Monday 24 October 2016

Terry Prone: Are we there yet? Not when it comes to drink driving

A Garda checkpoint
A Garda checkpoint

When we hear the impact statement of the mother of a dead four-year-old, his life stolen by a drunk driver, we feel helpless and ask if we have learned nothing.

Because it seemed that Ireland had changed its attitude to alcohol.

On the one hand, long, boozy lunches seemed to belong in the past. Gone is the willingness to get into a car and drive with three quarters of a bottle of wine sloshing around inside the driver.

The older generation watched admiringly as business executives in their 20s and early 30s raised their eyebrows at the very idea of drink driving.

Fair dues to the young people, went the commentary. They're all educated about alcohol in a way an older generation was not, and they know exactly how impaired you can be after one pint, never mind 10 pints.

That is true and admirably so. Some of the old patterns of alcohol use have changed.

Like the situation which saw the problem drinker colluded with by family, friends, colleagues and co-workers as they endangered themselves and everybody else on the road by getting behind the wheel of a powerful lump of steel while in no condition to manage a bumper car.

That's largely passed.

What has not passed is the unacknowledged binge drinking. Ireland may not take the perverse pride in excess that it did in the past, where a man or a woman who could "hold their drink" was admired.

They were like a big human vessel into which alcohol was poured, and were considered admirable if they could stand upright after skulling half a dozen pints, and not slur their words.

But we still have a crazy alignment of alcohol gluttony and manliness. We still refuse to acknowledge the medical damage done by skulling one pint after another.

We still underestimate the judgement attendant upon such drinking.

To misquote an American presidential aide: once into alcohol, you don't know what you know, you don't know what you don't know - but you have the misplaced courage to believe the distinction doesn't matter.


Bolstered by alcohol, people get into their cars on their own or with a rake of equally intoxicated pals and a matching bunch of drink-fuelled excuses: sure it's only a short journey, he or she is a safe driver, they're not drunk, really.

Then, the horror happens and a child dies. Or a car full of teenagers is made bits of and the teenagers inside killed, maimed or brain damaged. Families stand at graveyards, stunned in disbelief and misery.

Later, they issue a victim impact statement that commemorates the shining promise or the wonderful gifts of their dead relative.

After the crash, the lawyers go into action, as is their job, finding technicalities and errors in documentation that will allow their client to get off.

Often, indeed too often, they succeed, and their success reduces the disincentive to drunk driving and the societal shaming directed at the person who drove the life out of another human being or beings while under the influence.

The Government is reportedly planning to overhaul road traffic legislation to close loopholes allowing drunk drivers to get off.

Former Transport Minister Noel Dempsey maintains that one of the reasons our laws in this area are not joined-up is that they've been added to, piecemeal, to meet changing conditions.

If he's right, then root-and-branch is the way to go. But that is to ignore two other potent disincentives.

One is enforcement.

The more the Garda Traffic Corps are visibly present on our roads, the more drinkers will have second thoughts before putting their key - with difficulty - in the ignition. The recent increase in recruitment to An Garda Siochana should help in this regard.

But the most important factor isn't legislation or enforcement. It's us.

It's the culture of tolerance that shrugs in the face of criminal irresponsibility.

Every one of us should have the courage to take the keys off a drunk driver before they kill themselves or someone else.

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