NO PUNCHES PULLED: Justice Project South Africa outlines the pros and cons of life sentences for killer drivers. Image: iStock
Gauteng - The idea of imposing life sentences for drivers who cause the death of others whilst driving under the influence of alcohol in the UK is sound and I would suggest may be worthwhile considering in South Africa.
However, in order for such a minimum sentence to be contemplated as a deterrent factor in South Africa, a lot is going to have to change first.
Vehicles are murder weapons
Taking another person’s life and I would argue, causing another person serious injury, is one of the most serious offences that anyone can commit using a motor vehicle.
South Africa has had a few very public examples of this happening in recent years, some of which have involved alcohol and at least one of which has also involved drugs. Take for example the cases of Molemo (Jub Jub) Maarohanye and Themba Tshabalala who killed four school kids in Soweto and of Sibusiso Langa who killed the five Midrand joggers.
In both of these cases, the ingestion of intoxicating substances played a major role in the causation of the crashes and in both of these cases, the convicted persons were given what many regard as relatively “light sentences” in comparison to a life sentence.
READ: Killer drivers to face life sentences: Should this be implemented in SA?
Few intoxicated drivers would acknowledge that their actions have the potential to kill and/or injure others. In fact, the effect of many drugs, including - but not limited to - alcohol is to impair the intoxicated person’s judgment.
This is not a mitigating factor in such cases, but is instead an aggravating factor since, in their sober state, all persons should be able to recognise that their judgment will be impaired by intoxicating substances and take reasonable steps to ensure that they don’t let their impaired judgment cause themselves and/or others harm - before they start consuming these substances.
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Sentencing could make an impact
There can be no doubt that the threat of “harsh sentences” could have a marked deterrent effect on some sober people. However, in order for this to be perceived as a real threat, it really must be a very public thing. It must also not be viewed as being the exception to the rule.
But so-called “harsh sentences” are not and can never be viewed as the “silver bullet” to dealing with intoxicated driving. The key focus must be on deterring intoxicated driving and tackling it before anyone gets killed and/or injured.
READ: South Africans against Drunk Driving - A mother's battle to end road carnage
This can only be achieved by law enforcement agencies and all of the various role-players in the prosecution process getting their act together and tackling the problem head-on.
In order for this to happen, the “threat” of being caught and properly dealt with needs to become real and this can only be achieved by stepping up intoxicated driving detection and prevention exercises and convicting those who are arrested for such offences. It is here that South Africa falls completely short of the other countries we like to compare it to.
We regularly see media reports of how many motorists are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in a single weekend. What we don’t see is how many (or few) of them are convicted of the crime and the reason for this can only be that very few are actually convicted.
Come down hard on offenders
Recently it has become popular for so-called “road safety commentators”, law enforcement authorities and the Department of Transport to suggest that the courts don’t take road traffic offences, and intoxicated driving cases seriously. This dangerous assertion is not only misinformed, but also fails to acknowledge that our criminal courts are reliant on real evidence and cannot and will not arbitrarily convict persons in the absence of such evidence.
There is currently, and has been for many years, an enormous backlog in pathology tests for alcohol with the Department of Health. In the absence of such test results, courts can simply not convict persons accused of driving under the influence of alcohol - let alone drugs having a narcotic effect.
The reintroduction of evidential breath alcohol testing may indeed go a long way to altering the landscape and it is our hope that it will.
READ: #BoozeFreeRoads: Controversial Drager system returns to Western Cape
It is also our hope that people will take the time (in their sober state) to educate themselves about the effects of alcohol and drugs on their driving abilities, as well as the very real risks they subject themselves and others to through consuming them.
It is our view that threats have a limited effect and that only proper law enforcement and concerted education efforts can have an effect on reducing the carnage on our roads, particularly when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol or a drug having a narcotic effect.
In this manner, maybe a social attitudinal change on alcohol and can come about and that would be a very positive thing for South Africa.
Please see our blog post for more information on alcohol and drugs offences.