Drinking is fun til it’s not, a tipping point hard to predict

Danny Healy-Rae’s three-glasses-are-safe comments to a group of bereaved relatives outside the Dáil were grossly insensitive, yet they tell us something important about our attitude to alcohol

Family members of those who died on our roads at a vigil for road crash victims at Leinster House. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

IT was a picture that told infinitely more than a thousand words; it captured Ireland’s
ambivalent attitude to alcohol in one single frame.

The photograph of Danny Healy-Rae, the Kerry TD and publican, telling the relatives of road-crash victims that he believed driving after drinking three glasses of beer would never cause a crash is what our collective double-think on alcohol looks like.

We can’t seem to join up the dots: the innocent drink that cheers can’t be the same as the one responsible for the corrosive thread of alcohol-fuelled misery that runs right through Irish society.

Drinking is fun until it’s not — and there’s the rub. The issue with alcohol consumption is that it is very difficult to predict when that tipping point might come.

Picking up a glass — even three — might be perfectly fine on one occasion but, on another, it might not.

And when is three ever enough? If there’s one thing that we can say about Irish conviviality, it is that we very often fall victim to a dose of the ‘ah feck it’: sure, let’s have one more for the road.

For the road? That expression in itself must feel like a slap in the face to those gathered in a dignified vigil outside Leinster House on Tuesday, on the same day that the Cabinet was discussing a bill to introduce an automatic driving ban for drink-driving.

How an elected representative could think it appropriate to voice his three-glasses-are-safe theory to people who talked about getting the gut-wrenching knock on the door to say a loved one had been killed, in some cases because of a drunk driver, is beyond belief.

One parent Leo Lieghio, whose daughter died in a hit-and-run in 2005, called after him: “What if, God forbid, one of your own children [was] lost?” Those poignant words had no effect on Deputy Healy-Rae because he went on to repeat his claim on radio. It’s probably fair to say that he didn’t mean to be insensitive, much less grossly offensive, but he was both.

For what it’s worth, I know of more than one person who would be on their ear after a pint and a half; wimps, yes, but it proves that Deputy Healy-Rae needs to widen his circle.

Unfortunately, we don’t need to depend on the flimsy evidence of anecdote to make the point. There are figures to show why an automatic ban for drink-driving makes sense.

Earlier this year, chair of the Road Safety Authority Liz O’Donnell said that an analysis of collisions between 2008 and 2012 found that 35 people were killed by drivers with a blood-alcohol level of between 21mg and 80mg.

It’s also worth recalling that almost 40% of all fatal road collisions in Ireland in that time involved a driver who had consumed alcohol.

As the law stands, a driver with a blood-alcohol limit of between 51-80 milligrams — a little over a glass of wine — gets three penalty points for a first offence.

Under Transport Minister Shane Ross’s new Road Traffic Bill, all drivers found over the limit will be put off the road for three months. The measure, he says, could save seven lives a year.

In one way, we can be thankful to Deputy Healy-Rae for articulating his thoughts because he is voicing a view that is probably far more prevalent than we like to believe.

Privately, many of the publicans outside the Pale probably think he is right. They’ve seen a sharp downturn in business since the introduction of stricter drink-driving laws and it would be much better for business if the Road Traffic Bill was not voted through in the autumn.

The less-than-enthusiastic welcome for the bill right across the political spectrum shows just how much alcohol is insinuated in the very weave of our society.

Fianna Fáil is against the bill and six ministers have expressed concerns about its potential impact on Garda resources, the courts and the social fabric of rural Ireland.

It’s the latter point that is exercising Deputy Healy-Rae — and he has a valid point. It’s too easy to dismiss him as a colourful maverick because he is right to say that further pub closures will lead to more social isolation in rural areas.

There has been talk of looking at the possibility of supplementing taxi trips to allow people drink safely.

Anything that promotes ease of movement in rural Ireland is a good thing, but you have to admit that the thinking is bonkers. In what other country would a government agree to help bring people to the pub while letting them hang when they’re trying to get to and from other vital services — shops, schools, post offices?

That in itself goes to show the hold that alcohol has on us.

It must also be said that it shouldn’t be beyond people drinking in rural pubs to figure out a safe way of getting home for themselves. What’s wrong with having a designated driver? Or pooling resources to fund their own taxi?

If everyone chipped in the price of a pint and put it towards the cost of a taxi or bus that would go a long way towards solving the problem. And it would give work to the taxi/bus driver.

You can’t really say that, though, just as you can’t say that alcohol — even in small amounts – might be bad for us.

Just as science tells us that three glasses of beer impairs our judgement on the road, it also tells us that it can be detrimental to health. To quote just one example, the Irish Cancer Society estimates that about 900 new cancers and 500 cancer deaths a year can be
attributed to alcohol consumption.

The denial, however, is rock solid. When you see it alive and well at the very highest levels of our society — government and industry, for example — you know that the party is set to rock on, and on.

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