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DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?
A policeman gives a contravenor a breathalyser test during a roadside check focused on speed near Nantes on June 26, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GEORGES GOBET (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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DRIVING

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

With the cost of airline tickets increasingly discouraging, is driving from Scandinavia to the UK becoming a more attractive option? The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett gave it a try.

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

This summer has seen the return of large-scale international travel after a couple of Covid-hit years that have not been a picnic for anyone.

While the end of restrictions came as a relief, severe delays and disruptions at airports have added a new uncertainty around travel in 2022.

Scandinavia has not been an exception to this, with strikes at Scandinavian airline SAS and delays at Copenhagen and other airports among the problems faced by the sector.

Additionally, the increasing price of airline tickets in a time when inflation is hitting living costs across the board has become another factor discouraging air travel.

Finally, there’s the impact of air travel on climate to be considered. So is there an alternative?

The plan

Unlike colleagues who have made long distance journeys from France and Sweden respectively by rail, our plan was to make the trip from our home in Denmark to the UK by car.

There are a few reasons we picked this less climate-friendly option. I’ll readily admit they were driven (no pun intended) by our own needs, and not those of the planet. I hope we can offset this by using the train more than the car for longer journeys within Denmark, where costs are competitive.

Once we decided not to take our usual Ryanair flight, we only really considered driving. This is primarily because we have a toddler (age two), and felt that on such a long journey, the ability to control the timing and length of our stops would be crucial.

Secondly, the route would have taken longer and been more difficult logistically by rail, and would also have cost more. For example, we arrived at Harwich International Port late on a weekday evening, from where onward travel was to rural Suffolk. The thought of doing this on multiple local rail (possibly bus) services with a tired two-year-old makes me shudder a bit.

The route

From our home in central Denmark, we set out on a Monday morning and drove south on the E45 motorway, crossing the German border and continuing past Hamburg. We then got on to the A1 Autobahn and made for Bremen, where we stopped overnight.

Travelling non-stop, this journey takes just under four hours. It took us around five and a half. We stopped twice and were caught in traffic at Hamburg, where there is lot of construction going on around the city’s ring road.

Leaving early (just after 6am) the following day, we drove southwest and crossed the border into the Netherlands after a brief stop, but then managed to complete the journey to the port town Hook of Holland without a further break.

Our ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich was due to leave at 2:15pm and check-in time was an hour before that. This was the only deadline we had on our journey that would have been problematic to miss, so we gave ourselves plenty of time for the drive from Bremen. We arrived in Hook of Holland at around 11:30am.

Next was a six-hour ferry crossing to the East Anglian coast. We booked a cabin – they are inexpensive on daytime crossings – which gave us a chance to relax after the drive and our daughter a comfortable spot for her afternoon nap.

After a queue at customs in Harwich which took around 45 minutes, we were driving through the Essex countryside just before 9pm local time. The final drive to our destination took an hour and a half.

What went right

It’s not the most relevant information for anyone considering a similar trip, but I have to mention our car. A 2003 VW Polo we bought two years ago that has never had any mechanical issues, I was nevertheless braced for possible problems given its age (and ensured I had roadside assistance for outside of Denmark, more detail on this below).

However, there was not so much as a hint of an issue of any kind at any point during the 900 kilometres it covered on the journey, nor on the way home. Respect.

Our plan to split the trip into two days paid off. I think you could do it in one day (there are also overnight ferries) if you shared the driving and needed less flexibility. I should also recognise here that we live relatively close to Germany and our destination was close to the east coast of the UK. If you were travelling, for example, from Copenhagen to Cardiff, you’d have significantly more driving to do.

For us, knowing we could take long breaks if we needed them took a lot of stress out of the journey and allowed us to adapt to our toddler’s needs – changing nappies, finding a service station playground or stopping for an ice cream.

Stopping overnight also gave us the chance to see some new places (we switched things up on the way back and stayed in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, instead of Bremen) and gave us a feeling of being on our own little bonus holiday.

What went wrong

In all, things went as well as we possibly could have hoped for and our conclusion after we got back home was that we’d like to travel this way again.

We were stopped by traffic police in Groningen city centre because I failed to understand signs showing we were entering a public transport-only zone. The officers who stopped us then offered to escort us to our accommodation a few streets away.

The ferry, operated by Stena Lines, had far less to do on board than we’d imagined there would be on a six-hour voyage. Two tiny off-duty shops, a cinema showing a superhero film and a minuscule play area (which our daughter nevertheless enjoyed) were about the extent of it. We hadn’t downloaded any films ourselves or brought much entertainment with us from the car, so we got a bit bored during the crossing. This is hardly a serious gripe and an easy one to rectify on the return trip.

The practical stuff 

Roadside assistance is obviously crucial for a journey like this, and it’s also important to double check your insurance is valid once you leave the country in which your car is registered and insured – Denmark, in our case.

Foreign authorities can check your insurance is valid. You can document this with the International Motor Insurance or “Green” card, which serves as proof you have motor insurance when you drive outside of the EU (you don’t need it within the EU).

This means that (in theory) you can be asked to present it in the UK. We weren’t asked for it.

The Green Card can be printed via your insurance company’s website. You’ll need your MitID or NemID secure login to access the platform and print off your document. Here is an example of the relevant page on the website of insurance company Tryg. If you can’t find the right section on your insurance company’s website, contact them by phone.

A number of Danish companies specialise in roadside assistance, including Falck and SOS Dansk Autohjælp. You can also include roadside assistance as part of your motor insurance package. We have the latter option, but in either case, I’d recommend calling your provider to make sure you are covered for breakdown in the EU and non-EU countries like the UK (if that’s where you’re going). Obviously, you should add such cover to your existing deal if you don’t have it, or change to a different deal.

The company which operates the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich is Stena Line. Both directions have daytime and overnight departures.

There is a range of prices, and I couldn’t cover all the options here if I tried. However, I’d recommend a cabin on the daytime departures, because it’s inexpensive and gives you a bit of personal space and privacy, which is useful with children.

After calculating what our approximate fuel costs would be, the price of the hotel stays and ferry tickets, we found that the trip cost around 1,500 kroner more than we would have paid to fly from Billund Airport to London Stansted with checked-in baggage with Ryanair on the same dates. In return, we could take as much luggage as we want with us (and back), we got to see Bremen and Groningen and had our own car with us in the UK. This was more than worth the additional expense.

I also spent 50 kroner on a “DK” sticker for the tailgate of the car (because the car is so old it predates the EU number plates that include the country code) and 70 kroner for some headlight stickers which prevent full beam headlamps from dazzling oncoming drivers when you are driving on the left in the UK.

As I busily fixed them onto my car as we waited to disembark the ferry, however, a lorry driver parked next to us said these were, in fact, entirely unnecessary.

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