Are we serious about tackling drink driving in this country?

Alcohol, by the way, is a factor of nearly 40% of road traffic accidents — a truly eye-watering figure, so why are we reluctant to change our laws, asks Ailin Quinlan
Are we serious about tackling drink driving in this country?
Ronan and Gillian Treacy, pictured holding a picture of their four year old son Ciaran speaking to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross TD. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

IT’S not just typical of us; it’s also an appalling indictment of the national mentality. The opposition to Transport Minister Shane Ross’s proposal — he basically wants to ensure that everyone driving caught over the blood alcohol limit in this country will be automatically disqualified from driving — is mind-boggling.

I’m horrified by the fact that the perceived opposition to Ross’s life-saving legislation is so monumentally powerful that the families of the victims of road traffic collisions felt compelled to stand before the TV cameras and plead for people to realise that banning drink for drivers makes sense.

Not only did these people — people like Gillian Treacy who was badly injured and lost her four-year-old son in a collision with a drink driver — have to struggle through the sorrow and loss and unmitigated agony of losing a loved one in a traffic accident. They also have to get out there and explain, to the untold legions of drink-driving gobshites out there, that drink-driving causes really bad accidents, that such accidents can kill people, and that it’s a beyond-bloody-good idea to stop motorists from driving after drinking alcohol.

Alcohol, by the way, is a factor of nearly 40% of road traffic accidents — a truly eye-watering figure. As the Minister has observed, research shows that any amount of alcohol impairs your ability to drive. He’s basically attempting to save lives by stopping people drinking and driving — and fellow politicians are opposing him.

He’s trying to eliminate a truly bizarre loophole under which first-time drink-driving offenders with a blood alcohol level below a certain level will only face a fine and some penalty points for drink-driving. The current legal limit is 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood for experienced drivers and 20mg for inexperienced and learner drivers. Under current legislation even one drink could put a driver over the legal limit for driving.

However, first-time offenders can escape with a fine and penalty points for drink driving if their blood alcohol level is below 80mg.

What Mr Ross wants to do, is remove this exemption from the legislation. And no, let’s not cower before the drama queens — this is not about people losing their licence if they take a spoon of cough medicine before getting behind the wheel. What’s being changed is the penalty for drivers who are, for the first time, detected with blood/alcohol concentration (BAC) of between 51mg and 80mg — currently as the minister himself put it, such people can simply pay a fine, get three penalty points and climb straight back into the driver’s seat.

In other words the sheerest hypocrisy and in the best Irish tradition— we’re great at this kind of thing.

It’s also a sign that many people in this country are not serious about tackling the issue of drink-driving.

What his bill ensures is that anyone detected driving over the legal limit will receive a mandatory disqualification from driving.

Of course, this won’t put a stop to the spiralling number of road traffic fatalities — people will continue to chance it and drive, for example, while using a mobile phone, without a seat belt, or under the influence of drugs.

There’s been a lot of craw-thumping about all the damage this could do to the social fabric of rural Ireland, yet what the craw-thumpers won’t tell you is that nearly 80% of alcohol-related collisions happen in rural areas.

I can tell you one thing, if you’ve ever come around the bend on a windy country road to be met by a fella weaving all over the place; a fella who barely misses you and your carful of kids, you’d be the first to put the thumbs-up to Shane Ross’s bill.

I’m genuinely shocked at the opposition which has greeted the bill. I’d strongly urge Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin — the man who famously took on the tobacco industry and banned smoking from public places — to change his party’s stance and join the Green Party and Sinn Fein in supporting this crucial piece of legislation which is both right and good. I’m sure he is aware of the fact that continuing to oppose this bill would say a lot of things — none of them good — about Fianna Fail, the second-largest political party in this country.

I would also urge the Labour party, and the surprising number of Ministers and TDs who are against the legislation proposed by Shane Ross, to reconsider their stance on the issue.

Last Tuesday Minister Ross brought the legislation to Cabinet. Several Ministers outlined their objection to the measures but, thankfully, agreed to support its progression to the Dáil and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed he was examining a free vote for TDs and Senators in the Fine Gael party. However, he said Ministers of State would be bound by the Cabinet decision to support the Bill. Political insiders say it’s very likely that the Bill will pass through the Dail next autumn, though they add, the Seanad may be another matter. Fingers crossed.

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