Friday 6 December 2019

Policy of 'none for the road' is the only way to tackle our motorist death figures

Four in 10 of all deaths on the road involves booze. More worrying, the number of young people who drink and drive is rising, so we have to conclude that there is little or no stigma attached to being caught. Can we ignore these warning signs?
Four in 10 of all deaths on the road involves booze. More worrying, the number of young people who drink and drive is rising, so we have to conclude that there is little or no stigma attached to being caught. Can we ignore these warning signs?
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

It's that time of year again, with barbecues fired up in every back garden and people drinking beer by the bucketload. But what happens when we think we are perfectly capable of driving ourselves home or driving to work the next morning? All too often, accidents.

Alcohol was a factor in 38pc of road deaths between 2008 and 2012, according to the latest report issued by the Road Safety Authority. The RSA said this percentage of all fatal collisions involved a driver, motorcyclist, cyclist or pedestrian who had consumed alcohol.

The report added half of all drivers of motorbikes and cars who were drinking had a blood alcohol level in excess of 201mg, or four times the legal limit. A quarter of drivers had levels above 251mg, that's five times the legal limit. The report also said: "The greatest proportion of those in the 16 to 24 and 25 to 34 age groups had in excess of 201mg of alcohol in their system."

RSA chief executive, Moyagh Murdock, said the perception that young people don't drink and drive was "blown out of the water" by these findings.

But even being found over the limit doesn't necessarily mean you'll face any consequences here in Ireland. Up to 60pc of drivers prosecuted for being over the limit in the past two years have been acquitted.

Last September, one drink-driving suspect had his case thrown out because his breath-test, showing more than twice the legal limit of 22mg per 100ml of breath, wasn't printed in Irish. He only received it in English. Many others have benefited from this decision, escaping their criminal convictions through this particular legal loophole.

We've all seen images of powerful cars, built to the highest safety standards, smashed up by lethal impacts. Yet we are still getting into our own cars with a pint or three on board and don't think about what will happen to us and our passengers in a split-'second of unforeseen tragedy.

Look at the map of Europe, colour-coded according to the various drink-driving limits, and you'll see that we rank among the highest, allowing 50mg per 100ml of blood. There is actually zero tolerance to alcohol across swathes of Russia and Eastern Europe. In Estonia, drivers are allowed only 20mg of alcohol - the same level which applies to airline pilots. Norway and Sweden are famous for a culture intolerant to drink driving.

The rules in both allow only a tiny margin of error, with a limit of 20mg, and particularly severe penalties (including prison) for those in breach of it. In Austria, those who have held their licence for less than two years need to be very careful - the limit is close to zero, at just 1mg. Many other European countries have zero tolerance if you're under 24.

Whenever we talk about lowering the drinking limits further, people say that it would only penalise rural dwellers who must use their car to get to the pub. But don't tell me that our Government is concerned about our human right to get plastered. It's more about them being in thrall to those who create the alcoholic drinks. The gardaí breath-tested thousands of motorists on the bank holiday weekend, but I'm not sure this is enough of a deterrent. They are so stretched in rural areas right now that the chances of being spotted when you're driving back from a night in the pub are slim.

Banning drivers from imbibing any alcohol is a drastic move, but it would be a sensible one. Do you know many people who can have just the one drink, especially when surrounded by friends in a summery mood?

That's why dropping our drink driving level from 80mg to 50mg in 2012 didn't make much difference. It's also why, in spite of all those health campaigns and endless moaning about liver disease, we're choosing to binge-drink even more.

Four in 10 of all deaths on the road involves booze. More worrying, the number of young people who drink and drive is rising, so we have to conclude that there is little or no stigma attached to being caught. Can we ignore these warning signs?

Banning drivers from drinking would put down a marker. Rural pubs could band together to fund subsidised taxi services, and more buses and trains should run into the night. Money well spent if road fatality figures improve.

Irish Independent

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