Guardian: Mexico City’s ‘alcoholímetro’ making headway in dangerous driving battle
October 29 2012 – Deborah Bonello for the Guardian: It’s late on Friday night in downtown Mexico City. The streets are packed with traffic as people unwind from a hard week’s work. The police are hard at work too.
They pull over a huge SUV, driving at speed up a major road. As the car comes to a stop, the driver almost mounts the kerb. He staggers as he steps out of the car, his face ruddy from the beer he’s been drinking. For Mexico City’s alcoholímetro police, Friday nights keep their breathalysers busy.
“Sadly, people don’t know how to be responsible drivers”, says police officer Diana Gonzales (video). “They know they have consumed alcohol. But despite the fact we’ve been doing this for nine years here in Mexico City, people still aren’t used to handing their car over to someone else who hasn’t drunk alcohol.”
Although it rarely makes the headlines, more Mexicans have been killed on the roads than have died in the country’s violent drug wars. Since 2006, an average of 16,700 people have been killed every year in road traffic accidents. The statistic places Mexico in the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world for road traffic deaths; it has the second highest death rates in Latin America, behind Argentina.
So why, in a country with a relatively developed road network and a raft of road safety legislation measures in place, are so many people dying? Drink driving is a major factor, says Roy Rojas, the national co-ordinator for road safety for the World Health Organisation in Mexico. He says there is no social shame in getting caught over the limit while driving. According to the roadside police working their breathalysers, prosecutions for drink driving remain rare, so drivers continue to drink and drive with impunity.
An even bigger risk on the roads is that only half the country’s states have any kind of driving test system. Public transport workers aside, licences are therefore granted without any proof people can drive.
Nor can Mexico fall back on the excuse that it lacks resources. “Mexico City has the most pedestrian footbridges in the world,” says Rojas. “However, they are also the least used. Around half of all road deaths are pedestrians.”
Neither does Mexico lack road safety legislation. There are ample laws in place at federal, state and municipal levels that prohibit, for instance, the use of mobile phones while driving and failure to use seatbelts. People simply ignore the rules, which are rarely enforced by police and law enforcement agencies.
All of this is compounded by the migration of people from rural areas who are unaccustomed to driving in densely populated cities where the movement of traffic is faster and more furious. According to Rojas, there is no link between literacy levels and driving skill; if anything, better-educated people tend to be more aggressive drivers, he says.
But it’s not all bad news. Mexico has experienced an improvement in road safety in the past two years, with the issue moving up the public policy agenda. “There is now a trend towards vigilance. This is no longer a silent epidemic – now it’s more out in the open,” says Rojas.
Despite its bad road safety record, deaths are stabilising year on year rather than rising, in part because federal and state authorities are increasingly working together to tackle the problem.
Schemes such as Mexico City’s alcoholímetro are also playing a part. The programme is viewed as pioneering by many other Mexican states. It is slowly seeding the idea that driving drunk is a crime and that there are repercussions for those who drink and then get behind the wheel. According to official figures from Mexico City’s public security secretary, the presence of the alcoholímetro has reduced drink-driving accidents by 30% since it was launched in 2003.
Gonzales, the police officer on the Friday night breathalyser beat, says drink driving has gone down since she started working the alcoholímetro three years ago. “It’s not the majority of people [who are over the limit] like before,” she says.
Still, Gonzales has her work cut out. In Mexico, cutting dangerous driving on the roads remains a battle that costs the country thousands of lives each year.