Cllr Peter Hynes
The Chief Executive of Mayo County Council has warned that new drink-driving penalties and greater Garda roadside checkpoints has the potential to be ‘a lightning rod for public discontent, like water charges were’.
Mr Hynes was speaking at last Friday’s Mayo Joint-Policing Committee meeting in Castlebar, where a number of county councillors expressed their anger with increased numbers of checkpoints since the new penalties came into law last October.
“It is a topic of real concern. Sometimes issues become lightning rods. There’s the straw that will break the camel’s back. Water charges fell into that category at a certain stage and there’s certainly a real concern about the last two to three months, certainly since Christmas. It would be wrong to trivialise that,” said Mr Hynes.
He said that Mayo County Council take the issue of road safety ‘extremely seriously’ pointing out that it held onto its Road Safety Officer when many local authorities were letting theirs go.
However, Mr Hynes argued there was too much emphasis on road safety at the expense of other issues, such as death by suicide, which he said accounted for many more deaths per annum.
“The figure of 149 deaths (total killed on Irish roads in 2018) is an enormous figure. But it will never be zero, unfortunately. As long as we have a transport system that utilises and depends on roads in the main, there will be accidents and there will be fatalities. There is the question of the law of diminishing marginal returns.
“An overemphasis on a particular area can imbalance things. Certainly my view is some of the emotive campaigns that have been run recently have been over the top. There’s a balance issue, and from this seat there are other priority areas that are not getting the attention or resources that they don’t just deserve, they need.”
Mr Hynes went on to say that deaths from self-harm is ‘multiples of that 149’. “The budget which is dedicated to trying to deal with that is a minute proportion of the budget that is dedicated to road safety. We need to address that,” he said.
‘Reputation in tatters’
The issue was brought up first by the Chairman of the JPC, Cllr Al McDonnell (FF) who said ‘the reputation of the Gardaí is currently in tatters in rural Ireland’.
“I raise it here because it is our solemn duty as public representatives. The general perception is that the people being pursued are innocent people and well capable as they have been doing for generations of making their way home after one or two drinks,” said Cllr McDonnell.
Cllr Michael Holmes (Ind) said people ‘are prisoners in their own homes’.
“To say that someone with a pint or two is worse or more dangerous than somebody that maybe was up all night with cows calving or sheep lambing and maybe had to go out driving … I don’t believe that they are.
“Maybe the one with no pint is safer than the person with one pint, but the one that doesn’t get out of bed and go in the car is safer than the one who drives to Mass. If they’re home in bed they can’t have a car accident. Where do you draw the line?” added Holmes.
'No such thing'
Cllr Gerry Ginty (Ind) disagreed. “There’s no such thing as saying anyone who goes into a pub has one or two drinks,” he said. “I’ve seen too many children and older people killed by drunk drivers and there is no safe limit. Once you take alcohol, any amount of alcohol will impair your ability to drive. If you’ve one or two pints on you, your reaction time will slow.”
Deputy Dara Calleary told the meeting that Fianna Fáil had tabled an amendment to Minister Shane Ross’s bill that was defeated. However, he said that the amendment only called for higher fines and penalty points rather than disqualification.
Deputy Calleary also said that large parts of Shane Ross’s bill were key to addressing road safety issues.
“We don’t have the luxury as national legislators of walking away from our responsibilities,” he said, adding that better rural-transport options needed to be explored.