Implications of Alcohol Abuse for Road Safety: Statements.

Tuesday, 28 April 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 155 No. 6

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Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): Information on Robert Molloy  Zoom on Robert Molloy  There is increased public and political concern about road safety. Ireland, in common with most European Union countries, has greatly improved its road safety performance over the past 20 years but economic growth, which is increasing road travel and driver and vehicle numbers, is now threatening to erode these gains and to re-establish adverse trends. Already in 1998, 129 people have died in road accidents. We need intensified action for road safety.

Some months ago the high level group on road safety was mandated to develop and submit to [292] Government a national road safety strategy. I spoke in the House last November about this strategic approach to road safety policy. It is a new and critically important initiative. It will provide better co-ordination and prioritisation of existing road safety activities and a platform for new initiatives.

The development of the strategy has provided full opportunity for assessing our efforts and has highlighted the need to reinforce and, where appropriate, redirect those efforts. All aspects of existing arrangements, measures and approaches have been reviewed in this context. This is the first time a structured and systematic approach has been taken to road safety policy in Ireland. A similar strategic approach has been adopted by some of the countries in Europe with the best road safety records, including the Netherlands and Sweden. I am confident that it will benefit Irish performance considerably. Work on the strategy will shortly be completed and it will be presented to Government prior to its publication. I look forward to the support of the House for measures to be taken in the context of the strategy to improve Ireland's road safety performance and reduce the high toll of death and injury on our roads.

In the meantime, the State and its agencies have continued to be active in relation to road safety. A substantially increased grant has been provided to the National Safety Council in 1998 for the purpose of improving road safety and promoting road accident prevention. The National Roads Authority has increased its provision in 1998 for its low cost safety measures programme and for other road safety related measures. Garda enforcement of road traffic law continues to be given a high priority under the direction of the National Traffic Policy Bureau. The Garda Operation Lifesaver is continuing through 1998 and its effectiveness is constantly reviewed and improvements made to enhance enforcement as necessary.

It is a cause for grave concern that despite more frequent reminders from the National Safety Council of the risks and consequences and despite improved enforcement by the Garda, which serves as a further reminder and seeks to punish offenders, we are still experiencing a high incidence of death and injuries from road accidents.

The causes of road accidents are many and are generally well known to us — excessive and inappropriate speeding and drink driving are the primary contributory factors to road accidents in Ireland. These so called “driver actions”, combined with a significant percentage of drivers and passengers not wearing seat belts, are the primary causes of the high levels of death and injury resulting from road accidents here as elsewhere.

Today we are considering just one of those accident causes or contributory factors. This debate is focusing on the implications for road safety of alcohol abuse. There is significant data [293] available from other countries and international organisations about the effects of alcohol and the extent to which it is a factor in road accidents.

Small quantities of alcohol can impair a driver's concentration. Factors such as fatigue, illness, stress and drugs can exacerbate the effects and can cause severe concentration loss even when a small quantity of alcohol is consumed. When the blood/alcohol level exceeds 80 milligrammes, the normal reaction is over-estimation of ability, impairment of peripheral vision and of the eye's reaction to lights and dark. Judgment of distance and speed of oncoming vehicles, impairment of ability to react and a tendency to take risks can actually set in at lower levels. It is important, therefore, that all drivers should heed the message of the National Safety Council, to never drink and drive. This is the safest approach.

It is estimated in this country that alcohol is a factor in 25 per cent of all road accidents and in 33 per cent of fatal accidents. The blame lies with irresponsible drivers and pedestrians. One third of pedestrians killed have very high blood alcohol levels and most of these accidents occur during the hours of darkness.

These figures are a serious indictment of Irish social practices. We must question whether we should be willing in this country to accept a level of death and injury caused by drivers and pedestrians who have consumed alcohol, in order to maintain a certain lifestyle. It is clear from the accident statistics that behavioural changes are necessary to effect a reduction in the number of fatalities and injuries on our roads where alcohol is a contributory factor. Every single drink related accident is a totally avoidable and unnecessary waste of life and limb.

Drink driving law in Ireland has been recently and comprehensively reviewed. The Road Traffic Acts, 1994 and 1995 reduced the maximum permissible blood alcohol limit to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood and put in place one of the most stringent penalty systems in the EU. We all recall the protracted public and political discussion engaged in at the time of the introduction of that legislation. It is now incumbent upon us as legislators to support the implementation of the new limits so as to contribute to a reduction in accident and injury numbers.

The EU Commission's Road Safety Programme for 1997 to 2000 suggests that there would be between 5 per cent and 40 per cent less fatalities if by legislation, enforcement, telematics or education, the estimated one in 20 of the driver population that sometimes drives under the influence of alcohol could be convinced or compelled not to drive with a blood alcohol content over 50 milligrammes. That programme includes the reexamination of a proposal for a directive to harmonise blood alcohol limits across the EU at 50 milligrammes.

When the Road Traffic Act, 1994, was passed into law Ireland joined a majority of EU member states in operating an 80 milligramme limit. The priority for us since that has been to enforce that [294] limit and to gain good public support for it rather than to embark on further legislative change. A number of EU countries have since moved down or are planning to move down to the lower 50 milligramme limit. We will monitor and assess the effectiveness of such moves.

The question of driving while under the influence of drugs is also an issue of concern. It is illegal, under the Road Traffic Acts, to drive while under the influence of drugs, whether they be medicinal or illicit. The law is directed at the behaviour of drivers. However, testing methods are not as developed as those for alcohol. I look forward to the outcome of work being done in this area as part of the EU Commission's road safety programme which includes the development of methodologies for roadside checks and consideration of warning labels on medicines.

The success of the Christmas drink driving campaign in this country since the beginning of the 1990s supports the concept of combined multi-agency campaigns, in which education and enforcement are used concurrently, to influence public attitude and behaviour. Those campaigns were strengthened by the legislative changes in 1994 and we can now confidently say that a certain level of social unacceptability of drink driving has been achieved in Ireland.

Nonetheless, more remains to be done. This is further evidenced in the results of analyses carried out by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. In 1997, 62 per cent of the more than 6,500 cases analysed were over twice the legal limit. In the first three months of 1998, 64 per cent of the 1,750 samples analysed were over twice the legal limit. These are frightening statistics and serve to remind us that we still face a huge challenge in changing drink driving behaviour in this country. The road safety agencies must, therefore, continue to encourage and canvass public support against drink driving.

Conscious of this need, the National Safety Council and the Garda Síochána have, since 1996, operated a summer drink driving campaign to remind people that drinking and driving is not just a Christmas phenomenon. The risk exists all year round. The summer campaign will run again this year and will, I hope, further contribute to our efforts to change not just attitudes but behaviour.

Public support is vital to the success of these campaigns. This support needs to be nurtured and encouraged on a continuous basis as we face the challenge of reducing the numbers and effects of road accidents. I welcome the support of business interests for last year's Christmas campaign where some companies undertook promotions and advertising against drink driving. In 1996, the AA launched a drink driving video for young people which was made with the support of the international drinks industry group. We need more of this type of activity to spread the message, to encourage peer support for not drinking and driving and to develop further the social unacceptability of drinking and driving.

[295] Public support will be critical also to the successful implementation of measures in the forthcoming national road safety strategy. While it would be premature to try to detail these measures, one area for action will certainly involve the harnessing of technology to improve enforcement of the law.

As my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, stated recently at the launch of his Department's national alcohol awareness campaign, it is the Government's intention to encourage responsible and safe behaviour in regard to alcohol use. If that means changing behaviour patterns to save lives, we must accept the challenge and face up to the reality of the implications for road safety of alcohol misuse.

Mr. J. Doyle: Information on Joseph Doyle  Zoom on Joseph Doyle  Recently the Seanad debated the implications of speeding on road safety and I am pleased today to have the opportunity to speak on the implications of alcohol abuse for road safety. The high toll of deaths and injuries on our roads is the cause of these debates.

Alcohol plays an important role in accidents, particularly in severe accidents. Although I found it difficult to obtain precise figures for the role of alcohol in road accidents, I am surprised and horrified by the figures quoted by the Minister of State. He said that alcohol is a factor in 25 per cent of accidents causing injury and in 35 per cent of serious and fatal accidents. These figures demonstrate that we have a serious problem in this regard.

Despite the advice of Government and road safety organisations that the safest option is not to drink and drive, many drivers still look to the legal limit for guidance on safe drinking and driving levels. Currently, five different levels are operated in EU countries. In Ireland the legal limit is set at 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood and I am glad to hear that the level might be further reduced.

Most people consider their consumption of alcohol to be social drinking. Responsible and moderate drinking of alcohol removes inhibitions, helps people to talk more freely and makes them feel relaxed. Negative reasons for drinking include consuming alcohol to escape from unwanted talk and feelings or merely to comply with the expectations of other people.

A rough guide is sometimes given to drivers in respect of alcohol consumption. For example, an average male weighing 11st will reach the legal limit following the rapid consumption of two pints of beer after a recent meal. However, the major variability in the quantity of alcohol in different beverages and the way in which individuals are affected by alcohol makes it unwise to rely on counting units as a way to remain below the legal limit for driving. The initial effects of consuming a small amount of alcohol dictate that people should not use any form of machinery let alone be in control of a vehicle.

[296] Alcohol has a dehydrating effect, that is, it removes water and reduces the ability of cells to function correctly. It provides a feeling of warmth by widening blood cells near the surface of the skin, thus increasing the flow of blood to them. This is usually caused by a loss of body heat. More importantly, however, alcohol acts as a powerful depressant of the central nervous system. It has the initial effect of impairing the most complex brain functions, such as the impairment of behavioural inhibitions and self-criticism. When driving, these effects alone increase the risk of accidents. Under the influence of alcohol drivers take greater risks and they believe they are driving better than they would under normal circumstances.

Enforcement procedures differ throughout the European Union. In Ireland, breathalysing equipment is used to detect the presence of alcohol in the system. However, blood and urine tests remain the only form of evidence which is legally admissible in respect of drink driving offences. At present, gardaí usually ask drivers to take a breathalyser test when alcohol is detected on their breath or if they have been observed driving in a dangerous or erratic manner. I would like to see random breathalyser tests introduced so that any driver could be stopped and asked to take such a test. I make this point because there is wide agreement in international scientific literature that increasing drivers' perception of the risks of being detected for excess alcohol is an important element in any package of measures designed to reduce alcohol related accidents. There is strong evidence that a high level of breath testing reinforced by publicity campaigns is a key to achieving the goal of deterrence. It might be necessary to continue publicity campaigns to encourage a climate of opinion that drinking and driving is a socially unacceptable activity.

Many drink driving offences occur following visits to pubs and restaurants. Social events are often held far from residential areas in places which are difficult or impossible to reach other than by private car. Additional public transport and changing the location of discos and other social events might help to decrease the level of drink driving.

I am pleased that in recent years a variety of low alcohol and alcohol free drinks has been introduced to the market. These can prove popular when combining social activities with the need to drive a car. A more enthusiastic marketing approach should be put in place to illustrate the positive image of low alcohol and alcohol free drinks. In addition, a price advantage should be introduced, for example, through the reduction of taxation levels, in respect of these beverages which would have the effect of increasing their market share. The Minister for Finance might consider this option in his next budget.

It would not be appropriate to conclude without referring to Dr. Michael Loftus, the north Mayo coroner who has campaigned against drink driving for most of his life. Referring recently to [297] the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, he stated that this tragedy had focused international attention on the role of alcohol in accidents. He further stated that similar accidents occur in this country and the real tragedy is that we continue to turn a blind eye to them. He issued a challenge to politicians, law makers and law enforcers to address this ongoing national tragedy and publish yearly detailed statistics to provide a more realistic picture. These figures should show the number of road deaths, the level of alcohol in victims and details in respect of victims hospitalised as a result of road accidents with the level of alcohol provided in each case. He went on to say that every statistic meant the avoidable end of a life and the loss of a partner or family member. He appealed for action so that living people would not become such statistics by the negligence of those who have the power to bring about change. I concur with his views and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak on this issue in the House.

Mr. Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy  Zoom on Donie Cassidy  I thank Senator Farrell for allowing me to speak before him. I welcome the opportunity to speak on alcohol abuse, particularly by young people, and fatalities on the roads. In 1997, 7,000 people were admitted to psychiatric hospitals for treatment for alcohol abuse. Of these, 400 were under 21 years of age. Alcohol is acceptable in moderation but its abuse is a problem, especially when one considers that 20 per cent of admissions to hospital last year were related to it. Such statistics are alarming given that one in five of the population does not drink and is a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.

Nowadays it may be thought great to drink but when I was at school and representing my county we were taught that a fit body would give a fit brain, a fit brain would give confidence and confidence could move mountains. That is how clubs and colleges won championships in sport. Sports people accepted that what was good for the body was good for the brain and that confidence would follow.

As legislators we allow too much advertising and promotion of alcohol which can lead to abuse. We do not need extended drinking hours in pubs. Over 30 per cent of road accidents happen after dark and in my estimation 40 per cent of road accidents are drink related. There were eight fatalities last week, eight the week before that and 14 the week before that again. These are alarming figures. The vast majority of publicans and hoteliers do all they can to run proper establishments and are concerned for their customers.

The main abuse of alcohol is among teenagers. The under age drinking that takes place in Ireland is disgraceful, appalling and out of control. It is for this reason that as Leader of the House I agreed to have this issue discussed as a matter of urgency. About half our population is under 30 years of age and it is of the utmost importance to protect young people. Bar extensions [298] are commonplace in discos, hotels and other establishments and nobody under the age of 21 years should be admitted to them.

When we were young we were more responsible because the temptation to drink was not as strong. At that time one had to have time and money if one wanted to drink and most people had neither. However, society has progressed. The economy is buoyant and everyone has money in their pockets, but it seems that the only way to enjoy one's evening is to get stone drunk out of one's mind. That is an insult to the intelligence of any human being in any country.

The demand for after hours opening is coming from the drinks business but tourists do not want it. I am familiar with the tourist trade. Most tourists are in bed early and they get up early. Most tour coaches leave hotels before 8.30 a.m. and the tourists are in bed by 12.30 a.m.

For whom are we being asked to provide longer opening hours? There is a belief that longer hours would create a small amount of extra tourism business for the likes of Temple Bar. It will be a poor day, however, if we amend the licensing laws to provide longer opening hours for bars across the country just to facilitate one small part of the capital city,

We should look at the issue from the point of view of employees and employers. A good friend of mine had 37 people working on a construction site but the morning after St. Patrick's Day only two turned up for work. These are alarming statistics. How many people are going to work on construction sites on Monday mornings?

People should hear the other side of the story because for the last three or four weeks in the media I have only heard one side of the argument from the drinks industry, which is seeking longer opening hours. We should see what our European counterparts are doing. We should also examine our productivity. I do not think too many EU countries support longer opening hours, particularly if one takes productivity into account.

Next year, with the advent of the new single currency, we will be participating in one of the world's three major currencies, which are the euro, the dollar and the yen. If we do not live up to that role in relation to productivity we will not be able to compete. As a previous speaker said on today's Order of Business, a minimum wage must be related to productivity. The minimum wage being discussed at present would be the second highest in the world.

I agree with the control of alcohol concerning road fatalities and there is an urgent need for liquor laws to be changed on Saturday night, which has become the new social night out. Since 68 per cent of people attending Mass now do so on a Saturday evening, the old objection the Church had to extending Saturday licensing hours is no longer valid.

Closing a pub or hotel at 12 o'clock on a Saturday night is not socially in line with the requirements of the general public. As people do not have to work on Sunday I would support a [299] change in Saturday night opening hours. I also support the 2 to 4 o'clock opening hours on Sunday afternoons.

In relation to the recommendations before us, Dr. Michael Loftus has spent his entire life dealing with this issue as a county coroner. He has enormous experience in this area. I congratulate him and assure him of my personal support in his fight to make the Government react to what is happening with regard to alcohol abuse. It is not pleasant to have to report that 7,000 people were admitted to psychiatric hospitals for treatment for alcohol abuse in 1997. Twenty per cent of admissions to general hospitals were alcohol related; this speaks for itself.

I welcome the Minister of State's contribution which was down to earth, meaningful and answered some of our questions. The licensing laws are being considered by Government. I ask the Minister of State to convey to it the responsibility of parents and teachers to teach the next generation to respect rather than abuse alcohol.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on some of the steps already taken to address this problem. I agree that a certain level of social unacceptability of drink driving has been achieved and that five years ago many more teenagers may have considered drinking and driving. I hope Senator Cassidy's proposals will be considered. He spoke from the heart and conveyed his concern and anxiety.

It is somewhat unnerving to be debating road safety just a week after this House discussed the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland. There is a massive ground swell of public support for the peace process, driven, in large measure, by revulsion against the thousands of unnecessary deaths in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years. However, despite this attitude we tolerate even more people being killed every year and the deaths on our roads are as unnecessary and as avoidable as the deaths in Northern Ireland.

It is incredible that, even during the worst year of the Troubles, the number of deaths resulting from violence was less than the number of deaths in traffic accidents in Ireland, North and South. In more recent years, Irish road deaths have massively outnumbered deaths through violence. However, road deaths do not get the same dramatic headlines. I welcome this debate because I hope it will remind us of the tragedy of the statistics mentioned by the Minister of State.

Every year, in this jurisdiction alone, more than the number of people on a jumbo jet are killed on our roads. It is easy to say that road deaths are inevitable — wherever there is traffic, there are road deaths. However, the number of road deaths in Ireland is higher than in the US, higher than the average for the EU, and much higher than Britain, which has a higher density of road traffic.

Alcohol and speeding are major causes of road accidents but problems with roads and vehicles [300] also contribute. However, our national attitude to death on the roads overrides all these causes. The carnage on the roads is high because we allow it to be so. That is the real and unforgivable scandal. Our national attitude towards death on the roads is part of the problem. We need to concentrate on this because we can do something about it. As a nation which is so revolted by political violence and so elated by the prospect that we may have seen an end to it, how can we tolerate an even higher level of death from road accidents?

The reason for our attitude is that we do not believe anything can be done about it. We have a fatalistic approach to road deaths. We wrongly believe they are an inevitable side effect of traffic — the more traffic there is the more cars there are, and the more deaths there will be. So, we just wring our hands every Monday morning when we read about the latest weekend toll. We just nod in agreement when people rail against drunk driving or excessive speeding. However, deep down we do not believe anything will ever change.

This attitude is profoundly wrong. We can change things, and I will suggest a way to do it. If my analysis of this problem is correct, the main barrier to change is our conviction that road deaths on the present scale are inevitable.

Perhaps we can prove to ourselves that it is within our power, as a nation, to control that level of death. I have made the following suggestion in this House previously, and I will go on making it until someone decides to do something about it.

We should choose one weekend and decide there will be no fatal road accidents. We could do this by mobilising the community as we do for an event such as the People in Need Telethon. The nation focused on that for the weekend and everyone knew it was taking place. For just one weekend, we could focus everyone's attention and behaviour on one issue.

One weekend is not too much too ask for. It is hard to ask people never to drink and drive again. However, asking them not to do it for one weekend is an objective much easier to achieve. We could ask them not to speed and to ensure their cars are in good condition for one weekend. This is a far more practical approach than sighing every Monday morning and asking why someone does not do something. This single weekend could change the national attitude.

If we can prove that, by individual effort, we can cut out road deaths then, for the first time, we will start to change things. We cannot eliminate road deaths overnight. However, we can make a radical change in our attitude in a single weekend. I get excited at that prospect, especially when I see what the telethon can achieve. A great deal of publicity and focusing of attention would be needed for the Minister to galvanise the nation for one weekend. However, it would be possible to achieve as nobody would exceed the speed limit for that weekend, whatever the urgency, because they would identify with the campaign.

[301] The cost of such a campaign would be minuscule compared to the hardship and tragedy the current carnage creates. Astronomical sums are not involved and I would not be surprised if large numbers of people and companies supported it financially. However, the money could be found in existing budgets. How many more times will I have to put forward practical proposals before we wake up to the truth that road deaths on this scale are not inevitable? We can control our destiny, it is in our hands to be able to do something about this. I would love to see the Minister focus attention on that and fix a date. It could be done and everybody would wake up and decide to behave themselves for that weekend.

There is a concern between two different arms of the State. Local authorities do not always respond to the directions given to them by the Garda and National Safety Council with the speed and commitment they should. I refer to road signage and markings, particularly in blackspots identified by the Garda. Financial constraints on local authorities sometimes mean they are put on the long finger rather than being dealt with immediately. The Government can knock heads together and remind people to work together. This is a tragedy as big as that in the North. If one thinks of the efforts galvanised into making sure a solution was found to the problems of the North, the same commitment should put into solving the problem of death on our roads.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell  Zoom on Willie Farrell  This is an important subject and I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. Approximately 450 people were killed on the roads in 1997 of whom 150 were over the drink drive limit. As a result of the abuse of alcohol there are 150 one parent families today. Can anyone imagine anything else in society could cause such mayhem? How much of an outcry would there be from the public? One need only look at the outcry about BSE and telephone masts and yet not one death was properly linked to them.

We also know that pedestrians who were killed had a high alcohol content in their blood. In last Friday's newspapers, the National Road Safety Council told us drink driving, speeding and failure to wear seat belts are the three main causes of road fatalities. Is it not time we did something serious about it and stopped the glamorisation of drink and advertising by drinks people who are multimillionaires? Anyone who has observed the Guinness family knows how many millions it made selling a drug. Alcohol is a drug and anything that affects a person's mind is a drug and yet we are prepared to accept it and allow it to go on.

People may not agree, but the drink problem is alarming. If on a Friday evening one walks around any city or town which has a college, groups of students are to be seen with six packs and carry outs. Pubs are not the problem because all one will get in them is three or four glasses at the most, but alcohol can be bought in bottles in supermarkets and off licences. There should be [302] some curtailment on to whom such drink is given. For example, all “soaps” are set in pubs and all the characters have drinks cabinets in their homes. When they go home, the first thing they do is go for a bottle. This is more glamorisation of the drink culture. Yet this substance caused one third of road deaths in 1997, has killed 43 people this year and over the past 30 years has killed more people than the problems in Northern Ireland.

People were brought in from America and Europe to sit down in the North to bring peace and stop killing. We have a similar killing machine in the South in the form of alcohol and nobody says a word about it only that it is great stuff and is good for you. When will we get our priorities right? 70 per cent of our social problems are a result of the abuse of alcohol. Pubs always control the use of it and will not give drink to teenagers, but they can get as much as they want in off licences. Many people get drunk at home before they go to pub and only go out at 11 p.m. to meet the boys or girls.

This is a major source of alcohol abuse. All pubs should be left open until midnight and there should be no extensions for hotels or otherwise. I have said this at health board meetings for years. In rural Ireland people go out at 11 p.m. on a summer's evening and if there is an extension in a nearby town they will drive there. However, they must make the same journey home, but if the pub in the local village was open until midnight people would stay in their locality. It would be better for the community as people would not travel late at night.

I have great admiration for publicans and spent my time as a garsún around one and that old publican used to say “go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam.” If one puts people out of a pub at midnight and sends them home, they are able to go to work the next day but they are not able if they are kept later. They become a nuisance at home and to everybody else. That was a great system that should be maintained.

Will the Minister take action on the glamorising and advertising of drink? Cigarette advertising was stopped and a danger notice put on boxes. There is a huge campaign against cigarette smoking, but not only smokers die. Drink kills innocent people and leaves innocent children without a mother or father. Recent statistics show that a majority of teenage pregnancies resulted from over-indulgence in alcohol.

I would like to see drink being less glamorised and a return to the old type of pub culture which is a very important part of our society. However, I am not in favour of drink being served at dances and discos. I grew up in an age where, if one showed the least sign of having taken a drink, one was not allowed into a dancehall. The halls were packed to capacity and we danced until 2 a.m. Everyone went home sober, having had an enjoyable night. The idea that one has to drink or get drunk to enjoy life is nonsense. I never took a [303] drink and I am a reasonably active and involved man. One can enjoy oneself without drink.

I do not believe that a speed of 75 miles per hour on a dual carriageway or a good primary route constitutes speeding. However, a speed of 40 miles per hour on narrow country roads is dangerous. I have been driving for more than 50 years and driving was my livelihood at one stage. When people attempt to pass out a line of cars, irrespective of the fact that they may be travelling at less than 60 miles per hour, they pose a threat to everyone in the line. I do not know how that can be policed but I do not believe travelling at 75 miles per hour on a good road or 50 miles an hour leaving a 40 mile zone poses any danger. We must reconsider this issue in a more mature way.

I believe that the majority of drivers wear seat belts and, in my opinion, the number of drivers killed as a result of not wearing them is very few. I saw a statistic some time ago that prescribed drugs are responsible for many accidents. Doctors should warn people who are taking medication that they should not drive. Many people are obliged to take tablets every three to four hours for health reasons but are they capable of driving after taking them?

I thank the Minister for coming into the House. Drink should no longer be glamorised, we should return to the local pub culture, extend pub opening hours and abolish extensions for discos and so on.

Mr. Cregan:  I agree with many of the comments made by previous speakers, particularly Senator Farrell. I am a former publican, even though I never drank in my life and I was always a very strict publican. Senator Farrell was correct when he said that the stricter one is as a publican, the more respected one is. The reason for that is that the people waiting at home for someone to return from the pub expect the publican to ensure that he or she does not have too much to drink.

I was a publican in Cork city and its suburbs. The situation in regard to drink is a frightening one and one which is not easily resolved. Intensified action must be taken on road safety and the general safety of the innocent people who are killed. The levels of affluence today are totally different to what prevailed 20 years ago. Today's students have access to their fathers', mothers', sisters' or brothers' cars. Having seven children myself, I am aware of the difficulties in slowing people down and making them aware of the dangers of drink.

Although I have never taken a drink in my life, I cannot wear the pioneer badge as publicans are prevented from doing so according to the rules of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. I find that totally illogical. I addressed a group of 1,300 pioneers during the Cork 800 celebrations during which I served as Deputy Lord Mayor.

The most contented men I have ever met are men who drink a pint. I have no doubt about that. I have observed men coming into a pub at ten [304] o'clock at night, one of whom might have been a solicitor's clerk, another a fitter and another a general operative. They sat down and played a game of cards together, drank a couple of pints each and went home very contented. On a Friday or Saturday night, I might ask their wives what they thought of their men having a pint. Their view was that if the men were not to go to the pub for a pint, they would be getting very odd indeed. It is very important for the average person to be content. One must remember the significance of pub culture to life in Ireland. Irish pub culture is unique throughout the world and that is why our visitors like it so much.

Pub opening times do not pose problems. People will always rush to get drink in the hour prior to closing time. However, under no circumstances should drink be available somewhere else if it is not available where one is drinking. That practice should be ended.

We should have a proper, regulated transport authority in this country. We should not expect the Garda to police this situation. A proper transport authority should be set up to monitor safety on our roads. The Garda are expected to police drink driving at Christmas and during the summer season.

The figures outlined by the Minister show that 64 per cent of the 1,750 samples analysed registered more than twice the legal limit of alcohol. How many were over the limit at all? What percentage of them were 10 per cent over the limit? Those are the questions we should be asking. People are showing no common sense at all by driving machines which could kill all before them after they have consumed alcohol. People may not even drive their own car; the car may belong to a person's mother or father although they may be well covered by the insurance. We must be very stringent in this area.

Senatorl Quinn referred to students. Are we prepared to organise information programmes at third level? Can we not explain to young people what the repercussions of their actions will be? I do not agree with people under the age of 21 years being served drink and I make no apologies to anyone for that. I do not think people under 21 years of age have a responsible attitude, particularly boys. One cannot compare an 18 year old boy and girl. I have four sons and three daughters myself. One may be able to compare a 24 year old boy and girl but an 18 year old boy and girl are two different people entirely. In the main, it is boys who are drinking and showing off to their friends.

The fruit drinks, now popular in bars, have a 4 per cent alcohol content. Wine, which has become very popular, often contains 14 per cent alcohol. This is much more than four pints of Guinness. The average boy would have difficulty drinking four pints of beer or lager.

The former Minister for Justice, Gerard Collins, once accepted an amendment to a Liquor Licensing Bill which stipulated that all spirits had to be sold over a counter. In supermarkets and [305] off-licences they could not be bought off a shelf and the practice of young people serving themselves in supermarkets was stopped.

Distillers are now selling spirits with fruit flavourings and in beautifully coloured bottles. These coloured bottles contain liquor, one third of which has an alcohol content of 4.4 per cent. Such a bottle, coloured like orange juice, could contain the equivalent of two glasses of vodka. Such an quantity of spirits would have a great effect on a young person.

I served drink for many years and I know what I am talking about. I once asked a young woman to give me proof of age. I thought she was under 18 and I made no apologies for questioning her. She was the mother of three children and was in her late twenties. I was simply enforcing the law. I applied the law strictly in this regard and I know that the vast majority of publicans do likewise. I know every publican in the Cork region and many throughout the country. The best person to serve drink is someone who must have his licence renewed every year and who has a responsibility to his licence. Young people, however, can buy drink in supermarkets. This is not the fault of the supermarkets but of the legislators. It is our fault.

Many of our roads are deadly. I learned a very useful lesson when the road system was restructured on the east side of Cork city. Councillors complained about traffic lights but our city traffic engineer explained that if we travelled from Douglas at 22 miles per hour we would meet green lights but if we travelled at 28 or 30 miles per hour we would be stopped at every red light. By driving faster we would not reach our destination any sooner. I tried this and it worked. A constant flow of traffic, as has been found in America, is better than going and jamming. An authority with overall responsibility for transport which could regulate traffic in this way is called for. That authority would be answerable to the relevant Minister. Regulations must be applied strictly.

Mr. Gibbons: Information on Jim Gibbons  Zoom on Jim Gibbons  I welcome the Minister again to discuss road safety. The Minister has come to the House on many occasions in the past six months to discuss this subject. In November he outlined figures which opened my eyes. They related to the huge increase in traffic over the past 20 years. In the late 1970s, in the region of 18 billion kilometres were travelled in Ireland while in 1996 the figure was in the region of 35 billion kilometres. In the same period the number of road deaths fell. We must be careful when we try to make associations concerning the causes of road deaths.

There is no doubt that the use of alcohol is a huge cause of road deaths and injuries. The level of accidents, whether associated with drink or not, is far too high and must be reduced. In the United Kingdom the volume of traffic is greater than here but the level of fatalities is half. This is a lesson for us.

[306] The condition of the roads, standards of driving instruction and the enforcement of the law can all play a part in reducing the level of road accidents. Considerable strides have been made in the last few years in improving our primary roads. Our other roads, however, still need attention. Senator Farrell pointed out that the speed limit on minor roads is the same as on major roads. It is far more dangerous to travel on minor roads because of the size of vehicles, the speed at which they travel and even the various forms of agricultural and industrial equipment which one meets on them.

A higher standard of driving instruction would help enormously in raising our awareness of the dangers involved in travelling on the roads. We need to raise our driving standards. If I were to take a driving test today I am not sure I would pass it. Perhaps we should consider a periodic driving test for all drivers. This might not be popular but such a measure must be considered if we intend seriously to address the problem.

The enforcement of the present laws would help. I applaud the efforts of the Garda in reducing the level of speeding and their efforts need to be increased and supported. The advertising campaign against speeding is to be applauded because we need to reduce the level of speeding.

Education and publicity campaigns can make us aware of the number of accidents, the level of fatalities and of serious injuries and the damage done to families by road accidents. We blame the Garda Síochaná, local authorites and other bodies but we, the drivers, have the ultimate control over what happens on the roads. The problems all stem from speeding.

Unquestionably drink plays a major part in road accidents. The past four or five years have seen a change in people's attitudes to drinking and driving. Regularly, people going out at night ensure that one person has responsibility for driving and does not drink. This is to be applauded. The figures provided by the Minister indicate that far too many people killed or injured in road accidents have very high levels of alcohol in their systems. We must take this on board and address it in a much more serious manner. We must also consider what Senator Quinn said concerning the culture of drinking and driving and the need to change the mind set. There is merit in his suggestion that we focus on trying to attain an accident or fatalities free weekend. Success in doing so would show that huge improvements can be made. This, rather than tinkering with various things, will bring about the mind set required to improve the situation.

I recognise the point made by the Minister regarding the legal limit for blood alcohol limits and that the situation in other EU countries will be monitored to see the effect of the reduction to 50 mgs. We should consider a reduction in this area.

It is also very important that we examine speed limits, particularly on minor roads. We must also address road signage. How often are road signs, [307] particularly in rural areas, dirty and unreadable? Often they are hidden by hedgerows, not visible or completely absent.

The Punchestown festival is on this week. Like all festivals, this is an event to which many people go to enjoy themselves and during which alcohol will be consumed. I am not suggesting this should be stopped, but a contributing part in reducing the level of road accidents could be the provision of facilities, with the aid of the Garda, for people leaving to quickly find out whether they are over the legal limit. It they are, they should be stopped and not allowed travel rather than being allowed proceed and being subsequently stopped on the road. Technology is such that there must be some relatively simple, if not totally accurate, indicator of whether people are near the legal limit. It would be helpful if such facilities were provided at major festivals.

We need a total change in culture in terms of drinking and driving. We must all be stringent about our own way of life and our approach to the matter.

Mr. Bohan: Information on Eddie Bohan  Zoom on Eddie Bohan  Like other Senators, I abhor drinking and driving, as do most people. However, it is not the only factor in causing accidents — there are many other factors which do not involve drink. One factor, mentioned by Senator Quinn, is the number of new cars on the roads. One only needs look at registration numbers to realise that thousands of new cars are coming on the roads in the first few months of each year. Obviously this adds to the number of accidents.

Regarding alcohol and licensing hours, I do not agree with my colleague, Senator Cassidy, that there is no need for a review of the licensing laws in the context of opening hours. The hours of trading set down in the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, are in need of urgent change, taking into account current drinking and eating patterns. Over the past eight years or so social drinking, particularly in Dublin, has undergone major change. Dublin is a cosmopolitan European city and yet the licensing hours are totally out of line with the flexible trading hours elsewhere in Europe.

It is an acknowledged fact that customers frequenting licensed premises wish to stay later than in the past. This widespread practice places greater pressure on publicans and staff to clear premises on time. The licensed trade is a central part of the hospitality industry and, understandably, publicans do not wish to force customers to leave their premises after closing time by resorting to practices used in the past. The vast majority of the trade's customers would not accept such treatment. By extending closing hours to 12.30 a.m. with an additional 30 minutes drinking up time, the law would be simply acknowledging what is happening in many circumstances.

Current hours are complicated and confusing for locals and tourists alike. The “holy hour” on [308] Sunday is a prime issue. It has no relevance to either rural or urban populations and should be abolished. Similarly, the trading hours from 12.30 p.m. to 2 p.m. are not being followed. Sunday is a family day, with families of all categories eating out. Over the past 15 years or so the licensed trade, particularly in Dublin, has developed a very significant presence in the sale of reasonably priced food. This aspect of business suits customers extremely well. There is no doubt that our members' trade in food could expand considerably on Sundays if restrictive closings between 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock were removed. In addition, there is a growing volume of televised sport on Sundays between these hours which also places our members under pressure from the public. Critics argue that removal of this restrictive closing would result in alcohol abuse but the response is clear. Removal under the 1988 Act of the 2.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. closing on Mondays to Saturdays had no such effect.

Current hours of trading have their historical roots in Victorian times when the conventional wisdom was that alcohol abuse could in large measure be reduced or at least curtailed by limiting opening hours. This concept is unacceptable in present day society. Today's customers are, on the whole, more mature, better nourished and far more educated than their Victorian ancestors. Allowing for a small minority of the population, most people are better equipped to make sensible decisions for themselves regarding their drinking habits. Extending hours of trading for the on licence trade, the most controlled environment in which to drink, will do much to further the objective of promoting sensible drinking. It certainly will do nothing to set it back.

For many years members states of the EU have had complete flexibility on premises hours of trading. None of these countries sees control of hours of trading as a means of limiting alcohol abuse, which is a much more complex issue and falls outside the scope of this debate. Recent experience in a number of societies which have drinking habits similar to ours, notably Scotland and New Zealand, has shown that longer hours of trading promote a generally more responsible approach to drinking.

Mr. Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  I welcome the Minister Deputy Molloy, to the House and congratulate him on the frequency of his visits to the Seanad.

We should set up a system so that drivers are more courteous. There should be a code of conduct on the road to which drivers would adhere because, as Senator Bohan said, the volume of traffic has increased considerably over the past three to four years in particular. I remember looking at a survey about three years ago which stated that the average number of cars per 100 of population was about 25 whereas the European and British averages were about 55. I would presume that our average has now increased to nearer 50 compared to the 25 per 100 of just three to four years ago. Every household now has two [309] cars, so the volume of traffic on our roads has increased significantly.

However, there is no code of conduct on the roads. One will invariably see a slow driver driving on the white line rather than on the hard shoulder. This can be very frustrating for people travelling behind them, particularly if the person in front is travelling at 25 or 30 miles per hour. There is an obligation on the Garda traffic corps to bring to the attention of those people that they are doing more harm driving slowly on the centre of the road than if they were driving quickly because they are impeding the people behind who may be in a hurry. Such driving excites drivers in traffic which has backed up as a result and leads them to take driving decisions which they would not normally consider if there was nobody in front of them. This is one of the reasons for many offences and crashes on the roads.

The 60 miles per hour speed limit on motorways, dual-carriageways and many good roads which have been built over the past five or six years should be increased to 80 miles per hour. The present speed limit of 60 miles per hour on county roads is too high in most cases. Speed limits of 30, 40 or 50 miles per hour would be more appropriate. We should change the speed limits to suit the stretch of road concerned. If it is a bad stretch of road the limit should be 30 or 40 miles per hour, but on motorways we should be able to travel at 80 miles per hour. The Minister should look at this matter.

Senator Gibbons said that road signage and road markings are not adequate and I would agree wholeheartedly with him. I know the National Roads Authority has assumed responsibility for the signage on national primary and secondary routes, but surely there is a need for better markings on these routes particularly for traffic signalling to turn right. Such cars invariably pull over in the middle of the road at the white line. If there is a line of following traffic, there is no safe place for that vehicle to pull in. It often happens that a car two or three cars back will try to pass all the preceding cars. Such behaviour has caused a number of accidents, many of which were fatal. Therefore, road markings along national primary and secondary routes would need to be upgraded immediately.

Underage drinking and alcohol abuse are serious problems in this country. While the matter has been debated adequately here and many explanations have been given for it, I think we should look to the example in Boston. In Boston there is a law which states that nobody under 21 is allowed drink alcohol in a public place. If one wants to take the family out for a meal, one cannot go to a place which sells alcohol. It is a good law and the Minister should consider implementing it here.

I have seen young people between the ages of 12 and 14 at discos in my home town walking around with cans of Coke laced with vodka or other spirits. They are buying this drink somewhere, whether it is in off licences, supermarkets [310] or public houses, and they are walking around the streets with it disguised in Coke cans. The law must be adhered to more strictly because somebody is selling it or else somebody is buying it for them. The penalties for such offences must be more severe.

Anxiety has been expressed, particularly in the western counties, about the licensing laws over the past number of months. Drinking time should be extended, particularly in tourist areas, and the law should be changed. Any public house of a certain standard should be able to apply for an exemption. If the owner does not wish to have an exemption, then there is no obligation on him or her to have one. The owner should be able to go to the court to get an exemption and he or she should not have to employ a solicitor unless the authorities object to the application. This is costing publicans millions of pounds annually.

A radical change is needed. There are too many regulations. It should be simplified. There should be set opening and closing times. Anybody who requires an exemption should be able to go to the court to get it. Sunday closing time between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. should be abolished. If public houses wish to trade on Sunday afternoons, they should be allowed to do so.

Ms Leonard: Information on Ann Leonard  Zoom on Ann Leonard  I welcome the Minister to the House.

It is unfortunate that we feel we must discuss this subject once again but it is appropriate considering there have been 128 fatalities this year. As previous speakers stated, there are a number of factors which have increased fatalities on the roads, including the improvements to the roads. I think the improvements to cars and the fact that they are faster cars have also led to the increase in fatalities.

We are discussing the implications of alcohol abuse on road safety. This is something which is particularly close to my heart. I feel so strongly about it that I think anybody who drinks and drives is a potential murderer. Nobody goes out to kill somebody after a night of drinking of course, but why does anybody drink and drive? Even in rural areas like my own, there is always somebody who will not drink on a night out. As far as I am concerned, it is irresponsible not to organise that a non-drinker drives when going out for the night.

When we talk about drink driving, young people always come out worst in that they are made to feel responsible for it. I would feel that the opposite is the case in that younger people who pay dearly for cars and more dearly for car insurance are more responsible as regards drink driving. I know from meeting them when I am out for the night that they are extremely responsible in that regard. However, the same cannot be said for our older generation who often claim that they know the roads well or that they were driving long before we were born. We must change that attitude. Many pedestrians who have taken too much to drink often walk along the white line [311] in the middle of the road. I am not sure if they do this for guidance but it is extremely dangerous, particularly in rural areas.

As someone who does not drink when socialising, I know that some of our public houses frown on people who ask for non-alcoholic drinks. Many public houses have “happy hours” to encourage people into their premises, yet a non-drinker is made to feel they should not be there. This is wrong. It has got to the stage where I and a number of my friends who do not drink feel bad about asking for non-alcoholic drinks. We have such an alcoholic culture that it is almost unacceptable to drink non-alcoholic drinks. Many non-drinkers often have to leave people home after a night's drinking. We must change the attitudes of people who own public houses.

A number of things could be done to tackle the problem of drink driving. As people who go out for one drink often end up drinking two or more, they should make plans for someone to drive them home. No one takes only one drink. As the Minister said, a number of European countries have reduced the legal limit from 80 milligrammes to 50 milligrammes. However, I am in favour of banning drink driving because there is no point going out for one drink. I also support greater penalties for those caught drink driving. Other Senators mentioned the extended opening hours as a factor in the equation. That is not an issue because people who drink and drive will do so regardless of whether the pub closes at 11 p.m. or 4 a.m.

When quoting insurance premiums, insurance companies do not tell people that there is an extra bonus for people who are members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. That would considerably reduce the cost of car insurance, particularly for young people. This should be more extensively advertised because I am sure young people who do not drink, but who may not be pioneers, do not realise that is the case.

No one would dispute that speed is the greatest problem on our roads. The gardaí must be commended for setting up so many checkpoints throughout my county. Anyone who exceeds the speed limit or drinks and drives is, therefore, foolish. Last night when I was driving home at midnight I stopped at a Garda checkpoint a half a mile outside one of the main towns. Approximately two miles further down the road a 1998 Monaghan registered car sped past me. At the time I thought they were lucky because they had missed the checkpoint two miles back. However, as I drove on I was delighted to see that he had been pulled in by the Garda Síochána. As I approached my home town five or ten miles further on, the same car sped past me again. I was sorry the Garda had not set up another checkpoint. Their attitude was that they had met the gardaí in one town and were caught two miles further down the road so they would not meet them a third time. This person was driving at 80 [312] or 90 miles per hour on roads which are not made for such speed.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I am sure there are good roads in Monaghan.

Ms Leonard: Information on Ann Leonard  Zoom on Ann Leonard  I would love to say the roads in Monaghan are so good that people could travel safely at such speeds but, unfortunately, I cannot.

We must change the mindset of our citizens. I fully endorse giving the Garda Síochána greater powers to deal with this problem.

Mr. Costello: Information on Joe Costello  Zoom on Joe Costello  I agree with Senator Leonard. I am sure we all approve of the measures which must be taken and condemn what has been happening on our roads. It would be better to concentrate on practical recommendations which can be implemented rather than repeating our horror at what is happening. Our campaign to retain our duty free status and my party's request for more flexible drinking hours suggest that drinking will not be banned in the foreseeable future. Drink will be with us for a long time so we must ensure it does not have a detrimental effect on the lives of our citizens.

It is alarming that already this year 129 people have been killed on our roads. I have no doubt we are on our way to equalling the record number of people who died last year despite Operation Lifesaver and the measures adopted by the National Safety Council. There are an increasing number of deaths and injuries on our roads. Factors such as the growing economy, more disposable incomes and more cars on the roads must be taken into account as well as speeding, drink driving, under-age drinking, driving without insurance and a lack of awareness of the horror of causing a fatal accident. All are interconnected, but it all boils down to one major factor — we have a pub culture in this country. We are a gregarious people who like to meet over a pint or glass of wine. We use this as a tourist attraction. Any tourist brochure about Ireland will mention Guinness and Irish pub life as one of the major attractions. We must recognise that is the type of society in which we live and will continue to live. We are not going to change.

We need practical measures. My colleague in the other House, Deputy Upton, suggested that we should have more flexible licensing hours. The pubs close at 11 p.m. or 11.30 p.m. While we read in the papers that there are problems in country areas with the implementation of the law, trade union pubs in Dublin close at the correct time. People are coming out of the pubs in large numbers after drinking to a deadline. It is the same deadline every night, whether it is the middle of the week, the weekend, a holiday or Christmas. There is panic drinking and a number of rounds are bought as closing time approaches. If you go into any pub, at the weekends in particular, you will see people with four or five pints in front of them.

[313] People then leave the pub and at the same time public transport is finishing for the night. There are no buses, the DART is not running and the only way to get home is by taxi. The incentive to bring the car is enormous. Anyone waiting two hours for a taxi in Dublin in the winter has their night ruined.

We do not have a system to deal with our pub social culture. If we had staggered hours of closing so that pubs could close depending on their clientele, as they do on the continent, there would be flexibility for the licence holder to operate in terms of his customer base. Not every pub would close at the same time, disgorging its clientele onto the streets to queue for a taxi or go home by car. The deadline which has to be met in every pub in the country must be removed and the public transport system must be examined in the same context.

Senator Leonard referred to a ban on drinking and driving. I would not favour that as a blanket measure, but we could approach this matter by issuing many more licences in the city of Dublin. In rural areas there are pubs on every village corner, but because of the increase of population in the city of Dublin there is a very low ratio of public houses to citizenry. There should be no excuse for anyone in the city driving to a pub and driving home afterwards. There is a pub within easy reach of almost everyone. We should, however, increase the number of pubs in some densely populated areas. In parts of Ballyfermot and

Finglas, areas which have sprawled out from the city, there is a small number of pubs compared to the concentration in the heart of the city. Many people like to come in to the heart of the city because of the greater selection of pubs. If there was a greater selection of pubs in the suburbs people would be able to select a local and there would be a number from which to choose. I suggest we have a ban on drinking and driving in the city but not until we take these measures so that no one has the excuse that there is no pub within walking distance. People should be able to meet their friends in a pub, socialise, have a drink and then walk home. These are the practical measures we should take.

The other major contributory factor to drink-related fatalities is speeding. It was suggested previously by Senator Farrell that each vehicle should compulsorily have a control mechanism to determine the level of speed and which could be subject to on the spot inspection. If that existed there would be a record of people speeding and it could be checked from time to time. That would automatically impose a restriction on drinking and driving.

In certain areas there is inadequate lighting and marking of the roads. It is important that light is adequate and that road markings are clear and luminous. In some areas there are no markings at all, there is no white line in the middle of the road. Many county councils are remiss in not having markings on major roads.

[314] The insurance industry gives the quality of driving as a reason for the high insurance premium levels. The insurance companies themselves are remiss in quoting high prices to young people irrespective of their driving ability. There is a huge number of uninsured cars on the road because it is impossible to get insurance. Ireland is one of the worst countries with regard to high motor insurance costs. In most cases, despite a statutory requirement for motor insurance, the quotation is so high it is impossible for that requirement to be implemented. We must ask insurance companies not to raise their insurance quotations to such a degree that they effectively put many people off the road. Uninsured drivers tend to take greater chances, which appears to be a knock-on effect in that respect.

There is a serious problem. Although we should not be over-optimistic about what we can do, a number of practical measures can be taken in the context of the public house culture in our society. If they were taken, they would probably be more effective in securing a satisfactory outcome than simply introducing a drastic ban or imposing a 50 milligramme level throughout the EU. Ireland might be better suited to the imposition of a total ban in a controlled situation.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Cuirim fáilte roimh na hAirí Stáit, na Teachtaí O'Dea agus Molloy. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire toisc gur chuir sé ráiteas machánta díreach ós ár gcomhair inniu. Im thuairimse, tá sé de dhualgas orainn sa tír seo áird a thabhairt ar na stataisticí atá sa ráiteas seo agus ba chóir go mbeadh poiblíocht le fáil ag an ráiteas ins na páipéirí, ar an raidió agus ar an teilifís. De ghnáth, ní tharlaíonn sé sin ach ba chóir go dtarlódh sé im thuairimse már tá an cheist seo thar a bheith práinneach agus ba chóir dúinn rud éigean a dheanamh faoi.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement which was forthright, unambiguous and exceptionally honest. It presented stark statistics which are worthy of serious study. One hundred and twenty nine people have already been slaughtered on the roads this year. If 129 or even 29 people were killed in a single accident, the nation would be numbed before being provoked into action. However, we appear to have become immune to road death statistics even though we are reminded of them so often when driving through the country. Roadsides are dotted with crosses at locations where people, young and old, have had their lives ended prematurely.

I am also glad the Minister of State was forthright in putting before the House the interconnection between alcohol abuse and road accidents. Dr. Mick Loftus, former president of the GAA and a great crusader against the abuse of alcohol, said that most of the fatalities from road accidents which came before him in his capacity as coroner for County Mayo were the direct result of the abuse of alcohol. He went on to say that most sporting organisations in this country are sponsored by the drinks industry, as are most [315] cultural organisations and festivals. One need not be extremely bright to realise that such sponsorship gives the wrong message to the general community. One solution to this problem might be for the national lottery to provide about £2 million per year to replace the grants which those organisations receive from the drinks industry. That would serve to remove one glamorous aspect of drinking.

Drink has been glamorised in many ways. It is presented as being energy giving and is associated with success. It has a yuppie, sometimes healthy, image. Everybody knows this is not true and that it is fraudulent advertising. There is no reason legislation should not be enacted to prevent such advertising.

The recent “Late Late Show” on alcoholism was one of the greatest contributions for many years to alerting people to the great problem in our midst. Dr. Patrick Nugent underlined the problem with stark statistics. He said the abuse of alcohol is one of the greatest social and medical problems confronting society. He said something else with which many might disagree — that the AIDS and drugs problems fade into insignificance when compared to the damage inflicted on so many people through the abuse of alcohol. More young people have died, he said, as a result of the abuse of alcohol than the total number who have died in the Northern Ireland conflict in the past 25 years.

On the same programme, a young female university student openly and honestly admitted that in two nights she might drink up to 30 pints of beer. That is almost four gallons of beer. If one wished to be humorous one could say a calf would not drink as much liquid in two weeks. The reason she advanced for drinking four gallons of beer, and she suggested she was speaking on behalf of most young students, was the pressures of college. Alcohol was necessary to relieve the stress.

I believe we must delve deeper to find out why this problem exists in the same way as we must delve deeper to explain why there are so many accidents on our roads. We can devise many legislative measures but until attitude and culture are changed we will not get to the root of the problem.

Courtesy is no longer part and parcel of everyday life. Many young and not so young people no longer have regard for the rights of others. They have no regard, for example, for older people. If somebody from a rural area attempts to drive through Dublin city and hesitates for a moment before taking a certain road, he or she is immediately treated to the New York syndrome of other drivers hooting their car horns. We must ask people to have manners and to show courtesy on the roads. A new vocabulary has been spawned by our behaviour on the roads. We now talk about joyriding and road rage instead of presenting it for what it is, the slaughter of innocent people and the use of a propelled vehicle as [316] a weapon. We must point that out but we have not done so yet.

The situation is not helped by being humorous about it. Listening to many speakers who contributed to this debate one might suggest that because we are members of the Pioneers' Total Abstinence Association, this debate might be a meeting of the association. I am a pioneer and I have been invited many times to address seminars and conferences held by the Irish Vintners Association. I have accepted those invitations. I do not see it as a contradiction because I have great regard and respect for publicans. I am conscious of the service they give and of the fact that the pub has become a social focus, although that is not a good thing. When we were young there were ballrooms and other outlets for young people. Today, the lounge bar appears to be the main centre for social activities. However, we should not blame publicans. Most of them are honourable and responsible.

Most publicans do not want opening hours to be extended. One of the arguments advanced in favour of extending opening hours is that tourists have requested and require this facility. However, in my experience, tourists, particularly those from America, tend to retire at 11 p.m. or midnight because they may have an early start the next morning. Therefore, that argument does not stand up to scrutiny. It would be wrong to extend the opening hours if we were doing so merely for the sake of commerce.

As a result of this debate and the debate which is taking place in the public arena, I hope we will adopt a more sensible and responsible attitude. I do not believe there is anything funny about alcohol abuse, but it forms the main part of the stock in trade of most comedians. Worse still, international comedians use a stereotypical Irishman as part of their act. That is not fair. When one travels abroad one discovers that many of them refer to that stereotype. They ask “Do you drink?” and when you reply in the negative they say “I thought all Irish people drank.” Bord Fáilte is not immune to criticism in this regard and it has not done the country any great service in terms of the development in Temple Bar. People are travelling to Dublin in their droves to spend the weekend drinking. That is the image which is being presented. If a person involved in some sporting achievement is asked what they intend to do that evening they invariably reply that they will “have a few pints”. I do not believe we should be presenting such an image. I understand Bord Fáilte is beginning to realise that and its advertising campaign will change to alter that image.

The message we should send to the drinks and tourism industries, publicans and cultural and sporting organisations is that this is a serious matter; it is not a laughing matter and it is not solely the responsibility of legislators and the Garda Síochána. Everyone has a responsibility and we should all make a contribution to finding solutions. [317] We should not continue to allow young people to ruin their lives. These individuals begin drinking at 15 or 16 years of age, before they have an opportunity to decide if they wish to take that route through life.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  When I was in the Chair, Senator Farrell stated that I might have a number of comments to make from a professional point of view. I welcome the opportunity to make those comments now.

Having been at the receiving end of casualties entering hospital who have been involved in fatal car accidents, I was appalled to discover the part played by alcohol in many of these tragedies; the people involved were very drunk. It was not a question of their being slightly over the legal limit, very often they were several times over that limit.

When the Road Traffic Act was debated in the House I was glad that the then Minister for the Environment accepted an amendment I tabled to the effect that those involved in accidents could have their blood alcohol level tested in accident and emergency departments. In the past it was infuriating that people would leap into ambulances if they believed their alcohol level was high to avoid being breathalysed by the Garda and when they reached hospital we were not in a position to take their blood alcohol level. I am extremely glad that this has been rectified and that people are becoming aware of the role alcohol plays in many accidents.

An incredible number of pedestrians who have consumed alcohol have been involved in fatal accidents. A considerable percentage of these people were not knocked down and it has been discovered that they were often lying in the road when a motor vehicle drove over them. It is good that this has been tackled.

We must give serious consideration to the fact that other drugs, particularly illegal substances, are often to blame in fatal accidents involving young people. Lethal cocktails of illegal drugs and alcohol are often found to be present in young people involved in road accidents. In some of the most appalling accidents, particularly those which occurred in County Louth in recent months, very high levels of illegal drugs were discovered in the bloodstream of those who caused and who died in those accidents but unfortunately, innocent people were also killed.

Several Members commented that doctors may not give sufficient warning to people about the danger of driving while taking legally prescribed drugs. I would be anxious if that was the case because doctors and pharmacists make an effort to warn people about this and drugs are carefully labelled. However, if the Minister of State believes the medical profession is not doing enough to warn patients about the dangers involved, I am sure members of the profession would not object to new information being issued. Ireland has strict rules about drivers who take prescribed drugs. For example, drivers with [318] epilepsy who take prescribed medication must not have had an attack for two years. In the United Kingdom and the European Union in general, the restriction in this regard is only one year. Therefore, Ireland is very strict about the use of prescribed drugs.

People not wearing their seatbelts is an important factor in fatal accidents. If people to not fasten their seatbelts when they are sober they are unlikely to do so when they are drunk. Perhaps we could take action to improve the compliance rate of 65 per cent in this area. It is extraordinarily depressing that people are killed because they went through the windscreens of their vehicles. If they had worn their seatbelts, they would only have suffered broken ribs. That point cannot be stressed often enough. People sitting in the rear of a vehicle rarely wear the seatbelts provided and young children are often permitted to stand unrestrained between the front seats or they are placed in baby seats which are improperly secured or allowed to sit in the front passenger seat which is illegal.

I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister of State two resolutions tabled at the recent annual general meeting of the Irish Medical Organisation. Both were put forward by the Kilkenny general practitioners branch. The first, resolution No. 27, called on the Irish Medical Organisation to urgently request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to immediately arrange for the installation and use of automated alcohol analysers in Garda stations under the provisions of section 49 of the Road Traffic Act and, failing this, that members should consider the withdrawal of their services under the Act. This was noted by the annual general meeting. In view of the fact that the implementation of section 49 of the Act relies entirely on the medical profession, I hope the Minister of State will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform because it ties in with the improvement in methodology used in roadside alcohol tests to which he referred.

The other motion, No. 28, instructed the Irish Medical Organisation's executive to enter into negotiations regarding the establishment, professional training and appointment of a national network of designated Garda doctors to provide forensic medical services. This motion was carried. There are four Garda doctors in Dublin and there are a number situated in other large urban areas. The service they provide works well. Most European countries have police doctors who form a special select group on which law enforcement authorities rely. As far as I understand, there is enormous co-operation between those doctors and the medical profession. However, general practitioners in rural areas often encounter difficulties because they must act as Garda doctors for their patients and people they know socially. This problem must be tackled as soon as possible.

[319] Professor Harbison, the State Pathologist, is anxious to become involved in establishing a proper training programme for Garda doctors. He is willing to become directly involved if the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform establishes such a structure. There are doctors who have been trained to provide this service already but they believe they need ongoing training. Continuing education is essential in any field of medicine. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should consider setting up a national network of Garda doctors. That would be more satisfactory than the current scheme, which does not operate well in rural areas.

Mr. Moylan: Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  This is an important issue and Senators have highlighted the main problems. We could speak at length on the problems related to alcohol consumption. We must compliment the Department of the Environment and Local Government for the major improvements made in past years on many fronts. We have sought improvements in road infrastructure for many years and we welcome the record investment in national and non-national roads. However, such developments lead to other problems. The Department must also be commended for improvements in vehicle safety, including the increased regulation tyre tread depth, the compulsory fitting of front and rear seat belts in cars and minibuses and the fitting of speed governors to large trucks and buses. When driving one often wonders how well the latter measure is being implemented because heavy vehicles seem to travel at excessive speeds.

We must welcome the introduction of new speed limit structures and the comprehensive restructuring of the drink driving laws in recent years, in particular the adoption of the 80 milligrammes alcohol per 100 millilitres blood level. The law should be that if one drinks one cannot drive so that there would no question of individuals wondering whether they were over the limit. We also welcome the empowerment of local authorities to provide traffic calming measures in built up areas to reduce the speed of traffic. Many local authorities have taken such measures which have ensured a reduction in speeding in towns and villages and, no doubt, contributed to saving many lives.

The Garda has been empowered to impound vehicles where a member of the Garda considers that a driver is too young to hold a driving licence. That is a welcome measure which has helped save lives by ensuring that such vehicles are taken off the road. For many years young people could buy old cars for next to nothing and drive them without having a driver's licence, tax or insurance. There are many fatalities on the roads involving motorbikes and we welcome the compulsory wearing of crash helmets. For too long motorcyclists and pillion passengers, in particular, did not use crash helmets.

[320] The Department recently published a manual on low cost remedial measures for accident blackspots. The NRA has also made a major contribution of £3 million to provide proper signage of about 300 dangerous accident blackspots and I hope it will continue to make funds available for such signage. That will reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on the roads. Both measures are welcome.

The local authorities have an enhanced role in promoting road safety through co-ordinated efforts at local level. The setting up of working groups comprising the local authorities and the Garda is a welcome development. Schools, health boards and businesses will also be involved. About two years ago the Department published a traffic signs manual for the guidance of local authorities; this was welcome. When we talk about road accidents there is a tendency to knock the Department and the local authorities, but much good work has been done in the past few years, although work still remains to be done.

The introduction of on-the-spot fines has had a positive effect. I talked to somebody recently who travelled to Dublin from the midlands three times in a two week period and he was caught speeding each time. It cost him £50 each time in on-the-spot fines and that made him realise the expense of speeding.

The statistic the Minister of State quoted, that of more than 6,500 cases 62 per cent were two times over the legal blood alcohol limit, is frightening given that at any given time the Garda will only catch a small percentage of those driving with excess alcohol in their blood. The only solution is to have a law whereby if one drinks one cannot drive.

We are at the end of the fourth month of 1998, yet already 129 people have been killed on the roads. A year or so ago local people from Enfield, County Meath, put white crosses along a stretch of the N4. It may not have been right to do it and the crosses were removed, but it brought home to all of us who use that road the huge number of people who are killed on it. Many families have lost loved ones on that road in a short number of years. When those crosses were placed on that one mile stretch of road close to Enfield it brought the problem home to us all. The 50 miles an hour speed limit from Enfield onto the motorway has had a major effect in reducing the number of fatalities. I commend the county council for enabling people to drive with care.

As a councillor I do not like criticising local authorities but if more money was spent on improving inside traffic lanes many trucks could pull over to allow cars to pass at a reasonable speed. Bottlenecks are causing major problems because some drivers become frustrated when trying to make up time on their journeys.

If public houses are going to close at midnight or 12.30 a.m., there is little use in enabling people to move on to clubs and discos with licensing extensions where they can consume beer until the small hours of the morning. That problem must [321] be tackled immediately. I would like to see all pubs closing early, but I understand the situation. If they are to remain open longer there is little use in being picked up by a bus and brought back to where your car is parked in a local town or village if people are tanked up. Many people going into work the following morning would certainly not pass the breathalyser test.

In addition to the cost of alcoholic drink, the cost of minerals remains high because huge taxes are involved. We must examine the possibly of reducing the cost of minerals in order to facilitate those who choose to drink non-alcoholic beverages.

I hope that, in changing the licensing laws, we will ensure the safety of road users.

Mr. Chambers: Information on Frank Chambers  Zoom on Frank Chambers  As someone with a background in the licensed vintners' trade, I fully understand the difficulties involved in the business. I also understand the difficulties raised in the debate relating to road safety and alcohol abuse. This serious situation needs to be addressed but many aspects are involved. Previous speakers mentioned cultural aspects, including the focus on traditional Irish music in the pub scene and the fact that public houses are the focal point of rural communities. Friends and foreign visitors enjoy those cultural aspects of licensed premises but, in the same context, one must take into account the horrific loss of life on our roads.

As a family man, I abhor the experience of attending funerals of young people who have died as a result of the carnage on our roads. The County Mayo coroner, Dr. Michael Loftus, has fought a campaign against alcohol abuse. He has undertaken tremendous research into the problem and has put the Dóchas campaign together, including those involved in all aspects of community development. Those involved in the campaign from different community spheres, such as education and family life, have outlined the problem as it stands now.

We talk about the growth and improvement in the economy but the personal damage that alcohol related problems cost the State's health services must be weighed against Exchequer returns from the drinks trade. The State should take a planned approach towards dealing with this issue. The part alcohol plays in the economy should be seriously examined.

The approach by publicans, licensees and educationalists to alcohol should be similar to that taken towards cigarettes, even though it may not be as simple a matter. We are dealing with a drug which many people cannot handle. Many people have tremendous difficulty enjoying a few drinks and adjusting to work in a happy and responsible way. One comes across many friends who have joined Alcoholics Anonymous and have found there an opportunity to develop a new way of life by dealing with the problems that alcohol abuse has caused.

Over the last few years Governments have invested enormous sums in our nationals roads, [322] including signage. The increase in traffic volumes has been enormous. The road from the west to Dublin was extremely busy today, with trucks and articulated vehicles using it. There is little room for any mistakes on the roads if one wishes to avoid fatalities. The growth in our economy, including the increased purchase of cars and other vehicles, commercial aspects and service industries, has brought about this huge influx in traffic.

Long ago people could get away with drinking and driving, but that time has gone because of the huge change in our laws and society. It is important to face up to this matter, but vintners have not played a genuine and constructive part in dealing with alcohol and alcohol abuse. There should be a planned approach by the Government, vintners, Guinness and other suppliers to buy up many of the rural licences, thus reducing the overall numbers. There is much competition in rural towns and the viability of some of the businesses is questionable because there are not enough people living in rural areas to service existing licences. If rural licences were limited it would bring about some order. Laws would be controllable and manageable and pubs would not have to stay open all night trying to sustain business and competing to such an extent. It is different in cities. The drinks business is developing enormously in other parts of the country because they do not have the problems of rural areas.

There were very few discos 15 years ago. The disco trade is now a major one and provides support to the tourism sector as it is the mainstay of many hotels. It also results in huge gatherings of young people at night. The pub used to provide a balanced combination of people drinking in a responsible environment. In the west, parents are put out of pubs at closing time but young people are drinking until 2.30 a.m. and 3 a.m and this is affecting a great number of young people. I am not anti-alcohol and I wish to act responsibly but I believe there is a problem there. The GAA, football teams and those involved in the education system say there is a huge problem, particularly following holiday weekends. As a member of the trade, I know publicans and discos are serving those who are under-age.

The Assistant Garda Commissioner said today that the difficulties in the west as regards licensing hours were due to legislation we put in place. He is right but there is a responsibility on the Garda to do something about under-age drinking in public or on licensed premises. This drinking is having an adverse effect on many families and is often the cause of many accidents.

Publicans justify their request for longer opening hours on the basis of comparisons with other countries which cater for tourists. At the recent conference it was suggested that vintners should play a role in monitoring and prohibiting drug use on their premises. It was also said that pubs should return to traditional values where families drank together and young people were educated about alcohol. Publicans should be responsible in [323] working with the Government. There should be quid pro quo and a balanced approach should be taken.

I am concerned about young people congregating late at night and under-age drinking. The off-licence trade is not demonstrating responsibility in this area.

Ms Cox: Information on Margaret Cox  Zoom on Margaret Cox  As a constituency colleague of the Minister of State, I welcome him to the House. It is difficult to believe that people drink and drive in this day and age and we do not expect it to happen. However, the number of drink driving offences demonstrates it does. As someone said, anyone who turns on the ignition in a car having taken drink is using a lethal weapon and is setting themselves up to be a killer.

The anti-drinking and driving “serial killer” campaign on television at the moment is valuable and focused. I hope it makes people stop and think that if they get into a car having had a couple of drinks, they may kill someone. Speeding, added to drinking and driving, is another weapon which can be used in the destruction of innocent lives.

The killing has to stop. We cannot accept one more death on our roads because someone was foolish enough to drive after having a couple of drinks. Zero tolerance must be enforced. The gardaí should enforce the law stringently throughout the year. We know how effective the Christmas anti-drink driving campaign is and how people make arrangements to get home having had a couple of drinks or they designate a driver. This must happen throughout the year.

It is a question of education and a change in attitude. Without being sexist, the wild boy syndrome must be discouraged. We must educate people from an early age that drinking and driving is not acceptable. People who drink must find another way to get home. Drinking and driving must be despised, not admired.

As the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, said recently when he launched the Government's alcohol policy, we need to control alcohol before it controls us. If we are to reduce the number of road deaths and injuries related to alcohol abuse, we must control alcohol abuse. We need to support whatever measures are put in place and whatever organisations are working in that area. We need to support education programmes and we need to change our attitude. It is not good enough that people do not drink and drive because they are afraid of being caught. We should be afraid that we could injure ourselves or an innocent pedestrian or driver.

Alcohol consumption is set to increase in the next couple of years because of the current and projected economic growth. Young people are earning a great deal of money in good jobs and are socialising and spending money on alcohol. That should not stop. If people work hard during the week they have a right to spend their money on social activities which involve alcohol. [324] However, we must ensure that if alcohol is part of our social activity, we have a responsible attitude to it.

More young people will also start to drink beer as it is less price sensitive than any other alcoholic beverage. By the time people reach 18 years of age, they will be drinking more regularly. They will start to drive and will think there is nothing wrong with their judgment. I heard this many times when I argued with people late in the evening who intended to drive home. They believed they were better and more careful drivers after a few drinks. People must understand they are not better drivers when they have drink taken and that they are dangerous to themselves and others.

Reference has been made to longer opening hours. While I do not have a view on it, longer opening hours will lead to an increase in the availability of alcohol and the opportunity for people to abuse it and, therefore, drive home. There have been 118 days in 1998 and 129 road traffic fatalities. Peoples' views and attitudes must change. Drink driving and the abuse of alcohol must be stopped and we need to enforce drink driving laws impartially nationwide. Recently, various licensing laws were enforced unequally in different parts of the country and people felt that was inequitable. If there is to be a stringent enforcement of law it must be done on an equitable basis.

The source of the problem must be examined. We need to try to stop people drinking at a younger age and drink driving laws must be enforced impartially nationwide. Consideration must be given to subsidising transport, particularly in rural areas, so that there are other ways for people to get home at the end of an evening. That is a key issue because people want to go to a pub, enjoy a few drinks and get home safely. One way to reduce accidents is to make sure people in rural areas have the means to get home, whether it is through improved taxi or hackney services or otherwise. This needs to be examined and action taken.

Dr. Fitzpatrick: Information on Dermot Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Dermot Fitzpatrick  We are posed with the problem of how to deal with the ill-effects of alcohol abuse. Our predecessors for thousands of years have dealt with this because alcohol on its own has good effects. It has definite medicinal effects taken in moderation and medical textbooks have pointed out the efficacy of moderate intakes of alcohol. The Minister alluded to the fact that a moderate intake of alcohol reduces the risk of cardiac attacks. The wine drinking countries of continental Europe have less problems with cardiac arrest than the more northern beer drinking countries. Of course, the downside is that they are authorities on cirrhosis of the liver. Wine based drinks have a bad effect on the liver and doctors wishing to specialise in liver disease should move to the continent while those specialising in cardiac diseases should go to north America.

[325] Alcohol has a long history. St. Paul wrote in a letter to a friend complaining of stomach problems, “I beseech thee to take a little wine for thy stomach.” Alcohol is lauded in Irish history and one of the most seminal books written on it dealt with the taxation of alcohol and the problems the Governments of the day in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had trying to get to grips with gathering revenue from the sale of alcohol. Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna in his poem “An Bonnán Buí” wrote “Is cáin easpa bidh ach diabhal dí a fhág mé sínte ar chúl mo chinn”. One can imagine what the previous evening was like for him.

However, the damage the abuse of alcohol does and how it wrecks families is a more serious subject. One problem we face in Ireland is that everyone is aware of the damage it has done and we have come to accept it. The attitude is that a person takes a few drinks or is a hard drinker but he is then absolved, thereby, contributing to the problem. A huge education programme on the damage alcohol can do is needed without condemning ordinary drinkers or trying to close down public houses. If one tries to close them down, one must remember the public house is the only neutral ground where people can meet friends, etc., and have a civilised discussion over a few drinks. We could be in danger if we go too hard of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We are sometimes hard on the younger generation but there is a sea change in their attitude to drink driving. It is unusual to find young people drinking and driving when they are out, especially in Dublin. It is not just the fact that they are afraid of being caught. They are beginning to realise it is anti-social behaviour to get behind the wheel of a car following a large intake alcohol and become a danger to friends and foe alike. However, politicians and Ministers must deal with financial facts which colour their thinking. The economics of alcohol are staggering. Tens of thousands of people are employed in the manufacturing, distribution or sale of alcohol and Exchequer income is £550 million annually. We will have to approach the financial, social and medical problems associated with alcohol in a balanced manner. We cannot condone the abuse of alcohol nor can we spoil the enjoyment of the majority of the people or put the finances of the nation at risk.

Other contributions focused on young people as if only they abused alcohol. My age group has a higher consistent intake of alcohol. Young people tend to drink at weekends.

Sitting suspended at 5.50 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.


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