Based on current trends, 2018 is projected to go on record as having one of the highest road fatality rates in over a decade. So far, there have been nine road deaths recorded for 2018, four of which were vehicle passengers (source: RBPF). If we maintain this trajectory, we can project around 27-28 road fatalities for the year — the same as 2017 and the second highest number of deaths on Barbadian roads in ten years, with three times more road deaths than in 2016.
Given the lack of statistical specificity in accident reporting, it is unclear how many road deaths are due to drunk driving, but if we use the rest of the world as a reference point, roughly 30-35 per cent of traffic fatalities involve a drunk driver. Given these estimates, it can be assumed that approximately nine deaths last year and a further nine deaths this year will be caused by driving under the influence. This places road fatalities as the second highest cause of unnatural death in Barbados, just after violence.
And of course, among the roughly 8,000 accidents recorded each year, there are the minor to severe DUI-related incidents that do not result in fatalities. These are especially evident when the accident rate increases or [accidents] occurs in clusters during holidays or periods of heavy partying, such as Crop Over and Christmas.
In a statement on Barbados’ drunk driving culture, Minister Michael Lashley has said, “I’ve seen instances of [operators of] Public Service Vehicles driving up and down with a Guinness in their hand… and plying their trade. Stopping at the shop and running in and buying two beers and coming back.” (2017)
Let’s face it — drunk driving is a combination of two of Bajans’ favourite past times, neither of which have ever been highly regulated. The local music and party culture glorifies the consumption of alcohol and Bajans have been known to drive with a beer bottle in the cup holder of their car, often times pulling over to purchase alcohol to consume while on the road or at an intended destination, after which [they] get back into their vehicles and transport themselves back home. Getting drunk at parties without the use of a designated driver or an alternate source of transportation is the norm in Barbados. DUI is as much a part of our culture as cou-cou and flying fish.
Michael Holder, the President of the General Insurance Association of Barbados has indicated that, “we have had cases of suspected [drunk] driving. We have to say suspected because obviously there is more testing that can be carried out. But those persons on the scene, when they speak of the persons behaviour, how they were acting, how they were walking, the smell of alcohol, it [suggests] this person was impaired in their driving because of drinking.”
Given the lack of objective means of measurement, there can be confusion as to what constitutes a person being over the legal limit and how much alcohol a person can legally drink and then drive. This has made it difficult to make DUI-related arrests and has thus meant that there has not been a real legal deterrent [to] driving under the influence.
The introduction of breathalyzer testing, an aspect of Barbados’ new road safety regulations, will allow police to accurately determine a driver’s blood alcohol level and will indicate clearly whether that person is legally permitted to drive. Globally, this practice has been extremely successful in bringing down the incidents of drunk driving and radically changing drunk driving culture.
In the UK for example, in the three months after breathalyzer testing was implemented, traffic fatalities dropped 23 per cent. In the first year, the percentage of drivers killed who were legally drunk dropped from 27 percent to 17 per cent.
When the breathalyzer is implemented in Barbados, police will be able to ask drivers to submit to the test given a reasonable cause, such as a road accident, a traffic violation or erratic driving. Offenders will face a fine, imprisonment or both and will be disqualified from holding or obtaining a driving licence. This is expected to have a significant impact on this dangerous practice that has become customary to many Bajans, especially during periods of celebration and revelry.
According to Sharmane Roland-Bowen, President of the Barbados Road Safety Association, “We want to hear that the breathalyzers have been bought and police officers have started training and that it can be rolled out by this Crop Over season.”
(Daphne Ewing-Chow is the Editor-in-Chief at Living Barbados magazine. She is passionate about national and regional developmental issues.)