Stringent laws needed to curb drunk driving Precious lives nipped in the bud | Sunday Observer

Stringent laws needed to curb drunk driving Precious lives nipped in the bud

In the early hours of September 30, Ajantha Gamini Perera (51) a Police Inspector, along with his family met with a tragic accident while travelling near Wickramaratne Mawatha, Pepiliyana around 12.45 am, when a vehicle driven by a drunk driver collided head-on with the motorcar they were travelling in. Scrambling out of the wreckage Perera, with the support of others in the area had rushed his seriously injured wife and two sons to hospital. At the hospital, his relatives said, the policeman had complained of breathing difficulties only to collapse and die a short while later. Unknown to him Perera had suffered grievous internal injuries from the horrific accident.

This year, up to date, 916 accidents have been caused by drunk drivers and 31 innocent lives lost as a result. While the statistics are horrific, the tragic situation and the ensuing devastation are all the more real for the families of the victims, as the loved ones of Police Inspector Ajantha Gamini Perera found out this week.

Perera, a father of three, was not only a policeman but a popular figure in the Sri Lankan boxing circuit. A former National Boxing player, who went on to win several SAARC boxing medals for the country, Perera was also a popular boxing coach and referee in Sri Lanka and abroad. While his life has now been cut short by a drunk driver, his wife and two sons who were in the vehicle at the time remain in critical condition with the youngest aged 8 on life support.

“Neither of the sons yet know that their father is no more,” says Prasad Gunaratne, brother-in-law of the deceased policeman. According to Gunaratne on the fateful day, Perera had organised a ‘Bana’ sermon to mark his mother’s 82nd birthday. “The whole family had gathered on the day,” he says, recalling the day’s events. Perera had been returning to the Police quarters where he resides with his family, when the tragic incident occurred. “He was always the person who brought the family together and led the way,” Gunaratne says, adding that his loved ones still cannot fathom his loss. According to Gunaratne while the life of the youngest son hangs in the balance the rest of the family receiving treatment will take months to recover from the injuries sustained.

But, what is shocking to the family was the revelation that the drunk driver was a specialist female doctor attached to the Ratnapura Base Hospital. “How can someone who is supposed to be a saviour of all humans under her care act in such a manner and get drunk?” Gunaratne questions.

According to preliminary investigations by the Police having administered a breathalyzer test on the offending driver, it had turned positive for alcohol proving she was drunk above the allowed blood level alcohol limit of 80mg/100ml. Currently charged with reckless and drunk driving, the doctor has been remanded till October 9 by the Gangodawila Magistrate. Despite there being no significant injuries, sources say she continues to stay admitted at the Kalubowila Hospital awaiting the court date.

However, the incident has not been without further controversy. The Police presenting the suspect doctor for an inspection of a medical officer at the Kalubowila Hospital following the accident, sources say, a report was issued stating it did not appear that the doctor was drunk at the time of the accident. The news not only enraged the family but created a stir among members of the public as many wondered out aloud if justice will be served.

But putting all doubts to rest, DIG in charge of Traffic and Road Safety Ajith Rohana says, the medical officer’s report is irrelevant to the case. “In two cases before the Supreme Court, it was clearly declared that only the breathalyzer test administered by the Police or a laboratory blood test can be presented as evidence of intoxication” he clarified, adding that therefore, the medical officer’s report claiming the offending doctor was not seemingly drunk at the time, has no bearing on the case.

Due to the attention on the doctor’s state of intoxication on the day Police have also gathered additional evidence in connection with the case. According to Rohana statements have been recorded from the staff of the nightclub the doctor had visited that night while CCTV footage from the establishment has also been retrieved. Sources within the Police say the staff have provided a detailed description of the drinks ordered by the doctor and her companions that night. “All this will be presented as additional evidence,” Rohana says.

But, with drunk driving being the third most common cause for fatal accidents on Sri Lanka’s roads, experts say, stringent punishment and policies must be put in place to avoid preventable deaths such as that of IP Ajantha Perera.

While the Police nabbed over 70, 000 drivers for driving while intoxicated last year alone, they believe the actual number of drunk motorists on the country’s roads are actually three-fold making them a death trap for innocent road users. DIG Rohana likens a vehicle at the hands of a drunk driver to handing over a multibarrel gun to an inebriated individual. “No one knows how many will die as a result” he stresses.

Therefore, the Police will step up drunk driving detection operations while also increasing the reward amount presented to Police Officers for making such detections.

Expressing his personal views, Rohana says, the existing penalties on drunk driving within the country is insufficient to act as an effective deterrent.

While in the United Kingdom the fine for drunk driving is a steep 5,000 GBP (Equivalent to Rs. 1,110,000)whereas in Sri Lanka the judge can impose a fine between a menial Rs. 2,000 - Rs. 25, 000. Denmark on the other hand curbs drunk driving by maintaining a low allowed blood alcohol level of 40mg per 100ml of blood giving no chance to intoxicated drivers.

But, the Sri Lankan Government has continuously struggled to impose strict penalties on road traffic offences, often caving in to the demands of transport unions, particularly, that of the private bus unions. While in August 2017 the Cabinet approved a spot fine of Rs. 25,000 for several offences including drunk driving, early this year it was scrapped due to the opposition raised by the unions who threatened the government with strikes, if imposed.

According to the Chairman of the National Road Safety Council (NRSC) Dr Sisira Kodagoda, it is tragic that Sri Lanka cannot even impose a fine of Rs. 25,000 on such a serious offence, and people continue to die, when countries such as Japan have imposed a fine equivalent to Rs. 500,000 for the offence. “Politicians must discuss with us before giving in to demands of others,” he says, adding that often government officials such as him are left helpless in their attempts to improve the situation in the country.

However, Kodagoda says, while intending to propose harsher penalties for the offence the NRSC is now also working towards introducing drug detection machines to the Sri Lanka Traffic Division. First proposed in 2016, Kodagoda says, the machines will be brought down without further delay. “Driving while on drugs has become a far more serious issue than driving while under the influence of alcohol,” he says adding that currently, the Police has no method to detect such drivers. The NRSC has also promised that necessary legal provisions will be drafted to incorporate the use of the machine to the current motor traffic legal framework.

While continuous awareness programs on road safety are conducted by the Police and other relevant agencies Kodagoda says, creating a change in attitudes has been difficult. Despite new services offering drivers to individuals who have consumed alcohol exist at a nominal fee, some continue to act in an irresponsible manner, he says.

“Some feel it is demeaning, others see no need for it as they have driven while drunk before without incident” Kodagoda points out. Though various options such as, taking a taxi, or allowing a person who had not consumed liquor to drive exist, people prefer to flout the law he says.

But, with such foolish decisions leading to tragic loss of life for some and life-changing injuries to others, DIG Ajith Rohana says an ideology of discouraging being drunk while driving must be created within society to dissuade drivers from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.

Pic: Sirisena Tuduwage, Maharagama Gr Cor.