Margaret and Dick   


September 2013: The ethylotest

Everything not forbidden is compulsory…or some variation on that theme.  The government decides – and can subsequently decide otherwise.

A year ago we were busily getting ready for a new regulation coming into effect:  every driver would be required to carry an éthylotest (alcohol breath analyzer) in their car.  The police would be checking, and there would be an 11€ ($15) fine in case of noncompliance.  We, being law-abiding noncitizens, rushed off to get a few.  We’ve often asked ourselves, leaving a dinner of fine food and wine, if we were legally impaired.  The éthylotest cost only a couple euros and were even free for a while in the bars.  The government asked all the local pharmacies to carry them.

But critiques emerged.  First, a basic question:  if I check my blood alcohol before driving and still want to be compliant with a ready éthylotest, don’t I actually need to carry two?  Second, a problem of supply:  the number of cars in France greatly exceeded the number of éthylotests   that could be produced before the effective date of the law.

Now, a year later, we returned to the pharmacy to buy a bunch more éthylotests, thinking they would be great gifts for friends back in the States.  “Sorry, we no longer have them.  They were unreliable, so we stopped carrying them.”  Sure enough, consumer advocates had shown that half the breathalyzers on the market lose accuracy after being exposed to the wide temperature variations typical of a car’s glove compartment.  The Minister of the Interior announced, "The éthylotest is no longer mandatory, and there is no longer any sanction."   While alcohol is "responsible for 31% of road fatalities, no one believes that we can reduce this figure by fining drivers 11€ for non-possession of a breathalyzer."  So now the pharmacies will not carry the éthylotest.  What is not required has become effectively impossible.

The French are masters at subtly working their way around rules and regulations.  In a country with many detailed laws on behavior, no one pays much attention if there is no sanction.  The biggest losers in this case were the employees of the one company in France that manufactured the éthylotest, most of whom were laid off.  We do wonder who lobbied to get the tests required so suddenly in the first place.

But we won’t forget the éthylotest, thanks to one memorable episode.  After an epic wine & dine at our favorite restaurant in Carcassonne, Margaret wondered about her blood alcohol level.  Hey, let’s try the éthylotest!    We removed the package from the glove compartment, unwrapped it, and read the instructions.  “Remove the tube from its pocket in the direction of the arrow.  Fill the balloon with a single breath.  Compress the tester lengthwise to the limit.  Insert the blue part of the tester tube into the tube connected to the sack.  Press firmly on the sack to empty it within 15 seconds.  If the tester shows a green band that extends beyond the black line, do not drive.  Mind you, this is all in French.  Oh crap.  Okay, read it again.  “Remove the tube…”  I think she read it three times before she was ready to do the test

What impressed us both was the amount of noise the gadget made when Margaret was pressing the sack to empty it within the recommended 15 seconds.  Wow, that’s some powerful chemical reaction!  It was only when she stopped pressing that we realized she had been leaning on the horn.  Luckily it was raining buckets that evening.  Otherwise the maitre d’ would surely have been rushing out to check on the commotion.

Margaret passed the éthylotest , but we decided she had flunked the common-sense sobriety test.    Clearly a micronap was in order before we got on the road to Limoux. 

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