US for a year, and I was also shocked at how many people would drink and drive, particuarly students under 21. As they couldn’t go into bars they’d drive around drinking all night instead. One girl actually told me that she ‘drove better when she was drunk as she would make sure she was concentrating’.

    I think the problem lies in the fact that as well as the lack of travelling options there just isn’t the stigma attached to drink driving in many other countries the way there is here in the UK. It isn’t seen as a slur on the character. In the US you have to be caught about three times before you lose your licence.

    Comment by stressqueen — January 7, 2005 @ 2:14 pm

  7. Agree with all of your sentiments, but now in France for 2 years can’t say I miss the binge drinking culture at home in the UK.

    Topical article from Observer this weekend:

    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1382157,00.html

    Comment by spanna — January 7, 2005 @ 3:03 pm

  8. Great minds… I hadn’t seen that article, but I agree with what is said 100%. I’d forgotten about old men having spirits with breakfast. I spent a year in Normandy and the old men in those cafés that women can’t really go into without feeling like an extraterrestrial, had calvados in their coffee.

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 3:19 pm

  9. Spanna – the link didn’t seem to work
    I also feel alienated from the binge-drinking culture in Britain and I don’t think anyone here is saying that it is preferable to the French attitude. It’s the drink-driving which concerns people…

    Comment by witho — January 7, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

  10. When we got married in France a few years ago we had British and French guests (as married a Rosbif).
    Guess who enquired about taxi services to get back to their hotels/accomodation ? Not one French guest !
    We should have had alcohol only for responsible Brits and soft drinks for the French… would have gone down well no doubt.

    Comment by Froog — January 7, 2005 @ 3:38 pm

  11. witho – Guardian url’s with commas don’t work quite right, you need to select the whole link up to html and paste it into your browser instead of clicking on it

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 3:39 pm

  12. So wait, you’re telling me British pubs overcharge for soft drinks for designated drivers? That’s not very civic-minded! Over here bartenders often give you Cokes or club sodas for free out of appreciation for your “sacrifice.” At the very least they don’t cost more than a dollar or so.

    It doesn’t stop some people from driving drunk, though, even though it is VERY taboo here.

    Comment by Jamie — January 7, 2005 @ 3:52 pm

  13. Well, out here in the Canadian Wild West, people really had a ‘saloon’ mindset until urbanization caught up with us. Then, minority groups were ghettoized and alcoholism became rampant in those quarters. We lost a lot of people, especially among the young…

    all by way of saying that drunk driving has a zero tolerance around here now, and yes, it is enforced legally. Zealously. And here, it’s not just a tap on the wrist, pay the fine and go get drunk again… the offenders get their drivers licence jerked for three months. It was the only way to make it work. And it has.

    As for us, we were feeling smug last time the last time we hit a roadblock, as we just got waved through… i guess the gendarmes had figured out that they didn’t have to waste their time on a Muslim family, as we don’t drink…

    Comment by anan — January 7, 2005 @ 5:34 pm

  14. Here in Iceland they have two completely totalled car wrecks set up on a high platform just outside Reykjavik, placed up against one another as in a head-on collision. Below there is the death toll so far this year in road accidents. I always shudder when I pass, particularly as here we don’t have two-lane highways, all the traffic is head-on.

    Incidentally, Petite, today I read some of your archives on adoption and just want to applaud you for your courage. In what you did, and in sharing. They are very very moving.

    Comment by Alda — January 7, 2005 @ 6:23 pm

  15. Here in the Washington, DC area there is an organisation that has established a free taxi service (paid for by contributions from multiple businesses) that allows drunk people to catch a ride home. I think it’s mainly in effect on holidays where drunken driving is higher than normal – New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s, etc. Not sure how many people take advantage of it, but it seems like a good idea.

    Comment by Nigel M. — January 7, 2005 @ 6:34 pm

  16. “A Frenchman’s right to a glass of wine or two with his meal cannot be challenged.”

    That’s very very true.
    I find it quite difficult, even though I’m really not an heavy drinker, not to have a glass of wine or two during a good meal. I usually don’t go further than 2 glasses when I’ll be driving, as I know it’s the legal limit (unless I know I’ll have quite some time before driving then I can allow myself a little extra :D) but still, not drinking at all (especially when the wine is good) feels like the meal isn’t “complete”.

    Comment by Aiua — January 7, 2005 @ 6:52 pm

  17. Around here anyway (college town) soft drinks are often cheap or sometimes even free in bars in the evening – just so that there’s an advantage to being the DD.

    There are no two-lane roads in Iceland? Does that mean no divided highways? Or just that when two cars are coming towards each other they have to drive onto the shoulder? Scary!

    Comment by srah — January 7, 2005 @ 7:08 pm

  18. Drinking and driving is much frowned upon in New England (northeastern portion of the United States).

    We get together with friends monthly for a wine dinner and every car has a driver that only has a small sip of each wine and is definitely sober at the end of the night.

    The guilt I’d feel if I hurt or killed someone as a result of drunk driving would be unbearable. The rage I’d feel if someone I love was killed by a drunk driver would be unquenchable.

    Comment by Bob — January 7, 2005 @ 7:48 pm

  19. I noticed the same in Italy. Worse still it was a combination of alcohol and pot.

    Comment by Claire — January 7, 2005 @ 9:04 pm

  20. I’m a thirty-something french male, and I’ve been guilty of that very french sin. :oops:

    Now that I live in Beauvais, with most of my friends still in Paris, I’ve come to realize how dangerous that hour-long drive back really is, whether from alcohol consumption or just plain tiredness.

    Strangely enough, I’ve found that most of my friends are perfectly happy to let me sleep at their place after a dinner or other bash. French dinners are such long-winded affairs… finding sleep in the sofa has never been difficult!

    Comment by Mathieu — January 7, 2005 @ 9:09 pm

  21. After being a witness at more than one open bar art opening, I can safely attest that French people are just as likely to get sloshed, minus the food, than English people, contrary to what that Guardian article indicated. I think the key difference is in Pub culture, which really doesn’t exist in France.

    Here, you can sit, rather primply, at a brasserie, in a little chair and get your alcohol served, one miniature glass after another. You could get slightly sloshed. But if you go to anyone’s dinner party, art opening, party, or club, where people sneak in bottles, pills, champagne and joints, you’ll see how far they go. There’s nothing delicate about it, and it has nothing to do with food.

    Comment by nardac — January 7, 2005 @ 9:15 pm

  22. er, nardac, when’s the next one?

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 9:36 pm

  23. hahaha! Well, tomorrow night is the big monthly Louis Weiss night. All the galleries in the vicinity of that street have openings. There is NO open bar, but that’s a good way to see what french artsies trying to look cool while getting trashed. There’s always a party somewhere else after.

    Open bar…just have to find out when the next Espace Paul Ricard opening is. I think it’s in a couple of weeks. Oh, I’ll just call Voin…

    Comment by nardac — January 7, 2005 @ 11:09 pm

  24. Years ago my sister and I drove to Door County in Wisconsin, USA. The road between each town is quite narrow, and we were confused by the large number of white crosses that lined the side of the road. There were thousands of them. At a local winery we asked if they were what we thought they were. “Yes,” the woman told us. “Too many people drive drunk while on vacation here, and those crosses represent each of their deaths.” She told us that they were placed along the road with the hope of deterring further drunk driving. I hope it works because those crosses were a very sobering sight.

    Comment by pismire — January 7, 2005 @ 11:23 pm

  25. hey, cool blog! mind if i add you to my blogroll? If you like, you can come visit me sometime at http://indulgence.squarespace.com/

    ~Jade.

    Comment by Jade — January 7, 2005 @ 11:28 pm

  26. Most of whatever Bez has had to say so far, has been difficult/impossible to understand. I used to live in Leeds, but his accent, especially after a few drinks, has been impenetrable. Germaine, John and Birgit have been entirely nonplussed. The highlight so far has been watching him talk in the diary room at 2 AM, slipping further and further down the chair, while his speech became steadily more incomprehensible. Thank goodness HE wasn’t going to be driving anywhere!

    Comment by Ruth — January 8, 2005 @ 10:51 am

  27. Srah! While there are two lane “highways” in the immediate area surrounding Reykjavik, the rest of the country roads are, err, exciting…

    Comment by Elin — January 8, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

  28. Bez: I imagine the poor chap fried his brain over the years so it may be a synapse problem and not just an accent problem, don’t you think?

    Has he brought his maracas?

    Comment by petite — January 8, 2005 @ 2:22 pm

  29. Here in Geneva we also have a free taxi service during holiday periods – Opération Nez Rouge (nothing to do with the UK’s Red Nose Days). It works brilliantly and has been a godsend on more than one occasion. Geneva also has an excellent public tranposrt system, which helps.

    Given how strong the French influence is here – and just over the border, on the road out to Evian, there are tens of those black silhouettes, usually on inexplicably straight, flat parts of the road – I am always surprised by how developed the designated driver culture is. It’s quite common for people to go to Lausanne or Annecy for evening’s out – both a good 45 minutes away – and there always seems to be someone prepared not to drink. I guess it helps that people here on the whole do not drink to excess – there’s nothing worse than being a designated driver when the rest of the group decides to make it a Big Night…

    PS Got done by the security system first time round too – I thought it was your site meter. I was terribly impressed !

    Comment by Waterhot — January 8, 2005 @ 3:29 pm

  30. Bez and Germaine Greer are forming a bizarre brains trust in the house. Bez is actually a truly nice guy and his actuals views are fair and positive, if clumsily expressed. GG is just so incisive and balanced. I think that the choice of housemates for the CBB is the cleverest so far.

    Having lived in Leeds is no guide to being able to understand Bez’s Manchester accent, Ruth, but it reminds me of a time when I was sat next to him in The Duncan pub in Leeds when he thought it’s be fun to grind his had into a pint pot. I got the job of taking him to the Infirmary. I didn’t get the job of hitting his drum though (this was in the pre-maracas days).

    Comment by backroads — January 9, 2005 @ 9:17 am

  31. For ‘had’ please read ‘hand’ and not ‘head’. I don’t always correct my typos but this is an important distinction.

    Comment by backroads — January 9, 2005 @ 9:19 am

  32. Perhaps if France did not have such wonderful wines the interest in drinking would decrease. However, we would all suffer. I will admit that this Canadian girls’s “right to a glass of wine or two with (her) meal cannot be challenged.” Yet, I do agree with your drinking and then driving concerns.

    Oh, I must say: “Hello, Michele sent me.” And she did not require a glass of wine before doing it. Shame.

    Yes, Petite Anglaise, you are it.

    Comment by Michele — January 10, 2005 @ 9:14 am

  33. Ah the old ‘I’ve only had a couple of glasses of wine’ trick. Ce n’est pas simplement avec le Français, je pensent. It also depends on how big the glasses were.

    Now, that Germaine Greer – what’s her game? This is the woman who wrote The Female Eunuch! She’s seems to have moved into a parallel universe as far as her career is concerned.

    I’m told that the programme makers had trouble getting enough housemates this time around so the time has come for a new game – Fantasy Celebrity Big Brother. The public chooses the people it would most like to see in the house. Here’s my choice – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Paris Hilton, JoLo, Max Clifford, Shane McGowran, the Rev Ian Paisley, Condoleezza Rice and Timmy Mallett.

    Comment by Vernon — January 10, 2005 @ 10:41 am

  34. In Australia it is an absolute no, no to drink and drive. The government, particularly in the state of Victoria (where I am from), has spent decades educating the public about this and there is still an ongoing campaign to curb drink driving, especially around Christmas/New Year and Easter when most drink driving related fatalities occur. The blood alcohol limit is .05 which is fairly low. Ultimately this means if you want to drive, it’s just safer not to drink at all.

    Random breath testing happens ALL THE TIME. Only last month when I was back home (I currently live in the UK) I was chauffering three people home from a cricket match at the MCG and EVERY car on one stretch of road was pulled over by the “booze bus”. I passed with flying colours not having touched a drop all day (luckily it’s not illegal to drink vast quantities of caffeine – yet), but THREE vehicles in front of me failed. I was astonished.

    Anyway, this is possibly the longest comment I’ve ever written. It’s all Michele’s fault. Yes, she sent me here! But I’m sure I’ll be back . . .

    Comment by Kimbofo — January 10, 2005 @ 10:47 am

  35. I’m afraid I don’t drink or drive. I like your blog and will be blogrolling you. And by the way, hello, Michele sent me! :lol:

    Comment by Annie — January 10, 2005 @ 11:17 am

  36. Even in our culture, I am surprised by the people who feel it is ok to drive after drinking. We have had a barrage of commercials about it, yet still, folks continue.

    Michele sent me.

    Comment by bari — January 10, 2005 @ 11:25 am

  37. In case my regular readers are puzzling over the Michelle sent me‘s in today’s comments, I am apparently the target for the daily comment game on Michele’s site

    Welcome to all new visitors!

    Comment by petite — January 10, 2005 @ 11:37 am

  38. “Playing on my Ipod: nothing. I haven’t received it yet. And when I have, I won’t be telling you, so there.”

    Hahaha – very good. I’m not suprised that French attitudes to drinking haven’t changed. I remember when I was visiting some friends in New Caledonia ten years ago I saw a guy crash into two parked cars while attempting to leave a boozy lunch. I was astonished at the lack of concern about this, particularly on the part of the people whose cars had been dinged.

    I read an interesting piece saying that the French wine industry is sabotaging the government’s campaigns – see http://www.decanter.com/news/47192.html.

    By the way, Michele sent me.

    Comment by BHR — January 10, 2005 @ 1:17 pm

  39. I would worry too if I had irresponsible man that drinks and drives and dissapears until the wee hours of the night with “friends”.

    Comment by pia — January 10, 2005 @ 5:48 pm

  40. My dad sent me an email from France last Sunday telling me that my 27 year old brother had been caught drinking and driving coming back from a family dinner with a level of alcohol of 1.8! He added that he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to work anymore (he needs to drive around all day). This email infuriated me. That’s how French people react when you tell them you’ve been caught: oh poor you, it’s such bad luck!

    This shows a lack of respect for one another that is quite common in the French society. Also a contempt for the law which is considered as something annoying rather than something useful for society.
    I’ve come to realize that since I live in New Zealand where people, like in England, do drink a lot but would not drive. It makes me very angry and I don’t see how the French mentality could change.

    Comment by Maurine — January 10, 2005 @ 11:35 pm


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