MOSCOW - Rattled by a horrific traffic accident in Moscow, Russian authorities have finally turned their attention to strengthening the country’s laws against drunk driving.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia needed to implement a stricter penalty for drunk driving and called it the biggest issue in Russia.

On September 22, a man was driving at 190 kilometers per hour on a city street when he lost control of his Toyota and crashed into a bus stop, killing seven, including five teens,  and injuring 10 others.

Blood tests showed the driver had a high alcohol level before he admitted he had been drinking for two days straight.

According to current Russian law, drunk driving is punishable by up to two years suspension of a driver’s license. If the driver doesn't have a license, he or she faces either administrative arrest or a modest fine of less than $200. Drivers can face jail time if they cause an accident -- up to nine years in prison if more than two people are killed, like in the recent Moscow accident. 

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson echoed Medvedev’s position about the need for stricter punishment of drunk drivers. The leader of the United Russia ruling party said he would suggest fines of at least $3,000. But not all members of United Russia agree. Some say there should be a more thorough debate on the issue. The Liberal Democratic Party, on the other hand, is backing a law that would confiscate the drunk driver's car.

A recent rise

According to police data, the number of drunk drivers has been steadily increasing in the past two years. In the past eight months the number of accidents caused by drunk drivers rose by 3.5%. In that time, there were 152 alcohol related accidents in Moscow, which caused 15 deaths. And Moscow is far from being the worst city in Russia: in the Krasnoyarsk region there were 433 drunk driving accidents over the same period.

Some worry that stricter laws will mean serious punishment even for drivers who don’t drink, since Russia’s laws don’t specify a blood alcohol level at which one is considered drunk. United Russia lawmakers think that establishing specific criteria for drunk drivers is essential to the success of a stricter law. A threshold is important because human blood will always contain some alcohol, which could be detected in blood tests. Russia had an alcohol limit until 2010, but then-President Medvedev thought drivers interpreted the law to mean they could drink up to that point, and changed the law to zero-tolerance. 

On the other hand, people who knowingly drink and drive might not be deterred by the new law at all. The police say people who regularly drive under the influence and accumulate suspended licenses for years simply ignore the sanctions (such as the driver in the recent accident in Moscow, whose license had been suspended in 2010 for drunk driving).

In the past two years, more than 18,000 drivers have had their license suspended for drunk driving. Among those drivers, some had been punished for drunk driving 100 times or put in administrative arrest 16 times for driving without a license. “The law has no effect on this type of person, so we need to take a completely different approach with them. If they can't stop themselves from drinking and driving, they need to be under the strict control of the courts and medical staff,” says Victor Nilov, the head of the Moscow police department.

Since July 2012, the police consider such drivers as sick, just like drug addicts.