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drunken driving

None for the road


PEG UP: The rule has led to accidents dropping sharply in Kathmandu

Little did Keshav Bhattarai realise that two glasses of beer during an office lunch break would get him into trouble. Bhattarai, 31, a finance professional, left office at 7 pm, and was stopped by Kathmandu's traffic police. They got him to blow into a breathalyser;alcohol was detected and his driver's licence was confiscated.

The Nepal government recently decided to stringently enforce a zero tolerance law for drunken driving. It has set a blood alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0 per cent, while permissible levels in other countries and cities range from 0. 02 to 0. 08 per cent.
There is hectic activity in the traffic department after sunset now, with cops manning checkposts on every major road in Kathmandu armed with breathalysers. If caught, the 'drunk' driver's licence is impounded. To collect it, the driver has to report to the traffic office early the next morning, pay a fine of Rs 1, 000 and attend a onehour lecture on the downsides of drunken driving.

According to police statistics, 29, 007 people have been booked so far from December 3, 2011, when the enforcement began. The department has earned a revenue of over Rs 2 crore in Nepalese currency (approximately Rs 1. 5 crore in Indian money).

Many complain that this law is particularly odd in country like Nepal, where alcohol rules are otherwise rather flexible. For instance, almost all eateries and departmental stores serve or sell alcohol because unlike in say, India, one does not need to obtain a liquor licence through a rigorous process of allotment.

Apart from causing rifts between couples - over who would compromise on the drinking to be able to drive back after evenings out - the strict enforcement of this law has also led to huge losses for the hospitality industry and the thriving pub business in Kathmandu. Taxis, however, have seen a jump in their earnings, particularly at night.

This law also has cultural and social implications. For various ethnic groups in Nepal it is often customary to imbibe alcohol on several occasions and in many ceremonies. For a country currently roiled by spats about ethnic and identity assertion, this rule further fuels resentment.

"I am a Newar, my ethnicity demands that I drink. And just because I drink a peg or two does not mean my right to drive can be snatched away, " says 30-year old Pranab Man Singh. In fact, the Newari signature drink is a rice-gin concoction known as raksi, or aiyla, which has more than 50% alcohol. Home-brewed alcohol is also given as a gift among Newaris.

But authorities claim accident rates have dropped drastically since the rule was enforced. "The rising number of accidents related to drunken driving compelled us to enforce this law strictly. I agree it is a bit impractical but it was the most appropriate measure. And the results (lower rates of road accident) prove we are justified, " says Ganesh Rai, chief of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, who initiated this drive.

Accidents have nearly halved from July-August last year (614 in that month) to April-May this year (333). Rai also says the most important intervention has been the mandatory 'lecture' one must attend in order to get the licence back. "The class has been the greatest deterrent. For those who own cars and drive, paying Rs 1, 000 as fine is not a big deal. But they are so reluctant to attend an early morning lecture on this topic that it deters them from drinking and driving, " Rai adds.

The 'class', meanwhile, is an experience in itself. A crowd of people jostle to find space in a small room. There is a lone girl, whispering to a male friend sitting next to her. Both are in school uniform. A policeman calls for silence, and introduces himself as a sub-inspector. He shows slides on the various traffic rules violations in the city. A senior inspector then takes over, explains the adverse impact of driving on alcohol, and urges offenders not to repeat their mistake. The offenders then take their licences and troop out, chastised, but with many still clearly still sullen at what they deem to be a draconian measure.

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