Drink, drive, kill: Is it manslaughter?

Drink, drive, kill: Is it manslaughter?

With traffic police saying it will review laws on the matter, should drink-driving deaths be equated with culpable homicide?

 
 
 
Art by YEN YOK
Copyright © MediaCorp Press Ltd

by Teo Xuanwei

Updated 12:50 PM Jun 02, 2012
 
 SINGAPORE – Every other week, Paul (not his real name) catches up with long-time pals over dinner and drinks. The 33-year-old salesman gets behind the wheel afterward, even when he busts his self-imposed limit of two mugs of beer – which is not uncommon, he admits sheepishly.

“Sometimes you get carried away when you are talking about the good old times and it’s hard to stop when everyone else is chugging away,” he said. “And I think I can hold my alcohol quite well.”

While the police have been running educational campaigns against drink-driving for years now – and in 2008 turned the heat up with ringfencing operations near watering holes – there remains a sizeable number of drink drivers on the roads.

Stubbornly believing they can outsmart the authorities or drive properly, they put themselves and other road users in jeopardy.

With the traffic police saying this week it will review drink-driving laws, one question to ask is: Should drink drivers who get into accidents and kill someone be dealt with similar to someone convicted of manslaughter?

 

THE LEGAL DIFFERENCE

 

In January this year, India’s Supreme Court made a landmark decision that causing death due to drink driving should be treated as culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which carries the maximum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment.

No drink driver is ignorant of the inherent risks of driving while under the influence of alcohol. A drink driver knows his senses are less sharp than a sober person’s and his reaction slower but still he chooses to believe that he can drive safely.

A drink driver knows he could be caught or get into an accident, but he chooses to take the gamble.

So, if he does get involved in an accident and kill someone, how different is it from someone who commits culpable homicide?

Here is how Singapore’s laws treat the two types of offenders.

For reckless or dangerous driving that kills, Section 66 of the Road Traffic Act (RTA) provides for up to five years in jail. If he did not beat any red light, wasn’t speeding and observed all traffic rules, Section 304A of the Penal Code stipulates that rash acts that cause death carry up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine, and negligent acts up to two years in jail and/or a fine.

In contrast, culpable homicide carries penalties of life imprisonment or a jail term up to 20 years, and fine or caning if the act was intended to cause death.

If there was knowledge but not intent to cause death, the maximum penalty is 10 years in jail, a fine and caning.

The difference under the law lies in the two types of offenders’ intention and knowledge, criminal lawyers said.

Mr Peter Fernando, who has practised for 27 years, said: “Just because a person drinks and drives and kills someone doesn’t necessarily mean he intended to or knew that he would cause death when he got into the car.

“His decision to drive and how he drove may be negligent or rash, but that’s very different from someone who had intention and knowledge.”

 

RAISE SENTENCING BAR?

 

Because they fall under different categories of culpability, those who commit culpable homicide and drink drivers who kill should be dealt with differently, lawyers argued.

Or as Mr Sunil Sudheesan put it, the law has to “draw a distinction between people who intentionally cause death and people who, because of rashness or recklessness, cause death”.

Even so, some lawyers believe there is some room for penalties to be enhanced, thereby sending a stronger deterrent signal.

Noting that offenders, especially first-timers, are seldom punished with the maximum prescribed penalty, Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Subhas Anandan said the maximum sentences for the laws dealing with drink-driving-related deaths could be raised slightly.

“Then, the court’s starting point would be higher. Judges would also have more flexibility,” he said.

“It’s quite a serious offence, so the maximum sentence should reflect the seriousness.”

Other lawyers, however, feel the existing penalties are sufficient. Pointing out that an offender can be charged with multiple offences and, hence, face the possibility of the punishments running consecutively, Mr Fernando said the courts are “amply empowered to deal with each particular case”.

Mr Josephus Tan added that the courts could raise the sentencing benchmarks, too, depending on the prevailing trend.

Lawyers also point out that Section 67A of the RTA provides for jail not exceeding 10 years for drink drivers who have been convicted at least twice previously, plus up to six strokes of the cane if such a person causes death or serious injury.

 

OTHER WAYS TO DETER

 

Other than tougher laws, lawyers and drivers feel there are other deterrent measures.

Cabby Tay C H, 52, believes awareness campaigns should be ramped up even more because “people always need reminding”.

“For those who won’t listen, there’s nothing you can do. But there are those who just need that reminder now and then to make the right decision,” he said.

The owner of a drive-home service business, who only wanted to be known as Ken, suggested spreading the message among those in the late teens and early 20s more robustly.

“Most of my clients are 30 and above. The younger ones either want to save the money (of a cab or valet) for drinks or just believe they can get away with it.”

Mr Anandan said bartenders should do their bit: “He can ask a customer if he’s driving and, if he is, stop serving him or call the police.”

While the customer may head to other establishments, Mr Anandan said there should at least be some “due diligence” on the part of operators of watering holes. Whistle-blowers could be awarded incentives.

But Mr Derrick Lim, 31, who works as a bartender, said: “Unless every bar in Singapore agrees to this, which bar owner will be happy about losing business to his rivals? The customer may never come back again.”

Ms Hannah Koh, 28, a waitress at a cafe-pub, suggested that the police regularly patrol outside drinking areas. “The idea should be to prevent these drivers from getting on the road and not wait to arrest them after they are on the road.”

Mr Josephus Tan cited how Japanese laws were changed in 2007 to criminalise passengers in vehicles driven by intoxicated drivers.

A potential drink driver’s friends can become the last line of defence, he said.

Another possibility is to mandate motorists convicted of drink driving to install breathalyser ignition locks in their cars, as six states in the United States legislated in 2009.

The driver has to blow into an alcohol detector gadget in the car before the engine can be started.

Banker Samuel Cheng, 28, who bought his first car last year, doubts this is a viable solution.

“The driver can just ask someone else to take the test for him. In any case, it will only stop repeat offending – not people from drinking and driving.”

 

CASES

– October 2008: Businessman Tan Siam Poo, 63, was jailed six months and banned from driving for eight years after he crashed into a motorcycle, killing its pillon rider. His alcohol/blood level was more than double the legal limit.

– May 2007: Wong Heng Chiang, 33, crashed into a bus stop on Penang Road after three glasses of wine, injuring six women, several badly. He was jailed 15 months and disqualified from driving for 10 years.

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