Saturday 17 August 2019

Having one for the road?

The issue of drink-driving has to be taken seriously again as old habits are returning

Heartbreaking: Ronan and Gillian Treacy outside court last week
Heartbreaking: Ronan and Gillian Treacy outside court last week

Campbell Spray

The distress of the sentencing judge was obvious, his voice "thickened and faded". No wonder Judge Keenan Johnson's "measured tones deserted him" when he recalled how in a blink of an eye on April 17, 2014 the beautiful family life of Ronan and Gillian Treacy was shattered for ever.

This happened when Finbarr O'Rourke, after drinking more than nine pints of cider, had driven and caused the death of four-year-old Ciaran Treacy and life-changing injuries to the boy's mother.

Sentencing O'Rourke, who cast a pathetic, pitiful presence in court, to seven-and-a-half years in prison Judge Johnson remarked that "anyone who drinks and drives … should ask themselves how they would cope if they found themselves in the position which the accused finds himself in today."

The court heard that O'Rourke had tried to take his life on two occasions since the accident and the judge noted that he was "inherently a decent human being who made some very bad decisions on the night of the accident."

And there we have it. So many people are still making "very bad decisions" every day and night of the week and, as the festive season approaches, probably ever more so.

I was away in Scotland for a very poignant family occasion the October Bank Holiday week and came back to on the Sunday to read Brendan O'Connor's heart-rending powerful piece in this paper about the day of the accident and the awful, awful consequences the Treacy family have to live with.

Brendan's writing seared into my brain as I have been increasingly struck that attitudes to drink-driving are becoming again a bit relaxed, both here and abroad.

In the 1960s my father ran a hotel in Cornwall when the first breathalysers were introduced; he railed against it in the same way publicans and rural-dwellers still do.

But quickly attitudes changed and by the time I arrived in Dublin in 1979, Britain was largely compliant. Yet here it was something else entirely. It was mayhem. It seemed nobody heeded the law and well into the 1990s driving as drunk as possible seemed almost a badge of honour and the stuff of bar-room bragging.

Yet sense prevailed and greater enforcement - including the distinct possibility of being breathalysed on your way to work the morning after a night on the tiles - together with a gradual sense of social opprobrium began to radically change attitudes in the cities and towns at least.

It was about time. Even motoring correspondents needed reining in. I remember many the night on launches abroad staying up almost all night with some of my colleagues on a test drive enjoying a manufacturers' hospitality and then being presented over breakfast with cars to take out into the mountains or onto racing circuits. Absolutely crazy. That some car companies are giving breath tests in the morning at least shows a sense of responsibility.

During my recent trip to Scotland, it was like going back to the bad old days. In one local pub people were happily drinking all day until almost comatose and then driving home.

"Och, it's only old (so and so) and he takes it very slow." … "Ah, the cars know the way home well enough." Were two comments I got. No doubt Finbarr O'Rourke would have said the same if he had got home safely on April 17 last year.

What was more shocking was to see visitors falling into the same trap. They might risk one at home, but here it was three or four. The slope is slippery and horribly dangerous. The pressure to swap the half-hour walk to the pub for a five-minute drive was immense.

It's the same back here, especially down the country. The sense of entitlement, the very big chance of getting away with it and a growing alienation from society in some quarters means that chances are being taken and the ground is being prepared for many more horror stories like what happened to the Treacy family last year.

Get sense. There have been too many tears shed already. Christmas is coming, be sensible and plan.

Don't contribute to the empty chairs, the stockings not put out and the crackers left unpulled.

Sunday Independent

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