Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Drunk driving plan goes too far

The National Police Administration (NPA) dropped a bomb on Tuesday by announcing plans to impose fines of up to NT$12,000 on the adult passengers of drunk drivers. The NPA proposed a similar fine on anyone who served alcohol to a drunk driver. The announcement immediately drew outrage from the legislature and the general public, in particular from operators of pubs and restaurants. The agency scrapped its proposal.

Cracking down on drunk driving is laudable, given the alarming recent increase in the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers. According to the NPA, the deaths attributed to drunk driving increased from 356 in 2000 to 443 last year, making drunk driving one of the top 10 accidental causes of death in the nation.

The agency must have thought its plan was an ingenious way to win some brownie points from the public -- its own statistics reveal high levels of public support for tougher measures against drunk driving. For example, 89 percent of people support confiscating the vehicles of drunk drivers as soon as they are caught.

Nevertheless, the means chosen by the NPA were simply inappropriate, if not unlawful. Obviously, this was an attempt to copy the so-called "dram shop" or "social host" laws of some countries, and some states in the US, under which bar and restaurant owners may be liable to third parties injured in drunk-driving accidents when they have "knowingly" sold alcoholic beverages to drunk drivers.

Unfortunately, the agency's proposal differed from these laws in several critical ways. The "dram shop" laws typically impose civil liability only when injuries have actually occurred, while the agency was seeking to impose fines merely if someone was found driving under the influence of alcohol. The idea behind the dram shop laws is to compensate for actual injuries and losses sustained by victims, while the NPA's proposal was strictly a punitive sanction by the government. That seems harsh.

The NPA was seeking to impose such sanctions not only on providers of alcoholic beverages, but also on passengers in drunk drivers' vehicles, whose only sin is not acting to stop others from drinking and driving. This would place many people at grave risk of being penalized for the actions of others. The agency had thought that this might force bystanders to take car keys away from drunk drivers and do the driving themselves, but instead, many passengers would simply take a taxi home, leaving their drunk friends still in possession of the keys.

The "dram shop" laws also state that pub operators must have acted "knowingly," which is a high threshold to meet. They must have sold the alcoholic beverages "knowing" that the person in question was already drunk. For that to happen, the driver would have to exhibit physical manifestations of his or her drunkenness. It's not clear how bar staff can decide to refuse a customer a drink if they don't know the customer is drunk.

Another issue that should not be ignored is the way that the NPA announced the proposal and then hastily retracted it. This demonstrates serious problems with the organization's decision-making mechanism. The decision to make the announcement was obviously made without sufficient forethought. This kind of mistake should not be repeated. Otherwise the NPA will give the impression that it is as careless about drafting policy as many people are about getting behind the wheel when they have been drinking.

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