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Ireland won't ease drunken-driving law for farmers

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:46 p.m.

DUBLIN — A license to drive drunk? Some small-town politicians think it's just the tonic for rural Ireland.

Councilmen in Kerry, southwest Ireland, passed a motion this week asking the government to start a permit that would allow isolated farmers the ability to drink a few pints and then return home in their car, or on their tractor, without fear of being busted.

Its backers say the measure is needed to combat an epidemic of boredom and depression on farms ever since Ireland imposed tough new blood-alcohol limits on drivers in 2011.

But Justice Minister Alan Shatter shot down the proposal during a speech in parliament on Thursday as “grossly irresponsible.”

“There is no question of this government, or indeed I don't believe any future government, facilitating individuals drinking in excess of the blood alcohol limits,” Shatter said.

A generation ago, drunken driving was commonplace in Ireland, and even the smallest villages or forlorn crossroads would feature a pub. But in this century, the country has steadily improved road safety standards, introducing mandatory driving tests, blood and breath tests and above all a penalty-points system that removes licenses from dangerous drivers, particularly drunks.

The effort has slashed road-related deaths from more than 400 annually in the 1990s to just 162 last year, a modern low in this country of 4.6 million.

Kerry pub owners complain that their business has plummeted right along with that nationwide carnage — yet deny any connection between the two trends.

They describe the often narrow, lightly trafficked roads near their businesses as safe for people to navigate even after three pints of beer.

Danny Healy-Rae, who owns a pub and comes from Kerry's most famous and flamboyant political family, says farmers should be allowed to drive tipsy on their tractors because they don't go fast enough to kill anyone.

He said those drinking two to three pints at a pub should be issued a permit allowing them to drive home so long as they stay below 30 miles per hour.

He was one of five Kerry County Council members who voted for the motion Monday night. Three others voted against, seven abstained and 12 council members didn't show up. Their decision has no legal standing because the national government, not councils, sets policy on road safety.

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