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A culture of drunken driving

Surika Van Schalkwyk

Driving drunk can change lives forever, yet many South Africans -- perhaps lulled by a lack of effective law enforcement -- do it every day.

Driving drunk can change lives forever, yet many South Africans—perhaps lulled by a lack of effective law enforcement—do it every day. Five young drivers, four of whom admit to being drunk behind the wheel, tell the Mail & Guardian their stories.

  • For David* (27), a work celebration in Pretoria ended in a compulsory visit to a state-run alcohol safety school and 20 hours of community service removing rubbish in Sandton. He knows he got off lightly.

    ‘I drank from nine in the morning and by the time we’d finished partying that night, I was smashed. I got pulled over and arrested on Atterbury Road. I was put in the back of the police van and driven to a hospital in Brooklyn where blood was drawn to test my alcohol level. Four hours later I was released on R1 000 bail.”

    After two court hearings, David escaped a criminal record, but was fined 120 hours’ community service and spent a day at an alcohol safety school—where he found himself among mostly middle-aged women (statistically the biggest binge drinkers in the country) similarly sentenced ‘to learn about drinking responsibly”.

  • Dean* (25) drove through a red light while five times over the legal limit, but he bribed cops for R600 and slept in the comfort of his own residence at the University of Johannesburg.

  • ‘I was arrested for drunk driving without even being drunk,” says Nhlanhla* (23). ‘I was a designated driver for my friends and the cops pulled us over and I was arrested without them even breathalysing me or reading me my rights.

    “I was taken to a hospital to draw blood at about 3am. I slept in jail and was released on bail the next morning.” Nhlanhla attended two court hearings before his case was thrown out three months later. ‘They finally realised that I was not drunk that night.”

  • When Thandi* (22) drove around the corner on her way to another club on the night of her 21st birthday party, a stationary bakkie in the middle of the road caught her off guard.

    ‘I crashed into the car, which crashed into another car. I was devastated. No one was seriously hurt though. The police arrived on the scene and, without reading me my rights, took me to draw blood. As a law student I knew that blood has to be drawn within two hours of the incident, so I refused and when they eventually did it, was too late.”

    But the case would have been thrown out anyway because police lost her file.

  • Johan* (18), a matric student from the Free State, has drunk heavily since he was 15.

    “My friends and I start drinking on Friday after school and continue throughout the weekend. I drink out about R500 a weekend. I buy a bottle of Rum, a bottle of Brandy and some beer and ciders for myself. We don’t normally go to clubs; we would rather braai at someone’s house and drink there. Sometimes we drive through the streets slowly, listening to music while drinking.

    “My friend and I once peed on the highway while drunk. We got arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour. We spent five hours in jail. They gave us a R300 fine, but I saw they spelt our names wrong, so we did not have to pay it.

    “I don’t drink and drive myself, but I often drive with my friends when they’re drunk. Some of them have licences, others don’t.”

  • It did not take James* (27) a long time to recall the last time he drove drunk. ‘I drive drunk all the time, and me and my friend always have alcohol in the car. Last October was the first time I got arrested. I was eight times over the limit. Three cops pulled me over and this time they did not take a bribe.

    ‘I tried talking to them, but they told me to shut up and lie on the floor. They punched me in the face and kicked me in the ribs while I was lying on the pavement.

    James spent the night in jail and was released on R500 bail the next morning. Since it was his first arrest, he got off with a warning.

    ‘I will drive drunk again because I know how easy it is normally to bribe the cops. In this country drink and drive is part of our culture and it is allowed to happen.”

  • Law of the road
    According to Drive Alive, there are no credible recent statistics on the relationship between alcohol and road deaths because of the shortage of law enforcement officials and uncertainty about when samples can be taken for alcohol testing.

    Lack of equipment, lack of interest and dockets going missing are some of the reasons drunk drivers get away with it, said Drive Alive director Moira Winslow.

    An accident occurs every four seconds and someone is killed every 48 minutes on the roads—yet there are only 1 200 police officers involved in investigating accidents.

    * Not their real names

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