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Contrary to reports, the Irish haven't legalized drunk driving

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Reported around the globe as a license to drive drunk, an Irish council's motion to permit rural pub-goers to get behind the wheel not only lacks force of law, it's also a slightly odd solution to a serious issue.

It's not often that a vote by five county councilors in rural west Ireland makes headline news, but Danny Healy-Rae managed it this week when he and four colleagues passed a motion to allow drinkers to drive home – albeit at a severely restricted speed and only on barely-used backroads.

The political response? The same as that of the Irish public: bafflement and embarrassment.

Leo Varadkar, minister for transport, said he disagreed with the council's motion and stressed the affect of the story spreading across the globe. "It doesn't really send out a good message internationally about Ireland," he said.

One fact that has barely been reported in the scramble to play-up rural Irish alcoholic clichés: It's not going to happen. As a county council motion, the proposal has no legal status.

Irish people are keenly aware of the country's drink-sodden image, with many feeling Mr. Healy-Rae's motion plays to outdated prejudices about the country.

The move may not seem so out of the blue as it first sounds, though. Not quite, anyway.

Healy-Rae proposed the motion as a response to isolation in rural areas, particularly among the elderly and would help to counter "depression and suicide." He said permits could be issued allowing holders to have "two or three drinks" and then still drive home.

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"They're traveling on very minor roads, often on tractors, with very little traffic and it's not right they're being treated the same as the rest of the traveling public and they have never killed anyone," he said. "The only outlet they have then is to take home a bottle of whiskey," he says, "and they're falling into depression, and suicide for some of them is the sad way out."

To be sure, pubs in country areas of Ireland are at the center of community life and are more than just drinking dens, which is something even the motion's critics acknowledge. And going to the pub and drinking nonalcoholic drinks is already an option, as is the option of hiring a bus.

Healy-Rae is a member of a colorful County Kerry political dynasty known for rural populism – and occasional support for strange causes including, most recently, removing the number 13 from vehicle license plates.

He is also a pub owner – as are three more of the total five councilors who supported the idea. Three voted against the idea, seven abstained, and 12 were absent from the meeting.

Despite widespread criticism, the motion has attracted some support. Independent Galway councilor Michael Fahy says he will raise the idea at the next council meeting.

The chances of the government agreeing to the idea? Less than the amount of alcohol in a glass of tap water. The country has worked hard in recent decades to reduce road deaths, both by upgrading the road network and by stricter enforcement of the rules of the road.

Ireland's road death rate hit an all-time low in 2012, with 161 lives lost, 25 fewer than the previous year. It is has the sixth lowest road death rate the in EU.


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