I thank the Ceann Comhairle.
This time last year, Fine Gael used its Private Members' time for much the same reason. I refer to the relentless upward curve in the number of road traffic accidents, the increase in the number of people killed, particularly young drivers and their passengers and the growth in the number of serious accidents. We tend to pay less attention to the injuries than to the deaths, perhaps forgetting the life changing consequences such accidents have for the injured and their families. We all know the statistics of those killed and injured and we know the figures are not improving. October was a particularly grim month with almost twice as many killed as in the same month last year, 42 as opposed to 22. Tragically, many of these were young people. Ireland is the only EU country where the trend in road deaths is upwards instead of downwards.
We have seen horrific television images of the aftermath of accidents and enough broken cars to be able to imagine all too clearly the broken bodies lifted from those cars. We have seen enough to empathise with the broken families who opened their doors to the worst news any family could get, the news we all dread, that some loved one is dead. Yet the inexorable rise in road deaths goes on — deaths that could have been avoided and accidents that could have been prevented. We can now predict each weekend with absolute certainty that the news bulletins will be characterised by the latest grim statistics. When the accidents are particularly bad, the victims young and the numbers involved more shocking and when the grief seems utterly unbearable we get promises of political action. All we ever seem to get are promises. It never seems to move beyond that. There is always another report pending, more legislation being prepared, always another excuse for why we have not come to grips with the real causes of accidents.
Nothing we have to say will be news to the Minister. He can rightly say he has heard it all before. However, we make no apology for that. If repetition is what it takes, then we must be repetitive. As the Opposition it is our duty to highlight Government failures, to hold Ministers to account to the Dáil and to the people. When lives are at stake, which is the case in the context of road safety, that duty is absolutely compelling and we cannot ignore it. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, said recently that many Deputies say things they do not really believe. To avoid being accused of that I wish to say at the outset that I do not really believe Governments can put an end to people being killed on the roads.
People not Governments drive cars and there is a significant element of personal responsibility involved. Parents also have a responsibility to instil in young drivers, especially those to whom they give their cars or for whom they buy cars, that it is simply not acceptable to speed, drink and drive, or take risks with their own lives and, especially, the lives of others. The relentless message to young people must be that a car is a potentially lethal weapon. If necessary, parents must make themselves available at weekends to drive their children when they socialise, organise a non-drinking driver or pay for a taxi. I am conscious that it is more difficult for young people in rural areas to socialise but there must be a sense of mutual social responsibility from drivers, their families and passengers to ensure that no matter where people live they will change their driving habits and organise themselves so that they can travel and socialise without taking unnecessary risks. Even though the direct cause of most road accidents is due to driver behaviour, that behaviour can be and is influenced by Government action, or inaction.
In all areas of our lives, rules, laws and regulations seek to influence what we do and how we behave. We have countless examples of how legislation has changed how we behave. The shame of being caught breaking the law, the fear of the legal consequences, the fines, the jail sentences and the withdrawal of privileges, such as driving licences, all operate as deterrents modifying our behaviour. As somebody said, fear works. Properly enforced legislation does much more than merely change our behaviour, it changes the entire culture of a society. The culture surrounding driver behaviour is an entirely negative one, informed by the attitude of apparent official indifference. Every aspect of official attitude, from legislation to enforcement to administration, sends a message of the low priority driver behaviour and, consequently, road safety has for Government. How can we be surprised if drivers pick up on this message and act accordingly? How can we be surprised when each Garda in the country arrests, on average, only one driver on suspicion of drink driving per annum? How can we be surprised when, as that figures implies, only one person for each of the 12,000 pubs in the country is arrested for drink driving in any year? Bizarrely and unforgivably, how is it that only one quarter of that 12,000 people are actually convicted?
The priority accorded to road safety is measured by the resources allocated to it by the State. These figures speak for themselves and, consequently, over 30% of car drivers on main roads speed, drink driving is commonplace and the general driving standard is lamentable. Many people evidently feel they can do as they like on the roads, speed with impunity and drink with impunity. As far as driver behaviour is concerned, the message from Government is, anything goes. The chances of being detected are slim and of being convicted, even slimmer. Similarly to speeding offences, only 20% of the national road safety target is being reached. Heavily laden trucks with lethal potential speed with impunity, 85% on motorways, 60% on dual carriageways. With that level of non-compliance, one might as well not have a speed limit at all. It is simply ignored. The lack of a visible police presence is creating the impression that drivers can break the law and get away with it. Worse than that, the message is that, not alone will one not be caught, as one is safe from detection, but that one is also safe from traffic accidents.
The pre-election promise of 2,000 gardaí was a deception with the first numbers only appearing three years later and the full complement, at best, not due to appear until 2008. An even greater deception is the much vaunted Garda traffic corps. It was announced with much fanfare this time last year. At that time, helicopters, motorbikes and luminous yellow jackets were much in evidence. Several months later we discovered that this year there would only be an increase of a miserable 33 gardaí in the traffic unit. An even greater deception that only came to light recently is the fact that this is not a real traffic corps at all. It is not a dedicated corps, ring-fenced for traffic and road safety duties. At any time its members can be dealing with burglaries, filling in forms, signing passports or rescuing cats from trees. In fact, the traffic corps only comes into effect when its members don their yellow jackets. Once again, the public has been duped. Much was promised but little has been delivered.
Penalty points, about which much has been said in the House, are another farce. They held the promise of having a dramatic effect on road deaths and initially this was the case. On 2 November, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, blamed the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda for delaying the expansion of the penalty points system. The previous week the Joint Committee on Transport was told by Assistant Commissioner, Eddie Rock, that the Garda had no difficulties handling the penalty points system. I have heard this message from the Garda for some time although, clearly, the opposite is the case. This indicates not only a lack of transparency but also a dismal failure of leadership in terms of delivery of road safety with no one willing to take responsibility.
I would like to know what is the real story on penalty points. Nothing has changed or improved since the system was first introduced. In reply to a parliamentary question I was informed that the cost of installing the PULSE system was €63 million. I do not know what it has cost since then in terms of maintenance and upkeep. Will it ever deliver on its promise? Until the system is fully and effectively functioning Garda time and energy is wasted and we will continue to have more road deaths.
Random breath testing was promised by a previous Minister for Transport in 1999 but it has fallen completely off the radar. I accept there are concerns that the Garda would just use it to bump up the overall numbers of people tested and that there are also civil liberties concerns. However, we cannot just walk away from it because so many of the cases brought to court are failing simply because the Garda must prove that tests were not random and that they had cause to stop people. It is time to prepare legislation and have the Supreme Court test it. Safeguards can be included in regard to civil liberties and other concerns which people have.
If penalty points are a farce, speed cameras are high farce. Fixed speed cameras currently only exist in counties Dublin, Meath, and Louth. A total of 20 fixed camera boxes exist but there are only three cameras. Speed cameras were initially rolled out as a pilot project, with the aim being to roll out such cameras nationally. The three mobile cameras are rotated between the 20 boxes. After almost three years, there are no additional cameras outside these areas. A reply to a parliamentary question to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform tabled by me revealed that of the 20 boxes, nine, or almost 50%, were damaged. Nobody ever thought of repairing them — it took up to eight months to repair them. In essence, we have a very restrictive speed camera system confined to a couple of counties.
After lengthy consultation, many reports, published on the website, press statements and so on, and with much fanfare, it was announced that the speed camera system would be outsourced. The Minister decided he could not manage it and decided to give it to someone else to manage. Outsourcing was promised which would solve everything in that there would be increased efficiency and output. More legislation was promised to facilitate that. Both those promises are up some cul-de-sac. There has been no output as a result of those promises. There has been research, reports and promises about outsourcing but zero outcome. Surely the Minister has not been so caught up with preparing his one page plan for transport that he could not achieve anything in the area of road safety.
Driver testing is a crucial area because it is where young people first interface with the rules of the road and where they form the attitudes and practices which they will probably carry throughout their lives and which will influence their behaviour in the future. This area is a complete mess and I do not believe anyone in government could say otherwise. Over half of all drivers fail their first driving test. This is either due to poor instruction or poor driving, or both, or poor testing. The Government must introduce some regulation of the driver instruction process. Anyone can set up a driving school. One does not even need a driving licence, which is absolutely incredible. Regulation and certification are needed.
One in six drivers on Irish roads have not passed a full driving test. The number of drivers holding provisional licences is partly due to the fact that 43% of them have failed their test. Even when they are retested, the failure is almost as high. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system which allows drivers who continually fail their test to go back on the road armed with nothing other than a certificate of incompetence to drive, yet they are let out year in, year out. It is sending a message that the Government does not care and that people do not have to be careful and do not even have to make an effort to pass the test. That must change. Nobody can stand over such a system.
Legislation to delegate responsibility in this area was introduced in the House some months ago. The content of the legislation showed a lamentable paucity of ideas as to how this problem should be solved but at least a new authority was to be set up. The Minister expressed the hope that this would change everything, but the legislation has disappeared. The Minister said he will reintroduce it beefed up but there is no sign of it. People are still dying on the roads and we have no idea what will happen.
There are countless other issues to be addressed. For instance, an issue which is emerging is the impact of drug misuse on driver behaviour and this is a major cause of death. There is no roadside testing system. Clearly, any road safety programme or campaign must take into account that this may be a significant cause of road traffic accidents.
Of course, other issues have raised their heads in the context of the appalling accident in County Meath, such as the role the road surface plays in accidents. That must be addressed. It must be made absolutely clear to local authorities that they must enforce whatever guidelines are there because it is unacceptable that roads are left in a condition which is not safe, particularly when local authorities are responsible for rendering them unsafe. When road works are going on, particularly on lonely country roads, they must be clearly marked so that everyone is fully aware the road surface is not considered safe.
Another issue about which I feel strongly was raised by the former Minister, Deputy Brennan, or perhaps the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resource, Deputy Noel Dempsey, that is, mobile telephone use. Originally, the use of a hand-held mobile telephone while driving was to be a penalty point offence but the Minister did not know how to define a mobile telephone, so he had to withdraw that proposal. It is extraordinary that it can be defined in every other country in the world. This is an issue to which we must return.
To include such an offence under the penalty point offence of dangerous driving is simply not good enough and it is not working. In single car accidents involving young people, the use of a hand-held mobile telephone while driving may well be a cause. We must create a culture where it is not acceptable to drive a car while using a hand-held mobile telephone. Indeed, I have seen truck drivers do three-point turns with mobile telephones held to their ears. It is an unsafe practice and we must make it clear that it is not acceptable. People think it is perfectly legal and they use mobile telephones while driving all the time and make no attempt to hide the fact that they do so. An attempt to legislate must be made to at least reduce their use. I understand there may be problems with enforcement but we could reduce their use and the likelihood of such accidents.
The Minister of State, Deputy Callely, is responsible for traffic. Road safety is the responsibility of the Minister for Transport and only he can act to make a difference. Even best practice will not secure zero deaths but, according to the National Safety Council, it would save 140 lives per year and save 1,200 people from crippling injury. It is up to the Minister whether he saves those lives.