Wed, Jun 27, 2012 - Page 8 News List

New tack needed on drunk driving

By Jason Yeh 葉家興

Reports about accidents caused by drunk drivers are often plastered across the news pages. There have been some truly terrible accidents lately, and as a result, police have started carrying out large-scale roadside inspections once again, while the Ministry of Justice has also been taking action, such as making penalties for drunk drivers who cause fatal accidents harsher, setting up a system for placing drunk drivers in preventative custody and even recommending that amendments be made to the Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法) that would make it possible for police to apply directly to courts for the power to detain repeat offenders for three days, regardless of whether the offender has caused an accident.

The increase in roadside inspections and heavier punishments make it seem like a lot of big decisions are being made to stop this problem, but once stories about drunk driving disappear from the news, will drunk drivers really change their behavior? If 10 random people on the street were asked this question, all of them would probably answer in the negative.

A quick read of amendments to laws against drunk driving in recent years shows that this behavior was criminalized 13 years ago. The first punishments stipulated for this offense were a prison sentence or detention of less than one year or a maximum fine of NT$30,000 (US$1,000).

After a public uproar in October last year when firefighter Lai Wen-li (賴文莉) was hit by a drunk driver while on duty and had to have her leg amputated below the knee as a result, the legislature amended the law, increasing the maximum sentence from one year to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to NT$200,000. Legislators also added clauses stipulating prison sentences of one to seven years for drunk drivers who cause deaths and a six-month to five-year sentence for those who cause severe injury.

In spite of this, incidences of drunk drivers killing people and causing serious traffic accidents keep appearing in the news.

Data from the Ministry of Justice show a 6.5 percent increase in the yearly resolution of drunk-driving cases in district prosecutors’ offices nationwide — last year, about 70,000 people were investigated for or charged with drunk driving. Data from the National Police Agency show that deaths caused by drunk driving increased by 3.3 percent last year compared with the year before, and that of the more than 2,000 fatal traffic accidents that occurred last year, more than 20 percent were the result of drunk driving.

While penalties are getting heavier, incidents involving drunk driving continue to increase. Obviously, heavier penalties alone cannot stop drunk driving, so policies must adopt new measures if they are to be successful in stopping drunk driving.

Judging from the behavior of drunk drivers, imposing strict laws and punishments is not an effective deterrent. A better way of dealing with this would be to look at the experience of other nations like the US, where authorities’ approach is to try to prevent drunk driving before it happens.

In the US, the number of deaths caused by drunk driving over the past five years has been greatly reduced, by one-quarter, from more than 13,000 deaths per year to approximately 10,000. Of the various actions taken to prevent drunk driving, the most notable is a law about a breath alcohol ignition interlock device (BAIID) that has been adopted in three-quarters of US states.

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