Ever since the “Master Yeh (葉少爺)” drunk driving incident claimed three lives earlier this year, drunk driving has become a significant public safety issue with legal and social implications. Despite the police taking a tougher stance in enforcing laws against drunk driving, there has been no discernible improvement to the situation and drunk driving accidents continue to happen. Clearly, the idea that it is alright to drive while under the influence of alcohol is ingrained into people’s minds and efforts by the police to enforce the law have made little headway. One of the main reasons for this is that the Ministry of the Interior has been left to fight most of the battle alone, with neither the full support of other ministries nor active public participation.
For this problem to be properly addressed, it must be approached on social, psychological and environmental levels and attacked through education, engineering and legislative measures. The responsibility should not be left entirely to the ministry and neither can the solution be to solely increase punishments or ban such behavior. A large police presence on the streets, conducting spot Breathalyzer tests, might have an effect, but an initiative like this cannot be sustained for long, as the authorities will not be able to commit the resources needed for extended periods.
Another problem that must be addressed is the prevailing attitude among the public that they will not get caught if they drink and drive. If people think they will get away with it, there is little point in merely toughening legal sanctions. Making drunk driving punishable is not the answer, because this is more retributive than preventative, and takes effect only when the damage has already been done. It is not a long-term solution and the results it yields do not justify the effort or resources expended on it.
Drinking and driving is a serious public safety issue and a worrying social problem. According to the National Police Agency, there have been more than 400 fatalities related to drunk driving per year in recent years. The death toll between 2002 and last year stood at 4,512, far higher than deaths caused by SARS (779), Typhoon Morakot (724) or the 921 Earthquake (2,347). A government watchdog survey shows there are, on average, more than 7,000 drunk driving accidents in Taiwan per year, with an average of 1.07 fatalities per accident, at a cost to the country of NT$3 billion (US$100 million) in national insurance and medical fees. This shows that drunk driving can cause more deaths in Taiwan than natural disasters and epidemics and is a serious risk to public safety and a drain on national economic resources.
What is important is to find a way to prevent this behavior before it happens, instead of just meting out punishments after the fact. It is known that a driver under the influence will have impaired sensory perception and slowed motor reactions. Social-psychological studies have also shown that alcohol makes people disregard social conventions and laws, and also makes them less alert or aware of the risks of accident. The behavioral norms that members of the public abide by must be changed so that people are motivated less by what others think and more by what they themselves believe and are even driven by a sense of justice rather than an obligation to keep within the confines of the law.