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'Beyond the Pale': Ross lobbied by publicans, politicians to pivot on zero tolerance drink driving laws

The Minister for Transport has also received correspondence praising his approach in recent months.

File photo
File photo
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

MINISTER FOR TRANSPORT Shane Ross has consistently faced lobbying from local representatives, publicans and members of the general public in recent months on the changes to drink driving laws implemented late last year.

The new “zero tolerance” policy sees drivers automatically lose their licence if they’re caught over the limit. 

The recent legislative changes around drink driving passed in the Dáil last July, but have remained controversial and have hit the headlines on a number of occasions since.

On the day it passed in the Dáil, Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae shouted that it was a “sad day for rural Ireland”. 

The proposals put forward by Minister Ross provided for an automatic driving ban for anyone caught for drink driving with blood alcohol levels of between 50 mg/100 ml and 80 mg/100 ml.

The automatic ban lasts for three months, and removed a concession in previous legislation whereby some drink drivers would receive penalty points.

Speaking ahead of the commencement of the new law, Ross said it marked a significant step in clamping down on the practice, adding that there were “few more irresponsible and dangerous things people can do” than drink driving.

“It was always wrong to give people the mild slap on the wrist of three penalty points for such potentially lethal behaviour, and it is great satisfaction to know that in future people who behave this way will face a disqualification from driving for three months,” he said.

Controversy

The measures have remained unpopular with some TDs outside Dublin over the past few months, even with some government ministers.

The Sunday Business Post reported in March that junior transport minister Brendan Griffin had asked officials to study a system currently operating in New Zealand. 

In New Zealand, banned drivers can apply for an exemption if a driving ban causes them “extreme hardship”, such as a need to get to work.

“I have asked officials to come back to me on it,” Griffin said. “I am happy to consider and look at proposals.”

Ross later said that such proposals that would allow convicted drink-drivers who are banned from the road to get an exemption so they can drive to work are a “non-runner”

And, in remarks that were later withdrawn, Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath told the Sunday Independent that the implementation and policing of new drink driving laws had been “really over the top”. 

McGrath also said that gardaí were blaming Ross for the new laws at garda checkpoints. 

“I think they are trying to make a point and they are not happy about it [the laws],” he said. 

Lobbying

As well as receiving numerous pieces of correspondence from members of the public regarding the laws, a number of local authorities also contacted the minister on the issue. 

In a letter from Longford County Council in January, a pair of councillors petitioning Ross to review the drink driving laws in the context of rural areas in Ireland.

They considered the laws to be “too strict”, a council administrative officer wrote.

shane ross lobbying

In a separate submission from Kerry County Council, Ross was told councillors had passed a resolution urging the minister to make breathalysers freely available to all motorists.

shane ross kerry

Just last month the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland lobbied Ross over so-called Limiting Driving Licences, such as had been highlighted by Junior Minister Brendan Griffin where convicted drink-drivers who are banned from the road could apply for an exemption so they can drive to work.

“The reason we are making this submission is because the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2018 you have introduced [has] impacted most severely areas of the country where public transport is virtually non-existent,” said the group, which represents pubs outside the Dublin area.

In large parts of the country, it said, “there is a near total reliance on the privately-owned car”.

“For this reason, disqualification has a disproportionate impact on the rural individual compared to city dwellers,” the VFI said. 

Members of the public

The correspondence received by Ross from members of the public ranged between expressing dissatisfaction and support.

A publican in the west of the country wrote to the minister in March, and said the policy changes had brought about a “final death knell” for rural Ireland.

“Minister, I am not advocating ‘drunk driving’,” he said. “Rather I am asking you to revisit your recently changed tolerance levels. I’m asking you to outlaw below cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets who can afford to stomach the losses in the making of greater profits in other sales.

I’m asking you to introduce a transport system in rural areas so that we have the same privileges as our fellow city folk. Right now we feel utterly written off and we are well described as being truly and literally ‘beyond the Pale’.

In one letter, which concludes “shame on Mr Ross”, the writer says: “I feel as a 48-year-old I have no quality of life. I work during the week to look forward to a few sociable drinks on Saturday night, now I cannot even do this as I have to drive Sunday. We are not drink drivers or any danger to anybody but cannot chance losing our licence for five or six drinks the night before.”

Another said that those caught drink driving at a certain limit should “have a first warning or steep court fine”. 

However, others who got into contact with Ross supported the new laws and wanted to ensure measures were followed through upon to make them a success. 

One urged Ross to introduce a system whereby those who were banned from driving were required to self-breathalyse for a period after their licence is restored. 

Another said: “For years people in this country did not heed speeding signs. What was the result? Preventable loss of life. Fines didn’t stop them.

Unfortunately the medicine can sometimes be bitter… I would ask you to please stand firm on this issue… Do not give in to vested interests who put profit ahead of lives.

On the potential for a licensing system such as the one put forward by Griffin and reported by the Sunday Business Post, a member of the public said it was an “idea which not only horrified me but also makes me really angry”.

They added: “Minister, if there are never to be consequences for illegal behaviour, how do you ever propose to change the mindset of ‘fuck it’ that seems endemic in our society.”

A spokesperson for the minister said it is “too early at this point to get any definitive indication of how the amended legislation has been working. 

In response to alternative measures such as limited driving licences, the spokesperson said:

“The dramatic decrease in road deaths in Ireland over the past 20 years has been as a result of a series of targeted road safety strategies, not least the introduction of stricter drink driving laws under the Road Traffic Acts of 2010 and 2018.

“The success of this legislation rests not only on the principle of penalising those who choose to drink and drive but also, crucially, on the principle of changing driver behaviour and acting as a deterrent. It is clear upon reading the VFI’s proposal that a limited licence system would significantly undermine both principles and has no place in Irish road safety policy.”

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Sean Murray

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