Gardening: Small beer to country folk

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The Independent Online
HOW the drink-driving mania induces remorse. And fear. Take a fairly typical recent day. I had a couple of lunchtime glasses of wine near Warrington. A teatime bowl of vegetable curry and a nan was washed down with a glass of water in a grubby and charming fluorescent-tube-and-formica Indian cafe near the station at Manchester. And then, back off the train at Hereford, it was a pint of beer in the Hop Pole in Commercial Street, before sharing a cab up to a meeting. After which we did what everyone does: two pints and a chilli at a country pub before driving home.

Don't say we should have been on a bus: devoted as I am to Lugg Valley Motors, and Primrose Motors, they will not run me home from Hereford in the evening, let alone from the Bell at Tillington.

That night, I was, presumably, hovering around the blood-alcohol limit; pop in another pint and I could have been illegal. I am only slightly comforted by the thought of the delightful man - a wartime marine commando - who used to live in a caravan at the edge of the village and was always a pint or so over. He was, in spite of being the very definition of steady, often stopped by the stroppy policeman we used to have here. One night, the old warrior excelled himself. He had six pints in the course of a long evening in the Nag's Head and drove home along the country lanes in his ancient Volvo with even greater caution than ever. He was stopped, blew up the bag, and was declared clear. The saving grace, he said, was that he had topped off his drinking with a beef curry, an enterprise normally regarded as hazardous, but in this case, a miracle cure for what even the old boy thought faintly egregious behaviour.

The stodge in my stomach might have saved me, and the blast of chilli discombobulated the crystals. Of course, I drove home with all the care that driving on country lanes requires. The young, and the not- so-young, in the country drive at breakneck speed, partly because they are desperately bored and because everything is so many bendy miles away that people forget to leave themselves enough time. In so doing, they terrify and annoy, and have a far greater preponderance of fatal accidents than do sensible city-dwellers Anyway, old greyheads like me are always ready to shove their vehicle halfway into a hedge to avoid the speedsters.

And yet, what if I had killed a child that night? If I were in teetotal mode, people would have gathered round and commiserated with me. If I had been a little over the limit - but clear-headed, unrushed, unaggressive - I would have been pilloried.

A local cider manufacturer expressed it properly: he said the trouble is that there is a quantum leap in people's minds between the state of strict sobriety and a drink or two. The curse of the modern world is that it is always making these moral long-distance jumps. People forget to say, 'There but for the grace of God . . .', and love to draw lines in the sand that are supposed to delineate the saint from the sinner with perfect accuracy.

Kicking drink-driving themes around with a senior policeman, we hit upon an interesting paradox. He said that the middle-aged man is reluctant to give up drinking and driving but is also the least significant killer-driver. Only 10 per cent of Hereford and Worcester's male deaths in motor vehicle accidents occur in the 35-64 age bracket (fewer still among women). More than 30 per cent occur among the 15- 34 age group, which, according to the policeman, is quite responsive to the drink-driving message. In 1990, three people between the ages of 40 and 59 were killed on Hereford and Worcester's roads, compared with more than four times as many 20- to 39-year-olds.

Anyway, alcohol and drugs account for only 4.3 per cent of road accidents (whether fatal or not) in West Mercia, with excessive speed and other bad road behaviour outranking them, in the case of speed by a factor of more than four-to-one. The policeman tells me that if a person is found to be over the limit, that will go to the top of the supposed causes of the accidents, even if speed and other factors were involved.

Nationally, a decade ago, 1,200 out of the 5,000 people killed on the road were over the limit; by 1991 that statistic dropped to 700 out of 4,500. This looks like good news, but actually it says that the risk of dying has decreased by just 10 per cent. People have, indeed, massively increased their chances of dying sober, which may not be much of a consolation for a dull evening. Moreover, the proportion of young drivers who die over the limit has halved, while their proneness to accident has remained the significant killer. Conversely, the proportion of middle-aged people who die in car accidents having had a drink has remained both considerably lower and constant, while the proneness of the whole group to accident has remained low.

Ergo, the most effective instrument for reducing accidents would be to stop young people driving or, failing that, to improve the way they drive. Since speed is the big killer, we ought to enforce speeding laws vigorously, and persuade people that the road is a poor place on which to be aggressive. In line with this, many policemen say the best accident-reducer would be a spike located on the steering wheel, pointing, of course, at the driver.

Naturally, it is regrettable that any middle-aged driver should kill someone because of being over the limit (a causation not easy to prove and perhaps not even particularly likely unless actual drunkeness had set in). Granted, it seems to be the case that risk increases with alcohol intake, one could make a case (though it would be imperfect) for penalising offenders in degree to the amount of alcohol they had imbibed. It is true that, at the cost of wrecking even more the chances of country people enjoying themselves, random breath testing and increased public pillorying of even minor offenders would haul down the number of the drinking middle- aged. But we do not have much evidence that we should be encouraging people to excoriate the quiet man who is unfortunate enough to have an accident, perhaps his first, at least not on account of his having drunk a couple, or even three, beers with his dinner.

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