There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of road deaths during the past 20 years. Better quality vehicles and roads certainly helped, but publicity campaigns by the Road Safety Authority and enforcement of the law by the Garda Síochána encouraged a major cultural shift. The outcome: a reduction in the number of deaths by some 70 per cent, from 455 in 1998 to 149 last year.
Instead of celebrating this achievement and attempting to reduce the death toll still further, politicians have come under pressure from motorists, local publicans and the drinks industry to cut back on roadside police checks. Recent drink-driving legislation, introduced by the Minister for Transport Shane Ross, was subjected to a Dáil filibuster on the grounds that it represented an attack on the inhabitants of rural Ireland. It passed.
The effectiveness of the latest representations against supposedly over-zealous Garda enforcement became clear when, just back from their Christmas break, Government ministers expressed concern about "morning after" drink-driving checks. The issue also dominated discussion at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. Early morning Garda checks were regarded as too intrusive, alienating the public. There was wild talk of a "police state" and of farmers being afraid to drive to Mass because of Garda checks.
If lives are to be saved, drink-driving laws must be enforced. Some people will not behave responsibly
Politicians frequently mistake well-organised lobbying by vested interests with widely-held public views. That gap was illustrated when Minister of State Sean Canney in a radio interview said gardaí should concentrate on stopping other illegal activities, such as roadside dumping, rather than drink-driving. The public's response was unequivocal: callers made the point that roadside dumping did not kill people.
Ross may be unpopular in Government circles and with other political parties. But his determination to improve road safety and save lives cannot be gainsaid. Some politicians regard the passage of legislation – not its enforcement – as the extent of their responsibility. That’s a cop-out. The most dangerous time on Irish roads is Sunday morning. And Garda figures show that 11 per cent of fatal collisions involving alcohol take place between 7 and 11 am.
A Garda road safety campaign, launched last November, warned motorists of the lasting effects of late-night drinking and announced there would be more frequent morning road checks. When it happened, carefully orchestrated uproar followed. People, it was claimed, were “afraid to go to Mass”. It was presented as another attack on rural Ireland. If lives are to be saved, drink-driving laws must be enforced. Some people will not behave responsibly: 812 motorists were charged with drink-driving during December. Politicians should not offer them any encouragement.