Monday 16 December 2019

Seamus Boland: 'Rural villages need creative thinking, not a daft idea to let drivers drink couple of pints'

Debate: Danny Healy-Rae wants a special permit allowing rural drivers to drink up to two pints without penalty. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Debate: Danny Healy-Rae wants a special permit allowing rural drivers to drink up to two pints without penalty. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Seamus Boland

Whenever the rural debate calls for the relaxing of laws for drink-driving, as per the Danny Healy-Rae proposal, our thoughts turn to the sobering reality that most road deaths occur on rural roads. His proposal: that if you live in a rural area, you should be able to apply for a driving permit which allows you to drive having consumed alcohol units the equivalent of two pints.

The theory goes it would tackle rural isolation and loneliness, while at the same time save the rural pub. Bearing in mind that at least 60pc of road fatalities occur on rural roads and that too many families have been touched by the sadness and horror of losing a loved one, it would be assumed such a proposal would fall flat.

I'm afraid not. The debate continued on around the country, mainly over the local radio platform and managed to unearth some, not a lot, of sympathy in favour of the idea.

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So much so the latest attempt by Transport Minister Shane Ross to bolster legislation penalising errant drivers is being opposed by some ministers because of rural sensitivities.

The average rural dweller knows perfectly well that idea is beyond the measurement of any reasonable logic. In the event of your loved one being injured by a car driven by a 'two-pint merchant', common law would at least dictate a civil legal case would follow.

Then there is the forgiveness problem. Having drank two pints you are responsible in some way for an accident, fatal or otherwise, would you really forgive yourself, or be forgiven by the victim's family?

Finally, can you imagine the discussion at the board of your friendly car insurance company when asked to underwrite such a policy?

The idea on so many levels is beyond daft. So daft it allows all and sundry to have a laugh and dismiss it as another rural ruse belonging to the famous 'cute hoor' stable.

The reason some people in rural communities gave the idea a hearing is based on the rushed dismissal of Mr Healy-Rae's proposal, without any reference to the problems he highlighted - the dying village, rural isolation and loneliness and failure to resolve the transport issue at local level.

Indeed, loneliness has been described in Ireland as an epidemic and in rural areas that reality is even more prevalent.

The idea that relaxing the law would solve these problems is well and truly off the mark. Indeed, the conflagration of drink driving and the failure to tackle rural problems needs to be completely separated. The stark reality is that road safety measures should come without qualifications and should not be implicated in discussions on rural decline.

There is a case for the driver barely over the lower limit who loses their licence on a first offence. In this instance there should be some appeal based on basic justice, but not for the second offence.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if Mr Ross would introduce a serious local transport programme which would be adaptable to the needs of people who have no access to their own transport.

Instead of being entertained by the two-pint permit, it might be better for all concerned to at least try some innovative ideas. For starters, why not introduce a package based on various tax exemptions, availability of drivers, linked to existing free travel allowances.

Seamus Boland is CEO of Irish Rural Link, a national voluntary organisation dedicated to sustainable rural communities

Irish Independent

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