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Drinking and Driving

We all frown at the thought of getting into a car whilst intoxicated, but many people do this without realising; some do it on the basis that they have only had one alcoholic drink, others that they don’t have far to go. Drinking and driving used to be perfectly acceptable in Bulgaria, with police often turning a blind eye to the odd whiff of alcohol, however, the increase in road traffic accidents has forced the government to make some stark changes to the law, which have even forced once carefree Bulgarian drivers to take note.

Alcohol aside, the Bulgarian road system is for the most part underdeveloped with roads in a poor state of repair and very often full of potholes. In mountain areas, there are often rockslides and landslides. Horse and donkey drawn carts laden with such thing as wood, scrap metal or straw with no lights and very little road awareness frequent Bulgarian roads as do farm animals who plod along with only an ageing shepherd to guide them. During the winter, road conditions deteriorate even further under the snow and ice, which make the potholes far more severe. Night driving, when the majority of drinking and driving occurs, is equally perilous with many roads lacking lighting, pavement markings and many road users drive with defective headlights.

The Legal Limits

The legal limit for driving with alcohol in your bloodstream is currently 0 mg. Until recently, the limit was 0.05 mg, but with a policy called “War on the Roads,” an attempt to crack down on the growing number of accidents (many of which were alcohol related), the Bulgarian government have introduced zero tolerance policies.

An important thing to note is that the Bulgarian police do not have to have a reason to stop you at the roadside despite the fact that you may be driving a new car, well within the speed limit with all headlights shining brightly. Your documentation may be in perfect order, but they are still well within their rights to ask you to take a breath test. If they receive a positive reading you will have to attend the nearest hospital for a blood test within 30 minutes of being stopped and you can’t drive yourself there! If you are totally incoherent and intoxicated you will be taken to a police cell for the night and the blood test will be done there. The fact that your car will be abandoned at the roadside is irrelevant – stopping you from breaking the law by driving further is what is important.

Bulgarian police and their handy little roadside batons are everywhere no matter what the time of day or night. They are now stopping drivers in the morning and breathalysing them and many people are failing this test. Alcohol remains in the blood stream for up to 10 hours. You may have only had three glasses of wine the night before and still be over the legal limit at 10 am the next morning, although this is hard to interpret into how many drinks you could have before you are considered too drunk to drive. Your tolerance level along with your bodyweight, when you have eaten and when you imbibed your last drink all play a role and even though you may be able to talk sensibly and walk in a straight line you may still have a high blood alcohol reading.

Getting Caught

If your blood alcohol level is under 0.05 mg then you will receive a lesser penalty than if it is over. The highest blood alcohol level recorded in Bulgaria occurred in 2005 in Plovdiv when a man registered a reading of a staggering 0.914 – quite amazing when you consider that doctors deem 0.40 mg as potentially fatal.

If you are permanently resident in Bulgaria then you will receive anything from three month up to three years driving ban and a fine of around 1,000 lv. Many Bulgarians are unable to pay such a stiff fine and spend time in jail instead of paying the fine. If you are over 0.05 then the penalties and fines are tougher and you are liable to lose your licence for a long period. If you are not a permanent resident, then your licence will be confiscated and sent to the DVLA for endorsement and you will also have to pay a fine in Bulgaria.

If you are involved in an accident whilst driving over the limit, then you will receive probation between three months and up to three years if anyone else is involved in the crash. If another person is fatally injured you could receive a jail sentence for manslaughter. Probation in Bulgaria means that you have to sign in at your local police station each day of your probationary sentence. You are not allowed to leave the country and your passport will be confiscated until you have “served your time.” You will also be left with a criminal record.

High Profile

Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm theory – “We are all equal but some are more equal than others”? Unfortunately this is still the case in Bulgaria. You may think that being a foreigner will work to your advantage, however the police are now attending intensive English language training courses now, so don’t try to pull any stunts unless you really are high profile! The famous Russian ice skating champion,  Maxim Staviski was involved in a drink driving incident in August last year resulting in a serious car crash, which caused the death of one man as well as injuries to three other people. He was in Bourgas driving a luxurious Hummer with a blood alcohol reading of 1.29. Staviski was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated bodily harm. He received a two and a half years suspended sentence and five years probation. However, his defence lawyer appealed against the charge and the case is still going on. His high profile meant that in Bulgaria he could “buy” his way out of trouble and many accusations have been made that he is driving in Russia – so much to him receiving probation.

The moral of this story? If you are involved in such an incident you can rest assured that your case will not be dealt with in such a lenient fashion. To avoid being convicted of drinking and driving designate a driver for the night who sticks to soft drinks or take a taxi – they are far cheaper than the thousand Leva fine and will ensure your continued freedom on the roads for years to come.