Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I am delighted to see the Minister in the House. I commend him on his determination to improve road safety since assuming office. I must also commend the work done by the RSA and An Garda Síochána. Everybody is contributing. However, without the man at the top pushing the agenda, we would not have seen the results we saw last year, which was the safest year on our roads in the past ten years. Like all things, we cannot be complacent because 20 more people have died on our roads this year.
I know many of us watched the television on Sunday, 17 November, which was World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. We saw at first hand families’ stories of victims killed or maimed in car accidents. According to the RSA, 23,405 people have died on our roads since records began in 1959. That is a huge figure. In addition, a further 76,129 people received life-changing injuries over the period from 1977 to 2012. These statistics speak for themselves. It is as if the population of Ennis was wiped out over that period of time. Ennis had a population of just over 25,000 in 2011. That is what one is talking about in a small country like Ireland.
Behind these statistics are the sad stories of families who have been left devastated by the death of their loved loves on our roads. Today, I would like to again extend my deepest sympathy to the wife and family of Pius O’Neill, the latest road accident victim in County Clare who was tragically killed on the road between Shannon and Bunratty. He was a young married man in the prime of his life and his death has been a personal blow to his wife and the communities of Sixmilebridge and Quin. It is important that we remember that there are 164 other families who are also grieving as a result of deaths on the road this year. One death on our roads is one too many so it is important we take whatever steps are required to improve road safety. That is why the passage of this Bill will make a valuable contribution in this regard.
Legislation enforcement has already contributed to a significant decrease in the number of motorists driving while under the influence of alcohol. According to Garda figures, one in 49 people or 19,848 people were detected drink driving in 2007 and that by 2012, that figure had fallen to one in 23 people or 8,747 people. At this point, we must now focus on strengthening the law and giving the Garda increased powers in respect of drug driving. We talk a lot about drink driving but drug driving is something we must focus on. While I acknowledge that there was a 69% decrease in the number of recorded offences of driving or being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of drugs in 2012, the laws need to be tightened up to support the Garda in its efforts.
When a garda stops a driver who he or she suspects is driving under the influence of drugs, it can prove very difficult to detect the drug driving because the driver may not be as visibly intoxicated as a person who is intoxicated with alcohol. Statistics bear up my opinion that we need to tackle this issue. A 2008 survey carried out by Hibernian Insurance revealed that almost one in three young drivers have driven their car under the influence of drugs. That is one in three too many.
Gardaí need to be able to carry out a road test so they can form the opinion that a person is drug driving. This is why I welcome section 11, which gives gardaí the power to carry out this preliminary impairment test. International evidence has shown that the carrying out of a preliminary impairment test does yield results. This has been shown in studies in the UK where it has been found that preliminary impairment tests can detect up to 64% of drivers who are drug driving. The RSA has claimed that the absence of a roadside test for drugs means many drug drivers are not being caught. I believe that the introduction of the preliminary impairment test will prove to be a deterrent for drug drivers and I welcome its introduction.
Statistics show that young drivers aged between 21 and 25 continue to be the single highest age group when it comes to road deaths and that approximately 63% of these deaths take place on local and regional roads. We are all aware of the amount of local and regional roads in our constituencies. In spite of the fact that a speed limit of 80 km applies on these roads, 80% of fatalities are occurring in the 80 km zones so it is clear that speeding is a real problem.
It is the cause of many deaths on local and regional roads. While drivers should always drive at a speed to suit the road conditions they encounter, the fact is that each road having a maximum speed limit encourages drivers to go that fast, placing themselves at risk. In many cases, if one turns off the main road of a town or village with a speed limit of 50 km/h or 60 km/h, the side road has grass growing down its middle and a speed limit of 80 km/h. The majority of drivers are responsible, but it is because of such cases that I welcome the recommendations of the speed limits working group, which were set out by the Minister this week and will have a real impact, particularly in respect of people who insist on driving recklessly.
The 80 km/h signs on rural roads will be replaced by new signs showing a black circle with a diagonal. One can notice these signs when driving in other countries. This is a welcome development, given our network of local and regional roads. I hope that it will improve road safety. Obviously, it is not possible to drive at 80 km/h on many of those roads, but some drivers use the limit as an excuse to drive at excessive speeds.
My local authority, Clare County Council, has taken a proactive approach to road safety not just for motorists, but all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. I commend the council’s road safety section on its work. As well as reviewing speed limits from time to time and improving road surfaces, it is also making a valuable contribution by educating people and taking the message to the county’s schools.
Despite the media and educational programmes, particularly the graphic advertisements on our television screens, we still need to do more to get the message across to young people. For this reason, school visits are a positive initiative and we must continue to get the message out there. Given the fact that we live in a technological age, we should be making greater use of the variety of media outlets to get the message across. The majority of people are involved in social media. In fact, 81% of people between 18 and 24 years of age use Facebook. Some 1 million tweets are sent in this country everyday and we have 600,000 Twitter users. For this reason, I am pleased that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. It needs to continue expanding its presence in social media, as this may result in good behaviour on our roads.
The other element in which a real impact can be made in reducing road deaths is in the maintenance and improvement of our road network. Motorways are statistically safer roads, as traffic only goes in one direction on them. In this light, I welcomed the National Roads Authority’s news yesterday to the effect that it anticipates that the contract for the construction of the new M17-M18 Gort-Tuam motorway will be signed in early 2014. This matter is also of interest to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. This project will eliminate traffic bottlenecks along the existing route, making it safer. It will also provide a much needed boost for the Shannon Airport Authority by facilitating easier access and reduced journey times for travellers from the north west as well as enhancing the region’s attractiveness as a location for foreign direct investment, FDI.
Tackling and repairing our rural and regional roads is also important if we are to drive road safety. I welcomed the Minister’s initiative last year when he allowed councils to transfer 30% of their restoration improvement moneys to the discretionary grant for use on road and bridge maintenance and repairs. From speaking with officials and engineers in Clare County Council, I know that it made great use of that money by improving roads. For this reason, I ask the Minister to maintain this provision.
I am delighted to have had an opportunity to contribute on the Bill. My colleague in County Clare, Deputy Dooley, raised concerns about the Bill last week, but the Minister has announced that he intends to introduce an amendment on Committee or Report Stage. Legislation plays a critical role in changing attitudes. Combined with enforcement and publicity campaigns, the Minister’s determination to improve road safety is important and I support him in this.