EDITORIAL: Moving in the right direction

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 - Page 8

Traffic accident deaths related to drunk driving in the first half of the year were almost half what they were in the first half of last year, just 137. Even without the benefit of a scientific study, it seems clear that this sharp decline was the direct result of the amendments passed in mid-January to the Road Traffic Management and Penalty Act (道路交通管理處罰條例) that increased the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Those amendments, which boosted the maximum fine for driving under the influence, also said drivers who fail to stop at a police checkpoint for a sobriety test would be subject to the maximum fine, have their vehicles impounded and driver’s licenses revoked, and be required to attend classes on traffic safety.

Last month, the permissible blood-alcohol level for operating a motor vehicle was lowered to 0.03, one of the lowest levels in the world. Police also gained the authority to ask a prosecutor for permission to take a drunk-driving suspect who refuses to take a Breathalyzer test to a hospital for a blood test. This is a vast improvement on previous efforts to revise the Criminal Code to deal with drunk drivers, in which legal quibbles over the permissible levels for blood alcohol and the results of Breathalyzer tests limited the effectiveness of the law.

Taiwan now has one of the toughest laws against drunk driving in the world. It is the result of drunk driving being No. 1 for too many years — in the category of “cause of traffic accident.”

Over the past decade there have been several cases where even police officers or other senior officials were able to avoid prosecution for drunk driving because their alcohol level was not tested in time, if at all. Or if they did face punishment, drunk driving was still played down. For example, after the presiding judge of the Military Supreme Court was involved in a drunk-driving accident in 2003 — he hit a taxi — the Ministry of National Defense press release announcing that the judge had been removed from his post and given a major demerit actually said that drunk driving was not serious. The ministry was more upset because the judge’s behavior had “disgraced the service.”

A decade later, and drunk driving is now seen as a serious offense. However, the message needs a lot of reinforcement: National Police Agency statistics show that between 2006 and 2010, 17.8 percent of people nabbed for drunk driving had more than one drunk-driving violation. Government statistics show 124,620 drunk-driving violations were reported last year, an increase of 11,190 over 2011. The agency said there were 59,457 drunk-driving violations in the first half of this year, with 23,809 suspects facing prosecution.

What is important now is that this momentum for tough legal repercussions for choosing a culture of drinking and driving be kept up. The law requiring motorcycle and scooter riders to wear helmets has worked because violators are easy to spot and catch. However, the record for other dangerous driving practices is not so good.

In January 2001, the legislature passed a law banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. A police crackdown in the immediate aftermath of that law’s enactment helped curb the all-too-frequent sight of drivers holding their steering wheel in one hand and their phone in the other. Over the years, though, it once again became common to see people trying to drive while using handheld devices. Police enforcement became negligible. The legislature was forced to pass a stronger law that took effect on Jan. 1 this year, banning drivers from operating cellphones or any mobile device in the handheld mode unless they are parked or temporarily stopped.

Police crackdown campaigns or weekend and holiday roadside checks for people driving under the influence are sporadic at best. It will take a prolonged effort of enforcement — coupled with societal pressure in the form of “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and designated driver campaigns — to ensure that drunk driving, whether in a car or on a scooter, is no longer looked upon as a joke.