Criminal Law

Don't rush tougher line against drink-driving

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 2009, 12:00am

Public outrage in the wake of several deadly road crashes has renewed calls for tougher penalties for drink-driving. It has grown even louder recently in response to sentences perceived as being too lenient towards dangerous drivers involved in fatal accidents. But penalities under existing traffic laws are already quite severe, especially after the maximum penalty for dangerous driving causing death was revised last year from five to 10 years.

Changing the law is a lengthy and costly process. And while it may help assuage public anger, it does not necessarily guarantee a desirable legislative outcome. There is clearly a need for any further increase in the maximum sentence to be carefully thought through.

In this context, a viable alternative course that can be taken under the existing law has been raised: the bringing of manslaughter charges. This would enable courts to pass deterrent sentences of up to life imprisonment in appropriate cases. It has been successfully used in some overseas jurisdictions against drink-drivers held responsible for causing death in circumstances where they have been reckless or severely negligent.

It is not unreasonable for local prosecutors to contemplate levelling such a charge against a driver who drank to excess, jumped behind the wheel and then killed someone.

But a manslaughter charge must not be treated lightly, given the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Therefore, it should only be considered in especially grave cases where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of a conviction.

This charge has always been available, but prosecutors have been reluctant to use it in cases of dangerous driving. This is perhaps because the statutory offence of causing death by dangerous driving is considered easier to prove.

But the Court of Appeal has previously raised this issue. In increasing the sentences on two minibus drivers convicted in a high-profile case to what was then the maximum of five years in 2006, Chief Judge Geoffrey Ma Tao-li questioned why the pair had not been tried for manslaughter. The two men raced at high speed through North Point in October 2004, causing an accident that took the lives of two passengers and injured 17 other people.

The Department of Justice has given a positive response to the idea of bringing manslaughter charges in such cases. Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung has noted that a charge of manslaughter may be appropriate in drink-driving cases if the evidence warrants it. It should certainly be given consideration by prosecutors while the debate about whether to increase the sentence for causing death by dangerous driving continues.

The penalty for death by dangerous driving has only recently been increased. Also, police have only just introduced new measures such as random breathalyser tests and identifying new drivers with probationary licence plates. Hong Kong has been slow to adopt such measures. But now they have been implemented, time should be taken to see how effective they prove to be.

The imposition of tough deterrent sentences is only one weapon in the war against drink-driving. Prevention is a matter for society as a whole. Like smoking, public campaigns and education are just as important. People must realise that drink-driving is not socially or morally acceptable and that those who do it deserve to be treated like pariahs.