Young drivers are failing 'morning after' spot checks
Novice drivers are failing random breath checks after even moderate drinking the night before
A disturbing number of young people are being caught drink-driving on the morning after the night before, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
Binge-drinking and the new lower legal limits for inexperienced drivers mean hundreds of under-25s are at risk of picking up potentially life-changing convictions.
Alcohol awareness and road safety officials say the trend is a wake-up call not only for young drivers but for all road users.
"We've had people who thought they were being good and took a taxi home and drank water for the last hour, but they're still being caught over the limit at 7.30am next morning," said AA Ireland spokesman Conor Faughnan.
Last year, gardai conducted 397,513 breathalyser tests during more than 78,000 random spot checks, resulting in 7,697 charges for drink-driving offences.
Up to the end of June this year 3,679 motorists were charged with drink-driving offences after 39,573 spot checks were mounted and 175,576 breath tests were conducted.
Garry O'Rourke, of Quote Devil insurance, said he fields two dozen calls a week from young people aged 18 to 25 who have endorsements for drink- driving offences.
In most cases they have been breathalysed on the morning after a heavy drinking session.
They are desperate to get back on the road, but find few insurance companies are willing to cover them.
"I always have a chat and ask them what happened, and it could be typically just nipping to the shop at 10am," said Mr O'Rourke.
Since October 2011, in- experienced drivers have been subject to a "virtual zero" blood alcohol content (BAC) of 20mgs of alcohol per 100ml of blood.
Other motorists, aside from professional drivers, are subject to new lower BAC limits of 50mgs per 100mls, down from the previous legal level of 80mgs.
Now even one pint of beer or a small glass of wine can put drivers over the legal limit, depending on their size, the amount of food they have consumed and other factors.
Even though gardai are arresting some young drivers outside pubs and clubs, they are more likely to be breathalysed the following morning in random spot checks between 8am and 10am, said Mr O'Rourke.
"They're getting caught unawares," he said. "I think the anti-drink-driving ads have drilled it into people's heads. But they're getting caught when they don't think they'll get caught."
In many cases, the drivers genuinely do not believe they are drunk or are breaking the law; they are simply driving to the shops or to work the following morning while not realising they are still over the limit.
What many drivers do not realise is that they can still be drunk in the morning, even after a night's sleep, said Mr Faughnan.
"If you wake up in the morning and you're hungover, there's a reason. Legally, you're still drunk," he said.
While AA Ireland would prefer that gardai conducted random breath tests at night when there are more likely to be drunk drivers on the road, and statistically more fatal road accidents occur, Mr Faughnan said drivers should be aware that if they drink the night before, "don't expect to be able to use your car the next day".
It typically takes an hour to process one unit of alcohol, which is the equivalent of about half-a-pint of standard beer or a small glass of wine at 12.5pc alcohol volume.
Even the alcohol in a moderate two pints would take four hours to clear out of the bloodstream.
The problem, however, is that many young people are not drinking moderately, and the 18 to 24 age group has the highest level of alcohol dependency and binge-drinking in Ireland, said Alcohol Action Ireland spokesman Conor Cullen.
"In that age group, the Health Research Board found that 28pc of young men and 22pc of young women consume their weekly low-risk guidelines - 17 standard drinks for men and 11 for women - in just one sitting," he said.
Not only are young people drinking more than their older counterparts, they are less able to tolerate alcohol, more likely to underestimate their level of intoxication and more likely to engage in risk-taking, such as driving over the limit.
Add inexperience behind the wheel and it is a deadly combination, said Mr Cullen.
"It's clear that the younger a drink-driver is, the greater their risk of being involved in road traffic collisions than their older, more experienced counterparts," he said.
Road Safety Authority spokesman Brian Farrell said all drivers - not only the young who are subject to lower blood-alcohol thresholds - should be aware that the tighter restrictions mean everyone who drives after drinking the night before could be over the limit.
That is the case even if they would never consider driving immediately after drinking.
"People may be doing the right thing the night before and then unwittingly be stopped the next day," said Mr Cullen.