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Drink-and-drive fines: Deterrent or punitive?

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Peter Dimba

Alcohol taking is a therapy, others say; as it fortifies social networking.

For long, many people have lost lives due to road accidents, most of which have been attributed to motorists who were driving while drunk, police say.

Consequently, in 2021, the law enforcers—Malawi Police Service—stepped up its efforts in road accident prevention by, among others, cracking a whip on drunk drivers.

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Breathalysers were introduced.

A breathalyser is a tool that police use to test alcohol levels in drivers.

If a person is found that they had taken too much alcohol, a slap of K200,000 fine lands on the motorist’s face.

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Since the inception of such fines, motorists have cried foul.

Categorically, they say, the fines are way too much.

But police stick to their guns that this is one sure way of reducing road accidents, most of which emanate from drunk motorists.

In a recent statement from Area 30 in Lilongwe, National Police deputy spokesperson Harry Namwaza said to contain the unwanted driver behaviour, they will continue and enhance spot checks where breathalysers would continue to be used.

He said motorists should be reminded that it is an offence under Road Traffic Act to drive a motor vehicle or ride a motorcycle while drunk.

To avoid paying the ‘hefty’ fines, Namwaza said initiatives like using a taxi or sharing a vehicle with a sober driver may be encouraged.

But Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament Chairperson Peter Dimba, a sober person himself, said the fines are simply skinning Malawians alive.

Dimba said Road Traffic Regulations must be reviewed and, as a Legal Affairs Committee, they are ready to facilitate the review.

He argued that K200,000 fine is way too high at a time when the global economy is shaken due to the Russia-Ukraine war, resulting in global inflation and erosion of the purchasing power of people’s earnings.

“The breathalysers that are almost anywhere at night and set like mouse traps close to drinking joints are killing the entertainment industry and adversely affecting our economy. Ironically, government gets a lot of revenue on liquor through taxes including excise tax. It would, therefore, not be in government’s interest to cripple this industry through the breathalysers,” he said.

Of course, police cannot be blamed.

“They are there simply to enforce laws and regulations. When Directorate of Road Traffic with approval of Parliament was promulgating these regulations around 2017/18, they probably made sense because that was before Covid-19 and Ukraine war hit our economy. Today, I feel these regulations no longer make sense economically and they must be reviewed,” he said.

He finished by saying reduced fines can still be there as a deterrent to drink-and-drive offences that have an effect on road accidents.

Similarly, Justice League, an association of well-meaning Malawians who have come together to fight any form of social injustice, said the fines are a violation of sections 18, 29 and 39 which provide for rights to liberty, economic activity and movement.

These rights, though limitable, the league said they can only be limited if the limitations are in accordance with the Constitution, especially Section 44 (2) (b) which says any such limitations must be lawful, reasonable, recognised by international human rights standards and necessary in an open and democratic society.

“Driving under influence is just one of the many traffic offences under the laws of Malawi but its fine is by far the most exorbitant to unjustifiable levels. There is no traffic offence that attracts a fine of close to K200,000 to our knowledge. We members of Justice League find the fine insane as it is four times as high as the country’s legally acceptable minimum wage of K50,000,” spokesperson of the group Andy Hariwa said.

The league said the fine is only promoting corruption among traffic police officers who are extorting lesser amounts of money from motorists caught driving under the influence of alcohol.

Hariwa said the entertainment sector would also be the most affected at the end of the day.

Much as drink-and-drive fines are much higher in other countries like the UK where the penalty actually includes a driving ban for one year, in some countries such as Somalia, Burkina Faso and Congo such fines do not exist.

Quick figures:

  • Deaths from road accidents increased by 18 per cent from January 2021 to December 2021.
  • Between January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021, 1,444 fatalities were recorded from 9,416 accidents.
  • In 2020, there were 1,221 fatalities from 10,799 accidents.
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