Irish Independent – Drink drivers to get second chance under lower limits

Motorists face penalty points and on-the-spot fines in new regime

Motorists caught just over the new drink-driving limit will be hit with penalty points and a €220 onthe- spot fine instead of losing their licence.

The Irish Independent has learned that a new three-tier drinkdriving regime – starting next month – involves a controversial ‘second chance’ for those who are just over the limit.

The new breath test limit of 50mg of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood – down from the current 80mg – is the equivalent of drinking less than one pint of beer.

The reduced punishment regime is designed to avoid an outcry should thousands of drivers get caught under the lower limit.

The reduced sanctions are also aimed at stopping the courts system being clogged up and cutting the huge cost and time spent bringing drivers to court. Under the current system, all drink drivers are prosecuted in court – and banned for 12 months if convicted.

The change to a more lenient court-free system for drink drivers comes at a time when the Road Safety Authority (RSA) warns that any amount of alcohol increases the risk of a fatal car crash.

The Government says the new penalties are “proportionate to the new lower drink-driving limit”. A spokesman for Transport Minister Leo Varadkar said the moves are an attempt to “ensure that the new regime is not unduly punitive”.

The new system will be reviewed in 18 months to see if it is working properly to reduce the incidence of drink driving. RSA chief executive Noel Brett rejected claims that allowing some drink drivers to escape a conviction was sending out the wrong message and encouraging people to take a chance.

“We believe that these are proportionate penalties, fairly targeted and we are comfortable with them,” he said. “There is also an immediacy to the punishment for the offence, whereas under the current system it takes a long time to get to court.

“These are new lower limits and it is important to bring people with you. I’m happy with them.”

Under the changes being rolled out in September, gardai will be given new powers allowing them to impose three penalty points and an on-the-spot fine of €200 for motorists caught slightly above the new legal limit of 50mg.

This will replace the current automatic court appearance and disqualification for one year, while these drivers will also escape a drink-driving conviction. However, drivers will be legally obliged to notify their insurance companies when renewing their premiums.

Motorists will only be allowed to use this lower penalty regime once in a three-year period. If caught a second time, they will go to court. Under a second tier, drivers found with between 80mg and 100mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood will be served with a fixed charge notice of €400 and will be disqualified from driving for six months, instead of the current 12 months imposed by courts.

They will have a conviction recorded against them. Finally, drivers who test above the 100mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood cannot avail of the fixed charge option and must appear in court.

A minimum ban of one year, and possible fines of up to €5,000, can be imposed. The number of drivers being prosecuted for drink driving is steadily falling.

In 2008, 28,000 motorists were prosecuted in the District Court, falling to 21,153 cases last year. Changes in driver behaviour have also resulted in a dramatic fall in the numbers being killed on the roads.

Last year, 211 died, the lowest on record. This compares with 376 fatalities in 2002. Meanwhile, the number of children dying on Irish roads almost halved between 1997 and 2009, new figures show.

The latest Road Safety Authority (RSA) report shows a 45pc decrease in fatalities to children aged 14 or younger. The number of child passengers killed in traffic accidents fell by 73pc over the 12-year period.

In total, 246 children were killed over the 12-year period between 1997 and 2009 and a further 1,013 were seriously injured.

The report coincides with an announcement by the RSA and ESB Electric Ireland that for the second year running they will be providing new primary school children with a road safety ‘Back to School Pack’.

Over 80,000 packs will be delivered to schools nationwide in November at a cost of €100,000 and will contain information for both children and parents.

Source: Irish Independent, 23/08/11
Journalists: Paul Melia and Treacy Hogan