Does Brazil’s zero-tolerance policy towards drunk driving actually work?

. Jul 06, 2019
drunk driving

In 2008, the Brazilian government began a widespread crackdown on drunk driving. A new law implemented a strategy of setting up a series of temporary and unannounced checkpoints, strategically placed in different cities and major highways, where drivers are stopped at random and required to blow into breathalyzers. In these so-called “blitz” operations, if a driver’s blood alcohol level is not at zero, he/she will be fined, their vehicle will be towed, and have his/her driver’s licence suspended for one year. In more severe cases of intoxication, drivers can face up to three years in jail. Due to its absolute zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol on the road, the law was dubbed the Lei Seca, or “Dry Law.”

</span></p> <h2>The results of Lei Seca</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Since the law came into effect in 2008, there has been a 2.4 percent decrease in drunk driving-related incidents. Between 2016 and 2018, there was a sharp 16.7 percent decrease in deaths, according to data from the Ministry of Health. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, not all results are positive. In 2017, hospitalization rates related to drunk driving were 90.2 percent higher than they were in 2008. Moreover, the same Health Ministry data shows that five states have seen an increase in deaths caused by drunk driving: Pará (39.4 percent), Maranhão (39%),  Piauí (37.2%), Bahia (36.8%) and Tocantins (26.5%).</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to Eduardo Macario, director of the Department of Health Analysis and Surveillance of Non-Transmissible Diseases at the Ministry of Health, death tolls have increased in some states because their police checkpoints have not been as effective as those of their counterparts. In order to guarantee efficiency, checkpoints must be consistently placed in specific locations and time frames, said Mr. Macario.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“Placing checkpoints around areas with many bars and restaurants, especially during late hours [is important]. Although this might be a nuisance for certain people and might disrupt traffic, it encourages people to make responsible decisions and not drive under the effects of alcohol,” he affirmed.</span></p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/469349"></div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">From 2011 to 2017, there was a 16-percent increase in the number of adults who admit to driving after ingesting <a href="">any level of alcohol</a>. Highly-educated people between 25 and 34 years old were most likely to drive after drinking, according to a Health Ministry study. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Macario said that although progress has been made in terms of legislation and inspection, &#8220;it&#8217;s not been enough to change people’s behavior, especially amongst young adults that continue to risk their lives when driving under the influence of alcohol.&#8221; </span></p> <h2>Controversy around <em>Lei Seca</em></h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Some legal experts have argued that the Lei Seca is unconstitutional, as it requires drivers to produce evidence against themselves when using breathalyzers. Drivers can choose to refuse the breathalyzer test, but in punishment their car will be towed and their license suspended. In these cases, however, they do not have to respond to criminal proceedings. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“This shouldn’t be a legal discussion, it should be [a discussion] about the respect for life,” said Mr. Macario. “It’s important [to remember] that when somebody drives under the influence of alcohol, he endangers his life and those of other people.”</span></p> <h2>New threats on the road</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Although the Lei Seca has managed to mitigate drunk driving in most regions, there are new threats to public health when it comes to driving in Brazil: cellphones. One in five drivers admit to using their phones while driving, according to a <a href="">study</a> from the Federal Prosecution Service. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">When replying to a text message, drivers lose focus for an average of 20 seconds, which could result in an accident, according to a research conducted by the Ministry of Health. Mr. Macario believes that when combined with speeding, texting while driving could become the new threat for public health in Brazil.

Martha Castro

Martha Castro worked as an intern at The Brazilian Report in 2019. She is a Brazilian journalism and political science student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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