Road Traffic Bill, 1993: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I thank Deputies who contributed to an open and interesting debate on this important legislation. I listened with great attention and I will endeavour to respond as positively and constructively as possible. The main policy issues in the Bill have been well aired. In responding, I intend to deal with the main themes running through the debate and to clarify as many of the specific issues as possible. In the time available it would be impossible to deal in detail with all aspects of the Bill. However, I hope to tease out the finer points of the legislation on Committee Stage.

I am pleased that there is a broad level of agreement in the House on the general thrust of the Bill. While there may be divided opinions on points of detail, there seems to be a consensus that drink driving laws need to be updated and strengthened. There is a broad level of support for greater enforcement of the laws and widespread support for the concept of devolving more power to local authorities. That level of agreement is welcome and augurs well for the debate on the remaining Stages of the Bill. We hope to take Committee Stage in the week commencing 12 July and to conclude it the following week. In the meantime, in those three to four weeks, between 30 and 40 people will die on our roads, the sense of urgency we attempted to bring to this debate is heightened by that unacceptable realisation. I hope when we conclude Committee Stage we will be able to move towards implementation and enforcement of the provisions of this Bill as soon as possible.

Deputies Doyle and Keogh suggested there was a delay in finalising this Bill and that it should have been published last year. When I became Minister for the Environment at the beginning of 1992 I quickly finalised proposals for new road traffic legislation. At that time, it was my intention to confine the Bill to drink driving and general enforcement measures. During the year I identified other key areas which I decided also required urgent change and I expanded the scope of the Bill. The end result is a significant programme of devolution of power to local authorities and a new basis for more effective administration of traffic management measures. I have already assured Deputy Doyle that I intend to be a reforming Minister, she has doubts in that regard which I hope to dispel as quickly as possible.

I will respond to some comments made about the drink driving aspects of the Bill. In my opening contribution I outlined in detail the reasons for the measures and, therefore, there is no need to repeat them. Many Deputies raised the question of the proposed limits. Some Deputies queried why the level was reduced from 100 to 80 milligrammes. Deputy Doyle mentioned a level of 50 milligrammes but then spoke of a phased implementation.

Phased penalties.

Deputy Gilmore queried the rationale behind the limit of 80 milligrammes. There is no doubt that the existing limit should be reduced. However, it is almost impossible to reach a consensus on the correct statutory maximum level of alcohol permissible for drivers. Some people argue that the existing level is adequate; more say that the limit should be lower—that it should be 50 milligrammes—while others suggest a zero limit.

The most important point is that there is no safe limit. It is international practice to set a statutory maximum limit beyond which an offence is committed, with very high penalties for non-compliance while at the same time, through educational and publicity programmes, conveying a strong message that drinking and driving do not mix. In recent road safety campaigns, the message stressed to drivers was—and will continue to be—"if you drink don't drive".

The maximum permissible blood alcohol level for drivers in most European countries is 80 milligrammes. The Government decided that the limit in Ireland should be brought into line with the majority of EC member states. This limit will be kept under review and, if changes are desirable, or if there is EC agreement on a different standard limit in all member states, there is a mechanism in the Bill which will permit the limit to be varied by way of regulations. Any such regulations will, of course, require the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Deputies are well aware that small quantities of alcohol can impair a driver's concentration. Factors such as fatigue, illness, stress and drugs can exacerbate the effects and cause severe concentration loss, even when a small quantity is consumed. When blood alcohol levels exceed 80 milligrammes the normal reaction is overestimation of ability. A recent report commissioned in the United States highlighted that when 100 milligrammes is compared with a zero limit, the risk factor is doubled and rises dramatically above that level. Therefore, there is no argument for reducing the limit. When blood alcohol levels exceed 80 milligrammes, there is impairment of peripheral vision and of the eye's reaction to light and dark. Judgment of distance and speed of oncoming vehicles, impairment of ability to react and a tendency to take risks also arise. Many Deputies asked me to specify how much drink one can consume. Taking those facts into account, it is not possible to give an accurate reply because too many varying factors are involved.

Deputies Doyle, Keogh and Gilmore referred to the necessity for strict enforcement of road traffic legislation, I accept that is vital to the success of the provisions of this Bill. During the past two to three years there has been increased Garda activity in road traffic law enforcement generally and considerable additional resources have been made available to the Garda traffic corps. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, has assured me she will continue to provide the Garda with the necessary resources and back-up facilities in an effort to make roads safer. While road traffic enforcement is an all-year-round effort, regular intensive campaigns will continue to ensure, in particular, that the momentum of anti-drink driving campaigns is maintained.

In regard to Deputy Keogh's query about rear window lights which were prohibited at one stage, I changed the regulations in that area last year. Such lights are now permissible. The use of seat belts for children and rear seat belts is not mandatory. It is desirable that cyclists should wear helmets but, it is not mandatory but I will encourage their use.

Deputies Doyle, Gilmore and Briscoe referred to a stricter enforcement of the speed limit requirement. We all accept that speed is a major cause of road traffic accidents and a variety of measures have been taken to deal with this. The major road safety campaign which I referred to in my opening contribution has targeted speed as one of the elements of driver behaviour to be eliminated. The Garda Síochána are acutely aware of the need to tackle the problem and new initiatives have been taken in recent years. The use of in-car video units has proved most successful elsewhere in Europe in combating reckless speeding. Late in 1991 the Garda traffic corps took delivery of three such units which were immediately installed in unmarked patrol cars. The video units allow the Garda to film breaches of the speed limits as they occur and record the actual speed of the vehicle in question on the screen. The film can then be played in court to facilitate prosecution. In addition, six units came into operation in 1992 making a total of nine. A further six units have now been acquired and these will come into operation in 1993. An additional 30 state of the art radar speed guns were acquired by the traffic corps in 1991. This brings the number of speed detection devices available to the Garda to nearly 300. The speed guns are used in all areas of the country and are extremely effective in detecting breaches of the speed limits on all roads and in particular on national and primary routes. I accept the point that speed, where drink is not involved, is one of the major contributing factors to accidents and in consultation with my colleague, the Minister for Justice, I will continue to ensure the provision of the necessary resources to convict those who take such terrible risks and cause such carnage on our roads.

In July 1992 I introduced a comprehensive new structure for speed limits in this country. I had noted the unsatisfactory position which existed in regard to observance of the existing limits and decided that a more realistic structure which took full account of safety and environmental considerations should be introduced. This new structure brings us more into line with the position in the rest of the European Community.

Deputy Deasy referred to local authorities and the resources collected by way of road tax and said that these should be fully available for expenditure on roads by local authorities. This, of course, would have the effect of reducing the amount of resources available to local authorities because the total amount available exceeds that collected in road tax. There is of course the overriding principle of not dedicating resources exclusively in the areas in which they are raised because education, social welfare, health and many other essential services would not have anyting like the same resources if we did not adhere to that principle.

The format of the driving licences was referred to and since we have very little time I will just display the new driving licence which is easy to carry and causes no inconvenience.

Deputy Bradford referred to the standard of driving tests. Our tests fully accord with the current EC directive on this subject. Certain changes will need to be introduced by July 1996 in order to comply with the new directive which will be effective from that date. The principle change relates to the knowledge test, which will need to be expanded and broadened, and consideration is being given at present to how best to provide for this. Certain other changes in relation to the practical driving test must also be provided for.

The use of mobile telephones in cars was raised by several Deputies, including Deputies Deasy, O'Sullivan and Briscoe. This is covered by the general requirement on drivers to drive with due care and attention contained in section 52 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961. Breaches of the section attract penalties of up to £350 in fines and three months imprisonment. I have no plans to make regulations specifically to deal with the matter. I am satisfied that this requirement is a sufficient deterrent.

On the side of the driver education, the most recent edition of the Rules of the Road has incorporated advice to drivers to find a safe place to stop before using a car phone. In addition, on my Department's initiative Bord Telecom now incorporates on its bills to mobile phone customers a prominent notice reminding users not to driver while using the phone.

I would like to specifically refer to the role envisaged under this Bill for elected members of local authorities. The main objective in pressing forward with devolution proposals is to place local government in a position where it has the freedom, the discretion and the autonomy to tackle matters of local concern. This Bill has identified important areas of road traffic law in which that freedom and autonomy is to be developed. Specific care is being taken to maximise the role of elected members. They will take key decisions under the new devolution arrangements. The elected members of a local authority will decide the speed limits to apply to roads in their areas. They will take decisions on parking controls under section 36 of the Bill. They will have reserve power in relation to the most important traffic management measures. The measures are a significant boost to local democracy and I am confident they will lead to more effective and efficient administration.

I regret to have to interrupt the Minister but perhaps he would conclude.

I will conclude by thanking all of my colleagues for their positive and encouraging response to very stringent measures which are essential if we are to combat the horrific carnage on our roads and at the same time have better and more effective traffic regulations and involve the local communities in the greater management of their areas. I look forward to Committee Stage, which will commence during the week beginning 12 July and be completed about two weeks later.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

On Tuesday next, subject to agreement between the Whips.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 13 July 1993.