Drink driving arrests increased during lockdown despite a sharp fall in traffic while the number of drug driving arrests doubled in the first half of the year, figures show.
The number of blood and urine samples taken from drivers arrested on suspicion of intoxicated driving between April and June increased by 6.5 per cent even though Covid-19 restrictions brought about a 70 per cent drop in traffic, Garda figures published on Thursday show.
The data also shows there were 1,216 drug driving arrests in the first six months of the year, a 106 per cent increase on the 591 for the same period last year.
The information was released as gardaí and the Road Safety Authority (RSA) announced a major crackdown on intoxicated driving for the August bank holiday weekend.
Addressing the rise in detections in recent months despite a dramatic reduction in traffic levels during Covid-19 lockdown, the head of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety Professor Denis Cusack said they were surprised by the statistics.
“The patterns during the Covid-19 restrictions, they were not what we expected,” he said, adding they had seen more samples sent in from arrested drivers over the 14 week period from March 27th to June 29th than over the same period in 2019.
“And of course the people who were driving at that time we had expected would be those who were essential workers and who were travelling outside of the two or [later] 10 kilometre range for good reason. So this was an unexpected outcome.”
While this weekend’s road safety campaign addresses intoxicants of all kinds, the message has a distinct focus on drug-driving. An additional 41 roadside testing devices will be deployed.
In recent months, cannabis has been the most commonly detected substance followed by cocaine. Garda also test for benzodiazepines and opiates.
Highlighting other key statistics, Prof Cusack said the number of road fatalities had also increased this year on last, and while still below men, the proportion of women testing positive for alcohol during the first month of travel restrictions had increased from 18 to 23.4 per cent on the same period last year.
“Alcohol does remain the single largest driving under the influence intoxicant and those over the limit are not just over the limit, most of them are well over the limit,” he said.
“So the myth of: it’s huge numbers of people who simply miscalculated [is not true]. No doubt there are some drivers who foolishly take a little bit more than they had intended.”
He advised those on prescription medications that are tested for at the roadside to follow medical and pharmaceutical advice on taking their medication safely.
As regards, the use of illicit substances, and stressing this could not be condoned, he said the issue of when it was safe to drive afterwards was far more complex.
Unlike alcohol and prescription medication, there is no clear indication of what is in a substance, or how long it will stay in a person’s system.
However, by way of general guidance, he said active ingredients in opiates and cocaine could disappear quite quickly whereas with cannabis, a general guide was not to drive within 12 hours of taking it.
“Different people handle alcohol differently; different people handle cannabis differently,” he said.
“If you take a beer can...you know what’s in the can, you know what you’re taking. If you smoke a joint you actually don’t know its purity, its strength... and that’s why it’s so difficult to say x number of hours.
“I want to stress that’s not saying go out, it’s ok to take cannabis, it’s not. It’s an illicit substance, it has health effects.” He said it was also an individual’s responsibility to gauge when they are unfit to drive.
After months of Covid-19 related restrictions and a push for people to holiday in Ireland, gardaí are expecting more activity on the roads this weekend.
“We have seen an increase in vehicular traffic as restrictions have decreased,” said Assistant Garda Commissioner for Roads Policing Paula Hilman.
“We are seeing trends that more people are using their own vehicles than perhaps public transport than we anticipated before. And we are also in unknown times because we have never been through a pandemic like this.”
She said there would be increased Garda operations across the country with targeted checkpoints for intoxicating drivers.
Meanwhile, the AA said it too expected increase in cross-country travel during August, and that number of traffic incidents on Irish roads — crashes and breakdowns — has quadrupled in the post-lockdown period.
Conor Faughnan, Director of Consumer Affairs, said they were expecting "many people will be using the long weekend and the first few weeks of August to visit family or squeeze in a holiday."