Road Traffic Bill 2004: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am glad at least to have the opportunity to commence this important Bill even though there is little time left to discuss it. The Bill represents the fourth legislative initiative on traffic law in the past two years. One of those initiatives introduced a new legislative code for the control and regulation of small public service vehicles while the others were targeted on issues that effect road safety. The road safety theme also provides the general policy background and framework for this proposed legislation. The immediate focus of the Bill is to support the introduction of a new system of speed limits based on metric values. Compliance with speed limits is of paramount importance in the achievement of the type of driver behaviour that promotes a safe travelling environment on our roads. Road safety also underpins a specific proposal that I am promoting for the application of a prohibition on the supply of mechanically propelled vehicles to minors. The Bill provides for a number of other initiatives. These relate mainly to the introduction of amendments to the legislation for the administration of the fixed charge and penalty points systems introduced under the Road Traffic Act 2002, which focus in particular on outsourcing certain functions from the Garda Síochána relating to fixed charge payments. The Bill provides for a number of changes to the Taxi Regulation Act 2002, which will assist in the operation of certain key provisions contained in that Act.

In my new role as Minister for Transport, I will continue to afford road safety the highest priority and will maintain the focus of our policy on the key areas of speeding, drink driving and seat belt wearing to reduce deaths and injuries. Achieving a world-class performance in road safety requires a range of effective policies to ensure safe interaction between vehicles, drivers and other road users. The Government is addressing all of these issues. Of course, road safety is ultimately about the behaviour of road users. Over the past six years there has been a distinct improvement in our road safety performance. This has been underpinned by the fact that the period also featured the launch and implementation of the first national road safety strategy. The pace of that improvement accelerated since the end of 2002 following the introduction of the penalty points system. The system was initially applied for speeding offences with effect from the end of October 2002.

In the period from November 2002 to the end of October this year the number of road deaths fell from 811 to 693 when compared with the previous 24 months. This means that 118 people are alive today who might otherwise have been victims of road collisions. The downward trend in fatalities continued in 2003 when we recorded the lowest number of fatalities, 336, since 1963. The need for constant vigilance and attention has been clearly shown since the beginning of this year. As of last Monday the number of road deaths this year was 25 higher than was the case over the same period last year. However, the number of road deaths in the first ten months of this year is the second lowest figure since 1998, which was the first full year of the first road safety strategy.

The successor to that initial strategy was published recently. Its primary target is to realise a 25% reduction in road collision fatalities by the end of 2006 over the average annual number of fatalities in the 1998 to 2003 period. Achievement of the target will result in no more than 300 deaths per annum by the end of the period of the strategy. Given the progress that we have made over the past six years, the target we have set is very ambitious. However, the measures set out in the strategy can help us to revert to the position we experienced in 2003. The policy focus pursued over the past six years is working. The effect of the penalty points system has given a particular impetus to that policy and there is now a greater awareness of road safety generally and a desire and expectation that that impetus will not be lost. The collective goal of all those involved in the promotion and delivery of road safety policies is to ensure that the improvements achieved over the past six years are sustained and built on.

The strategy will build on the success of its predecessor, the results of a review of that strategy carried out by an international expert in road safety and the further improvements realised in 2003. Achieving a reduction of 25% is a very ambitious target. The degree of that ambition can be judged against the background of the overall EU target of realising a 50% reduction in road deaths over a ten year period and the target set in the United States, which provides for a reduction of one third in fatalities per vehicle kilometre travelled over an eight-year period. In setting our goals for the period up to the end of 2006, we are supported by the knowledge that the strategic approach adopted has been shown to deliver the greatest benefits in the long term. The most successful countries in the European Union in delivering reductions in road casualty numbers on a sustained basis are those that have adopted such an approach.

In adopting our road safety strategy we learned from the experience of states like the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which are the leading states in the European Union in road safety performance. We have also adopted an approach that has seen the engagement of all the organisations that contribute to the various elements of road safety policy in the identification and pursuit of the policies through which the overall targets can be achieved. The first road safety strategy to cover the period 1998-2002 set a primary target of a 20% reduction in deaths and serious injuries. This was achieved in the case of deaths and surpassed in the case of serious injuries. However, progress in particular key areas was mixed. We did not achieve the level of improvements targeted in the area of drink driving and speed limit compliance. Progress was made in seat belt wearing rates but there is significant room for further improvement.

One area where we made significant progress was in the target to introduce specific accident reduction measures on 400 locations on the national road network. This was surpassed with 418 schemes completed by the end of 2002. In addition, good progress has been made in the implementation of the overall national roads upgrade programme provided for in the national development plan. To date 44 projects have been completed, with a total of 310 km, including 76 km of motorway and 233 km of dual carriageway standard. In addition, work is under way on 20 projects totalling 203 km, including 157 km to motorway-dual carriageway standard, while another eight projects with a total of 58 km are at tender stage. The position on the five major inter-urban routes is that at the end of 2003 nearly 30% of these routes had been upgraded to motorway-dual carriageway standard with work under way on approximately another 12%. This ensures that priority is given to addressing the need for urban bypasses and dealing with traffic congestion.

The key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Influencing such behaviour positively is at the centre of our road safety programmes and forms the primary focus of our road safety strategies. Behaviour is influenced positively through initiatives across a number of areas. One of these is the promulgation and enforcement of laws that promote road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications that collectively create an appropriate deterrent to those who endanger the lives of others by their failure to acknowledge and comply with the appropriate behavioural norms. Equally, legislation must evolve to influence and respond to changing driving cultures, which are of themselves influenced by improved road infrastructure and vehicle engineering. The ongoing improvements in our road network have been a significant contributing factor in our improved road safety performance. These improvements have presented challenges for road traffic legislation, especially in relation to the speed limit structures that we apply.

The need to ensure that our speed limit structures are consistent with our improved road network and that they retain their central focus on safety prompted the decision to have a comprehensive review of the current speed limits carried out last year. The immediate background to the review was that a determination had been made that we should proceed to the adoption of metric values for our speed limits. It had been envisaged that the full metrication of speed limits and the traffic signs that depict them would be completed by the end of this year and regulations were made to that end under EU Council Directive 89/617/EEC. It was decided in September to push the changeover to metric speed limits forward to 20 January 2005 so that a comprehensive and concentrated public information campaign on metrication would not lose impact during the distractions of the December and new year festive season. A metrication changeover board has been appointed to plan and oversee the implementation of the changeover from imperial to metric speed limits within the 20 January 2005 timeframe. To facilitate that plan, it must be supported by the early passage of the legislation necessary to provide support for the new system.

The limited operation to date of the fixed charge and penalty points system has shown that there is scope for the outsourcing of elements of the systems so as to relieve the administrative pressures on the Garda and to introduce greater clarity to the role of the Courts Service in the operation of the penalty points system. Therefore, the Bill contains relevant provisions to support those initiatives.

Debate adjourned.