When I was 17, a friend of mine was killed by a drink driver. Hugh was also 17 — a young man with huge potential who could have been an engineer.
He had been riding his motorbike on the Craigantlet hills when a drink driver drove him through the wall of the Clandeboye estate. Hugh died instantly.
The driver was so drunk he got out of his car and was found staggering down the road unaware he had killed anyone.
It was the first funeral of a friend I attended. His family were devastated. There was a huge sense of loss but what made it worse was this tragedy was avoidable.
A split second decision to get behind the steering wheel not only cost my friend his life but left the driver with a criminal record and the shame of having killed someone while under the influence. There have been similar tragedies before and since.
A fifth of all road deaths have been caused by drivers with alcohol in their system and 10% of serious injuries.
That amounts to 127 lives lost over the past five years.
On top of this grim statistic, the lives of thousands of people have been affected as families grieve or are left to cope with their loved ones’ injuries.
The loss of one life or the maiming of one individual is one too many. That is why, as we head towards Christmas, nobody should get behind the steering wheel having consumed alcohol.
Just as it has become socially unacceptable for people to smoke in clubs and bars, it should be socially unacceptable to drink and drive.
In arguing this, I am not being a killjoy. People should be able to unwind in a pub, club or restaurant with friends over a glass of beer or wine if they choose.
However with that choice comes responsibility. People who drink have a responsibility not just to ensure they get home safely but that others do as well. The safest way to do that is to book a taxi or have a designated driver who will abstain from alcohol.
As society faces up to that responsibility, government must do its bit to ensure people act responsibly.
That is why DOE, in conjunction with our road safety partners, has run high profile and hard hitting advertising campaigns reminding people of the terrible consequences of drink driving.
On top of that, government must remind people who drink alcohol the law simply won't tolerate those who gamble with peoples' lives.
Despite repeatedly being warned to never drink and drive, last year 6,619 people were stopped by the police while driving under the influence. Of those, 3,546 were prosecuted and more than 3,300 lost their licences.
That is frightening. People who break the law and risk peoples’ lives need to know they will be punished. That is why we are taking a fresh look at the drink drive limits.
Surveys show the public supports more stringent action. Sixty-five per cent of respondents to the DOE’s Road Safety Monitor survey said people should not drink at all if driving and 85% supported strict action by the police through random breath-testing.
Most people accept the current limit of 80mg of alcohol in the blood per 100ml must be reduced. The question is by how much?
The standard across Europe is 50mg per 100ml. We could go further. However we cannot adopt a zero limit because that would result in innocent people who have unknowingly ingested very low levels of alcohol in food or medicine being convicted. This is not to say that people should drive after taking all types of medicines, of course, as we know that some can have quite a strong impairing effect. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise.
But the limit must be set at a level that does not catch people who, inadvertently, have tiny amounts of alcohol in their system. Because we are talking about a measure which will reduce deaths, I am anxious to deal with this as quickly as possible.
I hope to introduce a consultation paper before the end of the year, exploring whether there should be one limit for all or a 50mg limit for the majority of motorists and a 20mg limit for learner, recently qualified and professional drivers. This should be possible as colleagues in the Assembly have indicated they will help move this forward in any way. The paper will consider whether the penalties we have in Northern Ireland — which are among the toughest in Europe — should be adjusted if the limit is lowered.
My Department hopes the consultation will be finished by April or May 2009. Decisions on the way forward and subsequent action could be taken within a year to 18 months, depending on how we progress.
While we must have a full and focused debate, time is also of the essence. Too many lives depend on it.