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DUI tragedy forces Russians to rethink penalties

MOSCOW — It took a weekend road tragedy to jolt Russia into action over one of its most deadly threats: a chronic culture of drunken driving.

Five orphaned teens were waiting for a bus with their guardians in Moscow on Saturday when a car careened into them, killing all seven people. Grief turned to outrage when it emerged that the driver was heavily drunk and had a string of traffic violations on his record — including an arrest two years ago for driving under the influence.

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Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and lawmakers have reacted with proposals to stiffen penalties on drunken drivers, and Parliament debated the measures on Tuesday. But with bribery so commonplace and road laws rarely enforced, many wonder whether even the toughest response can change a deep-set culture of reckless driving.

After the crash, police video shows, Alexander Maximov stumbled out of his Toyota sedan, which he had been driving at 125 miles per hour, bloodied and barely able to stand. He appeared in court Monday with his head wounds dressed, but still wearing the blood-speckled sweatshirt from the day of the accident.

The punishment for killing while driving drunk in Russia is stiff: Maximov, 30, faces up to nine years in prison. But lawmakers are debating whether to make jail sentences even harsher.

Even President Vladimir Putin weighed in Tuesday, demanding tougher punishments and condemning Maximov’s apparent blithe indifference after the crash.

‘‘This criminal, he’s a killer in fact, when speaking to investigators just said: ‘I always do what I want,’ ’’ Putin said. ‘‘There are some things for which people just must be punished.’’

Many Russians are furious that Maximov, who already had a DUI penalty on his license from 2010, was allowed back onto the roads in the first place. Drunken driving is punishable in Russia by suspension of the driver’s license for up to two years. In much of the West, by comparison, drunken driving is punished with jail time, heavy fines, and reeducation courses.

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