Is jail necessary for 1st-time drunk-driving offenders?

The public transport system should operate beyond regular working hours to reduce number of deaths caused by drunk driving

pic by BERNAMA

“OUR objective is not to make people’s life difficult” is not only a contradictory statement, but a poor excuse because whatever follows will inevitably make people’s life difficult, regardless.

But this is precisely what was said by Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong when he announced that first-time drunk-driving offenders would be slapped with jail time via the Road Transport Act (Amendment) Bill 2020.

The amended bill had been passed in the Dewan Rakyat on Aug 26 and was recently passed in the Dewan Negara after the third reading.

While I fully support and endorse harsh punishments for drunk-driving offenders who have caused injuries or deaths of others, I am not entirely convinced that imposing jail time on first-time offenders, who have yet to cause harm, is a very wise choice.

The first question that comes to mind is which jails the minister is referring to exactly? Are they the same jails that are currently underfunded and overcrowded? Are they the same jails that are a potential hotbed for new Covid-19 infections?

“The government is not interested in getting revenue through fines, but this is to protect lives and families,” said the minister. But is strong moral justification enough to mask bad policymaking?

The reason why I believe that this new amendment is bad policymaking is that it introduces a heavy-handed stick, without offering the carrot that people can pivot towards.

Consider the existing options consumers have after a night out drinking. They could use their own vehicle, which is dangerous and should be condemned. Perhaps, they can opt for an expensive e-hailing ride, which is never worth the value if you have your own vehicle?

Or should they opt for public transport stations that do not operate past 11.30pm? Or should people have designated drivers, which eliminate all solo-drinkers from the equation?

If this amended bill were to be enforced, we would have to look forward to more pubs, night-entertainment centres, and food and beverage (F&B) businesses losing a large chunk of their footfall at a crucial time during one of the world’s worst pandemics. The budget that was meant for outdoors drinking may end up as coffee allowance in someone else’s pockets.

The critical issue is that there are no apparent, viable alternatives when it comes to returning home after a night out drinking, other than your own transportation. The issue with drunk driving is not with the “drunk”, but with the “driving”.

Fortunately, drunk driving is not a uniquely Malaysian problem, and we can look towards other countries on how they manage this issue. After a quick Google search, it is clear that the drop in drunk-driving facilities coincides with better public transportation options during late hours.

In Japan, trains and subways generally run between 5am and 1am, and some run throughout the night during special holiday occasions. In the US, the Phoenix metro area saw a steep drop in drunk-driving fatalities after the debut of the state’s first major light rail system, which operates past 2am on Friday and Saturday nights.

If the primary goal here is to reduce the number of deaths caused by drunk driving, why not have our public transport system operates beyond regular working hours on dedicated nights such as Fridays and Saturdays.

Not only will it assist in reducing the number of fatalities, workers working the night shift can use these facilities as well.

F&B enterprises and associations are able to dedicate these nights for special promotions if they were to commute via public transport. E-hailing services might also tap into this trend by offering special discounts if they were to order the service within these designated hours.

Just because the mighty Transport Ministry is able to wield the ban hammer, not every single issue should be treated like a nail. The money that could have been spent on prison upkeep could be used to help subsidise the cost of operating public transport after working hours.

Most importantly, the money can be used to support the business associations and non-governmental organisations that advocate responsible drinking. I believe businesses would gladly support these initiatives because they are incentivised if their customers are able to get home safely. A living customer is a paying customer, after all.

What I find astonishing is the amount of research needed to come to my conclusion. A simple Google search has sparked plenty of research papers and innovative solutions governments have come up with to curb the drunk-driving issues in their respective countries. I wonder if the Transport Ministry has actually evaluated these options before proposing the amended bill.

Although hefty fines and heavy law enforcement are common tools used by most governments, they have done little to lower the statistics for deaths caused by drunk driving. If the “War on Drugs” has taught us anything, the solution might be worse than the cure, and the carrot must always follow the stick.

I sincerely hope this amendment is followed by actual reforms to increase the transportation options drinkers have to return home safely.

“The government is not interested in getting revenue through fines, but this is to protect lives and families,” Wee said.

I will hold these words into account because remember, drinkers have lives and families as well.

Jahaziah Lim

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.