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Correction to This Article
A Dec. 30 article about alcohol use by young people in Europe and an accompanying chart incorrectly said that Switzerland's minimum drinking age is 14; it is 16. The chart also incorrectly said that Norway's minimum drinking age is 16; it is 18.
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European Laws Place Emphasis On the Driving, Not the Drinking

But in Europe, where drinking wine with a meal or having a pint at a pub is a deeply ingrained tradition, the counterargument is that allowing young people to drink earlier helps demystify alcohol and reduce any later tendency to drink to excess and create situations in which traffic fatalities often occur.

"In France, you are not forbidden to drink alcohol even if you are younger than 18," said Emilie Leroux, 20, a communications student in Paris. "So the time you drink is when you are coming into adolescence, like 15. Afterward, you get more calm, and maybe more clever" about drinking. "This is how we do it in France."

Leroux said the pattern among her friends is for someone at a party or club to be the designated driver, who does not drink and drives everyone else home. Also, she said, young people who have been drinking will wait an hour or more before driving, and eat some food. "We eat bread or biscuits or cakes to absorb it," she said. "We are very responsible in France."

If custom helps demystify drinking, the law serves as a deterrent. Strict drunk-driving ordinances can lead to an immediate license suspension, with scant legal recourse, and many countries have reduced the level at which a person is considered to be intoxicated. Several young people interviewed said they were afraid to drive after consuming just one drink for fear of the legal repercussions.

Not everyone is deterred, though. Anouk, 20, a communications student who spoke on condition her last name not be used, said she often drove after a night of drinking, because she lives in the outer suburbs and has no other way to get home. "I just pay extra attention. And I go really slowly," she said.

Debate continues in France about how to police the roads more strictly and perhaps regulate nightclubs and other places where young people gather.

Two recent violent incidents on Paris's famed avenue Champs-Elysees -- the shooting of a nightclub guard and the fatal stabbing of another man -- have led one local official to propose an earlier closing time for places that sell alcohol. There have also been calls for clubs to cut off alcohol sales before their closing times to give customers several alcohol-free hours before they head out to the parking lots.

Though many Europeans feel that they learn responsible drinking habits at an early age, some experts see a trend emerging that could challenge that assumption and drive up the number of traffic accidents: an increase in binge drinking -- consuming as much alcohol as possible in a short time -- by young people.

One culprit, according to anti-alcohol groups, is the new sweetened alcoholic beverages, similar to wine coolers and other mixed drinks in the United States, known as "alco-pops."

"Binge drinking is rising all across Europe," said Berteletti Kemp of Eurocare. She blamed "the marketing of these new products that don't look like alcohol and don't taste like alcohol. It's the alco-pop culture." She added, "Adults don't drink these things -- it's young people."

Among other proposals, Eurocare advocates uniform blood-alcohol concentration limits and uniform penalties across the European Union, with lower blood-alcohol concentration limits for young drivers.

It remains unknown what caused the crash at the Sausheim bridge that claimed the lives of the six young people, and whether binge drinking or excessive speed was the primary culprit. The fact that the driver had no license focused attention on another problem: At least 800,000 people are believed to be driving in France without licenses. One suggested solution is to lower the cost of a license so more young people can learn to drive and can afford to do so legally.

Special correspondent Alexandra Topping contributed to this report.


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