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Analysis & Opinion
31.05.10 On The Road To Sobriety
By Svetlana Kononova

The Russian State Duma has approved a new draft law in its first reading that completely prohibits the consumption of alcohol before driving. The new law, initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev, will replace the recent law that permitted people to drive vehicles as long as their blood alcohol concentration did not exceed 0.03 percent. Although the majority of state deputies voted in favor of the new bill, it has become the subject of heated debate in the Russian society.

Drunk driving remains a big problem in Russia and contributes to frequent road accidents, often with tragic consequences. Recent statistics from the Traffic Safety Department of the Interior Ministry show that 252 people have died and 2,856 have been injured in accidents caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol this year. Last year, drunk driving on Russian roads led to more than 2,000 deaths and over 18,000 injuries. Although the Traffic Safety Department reported a significant decrease in the number of accidents linked to alcohol consumption on the road in comparison with 2008, the authorities believe that tougher rules should be implemented to save more lives.

The law previously allowed drivers to have a blood-alcohol concentration of up to 0.03 per mille, which is equivalent to a glass of wine or a can of beer consumed a couple of hours before getting in the car. The law was implemented three years ago under the “Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.” In contrast, the United States, Canada and most of the countries of the European Union allow a blood-alcohol content of up to 0.08 percent. Meanwhile, in some European countries such as Estonia, Romania, Slovakia and Czech Republic, any trace of alcohol in one’s blood is completely prohibited when behind the wheel. “Russia is not ready to allow people to drive vehicles after the consumption of even a small amount of alcohol. This triggers really hard drinking before driving,” said Dmitry Medvedev, commenting on his proposal.

Nonetheless critics say that the blanket ban is not suitable for people who use pharmaceuticals that contain alcohol. Moreover, they believe the new bill could transform sober drivers into lawbreakers simply because they had drunk traditional Russian beverages such as kvass and kefir, which contain negligible amounts of alcohol, before getting in the car.

The Federation of Russian Car Owners, an NGO, is protesting against the new draft because its members contend that, if approved, the law might lead to misuses of authority by traffic police. The organization has called for punishments to be graded according to the level of intoxication (the current draft suggests that drivers’ licenses will be revoked in all cases, irrespective of the driver’s actual inebriation). They suggest instituting a complex system for clinically establishing a driver’s level of intoxication.

But medical experts don’t agree that the new draft will make innocent drivers guilty. “It is hardly possible to accuse a driver of drunkenness if he is sober,” said Pavel Polyakov, a therapist for alcoholics and drug addicts at the Perm regional medical center. “If a driver is suspected of alcohol or drug intoxication, we conduct complex clinical examinations and test expiratory air, blood and urine (the latter in drug testing only).”

In Polyakov’s experience, most drunk drivers who get brought in for check-ups by the police are young men aged between 18 and 40 from various social backgrounds. “Some of them drive expensive foreign cars, the others – cheap rusty home-made clunkers. It doesn’t really matter. But all behave in the same way. They get behind the wheel after drinking a couple of beers or shots of vodka. As a result, they aren’t able to make an objective judgment on their own physical condition and ability to drive, and they end up causing accidents,” he said.

Medical experts believe that the old law, which allowed for a low blood alcohol content, led to more accidents on the road. “We can only judge the effectiveness of the new bill after it has been in use for a certain period of time,” Polyakov said. “However, it may be that the problem of drunk driving will only be solved when there are certain provisions in the law, which guarantee its implementation. For this, many government agencies and organizations need to cooperate. The law should be implemented for everybody, including the ‘untouchables’,” he added.

At the same time, experts from the Board for Legal Defense of Car Owners, another NGO, are concerned that new bill might violate the drivers’ rights. “It is very likely that the new draft will be approved in its final reading because it is a presidential project,” said Spartak Korolev, a lawyer who specializes on civil cases involving road accidents and appeals against decisions by traffic police. “However, unfortunately, we live in a country where traffic police often abuse their power. Currently those drivers who disagree with police decisions are able to appeal them in court, but if the new bill comes into effect, it could become more difficult.”

Korolev believes that medical checks for drivers accused of alcohol consumption should be carried out in the presence of witnesses. “It would reduce the inspectors’ ability to falsify the results,” he said. He also said that drivers have batter chances of appealing successfully if a police officer commits a procedural violation. “If a policeman’s report on an accident is written in a legally incorrect way, you have more of a chance to protect your rights,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Russian blogosphere is actively discussing the new draft. A large number of commentators who challenge the bill do so under a dangerous pretext: many car owners still believe that there is nothing wrong with drinking and driving, and consider alcohol a very important part of their lifestyle. But some sober voices stand out from the crowd. “If you are drunk, then call for a taxi. If you know you’re going to be driving the next morning, then why get drunk? I have seen many times how fathers try to drive their families after a heavy night of drinking. The people who always need alcohol are simply addicted,” wrote a blogger nicknamed MFirst.

A traffic policeman by the name of the Inspector wrote: “I have been working for several years. During this time, only a few people who have been asked to do an alcohol test have come out with acceptable results. The majority exceeded the permissible level by five to ten times. If you drink heavily at a party the night before, why are you surprised at the breathalyzer’s reading the next day? ”

Another blogger, Denis, simply joked: “When the new bill comes into effect, half of Russian drivers will simply lose their licenses. So it’s a good solution of traffic jams.”
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