The Cabinet on Thursday approved a proposal to set a blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for drivers of 0.11 percent, which is equal to a breath alcohol level of 0.55 grams of alcohol per liter. The proposal also stiffens the penalties for driving drunk, including those for drivers who cause a death. There is widespread support for tougher penalties against drunk driving in the wake of some horrific accidents in the past year, but does the Cabinet’s proposal go far enough?
Drunk driving was criminalized more than a decade ago, there are massive police campaigns with roadside stops every few months, and yet the problem not only persists, it is growing. According to the Ministry of the Interior, more than 31 percent of drunk driving cases involve repeat offenders.
In June, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) told lawmakers that “zero tolerance” for drunk driving was a goal. No timeline for future reductions in the BAC was given. It should have been.
A BAC of 0.11 percent is still far higher than in many nations. In the US, Canada and 14 other countries, according to the International Center for Alcohol Policies, the BAC threshold is 0.08 percent. An article in Time magazine two years ago noted that most European countries have a limit of 0.05 or lower — Sweden’s is 0.02 — while the Czech Republic and some other countries have an absolute zero tolerance policy.
The article noted that countries that have made a substantial reduction in the BAC limit have seen a corresponding drastic cut in drunk driving-related road fatalities.
So why is the Cabinet ready to settle for 0.11 percent? If it really wants to make a significant reduction in the number of drunk driving cases and drunk driving-related fatalities, it should reduce the limit to 0.08 percent now and set a timeline for going down to 0.05 percent, 0.02 percent and then zero tolerance.
Stepping up deterrence policies would also help reduce drunk driving and road fatalities. At present, convicted drunk drivers (with no fatalities or injuries involved) are usually given detention of less than 60 days and a fine. The Cabinet’s proposal stipulates that anyone arrested for drunk driving must serve at least two months in prison, not detention, and could receive a maximum sentence of two years and a fine of NT$200,000. Right now vehicular homicide while driving under the influence is considered “involuntary homicide” and carries a maximum sentence of seven years. The Cabinet’s proposal would raise the penalty to between three and 10 years.
Another way to help deter drunk driving is a “friends don’t let friends drive drunk campaign.” The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has suggested taking this one step further by holding car passengers equally responsible if the driver is drunk. They could be fined NT$3,000 for not stopping the driver, the ministry suggests.
The Cabinet is hoping to get its proposals through the legislature quickly, so there could be a promotional period before the amendments take effect next year. Given the popular support for a tougher stand on drunk driving, lawmakers should have no trouble casting aside blue-green divisions to pass the amendments. However, legislators should be thinking ahead as well and be willing to mandate a timeline in the drive toward zero tolerance.
They should also consider whether other options might help deter drunk drivers, such as a breath alcohol ignition interlock device (BAIID). These block a car engine from starting if the driver fails a breath test. Many US states require drivers with a drunk-driving record to install a BAIID in their car and have seen resounding drops in drunk driving as a result.
Getting drunk drivers off the road is a priority. The Cabinet’s amendments are a good first step, but no one should be willing to let the job rest there. Lives depend on it.