Drink driving hasn't gone away - thousands of suspects were stopped just last week
Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30
For as long as we can recall, alcohol - the demon drink - has been the drug of choice for the Irish. It has been condemned as the "root of all evil" by those who disapprove of its collateral damage in terms of public health, violence, the destruction of relationships, economic and sexual recklessness, road safety and general devastation of lives.
Irish people have fallen victim to its dubious charms. So much so that the Irish term for fun is in effect "craic" or drink-fuelled fun.
Being a drunk has become part of the Irish "character". Presidents and dignitaries come to Ireland and are photographed with a pint of Guinness. The Irish whiskey section of the Dublin Airport shop is extensive. Alcohol is a major export.
Alcohol drink sales amount to €6bn with an average annual consumption of 11 litres of pure alcohol per person.
Advertising on alcohol amounts to €24m. The drinks industry has, through its political clout, managed to deviate successive governments' attempts to limit below-cost selling of alcohol and sponsorship of sports. It opposes minimum unit pricing.
As Kim Bielenberg concluded in a series of articles in this newspaper, we are literally "under the influence of the drinks industry."
Poets, patriots, artists, musicians… All the wonderful creative types that weave the fabric of romantic Ireland have either lived, loved and died under its influence. The great Irish playwrights have relied upon it for inspiration, excellence and productivity.
Is this cultural hold on us inevitable? In recent years, society and the Government are waking up to the disastrous cost to our health system.
Mental health, too, is linked to alcohol abuse. With youth suicide rates at epidemic levels, there are clear links to alcohol abuse
Perhaps the most public initiative taken against alcohol abuse is in the nature of tackling drink driving and its contribution to car crashes. The Road Safety Authority, which was established in 2006, has a track record in advocacy awareness and education in this regard. Through a strategic approach to reducing fatalities and serious injury on our roads, road deaths are down by 65.7pc (1997-2012) and Ireland is now the sixth safest country in the EU for road safety, along with Germany and Slovakia, at 41 deaths per million population.
This achievement should be seen against a 66pc increase in the number of cars using the road. When the costs of fatalities and serious injuries are analysed, the economic benefits to society are conservatively estimated to be over €1bn a year. The best-performing countries for road safety are the UK, Netherlands, Sweden and Australia.
In 2005, the year before the Road Safety Authority was set up, 365 people died on our roads. Last year, the figure was 196. This is as a result of a cross-cutting strategy, better roads, more education, better enforcement of road traffic laws, and mandatory alcohol testing. The latter measure has been a major contributor to reducing the incidence of alcohol-related crashes from 40pc in the early part of the last decade to 15pc today. The lowering of the drink-drive limit and tougher penalties have had a profound effect on the attitudes and behaviour of most of us.
But we shouldn't for a moment think that the drink-driving problem has gone away. Far from it. Last week alone, 13,652 drivers were stopped on suspicion of drink driving. Some people still drink and drive and are not put off by the threat of enforcement. Others have chronic alcohol problems.
Serious consideration is now ongoing to take a different approach with those convicted of drink driving. In the North, an alternative sentencing system involves driving education and rehabilitation courses. The evidence is that the likelihood of reoffending is 1.6 times higher if the offender does not complete the drink-drive rehabilitation course.
So a similar proposal is being proposed by the RSA to the Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe. Such courses would have to be paid for by the offender and, if completed satisfactorily, they could contribute to a reduction in the period of driving disqualification.
In Scandinavian countries, more robust strategies are in place, such as 'alco-lock' devices in vehicles of those who are repeat offenders. This is also being considered by our researchers in the RSA.
For too long, the issue of drug-impaired driving was ignored by the authorities, although the figures show that one in 10 drivers killed in crashes have traces of drugs as well as drink.
Tackling drug-impaired driving is more complicated than drink driving. Last December, the Minister launched a roadside field impairment test. It is a bit like the "walk the line" sobriety test in the movies. It provides gardaí with additional powers to test drivers who they suspect of driving under the influence of drugs.
The next step will be the introduction of a roadside chemical test, modelled on the mandatory alcohol screening. This is being legislated for at the moment and we hope to see it in use by the end of the year.
Since most crashes involve young men, the focus in terms of enforcement and awareness will be on them.
Many drug drivers see little risk of apprehension. They can even delude themselves that they are even better drivers while under the influence of drugs.
The law is playing catch-up when it comes to outlawing drug-impaired driving. But the threat of disqualification or worse is a serious one for young people who value their mobility very highly.
Before long, young hearts and minds will deplore drugs and driving in the same way as alcohol and driving is socially frowned upon.