Justice ministry seeking way to stop addicts driving

Intersection of Tartu mnt and Liivalaia, prior to the current roadworks.
Intersection of Tartu mnt and Liivalaia, prior to the current roadworks. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Addicts caught driving under the influence of alcohol should have their licenses suspended until they have their addiction under control, the Ministry of Justice believes.

Police record approximately 2,500 drunk drivers every year. Tightening legislation over the years has made little difference to the number of offenders or victims, the ministry said.

But the data shows one clear trend: those caught usually suffer from alcohol addiction.

The ministry is planning new legislation which would immediately invalidate the mandatory health certificate if an addict is caught drunk driving by police. This would remove a person's right to drive.

"In order to get your health certificate back, you have to undergo an alcohol test, which is an objective measurement tool that shows you and your doctor how much alcohol you consume on a daily basis," explained minister advisor Krister Tüllinen.

"This would be the most objective possible assessment of whether a person can be allowed back on the road or whether they should be put on hold for a while."

The new proposal would test for phosphatidylethanol, a compound of alcohol and fat, which rises with sustained heavy drinking.

Cars in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"This figure most accurately reflects the previous week's alcohol consumption, but also relatively accurately reflects up to a month's alcohol consumption," said Tüllinen.

He said the proposed new rules could nudge drivers into healthier behavior.

"The faster they change their daily behavior regarding alcohol consumption, the faster the state can trust them again and allow them back on the road," the official explained.

Based on previous experiences, the ministry estimates between 1,500-1,700 people will be affected for between one and six months.

This process would have no major connection with criminal proceedings carried out in parallel.

A driver who tests positive for a lower amount of alcohol would be issued with a misdemeanor, and have the information entered into the health information system. However, they would still be able to drive.

It would then be up to their family doctor to call the person in for a check-up.

"If, for example, a doctor sees that a person is systematically caught drink-driving to the extent of a misdemeanor, they can decide whether, for example, to call that person in and start looking into what the problem is," explained Tüllinen.

Current drunk driving legislation does not impact a driver's health certificate.

In five counties, it is impossible to see an addiction specialist

Le Vallikivi. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

But Le Vallikivi, head of the Estonian Society of Family Physicians, sees some flaws in the plan. 

"I would like us to be able to generate a slightly more common sense solution," Vallikivi said, adding that phosphatidylethanol is not a very accurate indicator.

The doctor said it also helps to draw conclusions from alcohol consumption over the last 12 days to four weeks.

But Vallikivi's biggest concern is that this will add to the workload of family doctors, who are already stretched.

"And if there's one thing that makes family doctors really angry, it's thoughtless and pointless work," said Vallikivi, adding that a person with addiction disorders needs help from a specialist.

"We have five counties where there is no specialized medical care for people with addiction disorders," Vallikivi said, listing Hiiu, Põlva and Järva counties as examples.


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Editor: Barbara Oja, Helen Wright

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