DRINK DRIVING IS still a major problem on the country’s roads — and although the latest official stats indicate drivers are getting the message, gardaí also confirmed during the week that they’d made 805 drink-drive related arrests over the Christmas period.
So what happens if you fail a roadside breath-test? What’s the procedure once you’re taken to the Garda station — and how do people generally react once they’re detained?
Garda Derek Cloughley of the National Traffic Bureau sat down with TheJournal.ie to talk us through the procedure…
A Garda MAT checkpoint in Dublin last weekend [Image: An Garda Síochána/Facebook]
Cloughley’s first message is a bit of an eye-opener: “The first thing to say is that there’s an obligation to carry your drivers licence with you at all times”.
“If for some reason you cannot produce it at the side of the road at a mandatory alcohol testing checkpoint, you as the driver are tested at the lowest limit.”
The logic of this is obvious when you think about it — in the absence of a licence, there’s no way for the garda to know whether or not you’re a learner driver. (The minimum Blood Alcohol Content level for learners is just 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, whereas for full licence holders it’s 50mg).
If you can’t produce a licence and fail the lower limit test, “you’re arrested, and you’re conveyed to a garda station where you’re processed by breath, by blood or by urine”.
“For what are known as specified drivers [this also includes the newly-qualified, as well as professionals -- like bus drivers] the penalties are harsher from the start.”
Experienced drivers stopped at an MAT who are carrying their licence are breathalysed at the 50mg limit.
Are drivers ever asked to “walk in a straight line”?
Mostly as a result of over-exposure to US cop shows, we’re all familiar with coordination tests where drivers are asked to walk in a line or touch their nose. But are these ever applied in Ireland?
In short, it turns out — no.
“No, it’s the scientific breath method, but any time a guard stops you we’re always checking to see if your speech is slurred, your eyes are glassy, or you have difficulty coordinating yourself . They’re the tell-tale signs to us.
“It’s about observation — you might think, if a garda stops you at a checkpoint and asks ‘where are you going?’ that it’s a stupid question but what he’s really checking is if you can give a coherent answer.
“The engagement is purely so the garda can decide ‘is this person fit to drive’.”
Will I be taken to the nearest garda station?
Not necessarily, it turns out…
“It’s be to the closest station with an intoxilator [breathalyser] machine. There are 86 machines dotted out around the country — spread out on a national basis.
“It may not be the local one, but it will be the closest station with a tester to where you are.”
A breathalyser machine at Store Street Station [Image: An Garda Síochána]
And what happens when you’re ‘booked’?
There must be a 20 minute wait between the last consumed drink and the in-station breath test — so officers observe that waiting period from the time of arrest.
Once arrested, suspected drink-drivers arriving at the garda station will be sat down at a ‘booking area’ that looks something like this:
[Image: An Garda Síochána]
After that, it’s a trip down the hall to the breathalyser test…
“You’ll be given a tube — you blow into the machine twice, and it averages the two readings and it prints out a cert, which will basically be good news or bad news.
“The reading determines if it’s a fixed charge or a court summons immediately — it depends on the concentration.
“If you’re over the limit it tells you you’re over and there and then — that’s proof, that’s produced in court if it goes to court.
“One copy of that goes to the driver, the other to the garda.”
Here’s a breakdown of the limits, and the penalties applied…
In addition to the above, drivers who don’t accept the fixed penalty notice, go to court and lose their appeal can have their driving bans doubled. Those who test above 100mg face an automatic court appearance and a ban of 12 months. The maximum penalty is a fine of up to of €5,000 and/or six months in prison. [Image: National Documentation Centre on Drug Use]
Urban myth time… Is it possible to beat the breathalyser?
We’ve all heard myths about ways to beat the breath test: the US TV show Mythbusters once ran a series of tests on different substances — including breath mints, onions, mouthwash and batteries — and all failed to fool the machine.
And Garda Cloughley’s pretty certain it’s scientifically impossible:
You’ve to blow into the tube and you’ve to blow a specified volume of air and the machine then processes it.
This idea of holding your breath, for instance, all you’ll do is go red — but the machine will tell you there’s no air in there… So yes, it’s a myth.
Generally speaking, the only reason blood or urine tests would be used instead is if a person is medically unable to comply with the breathalyser procedure, Cloughley explains.
What if a driver refuses to be tested?
“If you fail or refuse to give a breath sample it’s a separate penalty, and guess what? The penalty’s exactly the same as if you’d failed the test.
“The reality is if you blow into the machine there’s some chance you may be under the limit, but if you refuse, there’s no chance of not getting convicted.”
Gardaí prepare for checkpoints in Dublin [Image: An Garda Síochána]
How do people generally react, once they’re processed?
“By and large the vast majority are very remorseful.
“It’s a failure to plan their journey home that has brought them here, but by and large they’re fairly remorseful and would cooperate with you — dealing with the public though there’s always exceptions.
“Some people cry, some people fight, some say they’re sorry a hundred times… every case is different.
“The process is the same, and for most cases they could be there one hour, two hours, two-and-a-half — it depends how busy the station is.”
Hang on — where is the driver’s car while all this is going on?
Is it left on the side of the road, or does a friendly garda drive it to the station for you behind the squad car?
“There’s no obligation to bring it to the station, no.
“What would generally happen is that it’s parked up, locked up and left at a location close to the checkpoint.”
[Image: An Garda Síochána]
What about in cases where a garda has driven the car to the station — has it ever happened that a person’s been processed, failed the breathalyser and then walked out and climbed back into the driver’s seat?
“Yes. Has happened, yes.”
And what happens then?
“A second prosecution… It has happened. Generally speaking though, for most people who go through the process, they collect their car the next day.
“The perfect scenario for us though is if we have someone to hand them over to — a friend or family member. People might not be in a state where they’re thinking rationally, so ideally it’s best for us if someone they know comes down.
“For most people at this stage, the wind’s very much gone out of their sails — what’s done is done.
“As they sober up, the consequences kick in — and there are severe consequences.”