Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Drink Driving in Russia- Trying to make it a road less travelled

The 22nd of September 2012 was a relaxed Saturday afternoon as the small group made their way back from a festival of arts and crafts. Five teenagers from an orphanage, their teacher Olga Shirshova and her husband were waiting for the bus on Minskaya street in Moscow. Suddenly a toyota came screaming up beside some waiting traffic. Inside it was 30 year old Alexander Maximov. He was drunk. In fact he later said he'd been drinking for two days. He veered off the road and smashed into the bus stop and the people waiting there at 200 kilometres an hour. All seven from the orphanage were killed as the car skidded on 10 metres, dragging the twisted wreckage of the bus stop and all inside with it. 

Three others were injured. They and other witnesses saw how Maximov clambered out of the car, not even realising they said, what he had just done. Instantly they knew he was dunk. When police arrived, other reports say he was aggressive and tried to lash out at a video camera they were using to film the scene. Blood tests conducted afterwards showed he had 1.5 per mil alcohol in his blood, equivalent to 0.15%.

Maximov reportedly said he wanted to shoot himself, so guilty was he once he did realise what had happened. A criminal case has been opened and if charges of multiple manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol are brought he could spend up to nine years in prison with a three year driving ban after.

Another cruel irony in this case was that it was international car free day, celebrated in Moscow as elsewhere to try and encourage less dependence on personal vehicles.

But this was just one case. Most people in Russia know it. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it, “We’ve recently had a series of horrifying road accidents, unfortunately, the majority of them were caused [by drivers] in a drunken state. In this way the picture is worse here than in any other country."

Russia has an abominable record for road safety, even when you don't count the alcohol. As many as thirty thousand people die in collisions each year and tens of thousands more are injured. As for drink driving, though 2,103 people were killed by drink drivers in 2011. 2,300 have already been killed so far in 2012.

These figures were used by United Russia duma deputy Shamsail Saraliyev to argue for the most harsh increase in punishment, life imprisonment if drink drivers end up killing people. He says causing deaths by drink driving amounts to terrorism. Emotional, populist nonsense came the reply, from experts who say this goes against legal norms and objectives and would do little to solve the problem. As one lawyer, Yuri Shulipa, commented, life sentences are given for crimes where there is clear intent. Drunk drivers like Maximov by their very nature don't have intent to kill people. They aren't even in control of their actions. Even other members of Saraliyev's party rejected the idea as simply too vindictive.

However few would disagree that Russia's punishment of drink drivers needs to be harsher. The current fine is 5000 roubles ($160/£100) as long as there has been no collision. There are also no harsher measures for repeat offences. Andrey Vorobyov, United Russia's leader in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has suggested fines be increased to 100,000 roubles  ($3200/£2000) with driving bans and criminal cases for repeat offenders. There are already laws that deal with death caused by drink driving as Alexander Maximov will likely be facing. But the maximum sentence there is nine years in prison. There has been talk of equating incidents where people are killed by drink drivers to murder which can carry a fifteen year sentence.

If a new law helps to bring down the frightening death toll on Russia's roads it won't come a moment too soon. However that's just the point argue many angry onlookers. This draft law has been on the books for some time. Why did it take this particularly poignant tragedy to force action? There are also worries about the enforceability of any new law. As Peter Shkumatov, coordinator of a famous anti-motor corruption group called the blue buckets (to simulate fake blue emergency lights)  says, so many drink drivers in Russia who have had their licences taken away continue to drive and simply bribe police officers. 

Sadly, if events like those of the 22nd of September are not be repeated, as they are with alarming frequency, it will take more than just a change in attitudes in Russia's Duma. Though judging by that piece of pavement where before there was a bus stop on Minskaya street, flower by flower, candle by candle, there is the real desire that Russia's roads will become safer.

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