Random testing for drunk drivers in the PHL: Yes or no?

(This article was first posted on GMA News Online)

You’re driving along, minding your own business, and obeying the rules of the road. Suddenly, a police officer signals you to pull over. You stop. He tells you that he wants to give you a breath test to measure the amount of alcohol in your system.

Do you cry “invasion of privacy”? You could, if you were driving in the Philippines. Here, a law enforcer cannot just stop any driver to give a breath test for alcohol.

It’s a long story: The Philippines does have a drink driving law in Republic Act (RA) 10586. It is known as the “Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act of 2013.”

RA 10586 states that the law enforcer first needs to have “probable cause” to believe that the driver has had too much to drink. This means that he first 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.

Random breath testing to detect alcohol is a highly visible exercise. Such tests could be encountered anywhere and at any time in the land Down Under. Photo: WHO/Passmore

Random breath testing to detect alcohol

is a highly visible exercise. Such tests could be encountered anywhere

and at any time in the land Down Under. Photo: WHO/Passmore

In the land Down Under, though, it’s an entirely different story. Australian law allows for random breath testing (RBT). This means that the police can stop any driver at any time for breath testing. The driver need not behave in a way that suggests he is drunk.

“RBT is conducted by police in static, highly visible checkpoints or by mobile police on normal patrol duties,” write researchers Kiptoo Terer and Rick Brown in their paper. “Drivers are determined to be impaired if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds a legally prescribed amount.”

Legal advice

Can someone refuse a random breath test in Australia? FindLaw Australia strongly advises against it.

Refusing to take a breath test is treated as a serious offense, says the FindLaw team. In Queensland for example, anyone who refuses to take a breathalyzer test faces a fine of A$4,000—a whopping ?147,700—or six months in prison. In addition, “anyone who gives an unsatisfactory sample, such as trying to blow a little lighter so there may be no reading, will be judged to have refused a breath test and is guilty of an offense.”

And think again before attempting to do the old switcheroo with someone who had been drinking and driving: “The police can also request a breath test from a passenger of a vehicle who they reasonably believe was a driver.”

“RBT is a leading drink driving countermeasure implemented throughout Australia,” say Terer and Brown. The country’s experience with RBT since the 1980s shows that it saves lives.

  • In New South Wales, the introduction of RBT in 1982 initially reduced fatal crashes by 48% over a period of four and a half months. Subsequently, RBT lessened fatal crashes by an average 15% over a 10-year period.
  • RBT led to a reduction in fatal crashes of 35% in Queensland and 28% in Western Australia over a four-year period.
  • Static, highly visible RBT checkpoints in Victoria in 1990 led to a 19% net decrease in fatal crashes during peak hours of alcohol consumption.

Elsewhere, RBT has also had positive outcomes, say the Australian researchers.

  • In Finland, RBT led to a 58% decrease in drink driving between 1979 and 1985.
  • In New Zealand, the introduction of RBT in 1993 led to a reduction in fatal and serious crashes of 38% in rural areas and 35% in urban areas during high alcohol hours.
  • In Ireland, the introduction of RBT led to a 19% decrease in road fatalities in 2006.

RBT is a cost-effective road safety measure, too.

  • A 2004 study in New Zealand found the cost-benefit ratio was 1:14.4 for RBT alone, 1:18.8 for RBT coupled with a media campaign, and 1:26.1 for RBT with both a media campaign and “booze buses.” These are “large, specially equipped vehicles used for evidentiary breath testing, which are typically very distinctive in order to attract the attention of nearby road users.”
  • A 2004 report by the World Health Organization stated that each dollar spent on RBT results in a cost saving of $19.
  • In New South Wales, Australia, the estimated cost-benefit ratio of random breath testing ranged from 1:1 to 1:56.

Have your say!

Despite RA 10586, the dearth of breathalyzers in the Philippines has tied the hands of law enforcers. There are only 150 breathalyzers in the entire archipelago. There are simply too few of the gadgets to test enough drivers and to deter them from drunk driving.

Let’s imagine for a moment, though, that there are enough breathalyzers in the country. Would drivers be in favor of introducing random breath testing?

Motoring journalist James Deakin is all for it. “If we were serious about RA 10586, they could introduce the random breath testing vans… at key exits of the city or night spot areas or even car parks,” he says in an email interview. “Have these professionally manned and with CCTV so there’s no foul play.”

But what about those who will cry “invasion of privacy”? Deakin believes random breath testing is “less invasive than any airport or mall security check we go through.” So please, he appeals, “let’s not sweat the petty stuff.”

Dinna Louise C. Dayao (dinnadayao@gmail.com) is an independent writer-editor. In September, she attended Safety 2016, a major injury prevention conference in Finland, with support from the ICFJ-WHO Safety 2016 Reporting Fellowship Program and Bloomberg Philanthropies.


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