A driver blows an Alcoblow machine to test alcohol consumption along West road in Nakuru Town. (Photo: Kipsang Joseph/Standard)
The fresh controversy surrounding the use of breathalysers has raised questions about why implementation of a gadget designed to make roads safer has consistently been fought for 12 years now.
It is not in doubt that Kenyans love to imbibe and party. Why they like endangering their lives by driving under the influence of alcohol is still a question for debate. But in a country where circumventing regulations is a national hobby, the alcoblow gadget has had its fair amount of wars waged against it by cheeky drivers who want to drink in “peace” and pub owners who see it as a business destroyer.
From WhatsApp and Facebook groups to warn people of where check points are mounted to deejays making announcements to advise revelers of the ‘safest’ routes home and designated drivers who get people past checkpoints, the breathalyser has seen it all.
On the flipside, a number of positive initiatives aimed at preventing drunk driving have been tried. The East African Breweries Limited (EABL) initiated a campaign with bar owners to encourage those who drink to get designated drivers.
Reducing drinking as a public policy goal has never been successful and annual increases in sin tax has had the opposite effect as Kenyans continue to raise the bar on the amount of alcohol drowned annually.
NTSA yet to get orders on Alcoblow ban
Of 40 million Kenyans, 1.2 per cent of adults are considered binge drinkers, with the average adult consumption being 4.5 litres per person according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Binge drinkers are defined as those who consume more than six bottles of beer in one sitting. Besides the fights waged on alcoblow on social media, several court cases have been filed by individuals determined to stop the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) from using the gadget.
“I think there are people who are determined that this thing (alcoblow) doesn’t work,” Francis Meja, NTSA’s director general told Sunday Standard.
Motorists say the gadget has been turned into a money minting venture by NTSA and traffic police, accusing them of conveniently placing road blocks outside entertainment joints with the aim of extorting bribes.
“The law is very clear, a motorist is supposed to be monitored and not subjected to a test,” says Peter Kukurima, the chairperson Motorists Association of Kenya. “In other countries, one is arrested for driving under the influence, but in Kenya you will be told you have committed a felony for driving under intake. You might be coming from a cocktail party and you have had just two glasses of wine but the gadget says you are drunk.”
The alcoblow gadget has calibrations, and the zero mark indicates no detection of alcohol. Any mark between zero and 0.034 on the calibrator indicates alcohol in the breath but the motorist can safely steer a vehicle. Any reading above this means the driver has impaired judgment.
But this is not a universal indicator of Driving Under the Influence (DUI). In the US, for instance, the calibration is 0.08
“That alone has transformed alcoblow into an avenue for soliciting bribes and violation of human rights,” argues Mukurima. “When they photograph and invite the media to take pictures of drivers being subjected to tests, it amounts to passing judgment on them before they are proven guilty by the courts.”
In 2015, some 3,057 Kenyans died from road accidents. This figure represents an increase of 5.2 per cent from the previous year. Statistics for last year are yet to be released, but indications show there could be an increase.
NTSA attributed the rise in accidents to bad road user behaviour such as drunk-driving, speeding and low levels of road safety awareness among users. There are no clear statistics on how many accidents are caused by drunk drivers.
But beneath the war between drivers and government over drunk driving is the lack of a functional public transport system that would make it unnecessary for revelers to use their cars when going out.
In the 1990’s, the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) had inter estate long buses that would drop people at their residential areas up to late in the night.
Nowadays, matatus are at night turned into avenues for robbing anyone who appears drunk. Hailing taxis like has proven ineffective in dealing with drunk driving.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found no noticeable impact on the number of drunk driving fatalities in cities where Uber operates.
“Many drunk people take an Uber home at the end of a wild night out, but it may be an alternative to taxis or public transportation, not their own cars,” said the study done by the University of Oxford.
“Drunk drivers, who are already less rational, may be hesitant to pay for a ride home when they can drive for free without getting caught,” it said.