It’s time for action on drink driving at a European level
The town of Kamienn Pomorski in Poland is still in shock following a tragedy that took place on New Year’s Day. A 26-year-old drunk driver drove his BMW into a crowd of people, killing six. One boy who was seriously injured lost both his parents and his brother. The incident has provoked media outrage and a huge public debate in Poland. But the European Union too must take note and recognise the role that it can and must play in tackling the scourge of drink-driving.
It is estimated that alcohol is linked to around 6,500 deaths each year on European roads. And while progress has been made in recent years, including in Poland, the figures are still far too high. Especially so considering that drink-driving is a risk factor that is totally avoidable.
One key group to tackle is professional drivers. Lorries and buses crash less often than other vehicles, but when they do, the consequences can be catastrophic. Here in Belgium earlier this month, a school-bus driver transporting 49 children was tested and found to be over the limit. He was sacked within days. Zero tolerance in such a case is a good thing, but surely it would be better if drivers who have been drinking were automatically blocked from starting the ignition.
The technology to do that already exists and several European countries have laws that require so-called “alcohol interlocks’ to be installed in specific cases such as school buses, or to prevent convicted drink-drivers from re-offending. Finland was the first to introduce them, back in 2008, and now has a well-established rehabilitation programme. In neighbouring Sweden, it is estimated that there are now close to 100,000 of the devices in use. France requires alcohol interlocks on new school buses, and retrofitting of the rest of the fleet will be completed by next year.
But despite these successes, wider take-up in the EU has been slow.
There is a strong case for EU action to get things moving. But while the European Commission has set a target for halving the number of road deaths in the EU by 2020, it has done little to introduce legislation to tackle drink-driving.
In September 2011, the European Parliament sensibly asked the Commission to deliver three legal measures. The first was a harmonised blood alcohol limit (there are currently six different levels allowed across the EU, ranging from zero in the Czech Republic to 0.8 grams per litre in the UK and Malta). The second was a zero-alcohol rule for professional and novice drivers. And the third was the compulsory installation of alcohol interlocks in all new types of commercial vehicle, as well as in the vehicles of drivers who have more than one drink-driving conviction. All three measures are feasible, and would save lives.
However, the Commission has barely lifted a legislative finger so far. A new study on alcohol interlocks has been delayed and there is no sign of new rules being proposed any time soon. Kamien Pomorski is yet another reminder that failing to deal with the scourge of drink-driving in Europe will only lead to more death, injury and lives ripped apart. The EU’s failure to act cannot be justified.