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The Breathalyzer is roiling the holiday spirit in Nairobi

NAIROBI, Kenya—This holiday season, a new terror is stalking the streets of this East African capital: the Breathalyzer.

Just say the word in a Nairobi bar and faces droop. Drinkers nervously scan the empty beer bottles in front of them. Some curse. Others complain bitterly about the cost of a cab ride home.

The introduction this month of Kenya's first Breathalyzers—long used in Western countries to test drivers' blood-alcohol levels but relatively new in Africa—has sparked an outcry in a country where driving while intoxicated is, while not explicitly tolerated, certainly commonplace.

It's even something of a national punch line; drinkers commonly say: "My car knows the way home."

Police are trotting out Breathalyzers at a time when bars and nightclubs are packed fuller and later than usual with people celebrating the holidays. The alcohol-fueled revelry, combined with the sorry state of many of Nairobi's roads and vehicles, is a deadly mix. Kenya has one of the world's highest roadway death rates—more than 3,000 a year for a population of 30 million.

In 2004, there were 42,000 traffic deaths in the United States, but Americans travel much more and much farther on the roads than Kenyans do.

Failing the breath test carries a $140 fine, jail time and the suspension of the driver's license. One recent week alone, police nabbed 130 drunken drivers.

The devices are supposed to register a person as drunk after he's had the equivalent of two and a half beers. To some Kenyans, that's an insult. Like many African countries, this is a land of big drinkers, for whom pounding a dozen beers in a sitting—then driving home—isn't unusual.

"Who's going to take three beers and go home?" asked an incredulous Steve Chege, 31, a used-car dealer, as he lingered over his third Tusker—the best-selling national beer—in a downtown Nairobi bar one recent evening.

"Beer affects people in different ways. Some people could be totally drunk after half a glass. Me, I could be all right after two crates." A crate is 25 beers.

Chege and two friends had come for drinks after work, as they do three to four nights a week. He recalled the time when the police stopped him for driving recklessly after a long night out a few years ago.

"It was me and four friends in the car, and we were all high," he said, using slang for drunk. "The cop stopped us. He wanted a bribe. I said all I had was 20 bob"—about 25 cents.

Then the cop noticed two open beer bottles in the backseat. The cop took the tiny bribe—and the beer—and sent them on their way, Chege said.

Some Kenyan men toss around war stories like this with bravado. Drunken driving doesn't carry the stigma here that it does in some Western countries, and concepts such as the designated driver have yet to catch on. Among men, it's a sign of weakness to give up your car keys.

"Guys are used to driving themselves home no matter what," said Gideon Njoroge, 29, a telemarketer.

Plus, taxis are relatively expensive. While a Tusker sells for about $1 in most Nairobi bars, a 10-minute cab ride could run nearly $10.

Kenya's use of Breathalyzers follows their introduction in neighboring Uganda last year. Sold in the United States under the brand name Alcoblow, Kenya's machines are meant to detect blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 and above, same as the U.S. legal limit. Police purchased 12 for the country and deployed 10 in Nairobi, a city of 1.5 million people and 350,000 cars. (Santa Clara county in California, by comparison, had 1.7 million people and 1.25 million cars in 2000.)

"We have a lot of people in this country who are just taking beer without bothering with safety," said Kenya's top traffic cop, Commandant Daudi Kyalo. "We want them to take safety as a serious issue."

But the Breathalyzers were scarcely out of their packaging before Kenyans began looking for ways to beat the test. Nairobi is rife with theories about what could mask the trace of alcohol—bananas, antacid powder, toothpaste, even copper coins.

And police admit that drivers are already alerting one another by cell phone messages when they come across a checkpoint.

"They have only 10 Alcoblows. We are 12 steps ahead of them," said Ken Kimani, a dealer of auto parts.

Some Kenyans resent what they see as police paternalism during the holiday season. As Kimani watched from his table near the bar, a band interrupted its singing to announce to the patrons, "It's Christmas. Forget about two beers!'"

"This is the time of year when you should be free to drink as much as you can," said Sammy Waweru, a mechanic. "For me, when I take five beers, I feel good, not drunk."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KENYA-BREATHALYZER

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