Some in Rural Ireland Trying to Loosen Drunk-Driving Laws to Support Local Pubs

The World

Patty Burke's in Clarinbridge has stayed profitable by offering a full menu to lure families. (Photo: 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.

"It would be a lively pub," says James Avery, a bartender at Mary Wards. "It's one of these places you feel you can come to the pub, on your own, and have a bit of fun."

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

The Vintner's Federation represents Irish pubs, and the organization estimates the drop-off has been between 15-30 percent for 2012, although exact figures won't be available until this 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 drunk-driving. The Irish government began implementing tougher drunk 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 says. "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 call of the isolated farmer, as they push their local councils for looser drunk driving laws. The proposals vary, but generally most would allow local police or even bartenders to issue a type of rural driving permit, allowing the 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 says.

The problem is the numbers don't bear Healy-Rae and others arguments out. Before the tougher drunk driving laws, there were about 400 crash related fatalities each year on Ireland 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 the local politician has been 'get real.' Alan Shatter is Ireland's Justice Minister, and he says the social lives of farmers don't trump the possibility of drunk 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 says. "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 to allow pub-goers to get special permits that would allow them to drive with a higher blood-alcohol level this month. While the proposals seem designed to highlight the plight of the rural pub-goer bartender James Avery says even if the law was changed customers would be resistant to driving drunk.

"Everything has gone too regimental now," Avery says. "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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