Over the Limit

As Kerry County Council seeks to legalise drink-driving, Nicole Casey examines our fall in road fatalities, and how we can continue the trend.Road safety has become an issue of utmost importance in Ireland. Fatalities involving motor vehicles have reached a record low in recent years, namely due to the actions undertaken by the Irish Government to curb drink-driving and speeding. The introduction of random breath testing, as well as the highly effective penalty points system, has meant that death tolls on Irish roads have seen a consistent decrease in the last four years.However, a recent motion passed by Kerry’s County Council members to allow rural drivers to drive over the legal alcohol-blood level threatens to derail the progress the Irish government have worked so hard to achieve.The motion, put forward by controversial councillor Danny Healy-Rae, looks to give Gardai permission to issue permits to people living in isolated areas, allowing them to drive after consuming alcohol over and above the legal limit. When asked to explain the motivation behind his controversial motion, Healy-Rae explained that a relaxed policy towards rural drink driving would combat depression and isolation, which he claims has become rife in rural areas, especially among the older generation.He commented on the issue, saying: “A lot of these people are living in isolated rural areas where there’s no public transport of any kind, and they end up at home looking at the four walls, night in and night out, because they don’t want to take the risk of losing their licence.”The motion was passed at a Council meeting by five votes to three. It is believed that seven councillors abstained while 12 were absent when the vote was taken. Controversially, the five who voted in favour are all publicans, former publicans or connected to the pub trade. The council will now ask Ireland’s Minister for Justice to relax the current law on drink driving.Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, however, has rejected this idea completely, stating: “There is no question of this government, or indeed I don’t believe any future government, facilitating individuals drinking in excess of the blood alcohol limits.”Blood-alcohol limits were reduced in October 2011, bringing Irish law into line with European levels. The previous law, which allowed drivers 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, was one of the highest in the world. Now, the limit is only 50mg for most drivers, which equates to roughly less than a single pint of beer. Learner, novice, and professional drivers in Ireland are now limited to a maximum of 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.The decline in fatalities on Irish roads has had many positive impacts for the economy, including an increase in tourism. European families looking to travel abroad are more likely to choose Ireland as a holiday destination now we have a higher safety ranking and fewer road deaths. However, allowing rural drivers permission to drive under the influence of alcohol would only hinder this newfound safety status Ireland has achieved.However, Managing Director for Drive Risk Down, Mike Kavanagh, claims that our high levels of road safety did not occur overnight: “Unfortunately there is no silver bullet when it comes to improving road safety. There are four key elements which have influenced road safety performance; education, engineering, enforcement and evaluation. Education has played its part through the running of awareness campaigns on television, in schools as well guidance for employers. Engineering has influenced improvements in car design to include a range of safety features which play an active role in reducing the possibility of a collision occurring. Enforcement plays a very important role in encouraging compliance with Road Traffic Legislation…especially the introduction of the Penalty Points scheme. Finally evaluation…includes the work of both the RSA and HAS, [who] provide a framework with targets, milestones and allocation of responsibility to ensure that we are moving in the right direction,” says Kavanagh.According to Healy-Rae, it is the isolation of the elderly and the increasing levels of depression that have given cause to the implementation of drink-driving permits. However, it is a well-known fact that alcohol is a depressant. Rather than alleviating any mental health problems a person may be struggling with, it will only increase them.Improving road safety is an individual task, and one which everyone must make a valiant effort to participate in. According to Kavanagh, this can be done by recognising hazards, and creating time and space.“You can take effective action by considering changes to your position, your speed and your communication options… Create time and space. You can create time by looking further ahead and reducing your speed. You can create space by keeping well back from the vehicle in front, as well as positioning to improve your view.”Our figure for road deaths in relation to other EU countries is continuing to improve because of the effort every individual chooses to make when driving. It is important to be aware of everything around you, and focus solely on the task of driving safely. Kavanagh concluded: “Recognising hazards is important when you consider that the most common phrase after a collision is ‘I didn’t see him.’”