Leela Devkota, 38, was returning to her home near Budhanilkantha Temple at around 10:00 on the morning of 14 December 2019. As she was walking on the sidewalk, a grey Suzuki car breached the sidewalk, and ran over her. She was later pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.
Police investigation showed 21-year-old Prithiva Malla was driving the car—under the influence. In fact, he was completely drunk. The car was full of beer bottles and, reportedly, even illegal drugs. He had three other friends in the car.
The killing of a working mother of three by an inebriated driver created much uproar. The fact that the incident occurred during unusual hours for drunk driving came as a surprise for many. It later turned out that Malla had been out on a drinking spree with his friends for the whole night before the accident.
Nepal Police’s alcohol detection test for drunk drivers, popularly known as Mapase, has been credited for controlling alcohol-induced accidents in the Kathmandu Valley. But the case of Malla throws a different light on this issue.
The record of Metropolitan Traffic Police Department Kathmandu shows reduction in the rate of alcohol-induced accidents until four years ago. But the trend has been reversing in the past three years.
In FY 2016/17, there were 167 drunk-driving accidents, killing seven. The number of accidents rose to 221 in 2017/18 with 11 deaths, and to 283 with 16 deaths in 2018/19. In the first five months of 2019/20, already 237 accidents have been recorded, with four deaths.
Does it indicate waning effectiveness of Nepal Police’s alcohol detection test? Or does it show the alcoholics have found a way out—driving when there is no Mapase test? It is hard to say.
“Improvement is needed in the way traffic police work. Each officer on the street should have at least a breathalyzer to detect alcohol,” says Govinda Bhattarai, road activist and senior advisor at Nepal Automobile Association (NASA), an organization that works for road safety. “There is also no machine to trace other drugs.”
For somebody caught driving under the influence, the punishment is Rs 1,000 in fine, an hour-long road safety class at the traffic police, and a hole punched in the driving license. Five such holes will lead to the license’s suspension. Altogether 444 licenses have been suspended in eight years of the Mapase control campaign.
“The punishment for drunk driving is inadequate,” Bhattarai adds. “And the alcohol test is done only during the evening hours. The alcoholics know when and how to avoid the Mapase tests.”
The traffic police say they have challenges of their own.
“There are several reasons why we have not been able to trace drunk drivers,” said traffic police spokesperson and Superintendent of Police Jeevan Kumar Shrestha. “First, we don’t have enough manpower. Second, it is difficult for us to inspect during the day due to rush hours. Likewise, they might also be using alternate roads where our officers are not on duty.”
Shrestha is aware that there may be plenty of people who drink and drive during daytime.
Nearly every month, a couple of cases of alcohol-related accidents in the daytime are reported, says Jitesh Dahal, an inspector at traffic police. Yet there is no systemic record of the total number of road accidents in the daytime, much less due to alcohol.
“We are doing our job. But the drivers and their families also need to be aware of their roles,” says SP Shrestha. “These days, parents are often uncaring if their children come home drunk. Discipline starts at home. I ask parents to check what their children are doing.”