Enforcement, not legislation: Colombia’s problem with drunk driving

Colombia’s drunk driving laws are consistent with global best practices. But are they enforced? Photo by Thomas Hawk.

In Colombia, in recent days, several tragic incidents have started a national conversation on drunk driving. Two young women were killed in an accident in Bogota and a man was run over while walking with his two-year-old daughter. Citizens of Colombia are wondering whether drunken driving sanctions need to be strengthened, and what can be done to prevent more deaths.

Three critical changes to stop drunk driving in Colombia

Three critical changes could make all the difference went is comes to stopping drunk driving. We need to publicize existing laws, increase enforcement coordination, and monitor results. We don’t need to change the law— we need better enforcement and oversight.

As it stands, few people in Colombia know the existing laws. As I worked on this commentary, I struggled to understand Law 1383, passed in 2010 and Resolution 414, passed in 2002 of the Institute of Legal Medicine.

There is sufficient, undisputed evidence associating alcohol and driving with fatal road accidents. Despite the evidence, we still have a long way to go. A survey in developing countries indicates that up to 69% of injured drivers had alcohol in their blood. In Colombia, in 2011 alone, apparent drunkenness resulted in 156 transport-related deaths (3%) and 1,725 transport-related injuries.

Why are so many people choosing to drink and drive? The answers range from addiction to an inaccurate belief that alcohol “does not affect the senses and increases control” as described by Ruben Blades in his song “Decisiones.” In reality, driving a car or a motorbike drunk is equivalent to pointing a gun at someone with the safety off. An individual who is injured or killed in these conditions is not an accidental casualty.

Colombia’s drunk driving legislation

Colombian legislation is consistent with global best practices, but this fact is little known. The World Health Organization suggests that crash risk begins to significantly increase at a blood alcohol content of 0.4 grams per liter (g/l). Most developed countries set a limit of 0.5 g/l, although places like Canada and several U.S. states have a higher limit 0.8 g/l. The evidence indicates that once an individual’s blood alcohol content has reached 0.8 g/l, their risk of hurting themselves or others while driving is doubled from the 0.4 g/l level.

In Colombia, the point at which a driver is no longer considered sober is 0.4 g/l. This is consistent with most scientific evidence, which shows that legal limits higher than 0.4 g/l increase risk to road users, while lower limits do not significantly reduce the risk, but make the law very difficult to enforce.

So it is important that people know the rules: the limit in Colombia is equivalent to half a glass of wine or half pint of beer. Drivers are subject to license’s suspension above that, and lifetime removal of driving privileges for repeated offenders. Monetary penalties can also apply.  Those who have reached the third degree of intoxication (over 1.5 g/l) and are involved in an incident with injuries or fatalities can face jail time.

Enforcement will save lives

It seems that despite many campaigns against drunk-driving, some drivers still think that drinking and driving is not a risky behavior. These drivers need to be afraid of what will happen to them – and others – if they choose to drink and drive. They need to know that they will be caught and punished for breaking this critical law.

Changing normative behavior like this is only possible with a strong and coordinated police effortIn order to stop drunk driving, we need better enforcement, as indicated by several experts, including Alexandra Rojas, Director of the Colombia Road Safety Fund.  Finally we should follow up on the results to see whether our rules and our methods of enforcement are effective, and change them if progress is not achieved. Maybe if these actions had been taken sooner, a portion of 5,700 Colombians who die each year from vehicle crashes would still be with us. Among them, my dad.

This post is taken from an Op-Ed in El Tiempo in Colombia. Dario Hidalgo is the Director of Research and Practice at EMBARQ, the sustainable urban transport and urban planning program of the World Resources Institute.

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