Evidence relating to licensing hours and road safety needs to be examined

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One person per hour, on average, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or both, in the run up to and during the Christmas period, with 75 per cent of cases featuring alcohol. 

It is, as Chief Superintendent Jane Humphries of the Garda National Road Traffic Bureau said, “beyond belief” that some people think it is acceptable to drive while intoxicated. 

The fact that people are doing it reveals a number of things – that that the message around zero tolerance hasn’t fully been absorbed by the population and more simply, as we know, alcohol acts as a disinhibitor that means people take risks they normally would not, ie breaking the law and driving while intoxicated.  

Research shows that alcohol influences an increased tendency to take risks. An in depth coronial study of car crashes and alcohol in Australia found that those crashes also tend to have higher rates of other risky behaviours, such as speeding and reckless driving.  

This may mean that drink drivers are at significantly higher risk of crashing, not only because they could be more likely to engage in other risky driving behaviours (e.g., speeding, mobile phone use and fatigued driving), but also because they have a reduced ability to drive. 

Alcohol causes road deaths 

Sadly, there has long been a strong link between alcohol and road deaths with 37% of driver fatalities in Ireland having a positive toxicology for alcohol. 71% of these fatalities occurred on rural roads. 

Alcohol affects your ability to drive. You are more at risk of being in an accident after you’ve been drinking. 

Even after 1 drink, alcohol affects: 

  • reaction times 
  • coordination 
  • concentration 
  • judgement 
  • vision 

The more alcohol in your system, the more it affects your ability to drive. 

Road safety and licensing hours 

AAI is concerned that an increase in alcohol availability as proposed by the sale of alcohol bill, will very likely increase the numbers of people driving under the influence. These proposals include: 

  1. The general extension of licensing hours of all bars/restaurants from 11.30pm to 12.30am
  2. The facilitating of late-night opening of bars to 2.30am
  3. The extension of nightclub hours to 6am
  4. The introduction of cultural amenity licenses to venues not usually having a license 

The issue of road safety is particularly relevant to consideration of this Bill. At the very least the proposals will change the timing that intoxicated drivers are likely to be on the road and may also increase the level of ‘morning after’ intoxication given the shortened time between closure and the next day. 

 Several international research studies have examined the relationship between extended trading hours and drink-driving outcomes. These outcomes have included drink driving detections, road traffic collisions, hospitalisations and fatalities. Findings from a 2020 systematic review concluded that there was an association between increased trading hours and drink driving.  

A Norwegian study published in 2022 provides an important update to the international evidence base. This is a high-quality study with a more robust research design than most previous studies. It concludes that increased trading hours were associated with a decline in drink driving in urban areas but an increase in rural areas. The authors suggest that where hours are extended in areas where there is limited public transport, more drink driving incidents will occur.  

It is well acknowledged that there is a lack of public transport outside the Dublin area. It is also the case that there is an overall underdevelopment of public transport in Ireland compared to Nordic countries. Most alarming, though, is the current high proportion of deaths on rural roads in Ireland – over 70% of the annual total.  All of this has significant implications for how trading hours may affect drink driving here.   

Health Impact Assessment of Sale of Alcohol Bill 

There has already been a shocking increase in road deaths in Ireland in the past year and there is rightly concern across government about this important issue. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar recently convened a meeting of the Ministerial Road Safety Committee with representatives from minsters from the Departments of Justice and Transport plus senior gardaí, the CEO of the Road Safety Authority, transport officials and road safety activists.   

However, absent from the discussion was consideration of the likely impact of the Sale of Alcohol Bill on road safety. 

Since the General Scheme of the Sale of Alcohol Bill was published in Oct 2023, public health advocates have been highlighting many concerns that increasing alcohol availability will lead to an increase in alcohol consumption with the entirely predictable increase in alcohol harms such as illnesses, accidents and assaults.  As well as the harm caused to individuals, families, workplaces and communities this will likely increase the burden on public services such as paramedics, hospital EDs and gardaí   A key recommendation in the report of the Oireachtas Justice Committee’s pre-legislative  scrutiny of the Bill.  is to carry out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposals. A HIA is a practical approach used to judge the potential health effects of a proposed policy, programme or project on a population, particularly on vulnerable or disadvantaged groups.  

Given the weight of international evidence relating to licensing hours and road safety a critical part of such an assessment would be to examine the likely impact on road deaths. 

2023 has sadly seen carnage on our roads. 2024 must be the year that the government ensures that its own actions do not add to this terrible burden on families across the state.