Crackdown on drink driving has lessened road accidents, but public attitude is harder to change
MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
More people will die from road accidents than from AIDS in the next 20 years, raising the number of traffic fatalities around the world
to two million each year. The figures for Nepal are equally alarming.
Nearly 10,000 people have lost their lives on our highways since the war ended in 2006 and the fatality rate per accident is one of the highest in the world: one person died in every five accident last year. Traffic mishaps have now become the number one killer in the 20-30 age group in the country.
In late 2011, the Kathmandu Metropolitan Traffic Police (MTP) sought to address one of the biggest causes for accidents here and introduced strict anti-drinking and driving regulations . Every night, about 35 surprise checkpoints are set up around the Valley, which double during weekends and festive season when people are more likely to drink. Police officers on duty stop each vehicle to inspect drivers, sometimes with breathalysers, but mostly by smelling their breath for alcohol.
Blood alcohol content (BAC) is the per cent of alcohol in the blood that increases with each drink a person consumes. Countries around the world use different BAC readings to determine drunk driving (see box), but Nepal has a zero tolerance policy, which means that any hint of alcohol in your breath and the police will arrest you.
Offenders have to pay a fine of Rs 1,000 and their licence is seized until they attend a mandatory hour-long class held by the police on the dangers of driving under the influence. Every time drivers are caught, their licence is hole punched; five holes and the document is revoked.
The campaign has dramatically reduced the number of accidents. Restaurant and bar owners report a drastic loss in business ever since the policy was implemented.
Considering the acute shortage of police manpower - there are only 1,000 traffic personnel to Kathmandu’s 750,000 vehicle - this is an impressive achievement. Between July 2012-July 2013, Kathmandu recorded 4,770 road accidents with 148 fatalities. In the past two years, the number of accidents decreased by 16 per cent and there have been half as many injuries.
Source: Kathmandu Metropolitan Traffic Police
Some critics argue that the reason the traffic police is so eager to book drunk drivers is because officers get to keep one-sixth of the revenue collected from the fines, which amounted to more than Rs 400 million in 2012.
Superintendent Basant Pant, however, is adamant that public safety, not commissions, is their primary concern. “Our goal is not to increase revenue so we can pocket a share. We want people to drink responsibly and not drive when intoxicated so that the roads are safer,” explains Pant.
While the zero-tolerance policy has helped reduce accidents, its success in changing public attitude and making people realise the dangers remains questionable. In the second year of the campaign, drink driving fatalities actually doubled and the number of injuries went up from 79 to 152. On New Year’s Eve alone, traffic police detained 325 people for drinking and driving.
At the mandatory classes held at MTP’s offices near Singha Darbar, offenders are given a lecture about the dangers of driving while intoxicated and shown CCTV footage of accidents. This doesn’t seem to deter first-time offenders though, because the four classes held every weekday run at maximum capacity.
“I was nervous because it was my first time,” says a 25-year-old from Syangja. “But some older classmates were quite cynical about the whole thing and they didn’t say they’d never do it again.”
The priority for drivers now seems to be to evade checkpoints at any cost. “The first time I was caught, I used source force to get my licence back,” admits a 46-year-old resident of Jawalakhel. “The second time, I attended the class and paid the fine. Now I just don’t drive my car on the main roads if I am drunk, I try to use smaller alleys as much as possible because there is no checking.”
Pant believes levying higher fines and introducing harsher laws will be more effective in convincing people to stay away from the wheel after drinking. When a person under the influence attempts to drive, he risks not only his life, but the lives of passengers and other road users as well. Parents of teenagers caught in this potentially dangerous offence feel this deserves more than just a slap on the wrist.
In Canada, the Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD) aims to stop impaired driving and campaigns for tougher laws. The organisation also raises awareness on the perils of drink driving and offers support for accident victims. According to the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, MADD’s efforts have managed to save more than 35,000 lives since 1982.
However, in a culture that encourages heavy drinking and where children grow up seeing their fathers and uncles readily flaunting drinking and driving rules, even Pant accepts that change in behaviour will take a long time.
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TSERING DOLKER GURUNG
Police around the world use breathalysers to estimate the blood alcohol content (BAC) in drivers and the amount that person is permitted to consume varies from country to country. A number of factors like body type, weight, and food intake affect how quickly one’s BAC rises. Even gender determines one’s BAC level. For a man weighing 80kg, just 1.5 litre of beer is enough to make his BAC level reach 0.08. A woman of the same weight would only need a litre. Thinner people get drunk faster – a man weighing 45kg would only need a 700ml of beer to reach the same BAC level.
Formula One enthusiasts were treated to a taste of the high-octane sport when two-time world champion Mika Häkkinen displayed his expert driving skills here last month. Mika was here to promote Johnnie Walker’s ‘Join The Pact Campaign’, that seeks to spread awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving. The program encourages drivers to take the pledge that they will not consume alcohol when they drive and conversely to not drive after they have been drinking. The campaign was launched here last November and has accumulated over 28,000 responses online. ‘Join The Pact’ was started by Johnnie Walker in 2006, when Häkkinen and other F1 drivers began spreading the importance of responsible drinking worldwide. Mika has visited more than 30 countries to advocate the cause and Nepal is the first country in the region to host him as part of the campaign.