Nepal's Drunk Drivers Face "Sniff Tests"
The long nose of the law causes cultural complaints in Kathmandu—but may have slashed traffic accidents.
Police in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, are increasingly resorting to the “sniff test” to catch drivers who've been drinking. Breathalyzers are scarce and blood tests unavailable, so cops simply stop drivers and engage them in conversation. If they think they can smell alcohol on the driver's breath, they can decide whether or not to seize their license and issue a fine. Kathmandu has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol and driving—unlike most western countries, which allow up to a certain blood-alcohol maximum. Some feel this is unfair: “I would have left my [motorcycle] and taken a taxi if I was too drunk,” says Ram Thapa, who lost his license and was fined 1,000 rupees (about $12) after a sniff test. He says he only drank three small glasses of rice wine. “I think a limited amount of alcohol, as in other countries, must be permitted for the drivers.” Police did introduce 150 breathalyzers two months ago in the wake of the complains—but half the devices immediately malfunctioned.
The crackdown has particularly upset many in Kathmandu's indigenous Newar community, in which alcohol is an integral part of religious and social customs. “Every festival is celebrated by offering some alcohol to family and friends,” writes Arjun Bhandari, a leading wine importer, in the Republica newspaper. “Century-old traditions can't be wiped out overnight without any education or alternative solutions.” But law enforcement doesn't buy it: “The culture factor is just an excuse,” says Ganesh Rai, deputy inspector general of Kathmandu Traffic Police. “We haven't banned drinking. All we have done is ban the drink-driving.” Since police started enforcing the rule six months ago, the city has raised 30 million rupees in fines—and they say the number of accidents has plunged. “Earlier, accidents used to occur regularly, especially during the night,” Rai says. “In most cases, the cause was drink-driving. So, we realized that if we can stop that, we can significantly reduce the accidents.”