Breathalyzer kits

The recent admission in Parliament that Guyana has just 3 working breathalyzer kits in the entire country, which would obviously negatively impact on the functioning of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) as regards road safety should be of serious concern to all of us.

This admission was made on Monday by Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee, by way of a written response to a question asked by AFC Member of Parliament Catherine Hughes. Mrs Hughes had asked if all police divisions were provided with fully functioning breathalyzer kits, how many persons were tested during the last quarter of 2013 and how many were charged as a result of failing such tests. Mrs Hughes also asked Minister Rohee to provide information on how many persons were successfully prosecuted during 2013 for having failed breathalyzer tests.

The Minister’s response was that all police divisions had been previously issued with the kits but that “some had malfunctioned.” There was no explanation as regards how many kits each division had or where they might have been placed. It should be noted that there are seven policing divisions in Guyana A, B, C, D, E, F and G and some have more than seven police stations spread over extremely large areas. For instance, according to the 2011 Guyana Telephone Directory, the GPF’s A Division stretches from Conversation Tree on the East Coast Demerara to Dora on the Linden/Soesdyke Highway; it includes Georgetown and has more than 10 police stations along with a few outposts.

Ideally, each police station should have a traffic department and each traffic department should have at least two breathalyzer kits; some, which are in areas where there is heavy vehicular traffic would require more. Simple maths determines that the country should have no less than 50 fully functioning breathalyzer kits. Disturbingly, pathetically, it has just three. And according to the Minister, the three kits are in A Division, B Division (Berbice) and D Division (West Demerara).

In response to the second part of Mrs Hughes’s question regarding charges and convictions for 2013, the Minister revealed that in total 209 persons were subjected to breathalyzer tests, 141 were charged and placed before the courts and there were 134 convictions. The other seven persons were reprimanded and discharged. These statistics did not include E Division (Linden/Soesdyke Highway, Linden and Kwakwani) nor G Division (Essequibo Coast and Islands), where according to the Minister’s response no one was subjected to a breathalyzer test for 2013.

There was a marked increase in vehicular accidents along the Essequibo Coast last year with a large number of fatalities. Voicing their views in a ‘What the People Say’ column which this newspaper published in December, a few Essequibians remarked that drunk driving might have been the cause of some of these accidents. Several of the random ten people polled for the feature, assumed incorrectly that breathalyzer tests were being conducted on the Essequibo Coast. While experienced police officers might have reason to believe that persons have been driving after having imbibed alcohol over the legal limit, there is no way to prove this without the application of a test.

It must be noted too that in most countries around the world where breathalyzer kits are used, their most effective function is in preventing accidents, rather than securing evidence after the fact. This means the kits should be used more during random traffic stops, instead of at the scene of a fatal vehicular crash. It is well known that many Guyanese drink heavily and then get behind the wheel. This is done quite openly and with impunity; some offenders are members of the government and of the GPF.

What is also disquieting is that one of the first press releases for this year to come from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated January 2, 2014, referred to a meeting held that same day between representatives of the ministry, the National Road Safety Council, the Guyana Minibus Association and the GPF.

According to that release, “the main causes for fatal accidents for 2013 [were] speeding, inattentiveness and [driving] under the influence of alcohol. The main victims are pedestrians with the involvement of private vehicles occurring between midday and evening hours and between evening hours to midnight on Sundays and Fridays involving young drivers… [16 to 33 years old].”

Recommendations were made for drinking spots, particularly nightclubs to be monitored. “The meeting was informed that between 2010 and 2013 the Ministry of Home Affairs procured and delivered to the GPF 18 Breathalyzer machines with printers and 400 mouthpieces…” the release said. How could the Home Ministry not be aware at the time of issuing this release just over a month ago that only 3 breathalyzer kits were working? Just what is going on? What is the reason for this sort of disingenuous behaviour? What must citizens believe? Minister Rohee’s response to Parliament and last month’s missive from his ministry are at odds. There is need for clarification.

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