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Drink-driving convictions soar by 40% in Northern Ireland

By Cate McCurry

Published 21/11/2016

1,578: number of motorists convicted of driving under influence of drink or drugs in 2013. File image
1,578: number of motorists convicted of driving under influence of drink or drugs in 2013. File image
Enda Dolan, who was killed after being hit by a drunk driver in October 2014

The number of people convicted of driving under the influence of drink or drugs has risen by almost 40% in two years - despite millions being pumped into high-profile road safety campaigns.

Last year nearly 2,200 drivers were caught and punished by the courts - up around 600 on the 2013 total.

Around 10,000 drivers in Northern Ireland have been hit with a drink driving conviction in the past five years, shocking figures from the Department for Infrastructure show.

The revelation has led to calls for tougher penalties for offenders, amid fears the anti-drink drive message is not getting through to too many people.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said: "The only way to effectively deter these offenders is to look again at the maximum penalty available for crimes involving drink driving."

Drivers detected and convicted of being over the limit are handed a fine and a 12-month driving ban, or three years if it is their second conviction in 10 years.

A number of high-profile road safety campaigns have been run in recent years. These include the PSNI's Christmas drink-drive initiative, which is due to be launched in the coming days, and a series of hard-hitting government-sponsored adverts.

But despite repeated warnings about the consequences of drink and drug driving, the number of convictions remains relatively unchanged from five years ago.

A total of 2,187 drivers were convicted in 2015 - more than 40 a week on average.

That is only fractionally down on the 2,307 convicted in 2011.

The numbers did fall to 1,578 in 2013, but are back on the rise in the last two years, raising questions about the effectiveness of the current road safety strategy. Mr McCrossan, who sits on the infrastructure committee at Stormont, said the figures were "shocking".

"What is even more concerning is that despite multiple public campaigns, the number of people caught is not going down," he added.

"These campaigns have continually spelled out the dangers of driving under the influence and have been specifically targeted at our younger people who are more at risk of injury or death.

"But these statistics show that there is still a long way to go and that it is vitally important there is an effective deterrent to stop drivers who know the risks involved in drink driving, but decide to do it anyway."

The SDLP MLA said that a "substantial" number of people - particularly young - have lost their lives this year alone.

He referred to the case of Co Tyrone student Enda Dolan, who was killed after being hit by a drunk driver in October 2014 - weeks into his first term at Queen's University.

The driver, David Lee Stewart of Gray's Park Avenue in Belfast, who had consumed a cocktail of drink and drugs, was later jailed for three and a half years.

Mr McCrossan added: "Not only does drink driving risk the lives of drivers and passengers, we've also seen a growing number of pedestrians killed from drivers under the influence and no more horrific is the case of Enda Dolan.

"It is now imperative that we do all we can to avoid these unnecessary deaths which includes firmly tackling drink driving."

Road safety campaign group Brake said the figures show a "worrying lack of progress" in the drink-drive enforcement.

Lucy Amos from the charity said: "Drink driving remains one of the biggest killers on our roads, causing devastation to families and communities that we see first-hand running a specialist helpline and support service for victims' families.

"While Brake welcomes the Assembly's plans to implement a zero-tolerance drink-drive limit along similar lines of Scotland, it must be effectively implemented to have any impact.

"We urge the Northern Ireland government to provide road traffic officers with the resources and support needed to protect law-abiding road users from these hard-core drunk drivers."

The figures come as the PSNI prepares to launch its Christmas anti-drink driving operation in conjunction with Road Safety Week.

The operation will be targeting motorists in the led up to Christmas and the New Year with dedicated officers out searching for drink driving offenders.

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