Irish pols protest proposed drunk-driving limits

DUBLIN, Ireland — In recent months the Irish government has taken some measures that have been deeply unpopular with its own backbenchers, including pay cuts, reduced privileges and an income tax.

Finally one action has provoked them into open rebellion — the introduction of a bill to lower drunk-driving limits.

When transport minister Noel Dempsey introduced his Road Traffic Bill to a closed meeting of backbench TDs (members of parliament) of the majority Fianna Fail party one evening this month there was an uproar.

The measure provides for a reduction in the permitted blood alcohol limit from eight to five grams of alcohol per 10 liters of blood, or from a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit in the United States — to 0.05 percent.

The resistance came mainly from rural TDs who argued that the new law would discriminate against country people in isolated areas who traditionally socialize in the village pub.

Many country pubs have already shut because of lost business due to the economic crisis, a smoking ban and increased enforcement of drunk driving laws.

Jackie Healy Rae, an independent TD from County Kerry, who supports the coalition government, said he would vote against the bill even if it meant bringing the government down.

“It’s the poor fella that calls in for a pint and a half on the way home from the likes of Castleisland or Kenmare Mart, that’s who I’m looking out for,” he told the Kerryman newspaper.

The present limit — the same as in the United Kingdom but higher than in most European Union countries — allows a driver to drink roughly two pints of light beer or two glasses of wine, depending on body weight, according to "The Facts about Drinking and Driving," published by the U.K. Transport and Road Research Laboratory.

Lowering the limit would likely restrict a customer to a maximum of one pint of Guinness, opponents of the measure say.

A similar rebellion in 2001 by backbenchers in Portugal, where there is a strong tradition of drinking wine with lunch and dinner, forced the government to abandon plans to lower the limit from five to two grams of alcohol per 10 liters of blood.

The Irish government is, however, expected to survive any challenge to the bill as it has cross-party support, though its backbenchers are not giving up easily.

Mattie McGrath, Fianna Fail TD from Tipperary South, went so far as to argue on NewsTalk Radio that drinking and driving was a good thing, as he knew people “for whom drink is a relaxant and they might be more nervous without it.”

This provoked Conor Faughnan, spokesman of the Automobile Association of Ireland (AA) to respond that “people are entitled to say that the earth is flat but that doesn’t mean to say it’s right.”

In a telephone interview Faughnan said that until recently Ireland had a poor record of enforcement of drunk-driving laws compared to countries like the U.S., but that in the last decade there had been a “sea-change” in attitudes about drunk driving because of improved traffic controls.

“People coming from pubs or golf clubs now know that there is a good chance they will be stopped by police and breathalyzed,” he said.

A poll of 7,000 drivers by the AA last weekend showed that two-thirds supported the new measure, Faughnan added.

Dempsey’s hand has been strengthened by a scientific survey showing that alcohol may have been a contributory factor in 1,000 fatal collisions in Ireland in the last 10 years.

Ireland is taking its cue from Switzerland where lowering the limit from eight to five grams resulted in a 44 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities in the three years following its introduction in 2005, according to Swiss road safety officials.

“Such compelling evidence prevents the objectors from winning the high moral ground,” said Faughnan, “and the tide of public opinion is against them.”