Global Politics

Rural Irish leaders pushing to loosen country's drunken driving laws, citing lost pub sales

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Patty Burke's pub in Clarinbridge has stayed profitable in the face of stricter drunken driving laws by offering a full menu to lure families. (Photo by John Sepulvado.)

Mary Wards is a legendary pub in the rural West of Ireland.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this three room, one-story building is famous for singing sessions, accordion playing and the occasional impromptu shotgun-target-shooting session. James Avery, a bartender at Mary Wards, said it's been a lively pub.

“It’s one of these places you feel you can come to the pub, on your own, and have a bit of fun," he said.

But lately, Mary Wards hasn’t been as lively. Business is down, according to Avery, by about 20 percent. That’s in line with other rural Irish pubs.

The Vintner’s Federation, which represents Irish pubs, estimates the drop-off has been between 15 and 30 percent in 2012, although exact figures won’t be available until April.

The slowdown is being blamed, in large part, on transportation. Many longtime rural customers don’t want to drive to or from the pubs because they don’t want to get arrested for drunken driving. The Irish government began implementing tougher drunken driving laws in 2005. The head of the Vintner’s Federation, Gerry Rafter, says it’s easy to understand the business hit by looking at the typical farmer.

“He might spend five hours in a night playing cards or chatting with his neighbor, and have two or three pints and drive home, maybe on a bike, or maybe on a tractor,” Rafter said. “He’s not going out anymore. We need to keep the fabric of rural Ireland alive, and the pub is an important part to play in that community role.”

Some rural politicians have been quick to take up the cause of the isolated farmer, as they push local councils for looser drunken driving laws. The proposals vary, but generally most would allow local police, or even bartenders, to issue a type of rural driving permit, allowing a pub goer to consumer up to three drinks and still drive legally.

Kerry Councilor Danny Healey-Rae is leading the charge. He says because rural roads have lower speed limits and are less busy, slightly intoxicated drivers could still travel safely compared to their urban counterparts.

“They should be treated differently to the other general public that have more means of transport,” Healy-Rae said.

The problem is the numbers don’t bear Healy-Rae's arguments out. Before the tougher drunken driving laws, there were about 400 crash-related fatalities each year on Ireland's roads. About 70 percent of those happened in rural areas between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., prime drinking times.

Not one of those accidents, according to the National Roads Authority, involved a bicycle or tractor.

Meanwhile, in 2012 there were a record-low 162 road fatalities in the entire country.

With those statistics on hand, the message from the government to local politicians has been simple: get real. Alan Shatter, Ireland’s justice minister, says the social lives of farmers don’t trump the possibility of drunken driving deaths.

“There’s no question, of this government, or indeed, any future government, facilitating individuals drinking in excess of the blood alcohol limits,” Shatter said. “Reducing fatalities on our roads must always take precedence over promoting the social consumption of alcohol.”

Kerry County councilors voted to let rural residents drive a bit drunker. The plan still needs central government approval, which Shatter has refused to grant.

Despite the objection of the central government, at least three other rural counties, including Galway, are considering similar measures this month to allow pub-goers to get special permits that would allow them to drive with a higher blood-alcohol level. While the proposals seem designed to highlight the plight of the rural pub-goer, Avery says even if the law was changed customers would be resistant to driving drunk.

“Everything has gone too regimental now,” Avery said. “You’re being told to be home at such time. You can’t drink and drive. You’re relying on someone else to get you to the pub and from the pub? Why bother? Stay at home.”

Or, as one farmer at the pub put it, who is going to be dumb enough to go to the police station, tell the police they’d like to drink and drive, and ask for a special permit to do so?

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