Saturday 18 November 2017

Comment: No country in developed world deems it safe to drink and drive. That's just science

Danny Healy-Rae’s comments about drink driving have outraged road safety campaigners Photo: Don MacMonagle
Danny Healy-Rae’s comments about drink driving have outraged road safety campaigners Photo: Don MacMonagle
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

It's been a torrid few days for road safety campaigners. Proposals to impose an automatic three-month driving ban on motorists caught driving over the legal limit have been slammed by some TDs as sounding the death knell for rural Ireland.

Transport Minister Shane Ross wants anyone caught driving with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in their system - the legal limit is 50mg - to be put off the road, replacing a system which allowed errant drivers to pay a €200 fine and receive three penalty points.

He referenced data by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) which found that 35 deaths had occurred over a five-year period where drivers or motorcyclists deemed to have caused the fatal collision had between 20mg and 80mg of alcohol in their system.

This, he said, was proof that any amount of alcohol impaired a driver. The only way to reduce risk was to punish those who flouted the law and send the message that drink driving was not acceptable.

But it wasn't proof enough for some, in particular the Kerry TDs and brothers Danny and Michael Healy-Rae. Danny claimed that "nobody in my neck of the woods has caused a fatality after three glasses of Guinness" - an amount which would put many over the legal limit. Further arguments followed, that a motorist with a small amount of alcohol on board could be blamed for a variety of collisions including hitting a drunk pedestrian lying on the road, skidding on black ice, colliding with a car being driven on the wrong side of the road or hitting a walker who was forced onto the road due to overgrown shrubbery.

The comments caused fury among road safety campaigners, including the parents of four-year old Ciaran Treacy who was killed by drunk driver Finbarr O'Rourke on Holy Thursday 2014. His father Ronan accused Danny Healy-Rae of "thinking about the next election" with his comments, adding he was "incredibly selfish".

Michael Healy-Rae insisted the statistics were misleading. "If you analyse the actual figures, people are been misled in that if a person is a passenger on a bicycle, gets knocked down by a car and they have alcohol in their system, then it's counted as alcohol-related."

So what is the science, and how reliable are these statistics? Much of the data around impairment stems from a 1998 report by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Almost 180 studies from the 1950s to 1985 on alcohol effects on driving-related skills were reviewed, and it found that any amount of alcohol impaired.

Of the 11 functions required to drive, 10 were impaired at 40mg - below the legal limit - including attention, reaction time, vigilance and perception.

The RSA later completed a series of reports based on Garda forensic collision files, which are sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. They decide if a criminal charge should follow a collision. The RSA found that alcohol was a factor in 38pc of fatal crashes. It also discovered that between 2008 and 2012, 35 people were killed in collisions where the driver or motorcyclist had between 21mg and 80mg of alcohol. The motorist may have skidded on black ice, but had they no alcohol in their system they could have reacted quicker.

The science shows that even drivers under the legal limit are vulnerable. At 40mg, they are twice as likely to be involved in a collision. At 20mg, a young driver's crash risk more than doubles, in part because of inexperienced and they are less likely to cope well in a dangerous situation.

It's not just Ireland that heeds the science. No country in the developed world deems it safe to drink and drive.

The debate shouldn't be about whether it's unfair to be put off the road if you break the law, but why some feel they cannot socialise without drinking, and what transport services are needed to get rural people home safely.

Questioning the science will not keep people safe.

Irish Independent

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