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Leniency toward drunk drivers must end
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It seems hardly a day goes by without us hearing about a traffic accident in which impaired driving was the culprit.

On August 4, a drunk driver in Hangzhou killed a 16-year-old girl. Two days later, another drunk driver in Shanghai killed a four-year-old boy and injured three others.

The issue has aroused so much public concern that the Ministry of Public Security began a nationwide two-month campaign against drunk driving following an increase in traffic fatalities and accidents in recent months.

It is not as though efforts to curb the menace have not been tried before. In fact, every driver who has gone through China's driver license program must have known that the legal blood alcohol limit of 20 milligrams per 100 milliliters (between 20 and 80 is the legal definition for driving under the influence of alcohol, and above 80 for driving while intoxicated) is reached by just consuming a bottle of beer.

The increase in drunk-driving related accidents is not because people in China all of sudden started to rush to pubs and bars.

The rise in statistics is inevitable together with the bustling sales of cars in the first half of the year, as China overtook the United States to be the world's largest automobile market.

But why would any intelligent adult get behind the wheel within hours of a meal in which bottles of beers and liquor were downed, let alone speed along the most congested roads in the world?

People are rational of course, until they are drunk. Let's first talk about the rational part and then about the drunk part.

The primary reason that drunk-driving persists in China is that for a long time the probability of being caught was too low and the penalty not steep enough.

Police campaigns come and go, and after a few weeks, things are back to normal. That is the mentality for many drunk drivers. In that sense, the long-term effectiveness of the campaign is doubtful.

Moderate penalties

Impaired driving is not just a public nuisance, but a crime that kills. It should be a long-term battle in terms of raising public awareness and strengthening law enforcement.

Although the penalty for drunk-driving that results in fatalities can be as high as capital punishment in China, penalties for drunk-driving without causing damage are actually quite moderate - suspending licenses for three months and a fine of 500 yuan (US$73).

Two countries, Brazil and Bangladesh, have zero tolerance for blood alcohol content.

Now let's talk about the drunk part, I mean the process of getting drunk in explaining drunk driving.

Many people have gone through the experience during a feast that when others say you are drunk, you would think that you are not and a few more drinks would be OK.

Many drunk drivers have gone through the same thing - they often don't realize they are drunk until it is too late. In that sense, the bars and restaurants who continue to sell spirits to visibly intoxicated drivers play an accomplice's role.

Many states in the US have Dram Shop laws that establish the liability arising out of the sale of alcohol to visibly intoxicated persons who subsequently cause death or injury in alcohol-related car crashes.

This is a very effective weapon to deter and prevent drunk-driving, and is something that China's legislature may want to consider. Lastly, we need to talk about the bombardment of spirits advertising on TV.

Moderate wine consumption is a healthy thing, but the frequency of advertising for liquor, wine and beer on CCTV has reached the point that I start to suspect it has something to do with drunk driving.

Besides, early exposure on TV to a culture with too much emphasis on wine and beer consumption is clearly not beneficial to the growth of children.

Thailand is the first country to treat it as tobacco, ruling out liquor advertising on TV. While not advocating the same in China, some screen time quota for beer and wine advertising is reasonable, isn't it?

(Shanghai Daily August 24, 2009)

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