PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am

We've hung up our car keys this week because we reckon there are too many drunks driving over the holidays. And legislators still haven't given our police enough power to curb the tiddly menace. In 2005, 89 traffic accidents were attributed to drink-driving here, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Police Force says. 'Three of them were fatal,' she says.

That's three too many.

We see two types of drunk drivers at this time of year in Hong Kong.

There are the obvious ones who get blotchy, and weave, jerk or beep 'Happy New Year' at everyone in sight.

Then there are the silent runners, who are also potentially deadly. You may have watched them take a couple of drinks and thought little of it, because you know your driver is kind, professionally successful and hardly appears a potential killer on wheels in the short run up to the Mid-Levels. Until the car door shuts, the smell of booze hits you, and the driver says 'oops' when he slips into fifth gear instead of third, or doesn't slow as soon as you might for the speed bumps on Bowen Road.

Anyone who has known the terror of driving with a silent runner drunk in Hong Kong will agree with what Britain's Institute of Alcohol Studies has said all along: that even one drink can slow reaction time by 10 to 30 per cent, and reduce the driver's ability to perform two or more tasks, say steering and indicating, or shifting and turning, at the same time.

Silent runners can misjudge corners, pedestrian speeds and even parking because the alcohol blurs peripheral vision and perceptions of distance that can terrify a passenger in the Twisties of the southside, the narrowness of the Tai Tam Reservoir Bridge Road, or the New Year bedlam of Tsim Sha Tsui or Wan Chai.

And these addled brains, all potential killers, could drive you home undetected this weekend because Hong Kong police can't do random breath tests as their counterparts do in parts of the EU and Australia. Our officers have to have a reason, the force says.

'Under the existing legislation, police officers are empowered to conduct roadside screening breath tests if there is reasonable suspicion that the driver has consumed alcohol, if they have been involved in a traffic accident, or they have committed a moving offence,' says Hong Kong Police Force spokes- woman Annissa Chan. 'Police currently have no power to conduct random breath tests on drivers.' The Environment, Transport and Works Bureau recently tabled a paper for the Legislative Council's Transport Panel to consider a range of deterrent measures including 'random breath tests', she says. 'That proposal is still subject to discussion in the Legislative Council.'

But the West Australian website reports this week that Brisbane police detected 53 drink-drivers in a random breath test blitz on 6,600 motorists before Christmas.

If Hong Kong's police had similar powers, there might be fewer silent runners offering addled lifts home this weekend.

The booze limit in Hong Kong is 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of blood; or 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100ml of breath; or 67 milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of urine. That's about the equivalent of a glass of wine.

So, we wonder why Hong Kong petrol stations still serve alcoholic drinks to drivers. In Quarry Bay, this week, you can be sure of a swig of San Miguel at Shell, at HK$7.50 a can, or reach the parts other beers cannot reach on the road with a Heineken for HK$2 more. Sinopec, 'the petrochemical partner' of the Beijing Olympics, also offers chilled Blue Girl (HK$10) and Carlsberg (HK$9) rather close to its checkout. We have yet to see whether you can crack a few tubes at Caltex or if Esso are stockists too, but this retailing of alcohol seems to increase the risk of drink-driving just when our police are trying to stop it.

Saab's AlcoKey seems to crack down on drunk drivers. Smaller than a mobile phone, and now on trial in Sweden where drink driving accounted for about 35 per cent of all road fatalities in 2005, the AlcoKey (above left) has a flip-top mouthpiece into which the driver provides a breath sample before starting the car. A radio transmitter then sends a signal to the Saab's electronic control unit, and only allows the car to be started if the breath sample's at a legal level.

Finally, this column is five years old, this week. It seems like only yesterday when we first waahed at the little Smart (above), the iDrive in the newly Bangled BMW 7-Series and those new electric roofs in the Peugeot 206cc. In five years' time, we hope Hong Kong will drive on the right, have electronic road pricing and in smaller, cleaner, preferably Chinese cars. As we dream on, we wish you and your wheels a safe and healthy 2007.