Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage.

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

The Bill represents the persistent resolve of Government and Members on all sides of the House to develop appropriate legislation that supports our policies on traffic law and road safety generally. Road safety is to the fore of our national consciousness and it is imperative that legislators and policy makers are kept intrinsically aware of the pervasive pain and anguish behind road collision statistics. In this context, Government and the Oireachtas have responded through the promotion of legislation to support road safety initiatives and the ongoing advancement of safety performance. The cohesive policy structure that binds the various road safety measures has been set down by the three Government road safety strategies to date. The current strategy, covering the period 2007 to 2012, has been the trigger for many of the major provisions in the Bill.

This is the sixth major legislative initiative to be taken on traffic law in the past decade. The legislative progression during that time has resulted in the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points systems, a new structure of speed limits based on metric values, the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority and, most recent, the introduction of the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the UK. In the first instance, the advancement of road traffic legislation reflects a response to the transformative nature of road usage.

This past decade has borne witness to a significant increase in vehicle volume. To put this in context, almost 2.5 million vehicles were registered in Ireland at the end of 2008, which was a 74% increase on 1997. This user demand has increased the requirement for good infrastructure and, as a result, the past decade has also witnessed unprecedented investment in our road network. This level of investment continues into 2010 with allocations of more than €412 million for regional and local roads as well as €1.1 billion for the national roads programme. A total of €15 million has also been provided towards road safety measures under this programme. Such persistent investment has played a major role in reducing the deaths and injuries on our roads in recent years, particularly the development of our motorway infrastructure. The major inter-urban roads programme should be completed by the end of this year and we expect that these motorways will continue to support our safety objectives for many years to come. Greater road usage has also encouraged the development of robust vehicle standards as well as the technology to support better enforcement. However, the most significant legislative factor has been the need to augment and enhance road safety provisions, which has led to a cultural shift in best practice ideology and practice for drivers and vehicles. All these elements have merged to create a better road safety environment.

Since the publication of the first road safety strategy in 1998, the number of people killed on our roads has steadily declined. That year, 472 people lost their lives in collisions. These fatality records provide a sad reminder of the loss suffered by people over the years, particularly in 1972 when road deaths reached a staggering 640. This figure is astonishing when it is considered that the number of vehicles on our roads quadrupled between 1970 and 2008. In contrast to 1972, 2009 was the safest year on record with fatalities totalling 239. It is never good news when talking about lives lost but our roads, without question, are becoming increasingly safe for all users.

In 2009, the European Transport Safety Council ranked Ireland sixth in the top ten best performing EU countries for road safety compared with 16th in 2005. Our latest high ranking position was based on figures for 2007 and it is anticipated we will achieve even better results this year when the statistics for 2008 are taken into account. A recent OECD international transport forum annual report places Ireland in fifth position internationally in road deaths per billion vehicle kilometres in 2008. However, it still remains unacceptable that so many people should die on our roads. It is up to all of us to ensure that, despite the significant gains in recent years, complacency does not set in. There still is a great deal of work to be done by all of us.

The first Road Safety Strategy 1998-2002 asserted the necessity for co-ordinating actions across a range of disciplines. It is estimated failure to do so would have resulted in road deaths reaching 550 in 2002. A continuation of the business as usual approach would have seen annual road deaths rise to well beyond that figure in 2009. While we still cannot be content with the current trends in road collisions, it must be recognised that our road safety record is significantly more advanced as a result of the action taken by the Government to develop such a strategic approach and the support of all sides in the House.

Through the adoption of road safety strategies, we have been able to identify and link measures that reinforce the advancement of the safety message. The establishment of the Garda national traffic corps and the Road Safety Authority has also had a profoundly positive effect on transmitting that message through enforcement, detection, education and awareness. One of the great advantages of devising strategies is that they place our plans in the public domain, thus allowing for informed debate. The Opposition often calls for accountability in the House. When one publishes one's targets, it provides a useful benchmark and the Opposition holds us to account in this regard. This provides a useful benchmark of public, media and political opinion on the delivery of measures that have been identified.

The current road safety strategy was the subject of a wide-ranging consultation process, not only with the public at large, but also with key stakeholders and the outcome of that process is reflected in the 126 actions contained in the strategy. Each action has a designated responsible stakeholder for its delivery. Such debate informs policy going forward and leads to the legislative development under consideration. The experience gained to date from such consultations has been invaluable. The drafting of the Bill is the result of extensive and detailed consultations between my officials and key stakeholders. Road traffic legislation is among the most challenged in our courts and, consequently, it is required that the drafting of new legislation must also focus on making the provisions as robust as possible.

I refer to the specific provisions being promoted in this Bill. The primary focus of the legislation is to advance the road safety agenda through changing driver behaviour, particularly in the area of intoxicated driving. In this context, the Bill provides for the lowering of the legal blood alcohol concentration, BAC, from 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood to 20 mg for learner, novice and professional drivers, and from 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg for other drivers. The equivalent levels in urine and breath will apply. This provision is central to the approach of the legislation. The Bill also provides for the mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions and introduces administrative fixed penalties for certain drink driving offences, and also introduces preliminary impairment testing to further assist the Garda in its enforcement role. Fixed charge and penalty point provisions will be amended by introducing the option of a fixed charge payment on receipt of summons. The legislation sets out certain presumptions on the delivery of fixed charge offence notices and seeks to improve certain matters relating to the endorsement of penalty points on driver records.

With regard to driving licences, the Bill amends related provisions to ensure penalty points and disqualifications can be applied to non-national driving licences and to give the Garda powers to seize a licence in certain circumstances. In addition, the Bill amends provisions and penalties for inconsiderate, careless and dangerous driving. It also restates existing provisions on intoxicated driving, consequential disqualifications and fixed charge offences in a consolidated and clearer format, and includes a number of minor amendments to the Road Traffic Acts. All the amendments and new provisions associated with this legislation stem directly from commitments outlined in the current road safety strategy.

The first amendment I wish to address is reduced BAC covered in sections 4 to 6, inclusive, in Part 2. The House does not need to be reminded of the obvious incompatibility between alcohol and driving. The effects of this pairing are well documented and the scientific evidence is conclusive and irrefutable. Any alcohol impairs driving and affects driver capacity in a variety of ways including psychomotor skills, cognitive functioning, choice and simple reaction times, visual function, vigilance, perception as well as ability to divide attention and absorb information. The current road safety strategy identifies the need to legislate for, and introduce, a reduction in the legal BAC level for drivers, but does not specify what that level should be.

In determining the level to which the BAC limit should be reduced, I sought the advice of the Road Safety Authority. That advice was informed by a number of issues, including known driver behaviour, past offending rates, enforcement practicalities, best international practice and research as well as analysis of data held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. The safety imperative requires that this measure, even if modest in its impact on deaths and injuries, should be pursued, particularly to change behaviour and personal choices with regard to drinking and driving. Furthermore, the Northern Ireland authorities published a consultation document last year which advocates a similar reduction in that jurisdiction. It is important for road safety and enforcement on both sides of the Border to have the same BAC levels if possible. Following the success of roadside mandatory alcohol testing and the associated high-visibility enforcement by the Garda Síochána of the existing BAC levels, I consider it appropriate that we move to a lower BAC level at this juncture.

While the RSA's advice does not address the issue of appropriate penalties for drink driving offences, in view of the proposed reduction in the BAC level I have given much consideration to the structure of penalties under the Road Traffic Acts for such offences. The deterrent effect of potential disqualification is a significant factor in changing driver behaviour in this country in terms of drinking and driving. While wishing to maintain the overall principle that driving while intoxicated is and should be considered to be a serious offence — one which attracts automatic disqualification — I am mindful that in providing for lower BAC levels, some provision should be made for those detected for the first time at the lower levels.

Accordingly, the Bill provides for two measures in this regard. As a transitional measure, in advance of the introduction of the lower BAC levels, provision is made to amend section 5 of the Road Traffic Act 2006 to allow for an administrative option whereby those detected within specified lower levels — not exceeding 100 mg — would pay a fixed charge, accept a six-month disqualification and avoid having the matter dealt with in a court. This matter was raised a number of times by Deputy O'Dowd.

Following the introduction of the new levels, penalties are provided for on payment of a fixed charge. The status of the driver and the BAC level detected will determine the disqualification period and associated penalties. For learner drivers and the recently qualified, as well as professional drivers, the penalties on payment of a fixed charge associated with the specified BAC will be three months' disqualification and a €200 fine. All other drivers will receive three penalty points and a €200 fine for a first offence. This fixed charge option in lieu of court proceedings will only be available once in a five-year period to drivers who are not disqualified at the time of detection.

The application of appropriate penalties will not single-handedly save lives. Good enforcement and detection practices are also vital in achieving this aim. In this context, mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, was introduced in 2006 and has proved a very successful intervention. The Garda Síochána, as a key partner, has had a major role in delivering road safety results through ongoing roadside operations and a stringent testing regime. The percentage of drivers actually detected with excess alcohol levels continues to fall, thus confirming the deterrent effect of this measure. This system of detection by the Garda Síochána, as well as the scientific analysis provided by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, is essential to maintaining the public perception that there is a real of risk of being detected and prosecuted, and is integral to the effectiveness of the deterrent.

Section 8 of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 provides for mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions, where a member of the Garda attends at the scene of a road traffic collision and where injury requiring medical assistance has been caused to another person. This is another improvement on the current legislation. On previous occasions I have been asked to explain why there is no provision to test drivers involved in all collisions. This is because, in many instances, the collisions result only in material damage to vehicles and are generally minor in nature, with the matter being settled by the drivers concerned. Overall, the newly extended provisions for testing at collision sites will enhance the deterrent effect and support the enforcement of the reduced BAC.

Complementary to the measures already outlined will be the new provisions to introduce preliminary impairment testing in section 10, Part 2, of the Bill. It is illegal in Ireland to drive while under the influence of drink or drugs to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle. The Garda is obliged by law to determine whether drivers are under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent. This obligation is more difficult when trying to determine the presence of drugs. There is currently no suitable device available that will permit roadside testing of drivers for drugs. However, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety is keeping abreast of developments in this area and will inform me when a suitable device has been identified for testing and certification.

Unlike alcohol, there is no legal limit for drugs. Detections for driving under the influence of drugs are on the increase; as concern grows for the effects of driving under the influence of multiple drugs or a mixture of drugs and alcohol, a more detailed review of the regulatory regime has been raised in the context of the current Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012. It is planned that such a review will commence this year and will require very detailed consideration and consultation by the relevant stakeholders. In the interim, arising from the actions specified in the strategy, section 10 of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 provides that a driver may be required by a member of the Garda to perform tests, known as preliminary impairment tests, to assist the Garda in determining the extent to which a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant.

The section also provides for the making of regulations by the Minister to prescribe how such tests should be carried out. Formal training in impairment testing for the Garda will begin this year. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, with the school of medicine at UCD, will provide the training with the aim of enhancing the assessment of drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. The training course is currently being designed by the medical bureau in close consultation with the Garda. I am certain that the combination of the reduced BAC level, the introduction of preliminary impairment testing and the extension of the testing regime at collision sites will further augment the momentum that has been achieved to date in reducing road fatalities and increasing road safety overall.

Enforcement provisions are improved in Part 3, in sections 30 to 43. Enforcement is a key element of any road safety agenda. The Garda Síochána is responsible for the detection of road traffic offences, many of which are included in either the fixed charge or the penalty points scheme. The aim of these schemes is to increase the effectiveness of Garda enforcement, to improve driver behaviour through the deterrent effect and to reduce the volume of road traffic offences coming before the courts. From a road safety point of view, I see this trend continuing into the future, with more offences being included under these schemes.

With regard to fixed charges, payment is possible within 56 days of the issue of the notice but there is currently no option for payment after that date. While some 70% of fixed charge notices are paid, an estimated 30% end up in court for failure to pay within the prescribed 56-day period. The case has been made to me that for a number of reasons, a person may not be able to make a payment within the prescribed time, but many would rather make a payment than be prosecuted in court. The Bill, therefore, provides for a final option of payment not later than seven days before the date set for the court hearing.

Debate adjourned.