Fatal drunk driving incidents cause unimaginable tragedy in addition to myriad other problems. The Ministry of Justice is drafting amendments to stiffen penalties for drunk driving. It is proposing to amend Chapter 11 of the Criminal Code: Offenses Against Public Safety, so that the death penalty is available to sentencing judges as a maximum penalty for repeat drunk driving offenders whose actions caused fatalities.
For a number of years, the police have been enforcing the law with increasing zeal to deter drunk driving. In 2013 — responding to amendments that increased penalties — the National Police Agency established priority areas for drunk driving spot checks, and in doing so achieved a new record.
During a nationwide crackdown on drunk driving, in just a single day, 305 cases were registered by police, of which 53 were repeat offenders with convictions in the previous five years.
Another 18 people refused to take a Breathalyzer test, while 124 cases were transferred to prosecutors for investigation.
Obviously, it is difficult to solve the problem of fatal drunk driving incidents simply by tightening enforcement of the law or stiffening penalties.
Data from Taiwan’s penal system show that most of the prison population is made up of people convicted of drug-related or drunk-driving offenses, with about half of all inmates incarcerated on such charges. Moreover, it is by no means easy to send a convicted drunk driver to prison in Taiwan. Many suspects have been arrested on numerous occasions, a phenomenon regularly seen in news coverage of police stopping drivers.
Repeat offenders often have an intimate understanding of the legal process. To the astonishment of a journalist interviewing a serial drunk-driving offender, they recited in detail real-life examples of sentences handed out for second, third and fourth-time repeat offenders.
This shows that if prosecutors and judicial authorities are unable to quickly deal with a case and the suspects are not sent on behavior-correction and detox courses, there is a high recidivism rate for drunk-driving suspects, even while they are waiting for a verdict on a previous case.
Past governments have explored implementing harsher punishments for drunk driving, including methods similar to those used in Japan, where not only the driver is liable for punishment, but also the person who provided the vehicle, the provider of the alcohol consumed by the driver and even passengers in the vehicle.
In other words, anyone who could have prevented the driver from getting behind the wheel while under the influence also pays a fine if convicted.
However, due to Taiwan’s societal and cultural conditions, the Japanese model never made it into law.
If Japan’s collateral punishment model is a step too far, perhaps Taiwan should explore the US model. In the US, the law also takes into account the harm caused by drunk driving, which is viewed as more damaging than even drug abuse.
In the US, drunk driving is classified as an addiction crime, which means that in addition to a dedicated, integrated alcohol and drug-impaired driving department established by the US Department of Transportation at the federal level, the US Department of Justice has also set up courts specifically to try cases of alcohol and drug-impaired driving, which are designed to work in tandem with correction and detox programs.
At the same time, the US also imposes extremely strict rules on the sale of alcohol. For instance, with variations between states, retailers are not allowed to sell bottles of hard liquor or wine after midnight, while it is illegal to sell alcoholic products to those under the age of 21. It is common for people to be asked to show proof of age when purchasing alcohol, and in some states vendors are required by law to do so for every purchaser of alcohol.
In some states, photo identification, or even a signature, is required to confirm a customer’s age, which prevents the vendor from being held responsible if an incident occurs.
Meanwhile, vendors are also forbidden from selling alcoholic products to anyone who appears to be drunk, and it is also illegal for alcohol sold to customers in licensed bars and restaurants to be taken off the premises.
Amending the Criminal Code would not by itself solve the problem of fatal drunk-driving incidents. The judiciary should support police investigations of suspected drunk driving, as investigation differs from random inspection and testing. It requires special legislation to ensure that it does not fall foul of restrictions in the Police Power Exercise Act (警察職權法).
Investigation of suspected drunk driving would involve a change of status from regular administrative policing to a judicial investigation. The government must therefore make providing the required support for law-enforcement agencies a top priority.
As a virtuous society is not created by relying on the law alone, the judiciary and the government cannot simply hide behind laws while ignoring the genuine problem and public concern.
Moreover, instantly and permanently revoking a repeat offender’s driving license would be ignoring the problem, as the lack of a license would not prevent someone from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Employing technology, such as alcohol-detecting ignition locks or “black box” recording chips, and introducing special license plates for convicted drunk drivers, are all effective legal and economic deterrents.
Taiwanese must come together to make it much more difficult to drive a vehicle while intoxicated.
The cost of repeat offending must also be made much steeper and loopholes that allow drunk drivers to evade punishment must be closed.
Lin Shu-li is a doctoral student at Central Police University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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