Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Commentary: Deal with alcohol now!

What's the use of imposing a fine on someone who comes to court and admits that he was drunk and driving when he was involved in a three-car crash that killed another person whose only fault was to be in the path of that drunk driver?

Drinking and driving is an epidemic in Trinidad and Tobago and the carnage on the country's roads is a wake-up call for those in authority to do something about it - and to do it now. 

Some time ago - I believe it was in 2012 - the then Transport Minister Devant Maharaj suggested that one way to deal with the problem is to make bar owners accountable. While that might be a good idea it's not going to make a difference in a society such as ours.

Who is going to police the bars that are open 24/7? Alcohol is too easily available.
Anyone can buy alcohol just about everywhere. Most supermarkets sell the stuff and I've even seen it for sale at gas stations. It's also common to see drivers on the road with a beer in one hand while driving with the other, which I consider to be even more offensive and dangerous than talking on a mobile phone.

In such an environment you cannot even trace the establishment that is responsible for intoxicating drivers who get behind the wheels of their vehicles, making their automobiles killing machines.

The starting point, therefore, is not legislation aimed at bars but a serious look at the native culture with the aim of starting to change that.

We are a society that encourages consumption of alcohol. It has become part of popular culture as evidenced by the various Chutney "hits" that celebrate rum drinking. The Chutney singers are merely reflecting reality so if we are serious of dealing with the problem we have to first make some changes to our lifestyle and our lax rules on the sale and consumption of alcohol.

A good starting point is to look to Canada where the rules that govern alcohol ensure that there is control without establishing prohibition.

  1. Alcohol sales are restricted to exclusive government-run shops that are very strict on who can enter and buy alcoholic beverages
  2. It is illegal to drive with open alcohol in a vehicle. All drinks must be sealed and placed either in the trunk or in the back of the vehicle, outside of the reach of the driver
  3. No alcohol can be consumed in a public space unless a special permit has been obtained in advance
  4. It is an offence to carry open alcohol on public transit or walk with it on the streets
  5. Underage drinking is strictly enforced; even house parties are regulated
  6. On special occasions with festivities, Public Transit operates free services for persons who are unable to drive because they have been drinking
  7. Bars are liable if they fail to restrict the use of alcohol to persons who are clearly intoxicated
That last measure is the one the minister suggested as a means to fight back against drunk driving. 

It works in Canada because of the very strict regulations. In addition every bar tender must be certified, unlike what happens in Trinidad. What that means is that the person serving alcohol is trained to determine when a customer has had enough and then refuse to serve another drink. In Trinidad all you have to do is open a rum shop and anyone can serve drinks to anyone who is paying.

Even if we pass the relevant legislation how would a law enforcement officer determine where the "offending" drink was purchased?

We can get creative in effecting change and learn to celebrate without alcohol abuse. If we start paying more attention to our attitude to drinking we could save lives both on the roads and at home. Much of the domestic abuse in the country stems from abuse of alcohol.

Mass media can help too because they shape mass culture. We can start with new regulations that govern how we present messages about alcohol. Drive along our major highways and you'll see billboards inviting you to drink. "When it pours, you reign" and other similar messages on billboards, newspapers, radio and television send all the wrong message in a country where drinking is already a serious problem.

The PP government promised change, which too many of us expect to be mainly political change. Perhaps now is the time for citizens to urge their representatives to look closely at the damage our rum culture is causing to the nation, our families and especially our youth.

We don't need draconian measures; we can still have a river lime without everybody getting drunk. Make sure that for every vehicle that is at the lime, we have one designated driver. That is an example of how each of us can begin to take personal responsibility.

Our future as a nation depends on taking responsibility for our actions. And that includes the way we treat alcohol. We are getting ready for Christmas and Carnival and I fear that before the seasons are over drunk drivers will kill many more and then go to court, say "sorry sir", get a slap on the wrist and go off and celebrate with a drink.

We can still have a great time celebrating Christmas and Carnival and everything else if we take responsibility for how we use alcohol.

Alcohol, like everything else, has its place. And its place is not with our young adults or anyone driving a motor vehicle.

Jai Parasram - 12 Nov. 2013

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai