Sunday, February 12, 2012

Drink-driving in Indonesia (Street Legal)

GALLOWS humour among some residents of the Indonesian capital has it that serious traffic accidents are impossible. Why, because of the city’s notoriously gridlocked roads keep motorists safely at a crawl! Sadly, that is not the case.

On January 22nd, shortly before noon, a group of four young Indonesians who had been out all night partying rammed their car into a crowd of pedestrians at a roundabout in Central Jakarta. Nine people were killed, among them a three-year-old girl and a pregnant woman. The driver, a 29-year-old woman named Afriani Susanti, is reported to have admitted taking drugs and drinking alcohol in the hours before. She and her three passengers all tested positive for ecstasy, or MDMA, according to police, and all remain in custody as charges are prepared.

Even as the general public was just coming to grips with the disaster—to say nothing of the victims’ families—police and lawmakers began to point fingers. And as is often the case with public officials in Indonesia, their aim was to shift blame, dodge responsibility and avoid losing face. (In 2010 Jakarta’s governor blamed massive flooding in the capital on climate change—even as the head of his public works office admitted that 80% of the city’s drains had been clogged.)

So the witch hunt began. City police blamed the car accident on bars that serve alcohol and on the nightclubs where drugs are sold, implying that the fault was with the places where the four suspects drank their booze and scored their pills. Effendi Anas, the head of Jakarta’s public-order agency, vowed to carry out raids on nightclubs where rampant drug use is suspected.

Not to be left out, members of Indonesia’s national parliament joined the fray. The house’s deputy speaker said there need to be widespread raids on venues that “provided freedom to use drugs” and excessive amounts of alcohol. His boss Marzuki Alie, the house speaker, went even further: he called on Jakarta’s police to deploy roadside sobriety checkpoints.

“In other countries, I’ve seen that alcohol checks are done by their police personnel, where they request the driver to take an alcohol test on the spot,” Mr Alie was quoted as saying.

It’s a good thing the house speaker has travelled abroad to witness such public-safety measures. If Mr Alie had not, he would never have seen an alcohol check point in his life. And for good reason: neither drink-driving nor driving under the influence of drugs is illegal in Indonesia.

The country’s 2009 traffic law mandates sentences between six and 10 years for negligent motorists who kill people on the road. The law does not however specifically ban drivers from getting behind the wheel after consuming drugs or alcohol. According to Wikipedia Indonesia is one of only six countries that allows alcohol to be sold legally but imposes no blood-alcohol limit on its drivers.

Remarkably, even the driver of the car in last month’s horrific crash, Ms Susanti, wasn’t breaking the law—until right up to the moment when, as she reportedly told police, her mind went blank for a few seconds, and her car swerved and hit the pedestrians.

While fighting against drug dealing and drink-driving are essential police duties, it’s hard to expect much success where there are not even laws to ban driving while drunk or high. Perhaps that’s where Indonesia’s police and politicians should be directing some of their fulsome outrage.
By Banyan for The Economist

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