The facts speak for themselves. There is one accident on our roads every 21 minutes and one person killed on our roads every 23 hours. Behind these statistics lies the personal grief and suffering of many families involved in such tragedies. For example, people could not be but touched by the report of nine year old Alyssa Blazer who was left orphaned last year after her father was killed in a road accident, just a year after her mother was killed in a car crash in the Canary Islands.
Since January of this year, road fatalities are up by one quarter on those of the same period last year. While the Minister for Transport is prepared to introduce new laws, he has shown that he is not prepared to fund their enforcement. This makes a farce of the gains made since the introduction of the penalty points system. Both the Garda and the Minister for Transport use the penalty points figures to highlight their success in implementing their road safety measures. Penalty points were never devised to put people off the road. The system was developed to get people to change their attitude, abide by the rules, improve their driving standards and thereby save lives.
I support a system which saves lives and is fair. While there is no doubt that the penalty points system has saved lives and has the potential to save thousands more, there are, however, serious questions about its fairness. Unmarked vans and cars hide on the sides of long, straight, wide sections of road trying to catch anybody who is just over the speed limit so gardaí can meet their quotas.
It was admitted publicly by members of the Garda last week that they had been issued quotas by their superiors. If we want a policy of zero tolerance, we must accept that these people are breaking the road traffic legislation, but this method of filling quotas will do nothing to change their attitude or save lives, especially in light of the downright stupid speed limits — 30 mph limits on dual carriageways and 60 mph limits outside national schools. The penalty points system will only work if nationwide speed limits are reasonable and logical; this is currently not the case. It is imperative that our speed limits are reformed. There is little point pressing ahead with new offences under the system without an overhaul of speed limits across the country.
This Government must remember that drivers have rights too. The penalty points system was devised to change attitudes. Why, therefore, do we have a situation where it takes months to inform people of their speeding offences? By the time drivers have received their first penalty points notice, they could have clocked up two or three more penalties of which they are unaware. Where two points could have slowed a driver down and highlighted the need to "heed your speed", instead they end up with six or eight points.
The paper-based penalty points system is grinding to a halt because of the lack of resources and is having a dramatic impact on the ability of gardaí to enforce the system. Only a pilot computerised project is expected to be up and running by June of this year, despite the impression given by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the computerised system would be fully functional by then and the personal commitment given by the Minister for Transport to rank and file gardaí.
To date, the penalty points system has saved the economy €148 million. The National Safety Council estimates that the implementation of the new road safety strategy will cost approximately €60 million. It does not take an accountant to figure out that significant savings can be made by properly funding the road safety strategy. However, the Minister Transport, even armed with this information, has failed to resource the delivery of the Government's road safety strategy.
I was informed in May 2003 that the forthcoming road safety strategy, which was to commence in January 2003, was under review and being finalised. This strategy is seen as the key priority within the Department of Transport to reduce accidents and cut insurance premiums. We are now 16 months without a road safety strategy and 446 more people have died on Irish roads. It now seems that these issues are no longer a priority. There is no way gardaí will be able to meet the targets set out in the strategy when it is published, particularly in terms of enforcing speed laws. This fact is supported by a confidential Garda document which states that just 3% of the target number of speed checks can be performed with existing resources.
Since the beginning of this year, there has been a significant reduction in Garda manpower due to a redeployment of staff to cover the demands of the European Presidency. When we add this to the problem of bureaucracy associated with the penalty points system and the failure to roll out fixed speed cameras across the country, it is no wonder the carnage on our roads is increasing.
This Government has, over the past seven years, dragged its heels in implementing its strategy to improve road safety. On top of that, it is failing to deliver on its programme for Government.
Currently, there are only 144 members of the Garda Traffic Unit on duty at any one time in Ireland. The number of traffic unit gardaí on duty falls further when administration and leave periods are taken into account. Research in other countries has shown clearly that the level of enforcement must be increased for the penalty points system to have any long-term impact on driver attitudes and accident statistics. The Government has failed in this respect.
Government has not delivered on its promise to create a Garda traffic corps. Instead there is a departmental turf war regarding the establishment of the new road traffic corps between the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, with conflicting views on the creation of a traffic corps. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has said it is not possible to create the corps as it would not be part of the Garda Síochána. The Attorney General has advised that a conviction would not stand up in court. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, has refuted this and claimed that the corps is still on the agenda. Does anybody know what is going on? None of us will forget his downright irresponsible comments on provisional licences in December 2003, which led to a 13-month backlog in an already chaotic driving test system. I am sure the Department officials were impressed with that comment. Unfortunately, that type of comment from the Minister is not uncommon.
As late as October of last year the Department rowed in behind the Minister, who was toeing the line with regard to this announcement when he stated in a parliamentary reply that he was reviewing second provisional licences, that second provisional licence holders would require somebody to accompany them and that this would be implemented by the end of 2003, with less than two months to go. If the Minister really wanted to address the problem rather than getting yet another sound bite, why does he not address the real scandal of provisional drivers whereby professional drivers hold such licences. That, however, would not get headlines. This was nothing more than one of the Minister's usual half-cocked ill thought out measures.
The current situation is chaotic. One in four drivers on Irish roads has not passed the driving test. The high number of provisional licence holders driving is largely due to a 43% driving test failure rate. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system which allows nearly 1,400 people flunk the test every week. There is something wrong with a system, which sees a 4% improvement in driving standards of young male drivers on passing their test and, which is prepared to tolerate a 20% variation in the pass rates at different testing centres around the country. How could anybody stand over such a system? The Minister has said this is a European system. I doubt that there is any country throughout the European Union that could stand over such statistics.
There are several reasons for the failure of this system. The Government refuses to regulate driving instructors. It is not prepared to provide a structure for driver training. The driving test needs to be urgently reformed. For example, the result sheet given to drivers who fail the test does not explain what they did wrong. The problems caused by poor road safety standards need to be tackled in a coherent and comprehensive manner. This is not being done at present.
Fine Gael wants to see better driver education at all stages of life, an improved, reformed, modern driving test, an environment that encourages good driving and punishes those who endanger the safety of others. Fine Gael is calling for the establishment of a mandatory approved training course for driving instructors together with a statutory register on to which all instructors must be placed before taking up employment in the sector. At the moment, new drivers can be faced with an instructor who is unqualified to teach them. As the law stands, the instructor on whom the new driver is depending may not have passed the test. Would we allow doctors be trained by someone with no medical qualifications? The potential to pass on bad driving techniques and habits is obvious. Last June the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid, appeared before a Dáil committee and gave a commitment that a new register of driving instructors was imminent. We still await its introduction.
The driving test has not been reviewed for some twenty years and is therefore not reflective of today's traffic, or modern road engineering, not to mention vehicle engineering. For example, even though more motorways are being built throughout the country, competence in driving on a motorway is not examined under the current test. The test should be reformed to include the option of a longer test and-or continuous assessment for nervous applicants. Applicants with low literacy skills should also be catered for. This is not done at the moment.
Fine Gael proposes a change in the status of the provisional licence which at present is the same as a full licence. This would mean a maximum of six penalty points for provisional licence holders; that provisional license holders must maintain a zero blood alcohol level, that L plates must be clearly visible at all times; that all drivers either of cars or motorcycles must complete a short competency course before they go on the road for the first time — this could be done during the summer months or as part of the academic school year and could easily be funded from savings in road fatalities.
Fine Gael is also calling for the establishment of a road accident investigation unit. We do not know the root cause of many accidents. There are statistics as to causes of accidents. While drink driving and speeding are major contributing factors to our poor road safety record, they are not necessarily the main cause of the accident. There are no accurate figures in respect of drink driving and the number of fatalities involved. There is no way of collating these unless the coroner tests the blood alcohol level of people who have been involved in a fatal road traffic accident, compiles the figures and makes them available. That is at the discretion of the coroner and the figures are not compiled. Therefore, no figures are available. What we need is a system under which investigations into the causes of accidents will be carried out automatically.
At present, the National Roads Authority has responsibility in this regard. The NRA compiles statistics relating to dangerous stretches of national roads, but if one asks communities around the country about accident black spots, it is clear that many black spots are not included in the statistics. According to the NRA 2.5% of all accidents are caused by road conditions. What else would it say? It is responsible for ensuring that roads are safe. It will not say roads are a major contributing factor to road accidents. However, communities will say that bad sections of roads, bends in roads and so on have not been addressed, that the local authorities and the NRA are aware of them but have turned their backs on the problem. That is why it is critically important to have an independent road accident investigation unit to examine and report independently on the causes of accidents.
Fine Gael believes that by seriously targeting road safety in a way that balances the right to drive with the responsibility to drive safely we can cut down on death and injury and thus reap the benefits of safer roads, fewer grieving families, fewer serious injuries and lower insurance costs. We need to tackle bad driver behaviour on every front — punishment for dangerous drivers, reward for careful motorists, better instruction and improved research. Anyone driving on our roads is entitled to know they can return home safely, but the current accident rate increases the risk of ending up in an accident and emergency unit every time we drive. I firmly believe that Irish motorists can become safer and better drivers, but only if they feel they are being treated fairly by the system. Only then can Ireland hope for safer communities, stronger families and an equal chance of a long and healthy life for everyone whether or not they drive. I commend the motion to the House.