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Debate over permissible alcohol content in driver’s blood draws to an end

April 18, 2013, 16:25 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The prolonged debate over how much alcohol there can be in the blood of Russian motorists seems to be drawing to an end. The minimum permissible level of alcohol in blood and in the air drivers exhale will be restored to Russian legislation. After nearly 18 months of fierce discussions involving government members, legislators and physicians Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he had no objections to officially setting the alcohol meters’ error margin equivalent to what he described as a “negligently small value.”

This issue has been a great annoyance for many Russians, who have been complaining that breathalyzers’ errors resulted in the punishment of innocent motorists too often, while corruption kept soaring. On the other hand, after they declared a crusade against drunk driving, the authorities were reluctant to cede an inch.

Medvedev, who three years ago pushed through the introduction of zero tolerance, has said that as before he has no intention of making concessions to those who would like to be able to drive after having a glass of wine or beer.

“I keep the flag flying. My attitude to taking alcohol before taking a seat at the wheel remains unchanged. Drinking is wrong, harmful and dangerous,” Medvedev said on Wednesday, as he briefed the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on his government’s performance in 2012.

However, this time Medvedev agreed there was a risk the instruments used to find out whether the driver was drunk or not were not very accurate.

“But, since the breathalyzers’ accuracy is a major issue, I have no objections to making legal allowances for instrumental errors. It may be possible to establish a very tiny level of 0.1 permille,” Medvedev said in reply to a statement by the leader of the United Russia faction in the State Duma, Vladimir Vasiliev, who declared amendments had been drafted for taking the inaccuracy of alcohol meters into account.

The question of cancelling zero tolerance was raised by members of all other factions.

The zero alcohol content requirement was added to the Code of Administrative Offenses in 2010 at the initiative of Dmitry Medvedev, who then held the post of Russia’s president. Before the adoption of that legal norm an alcohol content of 0.3 permille was considered permissible. Medvedev canceled it, because, he argued, motorists saw it as an excuse for drunk driving.

In fairness one must admit that drunk driving is a real plague in modern Russia. There has been no day without media reports about road accidents committed by drunk drivers and casualties. One of the most outrageous incidents occurred in September 2012, when a drunk resident of Moscow literally wiped out a bus stop with his Toyota Crown to kill seven people, including five orphaned children. State Duma members then came out with an idea for tighter punishment for drunk driving. Prime Minister Medvedev called for raising fines for drunk driving to 500,000 rubles. He has repeatedly said since he is for adopting the harshest version of the drunk driving law.

The State Duma has already considered in the first reading the amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offenses to radically tighten punishment for drunk driving. Alongside this a nation-wide debate over cancelling zero tolerance unfolded across the nation. As the date when the tighter punishment was to take effect drew near, the debate got ever more emotional.

The main question is how to determine the minimum content of alcohol in blood and in one’s breath. On Wednesday Medvedev mentioned a level of 0.1 permille.

“The error margin of the best instruments in laboratory conditions is 0.1. On the road, where the conditions are far from ideal it is about 0.2,” the coordinator of a drivers’ rights protection society, Pyotr Shkumatov, said. All problems can be resolved only if the 0.3 permille requirement is restored.

According to the Interior Ministry’s traffic safety department, over a period of ten days in October 2012 a total of 253 persons were detained for drunk driving. Four of them, if the instruments are to be believed, showed a reading under 0.1 permille and twenty four others, readings between 0.1 and 0.2. The net effect was twelve percent of drivers were stripped of their licenses for the sole reading the alcohol meter showed 0.2.

The Moscow City Court’s statistics look still more impressive. In September last year Moscow’s courts considered 1,092 cases of those suspected of drunk driving. In 994 cases the drivers were stripped of their licenses. However, in 51 cases the meters showed 0.1, and in 878 others, 0.2. That is about 15 percent.

There are quite a few critics of the zero alcohol content in the ruling United Russia party. Duma member Vyacheslav Lysakov is the main such campaigner in the faction. He has been saying all the way it is important to have the amendment adopted before the sanctions get tighter. In the bill he had presented earlier he suggested punishing only those drivers who exceed the 0.2 permille threshold.

But after the prime minister’s address to the lower house on Wednesday the United Russia faction proposed a different plan - measuring the degree of drunkenness in milligrams. Lysakov said on Wednesday a reading of 0.16 milligrams per one liter of breath. This may be enough to compensate for instrumental errors, or for the presence of a drunk passenger in the driver’s vehicle, or for heart drops taken earlier.

The restoration of the error factor to the procedure of testing drivers for alcohol will help ease corruption in that sphere, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin said on Thursday.

“Specialists agree that the measurement error may be within 0.16 milligrams of alcohol per one liter of breath,” he said.