Why politicians should back new drink-driving law

Noel Clancy, whose wife and daughter died in crash, advocates zero-tolerance approach

 

Politicians must put aside local pressures, behave like statesman and stateswomen giving consideration to the common good and back tougher drink-driving laws, says Noel Clancy, a road safety campaigner, whose wife and daughter died in December 2015.

Changing the law

I have a question for those rural TDs lining up to use their role as public representatives to fight against changing the law so all drink-drivers get a ban. How many loved ones do we need to lose at the hands of drink-drivers to satisfy you? Is it five? Or 10? Perhaps 15? You tell me.

And how many horrific, lifelong injuries do we need to see people sustain before you accept that drink-driving is unacceptable?

What these rural TDs are opposed to is a plan by Minister for Transport Shane Ross to change the law so all those detected over the limit have to spend a period off the roads.

At the moment the law allows a driver with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol in their system to take three penalty points and a fine.

Is the proposed change another example of a nanny state? I don’t think so.

Fatal crashes

Some 6 per cent of drivers involved in fatal crashes between 2008 and 2012 had a blood-alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg.

This means that on average eight people are killed each year at this alcohol level. And we have no idea how many others sustained life-changing injuries at the hands of these drivers.

Some may argue that at this level a driver is not “drunk”. But their reaction time is slowed and their judgment is impaired. It only takes a millisecond to cause a crash.

I lost my wife and daughter in a crash in which there was no suggestion of alcohol. Instead, the driver in this crash was an unaccompanied learner driver.

The Road Safety Authority recently published figures showing more than 6,700 learner drivers across the State last year were given penalty points for driving unaccompanied. These learner drivers know it is illegal to drive unaccompanied but they still do it in significant numbers.

It is the same with drink driving. For those who say it is the enforcement, not the penalties that are the issue, we know we cannot have a garda at every corner or outside every pub and that the Garda Traffic Corps strength is half what it used to be.

Pub car parks

Drivers know this too and we see full pub car parks in the evenings again as the fear factor of getting caught ebbs away. Drink-driving is a serious offence and an alcohol-impaired driver is a menace to themselves and to everyone else on the road. It is simply unacceptable that someone can be detected drink-driving, yet not face a ban – and can be back on the road the following day.

The origins of this flawed law stems from 2010, when the then Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey lowered the drink-driving limit but reluctantly allowed for a drink-driver with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol in their blood to receive penalty points, rather than an automatic ban, if caught.

He did this in the face of huge opposition from rural TDs who were against reducing the drink-driving limit from 80mg to 50mg.

This was the first time in Ireland a drink-driving offence was not followed by a mandatory driving ban.

Road fatalities

The lines of argument used today by those who want to maintain this flawed law are interesting. Fianna Fáil transport spokesman Robert Troy TD says the party needs evidence that the measure would reduce road fatalities amid concern it was a “headline-grabbing exercise”.

Well, we know from the RSA that on average eight people are killed each year at this alcohol level. Would it be fewer if we had an automatic ban at that level? Let’s try it and see.

What we do know is the new law will not kill, maim or seriously injure anyone, which is what we can expect if we do nothing.

Other deputies and senators including Kevin O’Keeffe, a Fianna Fáil TD; and Danny Healy-Rae, an independent TD and publican, have expressed concern about the impact on social life in rural Ireland.

A similar argument was deployed by rural TDs to oppose the smoking ban, championed heroically by current Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin.

Social life

In retrospect, do any rural TDs really think the smoking ban was a mistake, and should be rescinded? I am a farmer from Co Cork, a rural part of the country. I don’t feel this proposed legal change will severely damage the social life of my community.

Some may argue Ross’s proposed change in the drink-drive laws will affect trade in rural pubs. But we as a society need to decide which is more important to us: a few extra rural pubs and publicans with a few extra punters or having extra family members still with us?

From an economic point of view the State receives about €1.3 billion in excise duty on alcohol and then spends up to €3.7 billion on treating illnesses linked to alcohol-related harm. Some 11 per cent of this €3.7 billion, or €407million, is spent annually to account for the various costs incurred as a result of road traffic collisions. Each fatal crash costs €2 million.

So from a national context, reducing alcohol intake – particularly among drivers – makes good economic sense.

Therefore I, along with road safety group Parc, call on our public representatives to put aside self-interest and behave like the statesmen and stateswomen they were elected to be and legislate for the common good.

A zero-tolerance to drink-driving is the only way forward to save lives and prevent very serious injuries. This means an automatic ban for drink-driving.

Noel Clancy is a member of road safety group Parc