Kerala woke up to the grim news of a journalist who was killed in a road accident on Saturday. Basheer, the Thiruvananthapuram bureau chief of Siraj newspaper, was hit by a car which, police officers and eyewitnesses say, was driven by Survey Director Sriram Venkitaraman IAS in the wee hours of Saturday.
Though Basheer was rushed to the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College hospital, he passed away by the time they reached.
Sriram sustained minor injuries and has been admitted to the KIMS hospital, where the police have recorded his statement. His blood has been drawn for testing blood alcohol limits to ascertain if he was driving under the influence of alcohol when the accident occurred. Though it is yet to be confirmed, one of the eyewitnesses of the accident had posted on social media that the driver of the car was heavily inebriated.
Timing of test - a crucial factor
In cases of suspected drunk driving, timing can prove to be a crucial factor in determining whether the person at the wheels was under the influence of alcohol when he or she caused the accident.
A retired Additional Superintendent of Police says that the driver must be secured and taken to a government hospital for a medical test within 24 hours of the accident.
Adding that there are different levels of alcohol influence that the doctors categorise the accused into, the ADSP says, “One category is ‘Consumed alcohol and unable to drive vehicle’, second one is ‘consumed alcohol and is conscious’ and the last level is ‘only smell of alcohol but no symptoms of alcohol disorder’,” he explains.
Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act (Driving by a drunken person or by a person under the influence of drugs) will be added to the FIR if the accused falls under the first two categories.
Consent of the accused
The ADSP, however, says that consent of the accused, if not inebriated, is necessary before extracting body fluids from him or her.
Another senior police officer in Tamil Nadu police confirms this but adds that if the accused is in an ebriated condition, then his consent is not mandatory since he will be considered incapable of giving consent.
Moreover, according to Section 204 (2) (b) of the Motor Vehicles Act, if the person having been required, whether at the hospital or elsewhere, to provide a specimen of breath for a breath test, has refused, omitted or failed to do so, a police officer can take blood sample if he or she has reasonable cause to suspect the accused of having alcohol in the blood.
In the Kerala case, the Police Commissioner had initially told the media that Sriram had refused to give a blood sample. He kept insisting that they cannot do so without Sriram's consent and need to follow certain legal procedure. However, what the Commissioner failed to factor in was section 204 (2) (b) of the Motor Vehicles Act, which gives the police the authority to take blood sample if the person refuses consent.
In practice, police officers generally coax the accused to give the samples for testing if they suspect drunk driving.
“Actually in any case, if an accident happens on the road, we arrest the driver. Drunken or otherwise. We then take him to a government hospital and coax him to give samples for the medical test to ascertain if he was driving under the influence of alcohol,” says another police officer who works in the Traffic division in Tamil Nadu.
Breathalyser tests are the basic results which the police fall back on, given the delay involved in taking blood alcohol tests. “If the breathalyzer results show alcohol levels above 30mg per 100ml of blood, then we file the FIR under section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act as well. When breathalyzer machines are not available, then police depend on blood and urine test results to add that section in the FIR,” he explains.
When people suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol are brought to a hospital, the physician starts with simple tests on the suspects.
“The examination of the accused by doctors is done in two stages. One is the subjective exam which is checking the pupillary response (response of the pupils of the eye) of the accused, making him speak to see if his speech is slurred and asking him to walk a few steps to see if he is physically stable. The lab tests are a method to ascertain the blood alcohol levels objectively,” a doctor working in Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital in Chennai told TNM.
Poorvisha Ravi, a Scientific Officer in the Department of Forensic Sciences, Tamil Nadu, says that the results will be different in every case since the alcohol content keeps decreasing inside the body as time lapses.
“Honestly, alcohol is metabolised completely in about four to six hours in the body. It means that it becomes difficult to trace after that point and the traceability becomes more tough as time lapses. However, the urine test can be a better gauge to test alcohol traces in the body since it is not eliminated immediately and is collected and stored for quite a while within the body,” says.
Adding that there are legal limits set for considering a person as driving under the influence of alcohol, the labs generally do not interpret the results. “We have machines that detect alcohol traces from 20mg to 350mg per 100ml of blood. The range is pretty wide. We report whatever we find in the body fluid sample irrespective of what the law says. We leave the interpretation of those results to the medical officer or the court,” she adds.