Friday, May 20, 2011

The Price of Drinking

Drinking has never been a problem in China. It is a socially acceptable activity and there are several indigenous beers and liquors available for consumption. The problem is not that more people are drinking. No, drinking has only become a problem since more people have become car owners.

Over the last 10 years, as the economy has boomed, more and more people are driving. Alcohol related vehicle accidents and deaths have increased accordingly. Lawmakers have had their hands full with deciding policy: what should the legal blood alcohol limit be? What punishments should be imposed? How should these new laws be communicated and how to enforce them?

This is yet another aspect of China’s changing society. With all of the influx of wealth at the individual level, the government is faced with social problems heretofore unseen in this country and lawmakers are scrambling to make decisions to meet these evolutions before the next facet of change manifests itself.

This being a holiday weekend, International Labor Day, people are off work and out celebrating. In various major cities across China, roadblocks have been set up to catch offenders of the newly written drunk driving laws. As in America if a driver is suspected of being drunk he submits to a Breathalyzer test. However, here things go a little differently, depending on the Breathalyzer results. If he fails, the driver goes to jail, no discussion about it.

The penalty for a first time DUI is a 6-month mandatory jail term and loss of driving privileges for 5 years. When I say loss of driving privileges, I mean the offender’s license is revoked. At the time the crime is committed, the offender’s license is taken away. It is not like in America, where an offender gets to keep possession of their license and only have to count the months until they can drive again. Here, after 5 years a DUI offender must apply for his license, take all of the schooling and pay all of the fees again. Because the law is so new, I have no information about what happens to repeat offenders. Perhaps there have as yet been no repeat offenders because the law and enforcement of it is so new.

I do not know what happens with the perpetrator’s car.

Watching the news tonight I saw a segment on DUI and how it is handled. Among the snippets of information were interviews with offenders. One offender, now sober after a few hours in jail, hung his head and said: “I took other people’s lives in my hands by my actions. I have no right to do that. I deserve to be punished.” What a refreshing change from the pervasive attitude I’ve experienced from DUI offenders in the States! Another offender commented “I am such a fool to think I could safely drive my car after drinking! I should not have done that.” Maybe they were coerced into saying that for the sake of the interview, or maybe that was their genuine sentiment. From my experience, what these remorseful men expressed is pretty much in keeping with cultural standards.

There were only male offenders being shown. Don’t get me wrong: women in China do drink; they just tend to not do it in public. Therefore it is not likely to find a female who has been drinking at the wheel of a car. And it is even more unlikely to find a woman out in public who has been drinking to excess. At least not one who is old enough or rich enough to drive.

Here too is another change. A few days ago, while preparing a late snack I saw a young girl outside my kitchen window who was so drunk she could not walk. The male student who was with her kept trying to pick her up – physically pick her up off the ground. She was so inebriated that he could not get her pins back under her. She ended up getting sick in the small grass border under my window. After that he cleaned her up and was able to carry her away.

Another instance of drinking on campus: one evening while Sam and I were walking we saw a student walking with her young man. Her eyes were closed and her head was lolling on his shoulder. He had one arm around her waist and the other hand was clasping her arm, guiding her. Sam pointed this couple out to me and asked me if I thought she was drunk, or were they just madly in love? Having seen a student throw up under my window just a few nights before, some of my naiveté had been stripped away and I came to the obvious conclusion: the girl was drunk out of her mind and she had to be half carried, half guided back to her dorm.

How long before women who drink take to the roads? Good question. I couldn’t tell you. But, if this group of students, more privileged than any other generation in China has been is any indication, I would have to guess that, maybe in 5 years lawmakers and enforcers are going to have another problem. Where and how to incarcerate female DUI offenders.

What I don’t understand is that, in China driving truly is a privilege, and a costly one at that. The average car costs more than one year’s salary for most people and financing is virtually unheard of in this cash-based society. Earning a driver’s license is the work of two years, and a huge expense. Why would anyone risk all that by drinking and driving?

What I do understand is the severity of the penalties. I think they are wonderful. Let’s not give DUI offenders a chance behind the wheel again. Oh wait, you say: just because they lost their license they are not going to drive?

No, my naivete is not showing again. Remember that offenders are incarcerated for at least 6 months. No time to wait before a trial, because there is no trial. The Breathalyzer is proof enough of guilt. Immediately after being caught, you go to jail. No probation and no time off for good behavior. No being out and about and able to drink and drive for at least six months.

On top of that, it means that they will most likely lose their jobs and their families will lose their means of income – if the man was the sole breadwinner. If the man is single, he could lose his apartment as well as his job, and he would have to start things all over again. It is not simply a matter of officially losing driving privileges; it is a matter of losing everything you’ve built up in life. I don’t see anybody risking that more than once, do you?

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