• 2006-09-07

Cartoon by Jevgenijs Cheksters

Two seemingly contradictory reports ran across the wires in Latvia last week that cannot leave anyone indifferent. First, the number of road accidents caused by drunk drivers is down so far this year, and second, dozens of minors'smany in their early teens'scelebrated the beginning of the school year by consuming alcohol.

A few were even hospitalized with alcohol poisoning. In a nutshell, progress on one front, alarming failure on another.
It is common knowledge that for years Latvia has led the EU in terms of vehicular fatalities per 100,000 residents. A mix of barbaric driving culture, atrocious roads and lackadaisical enforcement has created a lethal environment on the country's roads. Despite repeated attempts by the Interior Ministry to crack down on reckless driving, little progress has been made over the long-term.

Nevertheless, recent statistics paint an optimistic picture. According to the Statistics Bureau, 417 drunk-driving accidents were recorded in the first half of 2006, down 54 percent year-on-year. The number of deaths caused by drunken drivers fell sharply from 44 to 21 over the same periods, the bureau reported. Indisputable progress. Still, one only needs to take a trip to Jurmala or Liepaja to see that the demolition derby still thrives on Latvia's roads. And with the Interior Ministry severely understaffed, it would appear no headway will be made against outlaw-drivers.

Which brings us to schoolchildren. Admittedly, some of them always consume alcohol on Sept. 1 's or Knowledge Day, the first day of the school year 's but there was a sense last week that this year some teenagers went "all-out" to be three sheets to the wind. Dozens of pupils received administrative offenses for drinking liquor, and nine had to be taken to hospitals for excessive consumption. Quite unbelievably, even a six-year-old reportedly became inebriated.

This calls to mind an old adage: "monkey see, monkey do." For many young teens, drinking alcoholic beverages is the best way to mimic older peers. The root of this problem, however, is well-known and can be summed up with another coinage: "monkey sell, monkey do." Dozens of Latvian schoolchildren drink, and not just on Sept. 1, because they can easily purchase the alcohol. There is utterly no enforcement on the sale of booze to minors. Any 17-year-old boy can stroll into a corner veikals and walk out with a few bottles of beer. All Latvian society closes their eyes to this utter insouciance.

It's odd: adults can't buy alcohol after 10 p.m. in stores and shops, but minors can load up at mid-day. The state's message is clear: We'll regulate consumption of alcohol by adults, but we'll ignore its sale to underage persons. Now there's a country to be proud of…