Three functioning breathalyzer kits are inadequate for the police, Traffic Chief Superintendent Hugh Denhert has acknowledged, while stating that these much needed pieces of equipment are included in the force’s budget every year, but not procured.
However, the last time the Guyana Police Force (GPF) received these kits whose importance has been underscored in the hundreds of drunk driving cases that police have taken before the court each year, was in 2011. It appears that since then no attempts have been made by the government to replace those that malfunctioned.
It was Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee who said in a written response to questions raised by Alliance for Change (AFC) member, Catherine Hughes that the GPF has just three functioning kits. His response was made available during last Monday’s sitting of the National Assembly.
Among the questions asked was for the minister to state if all the policing divisions were provided with fully functioning breathalyzer kits.
Rohee’s written answer stated that all police divisions were previously issued with breathalyzer kits. However, he said, some have malfunctioned and at the moment the three functioning kits are located at A Division – Georgetown and the East Bank Demerara, B Division – Berbice and D Division – West Demerara.
According to the minister arrangements are being made for an additional 40 breathalyzer kits to be procured pending the approval of the 2014 Budget. Driving under the influence is a major problem on the country’s roads and the availability of only three kits would mean that many potential cases could not have been pursued.
Contacted recently on the issue, Denhert said that what was highlighted in the media with respect of the number of functioning kits was a fact and that it was nothing to hide.
While stressing that those were not adequate for traffic ranks to execute their duties, he said that at one time each division was equipped with kits. During the telephone interview with Stabroek News he could not say when or how the kits were acquired and the amount received. He said that at that time he was not occupying the present office and did not know if they were purchased by the force or were donated.
Later, this newspaper was reliably informed that a “significant number” was handed over to the force in 2011. This newspaper was unable to get the exact figure.
The Traffic Chief said too that over a period of time many started malfunctioning due to wear and tear. He said that like all pieces of equipment, the breathalyzer kits would have a lifespan.
Asked which division has the most cases/incidents of drunk driving, he said it was equally spread adding that one has to take into account and understand the Guyanese culture where taking a drink after work or to celebrate the birth of a child is a norm.
Asked where the A Division kit is based he said that generally, it does not stay at one station all the time, but is moved from station to station. Denhert, who was appointed Traffic Chief in February 2013, said made no sense to have it at Brickdam Police Station all the time when it might be needed at Madewini and as such it is moved around.
This newspaper was later told that the kit for D Division is always kept at the Leonora police station which is the main station for that division. According to sources, whenever someone is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, that person is transported to the Leonora Station where the test is administered.
Chairman of the Guyana National Road Safety Council, former army Chief of Staff Norman McLean also said that three kits is very inadequate. He told Stabroek News that police should acquire more breathalyzer kits so as probably to have two in each division.
However, he said that the tubes also play a very important role and that lots of extra tubes are needed, possibly about 500 for every machine.
“I don’t know if it is such an expensive thing that the force cannot acquire ten to twelve,” he said.
For founder of the Mothers in Black organization and Alicea Foundation, Denise Dias breathalyzers are important and “having only three kits available in a country whose people are renowned drinkers is alarming.”
She said it would be very interesting to check on last year’s alcohol consumption figures adding that she was certain that 2012/2013 annual reports on alcohol sold by Banks DIH, DDL and Ansa McAl can be found.
Dias lost her daughter Alicea in the 1980s in a traffic accident and since then she had been lobbying for stronger traffic laws.
She told this newspaper that though breathalyzer test kits are known to be unreliable compared to an actual blood or urine sample, “continuous road side breathalyzer testing campaigns would certainly stop many drivers who have been drinking from getting behind a wheel.” She added that the kits are the most convenient and economical method for any police force, but in their absence and “clear shortage” police can use other methods such as having the person walk in a line, conduct eye tests, counting or saying the alphabet backwards. “Rarely if ever have I witnessed our short-staffed traffic police conducting such exercises,” she said while adding that checking licences and vehicles’ documents seemed to be the police’s daily mission.
Dias said she could not recall any kits being donated but knew that in 2008 she was invited to a ceremony during which the British High Commission handed over 50 radar guns to the traffic department. “Last year I was reliably informed that none of these radar guns are working,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hughes in an invited comment said she was horrified that there are only three breathalyzer kits available to the police. “This is definitely not enough given the alarming amount of road carnage in recent years,” she said.
Asked what prompted her to ask the questions, she said she had a discussion with a traffic rank who “complained how ill equipped the force was. He and his partner stated that most of the accidents they encountered during Christmas they felt were the result of drinking and driving.”
She said too that over the years there have been several reported incidents of road fatalities resulting from drunk drivers and “our culture in Guyana seems to suggest that it is no big thing to get behind the wheel of a car after a night of drinking. I say this because the minister’s answers have highlighted that no one in Division G – Essequibo Coast & Islands – in 2013 was subject to testing and yet several fatal accidents have occurred there due to high alcohol consumption.”
This newspaper was provided with figures which represented cases of drunk driving division by division for last year. There were 604 cases in 2013 (January to December) in comparison with 885 cases in 2012 for the same period.
In 2013 there were 10 cases from Traffic Head-quarters, Eve Leary, 84 from `A’ Division, 77 cases from `B’ Division, 40 from `C’ Division, 349 from `D’ Division, 17 from `E’ Division, 12 from `F’ Division and 15 from `G’ Division.
Sources said those figures are alarming. One source said that had more kits been available last year, the figure would have surpassed that of 2012 and probably would have been in the thousands.
It was noted too that very often ranks are given an inadequate amount of resources but are expected “to create miracles.” A source said too that the ranks have to work with what they have and that is just what they have been doing. The source said that as soon as the breathalyzer kits started to malfunction, more should have been purchased immediately especially since the consumption of alcohol is on the increase.
The source said that there is only so much the police can do adding that the GPF needs the help of the government and the cooperation of citizens if it is to function better.
Legislation for breathalyzer testing took effect from June 8, 2009.
The Government Information Agency, (GINA) had said in a press release that The Evidence, Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2008, which was assented to by then president Bharrat Jagdeo on May 22 2008, had been put into effect on June 8. The release stated that Minister Rohee signed an order which allowed for the implementation of the act which gives the authority to any member of the Guyana Police Force to order a driver suspected of being under the influence of alcohol, to submit to a breathalyzer test either at the scene of an accident or at a nearby police station.
The law provides for a maximum 35 microgrammes of alcohol to 100 milliliters of breath and 80 milligrammes of alcohol to 100 milliliters of blood. Over the years, the force has been running ads on Chanel 11 educating the public about breathalyzer testing and showing how it is supposed to be done.