October 28, 2009, 1:54 PM

The former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, talking about being in government and holding on to power, once famously remarked that "you get over the big issues, it's the little things that trip you up."

It was a little thing that tripped him up. And it was a little thing that just over a week ago threatened the future of the government here.

It wasn't the bitter division in the country on what to do about our massive budget deficit, with the unions now planning national strikes if the government goes ahead with the planned cutbacks. Having subjected the readers of this column to lessons in national economics for weeks now, we're going to leave discussion of that piece of insanity for another day.

This column is going to be an economics free zone this week. So if it wasn't the crisis in the Irish economy, what was the threat to the government last week?

It was the little matter of drink. Or drinking and driving, to be precise.

The Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey announced to the Fianna Fail party just over a week ago that he was going to change the law to reduce the blood alcohol limit for drivers from 80 mgs to 50 mgs, which would put most people over the limit after just one drink. The proposal was greeted with outrage at a meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party, with up to 25 Fianna Fail backbenchers angrily arguing against the move at the meeting in the Dail (Parliament).

They had put up with the legislation to save the banks which is going to cost taxpayers billions. They had defended the proposed cuts in state spending among their voters. They had swallowed a lot of bitter but necessary economic medicine in the past year.

But this was a step too far. This was so stupid, so ridiculous, so unnecessary at a time when people are putting up with so much grief, they shouted. They threatened to rebel on the vote in the Dail, to bring the government down if necessary.

And Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and his government, who now have a fragile majority, decided to find a way out. Having been through so much in the past year and with so many major decisions of national importance ahead, there was no way Cowen was going to let a "little thing" like drink put his government in jeopardy.

So, leaving his high-minded minister for transport looking red-faced, he told the next Dail meeting that, while everyone was in favor of measures to reduce road deaths, there was a need for coordination with Northern Ireland, where the limit is still 80 mgs. The whole thing would have to be planned.

Or in other words, you can expect no change in the law here any time soon, and certainly not for the next year or more. So that took care of that "little thing."

Predictably, of course, the politically correct lobby here went crazy. There were outraged editorials in the papers decrying the government's weakness.

There were figures from "scientific" studies showing that lowering the blood alcohol level further would definitely save lives. There were accusations that it was the backwoods deputies from the rural areas who had sunk this most desirable change.

What there was not to be found anywhere in the media was a voice to stick up for the backwoodsmen, to say that Cowen (a bogman known to enjoy a pint) might be right.

Well, here's one bogtrotter who's not afraid to speak out. In the vast majority of cases, it's not alcohol that kills people on the roads, it's speed.

The idea that someone is not fit to drive after one drink -- or even two drinks -- is nonsense, as long as that person drives slowly and carefully. But, of course, saying that is heresy to the politically correct brigade, for whom the world is black and white.

They will cite you endless studies and statistics showing that alcohol impairs judgment of distance, vision, coordination, reaction time, spatial awareness, a sense of responsibility and so on. And they are correct. It does.

But the question is, by how much? In the black and white world of the politically correct, even asking the question is offensive.

But the fact is that low levels of alcohol have low levels of effect on judgment. As long as you are careful, you concentrate, and you do not drive fast, most adults can drive perfectly safely after one -- or even two -- drinks.

I know many people in the part of the bog I come from in the middle of Ireland who do exactly that. They are the older farmers who live out in the country a few miles from their local village pub, often their only social contact in the week besides the church on Sunday.

They used to come in to the pub one or two nights a week, have a pint or two and a cigarette or two, and then drive home very carefully at 30 mph. Because they had a pint or two, they drove with extra care and caution, and very few of them had accidents.

But that was before we all went mad with political correctness and health fascism. Now the old guys are too afraid to come out in case they are caught driving after a couple of pints and are put off the road. And of course they can't smoke in a pub.

So they stay at home, isolated, their social life ruined ... and the small country pubs all over Ireland are closing up for good as a way of life dies. You could not make this stuff up.

The do-gooders and the health police have made responsible people all over Ireland feel guilty. They have made the lives of many people, particularly older people in rural areas, miserable.

So I'm glad that at least 20 Fianna Fail backbenchers from the country had the nerve to stand up to the minister last week and say enough!

Dempsey tried to assuage the anger by proposing that motorists who are caught with between 50 mgs and 80 mgs of alcohol in their blood would get six penalty points and a ****200 fine rather than an automatic driving ban. But the rebels were not having it.

There was a principle involved. They wanted the already strict limit to be retained, and so far they have got their way.

It was small victory for commonsense, but worthwhile. Yet you would not think it reading the papers the day after Cowen put the issue on hold.

The scathing editorial in one paper was typical: "The about-turn by the taoiseach on the plan to lower the drink-driving limit is only the latest in a series of capitulations to political pressure, each one of which has sapped public confidence and diminished the government's moral authority. Because it would have saved lives, the long fingering of the new road safety measure is probably the most shameful surrender to date."

It got worse: "A handful of Fianna Fail backbench deputies oppose the legislation on the plea that it would contribute to rural isolation. That is, frankly, not much of an argument.

“Rural isolation is a complex question, with roots that go back generations. One wonders how many uneasy backbenchers have ever given it any serious thought. But in any case, a government should act on any issue according to its own conception of the greater good."

We can say one thing for certain. Whoever wrote that superior garbage has not given it serious thought, in spite of the pompous tone.

Rural isolation and the death of country pubs are very real problems. The greater good has to include the interests of people who live in rural areas where there is no late night public transport, and where the car is the only way of getting home from the pub.

The underlying presumptions in most of the "scientific" studies I have seen are also open to question, especially as alcohol limits have got down to very low levels.

How many of these studies include information on the speed of the vehicle when the accident happened?

Or how much care was being taken by the driver? Or what condition the vehicle was in? Or the age of the driver? Or how frequently the speed cops were to be seen in the area?

The answer is none. The studies only consider alcohol levels, ignoring the fact that the majority of fatal accidents here are caused by young men driving much too fast.

Some have not drunk at all. Some don't just have one or two drinks, they have a bellyful. And maybe drugs as well.

Of course it's not only the boy racers who are the problem. There are older adults who drink way too much and then drive. And they deserve no sympathy.

Bringing the alcohol blood level limit down to tiny levels makes no difference to people like this and other real offenders who drink too much and then drive carelessly. But it can destroy the social life of law-abiding, moderate people who would rather die than do harm to anyone else.

If you see the world in black and white, of course, none of this matters. The simplistic solution is the correct one, not matter what damage it causes to some people's lives.

Let's look at the Irish statistics. The 100 mgs per 100 ml limit came into law in 1978. That year, 628 people were killed on Irish roads. In 1979, the number dropped to 614.

The 80 mgs per 100 mls limit was enacted in December 1994. In 1995, 436 people were killed. But in 1994, when the limit was still 100 mgs, only 404 people were killed.

So the statistics clearly don't tell us everything. Although in general deaths go down as alcohol limits are lowered, there are variations.

And other factors also contribute to the decline, like better roads, better vehicles, more speed cops, seat belt enforcement and greater awareness of the need for care when driving after a drink or two.

The Irish statistics also show that in one of four fatal accidents the driver had consumed alcohol. So even if alcohol was the only factor that caused accidents, limiting it to zero will still not stop 75% of fatal accidents. It's not the magic formula you would think from the concentration by the media on the drink driving issue.

We should be concentrating on the other factors that cause road deaths -- like high speed -- rather than reducing the already low blood alcohol limit even further and causing a lot of country people a lot of unnecessary misery.