Traffic police pull over drivers at a checkpoint on the Costa del Sol. / Ñito Salas

A night checking drivers in Marbella: 'Just a couple of small ones, officer'

During the night SUR spent on the road with the Guardia Civil, 24 drivers were found to be over the limit

JUAN CANO

According to dictionaries, a police checkpoint is a place where one or more people on a surveillance mission inspect people and vehicles that pass by, but it is actually much more than that. In fact, in future they could describe drink-driving checks as "a place where everyone who tests positive has only had a couple of small ones, I promise you, officer". Or not even that much. Read on...

SUR recently spent a night on duty in Marbella with Guardia Civil officers from the Traffic section. This group was led by one named José Carlos, and he explained to us what was going on. He turned out to be an encyclopedia of human nature who knows exactly how to handle every situation.

So, there we were, past midnight and the officers began to place traffic cones on the roads to mark the first checkpoint, by the Guadalmina roundabout. It is on the slip road off the dual carriageway which leads to the urbanisations.

The first driver to be breathalysed had somewhat glazed eyes and an evasive attitude. "The ones who keep their windows up and sort of hide behind the steering wheel are most likely to have something to hide," joked one of the officers as he stopped the vehicle. "You need to take a breathalyser test. Do you know how to do it?" he asked the driver.

At this point, drivers can be classified in two groups. The first is those who have not had a drink. They take the plastic bag they are given, tear it open, remove the mouthpiece, put it in the device and blow, following the instructions they are given by the officer. They smile when they see the zero result on the screen and put the vehicle in gear, ready to drive on. Some say, smugly, "I'm on my way home from work," as if to distance themselves from anyone who has been out to dinner or for a night out.

"I can't, I have asthma"

The second group consists of those who have been drinking, even though they have only had "a couple of small ones". They are reluctant to start the process and they always hesitate before blowing into the bag.

"I'm nervous," they say, or "I haven't done this before," or "I'm a smoker, I can't blow hard enough," or "I have asthma," or they claim the machine must be broken and make five or six attempts until the officer's patience runs out and they are warned that not taking the test is an offence. When that happens, they suddenly find they can do it after all.

Some seek refuge in not speaking the language, but the force is prepared for that. All the officers speak quite fluent English and Sergeant Salas, who is 1.90m tall and as imposing as he is good-natured, also speaks French, Catalan and Mallorquin. He is part of the GOAD alcohol and drugs squad, whose officers travel around the province to support colleagues at the checkpoints.

Erik (a fictitious name, like all the others in this report), admitted that he had a couple of Belgian beers before leaving for home. "They contain more alcohol, maybe that's why," he said to justify the first positive reading of the night. The result was 0.40 milligrams per litre of exhaled air, so he hoped he might escape a fine. He had ten minutes for it to drop to 0.25.

Those ten minutes seem to take ages. "Is it OK if I smoke?" asked one 60-year-old woman who was double the limit when tested. She was on her way home from dining with a friend. The drivers often make comments such as "I don't think you realise who I am" or "I don't understand why you're putting these checks here, it's a residential area," which the officers bear stoically because they hear them every day.

"Sometimes you feel a bit misunderstood, because people think we're only interested in issuing fines, but it's much more than that. It's the only way to make people aware," one of them explained.

The next to be stopped was Adrián, a South American who works in construction and was travelling in a small vehicle with his eight-year-old son. The boy was scared when he saw the police. "We have been at a relative's birthday party and I had a few beers," Adrián said. He was twice over the limit. And ten minutes later. And after 20 minutes. He had to ring his brother to come and drive them home in the car. "It was my mistake, I have to admit it. I won't do it again," he told us as they prepared to leave, with his son clinging to his uncle as if he would never let go.

If someone's result is more than 0.25 the officers do another test as evidence, and then repeat it again after ten minutes to avoid false positives, or what they call 'mouth alcohol'.

"I have seen drivers test positive with over 1.0 in the first test and negative ten minutes later. But if they have only just had a drink, the figure stays high," one explained.

Fabian, a French tourist driving a Porsche, was an example of that. His test result was 1.26. He was a bit unsteady when he got out of the car, and just to prove that excuses are the same in any language and any country, said he had only had "a couple of small drinks" in Puerto Banús.

Although he could stand up, his clothing was dishevelled and it looked as if the night had been a bit longer than he wanted the officers to believe. The result of his second breathalyser test was 0.99. That is an offence.

María also tested positive. She was driving a car with baby seats in the back. "I have small children and it's years since I have been out," she told the officer, who listened with the patience of someone who has heard it all before.

"I swear I haven't been drinking; I just had a sip from a glass my friends were passing round. They insisted that I try it. I'm going to ring them up now, because this is all their fault," she said. Then she whipped out her mobile phone and showed a photo to the Guardia Civil officer. "Look, this is my baby," she said.

Running around

When María, who had tested 0.36, was told she would have to do another test after ten minutes, a surreal situation occurred although the Guardia Civil officers didn't appear surprised. With no warning María, in her high heels and party clothes, suddenly ran off up the hill.

"Is she trying to run away?"asked our photographer, in disbelief at what he was seeing. "No, no she isn't. They think running will lower their alcohol content," explained an officer.

After running up and down the street a couple of times and chewing a piece of gum, María tested 0.34. Then a debate began among the Guardia Civil officers. "She's really small. It might be because of that," one said, while another insisted that "the law is the law".

María, after half an hour walking about, became desperate to go home. "Look, I'll pay with my credit card, OK?" she said. For paying quickly (within 20 days) and because she tested below 0.51, the fine was 250 euros. She still had to wait a while, though. Nobody can leave until they test negative, unless a relative or friend comes to pick them up or drive their vehicle for them.

Someone else who paid on the spot was a young Swedish woman who was stopped at the second checkpoint, on an access ramp in Puerto Banús.

"Foreigners who are not resident in Spain have to pay the fine straight away. If they don't, their vehicle has to be immobilised," explained José Carlos. Here, the situation was similar although there were a few notable differences, such as the cars were expensive (it was unusual to see any basic ones) and a lot of young people in the vehicles had drinks in their hands.

The night ended with 24 people reported for failing a breath test and two under investigation because they were way over the limit. And all because they had... just a couple of small drinks, officer.