13 May 2017

Ethiopia: Breathalyser - Poison for Some, Food for Others

opinion

Reopened 15 years ago, Good Times Bar and Restaurant is one of the known big restaurants located in the heart of Piassa, along Dej. Atewerk Street. The two-storey Bar is a gathering place for many middle and high-class adults coming from different directions of the city. It offers drinks, fast food and live music for customers. At night time, it owns the business.

After the introduction of the breathalyser in Addis, a device used to measure the amount of alcohol in the blood of drivers, the bar has seen its number of clients decline by half, affecting its profit adversely.

"We do not evacuate chairs and tables on the floors, a routine we used to do early in the night when customers were many, which has now become history," says Getachew Mulualem, owner of Good Times.

Getachew, who has been in the US for two decades, believes that the actions of the city administration to put such kinds of alcoholic limits are exaggerated and strictly happened out of the blue.

"A look at the experience of the US, traffic police use physical examination such as walk and turn, one-leg stand and other related stands, which can minimise exaggeration," said Getachew. "The Ethiopian experience is a bit overambitious."

The breathalyser came to scene nine months ago following the launch of the first ever public traffic awareness campaign, supported and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Its rationale was to reduce the number of road accidents in Addis Abeba, which kills an average of 400 people every year. The campaign started in partnership with the five-year Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety.

As a first move to reduce traffic accidents, 55 breathalysers, imported from Europe at a cost of over 200,000 Br, were first rolled out in the streets of Addis as a pilot test. Surprisingly, only a few hours of a Saturday night's random testing proved the shocking reality. About 46 drivers out of 400 were drunk-driving, passing by the alcohol limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood.

Afterwards, Addis Ababa City Police Commission, shocked by the results, culminated the pilot enforcement and announced the official implementation of the breathalyser across the ten sub-cities as of March 29, 2017.

Ever since the night of that day, nightlife in the city has changed, for good and for bad, making the breath alcohol tester a poison for some and food for others. So many bars and night clubs especially those visited by middle and high-class customers started, all of a sudden, trembling from the unanticipated low customer turnouts.

"It is hard to work under such circumstances," said Getachew, explaining the drop in customers in his bar.

Conversely, when the breathalysers came into effect aggressively two months ago, a new wave of business, employing night cabs after boozing, changed the city's nightlife and has made the night cab business yield much better returns.

At Bole, nothing is different. Cabs are busy sweetening their earnings. Most cab drivers have leveraged better income compared to the time before breathalysers were introduced in the city.

"My income was about less than 500 Br in a night; now it has doubled. And my clients are more sober than they used to be," says Robel Teklu, a cab driver who has worked around Bole for more than three years. "The spike in night customers has encouraged me to work late in the streets and sleep more during the day."

The same goes around Piassa and Arat Kilo, other parts of the city; when Addis sleeps, cab businesses do not stop breathing till the night lasts.

Meanwhile, the city's night cab drivers unanimously agree that the breathalyser has reduced car accidents and fired up their business.

Girma Tessema, deputy commander at Addis Abeba Police Commission Traffic Department, shares the sentiment forwarded by the cab drivers, calling the breathalyser a cause for the decline of the city's harsh traffic accidents.

"There were nights without any report of traffic accidents, which is unprecedented," he said, explaining the drop in accidents, which killed at least one person a day.

Before the breathalyser, over the past two years, there were at least two traffic accidents in Addis Abeba every hour, one of the highest in the world.

"The breathalyser has succeeded in affecting the behaviour of drivers," said the deputy commander.

So far, the city's Traffic Department has tested around 2,600 drivers, of which 1,154 were found drunk below the maximum limit. The department has punished 358 of the drivers, who were drunk above the limit, with punishment ranging from a 300 Br fine to confiscation of their car for the night.

Foreigners in Addis are part of the story. Around seven of them have been found driving late at night while drunk to illegal levels and were punished based on the regulation.

However, these positive developments, being an ill-fated episode, have brought no good outcome for some business owners. The bar and nightclub businesses have ghastly hit low since the breathalyser. This has agonised many business owners and workers in Addis.

Located in Bole District at Friendship Mall, Cellar Bar and Restaurant is nearly an empty bar in the middle of the night. Founded in 2015, Cellar has been in danger after null customer attendance which was observed after the breathalyser took effect in the city.

"A week before the breathalyser, close to 60 customers would have visited us, now only about 20 customers use our bar services," said Worku Haile, manager of Cellar, who also owns Cork Weyn Bar around CMC.

Some businesses such as Cellar are on the verge of closure until an improvement is seen in the coming months. Some bars have already started to reduce the number of workers after the losses or low yields caused by the breathalyser.

"Who would run empty bars?" Worku said.

The same has happened in many other bars and night clubs. Chechnya, an area that is known for night time businesses, used to witness at least 50 cars at once. Now, it is becoming hard for many to see vehicles parking to get services of bars and night clubs.

"Fearing the penalty caused by drunk-driving, potential customers started to fade away after the testing began," said a commercial sex worker, who works in a bar around Chechnya. "It, however, did not kill the business as some of the customers prefer to use cabs."

Five friends, who are hanging out in nightclubs have mixed feelings about the breathalyser. They believe that the breathalyser is not short of errors.

"I took the sobriety test in Meskel Flower after my two friends and I finished two Gold Labels and I was in a high state. But, I was told to move on as they said I was not drunk beyond 0.4," says Henok Wasihun, looking at his friends who were part of the scene being in a high state like him.

In any case, if applied free of errors like this, the breathalyser is a wonderful introduction to our modern life, according to Henok and his friends. Now with a fall in drunken stupors, it is keeping mental and physiological calmness around bars and nightclubs, which were omnipresent challenges in those places.

"The breathalyser creates a civilised way of recreation; it enlightens enjoyment, and makes our lives modern," Henok commented.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Transport is planning to entrench the new system nationwide, with the aim of reducing deaths and injuries caused by traffic accidents. Some cities such as Hawassa and Meqelle have already witnessed the encouraging effects of the breathalyser.

Although the decline in traffic accidents is very appreciative for many, there are even more changes on the way aimed to reduce the number of accidents. The city's administration has a plan to amplify the alcohol testing crew of traffic police by 133pc. While the number of accidents is expected to fall in the future, whether night time businesses will be able to survive remains to be seen.

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