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The cultural challenge of drinking and driving

By Ria Taitt Political Editor

Too many people are being killed on the country's roads. And with the recent social phenomenon of women drinking as much as men and with the number of deaths from road accidents now approaching the 200 mark, road safety is increasingly becoming an issue of serious concern in Trinidad and Tobago.

It is a fact that irresponsible driving is intricately linked to alcohol consumption and this consumption becomes more pervasive and excessive in the festive seasons of Christmas and more particularly Carnival.

Within the last week, there have been two tragedies on the road. On Friday, 21-year-old Stefan Kissoon, died after the BMW which he received for his birthday, crashed into a concrete barrier on the Uriah Butler Highway.

Then there was the recent death of policewoman Angie Beckles-Gordon, who left to go to work but was knocked down while on duty along the Solomon Hochoy Highway.

The driver of the car had knocked down several orange traffic cones which had been placed along the highway, before ploughing into the traffic sign and Beckles-Gordon.

A proposal for improving road safety, titled "Road Safety: Accident Prevention, Public Education and Law Enforcement" done by Professor Ramesh Deosaran noted that widespread public concern about this problem is not only with the extent to which citizens drive under the influence of alcohol in particular, but also the extent to which there appears to be an "increase in the number of young drivers' involvement is serious, and increasingly, fatal accidents".

Deosaran has noted that available data for the Caribbean showed that two-thirds (68 per cent) of all victims of traffic injuries had blood alcohol concentrations of over 50 per cent (usually attained after two drinks) and that 55 per cent had a breath/blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of over the legal limit of 80 mg.

Deosaran's 80-page document which was prepared when he was programme professor at the Institute of Criminology and Public Safety, was presented to former minister Colm Imbert, and then Jack Warner when he was Works and Transport Minister.

Among other things, it examines the effectiveness of the breathalyser legislation.

He noted that in Trinidad and Tobago, like many other countries, several of the cultural recreational practices include to a significant extent, the consumption of alcohol beverages.

"Liming", "hanging out" and "feting" are widespread national pastimes that involve the substantial consumption of alcoholic beverages.

"The physiological and emotional management of such alcohol consumption has become a serious issue in road safety, especially for vulnerable, risk-prone young drivers.

He noted that some of the "liming and feting activities take place at Christmas time, Carnival, office cocktails and functions, at beach limes, bars, pubs and rum shops, river limes, pop/music concerts and chutney shows.

"The Government now finds itself facing a cultural challenge. It is quite responsibly seeking to regularise a widespread cultural activity, not by stopping drinking, but by compelling people to drive safety and without being under the undue influence of alcohol. In a sense, it is saving drunk drivers from themselves and saving others from such drunk drivers."

The paper notes that the factors which affect blood alcohol concentration levels include:

1) Quantity and rapidity of drinking- research shows that quicker drinking causes higher peaks;

2) Size of people— research has shown that larger size people have a lower BAC than smaller people who have consumed the same amount of alcohol;

3) Food — research has shown that food slows the rate of absorption and BAC rapidly rises on an empty stomach;

4)The Mixer— research shows that water and fruit juices slow absorption while carbonated beverages speed it up;

5) Age— research shows that age magnifies the adverse effects of low doses of alcohol;

6) Time of BAC testing— BAC done hours after accident and arrest, when the subject is in custody/hospital may be significantly lower at the time of the actual event;

7) Gender differences— Women reach higher BAC faster than men as their bodies have less water and more adipose tissue.

Deosaran said international literature has revealed that accurate measurements are not practical for roadside use because breath tests vary at least 15 per cent from actual blood alcohol concentration and at least 23 per cent of all individuals tested will have a BAC reading higher than their actual BAC.

Deosaran said whether it is being used as a deterrent or as a prosecution tool, it has become quite clear that the breathalyser legislation requires a quickened data collection system for policy back up, public education and legislative review. He said the causes, nature, types and consequences of road accidents will form an important part of this project.

Deosaran's proposal also speaks of the establishment of a "Centre for Road Safety Research, Policy and Public Education". Road Safety would be a top priority for this Centre. Deosaran suggested that road and public safety be treated as a partnership drive, as a vehicle for cultural change.

He said it was important that consideration be given to the "culture" of Trinidad and Tobago when it comes to drinking and driving, speeding, reckless driving, use of cell phones in the development of interventions and public education programmes. Any such interventions may have medium to long term objectives for it is difficult to change such culture, lifestyles and psyche.

Deosaran's proposal was first put to Colm Imbert in May 2007. When nothing happened, the proposal with some revision, was resubmitted on January 10, 2010. On May 6, 2010, Imbert announced Cabinet approval for the project. But the election intervened and the PNM lost office. In June 2010 the matter was put to the new Minister Jack Warner. After he lost the transport portfolio, Warner wrote to Deosaran in August 2011 indicating that he had passed the entire file to the his successor Devant Maharaj for his consideration. The proposal, which was to be done under the auspices of UTT would have cost $2.5 million.

He noted that the research and policy development proposal among other things seek to gather data in order to facilitate a strategic set of policies, programmes and legislation aimed at accident prevention, public education, effective law enforcement and public safety.

"While the breathalsyer legislation is of central importance, several related features of road safety and traffic behaviour, such as reformed record keeping, youth education, surveillance techniques, court decisions, will have to be examined in this work so as to provide a meaningful context for our recommendations and policy development," he said.

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