The Chit Estella Road Safety Page

An Open Letter to Spkr Pantaleon Alvarez et al: Do you really want to deter drunk driving in the Philippines?

(This post first appeared on GMA News Online.)

I am writing you as a citizen who is deeply concerned about the number of road crashes in our country that can be blamed on alcohol. The figures from the Department of Health are alarming: from 2009 to 2015, alcohol topped the list of risk factors at the time of the road crash. During that period, alcohol led to 10,914 injury cases.

I therefore thank you for authoring House Bill number 5. Said bill sets longer jail times and higher fines for people who drive under the influence.

Tougher penalties for drunk driving are good. However, road safety research suggests that they are not enough.

“Strong laws can change behavior, but strong enforcement can ensure the change of behavior,” says Kelly Larson, program director, Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety focuses on implementing key interventions proven to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries.

Researchers Arthur Goodwin et al. agree. “Deterrence works when consequences are swift, sure, and severe (with swift and sure being more important in affecting behavior than severe),” they conclude. These experts wrote Countermeasures that work: a highway safety countermeasure guide for state highway safety offices.

And therein lies the rub, Speaker Alvarez and company: “Swift” and “sure” are not words that can be used to describe the way our law enforcers have been struggling to implement our national drunk-driving law, Republic Act (RA) 10586.

Consider the following:

The Philippines got a dismal 1 out of 10 rating in the implementation of its drunk-driving law in the World Health Organization Global status report on road safety 2015.

Our national drunk-driving law, RA 10586, is based on blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits. This is a good start. We have a leg up on Indonesia; the country’s drunk-driving law is not based on BAC limits.

Another plus is that RA 10586 sets a limit of 0.05 grams per deciliter (g/dl). “Laws that establish BACs of 0.05g/dl or below are effective at reducing the number of alcohol-related crashes,” says the WHO.

However, our law needs to be accompanied by “visible and rapid enforcement,” says the global agency. And this is the area where we have failed. The dismal rating came from eight road safety experts from the Philippines. While it is subjective, the low rating is very telling.

In the entire archipelago, there are only 150 breath alcohol analyzers.

RA 10586 states that within four months from its effectivity in 2013, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the Philippine National Police shall acquire “sufficient breath analyzers” for the use of law enforcers and deputized local traffic enforcers nationwide. The LTO is the lead agency for enforcing RA 10586.

Having enough breath analyzers remains an elusive dream, though. The LTO bought only 150 units of the Fit 333 model for use throughout the entire country in 2015. Since then, no new breathalyzers have been bought.

The test results from the Fit 333 breathalyzers have “evidentiary value.”

“If you file a case against the driver, you need to show the test result in court,” says Atty. Roberto Valera, head of the traffic safety department at the LTO. Using the Fit 333 model, one can test a driver and have a printed test result in minutes.

Time is of the essence. On average, it takes about one hour for the human body to break down one unit of alcohol. Therefore, it’s crucial to quickly test a driver for breath alcohol and get the test results right away. But how can law enforcers do that when they don’t have enough breathalyzers?

There are simply too few breathalyzers to effectively breath-test enough drivers.

One of the key ways for the police to successfully deter people from drinking and driving is by testing a high proportion of drivers. What is the ideal proportion?

“At least one in 10 drivers every year,” write Dr. Margie Peden et al. in the WHO World report on road traffic injury prevention. “This can only be achieved through wide-scale application of random breath testing and evidential breath testing.”

The dearth of breathalyzers makes it impossible to achieve such a scale. The number of registered motor vehicles in the country totaled 8.7 million in 2015. This number includes cars, utility vehicles, SUVs, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and trailers. And car sales in the country show no signs of slowing down.

Moreover, RA 10586 does not provide for random breath testing. The law enforcer cannot just stop any driver at any time for breath testing. The law states that he first needs to have “probable cause” to believe that the driver has had too much to drink. This means that he needs to witness a traffic violation—such as lane straddling or speeding.

Only then can the law enforcer flag down a driver. At first, he conducts 3 field sobriety tests. If the driver fail any of the tests, then the law enforcer can use a breathalyzer to determine his blood alcohol concentration level.

There are too few law enforcers to effectively catch impaired drivers.

Atty. Valera trained 4,842 people to be deputy law enforcers in 2015. However, only 992 trainees went on to become deputy law enforcers.

Why so few? Many law enforcers are concerned that apprehended drivers may contest the charge and sue them, he says. And since the law enforcers lack breathalyzers, they are on shaky ground.

It doesn’t help, either, that trying to catching drunk drivers is a thankless job. The hours—from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.—are terrible. And these law enforcers do not get paid a night differential or hazard pay, says Atty. Valera.

In summary, Speaker Alvarez and company, imposing harsher penalties alone isn’t enough. Without strict enforcement, RA 10586 would not be worth the paper it’s written on. This much is shown by international road safety research.

I therefore urge you to put strict law enforcement—not severe penalties—first. Ensure that the consequences for violating RA 10586 are swift and sure. Only then will many drivers stop drunk driving.

I hope you find this useful. I await your reply.

Thank you for your time.


Dinna Louise C. Dayao
Concerned citizen

Dinna Louise C. Dayao is an independent writer-editor. She interviewed Kelly Larson, program director of Bloomberg Philanthropies, at the Safety 2016 conference in Finland held in September. Dayao attended the major injury prevention conference with support from the ICFJ-WHO Safety 2016 Reporting Fellowship Program and Bloomberg Philanthropies.