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Ireland, cracking down on drunk driving, arrests senior traffic safety police officer

A senior police officer tasked with promoting road safety has been arrested on suspicion of driving drunk - the most high-profile arrest in a nationwide crackdown on the once-widespread practice in Ireland.

Police Superintendent Jim Fitzgerald, who oversees road safety in part of western Ireland, was arrested Thursday night after a member of the public reported him driving erratically in Loughrea, County Galway.

The Garda Siochana, Ireland's national police force, confirmed Friday that detectives were sending a file on the case to state prosecutors in Dublin. An internal discipline file was also sent to the Garda commander, Commissioner Noel Conroy.

In recent months Ireland has launched a crackdown on drunken driving, deploying new resources and legal powers, particularly the ability to mount road checkpoints and breathalyze drivers at random.

Fitzgerald was one of five police superintendents appointed this month to enforce road safety, including anti-drunk driving measures, in western Ireland.

Police said that after receiving the telephoned tip-off, a patrol car followed Fitzgerald's unmarked police vehicle before pulling him over.

According to Ireland's national broadcaster RTE, Fitzgerald offered an initial breath sample but refused to provide a second as required. Under Ireland's recently toughened drunk-driving laws, such a refusal risks a maximum punishment of losing a driving license for three years.

A decade ago, drunk driving was a common practice in rural parts of Ireland, where scattered pubs remain the hub for social activities. But the government and police have gradually toughened up laws and enforcement, introducing a penalty-points system that can be used to strip people of their licenses, and fighting protracted legal battles for the right to use drunk-driving detection systems.

Nonetheless, driving standards in Ireland remain poor. Under the antiquated licensing system, more than 20 percent of drivers have been issued driving licenses without ever passing a driving test - a loophole that the government has repeatedly pledged to close.

On Wednesday, in its latest statistics on the current effort, the Garda Siochana said it arrested 444 people for suspected drunk driving over the March 19-25 period and 487 over the previous week, which included St. Patrick's Day, an official holiday.

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