Harsher sentences sought for drunken driving
Korea ranked No. 1 among the 33 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), excluding Chile, with the most traffic accident fatalities in 2012.
The country recorded 10.8 traffic accident casualties per every 100,000 people in 2012, significantly higher than the OECD average of 6.5 casualties per 100,000 people.
That same year, 2.4 out of 10,000 drivers died, putting Korea second after Turkey among OECD countries when counting the number of traffic accident fatalities per 10,000 drivers.
Of Korea’s traffic-related fatalities last year, 12.6 percent, or 583 deaths, resulted from drunken driving. Despite the prevalence of taxis and chauffeur services in Korea, there were only nine fewer drunken-driving casualties last year from the record in 2014.
Yet, legal consequences in Korea have remained comparably lax, allowing drunken drivers to get away without paying the consequences for their reckless driving, which puts at risk not only their own lives but the lives of others.
Those who cause death or injury by drunken driving are usually sentenced to one to two years in prison, or their sentences are suspended.
Last month, a 28-year-old man surnamed Heo crashed into a truck while driving under the influence of alcohol, killing a street sweeper. A Chuncheon court sentenced him to one year and six months in prison, with a three-year suspension.
Heo was completely intoxicated at the time of accident: A breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol level at 0.157 percent ? a level that calls for a person’s license to be revoked.
However, he avoided prison when the case was settled with the family of the deceased.
Last July, Seoul Western District Court sentenced another drunken driver, a 59-year-old man surnamed Gwak, who killed one person on the road, to 10 months in prison with a two-year suspension, despite the fact that the defendant had a record of drunken driving.
“From the standpoint of the victims in drunken-driving accidents, it’s like being killed in a mass murder, unprovoked and random,” said Han Moon-cheol, a lawyer who specializes in accident cases. “The prosecution’s requests and court’s pronouncements of sentences have been strikingly lenient.”
But that’s set to change, according to Kim.
“Drunken drivers who inflicted fatalities should be sentenced with punishments similar to that of murderers,” the public prosecutor-general said Tuesday at an executive meeting of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Korea would be wise to follow the example set in Japan, said Kim, where a Saitama court sentenced a drunken driver who killed two people and injured seven others to 16 years in prison. The fellow passenger was sentenced to two years.
“I have never heard of the passenger of a drunken driver getting indicted,” he said. “Korea should set a new standard in executing appropriate sentences on drunken driving.”
A spokesman of Supreme Prosecutors’ Office interpreted Kim’s remarks as indicating that “laws could be amended to fit the public’s call for appropriate sentencing.”
“Once the prosecution heightens its sentencing requests, the courts will exercise more discretion in their rulings,” a court official said. “There have also been active discussions in court on extending punishments to the passengers with drunken drivers.”
The idea that the legal consequences for drunken driving be strengthened has gained traction in recent months. In a petitioned case involving an intoxicated man caught driving a truck in a maintenance facility, the Constitutional Court ruled in late February that drunken driving in areas not designated as roads was still legally punishable. At the time, the man’s blood alcohol level was 0.1 percent.
On March 1, a female police officer in Daegu was found to have been driving drunk after she was involved in a minor collision. The woman’s blood alcohol level at the time was 0.16 percent, enough for authorities to revoke her license. She is currently undergoing a hearing inspection.
Kim also called for harsher crackdowns on election illegalities in light of the upcoming general election on April 13. The prosecution had booked 473 lawmakers as of March 4 - a 38.7 percent increase from this time last year.
BY SEO BOK-HYEON, JANG HYUK-JIN, ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]