Tuesday 8 May 2018

2 shades of grey

The Beloved and me, we embraced an in-family designated driver policy about 20 years ago. Long before it was The Thing among the chatterati. I remember being in the pub during the 90s after an academic gig in TCD and being shocked by my HoD having a second whiskey before driving 8km home for his dinner. For us it was mostly a sense of dignity: it didn't seem proper to be calculating whether another half one would put you over the limit. It was just easier to be black-and-white about not driving with ANY alcohol on board; because there would be a huge red face if you got nicked.

Drink and driving has been in the news last week because of a zero-tolerance plan by Shane Ross, the Minister of Sport, Tourism and Transport, to put all drivers off the road if they have more than 50mg/100ml of alcohol in circulation. Mr Ross is making a bit a crusade about this from his €6.5m South Dublin house because he knows that even a small amount of alcohol in your brain will impair your judgement and make you more likely to kill someone, including yourself. The data are pretty clear that he is correct but the risk of you having a fatal adventure on this journey home from the pub are vanishingly small. The data:
  • Average kilometrage per car per year is 16,000km
  • Number of cars in Ireland topped 2 million a couple of years ago.
    • That's 32 billion kilometers driven collectively (that's from here to Neptune)
  • Number of road deaths 2017 was 158 therefore
    • You get one death for every 200 million km driven
    • You are only likely to have a fatal encounter if you drive for 10,000 years.
It's like the Lotto! Every week, someone wins €2 million and three people die on the roads but it is, to the nearest whole number, never you.

Ross was getting shirty and annoyed that His bill was being delayed in the Dáil by a handful of independent TDs from rural constituencies, who were pushing back on his numbers and demanding that he looked at the larger picture of the consequences of his fancy Dublin certainties. Road-traffic terrorists according to Ross. I was laughing indulgently at Michael Healy-Rea a couple of years ago for behaving like a miscreant child when given access to free telephone calls after being elected to the Dáil. His brother Danny is one of the road-traffic terrorists and he says he's never known anyone have an accident, let alone a fatal one, driving home after a couple of pints in a rural Kerry pub. My calcs above suggest that he may well be correct. Obviously the probability of having a wee tip; or only breaking a rib and puncturing a lung is higher than finishing up dead but the numbers are small. Danny H-R is also talking large about the down-side of preventing rural communities meeting in the pub: rural isolation, social exclusion, depression and suicide. As a society we choose not to service the rural hinterland with either public transport or adequate social workers.

Shane Ross used to be, by his own admission, a truly terrible financial advisor: telling his clients that Ryanair would never fly, that sort of thing. I think it may be partly because he is terrible at maths. He would do well to get some utilitarian reasoning under his hat. On the balance, what's better? Having one bachelor farmer hanging himself in the cow shed to prevent one road-death? But you can't even make these cold-blooded greatest good for the greatest number decisions unless and until you have the data. Turns out the Road Safety Authority cannot get these statistics from the Gardai because the latter are in the middle of an audit which exposed their record keeping about road-traffic crashes, over many years, to be internally inconsistent and unreliable.

For me it's about rights and choice. I'm happy about having designated-driver zero tolerance because I'm meh! take it or leave it about the dhrink. On a parallel track, I used to hate going to the pub in the good olde days and hanging out in a miasma of passive smoking: had to wash my sweater every weekend. I was netto in favour of the smoking ban when it was introduced. But I really deprecated the hectoring and ghettoisation of adult smokers. They have the right to make a contrary call on the costs and benefits of smoking. You may counter that with the fact that Society picked up the tab for most of the negative health outcomes from that policy. And I counter-counter that with the savings accrued to the state because smokers don't draw the pension for 30 years. It's called realeconomik.

I've pointed out that the allocation of resources in health care is wildly inconsistent, irrational and unfair. Last week, Newstalk's Ciara Kelly interviewed Peter Boylan, the former Master of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital. Boylan is still the Chair of the Ob & Gyn Bund aka the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. He was giving his considered opinion about the Cervical Check scandal. As an indignant aside, Kelly and Boylan noted that all the big medical scandals of the last 20 years have arisen in areas that only affect women:
That's not strictly true - think HIV and haemophilia - but you get their drift. And I haven't yet started my campaign this year to Repeal the Eight Amendment - a cause which Peter Boylan supports.

There was more black and white thinking on the wireless a tuthree weeks ago when a clinical oncologist was saying that there is no 'safe' limit of UV light. To a hammer everything looks like a nail! The smallest brush with these energetic photons will increase your chances of contracting melanoma. Even if you're not the high susceptible pale, freckly, red-headed Irish type who fares so badly out in Australia. His advice was that you'd be insane to leave your house in Summer without a burka. But on balance, is that a sensible position? You put some melanomologists out of a job but you increase the work-load of
  • psychiatrists who have hundreds of shut-ins to handle
  • endocrinologists who have to cope with hypo-vitaminosis D
  • osteologists dealing with plain old rickets and
  • opticians and ophthalmologists surfing a tsunami of myopia.
Be careful what you wish for. Too narrow a focus can have unintended consequences.

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