I am delighted at this opportunity to speak on this very important and timely motion. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Naughten, on his work on transport issues, particularly on road safety. I also congratulate him on his contribution at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis at the weekend. Ireland has become a very prosperous country over the past decade. Its economic growth has become extremely rapid, with Ireland becoming one of the leading countries in the European Union. As a result of that prosperity, car ownership has grown considerably. In 1970, we had fewer than 200 motor vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants. Today, the figure is nearly 500 per 1,000. That is an increase of over 50% in car ownership over the past ten years. The Celtic tiger economy of the 1990s led to a situation where many young people have a car at their disposal.
The year 2002 saw a dramatic reduction in the number of lives lost on Irish roads, with 376 dying, as opposed to 472 in 1997. That was partly due to the introduction of the penalty points system in October of that year. There was a further reduction in 2003, when 339 people were killed on the roads. So far this year, however, 120 people have been killed on the roads, and if that trend is to continue, it is likely that the downward movement of recent years will be reversed for 2004. I disagree with my colleague, Deputy Peter Power, who stated that one must allow three years for statistics. Three years is a long time, and many people will be killed over that period.
Ireland's attitude to road safety has to change. In recent years we saw the introduction of the plastic bag levy, which the public adopted very quickly. So far, the smoking ban has been very successful. Yet, despite the graphic advertising campaigns on television, people ignore the advice and continue to speed, drink and drive. Last night the Minister, in his contribution to the debate, acknowledged that the trend is worrying and disappointing. However, he is responsible for road safety and must accept responsibility for the absence of a strategy over the past two years. The time has come for action. We can no longer claim that road deaths and injuries are unavoidable. Hundreds of families each year are suffering the deep pain of losing loved ones. Thousands are living with injuries sustained on the roads, including some horrific ones, and we in Fine Gael believe that the Government is not doing enough to reduce the carnage.
Last year Fine Gael launched a policy document and action plan for road safety aimed at tackling Ireland's carnage. It falls into three categories, the first being better driving education at all stages of life. Recently I saw the statistic in a newspaper that 20% of road accidents are caused by people falling asleep. The second category is an improved and reformed modern driving test. Deputy Power has supported my colleague, Deputy Naughten, on that. There must also be an environment that encourages good driving and punishes those who endanger others' safety. The statistics speak for themselves, as Deputy Naughten said last night. One person is killed every 21 hours, and one young person every two days. There is one accident on the roads every 19 minutes. Consider the cost to medical services. Think of the saving to the Exchequer if we could improve road safety.
In its programme for Government, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition promised 2,000 extra gardaí and to create a dedicated traffic corps. At last week's committee meeting, senior gardaí admitted that the deployment of Garda manpower to cover the demands of the European Presidency has meant that there are fewer on duty for traffic control. In many areas, the Garda divisional traffic unit is not at its full strength.
In my county of Clare, our full strength is two Garda sergeants and ten gardaí. Today, we are one down, with nine gardaí. Despite that, they have done very good work in the county. In January and February 2003, they secured 22 drink driving convictions and in the same period in 2004, they had 28. They had 223 speed detections for the same period in 2003 and 256 in 2004. That enforcement has been reflected in the casualties on County Clare's roads. There were 16 deaths in 2002 and 11 in 2003. The contributing factors in the accidents which resulted in the deaths of those 11 people were alcohol, inexperience and excessive speed.
These figures clearly indicate that enforcement is a key factor in the reduction of accidents. We must have extra gardaí for proper enforcement and this Government has failed miserably by not increasing the numbers as promised. I pay tribute to the Garda in Clare for their initiatives in trying to reduce road accidents, particularly in conjunction with the local authority, Clare County Council, Clare local radio and the Clare sports partnership, who have concentrated their campaigns on road safety for young drivers.
The penalty points system had a good effect when introduced in October 2002. Sadly, as in the UK, after the initial novelty had worn off, drivers went back to their old habits. I see this regularly, as I drive up and down to Dublin. Today, only three of the 69 penalty points offences promised under the Road Traffic Act 2002 have been established. The Minister acknowledged his disappointment last night that the full system had not been deployed. The system still has to be fully computerised. We were told only a pilot project would be in place. This will run, I hope, before the end of 2004.
Penalty points were not meant to put people off the road. They were intended to change people's attitudes. Unless we change habits, we are losing the battle. It is quite obvious that many of the speed checks we see on the roads are there to catch easy targets, particularly in 30 miles per hour zones. Many of these limits are much too low, anyway. They generate enormous revenue for the Exchequer. The Joint Committee on Transport was told last week that 75% of the penalty points issued related to the low speed limits of 30 to 40 miles per hour. That figure speaks for itself. Speed checks should be concentrated on urban areas and black spots where there is speeding as well as on national secondary and regional routes. This Government has promised to review the national speed limits. So far the review has not been published. The current speed limits and the implementation of penalty points are actually turning people off the system.
Problems already exist with the new road safety strategy, which, I hope, will be published shortly, as the Minister has said. That there has not been a road safety strategy since 2002 has contributed to the increase in the number of deaths for the early part of this year. Senior gardaí told the transport committee last week that they were very much under resourced and there was no way they could meet the target set by the Minister in the new road strategy, that is, 25% over the next three years, with annual road deaths below 300. The target is too low and the Minister should aim for a 50% reduction. In Victoria, Australia, that was the target set and it was achieved. The leaked report in theIrish Independent last week, backs up that statement from the gardaí, which revealed that just 3% of the target numbers for speed checks asked for by the Government, can be carried out with current resources. Will the Minister say how the Garda are going to increase the speed checks from 340,000 to 11 million, as he is asking? How will they increase the number of drink driving arrests to more than 45,000 from the present level of 13,000, when random breath testing is introduced? More manpower is needed, as well as a dedicated traffic corps. I know there are difficulties between the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and himself on this.
The current waiting time for driving tests is up to 54 weeks. Despite measures promised to clear the enormous backlogs the driving test waiting time has risen in recent months. There are currently 232,000 applications on the waiting list, as against 51,000 in 2001. There are 140 testers working with the Department. They are coping with some 3,000 tests a week, approximately. Add the 50% failure rate and the whole matter goes around in a circle, with people having to be tested again. The Minister said last night that there is a curb in the recruitment of new testers. I contacted the Local Appointments Commission last week and was told no new driving testers had been recruited since 1998. The Department of Finance's curbs only came in last year. This problem did not arise overnight. It has been there for several years. Obviously the Minister has failed in this regard because more driving testers should have been appointed. People will accept changes in driving behaviour if the Government is serious about funding the resources required to enforce sensible measures and make road safety a top priority. I hope the road safety strategy will be published and that it will be adequately resourced so that the necessary funding is put in place and more lives are saved on the roads.