"I think that was the luckiest day of my life. That was an expensive mistake I won't ever repeat again," says Sameer Gurung, recalling a tragic accident last year that took the lives of two of his friends. Sameer was at the wheel of a Toyota van with nine of his friends out on a midnight drive after a Dasain party. On the road to Bhaktapur, the van skidded and slammed into a pole. One of his friends died on the spot, the other in hospital. Sameer, a former airline manager, spent several months in hospital with a broken leg and head wounds and was lucky to get out of it alive. Sameer does not drink anymore and his message for everyone: "This Dasain, don't drink if you drive."
The Nepali festivities of Dasain and Tihar are times when more then half of the vehicle drivers at night will have taken more than the permissible level of alcohol, say the Police. This is the time of year when accident rates soar. More than three quarters of all accidents involving drunk drivers are fatal. "The problem is not that people can't handle their drinks, it's the attitude" says SSP Kumar Koirala, Head of the Valley Traffic Police. "People just don't understand that drinking impairs driving judgement, especially if you are on a motorcycle." The most high-profile drunken-driving accident this year was the one that allegedly involved Prince Paras Shah and killed singer Praveen Gurung.
More than 75 people have already died on valley roads since January and half of the accidents were because the drivers were under the influence of alcohol. In 1996, there were 104 fatalities in the Valley and while this figure has gone down steadily despite increased traffic the proportion of accidents blamed on inebriated drivers has gone up.
The valley traffic police has stepped up breathalyzer tests on Kathmandu's main arteries and even bigwigs on Pajeros are tested. Last week, we came upon an all-too-familiar scene at New Road gate when a man on a motorcycle was arguing with the police in a slurred voice that he was not drunk. "Just one peg. Look, I'm fine, I can drive." By this time the police had confiscated his keys. Those caught driving under the influence are sent to the hospital for a check up, pay a fine of Rs 200, and sent home after calling a relative. "One need not be dead drunk to cause an accident," says SSP Koirala. "Intoxication results in careless driving and speeding which is the most common errors drivers make." While the officers are at work asking drivers to breathe into the breathalyzer at New Road gate, up ahead some motorcyclists in their 20s realise that there is a checking going on and zigzag off in another direction.
DSP Prakash Aryal of the Valley Police says the checks are to protect the public and the drivers themselves from harm. "Drivers under the influence of alcohol fear getting caught even more then they fear a fatal accident," he told us. The irony of it all is that the breathalyzer tests are going on under the blinking neons overhead advertising vodka, whiskey, and beers. Alcohol commercials were banned on television last year, but doesn't seem to have dampened the Kathmandu citizen's habit of having what they think is a good time-especially with the festive season around the corner. The proliferation of discos, pubs and dance restaurants haven't helped matters either. Says assistant sub-inspector Ram Chandra Bista: "Drivers coming out of pubs and bars are more prone to the dangers of drunk driving than those coming from cultural celebrations."
For Sameer Gurung, the physical scars have healed, but the mental scars of his accident remain. He has a final word of advice: "I was lucky. Not everyone is."