Drink-driving laws behind the times

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2007, 12:00am

Community outrage naturally erupts each time a case of drink-driving results in a fatality. When a victim is young or a parent, the cries for justice are particularly loud. Those calls are generally most vociferous after the resulting court case, as happened again yesterday when a man was sentenced for killing two people in May last year while under the influence of alcohol. His car had crashed head-on into a taxi, killing the driver and a 29-year-old passenger.

The 18-month jail term imposed by the magistrate was condemned by relatives of those killed as being too light; yet it was within sentencing guidelines of a maximum penalty of five years, with a 30 per cent reduction for a guilty plea and further cut for being a first offence.

Thankfully, such cases are not frequent in Hong Kong, but the scenario is repeated each time they occur. Legislators and judicial officials agree the penalties are too low, a cry goes up for a revision, but when the clamour has died down, the issue goes into hibernation until the next tragedy.

Compared with other jurisdictions, there is little doubt that our laws on drink-driving are behind the times. In Britain, the maximum penalty is double Hong Kong's; random testing of drivers to check their blood-alcohol levels has long been carried out in Australia, but is not yet law here; and in the US, typical sentences for first-time offenders where death is involved is between three and four years.

The government has recognised the inadequacy of our law and last December proposed to the Legislative Council's transport panel that we fall into line with British penalties. Nothing has come of the move.

Sentences are supposed to act as a deterrent to potential offenders. They are designed to make such people think twice before getting behind the wheel of a vehicle after drinking alcohol.

It is doubtful whether this is being achieved by the sentences handed down by our courts in the most serious cases - those involving death. There is a need for the law to be amended so that higher penalties can be imposed.




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