Saturday 24 February 2018

Could Ireland take Poland's lead when it comes to punishing drink drivers?

Poland managed to reduce the number of fatalities on the country's roads by 23pc in six years

Carnage: The crash scene in which ex-Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek was killed in 2008. Poland began a crackdown on road casualties in 2015
Carnage: The crash scene in which ex-Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek was killed in 2008. Poland began a crackdown on road casualties in 2015

Graham Clifford

When it came in 2015 the wave of enforcement hit hard. It changed mindsets fast and the number of road fatalities rapidly started to drop.

For decades Poland had endured carnage on its roads. It had one of the highest death rates for traffic accidents in the European Union with 93 deaths per million persons per year compared with the EU average of 55. Drink-driving was seen as the biggest contributory factor and so something had to be done.

A crackdown was needed. In an nationwide, well-resourced and effective campaign almost half of all drivers were stopped and checked by police. And this wasn't over a single bank holiday weekend or during a particular month - this lasted for the year.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of alcohol roadside checks in Poland grew by 39pc each year. And they got tough in other areas, too. Between 2014 and 2015, Poland issued almost a quarter of a million tickets for illegal use of a mobile phone while driving.

As a result, a new perception was born - that if you get behind the wheel of a car and drive while over the limit or you decide to speed or use your mobile phone inappropriately, there's a 50-50 chance you'll get caught. And the punishments for those breaking road safety laws were heightened.

"We'd grown complacent as a country and as a population. People, especially young men, would not think twice about driving after drinking," explains Józef, a university student in the Polish city of Lublin.

"It's only in recent years that public transport has improved here - before, everyone thought they'd have to drive themselves even if they'd been drinking with their friends - and the police didn't seem to care. But over the last couple of years, things have changed. Less people are dying.

"When you drive, you often get stopped to take a breath test. It's good because lives are being saved and only the very stupid would dare drink and drive. We're learning and I think the police checkpoints are definitely working in Poland."

Now, those caught significantly over the drink-driving limit can expect to do some prison time and to receive a lifetime driving ban.

It marked a complete turnaround in a country where previously, 98pc of drivers convicted of drink-driving received suspended prison sentences for first offences. And 69pc of repeat offenders used to escape prison.

And everyone convicted of drink-driving is obliged to fit an alcolock to their car, which will prevent them from starting the engine if alcohol is detected.

The measure came into force in May 2015, and Poland became the latest European country to adopt it - following in the footsteps of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Austria is to introduce the alcohol interlocks this year.

Between 2010 and 2016, Poland managed to reduce the number of fatalities on the country's roads by 23pc. At the same time, Ireland has recorded an 11pc reduction. To be fair though, the Poles were late starters in the effort to reduce road death fatalities and their starting base was extremely high.

Key stakeholders in Poland have targeted a 50pc reduction in traffic-related fatalities and a 40pc reduction in injuries by 2020. As part of this effort, Poland, with support from the World Bank, has developed the National Road Safety Programme for 2013-2020 - designed to increase road safety mechanisms around the country and help Poland further contribute to the EU goal of halving the number of road deaths by 2020.

Undoubtedly, Poland still has a problem with road safety and has a long way to go to reach the higher levels of safety recorded in countries such as Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands and Spain, but its success in reducing the number of fatalities is noteworthy as the root of the drop appears to be firmly focused on tackling drink-driving.

And in real terms, the strides made are impressive. While a shocking 7,901 drivers lost their lives on Polish roads in 1991, that figure was down to 2,928 by 2015.

Of course, these figures are still far too high (Poland still has one of the higher rates for road fatalities in Europe) but this high-enforcement approach, particularly in respect of drink-driving, is clearly working and mindsets are changing.

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