Estonian authorities crack down on drunk driving

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - On the sleepy drive home from a nightclub on a Friday night, dozens of police officers in orange reflector jackets line the road, flagging cars with flashlights through a slow queue. There is no accident. This is, as the Estonian police term it, a night called "everyone blows." Into breathalizers, that is.

Since last year, every local police department must hold the operation twice per month to combat the country's significant drunk driving problem.

When a car reaches its turn in line, the police officer usually asks the driver to take the test. If the person is not willing, the police have the right to take the driver to a doctor for administration of a blood or visual test to determine the blood-alcohol level. The legal limit in Estonia is 0.0 percent.

About 2 to 5 percent of the time, some level of alcohol is detected by the breathalizer, according to Estonian police board spokesman Indrek Raudjalg.

Priit Kuusk, editor at Kuku Radio, supports the roadblocks.

"If you are driving you must be sober. If you are, you should have nothing to be afraid of," he explained, while noting that he has yet to witness the police operation.

Last year, there were 321 accidents, 416 injuries and 52 deaths attributable to drunk driving, according to National Road Administration data. In the first half of 1999, police stopped approximately 7,000 drivers under the influence of alcohol.

First-time offenders face usually a 4,600 kroon ($287.50) fine, and repeat violators within a year will be criminally prosecuted, said Raudjalg.

"There is no way to say [Estonia's drunk driving problem] is okay," said Kuusk, who hosts Kuku's "Rush Hour" program, which deals with traffic issues, including driving under the influence. "It is improving slightly, but next month it could be disaster all over again."

Kuusk agreed that the Estonia's alcohol problem became more visible after 1999, which was spattered with one high-profile politician's drunken incident after another.

Estonian police release all names of convicted drunk drivers to the media. Still, there has been little change in the statistics.

A nonchalant attitude, furthermore, is evident when one sees places such as the Parking Lot Bar, which is located on a parking lot near a highway exit ramp.

"One phenomenon which significantly exacerbates the problem is many of the increasingly affluent class refusing to use public transportation, opting for their own cars instead," explained an article in Central Europe Review, which goes on to note Tallinn's somewhat lacking mass transit system. Still, taxis are abundant and relatively cheap in the city.

Summertime crusade

Raul Rom, head of the National Road Administration's traffic safety department, has organized a campaign with the slogan "Drink or Drive" for the past three years.

The 400,000 kroon preventative program targets largely young people and includes somber billboard messages, radio and television spots that warn of the deadly consequences, posters in nightclubs urging people to take taxis home, and free breathalizer tests at pubs.

"The aim is to evoke an emotion, to make a person feel something," reads the NRA's program outline.

The campaign, co-sponsored by Kuku Radio, peaks during the mid-summer St. John's holiday, coinciding with Estonia's highest rate of drunk driving incidents. The public service ads counter the heightened advertising of the major alcohol brewing companies during the warm, sunny months.

In contrast with laws in the United States, bartenders in Estonia are not responsible for deciding whether to refuse service to a customer they deem to be too intoxicated. At the end of the night, the ads posted in pubs "probably have some preventive effect," said Raudjalg, "but basically everything still depends on the driver -whether to drive or to drink."