Road Traffic Bill – 24th February 2010.

February 24th, 2010 - Pat Breen

Road Traffic Bill

24th February 2010

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. As previous speakers have said, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Road Traffic Acts 1961 by introducing mandatory alcohol testing for drivers involved in car collisions and preliminary impairment testing to detect whether drivers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The Bill will also introduce a penalty for drink driving that does not result in an automatic disqualification period.
It is fine to introduce a Bill of this nature, but the reality is that much of the existing legislation in this area is not being enforced. The Road Traffic Act 2002 introduced the penalty points system as a deterrent to motorists and to make our roads safer. It provided that 69 motoring offences would incur penalty points, but just 42 of those penalty point offences have been implemented. Approximately 33% of people have picked up penalty points. It is quite easy to pick up penalty points. Some 17,000 motorists have escaped penalty points by not bringing their driving licences to court. We discovered last week that penalty points have been applied to the licences of just 727 of the 18,333 drivers who have been convicted since 2003 of offences which require a mandatory court appearance. This chaos must be sorted out if we are to show we are serious about reducing the number of fatalities on our roads. It is most welcome that the number of such fatalities decreased to approximately 250 last year.
As many of those who commit penalty point offences are driving on foreign licences, penalty points cannot be imposed on them. I note that section 47 of the Bill sets out the sanctions that will apply when road traffic offences are committed by those driving on foreign licences. I would like the Minister to answer a few questions in this regard when he replies at the conclusion of Second Stage. How will the penalty points system be applied to the licences of foreign drivers? I have examined the Bill. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has confirmed that in 2008, penalty points could not be applied in 192,686 cases. In 142,588 of those cases, penalty points could not be applied because foreign driving licences were presented. That is a serious flaw in the current legislation. Over the years, many foreign nationals have been involved in driving accidents.
When will the new European-style driving licences will be introduced? It is expected that these credit card sized licences will have been introduced in most European countries by 2013. We should be using such licences, in which microchips are inserted, because the current type of licence is totally outdated. If one carries the current licence in one’s wallet, it will usually end up crinkled. The Department should introduce the necessary legislation to ensure the new kind of licence is available. Under the present system, local authorities do not issue renewal notices when driving licences are out of date. As the system is not computerised, it cannot be used to remind those who have genuinely forgotten to renew their licences. The new type of licence will improve security and enforcement. When a garda stops a motorist at a checkpoint, he or she will be able to tell immediately whether the driver has been disqualified. We need to get a computerised system up and running in order that gardaí can instantly access information about each driver’s history.
There have been many cases of people continuing to drive, and getting involved in accidents, even though disqualification sentences had been imposed on them by the courts. It is a serious matter. If we use driving licences that allow information to be accessed instantly, the situation will improve.
In the absence of a universal computerised system, whereby information on driving licences can be shared across EU borders in parallel with information on offences committed in other EU jurisdictions, we will have more of the same. I accept that the EU convention on driving disqualifications was adopted by member states in 1998. When the Minister speaks at the end of this debate, perhaps he will elaborate on the use of the convention. What arrangements are in place between the UK and Ireland? I appreciate that the approach adopted between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a little more technical. I would like the Minister to update the House on the legal issues in this regard.
I would like to hear the Minister’s views on the question of whether penalty points that have been given to foreign licence holders will be applied to their driving licences in the future. When he is finalising his licensing proposals, I hope he will ensure that drivers will continue to be able to renew their licences in local authority offices. They should be also able to do it on-line, as they can when they are renewing their motor tax. I do not see any point in centralising the issuing of driving licences when the system will be computerised. In rural Ireland, there appears to be a policy of centralising everything. This is having a significant impact on the quality of life of many people in rural areas.
One of the main talking points in this legislation is the proposal to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level from 80 mg/100 ml to 50 mg/100 ml. I do not condone drink driving. I agree with the 87% of drivers who believe it is wrong. Statistics are available to support that position. Alcohol is estimated to be a contributory factor in one in three fatal collisions. In one in four fatal crashes, the driver had consumed alcohol. That is a huge statistic. Campaigns to stop drink driving have been effective and have worked well.
I understand it is planned to reduce the funding for drink driving campaigns. I hope the Minister will have a rethink in that regard. Some of the graphic advertisements we see on our screens, having been produced by the Road Safety Authority, are very effective. I do not agree that funding in this area should be reduced. All of these measures, such as those involving the family members of people who were killed in accidents, are very valuable as we fight to ensure the number of people killed on our roads is kept to a minimum. One road death is too many. We have all been touched by road deaths in our communities or in our families.
As the Government has a majority, this Bill will be passed and stricter rules will be introduced to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level even further. In that context, I suggest that the Government needs to address an extremely worrying development in rural Ireland. Life in rural Ireland is being killed off by drink driving and other social changes. The non-existence of public transport in rural areas is sounding the death knell of many rural pubs. One rural pub goes out of business every day of the week. That is a serious statistic. We all know how important the pub is to rural communities. Recent figures produced by Deputy O’Mahony revealed 833 pub licences were not renewed between 2007 and 2009, some 42 of which were in Clare. I have been concerned for some time by increased isolation in rural areas. The local pub, post office, Garda station and agricultural advisory office are closing down in rural areas, particularly in my constituency. It was not so long ago that the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, stood in the House promising decentralisation for every town. Now the programme is in tatters and will not happen in many cases. It appears the Government is moving in the opposite direction of centralising services away from the people.
According to the 2006 census, up to 40% of the population, of which 9% have a disability, live in rural areas. They find it difficult to get around whether to pick up their pension or attend a hospital appointment, becoming more isolated. A rural transport initiative is already in place, such as the Clare accessible transport project. I urge the Government to support the extension of pilot rural transport schemes to end the isolation of people in rural areas. Several rural areas along the west coast could be chosen for the project. Such an extension would help out rural areas by sustaining visits to the traditional pub, very much part of the rural scene. From talking to many publicans, I know they have been crucified already as their business was reduced with people not having as much money to spend as in the past. The drink-driving issue has added to this effect on their business. For many, the local pub is their only social contact. A rural transport initiative would allow people to go to the pub without the risk of drink-driving.
While I accept one death on the roads is one too many, recent OECD statistics noted a reduction in road deaths of 39 to 240 people last year. The report also noted drivers aged between 18 to 20 years are the high risk category. The Bill gives power to the Garda to carry out a preliminary impairment test on drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs. While I am not suggesting all young people drive under the influence, new statistics issued by the Central Statistics Office show the number of drivers detected for drink and drug-driving in the first nine months of 2009 rose to 600, a 22% increase from the previous year. However, the Garda do not have a device like the breathalyser to detect drug-driving instantly. Instead, a preliminary impairment test will have to be carried out. Will the Garda be trained to carry it out?
Why can we not move to random drug-testing? We can learn much from international best practice. In Victoria, Australia, the deputy police commissioner reported that 23,000 roadside drug tests were conducted last year, during which 341 offenders were caught with an illegal substance in their system, one in 67 drivers. The Victoria Government will increase the roadside drug-testing programme across the state with 35,000 tests to be carried out this year. Ireland should follow in the same direction. The UK’s transport department recently launched a £2.3 million advertising campaign warning drivers of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs. One in ten young male drivers in the UK admitted to drug-driving. I am sure the statistics here would be no different. The first national report of the Health Research Board stated of the 885 drug-users who died between 1998 and 2005, two in every three died as a result of a road traffic trauma.
According to the Road Safety Authority, 30% of fatal road accidents were caused by poor road surfaces. This year, after the recent flooding and big freeze, many national primary and secondary road surfaces, particularly in County Clare, were left in a deplorable condition. Many local authorities did not have the resources to treat many local and regional roads which has made their surfaces even worse. The Clare county manger informed me he could only deal with the national primary and secondary roads. The Government will cut €200 million from the local and regional roads budget from €607 million in 2009 to €411 million this year.
Clare has suffered a massive 35% reduction in road funding allocations from central government. I was surprised to hear Deputy Timmy Dooley, a constituency colleague, claiming on local radio that the Opposition was scare-mongering in this regard. If he were listening to Clare FM every morning, he would hear his own party’s county councillors speaking out about the appalling conditions of the roads in Clare.
The shortfall in funding will mean many of our roads will be left in a bad state. While I accept the council has done its best by prioritising funding for roads, unfortunately, poor road surfaces contribute to 30% of road fatalities. In turn, 71% of road fatalities occur on the rural road network. I urge the Minister for Transport to re-think the cuts to local authority roads funding. People in rural areas are entitled to the same attention given to the rural road network as that given in urban areas. I suspect the Killaloe bypass will be long-fingered again because of the funding shortfall. It is important our road surfaces are in a good condition and safe to drive on. If we want to reduce the number of deaths on the roads, their surfaces must be properly maintained.
The Government has failed to deliver on commitments given when previous road safety legislation was introduced. The roll-out of speed cameras, for example, has been delayed. Once again, the House is debating a Bill which aims to improve road safety but does not adequately address the issues, particularly drug-driving which is on the increase. I hope the Minister will address some of the issues I have raised and I look forward to his responses.

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. As previous speakers have said, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Road Traffic Acts 1961 by introducing mandatory alcohol testing for drivers involved in car collisions and preliminary impairment testing to detect whether drivers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The Bill will also introduce a penalty for drink driving that does not result in an automatic disqualification period.
It is fine to introduce a Bill of this nature, but the reality is that much of the existing legislation in this area is not being enforced. The Road Traffic Act 2002 introduced the penalty points system as a deterrent to motorists and to make our roads safer. It provided that 69 motoring offences would incur penalty points, but just 42 of those penalty point offences have been implemented. Approximately 33% of people have picked up penalty points. It is quite easy to pick up penalty points. Some 17,000 motorists have escaped penalty points by not bringing their driving licences to court. We discovered last week that penalty points have been applied to the licences of just 727 of the 18,333 drivers who have been convicted since 2003 of offences which require a mandatory court appearance. This chaos must be sorted out if we are to show we are serious about reducing the number of fatalities on our roads. It is most welcome that the number of such fatalities decreased to approximately 250 last year.
As many of those who commit penalty point offences are driving on foreign licences, penalty points cannot be imposed on them. I note that section 47 of the Bill sets out the sanctions that will apply when road traffic offences are committed by those driving on foreign licences. I would like the Minister to answer a few questions in this regard when he replies at the conclusion of Second Stage. How will the penalty points system be applied to the licences of foreign drivers? I have examined the Bill. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has confirmed that in 2008, penalty points could not be applied in 192,686 cases. In 142,588 of those cases, penalty points could not be applied because foreign driving licences were presented. That is a serious flaw in the current legislation. Over the years, many foreign nationals have been involved in driving accidents.
When will the new European-style driving licences will be introduced? It is expected that these credit card sized licences will have been introduced in most European countries by 2013. We should be using such licences, in which microchips are inserted, because the current type of licence is totally outdated. If one carries the current licence in one’s wallet, it will usually end up crinkled. The Department should introduce the necessary legislation to ensure the new kind of licence is available. Under the present system, local authorities do not issue renewal notices when driving licences are out of date. As the system is not computerised, it cannot be used to remind those who have genuinely forgotten to renew their licences. The new type of licence will improve security and enforcement. When a garda stops a motorist at a checkpoint, he or she will be able to tell immediately whether the driver has been disqualified. We need to get a computerised system up and running in order that gardaí can instantly access information about each driver’s history.
There have been many cases of people continuing to drive, and getting involved in accidents, even though disqualification sentences had been imposed on them by the courts. It is a serious matter. If we use driving licences that allow information to be accessed instantly, the situation will improve.
In the absence of a universal computerised system, whereby information on driving licences can be shared across EU borders in parallel with information on offences committed in other EU jurisdictions, we will have more of the same. I accept that the EU convention on driving disqualifications was adopted by member states in 1998. When the Minister speaks at the end of this debate, perhaps he will elaborate on the use of the convention. What arrangements are in place between the UK and Ireland? I appreciate that the approach adopted between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a little more technical. I would like the Minister to update the House on the legal issues in this regard.
I would like to hear the Minister’s views on the question of whether penalty points that have been given to foreign licence holders will be applied to their driving licences in the future. When he is finalising his licensing proposals, I hope he will ensure that drivers will continue to be able to renew their licences in local authority offices. They should be also able to do it on-line, as they can when they are renewing their motor tax. I do not see any point in centralising the issuing of driving licences when the system will be computerised. In rural Ireland, there appears to be a policy of centralising everything. This is having a significant impact on the quality of life of many people in rural areas.
One of the main talking points in this legislation is the proposal to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level from 80 mg/100 ml to 50 mg/100 ml. I do not condone drink driving. I agree with the 87% of drivers who believe it is wrong. Statistics are available to support that position. Alcohol is estimated to be a contributory factor in one in three fatal collisions. In one in four fatal crashes, the driver had consumed alcohol. That is a huge statistic. Campaigns to stop drink driving have been effective and have worked well.
I understand it is planned to reduce the funding for drink driving campaigns. I hope the Minister will have a rethink in that regard. Some of the graphic advertisements we see on our screens, having been produced by the Road Safety Authority, are very effective. I do not agree that funding in this area should be reduced. All of these measures, such as those involving the family members of people who were killed in accidents, are very valuable as we fight to ensure the number of people killed on our roads is kept to a minimum. One road death is too many. We have all been touched by road deaths in our communities or in our families.
As the Government has a majority, this Bill will be passed and stricter rules will be introduced to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level even further. In that context, I suggest that the Government needs to address an extremely worrying development in rural Ireland. Life in rural Ireland is being killed off by drink driving and other social changes. The non-existence of public transport in rural areas is sounding the death knell of many rural pubs. One rural pub goes out of business every day of the week. That is a serious statistic. We all know how important the pub is to rural communities. Recent figures produced by Deputy O’Mahony revealed 833 pub licences were not renewed between 2007 and 2009, some 42 of which were in Clare. I have been concerned for some time by increased isolation in rural areas. The local pub, post office, Garda station and agricultural advisory office are closing down in rural areas, particularly in my constituency. It was not so long ago that the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, stood in the House promising decentralisation for every town. Now the programme is in tatters and will not happen in many cases. It appears the Government is moving in the opposite direction of centralising services away from the people.
According to the 2006 census, up to 40% of the population, of which 9% have a disability, live in rural areas. They find it difficult to get around whether to pick up their pension or attend a hospital appointment, becoming more isolated. A rural transport initiative is already in place, such as the Clare accessible transport project. I urge the Government to support the extension of pilot rural transport schemes to end the isolation of people in rural areas. Several rural areas along the west coast could be chosen for the project. Such an extension would help out rural areas by sustaining visits to the traditional pub, very much part of the rural scene. From talking to many publicans, I know they have been crucified already as their business was reduced with people not having as much money to spend as in the past. The drink-driving issue has added to this effect on their business. For many, the local pub is their only social contact. A rural transport initiative would allow people to go to the pub without the risk of drink-driving.
While I accept one death on the roads is one too many, recent OECD statistics noted a reduction in road deaths of 39 to 240 people last year. The report also noted drivers aged between 18 to 20 years are the high risk category. The Bill gives power to the Garda to carry out a preliminary impairment test on drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs. While I am not suggesting all young people drive under the influence, new statistics issued by the Central Statistics Office show the number of drivers detected for drink and drug-driving in the first nine months of 2009 rose to 600, a 22% increase from the previous year. However, the Garda do not have a device like the breathalyser to detect drug-driving instantly. Instead, a preliminary impairment test will have to be carried out. Will the Garda be trained to carry it out?
Why can we not move to random drug-testing? We can learn much from international best practice. In Victoria, Australia, the deputy police commissioner reported that 23,000 roadside drug tests were conducted last year, during which 341 offenders were caught with an illegal substance in their system, one in 67 drivers. The Victoria Government will increase the roadside drug-testing programme across the state with 35,000 tests to be carried out this year. Ireland should follow in the same direction. The UK’s transport department recently launched a £2.3 million advertising campaign warning drivers of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs. One in ten young male drivers in the UK admitted to drug-driving. I am sure the statistics here would be no different. The first national report of the Health Research Board stated of the 885 drug-users who died between 1998 and 2005, two in every three died as a result of a road traffic trauma.
According to the Road Safety Authority, 30% of fatal road accidents were caused by poor road surfaces. This year, after the recent flooding and big freeze, many national primary and secondary road surfaces, particularly in County Clare, were left in a deplorable condition. Many local authorities did not have the resources to treat many local and regional roads which has made their surfaces even worse. The Clare county manger informed me he could only deal with the national primary and secondary roads. The Government will cut €200 million from the local and regional roads budget from €607 million in 2009 to €411 million this year.
Clare has suffered a massive 35% reduction in road funding allocations from central government. I was surprised to hear Deputy Timmy Dooley, a constituency colleague, claiming on local radio that the Opposition was scare-mongering in this regard. If he were listening to Clare FM every morning, he would hear his own party’s county councillors speaking out about the appalling conditions of the roads in Clare.
The shortfall in funding will mean many of our roads will be left in a bad state. While I accept the council has done its best by prioritising funding for roads, unfortunately, poor road surfaces contribute to 30% of road fatalities. In turn, 71% of road fatalities occur on the rural road network. I urge the Minister for Transport to re-think the cuts to local authority roads funding.