The changes to the law provide for criminal liability and confiscation of cars for drunk drivers with an alcohol concentration of more than 1.5 permilles. In the first month with this stiffer penalty in place, a total of 215 drivers have already been caught under the influence of alcohol (96 heavily drunk and 119 driving drunk without a license).
Along with the start of criminal proceedings, confiscation of vehicles has been launched and cars are piling up in official parking lots, with the likelihood that it may soon be necessary to find additional places to store seized cars.
According to Arturs Smilga, deputy head of the Traffic Safety Department of the State Police, it may take some time before driver behavior changes .
"It should be taken into account that in about a third of the total number, about 100 more cases where administrative cases have been initiated, where the vehicle was driven under the influence of alcohol. The average statistics are about 300 drunk drivers per month. It looks like this - everything is still as bad as it has been so far," said Smilga.
Nine more people were caught on suspicion of using narcotic substances, while 12 people refused the tests, which also means that criminal proceedings will be started immediately.
Smilga stated: "In December, we have a record of 3.81 permille [in a driver's blood alcohol concentration], but from the point of view of the law, the most important thing is that it exceeds 1.5 permille. It should also be taken into account that approximately two-thirds of all vehicle drivers, where it has been established that sat behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol, exceed one and a half permille. This is already a strong intoxication. Regarding 3.81 permille, then it is likely that alcohol has just been drunk or drinking has been taking place for several days."
Most often, drunk drivers are caught in and around the capital where traffic flows and police patrols are more intense than elsewhere. Even so, Smilga says many drivers still believe the chance of getting caught is low, so are willing to risk getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Smilga said: "Driving under the influence is one of the [police's] top priorities every month, if not the main one. The most important goal is to prevent these drivers from taking part in traffic. During the holiday season, we work in an increased mode, involving the maximum number of police officers, directly controlling the traffic. We also know ourselves, that the police force is under-staffed. We cannot influence that, but despite this, we are able to keep the number of caught drunk drivers above 3,500 detected cases per year."
As reported earlier by LSM, Latvia's drunk-driving rates are among the worst in Europe with a staggering 3,500 drivers stripped of their licenses due to drunk driving in Latvia each year – equivalent to nearly 10 every single day. In total there around 875,000 active licenses in Latvia among the population of 1.9 million.
The residents interviewed by Latvian Radio in the streets of Riga believe that the amendments to the law were necessary, but do not see a significant improvement in the situation.
State Police representative Smilga hopes that the first results of the new amendments could be felt in the summer, provided the legal system supports police efforts to crack down on drunk driving.
Smilga explained: "When the critical mass grows, then maybe people will start to worry. Everything depends on how quickly these cases will be sent for criminal prosecution, how quickly the prosecutor's office and the court will apply these penalties when they come into force. I want to say, that by the middle of the summer we could already start judging whether the amendments to the law work or not."
The legal changes envisage not only bringing drunken drivers to criminal liability, but also confiscating their cars. If the vehicle does not belong to the drunk driver, then the police look for the owner of the car. The other hand, the amount of money in the full or partial value of the vehicle can recovered from the violator. The value of the vehicle is determined by the police, but the penalty is determined by the prosecutor's office, later by the court.
Smilga said: "Before Christmas, there was a case when the driver of the vehicle was driving a truck [while intoxicated]. The police valued the vehicle at just under one hundred thousand euros. It is clear that he will never be able to afford to pay this amount. I assume that the prosecutor's office and also the court in this case will not make him pay the full amount. The vehicle in this case was returned to the company which owned it, considering that there was still cargo inside. There are cases where the driver of the vehicle is the owner himself and says goodbye to his car on the spot. They can collect their personal belongings that don't form part of the vehicle itself, and that's all. Obviously, the steering wheel or the battery cannot not be taken from the car."
Smilga said that there have been such situations when a drunk driver demands the removal of new tires and other car parts from his vehicle, which, of course, does not happen.
Since the changes in the law came into force, the number of cars in official parking lots has increased considerably, stated Jānis Nebars, head of the Agency's Resource Management Department of the Forfeited Cases and Resources Management Department.
"The number of vehicles actually seized has approximately doubled. If in this period of 2021 there were 84 vehicles that were in administrative violation and criminal cases together, then in the same period of 2022 there are already 159 vehicles that the agency has taken over and stored," Nebars explained.
"The agency currently has more than 600 vehicles under its care and custody. The capacity we are currently ready for is an additional 250, bringing the total to 850 vehicles." Therefore, the agency may have to look for additional places to store impounded cars.
However, not only the number of seized machines is increasing, but also the duration of storage. If in the case of an administrative violation, cars are kept for an average of two weeks, then in criminal cases it could be a month or six weeks on average. Which in turn means that cars may start to pile up.
Offenders must pay 2.13 euros per day for storing a car, plus evacuation expenses. Costs can range from several tens of euros to several hundreds of euros. The State Security Agency predicts that car storage costs could increase in January. Previously the Ministry of Justice predicted that an average of 2,500 cars could be confiscated or their value recovered per year.
Meanwhile police will continue their anti- drunk driving measures over the New Year holiday, with anyone tempted to mix alcohol and the road warned that the loss of their car might be the least of the consequences of their actions.