Politicians must face down narrow interests in favour of saving more lives from drink-driving
So-called 'new politics' gets bad press. But New Politics can also do great things.
As the anniversary of last year's election came and went, we saw a plethora of articles bemoaning the impact of new politics, minority Government and a deeply fractured Oireachtas. Apparently, the Government has no power, nothing is getting done and the search for consensus is exasperatingly slow.
As a former practitioner, I can confirm that getting consensus in Leinster House on any issue is, and always was, incredibly difficult. Politics is an adversarial profession. It is a battle for hearts, minds and ultimately, votes. If consensus prevails, what differentiates your party from the next?
But sometimes, just sometimes, there is such an overwhelming public interest that consensus is forged, the parties keep their swords in their scabbards and instead unite in common purpose.
Such occasions are rare, but welcome. The marriage equality referendum enjoyed wide cross-party support. As did the Good Friday Agreement, which reflected a strong bipartisan approach for many years across the major parties. This consensus was of enormous help to successive governments. Micheál Martin's smoking ban also attracted significant consensus, based on a strong evidence-based case.
Successive Oireachtais have also supported progressively tougher legislation tackling drink-driving. Politicians from all parties have shown courage and leadership by facing down narrow vested interests and the merchants of doom and gloom, who claim that every tightening of the law is another nail in the coffin of rural Ireland. Rural Ireland faces many issues, but the solution is not to be soft on drink-driving.
Today, the Oireachtas Committee on Transport will engage in pre-legislative scrutiny of a new Bill dealing with penalties for drink-driving. The scrutiny process allows the committee members to question the policy choices the minister is making and to publicly engage with interest groups, stakeholders and experts on proposed legislation.
Under the proposed legislation, drink-driving offences committed between blood-alcohol levels of 50mg and 80mg will incur an automatic disqualification of three months, instead of the current penalty of a €200 fine and three penalty points.
The current legal limit for drink driving is not being reduced. The limit for ordinary drivers remains at 50mg, as it has since 2010. Offences involving in excess of 80mg will continue to attract an automatic six months' disqualification.
I am sure that the committee will hear the strong evidence that a minority of people refuse to heed the messages around drink-driving. The evidence is overwhelming that the level of alcohol in your system between 50mg and 80mg makes you a danger on the roads. Consuming any alcohol impairs driving and increases the risk of a collision. Comprehensive analysis of collisions between 2008 and 2012 found that 35 people were killed in incidents where drivers/motorcyclists had a recorded level between 21 and 80mg/100ml.
This means seven or eight people, on average, were killed per year over this period at the lower alcohol levels. Increasing the penalties at the 50mg to 80mg level will send out a clear message that such behaviour is not acceptable in society. I have no doubt that the committee will hear special pleadings on behalf of vested interests. But equally, I expect them to hear from road safety experts and the victims of collisions involving alcohol.
I saw one telling example of how victims can often get to the heart of an issue. One TD was concerned about a driver "who adheres to the law, has a few pints one night, takes a taxi home and gets up the next morning with a residual amount of alcohol in his or her system".
The reply from the representative of victims was compelling in its simplicity - "if that person hit a car and killed the person driving it, that death would not be any less than if that person was hit after hours. There is no excuse, be it morning time or night-time".
March has seen a slew of negative publicity about the governance of our drink-driving enforcement. However, March has also seen the deaths of 19 people on our roads. We must do all we can to reduce this number and ensure the safety of our citizens. This legislation will support us in this fight.
I look forward to TDs and senators, from all parties and none, scrutinising this legislation, reviewing the evidence, hearing from experts about its impact and encouraging its swift enactment.
Despite an often negative perception of politicians, I believe that when they have an opportunity to do good, to unite behind a good idea and good law and ultimately to save lives, they will rise above the interests of a tiny few and make new politics work for all.