On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome the resumed debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. I am grateful for the opportunity to join in the discussion on this important legislation. It is long overdue and the delays in its publication and introduction into the House have been particularly disappointing given the many critical road safety issues involved. The role played by the valiant Donegal-based national road safety campaign, Public against Road Carnage, PARK, led by Ms Susan Gray, Ms Donna Pierce, Ms Ann Fogarty and Ms Mary O'Dowd, in raising awareness of this issue must be warmly recognised. I understand from Part 1 of the Bill that it will come into operation through ministerial order. In light of the delays we are already expecting on the reduced drink driving limit because of the debacle over the breathalyser equipment, will the Minister indicate when he intends to bring forward orders to give legislative effect to the Bill and its various Parts and sections? It will be disappointing if key measures in the Bill are not implemented as a matter of urgency.
The Labour Party has always had a strong commitment to road safety, and the Bill was welcomed by us on publication. The Minister acknowledged the efforts by the Opposition — and I pay tribute to my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy McEntee, in this regard — to take road safety issues out of the political arena. In respect of all issues that have arisen since mid-2007, we have kept the debate focused on safety issues and did not seek to make political points. Protection of the public is paramount and must be our number one priority. In that regard, some of the measures in the Bill, on mandatory testing and drug driving, should have been much stronger. It is also inexplicable that the Minister did not take this legislative opportunity to address a range of outstanding road safety issues, including the national speed camera roll-out, speed limits and signage, the condition of many regional and local roads, enforcement of legislation and the graduated driver licence scheme for which we have been waiting for three years. I will introduce amendments relating to many of these issues on Committee Stage.
The main thrust of the Bill is clearly the enhancement of road safety. Improvements in road safety in recent years have been commendable. For example, whereas 411 people tragically lost their lives on our roads in 2001, 2009 saw one of the lowest levels of road fatalities ever recorded, with 239 road deaths. That said, as Deputy McEntee mentioned, we look back to the start of the new century and find that well more than 3,000 have tragically lost their lives. That is completely unacceptable. We have also seen the introduction of important initiatives such as random breath-testing and the penalty points system. Much of this work has been due to the outstanding leadership of Mr. Gay Byrne and Mr. Noel Brett of the Road Safety Authority and all of their staff. I also acknowledge the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, in the past three years to road safety and his perseverance in introducing this Bill despite the obstruction of such persons as his Fianna Fáil colleague who should now perhaps be referred to as Deputy Mattie "U-turn" McGrath.
One road death is one too many and an annual road death toll of 239 is an unacceptable level of carnage. If we had 250 deaths a year on the rail or bus network, people would rightly find that extraordinary and absolutely intolerable. Behind the figure of 239 road deaths in 2009 are the hundreds of families and friends left devastated and destroyed by these events. Tens of thousands of families across Ireland have been prematurely bereaved over the past three decades due to road traffic accidents. What is too often forgotten is the hundreds of horrific non-fatal but serious injuries that also occur each year. We have all seen the heartbreaking advertisements run by the RSA, with young men and women who have been struck down in their prime and will spend the rest of their lives fully or partially paralysed after being horrifically injured in a road collision.
Apart from the unquantifiable human cost of road collisions there is a significant economic and social cost to the Irish economy each year. In 2008, for example, the estimated cost of the total fatal and injury road collisions recorded by the Garda Síochána was €1.2 billion. Going back over the past ten years, costs would amount to more than €7.5 billion.
Clearly we have come a long way on road safety, finally approaching a safer road system for the country. A key element of any ongoing successful drive to decrease and eliminate road fatalities and serious injuries is that there must be no room for complacency. There were significant decreases in road deaths and injuries after the introduction of major new initiatives such as penalty points and random breath testing. This, however, can be a temporary dip if enforcement measures and continual safety enhancements are not introduced. Immediately after the introduction of random breath testing, many drivers were on a high state of alert and were breath tested numerous times over a very short period of time. However, the campaign had to be reinvigorated, especially during periods like Christmas and bank holidays. Three years ago the figures showed a rise, as we slipped backwards.
The Labour Party believes that Ireland should strive to be the best in the world for road safety. Being number five in certain tables is welcome but why not be the best? To achieve this we must greatly strengthen the legislation before us and make Ireland the world leader in road safety.
It has been estimated that excessive alcohol is a contributory factor in around 36% of fatal collisions but one of the most controversial aspects of the Road Traffic Bill has been the proposal in Chapter 2 to reform the intoxicated driving offences and specifically to reduce the blood alcohol limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, and 20 mg for professional and novice drivers. The RSA has provided very strong evidence from a range of international experience, including the Australian states, that the reduction in the drink driving limit will save lives on our roads. Research by the Transport Accident Commission in the Australian state of Victoria describes how drivers with a 0.05 to 0.08 BAC have a reduced ability to judge distances and "sensitivity to red lights is impaired, reactions are slower, and concentration span is shorter. At the 0.08 limit, BAC drivers are five times more likely to have an accident than before they started drinking." In the Australian state of Queensland, there was an 18% drop in fatal collisions and a 14% reduction in serious collisions after the BAG was dropped from 80 mg to 50 mg in 1983. In Austria there was a 9.4% drop when the limit was reduced to 50 mg.
This move will also bring us into line with best international practice and all of our EU partner states, excluding Britain and Malta, as well as Australia, Israel, South Africa, and Turkey. Norway, Russia, and Sweden have a limit of .02 BAC and Poland has adopted .03 BAC.
There have been some concerns raised about the introduction of a 20 mg for novice and professional drivers and whether it is equitable to have different regulations for different categories of drivers. Any driver who is driving in a professional capacity and potentially carrying other passengers must be subject to the strictest safety regulations. A recent report, "Drink Driving in Commercial Transport", highlights that in a June 2009 European Traffic Police Network enforcement operation, Ireland had a 3% level of drink driving in commercial vehicles. This placed Ireland as one of the poorer performers in this regard across the EU.
It is also striking how there has been a significant cultural change in attitudes towards drink driving. Many of our young drivers must be strongly commended on their vehement opposition to driving with any level of alcohol in their system. The introduction of the 20 mg limit for novice drivers will surely advance this welcome trend even further and encourage all new drivers to get into the habit of drinking little or nothing if they are driving. We are coming to an era when drinking and driving are not compatible and we must end this practice.
I accept the significant changes that have been introduced to road traffic law in Part 3 of the Bill for the use of a fixed administrative system of penalties for those found over the limit. The Minister has provided that drivers with a full license and two years experience found between the 50 mg and 80 mg limit, as outlined in section 26(7), can opt for an administrative penalty of two penalty points endorsement and €200 fixed penalty charge. The Minister did this to provide some flexibility for a driver who may be caught for the first time slightly over the 50 mg limit but below the current 80 mg cut-off point. Clearly this will provide a chance for a first time offender but any subsequent transgressions by a driver in terms of drink driving should then be harshly dealt with.
Many people living in rural areas have expressed their genuine concerns that a reduced drink driving limit may further contribute to rural isolation and social exclusion especially for seniors who live alone and other vulnerable citizens. As Irish Rural Link has argued, however, a reduced drink driving limit should not put the maintenance of sustainable rural communities at risk if, for example, a proper rural and community transport infrastructure is in place, something for which the Labour Party has consistently campaigned.
The outstanding rural transport programme finally received confirmation that its paltry €10 million funding for 2010 would be allocated but this was after a ferocious battle on behalf of its leaders including Jack Roche from Duhallow, Damien Tobin from Avondhu Blackwater, Brian Bonham from Laois Trip and Alan Kerry from OK in Offaly and Kildare in the aftermath of the appalling recommendation in the an bord snip nua report to axe this vital service. We were all in favour of not just maintaining but expanding the rural transport service. This is what we must do if we are to make these drink driving limits credible.
A few months ago the Minister for Transport's handling of the drink driving law appeared to be turning into another debacle. I was astonished that, given the agonised public debate over reducing the drink driving limit, the legislation, if passed, will not be implemented until mid-2011 at the earliest. The Minister and I had an exchange of views on this issue on "Drivetime" one evening because all of the breathalysers will have to be changed at a cost of at least €800,000.
In a parliamentary question in July 2008, I raised with the Minister the issue of the evidential breath testing machines. At that stage, the Minister told me that "the recalibration or replacement and subsequent recertification of the EBT machines" would be necessary. The Minister told me in July 2008 that this process would "take to the end of 2009/early 2010 to complete." Why has this 2009/2010 deadline now been pushed back to mid-2011? Was this done to mollify Fianna Fáil backbenchers. Why when the Road Traffic Bill 2009 was being prepared did the Minister not first ensure that all of the necessary infrastructure and facilities for implementing the proposed new laws were in place?
PARC has also raised the very important issue of the Intoxilyser machines that are in use in Ireland. Is it the case that the machines in operation have a 17.5% in-built deduction in the readings, which means that the evidential reading used in court could be 20-25% lower than the actual BAC at the time of testing? Why are these deductions allowed and will this be permitted in the new recaliberated machines?
The 2006 Road Traffic Act introduced the power for the Garda Síochána to conduct random breath tests at Garda checkpoints. Will the Minister involve an amendment to extend this power and to allow the gardaí to randomly stop and breathalyse a driver suspected of being under the influence outside of a checkpoint?
I recently asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about action 119 of the road safety stratagem, which suggests alternative correction-rehabilitation programmes to target high risk offenders for a range of traffic offences. There is not a word about this in the Bill, while most of our EU partner states have correctional and rehabilitation programmes.
A new and worrying trend which the Minister is unfortunately doing too little to address is that of drug driving. The new CSO figures record that in the last quarter of 2004 there were just 16 recorded offences of driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs. In contrast, by the last quarter of 2008 there were 238 recorded incidents of drug driving and 253 incidents in the first quarter of 2009. A July 2009 CSO survey showed an 81% drug driving increase on the previous year. The number of specimens tested for the presence of a drug or drugs by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety increased from 569 in 2004, 747 in 2005, 879 in 2006, 1,555 in 2007 to 1,900 in 2008. Due to the lack of a random roadside drug enforcement and testing regime, however, these figures probably represent only a fraction of drug drivers. For example, a 2008 investigation by the insurance company Hibernian Aviva found that more than 20% of drivers under the age of 35 had driven while under the influence of drugs.
Chapter 3 of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 includes measures for the introduction of preliminary impairment testing for drug driving. This is a welcome first step but why has the Minister done little or nothing to examine the suitability of random roadside drug testing programmes? Innovative programmes are already in place in the Australian states of New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland. I have in my possession pictures and data relating to saliva-testing machines, which are easily obtainable from the Internet having been put there by the state governments in Australia. The data provided by these machines is utilised as evidence in the Australian courts. The Australian authorities appear to have been successful in their efforts in respect of this matter.
Since the introduction in 2007 of a random roadside drug testing programme in the Australian state of New South Wales, 757 motorists have tested positive for drug use while driving. Nearly 600 of these have since been prosecuted and most have been convicted. Other Australian states such as Tasmania and Queensland have also introduced random drug driver testing schemes.
Despite the Australian experience, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, continues to insist that there "is no feasible basis as yet in Ireland or in Europe for the introduction of a preliminary roadside test for drugs". In contrast to the Australian example, the non-technological field impairment testing, FIT, method the Garda can, under this legislation, use to make a preliminary assessment regarding the possible presence of drugs is simply not strong enough to tackle this pernicious problem. I hope colleagues will join me in trying to amend the Bill so that some of the measures to which I refer might be introduced.
The issue of mandatory testing was one of the most critical new elements proposed for the updated road traffic legislation. One item of Dr. Declan Bedford's research on alcohol-related fatal crashes in Ireland indicates that only approximately 8% of surviving drivers from fatal road collisions are tested. Incredibly, 65% of drivers killed as a result of such collisions are tested. Why is there such an anomaly in terms of testing in respect of these collisions? I have received reports with regard to a number of tragic incidents where people who were killed in road crashes tested negative for alcohol, whereas the drivers of the other vehicles who allegedly caused these crashes were not tested at the scene. It could then never be determined or proved in court that the surviving driver had been either negligent or over the limit.
Many road safety campaigners are unhappy that this legislation appears to introduce compulsory testing only in limited and curtailed circumstances. Chapter 3, section 8 sets out that a motorist may be obliged to provide a preliminary breath specimen if he or she has been involved in a collision. However, this is premised on section 8(1)(a) where a member of the Garda Síochána “is of opinion that a person in charge of a vehicle in a public place ...”.
Chapter 4, sections 11(1) and 13(1) contain provisions relating to providing a specimen after arrest or while in hospital. In both cases the opinion of the Garda of intoxication at the scene is also required. Why not just simply mandate that all drivers involved in collisions to which gardaí are called be tested? A driver's intoxication through alcohol or drugs may not always be clearly apparent to another person, particularly if individuals are injured or if the crash scene is chaotic. I have been informed by Public Against Road Carnage, PARC, that it was informed the stipulation on gardaí "forming an opinion" would be dropped. I understand the Minister consulted representatives from PARC when the Bill was being drafted. Was the commitment to which I refer given to PARC, a group which does outstanding work? If it was, why has the stipulation not been dropped? Why is the legislation not clearer with regard to the specific testing powers gardaí will have at the scene of a collision? Such powers are clearly set down in respect of the Police Service of Northern Ireland?
Police in the UK are under instruction to test all drivers at collision scenes for alcohol. A range of states, including France, Poland and Australia, have mandatory testing. A report of the European Commission in 2008 recommended giving police unrestricted powers to breath test. The Labour Party is intent on amending and strengthening the Bill in this regard.
Chapter 6, in sections 23 to 25, inclusive, lays out the functions of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, which plays a key role in testing for alcohol and drugs. I warmly welcome this development. I have already highlighted the massive increase in detected cases of drug driving which is probably just the tip of the iceberg. At present, the MBRS only tests a sample for drugs when the Garda specifically requests it. Previous research by the MBRS indicates that one in three drivers who test negative for alcohol subsequently test positive for drugs. This highlights the relatively small number of drugs tests that are currently being carried out. Has the Minister put the resources in place to allow Professor Denis Cusack, the director, and his staff at this vital facility in UCD to carry out their work? The MBRS indicated that any move to test all samples for both alcohol and drugs would require a significant increase in funding from the Government. What has been the response to this proposal? I did not notice a significant increase in the Estimates in this regard. Approximately €4.4 million was allocated to the MBRS for 2009. Does the Minister intend to introduce a Supplementary Estimate in respect of it in 2010? As with breathalysers, it is pointless bringing in new legislation and promising mandatory testing and other new measures if the testing infrastructure is not put in place and if support is not provided for those carrying out the tests.
I welcome Part 4 and the new measures to enhance the penalty points system. Everyone agrees that the current system, which was only introduced in 2001, is in a complete mess. Earlier in the month we learned that almost 18,000 reckless drivers have got away without a single penalty point being applied to their licences as a result of the fact that they arrived in court without those licences. This is a serious problem. I was presented with information relating to one incident where a driver accused of speeding offences did not have his licence endorsed for this reason and who went on to be involved in a fatal collision where the other driver was killed.
Section 51 finally and clearly mandates drivers to produce their licences if appearing in court charged with an offence under the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2009 and provide copies of their licences or learners permits to the court at the time. Under the Bill, what penalty will apply if someone fails to produce his or her licence? Are the Minister and his colleagues addressing the serious capacity and administrative issues in the Courts Service that have been contributing to the problems with the penalty points system? I am aware that attempts have been made to address these problems in other ways, particularly in the context of the imposition of fixed penalties.
Last year 192,686 drivers, or 31%, did not have their licences endorsed for committing offences. Many of these drivers are holders of foreign driving licences. I have asked the Minister on numerous occasions — on virtually every occasion on which he has taken Question Time — to examine the use of the national vehicle driver file, NVDF, to record and address all motoring misdemeanours committed by drivers on Irish roads. The Minister indicated that he will try to address the question of foreign drivers by means of introducing amendments to the legislation. Most people would state that this is not before time.
Section 44(2) will allow the Minister to decide, by regulations, the form of record to be kept in respect of misdemeanours by foreign driving licence holders and unlicensed drivers. It also provides powers with regard to awarding penalty points. How will the system of awarding penalty points to foreign licence holders work and will it be the subject of major amendments? Will it involve an unnecessary duplication of resources to create a new and separate record of drivers who do not hold Irish driving licences when the NVDF is already in existence? Does the Minister have any plans to quickly move ahead and establish a register of foreign licence holders and disqualified drivers? The entire penalty points system and, by extension, road safety law are being brought into disrepute by the failure of the Minister to resolve this mess. It is disappointing that he appears to have made little progress at EU level on the mutual recognition of penalty points across the Union.
Section 61 sets out a requirement for vehicle insurers to provide details of new motor insurance policies issued and existing motor insurance policies cancelled, in so far as they relate to third party cover. I hope this will prove to be a useful provision.
I previously noted the new administrative fixed-penalty measure that has been introduced in respect of drink driving. However, the Courts Service is already under intense pressure in this regard. In the first six months of 2007, 88,000 summonses in respect of fixed-charge offences came before the courts. At that stage, the Garda reported that only 50% to 60% of traffic fines were being paid. Is the Minister reviewing any of the proposals by the Courts Service in respect of the collection of fines? I realise that he has changed the nature of some of the penalties and he referred to the seven-day rule with regard to cases going to court. Has he taken cognisance of the suggestions from the Courts Service in respect of alternative methods for the collection of fines for motoring offences, including the use of private debt collection agencies or, as the Law Reform Commission proposed, obliging motorists to pay fines when paying their annual motor tax charges?
I hope the Minister will consider reforming the imposition of traffic fines in order to — as is the case in Germany, France, Austria, the Nordic countries and Switzerland — take income and wealth levels into account. In many European states, sliding scales apply in respect of traffic fines. Under these, wealthy offenders are expected to pay more. A foreigner who drove recklessly through a large part of Switzerland was recently fined $300,000. A maximum fine of $1 million applies in that country, while the maximum fine in Germany is $16 million. Perhaps consideration might be given to introducing a sliding scale of fines here.
Part 5 introduces a series of long-overdue measures to address current loopholes in driving licence regulations, including prohibitions on applying for an Irish driving licence or learner permit in circumstances where someone has been disqualified. It also contains a facility to allow the Garda to seize licences in certain circumstances. I welcome the strengthening of the law in this regard. If the Minister really wanted to overhaul the driving licence system, however, why are measures to give full legislative effect to the long promised graduated driver licensing system — as mandated under action 72 of the road safety strategy 2007-2012, with a target completion date of the third quarter of 2008 — not included? The Minister will recall that I used to ask him and the Taoiseach about the legislation relating to this matter on a daily basis. The Minister stated that we do need additional legislation in respect of graduated driver licensing system. Why, therefore, is such a system not being legislated for in this Bill?
A critical road safety issue that is not explicitly addressed in the Bill is that of tachographs and the monitoring of professional drivers. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, and Britain's Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, VOSA, have consistently registered a high percentage of defective Irish HGVs. For example, a survey carried out by VOSA in 2007 revealed that 1,110 out of 2,000 Irish-registered trucks — between 55% and 60% — that were tested on UK roads had serious technical faults. In 2007 the RSA reported that nearly one third of all HGV vehicles tested by its inspectors were not up to the required minimum standards.
It is clear there are grave implications for road safety on foot of these statistics. In one tragic case on which I have been briefed, the family of a young man killed in collision with a HGV in 2006 discovered that at that stage only two gardaí in the entire country were qualified to read tachographs. Has this improved in recent years since Deputy Dempsey became Minister? The tachograph of the HGV driver involved in that fatal collision allegedly showed that at the time of impact he was driving at 90 km/h and had worked a 12 hour driving shift. However, this issue is not even mentioned in the Bill.
Why were penalties not introduced for HGV-related road traffic offences as was favoured by the RSA? Will the Minister consider including a new section on proper HGV driving behaviour? Do gardaí check tachographs in HGVs at collision scenes for speed, rest periods and hours worked? Is the European working time directive as it relates to HGVs being enforced? The Health and Safety Authority tried to get involved in this issue at the time of the tragic crash in County Meath involving a school bus, and a tug of war began between the agencies.
The safety of all road passengers and working drivers should be paramount. Has the RSA begun to compile a risk-rating register to monitor rogue HGV operators who have been found to have committed an offence? Has the Department of Transport ever rescinded any HGV driver's licence following a fatal collision? A few months ago, the Minister told me he rescinded four licences of people who turned out to be gangsters. On behalf of the Labour Party I will table amendments on Committee Stage to greatly strengthen the law with regard to HGVs.
One of the most appalling and ongoing road safety failures of the Minister and the Government has been the failure to roll out the national speed camera programme. It is astonishing that it was launched by former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, almost 12 years ago. Under action No. 26 of the Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 this programme should have been rolled out by the second quarter of 2008. It is appalling that the chairman of the Road Safety Authority, Mr. Gay Byrne, has had to make numerous public pleas on this, including at one stage threatening to resign if the Ministers, Deputy Dempsey and Deputy Dermot Ahern, did not get their act together and begin to roll out the cameras. The country has been severely criticised by the European Transport Safety Council because we do not have the cameras in place.
It is well over a year since the Government indicated that the company GoSafe had been chosen as the preferred bidder to operate the programme of 6,000 hours per month and we spoke about this earlier today. However, there still seems to be little movement on rolling out the speed cameras. In his reply to the debate will the Minister tell us when we will see it? It is an integral part of enforcement of the Bill before us.
The key to a consistently successful road safety strategy is enforcement. Speed cameras are one critical element of this jigsaw. The other vital matter is Garda enforcement. The importance of enforcement can be seen on bank holiday weekends when the Garda and the RSA mount a massive road safety campaign and road deaths are significantly reduced or eliminated. We have had one or two of those great weekends where everybody on our roads were safe. In his reply, will the Minister report on the current personnel allocation of the Garda traffic corps? I also hope the Minister will consider liaising with his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to review proposals for the establishment of an operationally separate traffic corps. I and the Labour Party believe that to have a proper system of enforcement we should have an independent and operationally separate distinct traffic corps.
I greatly welcomed the introduction of forensic collision investigators at fatal crash sites since 2007. Are there still only 43 gardaí who are trained or in training for this role? How many fully trained investigators do we have? Is it mandatory for all serious and fatal collisions to be investigated by a forensic collision investigator? Given the important nature of this role for understanding road collision trends, the Minister should mandate that a forensic collision investigator examines and reports on each serious collision. He will remember that I have made this point previously. It should be in the Bill and we will try to add it.
One of the salient recent transport issues in light of Dublin City Council's new 30 km/h limit has been speed and signage and we discussed this last week. I acknowledged the appalling ongoing problem of speeding drivers. However, I also recognise the serious difficulties that have been raised by motorists and workers who must travel across the city with the 30 km/h limit in the Dublin City core. When my former colleagues in Dublin City Council were considering limits, they had no option of introducing a 40 km/h limit. I will table an amendment to insert a 40 km/h limit and I hope the Minister will support this. He might argue that this is the wrong Bill for it but that would mean a further wait and the 900 councillors throughout the country would like to have the facility to vary limits and have the option of a 45 km/h or 55 km/h if it suited a particular area. I first proposed a 25 mph default speed limit for residential estates in 1993.
It is also incredible that the wider problems of speeding motorists are simply not a priority in the Bill. Last week, I highlighted some of those problems. We need to get the sign manual, on which the Minister has been working for years, published. We also need to give local councillors scope for various types of signage so that no driver would not know the default speed limit in a particular urban area.
On behalf of the Labour Party I broadly welcome the Road Traffic Bill. There is no playing politics with road safety. We are all on the same team on this. I look forward to the Minister's positive response to all of the issues I have raised. I have often been highly critical of the Minister but I commend him for his work in this field. I hope the Minister will outline what plans he has and what work he has already done for the national road safety strategy post-2012.