Posted by TheYank at 10/24/2009 3:38 PM EDT

At a meeting last Tuesday 20 members of the Fianna Fáil party publicly objected to the government's proposal to reduce the blood alcohol content limit for drivers. Despite all the problems in the Irish economy, health system, etc. it was this issue which caused the biggest ripple in Fianna Fáil for sometime. Their complaint centered on the fact that the lower limit will discourage rural people from going to the pub at all and a part of their way of life will disappear.

It's a difficult proposition to defend driving after drinking – especially in the face of what is a very emotive campaign by those backing the proposed change – but that doesn't mean that the 20 don't have an argument.

The government proposes to reduce the allowable limit of alcohol – technically the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit – from 80mg per 100 ml of blood to 50mg. The new limit will make Irish law among the most restrictive in the EU and more restrictive than the law in the United States and Canada.

The Road Safety Authority, a government agency, is the driver of this change, pressuring the government and pump-priming the media with projections on the numbers who will die if this change is not made. They have also involved relatives of victims of drunk drivers to lend their extremely credible and effective voices to encourage us to support the government's move.

The RSA's campaign is a difficult one to refute. After all it's not easy to argue with those who are trying to save our lives and there's always the fear that your wife or son or daughter could be killed in the same random manner as those whose sad and/or angry faces are asking us to back the lower limit. Yet, each of these unfortunate victims of drunk-drivers was killed by someone who was over the current limit, not the new proposed limit, which begs the question, 'Is the problem the current limit or current enforcement?'

The RSA has not made any real attempt to explain the change or even accept that there might be a counter argument. They brow-beat and they fear-monger. That's about it.

For example, the RSA says that under the new regime one drink will put a driver over the limit. But, for how long? How long does it take for that drink to wear off sufficiently to allow a person to safely operate an automobile? The RSA will not say, although it would be helpful to know (on average) how long will it take for a person's BAC to get below the limit after a drink (that is, for it be safe to drive).

All you ever hear from the RSA is that if you're going out you should either take taxis or not drink. Okay, for me that isn't all that onerous, but if I'm in a restaurant the new law will mean I cannot have a glass of wine with my dinner. Does this mean I can't enjoy my dinner? No, but the wine adds to my dinner, just as desert does. The omission of either lessens the enjoyment. And as for the taxis, well, the extra €20 also has the effect of lessening the enjoyment.

Like I said, I'm not that put out, but others are. One of the great social problems in modern Ireland is the isolation and loneliness of many of Ireland's old, single men, of whom there are many. President McAleese recently launched a new initiative with the GAA to tackle this problem, which she herself had identified based on her travels and meetings up and down the country.

The RSA and its backers say that these men should go to the pub and not drink. That's the sort of indifferent glibness that passes for argument from the RSA. They don't even acknowledge the near impossibility of pubs existing where nobody is drinking.

Is the marginal increase in road safety worth it if we take away the last bit of social life that these men have? Already men over 65 living alone are the second most 'at risk' group to suicide and the rate is rising. I can't see how this move to force these men to stay home more will alleviate that problem.

Sure it would be great if there were no road deaths associated with alcohol, but such a utopia is unachievable. We have to make trade-offs, between our freedom of action and safety. The BAC represents one of those trade-offs. We need to get the level right.

Anyone who's ever driven a car knows that there are all sorts of things that can make someone less sharp behind the wheel. Is a BAC of 60mg more dangerous than
(a) driving tired; (b) driving when late for an appointment or work; (c) driving when distracted by troubles at home; (d) driving with children fighting or playing in the back of the car. Maybe it is and driving after a beer is far worse than each of those, but I'm dubious.

I can't help thinking that lowering the BAC is merely an easy option, something that will simply discourage people from going out socially at all, which will inevitably lead to fewer road deaths and enable the RSA to trumpet its success. A success built on denying many the simple pleasure of a glass of wine in a restaurant and others all the social life they know.

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