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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 22 May, 2019
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Could this personalised breathalyser be the solution to Ireland's drink-driving woes?

Interlock ignition systems are just one of the drink-driving deterrents that were showcased at yesterday’s RSA international conference.

breath1 An interlock ignition device

YESTERDAY’S ROAD SAFETY Authority (RSA) international road safety conference had a simple theme – alcohol, and what can be done to stop its destructive effect on the nation’s roads.

The same conference delivered the news that the number of drink driving offences is up 18% on this time last year. Speaking to those gathered, Garda Superintendent Con O’Donohoe made it clear that this is a good thing.

At least now gardaí know the scale of the problem they’re dealing with is his way of thinking, and, following the years of austerity which saw the force’s numbers depleted, they are now using the RSA’s statistical research on the subject to map their resources accordingly.

Screenshot 2017-06-01 at 20.48.57 An interlock system being used in the US state of Maryland

Be that as it may, much of the conference was dedicated to the ways that Ireland may reduce the eye-watering levels of drink-driving on its roads. Methods like…

Interlock ignition systems

An interlock system is basically a breathalyser device which must be utilised before a car can be started. As such, it applies to people who have already been convicted of drink driving and is a method for them to stay on the road when their licence would ordinarily be suspended.

The standard bearer here is Scandinavia, and Pär-Ola Skarviken of the Swedish Transport Agency gave the conference a lecture on how the system works.

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In 1998 Sweden introduced the Vision Zero initiative aimed at bringing down its level of road fatalities. In 19 years that figure has fallen from 500 annually to 270. Not quite zero, but not to be sniffed at, particularly for a country with a population of nearly 10 million.

There, when a driver is caught drink driving they face a choice – be taken off the road for minimum one year, or spend between €2,000 and €4,000 having an interlock installed in their car (the contract for installing the devices is held by just four companies).

The driver uploads his or her breath data once a week online, and after one or two years of that they can reapply for their full licence. If they fail to pass a test, the car become unusable for an hour.

“The public awareness of drink driving in Sweden is quite huge,” Skarviken told TheJournal.ie. “That’s our tradition, there’s no social acceptance for it, not in any age group.”

We’re also quite open to new technical things also I think.

There are no specific statistics to prove the effectiveness of interlocks there. However, Vision Zero has seen the country nearly halve its road deaths, and the interlocks are seen as an integral part of that.

We mention that in order for the system to fly in Ireland, some sort of proof of empirical effectiveness might be needed for a sceptical populace.

“We have similar reactions,” he replies. “But it’s not a punishment, it’s a separate process. It won’t keep you out of prison. But it may allow you to drive legally and stop you from drinking at the same time.”

So, given interlocks are being given time on the main stage at the RSA’s conference, how likely is it they’ll end up being used here?

“We’ll certainly be looking at them,” says Denis Cusack of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety (which infamously exposed the gardaí’s concoction of over a million breath tests in recent times). “Much of it will come down to a cost benefit analysis as you might imagine. And we’ll have to see about the legals of it, because people here will most likely object to being told they have to use one.”

Lots and lots of breath testing

An underlying theme of the conference was the fact that more breath testing means less drink driving.

A stark statistic is that, between 2008 and 2012, Ireland’s rate of alcohol-related road fatalities was 30%, fully double that of England. The reason why? Well, one of them is that they do more breath testing.

Evidence from around the world was presented, from the European Transport Safety Council, to the Guardia Civil in Spain. Ireland of course is still smarting from its own breath test-related scandal. Which is a pity because there’s overwhelming evidence that the more of it that’s carried out, the less drink driving occurs.

Australia was probably the most interesting example cited. For a culture that we believe to be so similar to our own, and which is commonly crudely sketched as a macho paradise, most states there breathalyse each licenced driver at least once a year, according to Barry Watson of the Queensland Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety.

35% of Queensland’s residents have been breathalysed in the last six months alone. And if you fail a test? Automatic suspension.

And still it’s a problem that has not been fully conquered – 20% of fatalities in Australia continue to be alcohol-related. Drink driving is a problem with no comprehensive fix it seems.

Course of action

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland and the UK have been running three-week, anti-drink driving courses for those convicted of certain alcohol-related road offences full-time since 2006.

Those courses are designed with two things in mind – show an offender the impact of their behaviour, and make them change. There’s a practical result from attendance (which is voluntary) – disqualification terms can be reduced by 25%.

There’s a reason these courses are in place – they work. They’re also self-funding – each one costs about €180 at the offender’s expense.

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Problems with them include the fact that referral is down to judicial discretion (at present), which means there’s little consistency across the board in the North, and non-completion. Here the young, male ego comes into play, in much the same way that young men are involved in an overwhelming number of alcohol-related collisions in the Republic.

Women and older offenders are much more likely to complete such a course. But when people do go the distance (a course lasts a mere 16 hours over three sessions), verifiable results have been seen – people don’t tend to reoffend.

What will actually happen?

The likelihood or otherwise of these measures (even expanded breath testing) actually coming into play here of course remains to be seen.

At present, the main game in town is a push by Minister for Transport Shane Ross to have anyone caught offending immediately suspended from driving (at present those apprehended having broken the legal limit to a relatively minor extent can escape with penalty points and a fine).

Speaking yesterday, Ross said that he is “at a loss” as to why his Road Traffic Bill is dragging its feet through the Oireachtas.

“I must reiterate that the new legislation will not change the current drink-driving blood-alcohol limit,” he said.

What are being changed are the consequences for drivers detected drink-driving at lower levels. This is simply about ensuring proper consequences when people drive while over the existing limits.

Last year we lost 188 people on our roads, something we shouldn’t tolerate if we are to call ourselves a civilised society. We must do whatever we can to reduce the number of people being killed.

Oddly enough, Ireland’s Blood Alcohol Limit (which currently stands at 0.05 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood) is roughly in the middle-ground of European standards – more draconian than that seen in the UK (which, as Martin Mayock of the Northern Ireland Infrastrucure Board pointed out, could explain Ireland’s heavier percentage of alcohol-related incidents in comparison with the UK), but less so than the zero tolerance seen in eastern European countries like Romania and the Czech Republic.

Ross has insisted that the current limit is not for changing. If statistics don’t improve, don’t be surprised if that is a promise he cannot keep.

Read: Debate Room: Simon Harris and Paschal Donohoe debate the leadership candidates

Read: Gardaí confident they will bring Michael Keogh’s killers to justice

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