Ethiopia, with a population of 90-plus million and 478,244 vehicles, registered 25.3 traffic fatalities per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Another WHO report states that alcohol is “a major risk factor for road traffic crashes”. People of a certain age would recall the days when billboards in Addis were emblazoned with words of caution for motorists: “If you drink, don’t drive. Don’t drink if you drive.” Nowadays, the same message gets across with hard-hitting imagery of photos of a bereaved mom, a mangled car after an apparent DUI accident, etc. Unfortunately, the shocking images do not seem to have a deterrent effect as the number of accidents caused by drunk drivers continues to soar. It is to reverse this sad state of affairs that city authorities recently launched a laudable initiative by introducing breathalyzers to randomly detect the blood alcohol content of motorists. In this week’s issue of The Reporter, Samuel Getachew takes a closer look at the problem of DUI in Addis Ababa.
While local TV channels and newspapers are scrambling to grab the attention of beer drinkers by promoting a range of beer brands, the likes of Bloomberg Philanthropies are funding initiatives to help curb the serious problem of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) in the capital. In this regard, a breathalyzer-testing program launched partially earlier this year was fully rolled out two months ago.
A breathalyzer is a device for estimating blood alcohol content (BAC) from a breath sample. In many countries people, who drive under the influence, have tried to trick breathalyzer tests using various methods. Some of these myths include sucking on a penny, chewing gums or mints, or gargling mouthwash. It is true that they cover up the odor, but they cannot change the amount of alcohol present in a person’s breath. Some mouthwash even contains alcohol, and therefore can inflate BAC readings.
There are now 10 teams undertaking the initiative 24/7, according to Solomon Kidane (PhD), head of the Addis Ababa Road and Transport Bureau. He lamented the fact that of the 5,000 motorists on whom the test was administered in the early stages of the program, a vast majority, taxi drivers among them, was found to have alcohol content in their blood in excess of the legal limit, 0.04 percent.
This Johnny-come-lately initiative is being duly hailed in a nation that is aspiring to become an industrialized nation and where disposable income is being a reality for an ever-increasing segment of its population. According to Vital Strategies, an American public entity that promotes and monitors public health, and is a partner of the recent campaign against DUI, Ethiopia has experienced a 63 percent rise in traffic accidents over the last five years alone.
Announcing the initiative, a representative of Vital Strategies said, “Traffic accidents are a significant cause of death and injury in Addis Ababa. DUI has contributed to many of these fatalities and injuries, and with Ethiopia’s sizable 25 percent increase in motorization over the past seven years, this problem will only worsen if left unchecked.”
The initiative calls for more awareness-raising programs by the media and the laying down of more rules and regulations as well as stricter enforcement to reduce the number of DUI-related accidents.
The images in the ads are powerful in nature, with strong and memorable characters. There is an elderly woman, crying with a picture of a young woman – her only daughter – about to graduate from university the same year and to be her future guardian, only to be killed by a drunk driver. Then there is a professional-looking man, with a wife and young daughter, who refused a ride from a friend, but met the end of his life after crashing into a slow-moving truck.
For one patron relaxing in Chechnya, the red-light quarter of the city, it is about his right to drink that the new campaign is coming after. Screaming to be heard, with the new single of Teddy Afro blaring out in the background, he notes with dismay that his right to enjoy his favorite beer, a pastime for him and his friends, will soon be a thing of the past.
“I only have a single beer, just one beer since that is what is now allowed, and then driving myself to my condominium and try to have more drink there,” he told The Reporter. “For me, drinking here is a way to take a break from my neighborhood. I now drink less, not because of choice, but circumstances. It seems that if things continue this way, then we’re headed to being a nanny state, telling us what to drink, how much to drink….and where does this stop?”
“People have to be afraid of getting caught,” said Sandra Mullin, senior vice president of Vital Strategies that is helping with the training and funding of the initiative. She added: “A specter of punishment along with a hard-hitting media campaign has a much higher chance of success than one without the other.”
To bar owner Tigi (Tigist) in Piazza, the historic area of the capital that was once home to a number of Italian and Armenian expats, even the idea of sex appeal, with young girls, is no longer alluring to bring customers in, or have patrons stay longer and consume more beer.
“On a Friday night, to be restricted to just one beer, with rumors of the police nearby, it has destroyed not just my business but that of the whole business district significantly,” she told The Reporter. With no clear indication of what the consequences of breaking the rules are, people are just making their own conclusions, with some predicting jail time, while others, stiff fines.
Almost all the businesses that The Reporter visited at Chechnya echo the sentiment of a business that is seeing a downturn as a result of the new initiative. At a bar next door, which is small and considerably crowded with an oversized speaker and lots of adolescent girls intent on luring customers, there are about a dozen customers. There is no one drinking irresponsibly (like before), according to the bar owner but has advised all her girls to ask the patrons to buy them drinks, as a substitute for the drinks they would have otherwise had themselves. It seemed like a hard sell.
To one patron The Reporter spoke to, a drink is one too many as he does not want to compromise his job as a delivery-man at a famous franchise café. “I drive home with the temptation, but I worry about my driver’s license being suspended, or my boss finding out that I drink once in a while. While I did not get overly drunk, I often used to drink about five beer; however, I now go home having had just a single beer, the maximum allowed.”
At noted hotels in the capital, the scenery is different. Customers, mostly expats and young businesspeople, seem aware of the importance of the initiative. They feel at ease knowing that there is a fleet of the new yellow-and-green Lifan taxicabs waiting to pick them up later on. Not far from the cabbies are drivers of vehicles with diplomatic plates waiting for their bosses who imbibe freely from a selection of local beer to brand-name whiskies and vodkas.
“I am aware that Ethiopia has serious issues with DUI, and I welcome this initiative as a way to help vulnerable people from being killed”, Kidist, a consultant at Sheraton Addis’s Gas Light told The Reporter. “While I enjoy few glasses of wine, I do take home the yellow taxis, or ask friends to drive me home.”
For her, it is not about the inconvenience or the penalty, but about the wellbeing of herself and others.
She wishes there was a way to introduce demerit points, where those caught DUI will be punished with a reduction of points, eventually leading to a stage of having their driving privileges suspended or revoked.
“A few hundred dollars of punishment will not deter anyone from doing crazy things when the potential harm is so profound,” she added.
The Addis Ababa Road and Transport Bureau is aware of the criticism being leveled against it as an entity that hands out nominal penalty but is on record stating that the intention of the institution is not to destroy the livelihoods of drivers and their families with unreasonably hefty fines that are often out of reach of most motorists.