In the past six years, drunk driving has been strictly classified as a criminal offense in China, even if no accident is caused, as long as drivers exceed the limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. In a recently issued guideline, however, the Supreme People's Court states that if the offense is not so serious, drivers will not necessarily be criminalized.
A criminal punishment may cast a shadow over one's life and career. One will not be able to apply for government jobs, and an incumbent civil servant will be fired, to name some of the serious consequences.
Criminalization has sharply reduced the cases of drunk driving and related traffic accidents. As these benefits now appear to the public eye to be at risk, the Supreme Court's guideline has stirred up debate. Some believe that the tough law should persist, as the public has just developed the good habit of renouncing drunk driving and to relax the law might lead to a resurgence of drunk driving. Others, however, argue that the guideline does not mean to relax the law, but to reaffirm the principle that punishment should fit the crime.
Benefits of tough laws
Hu Jianbing (Hubei Daily): Since the new law on drunk driving was adopted in 2011, disputes over it have never stopped, but a sharp drop in this practice and related accidents are striking achievements known to the whole of society. The tough new law has greatly deterred drivers who might otherwise choose to drink.
To relax the law when the situation has just begun to improve does not bode well for the country's public safety. If minor offences are pardoned just because there are no serious accidents, it amounts to encouraging drunk driving.
The biggest problem now is how to measure the seriousness of drunk driving cases. This will undoubtedly increase the power in the hands of law enforcement personnel and will probably lead to more legal injustice. Legal and judicial credibility will be damaged when some are criminalized because of drunk driving while others are not. The public also worries that privileged members of society may take advantage of the loophole. As a result, the deterrence of the law might also diminish. More and more people will risk driving after drinking, as they know they now have a bigger chance of escaping criminal punishment. Gradually, drunk driving will resurge, endangering road users.
Superficially, relaxing the tough law on drunk driving is a humane move, preventing some drivers from bearing punishment they don't deserve. However, in a broader sense, such loosening is not only irresponsible to drivers, but also to their families and the general public.
Deng Yuwen (www.caijing.com.cn): Before 2011 when the Criminal Law was amended, many methods of tackling drunk driving were tried, to no avail. To some extent, China was finally forced to adopt the extremely strict measure. Everyone, no matter who he or she is, has to accept criminal responsibility in cases of drunk driving. The strict implementation of the law ensures the fairness of the law to the greatest extent.
At first, the public did not understand and was reluctant to cooperate with the police. However, gradually, people elected not to drink alcohol at banquets if they were to drive afterward, and others no longer urged them to, which used to be the norm on such occasions. In the past six years, the bad habit of driving after drinking, which was prevalent among people in China, has changed, sharply reducing drunk driving and the tragedies it causes.
Why can't other laws and regulations be so effective? The public finds it difficult to get rid of the habit of jumping red lights, for example. The reason is quite simple: There are no tough laws there to prevent the public from repeatedly running traffic lights. When most laws are so mild that they cannot act as even a basic deterrent to the public, most people turn a blind eye to them.
Yue Jin (Yangcheng Evening News): Drunk driving is potentially dangerous and risky. Even under the strict legal environment in the past six years, a few drivers have still taken risks. Once drunk driving is no longer absolutely subject to criminal punishment, it's quite doubtful that law enforcement will remain as strict as before.
The vast majority of the public supports a tough criminal punishment for drunk driving. It is actually a preventive punishment, aimed at preventing more serious accidents by severely punishing not so serious ones.
If change is inevitable, any harmful consequence should be taken into consideration. Particularly, it's important to impose certain limits on the extent to which the law can be flexibly applied.
Editorial (China Daily): It is reasonable to argue that all cases of drunk driving should not be treated the same, as the circumstances differ. That is why the new guideline grants judges the discretion to decide whether someone caught driving under the influence of alcohol should be held criminally responsible, taking into account how drunk the driver was, how recklessly he or she was driving and the extent of any damage they may have done.
The guideline does not mean a more relaxed attitude toward drunk driving—those caught driving under the influence will still receive penalties—but rather a more targeted approach aimed at curbing dangerous driving as a result of alcohol consumption.
Despite the progress that has been made, China is still the country with the highest number of road traffic deaths in the world. It is not just drunk driving that is responsible for this unwelcome distinction, but also drivers' disregard for traffic rules.
With a short history of private car ownership, many Chinese are yet to cultivate safe driving habits, a task that is impossible to accomplish without strict implementation of the traffic rules. This calls for an all-out effort to enhance enforcement of all the road safety rules.
Gao Lu (Qianjiang Evening News): Of the many drunk driving cases, some are not serious enough to cause big accidents. Criminalizing these cases is a possible example of excessive punishment. Six years after the tough law came into effect on drunk driving, the Supreme People's Court is trying to improve the law, based on problems that have appeared in practice, by making adjustments so that the law can keep pace with the times.
The Supreme Court has so far just offered guidance, with no specific explanation about the situations where drivers can be exempted from criminal punishment. No one knows how to measure whether a certain drunk driving case is serious or not. The police are also presented with the difficulty of how to judge whether a case is minor or major. In the past, any driver that exceeded the legal limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood would be subject to a criminal penalty.
The court is expected to clarify these issues so that the fairness and justice of the law can be upheld. The more specific the details are, the more explicit, fair and effective the law will be, and law enforcement officers will find their work easier. Also, citizens will have a clearer idea of what not to do. As a result, there will be less resistance from the public.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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