No more half measures - let's call time on drink driving once and for all
The Garda PR machine swung into overdrive at the weekend after the strong public and political backlash at the sharp rise in the numbers killed on our roads last year.
A total of 188 people perished in traffic accidents in 2016, a rise of 26 on 2015. That is 188 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, colleagues and friends left grieving due to the depressing upward trend in road fatalities.
In what appeared to be a cynical attempt at putting a gloss on the alarming figures, an RTÉ film crew was invited to accompany gardaí on their first ever traffic checkpoint on the M50, the country's busiest road, on Friday night. You would think from watching the news report that the Garda were on a "blitz".
Far from it. The checkpoint was only for one hour.
One driver was found to be over the limit.
A slick PR exercise. But this, and the high-profile Christmas and New Year anti-drink driving campaign, were not enough to disguise the fact that the reduction in Garda resources had a devastating impact on our road death figures.
A crying shame after a few years when the trend was in the right direction.
Our road safety laws are enforced by the Garda Traffic Corps which has been reduced by half in recent years. There are currently just 681 officers covering the entire country.
Alcohol is increasingly a factor in our road deaths. There was a 34pc increase in the number of drink driving arrests over the holiday period, with 738 arrested compared to 549 for the same period last year, and 14 were caught on Christmas Day.
Presumably if the Garda Traffic Corps was at full force, and there were more checkpoints over Christmas, this figure would be way higher.
I drove over Christmas in Dublin and to my native Kilkenny. It is the first year in a long time that I didn't come across one checkpoint. Anecdotally, this is what I am hearing from several people.
All the sad indicators are that complacency with drink driving has crept back into Irish life. I know myself when I am socialisng and driving and decide to have the allowed one glass of wine the temptation is huge to have another half a glass and convince myself it won't make a difference. But it will.
Let's stop pussy footing around the issue. The time has come to declare zero tolerance on drink driving. The message must be that not a drop of alcohol should pass anyone's lips if they are going to drive.
Any amount of alcohol impairs your driving. This is not an opinion, it's a scientific fact, backed up by lots of international research which says that the chances of a fatal accident are three times higher for a driver who has taken even one drink compared to a driver who has drunk no alcohol at all.
The Road Safety Authority says alcohol is estimated to be a contributory factor in one out of three fatal collisions in Ireland. In one out of four fatal crashes, the driver had consumed alcohol.
There is a huge opportunity here for Transport Minister Shane Ross to leave a valuable legacy and to steer through a new era in our attitude to drinking and getting behind the wheel.
Just as former PD leader Mary Harney cleaned up Dublin's smog by banning "smoky" coal when she was a minister of state for the environment, and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin faced down the tobacco industry and banned tobacco smoking in all Irish workplaces, pubs and restaurants when health minister, Mr Ross could be the man who makes the roads safer for every citizen in this country. Saving lives in the process.
The same minister was busy over Christmas on his own PR splurge after, let's face it, a disastrous few months for him in office. He was attacked from all sides for his poor handling of the transport disputes in November and his failure to intervene at an early stage.
And he insulted our judiciary and was publicly slapped down by the Taoiseach over comments he made about judges needing reminding of their oath.
In a post-Christmas interview on the shocking increase in road deaths he declared he was considering "naming and shaming" drink drivers, similar to what is done with tax defaulters.
This was nothing short of an attention-seeking exercise, which indeed succeeded in getting him headlines for 48 hours.
The reality is that drunk drivers are already publicly "named and shamed" every week in Ireland in our local papers, which diligently report on drink driving cases in our district and circuit courts. These reports are avidly read in every parish.
But maybe the south Dublin minister does not read local papers.
The minister did say he was in favour of cutting the alcohol intake for drivers from the current 50mg limit for fully licensed drivers to 20mg. This would see even one small alcoholic drink place a driver over the legal level.
But incredibly the minister, while emphasising there would be a clear benefit from getting close to a zero limit, admitted he would not go down this road, as he believed he would be blocked by rural TDs.
Yes TDs will selfishly oppose such a measure, and rather than put their constituents' lives first they will be thinking of votes. They were already out in force in a Sunday newspaper yesterday saying they would oppose measures, and calling for enforcement of the 50mg limit instead.
The powerful vintners lobby, which vigorously opposes a reduction in blood alcohol limits, has them under its thumb. It claims that it would be bad for pub business and deter elderly farmers from having a social drink in a licensed premises.
Nonsense. These concerns must be balanced against saving families like Gillian and Ronan Tracey from Laois the heartache of loss due to drink driving. Their four-year-old son, Ciarán, lost his life when the car he was travelling in was hit by a drunk driver last year. His parents bravely fronted a TV ad appealing to people not to drink and get behind a wheel. Alas, it had no impact on the Christmas and New Year drink-driving figures.
No more half measures Mr Ross. Stand up and show leadership and backbone. Bring the rural TDs and the vested pub interests on side. And call time on our growing drink-driving culture.