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Norway stiffens drunken-driving law

Wreck
Norway hopes its new law will help reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents  

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Norwegian drivers could face stiff fines and suspended licenses under a draconian new drunken-driving law that critics say goes too far.

The law, which took effect on New Year's Day, makes it a crime for Norwegians to drive if they have a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.2 grams per litre.

Opponents say the new limit is so low that unwitting drivers might fall afoul of police simply by biting into a piece of alcohol-filled chocolate, taking cough syrup or sipping Eplemost, a cider-like national drink.

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The new "blood-alcohol content" limit means that a 150-pound man who drinks 16 ounces of beer in an hour -- about one-and-a-third mugs -- could find himself in danger of being considered legally intoxicated if pulled over.

A 120-pound woman would have to stop drinking sooner -- before finishing her first 12-ounce mug of beer. (One 4-ounce glass of wine, imbibed over the same 60-minute period, is sufficient to put both people over the legal driving limit.)

Norway's law lowers the bar significantly below the legally permissible 0.5-gram ceiling that has been on the country's books since the 1930s.

It is also stricter than the 0.5- to 0.8-gram limits that are legally permissible in most Western European countries.

Norway's new law places the small Nordic nation of 4.5 million people in a small fraternity of countries -- almost all in Central and Eastern Europe -- striving to enforce a policy of virtual "zero tolerance" that opponents decry as unnecessarily stringent and unproven in effectiveness.

The only other Western European country with a legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.2 grams per litre is Sweden.

Critics of the Norwegian limit assert the new law is driven more by politics than practicalities, while supporters insist it is better to err on the side of caution where drunk-driving laws are concerned.

European policy planners in Brussels are striving to draw up a uniform drunk-driving law that would institute a legal limit of 0.5 in the EU's 15 member states. Norway is not an EU member. But sceptics point to the EU target as evidence that Norway has over-extended itself and that its 0.2 limit is destined to be short-lived.

"It's a silly law, because there is no evidence that drivers with alcohol concentrations between 0.1 (grams per litre) and 0.5 are over-represented in accidents," said one Norwegian government official, who requested anonymity.

The official said he believed the debate surrounding the 0.2 limit had assumed a "moral" dimension that drowned out reasoned arguments. "It's sort of a moral question because everyone agrees that drinking and driving do not go together."

Anna Nesje, a journalist with the Norwegian news agency NTB, noted that Norway already has strict anti-alcohol policies, including laws barring minors under 18 from buying beer or anyone under 20 purchasing hard liquor. Drinking outdoors is also prohibited, Nesje said.

Vidar Refvik, director of police at the Justice Ministry, said police will use the same combination of "breathalyser" and blood tests to enforce the new law as they did the old one. He predicted the lower limit will yield anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 more arrests, a rise of about 15-20 percent.

Those who support the 0.2 ceiling tout what they see as its positive psychological message.

"I am very proud of this law," said Leif Agnar Elleset, director of the National Society for Road Safety in Norway. Elleset said Norwegian police reported 8,400 road accidents last year in which 11,560 people were injured and 340 killed. He added that about one third of the accidents were alcohol-related.

"The most important thing is that people know they cannot even think about drinking and driving. ... Today, people take a chance because they know that if they are under 0.5, nothing will happen."

Elleset believes the biggest challenge will be tackling the problem of driving under the influence of drugs.

Norway is leaving the issue of penalties for offences under its new law to the courts. First-time offenders are likely to incur a fine ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 Norwegian krona. Under the old limit, drunk drivers faced probation and maximum fines equal to 1.5 times their monthly salary.



RELATED STORIES:
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November 3
Congress passes national .08 blood alcohol standard for drunken drivers
October 6, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Institute of Alcohol Studies
Eurocare
Alcoweb
Norwegian Ministry of Justice
Norwegian Ministry of Transport
National Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research

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