The high number of people caught driving under the influence of drink or drugs during the coronavirus pandemic period suggests, as some gardaí believe, that law enforcement on the State’s roads is grossly inadequate in normal times.
Drugged driving was a significant issue, with sources saying that illicit substance use was prevalent and increasing across all age groups and social classes, and that drivers were testing positive for drugs at all hours of the day.
“It’s middle class, middle-aged, in the middle of the day. Long gone is this idea that it’s young people all taking cocaine when they’re socialising,” said one source.
“We have people now who are taking cocaine in the morning to give them energy and get them going for the day; many of them in what you’d call respected professions. And then in the evening they’re smoking a joint to relax.
“A lot of other people are now smoking cannabis several times a day, every day, and they are all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. And that means if they are stopped by us, that cannabis is in their system all the time.”
Another source said: “A lot of drinking is done in the evenings and so that’s when you catch people mostly, and the morning after. But people take drugs in a different way, as part of their daily routines now.”
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, traffic volumes fell to well below half their normal levels, but the number of arrests for drunk or drugged driving fell by only 9 per cent nationally in the first six months of the year.
The number of arrests increased in 11 of the 28 Garda divisions, with Dublin’s divisions (up 24 per cent on average) leading the way. Gardaí say that while alcohol remains a problem, they are seeing more and more cases of drugged driving – mainly cannabis and cocaine.
‘Scratching the surface’
“It just shows you that in normal times we are only scratching the surface of what’s really going on on the roads,” one Garda member told The Irish Times.
“If traffic plummets like that and the number of arrests only drops slightly, or increases in places like Dublin, you’d have to say that a lot of the offending is going undetected in normal times.”
Other sources said the movement restrictions introduced to stop the disease spreading brought about very unusual conditions for roads policing, which meant that drunk or drugged drivers were much more likely to be caught.
“You had thousands of checkpoints every week and that meant far more drivers were being stopped and spoken to. And the minute you engage with someone, if you’re experienced, you’ll spot the signs they’ve been drinking or taking drugs,” said one source.
“You also had more time to engage with them and you had more time to stop nearly every car at a checkpoint because there wasn’t a big line of traffic being held up on the road. So that definitely meant every driver was checked out in a way that just isn’t possible in normal times.”
Another source said the location of checkpoints changed during the lockdown.
“We had checkpoints on some roads for 12 hours, from 7am to 7pm, where we could never have any checkpoints because it would cause traffic carnage,” he said. “So if you can suddenly start putting enforcement resources like that in place for the first time ever, that’s going to catch more people. But obviously you won’t catch them unless they are actually drinking or taking drugs. And clearly a lot of people are.”