By Raffique Shah
November 22, 2009
Trinidad and Tobago News Blog
ON many occasions during my 40 years of driving on the nation’s roads, I’ve witnessed drunk drivers endangering the lives of other motorists. Mostly late nights, although I’m sure it happens during daytime as well, I’ve seen vehicles wobble much the way drunken persons do when they try to walk after consuming litres of alcohol. On occasion, I’ve had to make the risky decision either to overtake the drifting jackasses, or stay far behind them for my safety.
I’ve never witnessed a major accident caused by such boorish behaviour. But I’ve seen too many gory images on television and in newspapers that make me angry with people who drink themselves into stupor, then insist on driving, only to wreak death and destruction, too often on innocent persons. What is worse, most times these sadists walk away from the carnage with minor injuries while their victims die or they are dismembered or disfigured for life.
Such callous disregard for human life makes one’s blood boil. I have long vowed if ever I were to fall victim to a drunken driver and by some miracle walk away from the accident unhurt, I’d beat the innards out of the offender-before the police arrive, of course-and blame his injuries on the accident!
Having outlined all of the above, I cannot say I feel safer from drunken drivers now that Government has proclaimed the ‘driving under the influence’ (or ‘breathalyser’) legislation and equipped the police with the requisite devices for enforcing the law. Our drinking culture is such it would take nothing short of a miracle for the legislation to reduce road accidents and deaths caused by drunks.
This country has more bars than cafes or vendors’ stalls. We are by no means unique in this regard. In Canada, for example, a 2004 survey showed that 80 per cent of persons age 15 and over had consumed alcohol during the previous year. In the US and the UK, binge-drinking, especially among young people, is almost an epidemic.
We have fewer policemen than other countries, on a per capita basis. At nights, when most drinkers tend to go on binges, there are even less lawmen on the nation’s roads. Even if we double the size of the Police Service, we shall never have enough patrols to adequately cover the nation’s roads.
What this means is while the new law may temper drinking, it will hardly curb drunken driving. Only a few unlucky sods will feel its bite. Most drunks will take their chances and escape with their deviant behaviour. In the US, where there are strict laws and stiff penalties for drunken driving, around 70 persons per million die from alcohol-related accidents a year. Here, the numbers may well be 200 per million!
Shifting focus to the tobacco control law that will soon come into effect, I have similar concerns about it. Opposition parliamentarians and independent senators were quite in order when they forced Government to soften some of the more draconian penalties first presented. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for health, although many would argue that they have known chain-smokers who lived full lives-meaning well into their 80s.
While such cases may be the exception, there is an abundance of evidence showing that smoking is the main cause of a wide range of diseases, many of which are death-dealing. And second-hand smoke is no joke. Because tobacco is addictive, it’s tough on those who are trapped on cigarettes to escape its clutches. However, smokers should not subject non-smokers to the adverse effects of their habit.
I support the ban on smoking in public places. But will a law that prohibits this practice be effective? Much like the breathalyser law, only a few unlucky smokers would pay the price for breaching its provisions. Legislation is but one tool to control errant human behaviour. It is not a solution to such problems.
Murder, for example, carries the death penalty if one is found guilty. Yet in this small country the average annual murder rate stands at over 400. Robberies of differing categories also carry heavy penalties: that does not stop the 1,000-or-so robberies that take place every day, some of them very violent. So while legislation is necessary, and laws must, in instances, be punitive, there are other strategies for curbing deviant human behaviour, be it drunken or dangerous driving, or smoking in public places.
Education is a better tool for curbing what can be best categorised as anti-social behaviour. Government should spend money reaching out to children from their formative years, preaching the gospel of good health, educating them on the dangers of smoking and drinking alcohol, and maybe just as important, the benefits of drinking water, not sugary soft drinks.
Yes, there are ‘harden’ children much the way there are hardened criminals who cannot be salvaged, and alcoholics who have gone beyond the boundary. Civilised societies, however, use education and information before they resort to legislation.
Leading by example, Government should serve no alcohol at social functions. Although some guests may have chauffeurs, most drive themselves. What better way to start the reformatory process than by serving coconut water and wholesome fruit juices?
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