MICHAEL CLIFFORD: There is no acceptable level of road deaths

Danny Healy Rae is merely articulating what many rural politicians say in private. They hide behind his colour and give thanks that he’s willing to go out and hurl for the cause, writes Michael Clifford

What brings out the creative best in our politicians? Is it conceiving plans to tackle homelessness? Or perhaps devising ways to improve the health service?

What about ideas to wean the country off its over reliance on foreign direct investment?

All of these issues might be expected to see the political classes rummage deep within the collective imagination to conceive solutions. But for some, the real creativity only kicks in when they attempt to defend perpetuating an acceptable level of deaths on the nation’s roads.

The Road Traffic Bill 2017 was discussed at Cabinet last Tuesday and will be introduced to the Dáil in the autumn. Its main section of contention involves a provision to increase the penalty for those caught driving with between 50mg and 80mg of alcohol per 100mg of blood.

As things stand, it’s illegal to drive with more than 50mg. But the real penalty — automatic disqualification from driving — only kicks in at 80mg. Between 50mg and 80mg the sanction is three penalty points and a €200 file. Now the minister for Transport Shane Ross wants to see
the greater deterrent of disqualification applied at 50mg.

The evidence is compelling. A Road Safety Authority (RSA) study found that between 2008 and 2012 35 fatalities occurred in which a driver had between 20mg and 80mg of alcohol.

It does not definitively follow that the fatality can be attributed solely to the driver’s impairment being responsible for the fatal accident. Equally though, that possibility cannot be discounted. If only half of those fatalities were attributable to driver impairment through alcohol, we’re still talking about four avoidable deaths a year.

There is a wider context. Increasing the deterrent for the lower levels may go towards attacking the overall culture of drink driving, which is a factor in 38% of all fatal road traffic accidents.

The issue is being presented as an attack on rural Ireland. Really? The majority of road deaths occur in rural Ireland. There is no evidence that the majority of people in rural Ireland favour lenient drink-driving laws.

In an Irish Examiner poll last September, 23% of farmers said they had driven home after consuming at least three pints in the previous six months. One in five said they would feel “safe enough” getting behind the wheel after drinking four pints. Is that kind of culture acceptable to those whose lives are put in danger?

This is about the vested interests in rural Ireland, the publicans, the drinks industry, and yes, some people who strongly believe they should be entitled to drink and drive without fear of real sanction. Should the whole country be held to ransom by that small but powerful cohort?

For some, there is an acceptable level of avoidable deaths. This position is not new. In 1998, a recommendation to permit random breath testing was dismissed by the government over “constitutional issues”. When attitudes changed towards the killings, the issues disappeared. In 2006, the government brought in random testing. Once the public mood would no longer tolerate the killing, the constitutional issues disappeared.

It’s the same thing today, although there are fewer lives at stake, but that only matters if you believe in an acceptable level of avoidable deaths.

Disputing the evidence is where the politicians’ creativity is called into play.

Danny Healy Rae doesn’t buy any of that stuff about driver impairment in any form. He simply does not believe that anybody who has three glasses of stout could be impaired in driving a vehicle. So he told Pat Kenny repeatedly on Newstalk last Tuesday. He then added that he doesn’t drink himself, so how does he know these things?

For Danny’s belief trumps science. He previously told the Dáil that God is the master of climate change, not man. And now he appears to believe a higher power guides the steering wheel of the alcohol-impaired driver.

Danny is merely articulating in public what many rural politicians say in private. They hide behind his colour and give thanks that he’s willing to go out and hurl for the cause.

Over on RTÉ, Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy urged everybody to look away. He pointed out that of more than 8,000 arrests for drink driving last year, only 600 were in the 50mg to 80mg category. “If automatic disqualification was such a deterrent why are the majority in that (the higher alcohol level) category.” To follow his logic, if the current regime of disqualification isn’t working, then the obvious thing is to increase the deterrent for all drink driving. But that’s not what Mr Troy wants. He is merely grasping at anything that looks like logic to dispute the sense of the proposed change.

Michael Fitzmaurice is ordinarily a sensible fellow, but he referenced the state of the roads as the real problem, not drink driving. He also cited a lack of enforcement.

“Nobody wants to see anybody dying,” he said. “It’s all down to enforcement.” Everything being spouted in this regard is designed to get people to look away from the obvious. A number of different factors contribute to road fatalities, but none of that takes from the fact that avoidable deaths occur when there is insufficient sanction for driving with even a small quantity of alcohol on board.

At party level, the politics is just as cynical. Three years ago Fine Gael didn’t allow a free vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, a matter that is all about conscience.

Now, Leo Varadkar is contemplating allowing a free vote on this bill. This has nothing to do with conscience and everything to do with votes and vested interests. Presumably, the next time the government introduces swingeing cuts in disadvantaged areas, the local TDs will be allowed a free vote to oppose it.

Mr Ross is happy to allow his colleagues in the Independent Alliance oppose his bill, which says plenty about both Ross and his colleagues.

Fianna Fáil is opposing the bill because the party knows where its bread is buttered. Lives are grand and all that, but the meat of politics come first. The Labour party is wrestling with its conscience to determine whether it can get away with opposing it.

Surprisingly, Sinn Féin is supporting Mr Ross. The party is bypassing the opportunity to seek crass political advantage at the expense of the common good. Perhaps they are using this as a dry run for how it might feel in government.

Overall though, the positioning on this matter, the craven attitude to vested interests, the cynical spouting of blather says much about priorities in our political culture. If only the same creativity could be directed towards dealing with the most pressing issues facing the country.


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