Colombia gets tough on drunk driving

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Bogota - Colombia is cracking down on drunk driving, imposing a fine nearly 50 times the country's minimum monthly wage as it tries to set an example for Latin America.

After a series of deadly accidents last year, Colombia's Congress used the holiday period - usually a well-lubricated one - to pass the tough new law against people who drink and drive.

Until now, the fine could be the equivalent of $900 (about R9 700) and 20 hours of community service.

But now, depending on the driver's blood-alcohol level, the fine can reach as much as $14 600 - in a country where the minimum monthly wage is about $320.

In general, Latin America is not known for road safety.

The mortality rate stemming from highway accidents was 16.1 per 100 000 inhabitants in 2012, according to a report by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). That compares to 10.3 in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation, and 5.8 in France.

In the Andean region, where roads are poorly maintained, cars are in bad condition and police checkpoints are rare, the figure goes up to 22.1.

“The two risk factors, which are our top priority, are driving under the influence of alcohol and speeding,” said Eugenia Rodrigues, an official with the Pan American Health Organisation who works on road safety issues.

The Organisation, which recommends a maximum permitted blood alcohol level of 0.5 grams per litre of blood, is constantly urging Latin American countries to set up more drunk driving checkpoints and toughen penalties for offenders.

The PAHO delegate in Colombia, Teofilo Monteiro, welcomed the new legislation in the country, saying the astronomical new fines will surely have a stinging psychological effect on drivers.

“People are going to be very careful not to be hit with such a big fine,” Monteiro said. “The main thing is to set up checkpoints.”

The PAHO cites Brazil as an example, with its zero tolerance law: 0.05 gram of alcohol per litre of blood and fines of up to $830 for repeat offenders.

Another country cracking down is Chile. Since March 2012, the blood alcohol level there has been reduced from 0.5 to 0.3 grams. A drunk driver is jailed, fined up to a relatively mild amount starting at $80 and their driver's license is suspended.

In the Caribbean, Panama is also preparing Colombia-style punishment, with fines ranging from $1 500 to $12 000, license suspension and outright revocation for a fourth offense.

Uruguay opts for community service as punishment, while Cuba decided last year to suspend drunk drivers' licenses for a period ranging from six months to five years.

In other countries, such as Venezuela or Paraguay, the legislation looks tough, with fines and prison sentences. But civic associations complain that these measures are rarely applied.

Take this example: a Paraguayan representative of the regional trading bloc Mercosur was caught fleeing the scene of an accident after leaving a young man seriously injured last May. But his immunity protected him from prosecution.


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