It’s time to make our drink driving laws tougherThe killing of a 38-year-old woman has raised questions about how people get away with driving after heavy drinking, despite checkpoints.
On Saturday morning, a 38-year-old woman died when a drunk driver struck her with his car. The incident, which occurred in the early hours in Budhanilkantha, has once again brought to the fore Nepal’s struggle with disincentivising drinking and driving. Even as the Nepal Police continues to nab people for driving under the influence—40,000 Nepalis have been booked for the offence in the first five months of this fiscal year alone—it is clear that people have not been discouraged from doing so. What is needed is a change in punitive measures—sturdier punishments that actually deter people from attempting to drive under the influence.
The biggest concern is that many Nepalis still believe it is acceptable to drive after drinking. A large number of people who are caught for drink driving—no matter the limit—shows how normalised this has become. In October, police caught 1,121 drivers (and riders) for the offence in five days preceding Dashain. The fact that many of them were travellers coming into or going out of the Valley, including public transportation drivers, points to how dangerous, far-reaching and casual driving under influence has become.
The killing of Leela Devkota on Saturday allows room for introspection and analysis. The driver and passengers had begun drinking at least from Friday evening. It was on the drive back from a resort the next morning that the driver ran over Devkota, who was walking on the footpath, before slamming the car into a pole. This tragic episode could have been entirely avoided had the other three passengers not been complicit in allowing the person to drive. While most who choose to drink and drive are adults, and therefore entirely culpable for their actions, far too often, family members and friends don’t intervene either.
This, once again, goes back to our culture of apathy. Nepalis have embraced the penalty attached with driving under the influence, locally called MaPaSe, and have also resolved to continue doing so. People, in public and private, brag about how they managed to trick the breathalyzer or skirt the rules. That is, until something like Saturday’s incident happens.
Beginning Friday night and going through Saturday, it is clear that the car drove through the Valley without encountering a single MaPaSe checkpoint. Herein lies the other problem. While MaPaSe checks are a ubiquitous part of Kathmandu’s nightlife, it is easy to skip them altogether. For one, checks usually occur between 8 pm and 11 pm, and only occasionally outside these times. For another, seasoned drunk drivers know the areas where the police lie in wait—and they take alternative routes. Several nightclubs in the Kathmandu Valley open till dawn, and there are no MaPaSe checks during the day time. There is nothing wrong with club culture—plenty of countries around the world have clubs that operate till early morning. But there is everything wrong with being able to get away with drink driving.
Ever since the MaPaSe campaign was launched in 2011, only 439 licenses have been suspended. The penalties for getting caught—a Rs1,000 fine and an hour-long lecture by the traffic police—are a slap on the wrist. What’s worse is that the same penalties apply for repeat offenders—for up to five times. Only after the sixth offence is the licence suspended, that, too, for a limited time. From a law enforcement standpoint, this is a trivial response to a very serious problem.
It is obvious that Nepal’s attitude towards drinking and driving needs uprooting. The change will be most effective with disincentives from the state. A three-strike system with progressively tougher sanctions, including jail time and driving bans, would make people think twice before they start their vehicles after a drink. Moreover, if the police want to put an end to drink driving, and not just use checkpoints as a cash cow, the checks must be random—both in time and geography.
What do you think?
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