Road safety chiefs last night accused gardai of failing to adequately police drink drivers over Christmas as new figures confirmed the lowest number of arrests in five years.
Garda statistics, to be published this week, will reveal the number of drink-driving arrests this festive season dropped by more than 50 per cent since random breath testing was introduced in 2006.
Meanwhile, road deaths soared by 17 per cent last year, to 198 people -- the first rise in fatalities in seven years.
The figures come against the backdrop of evidence that indicates a noticeable reduction in garda visibility on our roads.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has taken issue with claims that Garda enforcement levels have dropped. He said the reason fewer people were being breath tested at the roadside was because motorists' behaviour had improved.
But yesterday Gay Byrne, the chairman of the Road Safety Authority (RSA), told the Sunday Independent: "The whole bloody country is coming up to me and saying 'Gaybo, we know there are no Garda checkpoints because we never see them'."
Also last night, a cabinet colleague of Mr Shatter concurred: "It is clear as day more people are taking a chance. There are more cars parked outside pubs because enforcement is down," the minister told the Sunday Independent.
Byrne's view is also supported by the AA, which has examined the issue of garda presence on the roads: "I think that Gay Byrne's analysis is correct. It's probably a little simplistic to draw a straight line of cause and effect between that and the fact that roads deaths went up last year, but I think we are deluding ourselves if we don't admit that it must have been a factor," Conor Faughnan said.
In a recent AA survey of 26,000 motorists, 72 per cent felt that the garda presence on the roads had reduced.
Final drink-driving figures for Christmas, to be published this week, are expected to show the total number of arrests down over 50 per cent since random breath testing was introduced in July 2006.
Garda figures from December 1 to 19 reveal that 413 people were arrested for drink driving and 26,500 people were breath tested, which broadly tallies with recent years.
However, in an era of smart technology, issues exist as to the effectiveness of garda checkpoints.
Since 2006 gardai are allowed, in certain circumstances, to breathalyse drivers without the need to have formed the opinion that the driver had consumed alcohol.
Gardai can set up a mandatory alcohol testing checkpoint in a public place -- on main roads, outside pubs or nightclubs or anywhere they feel will reduce the number of drink drivers on the road -- as long as it is authorised by a garda inspector.
Byrne said: "These days, with iPhones and iPads and everything else, within about 15 minutes to half an hour, most motorists will know where a checkpoint has been set up."
Fianna Fail transport spokesman Timmy Dooley yesterday said the "recent failure" to adequately resource gardai in patrolling the road network had eroded enforcement levels and "inevitably led to a substantial rise in road deaths".
He said it was "deeply disingenuous" of the Government to "evade" the real reasons behind this rise.
Mr Dooley also said Byrne "should not be brow beaten" by Mr Shatter "attempting to avoid responsibility".
However, Mr Shatter has said Byrne's logic is completely wrong. "If you look at the statistics over the last five years, in the context of garda checkpoints, there has been in each of the last five years a reduction in numbers detected driving above the limit.
"The reduction in the number detected is a consequence of two things: the very good work done by the Road Safety Authority in highlighting to people not to drink and drive, and the very good work done by gardai in the substantial number of checkpoints.
"In the context of testing individuals, far fewer are over the limit. You don't test people where there is no indication of any description that they may be over the limit. It would be an indication of a lack of success if there was an increase in the numbers being tested."