Drink Driving…can we have a bit of perspective please?

12 July, 2009

The fact that publicans are lobbying against the proposed drop in the permissable blood alcohol level for motorists does not necessarily mean, even to a cynic, that the proposal is a Good Thing.

The adverse social effects of the proposed change (from 80 mg to 50mg/ml blood) are significant, particularly in rural areas, and are not outweighed by potential savings in road deaths or injuries.  There is no evidence that any such savings exist to any material extent.

Despite what you may think, in recent years the number of deaths on our roads has fallen significantly, and we are now one of the safest countries in this respect.  If you confined your sources of information on this topic to the tabloid media and the Road Safety “Industry”, you probably believe otherwise.  Witness how the number of road deaths has fallen over the past 40 years:

road deaths

The graph shows a two-thirds decline from the 1970s and, despite a low proportion of motorway-standard roads (the safest type of road), Ireland is one of the safest places to drive in the world.  So much for the oft-quoted “carnage” on our roads.

The increased risk of being involved in an accident at 80mg blood alcohol level compared to 50mg is miniscule, and is certainly smaller than the risks associated with driving whilst tired, ill, or stressed.  Not to mention the  effect of rowdy children, eating ice creams, smoking a cigarette, or even tuning the radio.  We must accept that we are are surrounded each day by risk, and it is futile to think that society can be improved in an overall sense by trying to legislate away all causes of risk. 

On the other hand, studies suggest that a young person who had been drinking was 2.5 times more likely to have a crash than an older person who had been drinking, so there may be merit in having a very low limit for persons under the age of (say) 25.   Many European countries have what is effectively a zero limit for young or novice drivers: they permit only a trace in the bloodstream in case the driver has used some innocuous substance containing alcohol.

As in so many other areas, I am convinced that greater enforcement of existing rules and limits would yield a more favourable result, rather than rushing in with more and tighter regulations.  This is what is being proposed in the UK, in a consultation document published by the Department of Transport;  they are planning to leave the 80mg limit in place but will “work to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the enforcement process” for the existing limit.

I hope the Minister will have the guts to leave the current 80mg limit in place.  However, the temptation to be seen to be doing something about supposed “road carnage”, and politicians’ natural tendency to legislate rather than manage, suggest I will be disappointed.


2 Responses to “Drink Driving…can we have a bit of perspective please?”

  1. […] an earlier post on this topic, I said: I hope the Minister will have the guts to leave the current 80mg limit in place.  […]

  2. […] the right policy to reduce the permissable blood-alcohol levels (and I argue in this post and in this post that it’s not), there is no point in opposing it just because jobs will be lost in the […]

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