Number of drunk drivers falling slowly

Drunk driver.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

The police caught a record-breaking number of drunk drivers on Estonian roads this June. The last time so many drunk drivers were caught in a single month was six years ago.

“June is the month of the drunk in some ways,” says Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) senior law enforcement officer Sirle Loigo. “People drink more around the holidays, and the police are more vigilant.”

Postimees analyzed PPA data on drunk driving going back to 2012. The police have had an average of 64,000 drivers a month take a breath alcohol content test since then. This puts Estonia on top in Europe in terms of breathalyzer tests per capita.

The number of tests fell well short of the average in 2017 when Estonia held the EU Council presidency. Police officers were needed elsewhere, and traffic supervision volumes fell.

The number of tests administered has spiked in the past two months as drivers were asked to prove their sobriety a total of 105,000 times in June, making it a record month for the past seven years.

The reason is simple: police officers can now use expedited procedure to process minor infractions. If writing up a single violation used to take between 20 and 40 minutes, the paperwork can now be taken care of in just ten minutes. Officers simply have time to check more people.

Everyone who is pulled over is asked to take a breath alcohol content test. Sirle Loigo said that most drunk drivers are caught during normal traffic supervision and not special raids.

It also turns out there are two “rush hour” periods for drunk drivers. The first is from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and mostly produces drivers in a mild or moderate state of intoxication. The evening rush starts at around 9 p.m. by which time most drunk drivers are severely intoxicated.

93 percent of people found to be driving under the influence are men, most are between 26 and 36 years of age. Drunk driving is rare among pensioners. The average drunk drives a 1998 Volkswagen.

Data analyzed by Postimees does not pinpoint where drunk drivers live. It does, however, tell us that most drunk drivers per one hundred residents have been caught in Võru, Jõgeva, Põlva and Hiiu counties. There are fewer drunk drivers per capita in Harju County.

Things change when we look at absolute figures – the total number of drunk drivers caught in Harju County almost equals the aggregate figure for Tartu, East Viru, Pärnu and West Viru counties.

The current “record holder” is a man born in 1981 who has been caught driving in a state of intoxication a total of eight times since early 2014. Another man, ten years younger, has seven infractions to his name.

Young BMW drivers not to blame

Data suggests that if 1.4 percent of all drivers who were pulled over were drunk back in 2014, the figure has remained stable at 0.89 percent since 2015.

Loigo said that without going to the root of the problem, a further reduction is not to be hoped for. The current trend has leveled out.

“We can take away a person’s license or vehicle, or punish them in different ways, but we cannot achieve any meaningful reduction in the number of drunk drivers without trying to cure alcohol addiction. The current figure will hold until we can do something about that,” Loigo explains.

Even though the relative importance of drunk drivers has not fallen in recent years, they have caused fewer serious traffic accidents. Loigo said that there is reason to celebrate when we compare modern statistics to those from the 1990s.

“Perhaps I’m naive, but I really believe people drink less and drive while intoxicated more seldom. A decade ago, drunk driving was akin to what speeding is today: something everyone does and accepts. That is different today: if you are caught driving in a state of intoxication, you are labelled a drunk driver,” Loigo finds.

Postimees’ analysis showed that 56,086 drunk drivers have been caught since 2012. Four-fifths of drivers were in a state of moderate or severe intoxication at the time. However, the number of drunk drivers caught is one thing, while the total figure of intoxicated drivers is another.

Past surveys by the justice ministry suggest there are around 4,000 drunk drivers on Estonian roads every day. If we compare it to how many drunk drivers the police pull over in a single day, we are left with the depressing realization that only 1-2 percent of intoxicated drivers are taken off our roads.

This means that 99 percent of them keep driving.

“We believe that a drunk driver is a young person driving their BMW home from a bar at night. That is not strictly true. A drunk driver drives at all hours,” Loigo says.

Spur of the moment decision

The profile of a typical drunk driver – a man 26 to 36 years of age – fits now 37-year-old Tero who was caught twice in December of 2017. The man was pulled over in a state of severe intoxication the first time and moderate intoxication the second time.

The first time, Tero told the police he was initially being driven by a Ukrainian working for him, until Tero decided to take the wheel after the foreigner failed to navigate Tallinn traffic.

“But yes, I had been drinking quite heavily,” he admits. “We had gone to a party in Paide, and I still had a liter of rum in the car. I started out with a designated driver but was soon irritated by how poorly they were driving. It was a spur of the moment decision.”

Tero’s explanation for the second time he got caught is similar: a sober driver initially took the wheel but was scared to drive into the city, which is when Tero decided he would do it himself. “And I had just bought the car. Why not drive it,” he says. “I believe I had had some champagne and a rum cocktail that night.”

The court sentenced Tero to eight months in prison a month of which he was ordered to serve immediately. The remaining seven months made up a conditional sentence. “I was sentenced to shock imprisonment, but I don’t know how that is supposed to shock me, seeing as I’ve spent 15 years of my life in jail,” he says.

Asked whether he has driven in a state of intoxication since then, Tero answers that he has found someone else but adds: “Even though they did not have a driver’s license and were also drunk.”

More women than previously in rehabilitation

In recent years, an increasing number of drivers have been ordered to undergo a rehabilitation program the aim of which is to alter behavior. The program’s coordinator, psychologist Gunnar Meinhard says that participants do not reveal a single pattern.

They do include more women, however, as the number of female participants has grown to around 20 percent.

Drivers ordered to take the program must first fill out a traffic risks questionnaire that is used to calculate their risk rating. The latter considers their alcohol consumption habits and traffic behavior both as a driver and passenger.

The logic of rehabilitating drunk drivers in Estonia differs from those employed in other European countries. Meinhard believes the Estonian system is better. He points out that the current model gives the perpetrator a chance to change themselves, offering strong motivation. It also leaves drivers with enough time for “conditional” driving during which period they are expected to prove they can follow the law. Those who stray from the rules are punished.

“A lot of the people we see have knowingly gotten behind the wheel when drunk,” Meinhard says. “They say they have never seen patrols on that road, that it was just a few kilometers through the woods or that they just wanted to repark the car,” he gives examples of excuses. There are also drivers who misread their condition.

“What drunk drivers have in common is a stunted sense of self-criticism, which is when irrational thoughts take center stage,” Meinhard says in conclusion.