Wednesday 22 May 2019

Drink driving is no laughing matter - so our courts and media mustn't make it one

What sort of message are we sending out if a drunk driver is told his driving ban will be delayed so he can go to a matchmaking festival and find a woman? (Stock picture)
What sort of message are we sending out if a drunk driver is told his driving ban will be delayed so he can go to a matchmaking festival and find a woman? (Stock picture)

Liz O'Donnell

Sometimes the courts provide us with a window into Irish life and usually it's not a pretty sight. A report published this week by Women's Aid revealed very high levels of assaults within so-called loving relationships.

Judges are all too familiar with this violence as victims come before them on a daily basis seeking barring orders and the protection of the courts from what is termed "domestic violence".

Until fairly recently because of the in camera rule, victims of such abuse and their children have been out of sight and out of mind, running away, going back, trying to keep their families together, hoping against hope that their abuser will change and no longer hit them.

It is a vicious cycle of dependency, guilt, reoffending and secret family dysfunction.

For too long, society minimised the gravity of such "domestic" assaults, normalising them in the context of family difficulties. But too many women have died at the hands of their violent partners and gradually the criminality of these assaults is being recognised for what it really is.

There is a degree of ambivalence when it comes to some crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual assaults. The role of alcohol in rape is a controversial topic of debate at the moment following the lenient Stanford student rape sentence.

Driving while drunk is another area steeped in ambivalence and cultural confusion in Ireland. Alcohol is so enmeshed in our culture that some find it hard to accept a zero tolerance of drunk driving.

Recently, media outlets in Ireland reported on the sentencing of a Kerry farmer who had pleaded guilty to drink driving in 2014. He had hit a ditch on his way home from the pub with his blood alcohol levels showing he was almost four times the legal limit.

At the hearing, the man's solicitor asked if the mandatory three-year ban from driving could be imposed from September, as his client would find it hard to care for his livestock without the use of a car.

In the courtroom, the judge decided to adjourn the ban until December 8 to allow the farmer to attend a matchmaking festival, so the defendant could have time to find a wife who would be able to drive him around while off the road.

A headline in one newspaper read: "Drink drive ban delayed … to find a nice woman", referring to the comments made by the judge that the man should find himself a "nice woman", presumably to help on the farm and avoid situations where he might end up drink driving.

Another paper screamed "P***doonvarna", referring to the matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna in September. The accompanying editorial was light-hearted, with the heading "One for the Road".

Now, because of my role in the Road Safety Authority, I am particularly allergic to this sort of thing. But the response on social media suggests I was not alone in being horrified by the manner in which the case was handled and reported.

Was it the media coverage of the courtroom drama or the dialogue in the court which was so upsetting? It's hard to know. Journalists are right to accurately report what goes on in our courts.

But the whole thing, including the representations of the solicitor on behalf of his client and the approach to the sentencing for drunk driving, was bordering on farce. It made a mockery of the law relating to drink driving, giving the impression that this was a character lapse by an unfortunate bachelor, who because of rural isolation and a love of football had taken too many drinks before getting into his car.

What sort of message are we sending out if a drunk driver is told his driving ban will be delayed so he can go to a matchmaking festival and find a woman? Or when the media, which is normally so supportive of our road safety efforts, turns a serious issue into a joke?

We have tough laws in Ireland to protect all of us from the scourge of drunk driving. By and large, they are enforced without fear or favour. Because the penalties are severe, they are frequently challenged by the defence, as is their right.

But this was a guilty plea. If this man had hit a pedestrian or another car instead of a ditch, would the judge have made a different decision? If he had hit the ditch and killed himself in his own car, would the community be mourning the loss of a valued person who was "fond of the drop"?

Two weeks ago, the Road Safety Authority published an important report on the role alcohol played in fatal collisions between 2008 and 2012. It confirmed what was suspected by the RSA and the gardaí, that alcohol plays a far greater role in collisions than previously thought. In these five years alone, it was a contributory factor in 38pc of fatal collisions. That is 286 lives lost because of alcohol. A further 69 people suffered serious life-changing injuries. Eighty nine per cent of the drivers killed were male. And of the 222 motorists who had consumed alcohol, 217 were deemed to have caused the collision.

Drink driving has not gone away. And there are signs that it is continuing despite all the campaigns and laws to change such behaviour. To be fair, for most people, it is now socially unacceptable to drive with drink taken. People are fearful of being caught and breathalysed at mandatory checkpoints. Thousands of people are detected each year and punished accordingly. Yet some people remain convinced that they are "grand with a few pints on board" and will take the chance to drive the short distance home from the pub or party.

They will set off slowly, over-compensating for their impaired focus and skills.

They won't realise that the alcohol consumed has significantly reduced their ability to identify and manage risks, as well as impairing their control over the vehicle.

They might not see the pedestrian walking home or the cyclist on the country road, who has taken every precaution to be safe. It could be your son or daughter.

They would have meant "no harm" but would have inflicted grievous bodily harm, even death.

The dialogue in that Kerry courtroom was real, not fiction, although it could have been written by the late, great John B Keane. It was comical.

But drunk driving is no laughing matter, given the devastation inflicted on so many families who have lost loved ones because of alcohol-fuelled driving.

Irish Independent

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