Failure to embrace Ross’s plan shameful

That Ross’s proposed change (re drink driving) is not embraced by the whole body politic is an acute embarrassment to any country which describes itself as civilised, writes Michael Clifford

Failure to embrace Ross’s plan shameful

THERE was a great laugh about the killing and dying on Irish roads during the week. Danny Healy Rae told an Oireachtas committee that alcohol is being blamed for deaths on the road when sometimes the real reason is bushes and briars.

“Our roads aren’t adequate for pedestrians,” he told the minister for transport, Shane Ross. “We’re not allowed to cut the bushes because briars and bushes are hanging out on the road and some other do-gooders won’t let us cut the bushes except for a few months of the year.”

One wag pointed out afterwards that Danny was getting a spake in for, not one but two of, his own commercial interests. The Healy Raes are publicans, a species which believes its insight into the national condition and character is of a level that can defy science.

The Healy Raes have also, over the years, made a lucrative income from their plant hire business, with Kerry County Council being a major customer. Was Danny looking for a little business in hedge-cutting? Was he sending a missive through the national parliament to Kerry County Council that they’d want to get the finger out when it came to cutting hedges? Who knows?

The little episode may have provided the requisite light relief for some who revel in regarding the likes of Danny Healy Rae as some relic from a different age, peddling old wives tales in pursuit of a few dozen first preferences.

The reality is that while Healy Rae’s rant was offensive, particularly to those bereaved or injured as a result of the carnage, he is a relatively harmless novelty compared to the hard-nosed vested interests who lobby for an acceptable level of deaths on the roads.

Danny let fly with his horse manure at a meeting discussing plans by Ross to tighten up the drink driving laws. Currently, anybody caught driving with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood can be fined €200 and receive three penalty points. Crucially, such an offence does not include being banned from driving for a period, as is the case for those with over 80mg. This is despite the legal limit being 50mg. Ross wants the ban to apply to all caught over the limit.

Shane Ross
Shane Ross

In 2015, a study by the RSA found that nearly 40% of road fatalities involved a driver who had taken alcohol. It also found that between 2008 and 2012, 35 people were killed in collisions where the driver of a car or a motorcyclist had alcohol below the 80mg level.

Healy Rae and his brother Michael have attempted to muddy these figures by claiming that it wasn’t necessarily the driver who had the alcohol taken, but could often have been a deceased pedestrian. It’s a spurious argument, but one which infers that a lower level of deaths in that category would be more acceptable.

Rural TDs in the main parties are at one with the Healy-Raes on this but are too embarrassed to attempt to make the case. So they leave it to Danny and Michael, whose main target audience is a few publicans and dozens of voters in isolated outposts of rural Kerry.

The real lobbying is going on behind the scenes, with the power of the alcohol industry and publican organisations.

That Ross’s proposed change is not embraced by the whole body politic is an acute embarrassment to any country which describes itself as civilised. Whatever resistance he was encountering among the “acceptable level of carnage” brigade should have disappeared in light of the breath-testing scandal that has emerged in recent weeks.

We now know that between 2012 and 2016 there were 1,995,369 recorded breath tests in An Garda Siochána, of which only 1,058,157 corresponded to the use of the breathalyser equipment. Nearly half of all recorded breath tests were bogus.

The level of drink-driving in the country is estimated from detections by the gardaí. If, for example, one positive test is returned from 10 tests, then the estimated level of drink driving is 10%. Now though, we discover that half of all tests didn’t occur. This would infer in the above example that the one positive test out of ten is really one out of five, giving a level of drink driving of 20%.

In other words, the discovery of the bogus tests suggests that the level of drink driving in the country is far greater than heretofore estimated, and could be up to twice as much as it was believed to be.

In a functioning political system, concerned with the welfare of its citizens, as opposed to vested interests, such information should have given pause for thought. Not here, not where the science associated with driver impairment is regularly denied by publicans presenting as self-appointed seers.

Then again, the body politic has been ignoring evidence in relation to drink driving for decades. The concept of random breath tests only came into law in 2006, despite there being a growing awareness of the cost of lives due to drink-driving since the 1970s.

Prior to 2006, it was necessary for a garda to have a “suspicion” that a driver had been drinking before the breathalyser could be produced. If the test was positive that “suspicion” would be put under a glaring spotlight in a court where a solicitor would seek to portray it as misplaced.

The recommendation for random breath tests was first made in 1999, but the vested interests kicked up blue murder. The government of the day let it be known that there may be a problem with random tests interfering with constitutional rights.I kid you not.

By 2006, the power of the publicans had waned; the anger at the carnage had increased, and suddenly there were no constitutional problems and random tests were brought in. How many hundreds of lives in that seven-year period were consigned to the category of an acceptable level of deaths in order to placate vested interests?

In a country that values the lives of its citizens as much as vested interests, there would be no argument about Shane Ross’s proposal. If anything, the whole body politic would hang its head in shame that the proposal was not already firmly lodged in legislation. The dead, the injured and the bereaved deserve no less.

Equally, the notion that publicans are the guardians of rural Ireland, fighting nobly against isolation, deeply concerned for the plight of those physically cut off from their community, is quite preposterous. Rural Ireland is in decline. Services are being withdrawn. Jobs are drying up. It is being drained of the lifeblood of youth. Serious action is required to stem the outward flow.

To conflate such real concerns with the notion that getting behind the wheel after a few pints is a saving grace for rural Ireland is a deep insult to those who are fighting to arrest the decline.

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