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Drinking and the death of rural Ireland - the demise of pubs, the drink driving permit and isolation

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Small rural pubs like this one in Templemore, 
Co. Tipperary are closing at a rapid pace
Don't you just love the way that story about Kerry County Councilor Danny Healy Rae's proposal on drink driving has gone global?

The bould Danny outraged all the politically correct nanny staters in Ireland last week by suggesting that customers in small rural pubs should be allowed to drive home slowly along quiet country roads after having a couple of pints.  

But it wasn't just the horror at what he was proposing that got to the PC brigade.   What made it even worse for the High and Mighty here was the international coverage the story got, since it fitted all the stereotypes about the Irish and booze, and it had the added bonus of an eccentric looking Kerryman at its center.

The sophisticates in Dublin were rigid with embarrassment.  Oh, the shame of it!  We were being made look like idiots -- sorry, that should be eejits -- before the entire world!

Papers, TV networks, the Huffington Post and other sites across the Europe, the U.S., Australia and further afield ran the story, with varying degrees of accuracy and extra chuckles added in.  

Most of them were in the Begorrah, Hic, Ye Won't Believe This! vein.  The headlines varied from the one on the U.S. Gawker site, "Lawmakers in Ireland to allow 'moderate' drunk-driving" (which is completely inaccurate) to the misleading one in the Toronto Star, "Irish county passes motion to let certain rural drivers drive while legally drunk" (they wouldn't be if the proposed legal change was made) to the follow-up one in Australia, "Irish county councilor insists drink-driving fight isn't over yet" (which managed to get the word fight in as well drink).  Seemingly the story even ran in China.  

"I know where I'm moving to," was a typical comment by readers on sites and blogs around the world.   For a day or two, the wilds of remote Kerry on the south west tip of Ireland seemed to be the center of the worldwide web.  

Here in Ireland, of course, we did not see the funny side.  We rarely do. We're remarkably thin-skinned when it comes to appreciating jokes, send-ups and humorous put-downs, especially if the words drink and Irish are mentioned in the same sentence.   

So the great and the good and the Holier Than Thou here all lined up to publicly ridicule and condemn Healy Rae for his "outrageous,” "irresponsible,"  "backward" suggestion.   The vitriol poured on him was quite extraordinary.

And no tactics -- including some papers getting comment from the mothers of youngsters who had been killed in road accidents -- were too cheap for the PC brigade to unload on him.

What none of them mentioned, however, was that he had a point. The pubs all over rural Ireland are dying.

The old men with the peaked caps who used to drive in a few miles from their farms out in the bogs for a pint or two in the evenings can't do it anymore because of our drink driving laws.  As a result many are suffering from isolation and depression.

The little country pubs are closing -- dozens of them every year -- and a way of life is being lost, a way of socializing which has been at the heart of rural Ireland for generations.

The effect of this has been devastating in the more remote and sparsely populated parts of rural Ireland.   Unable to go to the pub in the evenings, because they are afraid of being caught driving home again after a few drinks and losing their driving license as a result, they don't go out.

If you live a few miles from a village down a bog road, losing your license is not something you want to happen.   How can you get to the shops? To Mass? To the doctor? So rather than risk it, you stay at home.

Long before last week's controversy we were aware of the problems that this is causing, particularly for older people in rural areas.  The lack of social contact can lead to depression and worse.  So there's clearly a problem there.  

So far the PC brigade (mostly in Dublin) have said that the way to deal with this is taxi-sharing, local transport, pub owners bringing customers home in a minivan, etc.

This sounds sensible, but none of it works.  Public transport in rural areas is almost non-existent, and sharing taxis and minivans ignores the reality that people may want to go home at different times and that they may live many miles in opposite directions from the pub.

It's been tried and it rarely works on a sustainable basis.  Also many of the people we are talking about cannot afford to pay for taxis home.  They can just about afford the price of a couple of drinks.

The motion which Healy Rae introduced at the council and got passed on Monday of last week was actually a reasonable compromise.   It called for legislation to be introduced -- and it has to be national, not local legislation -- which would allow rural Gardai (police) to issue permits to allow rural dwellers to drive from their local pub "after having two or three drinks on little used roads driving on very low speeds."

Clearly when such legislation would be framed other qualifiers could be added in, like a high minimum age (over 40?), a clean driving record, a small engine car, a low maximum speed limit, a maximum distance from the driver's home and so on.

Healy Rae suggested the alcohol limit should be equivalent to two or three drinks (" a maximum of three.")   That could be kept at two, although clearly a lot depends on physical size and when the drinker last ate.  The present limit can equate to less than one pint for someone of average size who has eaten a small meal a couple of hours previously.

So Healy Rae's motion was not radical. It was a modest attempt to find a solution to a complex problem.   Or at least to start a discussion on how such a solution might be found.

The reality is that the kind of drinkers Healy Rae has in mind are not the problem.  The problem are the younger drivers who get out of their heads by downing a bottle of vodka and handful of pills and then get in their cars and go screaming down the road like a racing driver.  They're called boy racers, although a lot of them are in their twenties or thirties.

One of the mothers who was quoted in the media here this week condemning Healy Rae lost her son in a road accident and campaigns against drink driving.  But the young man who killed her son had consumed seven pints, six bottles of beer, five cans of beer, two vodkas, three shots and a line of cocaine before getting behind the wheel.

Of course everyone wants to keep someone like that off the road.   But there's a long way from that to the older, responsible, cautious driver carefully making his way slowly home after a couple of pints in his local pub.  

In case the Healy Rae line might gain some traction, all kinds of "experts" and politicians immediately flooded the media to put forward the conventional wisdom and insist there could be absolutely no change.  The idea was so stupid it wasn't worthy of intelligent discussion, they insisted.

A spokesman for Alcohol Action Ireland said that alcohol, even in small amounts, impairs driving ability.   Well, yes it does. But then so do lots of drugs we don't normally test for, like cocaine and marijuana, uppers and downers, ecstasy, and numerous prescription drugs like anti-depressants, blood thinners and so on.  Even normal cold and cough medicines can have an effect in high doses.

Then there are people with various medical conditions (diabetes, respiratory and heart problems and so on) whose driving can be affected either by their problems or by the drugs they have to take.   I know one elderly woman who has a bad case of "restless leg" and regularly kicks out to straighten her knee and relieve the tension when she is driving!  

The question is how much does alcohol in small amounts affect a person's ability to drive, and is it more than the effect of many other factors like the ones described above which are rarely considered.

I think we all know the answer to that one.

Small amounts of alcohol are no worse than small amounts of many other factors.  It's just that we have a thing about alcohol, to the point where it has become an obsession.

“Almost one in three crash deaths in Ireland is alcohol related. Even in small amounts, alcohol impairs driving ability - any amount of alcohol increases the risk of involvement in a fatal crash,” the Alcohol Action spokesman said.

Irrefutable evidence?  Hardly.  This is not evidence, it's propaganda.  

All the first sentence means is that in one-third of road deaths here, the driver(s) had some alcohol. We don't know how much.  It's possible that he or she had just one or two drinks.   Or maybe just one drink but also a handful of pills.   Or maybe they had a bottle or more of spirits and a load of other drinks as well.

We just don't know.   We don't know how much of a factor alcohol was in these deaths, although the implication being made is clear in the second sentence.  

The emotive line "any amount of alcohol increases the risk of involvement in a fatal crash" suggests that any drinking risks causing fatal car crashes and kills people.  Yes, a small amount does increase the risk but by how much?

More than lack of sleep and the risk of nodding off at the wheel?  More than getting hyped up by drinking too many cups of coffee or Red Bulls?  

This absolutist attitude to drink and driving ignores the truth staring us in the face.  What causes the death of people in most car crashes in Ireland (and probably everywhere else) is SPEED, not alcohol.

As Healy Rae says, if you have had a couple of pints and you drive slowly and carefully home along a quiet country road you know like the back of your hand, you are far less likely to kill someone than an alcohol free driver roaring down a main road at 90 miles an hour who may be on something.  

Healy Rae's motion, which calls for mature rural drivers to receive special permits that would allow very moderate drinking and driving, was passed by Kerry County Council by five votes to three.  Twelve councilors were absent from the chamber while another seven abstained from voting.  

Healy Rae, from a well known Kerry family of political mavericks, is himself a small bar owner in a rural area. There's no doubt he had one eye on his bar business and the other eye on increasing his vote when he put the motion to the council and got it through.  

There's also no doubt that many of those who were missing or abstained when the vote was taken did not want to be seen opposing the motion no matter what the big boys in Dublin think.  They know there's a lot of sympathy for this view at grassroots level.  Of course they also know that the chances of the national government agreeing to act on the Kerry Council motion and change the drink-drive law are nil.  

Country people know that an absolutist approach to social issues like this is unfair and disproportionate.  They know that the present regime is killing most of the small country pubs in Ireland -- hundreds have shut down in the last few years.  In the Healy Rae native village of Kilgarvan the village once had six pubs, now it has two.

The problem could be fixed, with a little common sense all round.  Unfortunately, given the power of the various PC groups in Ireland these days, it won't even be considered.

Meanwhile, the death of rural Ireland continues.

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