Road safety: TDs must resist the drinks lobby

A combination of additional roadside activity, official oversight and Garda accountability could dramatically reduce road deaths

 

Here we go again. The drinks lobby flexes its muscles and members of the Oireachtas run for the hills. Alcohol-related campaigns have replaced the traditional belt of a crozier in generating concern amongst elected representatives.The last government was sent into convulsions when small traders opposed legislation that would physically separate alcohol sales from ordinary household items. The matter remains to be resolved. Now the focus has shifted to road safety and a proposed mandatory three-month disqualification for drivers who exceed established blood/alcohol limits. Health and safety are being compromised.

Road Safety Authority (RSA) chairwoman Liz O’Donnell put it bluntly when she noted it was already a criminal offence to drink and drive at low alcohol levels. This serious offence should, she said, be reflected by a mandatory disqualification, rather than by fines and penalty points. It is a sensible approach to limiting deaths on the road. But it faces fierce opposition from vintners and the drinks lobby. In spite of evidence that between seven and eight fatal crashes a year involve drivers with these low alcohol levels, some rural TDs have responded to pressure from their local publicans and are opposing the new penalty. The defence offered for this behaviour ranges from the need to keep local pubs open to the social isolation of elderly farmers, potential suicide and fear. The same mishmash of dislocated excuses figured in debates on all drink-driving legislation.

Change is, however, taking place. A long-standing culture of drink-driving, with its high death toll, is gradually giving way to acceptable behaviour. Last year, 158 people died on our roads. It was 158 too many. But it represented a dramatic decline from the peak of 640 reached in 1972. The RSA has plans to reduce that figure to 124 within the next three years. That will require commitment from the motoring public, the gardaí, politicians and the community at large. Drink driving has lethal consequences and should not attract half-baked excuses. The majority of these deaths occur in rural Ireland. So why should politicians represent the interests of publicans when 90 per cent of voters favour legislative change?

The RSA has thrown its support behind the Road Traffic Bill produced by Minister for Transport Shane Ross in an effort to save lives. It has requested the Policing Authority to change command and control systems within the Garda Siochána, asking that a designated assistant commissioner be made responsible for all road checks and breathalyser tests. It also asked the Policing Authority to ensure traffic corps numbers will be increased in line with Government commitments. A combination of additional roadside activity, official oversight and Garda accountability could dramatically reduce road deaths. But politicians must also play their part.

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