Daniel Rwabidadi was on one of his regular trips between Ruhengeri and Kigali on a January evening when he was pulled over by the traffic police.
It was 11:00 p.m when the truck driver came upon a check point in a place where he never expected to find traffic police.
And that wasn’t the only surprise. Instead of the usual request for driving documents, Rwabidadi was asked to step out of his loaded truck and open his mouth.
“I couldn’t imagine the police asking me to open my mouth,” says Rwabidadi.
He was asked to stand straight and open his mouth, at which point a small instrument was inserted into his mouth.
“The policeman said I should blow air into the machine – which I did but while panicking,” Rwabidadi recounts.
What Rwabidadi did not know was that he was being tested for alcohol as part of the new police crackdown on drunk driving. In November, the traffic police introduced the breathalyzer–commonly known locally as ‘alco-test’, which is used to test for alcohol levels in drivers.
The small, gun-like instrument was introduced due to the persistent increase of road accidents and fatalities that police attribute to the influence of alcohol.
“We were forced to find a new mechanism of alcohol testing scientifically known as breathalyzer,” Police Spokesperson Eric Kayiranga said early this week.
According to police records, between February and March last year alone, some 349 accidents occurred in Rwanda. Statistics from the Kigali University Central Hospital show that more than 60 per cent of those involved in road accidents were found to have been under the influence of alcohol. Among them, 45 per cent are reported to have died.
Police say that in addition to the alco-test, several other measures to reduce the accidents were put in place, such as; car-speed limits, helmets and new tougher penalties for drunk driving. However the number of accidents has remained high due to drunk driving, the police insist.
Sharif Gatete, a taxi manager at Nyabugogo main taxi park agreed that in urban centers, such as Kigali, Gakenke and Rubavu, some drivers drink too much and yet have to drive all day or night.
“Night times are particularly dangerous because of the excess speed resulting generally from alcohol consumption,” he says.
Some drivers say in rural areas, where roads are in a far worse condition than those in urban centers, speed levels are slower.
“With this new method the police have introduced, we hope our kids can be safe on the roads. The alcohol test method is good and we hope it’s effective,” Gatete said.
Musa Nsengiyunva, from Nyamirambo, a suburb in Kigali said the alcohol tests are a good measure to reduce the occurrence of accidents and improve safety on the roads.
“However the police needs to get enough kits so that each person can have their own tubes in which they blow otherwise we are likely to fall sick because of sharing these instruments” Nsengiyunva said.
Rwabidadi Daniel, the regular driver on the Kigali-Ruhengeri road also said he wondered whether the alco-test tubes were free from TB, HIV and other related illnesses.
However, the police spokesperson said that the claims that many people used the same tubes were unfounded.
“We have enough equipment and each person uses their own tubes. Police is aware of the health dangers that can result from sharing such instruments and therefore we can’t take that risk on the population,” Kayiranga says.
He added that the police now have the capacity to cover all the parts of the country to track down those that are drunk while driving and that those captured will not escape the law.
“The law has always been there and enforced but we intend to put in more effort since we now have a modern equipment to get all those who drink and drive.
“The need to reduce the number of road accidents in the country remains a big concern,” he said.
Dr Willson Rubanzana the Director of Medical Services said that, there were no health threats posed by the alco-test as long as they were used in the appropriate way and hygienically.
“Police traffic officers are trained on how to use the equipment, and we believe they are efficient and help a great deal in reducing accidents.
“So far we have not registered any complaints resulting from the use of the breathalyzers and at least accidents seem to have reduced. There are a few cases coming to us since the breathalyzer was introduced but it’s too early to give statistics since the method is still new,” Rubanzana said.