YELLOW PAD

By AJ Montesa

In the Philippines, an average of over 10 people die every day due to road crashes. Of these, an estimated three deaths are attributable to alcohol as a risk factor.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that road traffic crashes as the leading cause of death among people aged 15-29 years globally.

Driving entails a certain level of risk due to factors like poor weather and road conditions, mechanical failures, distracted driving, and human error. But in many cases, the fatalities and injuries are completely preventable. This is certainly true in the case of alcohol-impaired driving.

The side effects from alcohol use, including impaired judgment, coordination, and reaction times, transform potentially safe drivers into serious hazards on the road. Drunk driving incidents, unlike other road crashes that might involve non-controllable factors, can be avoided entirely by ensuring that individuals do not operate vehicles under the influence.

In response to this, the WHO has identified advancing and enforcing drunk driving countermeasures as one of the five most cost-effective interventions to reduce alcohol related harm. Recommended drunk driving countermeasures include:

• establishing and restricting blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limits (with lower limits for novice and professional drivers);

• sobriety checkpoints and random breath-testing;

• administrative suspension of licenses, graduated driving licenses for novice drivers, and ignition interlocks; and,

• other complementary measures including mandatory driver education, provision of alternative transportation, counseling and, as appropriate, treatment programs for repeat offenders and carefully planned, high-intensity and well-executed mass media campaigns.

Republic Act No. (RA) 10586, also known as the “Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act of 2013,” appears to align in various respects with the WHO recommendations. However, in the Global Status Report on Road Safety 2015, the WHO gave the Philippines a rating of 1 out of a maximum score of 10 in the enforcement and implementation of RA 10586.

In a conversation with Prof. Roberto Valera, a former Professorial Lecturer at the Far Eastern University and a current lecturer at the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) on Land Transportation Office (LTO) rules and regulations, three challenges stood out as regards the enforcement of RA 10586:

1. There is a shortage of law/traffic enforcement officers, including a lack of deputized officers, compounded by insufficient training regarding the proper protocol.

2. There is a deficiency in the appropriate equipment, particularly an inadequate supply of properly calibrated breathalyzers.

3. There are inadequate incentives for enforcement personnel and the public to adhere to the law.

The challenges outlined by Mr. Valera underscore the need for a comprehensive approach that addresses these enforcement gaps to effectively reduce drunk driving incidents.

Stiff penalties for drunk driving such as large fines, long jail times, and strict license suspensions, would seemingly deter offenders, however experience has often proven that these are insufficient, even ineffective, especially when there is a disconnect between the severity of the laws and the actual enforcement of these laws. Heavier penalties are effective only when would-be offenders realize there is a high likelihood of being caught and punished.

Many of the provisions of RA 10586 are simply not enforced.

The shortage of law enforcement officers means that with the high volume of traffic on the road, it is difficult to proactively identify and apprehend drivers on the road who are under the influence of alcohol. While the law allows the deputation of officers from Local Government Units, the law does not require deputation. The lack of officers becomes most apparent during late evenings, when there are less officers on duty and there are likely more drivers who have consumed alcohol, not to mention the decreased visibility.

Even when drivers do get apprehended for probable cause of drunk driving, there remains a high enough probability that they can evade prosecution. For instance, in a 2016 BusinessWorld column, Dinna Louise Dayao recounted an incident where an apparently intoxicated driver was involved in a car collision but managed to escape criminal charges due to the absence of a breathalyzer result*.

Mr. Valera also referenced a case where a drunk driving charge was dismissed in court because the driver in question was too impaired to complete the three field sobriety tests as stipulated in RA 10586. This situation presents quite a paradox: the driver’s extreme intoxication, which should have conclusively demonstrated the danger he posed to others, ironically prevented the completion of the tests, thereby disabling the officers from collecting the evidence needed to secure a conviction.

It seems that outside the LTO, there is a lack of broader governmental commitment to effectively implement RA 10586. Many prosecutors maintain stringent standards on the admissibility of evidence, which, combined with insufficient deputation, inadequate training on protocols, and a shortage of calibrated breathalyzers, can lead to LTO officers feeling discouraged from pursuing cases against drivers who violate the law.

Although the law ostensibly allocates resources for acquiring the necessary equipment and training officers through the Special Road Safety Fund sourced from the Motor Vehicle User’s Charge (Section 7, RA 8794), a review of the General Appropriations Act reveals no specific budgetary line item for the implementation of RA 10586.

On All Saints’ Day in 2023, a tragic accident involving a pickup truck in Calamba, Laguna resulted in the deaths of a family of four and injuries to five other individuals. Senator Raffy Tulfo alleged that the suspected driver “smelled of liquor” at the time of the incident. This prompted him to file Senate Bill No. 2546, imposing stricter penalties for driving under the influence.

It is commendable that our legislators are addressing the issue of drunk driving. We urge them to focus on putting in place proactive or preventive measures for more effective enforcement. Harshly penalizing drunk driving addresses offenses after the fact, whereas proactive enforcement preserves lives before they are jeopardized.

The key is deterrence; prevent crashes from happening. Policymakers must pursue measures to discourage drinking and thus disable driving under the influence.

In this regard, we urge Congress to raise alcohol taxes. This serves as a most effective strategy to reduce overall alcohol consumption. Further, a higher alcohol tax increases government revenues. The additional funds could then be allocated to enhance the under-funded road safety programs, contributing to more consistent enforcement. This approach not only curbs the immediate availability of alcohol but also financially supports the necessary infrastructure to prevent drunk driving incidents.

To summarize, preventive measures and robust enforcement strategies on curbing and ultimately eliminating drink driving will dramatically reduce the number of needless tragedies that occur each year. The impact of alcohol on road safety is not an inevitable risk, but a preventable one.

*“So many drunk drivers, so few breathalyzers,” (July 29, 2016) https://www.bworldonline.com/weekender/focus/2016/07/29/6335/so-many-drunk-drivers-so-few-breathalyzers/

AJ Montesa heads the tax policy team of Action for Economic Reforms.