A horrific drunk-driving accident in Moscow has prompted Russian politicians to seek to impose tougher sentences on those who get behind the wheel of a car inebriated.
Some MPs are seeking life imprisonment for drunk drivers, following the public’s fury over a man who smashed his car into a bus stop in Moscow and killed seven people, including five teenage orphans.
Alexander Maximov was driving at an estimated speed of 125 miles per hour when he lost control and hit a bus shelter on Saturday. The driver, who admitted he had been drinking continuously for two days, survived the tragedy but now faces up to nine years in jail. Some Russian lawmakers want to upgrade the maximum punishment in such incidents to life in prison.
On Sunday, two people died when a minivan taxi collided with a car in Moscow. On Monday, five people were killed in a traffic accident in Russia’s Far East.
In July of this year, a woman who was rushing her boyfriend to the hospital killed five people outside Moscow. Yekaterina Zaul, 24, smashed her Land Rover into a group of pedestrians, killing five of them, including a seven-year-old girl.
Zaul was driving under the influence, having downed several shots of whiskey earlier that day.
Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of traffic accidents -- about 30,000 people die annually on the roads, some due to alcohol consumption by motorists. (In comparison, that many people died on Britain’s roads between 2000 and 2010, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper.)
Shamsail Saraliyev, an MP from the ruling United Russia Party, compared drunk driving to terrorism.
"Last year, drunk drivers killed 2,103 people,” Saraliyev told Russian media. “This is a colossal number. This year, as of September, tragedies on the roads have [already] killed 2,300 people.”
By comparison, 57 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Russia last year.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev raised his concerns.
"We've recently had a series of horrifying road accidents," he said. "Unfortunately, the majority of them were caused by people in a state of extreme intoxication. In that respect, the picture here is worse than in any other country. Probably it's worth thinking about how to introduce tougher criminal punishment for such crimes."
President Vladimir Putin also weighed in on the issue.
“Some things must be punished,” he said. “Sadly, it is the only way. We will have to toughen legislation in that area. The current legislation does not work.”
The Russian Duma (parliament) will consider changes in the law related to impaired driving on Oct. 16.
As for Maximov, Moscow police said he had consumed at least a liter of vodka within a short time period just prior to the crash. A judge ordered him to be taken into custody pending trial.
In addition, he was driving with a suspended license and had received numerous speeding tickets.
Natalia Antonova, deputy editor of the Moscow News, commented that while Maximov can only get nine years in prison for killing seven people, “opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces a maximum of 10 years in the slammer after being charged with embezzlement.”
However, drunk driving is perhaps an inevitable consequence of Russia’s long and deep love affair with alcohol.
Antonova wrote: “Legal issues aside, it remains to be seen whether this tragedy will do anything to influence drunk driving rates across the country," Antonova wrote. "I do not know anyone who drinks and drives in Moscow. The rules are strict: Just one drink puts you over the limit. Yet stories of drunk-driving deaths -- particularly on weekends -- abound in the news.”
She quoted a friend of hers who linked alcohol abuse to a “culture of desperation.”
“Take the children I work with,” her friend lamented. “Most of their parents are still alive; they just happen to be addicted to alcohol or something else and are not able to look after their own kids. You see them every once in a while -- some really do miss their children. But when you look in their eyes, all you see is desperation. I wouldn’t say they’re desperate for a better life. They’re desperate for things to be over.”
In 2010, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he wanted to cut alcohol consumption in Russia in half by the year 2020, by, among other things, eliminating the nationwide black market for booze.
According to official statistics, more than 23,000 Russian die of alcohol poisoning annually, while, on the whole, 500,000 die from alcohol-related diseases, crimes, accidents and illnesses.
Rospotrebnadzor, a consumer advocacy group, estimates there are more than 2 million alcoholics in Russia.
The World Health Organization warned in early 2011 that Russia’s high rate of alcoholism will damage the country’s future economic growth and pose a demographic catastrophe.
The report cited, among other things, that Russian adults drink the equivalent of about four gallons of pure alcohol per capita each year (double the amount of their U.S. counterparts) and 10 million Russian children between the age of 10 and 14 drink alcohol regularly.
Perhaps more alarming, one-fifth of Russian male deaths are directly attributed to alcoholism, leading to lower life expectancies for men and a future of declining overall population.