Of course, we get it: The Irish like their pints o'Guinness room temperature with a little froth. I mean, they even call the act of driving after having a few pints "Drink Driving" -- just another piece of evidence to support the stereotype painting the whole country as in a constant state of word-slurring sloppiness.
As the child of two off-the-boat (actually, they probably came over on a 747 that landed at JFK) Irish immigrants, I know the culture of drinking and socializing well. My cousin claims he took his first steps in a pub. We have a photo of me spending my first Christmas in Ireland, around 9 months old, sipping sherry out of my grandma's fine crystal. I've heard stories about people I know and his or her drunken escapades behind the wheel, as if the speaker were retelling a skit from Benny Hill and not describing a terrifyingly dangerous behavior.
Drinking has never been taboo, and has always been a part of how we socialize with our family and friends, meet new people and generally just have the craic (pronounced crack – means good conversation.) And in parts of rural Ireland, driving has gone along with the drinking. I mean, how else are people supposed to get home? But drinking and driving is a problem Ireland has spent nearly 20 years addressing, and in many ways has become a model for how public service campaigns can actually push cultural change.
I was in Ireland in the early 1990s when the first big "drink driving" laws were being enforced. Drunk driving has been illegal in Ireland since the 1960s, but in 1994 the government told everyone they'd get in trouble if they had blood alcohol levels of .08 percent, similar to the laws in the U.S.
The outrage on call-in radio shows and around the pubs was incredibly entertaining to this American, who was accustomed to strict drunk driving laws. At a pub one evening, someone said they'd done the math and that, after a hearty evening out, it was still possible to be over the .08 BAC limit hours after you'd stopped drinking. "What if I have to get up and go to work the next morning?" this friend asked a group of us. "Are they saying I might still be drunk? How will I get to work?"
"Maybe you should drink less, then," I suggested, trying to be helpful. "Or have some glasses of water in between pints. Or drink only on nights when you don't have work the next morning."
If I remember correctly, the music on the jukebox came to a scratchy halt and a pub full of drinkers turned to silently stare at me, the crazy American.
Danny Healy-Rae, the County Kerry councilmen who proposed the permit, said he was looking out for lonely elderly folks who are stuck at home, unable to socialize at the pub because they're scared of getting in trouble driving home. He offered up the suggestion that they could drive home on their tractors, slow enough so they won't kill anyone. That argument first came up back in 1994 , when a caller to a radio station first took up the cause of the lonely Irish farmers. There were no taxis that could drive this farmer home from the pub, and nowhere else to socialize. The drunk driving laws were going to change his life in a radical, unforgivable way, he argued.
Besides, he said, the roads from the pub to his house were always empty. If he ran into a rock wall, or a tree, or an errant cow, who'd be hurt by that? "That's just between me and the cow," he argued.
In 2010, the Irish government has joined much of the European Union in making its DUI laws even more stringent. They lowered the blood alcohol levels to .05 percent for people with full driving licenses, and .02 percent for novice drivers. That means for a 180-pound male, drinking two pints of beer in an hour will earn you a DUI in Ireland. Novice drivers go over the limit with just one drink.
That's way stricter than what we deal with here in the U.S. The Irish government says drinking in any amount impairs driving. Still, the U.S. and Ireland have similarities: About 30 percent of all fatal car accidents in both countries are caused by drunk drivers, the Irish government says.
But Ireland, ironically, seems more committed to a zero-tolerance policy. The country has run a public service campaign telling drivers that just one drink can cause a problem -- and that campaign and other efforts have made a difference.
About 70 percent of all Irish drivers say the penalties for drink driving should be more severe, according to the Irish Road Safety Authority. The Associated Press says fatal accidents caused by DUIs has gone down from 400 or so a year in the 1990s to just 162 last year, in a country of 4.6 million.
But even more telling is the change in my own family. This summer, at the law school graduation of my cousin, the one who took his first steps in a pub, my aunt from Dublin was very concerned about who was drinking and who was driving. Before we left for the restaurant, we all had to carpool according to who was going to be staying sober and who was going to have wine or beer. After deciding my cousin had had too much alcohol (he seemed perfectly fine to me) she made him leave his car behind in the parking lot, and told him to take a taxi home.
It was the first time I'd ever seen someone, American or Irish, act so carefully about preventing drunk driving.
The drink driving permit suggestion won't get anywhere. The councilmen in County Kerry have already been shot down in parliament. Justice Minister Alan Shatter called it "grossly irresponsible."
"There is no question of this government, or indeed I don't believe any future government, facilitating individuals drinking in excess of blood alcohol limits," he said in a speech Thursday.
Still, we all got a good laugh out of the Irish farmers who want permission to get drunk and drive. When someone walks right into a cultural stereotype, it's hard to pass up the joke. But thankfully for the people on Ireland's roads, the government has the good sense to say no.