Alcohol use unclear in road deaths, says expert


THE ROLE of alcohol in fatal crashes here has been significantly underestimated, road safety experts believe.

They cite new research from the Health Service Executive (HSE) showing that a third of all drivers involved in fatal collisions are not tested for alcohol.

Dr Declan Bedford, author of a report on the issue, examined case files from 995 crashes between 2003 and 2005 in which 1,105 people died and found that alcohol was a factor in 32 per cent of collisions. In 33 per cent of cases, no blood alcohol test results for the driver were available.

His report, drink-driving in Ireland, examines the role of alcohol in fatal crashes in the State. Its preliminary findings will be presented at an international road safety conference in Croke Park in Dublin today.

Dr Bedford, a specialist in public health medicine with the HSE, said the results provided a "compelling reason" to reduce the blood alcohol limit from the current level of 80mg to 50mg, as recommended by the Road Safety Authority (RSA). The Road Safety Strategy has also called for the blood alcohol limit to be lowered.

The risk of a fatal crash for drivers with a blood alcohol level of between 50mg-79mg rises to between "four-10 times higher" compared to a driver with no alcohol in their system, he said.

Among the 446 drivers killed between 2003 and 2005 for whom a blood alcohol test was available, 41 per cent were over the legal limit, the report found.

Dr Bedford said a second reason the role of alcohol in fatal crashes was underestimated was because drivers involved in a fatal crash but not killed were rarely tested. "We went through all the files where a driver wasn't killed and very few, a minority in fact, are actually tested for blood alcohol."

The Department of Transport is drafting legislation to provide for mandatory testing at crash sites, subject to medical need and a lower drink drive limit.

Dr Bedford said he expected the situation had improved since mandatory alcohol testing was introduced in July 2006.

"In the six months immediately after the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing, there were 3,430 admissions to hospital from car crashes, a fall of 352 on the corresponding six months in 2005, and deaths also came down."

The number of deaths on the roads in 2006 was 368, a fall of 28 on the previous year.

"We still have a minimum of 120 deaths due to drink-driving every year, 90 per cent of which are men, and that is just far too high," Dr Bedford added.

A spokesman for the RSA said the research showed the problem of drink-driving was "actually far worse than research to date had shown. The RSA has always said policy intervention must be based on hard data and this is probably the most comprehensive study on drink-driving in Ireland."