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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 30, 2014
Politics & Society
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Death on the Roads
January 30, 2014   
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It is no big news that Polish drivers commonly ignore traffic regulations, especially the law on sobriety behind the wheel. Under Polish law, drivers are allowed a blood alcohol content of up to 0.02 percent, which is much less than legal limits in most EU countries, where a blood alcohol content of 0.05 or even sometimes 0.08 percent is allowed. Driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.02 percent and above is an offense in Poland, punishable with a high fine and suspension of the driver’s license for six months or longer. Above 0.05 percent is a crime. Yet the Polish media reports cases of people driving under the influence on a daily basis. It is not uncommon for the police to stop several thousand drunken drivers on public holidays and long weekends.

This year began with a grim series of fatal accidents. A 26-year-old with a blood alcohol content of 0.24 percent swerved onto the sidewalk and hit a group of pedestrians in Kamień Pomorski, a small town in northern Poland. Five adults and one child were killed instantly. The driver had been penalized for drunk driving previously. This time, investigators had to wait 24 hours before he was sober enough to be questioned.

Several days later, a 34-year-old intoxicated tram driver ran a red light, killing two elderly women on a pedestrian crossing in ŁódĽ, central Poland. Two others were seriously injured. The driver had a 0.14 blood alcohol count. Prosecutors found he had been drinking vodka and beer during stops at terminals. The driver could not remember much of the incident—he may have fallen asleep while at the controls.

Later in January a driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.35 percent crashed his car head on into a bus in Olecko in the Mazurian Lake District. The passenger of the car was killed and the 33-year-old driver was not in possession of a driving license, having lost it 10 days before for drunken driving.

Meanwhile, a 25-year-old man from Kłobuck, western Poland, was seen staggering from his car outside a medical clinic where he had come to pick up his wife and child. A tragedy was averted when passersby called the police.

Unfortunately, these are only a few of recent stories from the national media. The public is burning with outrage and tabloid headlines are adding fuel to the fire.

Most political parties jumped at the chance to outdo each other in coming up with solutions to this problem, proposing changes in regulations and tougher penalties. Some have suggested obligatory incarceration; others prison sentences of up to 20 years (at present, a driver who causes a fatal accident under the influence faces up to 12 years in prison). Others want to confiscate the drivers’ cars.

Lawyers have tried to cool this heated debate but Polish courts are astonishingly lenient with drunken drivers. Of 60,000 offenders detained last year, a mere 500 or so have been put behind bars. Others were fined or let off with suspended sentences. Such verdicts are hardly appropriate punishment. The situation is unlikely to improve and new records of drunken driving will undoubtedly be reported until Polish courts start punishing such crimes appropriately.
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