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Outlawing drinking at the wheel

Friday, April 24, 2015

Since 2007, when the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Act was amended to introduce the breathalyser law, important legislative steps have been taken against one of the leading causes of road traffic fatalities in this country, drunk driving. 

On Tuesday there was another important development that could change driving culture in T&T. The Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic Bill introduced for debate in the Senate by Transport Minister Stephen Cadiz, proposes penalties of a $5,000 fine and six months’ jail for a practice that is not uncommon on the nation’s roads—driving while having a drink. It is already illegal to drive while intoxicated, and motorists in general are aware of that. However many others see no harm in having, say, a bottle of beer while at the wheel. 

They see it as something as natural as sipping from a bottle of water, or a can of soft drink. 

The increasing ubiquity of cup and cubby holders in modern cars, time spent in traffic and the increasing tendency to see our cars as an extension of ourselves—a kind of additional home space where we leave more and more personal effects such as shoes and clothing—would seem to make having a beer at the wheel a natural thing to do.

If the proposed law is passed, it would be an offence for a “person to drive or operate a motor vehicle while having in the cabin opened bottle, container or vessel with any alcoholic beverage.” 

Another key provision in the proposed bill would require drivers of taxis, buses and public to have a measured alcohol rate of zero when breath tested.

T&T is not unique in seeking to introduce such tough laws against drunk driving. 

Similar legislation has existed in many developed countries for years.

However these measures are not being introduced in isolation. On January 30, several amendments to the Motor Vehicle Road Traffic Act. Chapter 48:5 went into effect, significantly increasing fines and penalties for a range of traffic offences. 

Motorists whose breath alcohol level is found to be above the legal limit now face steep fines starting from $8,000 to $12,000 for a first conviction, and rising to $15,000 to $22,500 for repeat offenders. 

Already, there is a positive impact. Before these tougher traffic laws were introduced, T&T ranked 15th on the world record for the worst traffic collisions and loss of life, and the national average was approximately 200 road deaths a year.

Last year, however, there was a 25 per cent drop in road fatalities from 2013, following on a 43 per cent drop from the previous year. 

Still, much more needs to be done to crack down on speeding and reckless driving, the other major contributors to T&T’s high road fatality rate. 

Long promised but yet to see the light of day are cameras and radar technology to measure speed.

While the authorities are to be commended for making progress, improved legislation and the most sophisticated detection technology would be of limited effect in the absence of consistent enforcement with arrests and conviction. 

Stronger enforcement is needed to curb other dangerous driving practices, such as breaching traffic signals, dangerous overtaking and driving on the shoulders of the road. 

In the absence of regular and visible traffic police presence on major roadways, these laws are frequently broken, sometimes with tragic consequences.


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