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'The law is an ass... for some reason, drink driving often ranks equally with less serious offences' - Shane Ross

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'Ireland remains ambivalent about drinking and driving. The law is sympathetic to offenders. It ranks first-time culprits as merely minor sinners. In reality, they are potential killers.' Stock photo: Depositphotos

'Ireland remains ambivalent about drinking and driving. The law is sympathetic to offenders. It ranks first-time culprits as merely minor sinners. In reality, they are potential killers.' Stock photo: Depositphotos

'Ireland remains ambivalent about drinking and driving. The law is sympathetic to offenders. It ranks first-time culprits as merely minor sinners. In reality, they are potential killers.' Stock photo: Depositphotos

'You can stuff your penalty points up your jersey, minister," muttered the fictional punter in the pub.

I am dreading the day I slip out for a break in a Dundrum pub. A totally sober customer accosts me. He has been given three penalty points that morning. He is irate. Three penalty points for 'failure to leave an appropriate distance between him and the vehicle in front'. He uses some pretty colourful language.

The indignant punter demands that I, as Minister for Transport, change the law. Probably retrospectively, but certainly immediately!

The way the offender tells his hard luck story, the three point penalty seems a bit steep. It is not. Three penalty points (accompanied by a fine) is the normal punishment for other similarly common offences. They include 'parking a car in a dangerous position' or even 'failure to yield right of way at a stop sign' - offences that rank roughly equally on the Richter scale of bad driving. Three penalty points is pretty run of the mill.

Unfortunately, the law is an ass. One three penalty point outlier sticks out a mile as idiotic lunacy. In exactly the same three penalty points bracket lie cases of drunken driving.

For some reason, drunken driving often ranks equally with the above, less serious, offences. Today, as the law stands, hundreds of drunken drivers annually escape with three penalty points and a fine. They avoid disqualification. They are entitled to similar treatment to my punter in the pub or a driver who crosses a continuous white line.

Fiction? No, it is brutal fact. First-time offenders over the legal alcohol limit of 50mg (but below the 80mg per 100ml of blood level) can pocket their points, pay their fine and duck disqualification.

Perhaps the punter in the pub who accepted three penalty points for a far less grave infringement was right? The law was treating him like a drunken driver.

As I leave him, he hurls a parting shot in my direction - "I might as well drive home tonight with three pints in my belly. I'd get three points for three pints."

Ireland remains ambivalent about drinking and driving. The law is sympathetic to offenders. It ranks first-time culprits as merely minor sinners. In reality, they are potential killers.

Three penalty points is not much of a deterrent.

That is why we are going to change the law, unless Micheal Martin and his Fianna Fail colleague Robert Troy continue their promise to block it.

We are not reducing the legal limit. That remains the same. Our bill will simply ensure that no driver over the 50mg legal alcohol limit but under 80mg walks away without disqualification. We intend to close the escape clause that allows first-time offenders in this bracket to stay on the road.

Why? Because any amount of alcohol, however small, impairs drivers.

Because alcohol is playing a devastating role in Ireland's rapidly rising road deaths. The most up-to-date Road Safety Authority (RSA) figures show that 38pc of road deaths are linked to alcohol.

Because bereaved families of victims of road deaths are joining the Road Safety Authority and ourselves in supporting the bill.

Because vested interests, like the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, are lobbying politicians against reform.

Because Fianna Fail is demanding 'evidence' that those over the 50mg limit but under 80mg are impaired while driving.

Let me invite Martin and Troy to view the evidence and respond with an honourable U-turn.

Here is just a taste of the evidence provided by the Road Safety Authority. Between 2008 and 2012, a total of 35 people (12pc) were killed in collisions where drivers or motorcyclists had a recorded blood alcohol level of between 21 and 80mg/100ml (and were deemed culpable owing to alcohol being a contributory factor). This means that seven to eight people a year on average were killed in accidents where drivers were recorded at the lower alcohol levels.

Sixteen people (6pc) were killed in collisions where drivers had a recorded BAC level of between 50 and 80mg/100ml (and were deemed culpable owing to alcohol being a contributory factor).

Equally compelling evidence is provided by the World Health Organisation: drivers are twice as likely to be involved in a collision at 40mg; drivers are at six times greater risk of dying in a car crash if they have a blood alcohol level of between 50 and 80mg.

Fianna Fail and the vintners wish to allow those with these alcohol levels to avoid disqualification. Yes, they are serious. Beware the smokescreens. Fianna Fail is spouting guff galore to allow these people to remain on the roads. It says that enforcement is of greater importance, that speed is a factor, that the roads are in bad condition.

Both Martin and Troy are decent men. Much of what they say has merit, particularly about the need for enforcement, speed and the state of the roads. All contribute to road deaths. Yet, for some reason, Fianna Fail nurses a tolerance of alcohol that verges on recklessness. Are they listening to the vintners?

Are they not persuaded by the arguments of brave campaigners like Gillian and Ronan Treacy, whose four-year-old son Ciaran was killed by a drunken driver in 2014? Are they left cold by the words of Gillian who survived the crash but is still bearing lifelong injuries?

Last week, the RSA's Brian Farrell and I joined Gillian and Ronan and other road safety campaigners - including Donna Price (whose son Darren was killed in a road collision in 2006, where alcohol was not a factor) and Leo Lieghio (who lost his daughter Marsia in a hit-and-run accident) - in pleading with TDs to face up to their responsibilities and pass the bill.

Victims' groups are crusading for tougher measures against drunk drivers on many fronts. They want to see a measure to name and shame them. So do the gardai and the Road Safety Authority. We will introduce this law as soon as possible. We will examine other methods of bringing the 'wild west' of Irish roads to heel.

The culture of tolerating drunk drivers is terrifying. The facts are even more deadly. Some 150 drivers a week are arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. A total of 187 people were killed on our roads last year, an increase of 15pc on 2015. The number of dead in 2017 is already ahead of the total for 2016. There should be no ambiguity about alcohol.

Shane Ross is Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister and the Independent Alliance TD for Dublin Rathdown

Sunday Independent