Deputy O'Dowd was in possession but as he is attending a committee meeting, I call Deputy White.
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).
I wish to share time with Deputy Cuffe.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
First, let us give credit where credit is due. There has been a significant reduction in road deaths in this country in recent years and the Road Safety Authority and the Department of Transport deserve credit for some of this. The introduction of random breath testing, albeit belatedly, the lowering of the blood alcohol limit several years ago and the increased road safety awareness are all to be welcomed. Last year, however, there were 240 deaths and, if one thinks of the misery of each of those single deaths to each of those individual families, we still have far too many deaths on our roads.
I welcome the proposed reduction in the blood alcohol content limit. The current limit in Ireland is higher than in most European countries and this country should be doing all it can to reduce tolerance of any drink driving. I know there has been a heated debate from all sides of the House in recent weeks on the issue of whether someone should be able to have a pint or two and still drive. There is a kind of acceptance in Ireland of taking a drink and perhaps driving home. We need to scotch that, if Members will pardon the pun. Even though I come from a rural constituency, I do not believe anybody should be drinking and driving in this country.
We must have a wider debate about how we treat alcohol in our culture and why we drink so much compared to other countries throughout the European Union. We need to have that debate in order to change the culture so that socialising and alcohol do not have to be inextricably linked.
The prevalence of drink driving as a major contributor to road deaths must be mentioned again in the context of the Bill because it is estimated that at least 30% of drivers fatally injured in accidents were over the current 80 mg limit, and this estimate is conservative, as people in the know tell me. We also know from research conducted in other countries that where the limit has decreased, it has positively influenced the drink driving attitudes of those who are likely to drive with high blood alcohol concentrations.
We must protect the social fabric of rural Ireland and some have rightly emphasised this point and also the importance of rural transport links. I am glad that money has been provided for rural transport systems. I was involved in a ring-a-link local transport system some years ago which greatly benefited the social interaction of people in the Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary area. My party will be pushing for increases in resources for this programme in the years to come.
The provision for introducing mandatory alcohol testing at the scene of an accident is also welcome. However, I know too of constituents who have tragically died in car accidents where it was wrongly assumed that alcohol was the cause. This brought great suffering to individual families whom I know, when it was presumed that an individual had taken alcohol when in fact the poor person had died of a heart attack. This measure is equally important in helping both the victims of car accidents and the wider public to know definitively whether drivers in a car accident had consumed alcohol.
I welcome the provision for the introduction of impairment testing for drug content in drivers. Driving while under the influence of drugs is quite prevalent, according to numerous studies. We have all heard stories of people who have been driving erratically when it is not due to alcohol, and people assume it is possibly impairment due to taking drugs while driving. I understand there were over 600 offences for driving or being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of drugs. The field impairment test, FIT, system for testing drivers is somewhat effective and it is important that Ireland embraces any new forms of drug testing technology speedily so there is a comprehensive system of drug driving detection. Section 10, which allows gardaí to carry out preliminary impairment testing, is to be welcomed.
I come from a big, sprawling rural constituency, Carlow-Kilkenny, where many of my constituents live in isolation and where, if one does not have a car, one could be deemed to be a rural hermit. This highlights the importance of the rural transport system. I know some public houses provide transport home but we are a country with a significant ageing demographic. The only recreation for some of those lonely people in my constituency, and indeed across the country, who have no access to a car and who might be widows or widowers, is the local pub. This is a fact of Irish life. Pubs should be able to provide either a cup of tea, a mineral or a drink and we should provide public transport to allow people interact with each other.
My firm conviction is that we should not be taking any drink on board and then driving. Some years ago, I came across a desperate crash. I was the first car behind that person. I do not know whether this was an alcohol-induced accident but I still have nightmares about going up to the door of that car and the driver falling out onto the road in front of me, dead. It was an appalling scene. The family was devastated and I too was devastated. I had come across this accident in the middle of the night and I do not know whether the cause was drink or tiredness, but any life lost in a road accident is one too many. We must do whatever we can to protect lives. The social fabric of Ireland is one thing but in my view we can protect the social fabric of Ireland and still not have drink on board when driving.
I welcome this Bill. The debate about blood alcohol concentration should be part of this wider debate. I have strong views about the culture of alcohol in this country. The steps to increase road safety, as provided for in this Bill, are very welcome and I commend the Bill to the House.
This House has often discussed the challenge of lowering drink driving limits and the debate tends to repeat itself. If half the time spent discussing how bachelors get to the local pub was devoted to discussing how elderly women get to bingo, the country would be far better off. We tend to be obsessive about the difficulties faced by people in getting to the local pub to have a drink. There are other things to enjoy in a local pub other than downing alcohol which should be acknowledged in this debate.
It is important to ensure that the Garda Síochána has adequate staffing resources to deal with the changes this legislation will produce. There is a very real danger that in lowering the blood alcohol levels we might end up with people being found guilty of having a lower level of blood alcohol while others with higher levels of blood alcohol are not being tested. This could happen if the resources of the Garda Síochána are not augmented. This is an important matter for the Garda Commissioner's consideration with regard to the enforcement of this legislation and I have no doubt he will do so.
This Bill is a good step forward. We need to consider what our European neighbours are doing in this regard to reduce the number of road traffic accidents. The car lobby tends to concentrate on how fatality rates have decreased significantly in recent years and this is to be welcomed. However, I would point out the significant number of people who have been severely injured and who must undergo long periods of recuperation and are often maimed for life. Improved medical techniques mean they will survive the initial accident.
Due to the increased number of cars on the roads, many people are afraid to venture out at night or even during the day, in particular, those who are more vulnerable such as the elderly and children. In some cases they can be effectively barred from going out onto the road. Most of us remember growing up and playing on the road beside our house. Today, it would be unthinkable to send a child out onto many of the roads and streets where in the past children could have played and called around to their pals. People have become prisoners in their own homes and prisoners in their cars. Children have to be driven to play dates rather than walking down the road or across the road to meet their pals. Children are being driven to school rather than walking or cycling. We must realise that many people's traditional urban or rural environment has been taken away from them as it is becoming increasingly difficult for a young parent to walk a buggy down a country road without being in fear of his or her life that an SUV will come around the corner and he or she and the buggy will have to leap into the ditch. These are symptoms of the dangerous over-reliance on higher speeds and on using cars for so much of our lives. There are two sides to the story.
The issue of speed limits has been a topic in the news of late, both in my own area of Dún Laoghaire and in Dublin city centre. Most local authorities have undertaken a review of speed limits over the past three or four months. In some cases, speed limits have risen and, in others, they have been lowered. There has been a focus on the introduction of the lower speed limit of 30 km/h and some organisations such as the Automobile Association have urged us to get rid of some of the 30 km/h limits that have been introduced.
We must ask what sort of city we want. This is the question I ask myself each day as I head out with my children to school. Sometimes we cycle and some days I drive. I would like to think that in a few years, I can let them cycle to school by themselves, or that we can head into town for a match in Croke Park on our bikes. The new 30 km/h speed limit has already made this easier and safer. One of the biggest fears parents have is the fear that their children will be run over. I know that the slowing down of traffic in the centre of our towns and cities will improve safety for children and their parents.
I want to be able to let go of my children's hands and not be petrified if they are out of sight for a split second. In Dublin city centre, over 15,000 people live within the 30 km/h zone, as well as thousands of children. Many are hostages in their homes due to speeding traffic. There are at least half a dozen schools within the 30 km/h zone, as well as many colleges. Lower speed limits will make it easier to walk or cycle, rather than be driven to school. Why should children not be able to walk to the shops, cycle to school or explore their neighbourhood without parents having to keep a watchful eye out for speeding cars? These days, children need the exercise. If the new 30 km/h limit is enforced, it should be possible for a seven year-old to cycle to school by themselves. When I cycle with my children, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear the noise of a speeding car behind me.
Older people will also benefit from lower speed limits and will not be forced to run across roads when the pedestrian light turns green. I am sick and tired of having to shout when I am having a conversation in the middle of Dublin, on Dame Street or on the quays. Even in the past few weeks the change is noticeable and one can rediscover the art of conversation on a city street and this can be good. People will also get a decent night's sleep again if cars are not speeding through town in the middle of the night.
In Dún Laoghaire, a 30 km/h speed limit was introduced at the beginning of the year without controversy. It now means that I can cross George's Street without some boy racer coming out of nowhere when I am half way across the road. The new speed limit does not mean that traffic is banned, rather that it just has to slow down a little.
The new dublinbikes scheme has been a great success. The new speed limits build on that success and will improve the city for residents and tourists alike. I am pleased that we are following the good example of cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen. The new speed limits are already calming the traffic and making our city more civilised. They are saving lives. Statistics for the past 15 years show that in the 30 km/h area of Dublin city centre, 48 people lost their lives and the majority of them were pedestrians and cyclists. We know that even in the past five years for which figures are available, eight people died, all of whom were pedestrians. We do not have full statistics for last year's additional fatalities involving cyclists. The lesson is very important — traffic has to slow down. This Bill does a lot to make that happen. The new speed limits, which will be added to by this Bill, are already calming the traffic and making our towns, cities, villages, highways and byways more civilised. Long may that continue.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. As previous speakers have said, the purpose of the Bill is to amend the Road Traffic Acts 1961 by introducing mandatory alcohol testing for drivers involved in car collisions and preliminary impairment testing to detect whether drivers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The Bill will also introduce a penalty for drink driving that does not result in an automatic disqualification period.
It is fine to introduce a Bill of this nature, but the reality is that much of the existing legislation in this area is not being enforced. The Road Traffic Act 2002 introduced the penalty points system as a deterrent to motorists and to make our roads safer. It provided that 69 motoring offences would incur penalty points, but just 42 of those penalty point offences have been implemented. Approximately 33% of people have picked up penalty points. It is quite easy to pick up penalty points. Some 17,000 motorists have escaped penalty points by not bringing their driving licences to court. We discovered last week that penalty points have been applied to the licences of just 727 of the 18,333 drivers who have been convicted since 2003 of offences which require a mandatory court appearance. This chaos must be sorted out if we are to show we are serious about reducing the number of fatalities on our roads. It is most welcome that the number of such fatalities decreased to approximately 250 last year.
As many of those who commit penalty point offences are driving on foreign licences, penalty points cannot be imposed on them. I note that section 47 of the Bill sets out the sanctions that will apply when road traffic offences are committed by those driving on foreign licences. I would like the Minister to answer a few questions in this regard when he replies at the conclusion of Second Stage. How will the penalty points system be applied to the licences of foreign drivers? I have examined the Bill. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has confirmed that in 2008, penalty points could not be applied in 192,686 cases. In 142,588 of those cases, penalty points could not be applied because foreign driving licences were presented. That is a serious flaw in the current legislation. Over the years, many foreign nationals have been involved in driving accidents.
When will the new European-style driving licences will be introduced? It is expected that these credit card sized licences will have been introduced in most European countries by 2013. We should be using such licences, in which microchips are inserted, because the current type of licence is totally outdated. If one carries the current licence in one's wallet, it will usually end up crinkled. The Department should introduce the necessary legislation to ensure the new kind of licence is available. Under the present system, local authorities do not issue renewal notices when driving licences are out of date. As the system is not computerised, it cannot be used to remind those who have genuinely forgotten to renew their licences. The new type of licence will improve security and enforcement. When a garda stops a motorist at a checkpoint, he or she will be able to tell immediately whether the driver has been disqualified. We need to get a computerised system up and running in order that gardaí can instantly access information about each driver's history.
There have been many cases of people continuing to drive, and getting involved in accidents, even though disqualification sentences had been imposed on them by the courts. It is a serious matter. If we use driving licences that allow information to be accessed instantly, the situation will improve. In the absence of a universal computerised system, whereby information on driving licences can be shared across EU borders in parallel with information on offences committed in other EU jurisdictions, we will have more of the same. I accept that the EU convention on driving disqualifications was adopted by member states in 1998. When the Minister speaks at the end of this debate, perhaps he will elaborate on the use of the convention. What arrangements are in place between the UK and Ireland? I appreciate that the approach adopted between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a little more technical. I would like the Minister to update the House on the legal issues in this regard.
I would like to hear the Minister's views on the question of whether penalty points that have been given to foreign licence holders will be applied to their driving licences in the future. When he is finalising his licensing proposals, I hope he will ensure that drivers will continue to be able to renew their licences in local authority offices. They should be also able to do it on-line, as they can when they are renewing their motor tax. I do not see any point in centralising the issuing of driving licences when the system will be computerised. In rural Ireland, there appears to be a policy of centralising everything. This is having a significant impact on the quality of life of many people in rural areas.
One of the main talking points in this legislation is the proposal to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level from 80 mg/100 ml to 50 mg/100 ml. I do not condone drink driving. I agree with the 87% of drivers who believe it is wrong. Statistics are available to support that position. Alcohol is estimated to be a contributory factor in one in three fatal collisions. In one in four fatal crashes, the driver had consumed alcohol. That is a huge statistic. Campaigns to stop drink driving have been effective and have worked well.
I understand it is planned to reduce the funding for drink driving campaigns. I hope the Minister will have a rethink in that regard. Some of the graphic advertisements we see on our screens, having been produced by the Road Safety Authority, are very effective. I do not agree that funding in this area should be reduced. All of these measures, such as those involving the family members of people who were killed in accidents, are very valuable as we fight to ensure the number of people killed on our roads is kept to a minimum. One road death is too many. We have all been touched by road deaths in our communities or in our families.
As the Government has a majority, this Bill will be passed and stricter rules will be introduced to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level even further. In that context, I suggest that the Government needs to address an extremely worrying development in rural Ireland. Life in rural Ireland is being killed off by drink driving and other social changes. The non-existence of public transport in rural areas is sounding the death knell of many rural pubs. One rural pub goes out of business every day of the week. That is a serious statistic. We all know how important the pub is to rural communities. Recent figures produced by Deputy O'Mahony revealed 833 pub licences were not renewed between 2007 and 2009, some 42 of which were in Clare. I have been concerned for some time by increased isolation in rural areas. The local pub, post office, Garda station and agricultural advisory office are closing down in rural areas, particularly in my constituency. It was not so long ago that the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, stood in the House promising decentralisation for every town. Now the programme is in tatters and will not happen in many cases. It appears the Government is moving in the opposite direction of centralising services away from the people.
According to the 2006 census, up to 40% of the population, of which 9% have a disability, live in rural areas. They find it difficult to get around whether to pick up their pension or attend a hospital appointment, becoming more isolated. A rural transport initiative is already in place, such as the Clare accessible transport project. I urge the Government to support the extension of pilot rural transport schemes to end the isolation of people in rural areas. Several rural areas along the west coast could be chosen for the project. Such an extension would help out rural areas by sustaining visits to the traditional pub, very much part of the rural scene. From talking to many publicans, I know they have been crucified already as their business was reduced with people not having as much money to spend as in the past. The drink-driving issue has added to this effect on their business. For many, the local pub is their only social contact. A rural transport initiative would allow people to go to the pub without the risk of drink-driving.
While I accept one death on the roads is one too many, recent OECD statistics noted a reduction in road deaths of 39 to 240 people last year. The report also noted drivers aged between 18 to 20 years are the high risk category. The Bill gives power to the Garda to carry out a preliminary impairment test on drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs. While I am not suggesting all young people drive under the influence, new statistics issued by the Central Statistics Office show the number of drivers detected for drink and drug-driving in the first nine months of 2009 rose to 600, a 22% increase from the previous year. However, the Garda do not have a device like the breathalyser to detect drug-driving instantly. Instead, a preliminary impairment test will have to be carried out. Will the Garda be trained to carry it out?
Why can we not move to random drug-testing? We can learn much from international best practice. In Victoria, Australia, the deputy police commissioner reported that 23,000 roadside drug tests were conducted last year, during which 341 offenders were caught with an illegal substance in their system, one in 67 drivers. The Victoria Government will increase the roadside drug-testing programme across the state with 35,000 tests to be carried out this year. Ireland should follow in the same direction. The UK's transport department recently launched a £2.3 million advertising campaign warning drivers of the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs. One in ten young male drivers in the UK admitted to drug-driving. I am sure the statistics here would be no different. The first national report of the Health Research Board stated of the 885 drug-users who died between 1998 and 2005, two in every three died as a result of a road traffic trauma.
According to the Road Safety Authority, 30% of fatal road accidents were caused by poor road surfaces. This year, after the recent flooding and big freeze, many national primary and secondary road surfaces, particularly in County Clare, were left in a deplorable condition. Many local authorities did not have the resources to treat many local and regional roads which has made their surfaces even worse. The Clare county manger informed me he could only deal with the national primary and secondary roads. The Government will cut €200 million from the local and regional roads budget from €607 million in 2009 to €411 million this year.
Clare has suffered a massive 35% reduction in road funding allocations from central government. I was surprised to hear Deputy Timmy Dooley, a constituency colleague, claiming on local radio that the Opposition was scare-mongering in this regard. If he were listening to Clare FM every morning, he would hear his own party's county councillors speaking out about the appalling conditions of the roads in Clare.
The shortfall in funding will mean many of our roads will be left in a bad state. While I accept the council has done its best by prioritising funding for roads, unfortunately, poor road surfaces contribute to 30% of road fatalities. In turn, 71% of road fatalities occur on the rural road network. I urge the Minister for Transport to re-think the cuts to local authority roads funding. People in rural areas are entitled to the same attention given to the rural road network as that given in urban areas. I suspect the Killaloe bypass will be long-fingered again because of the funding shortfall. It is important our road surfaces are in a good condition and safe to drive on. If we want to reduce the number of deaths on the roads, their surfaces must be properly maintained.
The Government has failed to deliver on commitments given when previous road safety legislation was introduced. The roll-out of speed cameras, for example, has been delayed. Once again, the House is debating a Bill which aims to improve road safety but does not adequately address the issues, particularly drug-driving which is on the increase. I hope the Minister will address some of the issues I have raised and I look forward to his responses.
I propose to share time with Deputy Mattie McGrath.
I roundly condemn drink driving by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Drink driving is a deadly, vile and selfish act. It is irresponsible, it is reckless, and it can never be justified. It is an ugly feature of Irish social life that we must eliminate. We must re-educate people about their behaviour and attitudes to drinking and driving. We must influence positive and safe driving habits and ensure we promote and evolve a mature mentality and a culture that rejects drink driving. We must be pragmatic in our approach to the penalties regime and how the law reacts to punish those who breach it.
In any circumstances, a car is a lethal weapon and when the person in control of that vehicle has had their reflexes or their judgment impaired in any way, that weapon becomes even more treacherous. They say the nut behind the wheel is the most dangerous part of any car and, sadly, that is a fact. We all know the graphic and horrifying statistics of the bloody carnage on our roads every day and night of the week. Drink driving and inappropriate speed on the roads have visited too much devastation and grief on too many people, on too many families, and on too many communities throughout the country. Fatalities and injuries on the roads, while decreasing slightly thanks to the stiff and unforgiving approach we have adopted, must be reduced drastically. Even one death or injury on the road where drink is a factor is one too many.
There are instances where we can control our driving behaviour and where we can prevent accidents from happening and, therefore, we should reinforce our legal framework to make sure we all know that drink driving is simply unacceptable and that it is punishable. For the past number of months, since this Bill was first published, I have been pretty vocal about certain aspects of this Road Traffic Bill and its implications. I have not been alone in voicing my concern about the impact this Bill will have on particular sections of our community. That is not to say I condone some degree of drink driving but rather that we must be realistic and reasonable in defining the offence and in providing for a proportionate penalty for that offence and subsequent offences.
While I categorically and absolutely decry drink driving, this Bill is far too harsh on more experienced drivers and older drivers. This legislation will inflict a severe and detrimental blow on all those men and women who live in rural Ireland, up the highways and byways nobody frequents and where there are no social amenities. For many of those people, many of whom live alone in very remote and isolated areas, the only social outlet they have is a visit or two to the local pub during the week. Are we to deprive these country people of the only simple social pleasure they may have? Are we to consign them to a lonely and miserable existence with no opportunity for them to enjoy a convivial drink or two in the locality with their neighbours and friends? These people go to the local pub because they enjoy the interaction with their community, they hear the news, exchange the gossip and yarns and put the world to right over a half one or a couple of bottles. They go to the pub for company and conversation and not to drink themselves into a stupor. That social outing is critical to these rural dwellers, many of whom may have only one driver in the house. The remainder of the family is dependent on that driver for everything. The pub is the only point of congregation for many of them during the week. They look forward to getting out of the house and to keeping in touch with what is going on locally and nationally. That occasion sustains them and, for the more senior people, it staves off loneliness and it promotes constant and regular integration with the local community and its events.
It is no shame to say the local public house continues to be the focal point for most people in the countryside. However, with the proposals contained in this Bill, I fear the rich and lively rural pub culture will be killed off once and for all. I am afraid that will have serious and profound reverberations for rural Ireland and its population. We cannot tolerate institutionalised loneliness, which can lead to all sorts of associated problems such as depression and even suicide in some cases. These are very real and very serious issues in rural Ireland and I do not want this Bill to contribute to the isolation and alienation many country people feel already. If we pass this Bill in its present guise, we will succeed in enforcing isolation and detachment among people in rural communities. People will be afraid to travel anywhere for one drink and will not be able to find transport home. Isolation and depression are common and are interlinked. They are not unique to country people but are more prevalent in rural areas. By discouraging people from mixing and socialising and eventually turning them into hermits, some of the measures contained in this Bill will actively serve to alienate people from their neighbourhoods and will further compound the problems of loneliness and desolation often experienced by country dwellers. We should not introduce legislation that victimises people who are not necessarily the prime targets of the proposed law.
Many of the people to whom I refer probably drive to the town only once or twice a week and perhaps a couple of times a week to the local pub. Many of them live alone and the only social stimulation available is a visit to the pub. Some of them would be of the view that it is just not worth the journey to have one drink and then go home. There are others who will enjoy a few drinks at night time. They behave responsibly and will get a lift or a taxi home only to be caught the next morning on their way to work. In these circumstances, we must show some leniency in terms of the applicable sanction when it relates to a second or subsequent offence. To be put off the road for any length of time following a second offence is very severe. I imagine anyone who loses the driving licence would be confined to terrible hardship and marginalisation.
It is incumbent on us to legislate for the greater common good and I realise it is not possible to legislate separately and differently to cater for the social needs and demands of one cohort but we must recognise the circumstances and the situation peculiar to country people. Anyone living in rural Ireland, by definition, needs vehicular transport to go about their business on a daily basis. They must be mobile to go to work, to go shopping, to go to religious ceremonies, to go to matches or to go to the mart. The licence and the car are indispensable to their livelihoods and lifestyles. They are fundamental to anyone not living in the town or the city, all of whom have public transport and taxi services passing their doors day and night. The country people are totally reliant on their own devices and the kindness of neighbours and friends to get around the place.
My sincere sense is that this Bill and, in particular the penalties it imposes, are draconian in so far as it will potentially affect all those who live outside the towns and cities. Generally, I accept it is reasonable to lower the blood alcohol content, not least to bring us into line with Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. Regarding drivers who are not learners, novices or professionals, I am prepared to accept section 26 of this Bill, which deals with an alternative mechanism to a court prosecution for certain categories of offences. The new administrative fixed penalties include a three point penalty and a fine of €200, which is a reasonable response to the drivers whose blood alcohol levels are in the range of 50 to 80 mg. This will apply only to those who are not currently disqualified and who have not availed of this option in the previous five years.
I am genuinely alarmed, however, to note that a second or any subsequent offence will attract a disqualification period of one year if it is prosecuted in court and a conviction is secured. This is excessive, restrictive and unduly punitive. I would far prefer a system of graduated penalty points where on accumulation of a certain number of points over a given period the driver becomes automatically disqualified for a specified period, much the same as with speeding, where 12 points must be accumulated before disqualification. It is unreasonable to jump from three penalty points to a one-year disqualification for a second offence given that the blood alcohol level in question is relatively low. As little as one drink could bring a driver into the 50 mg to 80 mg range. That is not a vast amount of alcohol and to think one could incur a 12-month disqualification on a second offence is ridiculous. Furthermore, it relates to established drivers and not to those who are newly qualified, inexperienced or professional. I imagine the latter category is in the minority.
I urge the Minister to rethink this aspect of the Bill. I ask him to carefully consider if it is fair, reasonable, just and rational to impose a one year disqualification on a second-time offender. This Bill represents an over-reaction to drink driving on the lowest scale and we appear to be moving in the direction of zero tolerance. My attitude is that we must allow the punishment to fit the offence and it must be proportionate. My preference is that drivers caught in the 50 mg to 80 mg range should be given a fair chance. A fair approach is to introduce a graduated system whereby three points are imposed for three successive and similar offences and on accrual of 12 points, or committal of a fourth offence in this category, the driver should be subject to a one-year disqualification automatically. Such an amendment would be entirely fitting and would continue to act as a robust deterrent to anyone who is tempted to drive while under very little influence of alcohol. Some of my colleagues have described this Bill as a blunt and unnecessary attack on the fabric and integrity of rural Ireland. To some extent, that is true. I will lend my fulsome support to any instrument that will eliminate the slaughter on our roads and serve to cultivate an attitude of responsibility, maturity and respect for all road users. I agree that the Bill sends out the correct signals in terms of encouraging good driving behaviour, but it goes too far in meting out penalties for established drivers who fall into the 50 mg to 80 mg range.
I ask the Minister to address the reality that nothing is being done about motorists who drive under the influence of drugs. There must be adequate deterrents in the case of drugs and speeding. The current penalty point provisions in this regard are not being adequately enforced.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to address the Road Traffic Bill 2009. Like my colleague, Deputy Aylward, I wish to state clearly that I do not condone drink driving under any circumstances. I was involved in a controversy at the end of last year where my comments were taken totally out of perspective. I take this opportunity to reiterate in the House that I do not condone drinking and driving. Moreover, I never said that people would be more relaxed and would drive better after drinking a number of drinks.
The Bill before us was signalled in the programme for Government. As the representative of constituents in south Tipperary and parts of west Waterford, there are certain aspects of the Bill with which I am deeply dissatisfied. I accept that we must legislate for the greater good of all, but I am from the school of thought that education and a carrot and stick approach are the way forward with any Bill. Legislation introduced in the last decade and more has had a major impact on driving conditions and, above all, has succeeded in reducing fatalities and serious injury. No garda wants to make that house call, often in the middle of the night, to bring the sad news of a death or serious injury in a road traffic accident as a result of drink driving.
I compliment those persons injured in road accidents and the families who have lost loved ones who participated in recent road safety campaigns. All of us can see their sheer perseverance and anguish in trying to get the message out, particularly to young people, to reduce their speed and not to drink or take drugs before driving. Our roads must be treated for what they are, a tool to be used calmly, sensibly and with respect for all users. However, we must all adhere to the facts. I am critical of the Road Safety Authority in respect of its reports and its back-up for these legislative proposals. The authority was selective in the extreme, relied mainly on the advice of one good doctor, Dr. Declan Bedford, and did not take into account the broader impact of these changes. I agree with Deputy Aylward that we must take an holistic approach to road safety. In the case of young drivers and learner drivers, for example, we should examine the option of introducing a different scale of penalties and a different licensing system.
We cannot merely legislate with a stick all the time. We must also have a carrot in the form of encouraging people to educate themselves about acceptable driving behaviour. I compliment the Garda Síochána's traffic corps on the work it has done in my county. By and large there has been a sea change in terms of compliance with existing legislation. Young people are showing the way in this regard because most of them are strongly opposed to drink driving and will automatically book a taxi or make other arrangements to ensure they and their friends get home safely after a night out. On the other hand, people in later years, especially in rural areas, are often not used to travelling by taxi and may not have access to a taxi service. Some of them do not have telephones and may not have had electricity for very long. For such people the provisions of the Bill are somewhat draconian.
As I said, I do not condone drink driving, which has been the cause of far too many accidents, but I am here to represent the greater good of the entire community, including rural areas. Rural life has been severely depleted in recent years for a plethora of reasons. We have seen a flight from the land, followed by a 2009 budget that was severe and drastic.
I am speaking honestly. Farming has become a lonely occupation, with people often not seeing anybody else from one day to the next. Rural pubs are paying rates, taxes and wages and are providing valuable services. Many communities do not have other facilities to convene meetings, facilitate a card game, allow mourners to meet after a funeral and so on. Many teetotallers frequent these pubs for the table quizzes, for example, that are held to fund-raise for local communities. I am disappointed the Bill does not include an incentive whereby publicans who purchases eight-seat vehicles to provide a transport service for customers could reclaim VRT or VAT against the purchase. Many publicans are already providing that type of service in rural areas and in smaller towns. When I walk out of this building tonight I will see dozens if not hundreds of taxis waiting for a fare. In rural areas, however, it is difficult to get a taxi, there is usually a long wait and it is very expensive. Publicans are being helpful in organising means of transport for customers. However, we are a difficult race of people; we may decide we do not want to leave at the same time as everybody else or we may not be on the best of terms with Johnny from up the road. That is part of our psyche in rural Ireland. The situation must be dealt with more sensitively.
I am very critical of the Minister because he did not listen to the case I and some of my colleagues had to make in respect of this legislation. It was not the first time he did not listen to his backbenchers or to his representatives. It is a pity he is not here tonight because I wanted to say this to him in the House. He does not listen to Members' concerns. He did not listen in the case of e-voting, he did not listen on the dual mandate and he has not listened on this Bill. He listens to Gay Byrne and Noel Brett. Authority has been given away from elected Members to various agencies. Where were those agencies during the recent severe weather conditions?
The Minister was on holiday, as is his entitlement, and there was insufficient salt to grit the motorways. Those motorways have been built to high standards but surely it is just as important that they be maintained. Letting thousands of motorists onto roads that were unsafe for driving was reckless. Somebody should have been held responsible for the shortfall of salt.
Recent research from Sweden shows that people who drink at home alone have more health problems than those who do not, including psychiatric difficulties. Rural isolation is a significant problem and we must seek balance in addressing all these matters. I have been a board member of Ring a Link, a three-county rural project, since its inception. The group has done great work in providing rural transport and thus combating rural isolation for men, women and children in various communities, but it only operates from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. We examined the possibility of running it later at night but could not do so because we do not have the funding. An extension of the operating hours would make a great dent into the rural isolation problem by allowing people to get about with greater flexibility.
Publicans have been bashed in the course of this debate and there have been disparaging references to the vintners' lobby. The reality, however, is that people who go to the pub will have a measured drink in a controlled environment and at the end of the night will know exactly how much they have consumed. The majority of publicans are responsible, will look after customers, take their keys, ensure they have a lift home or have somebody to collect them. As a father of eight children, I am in favour of responsibility, but we also need balance and that is what is missing.
I am very critical of the powers afforded to the Road Safety Authority. I am not saying that road safety cannot be improved. However, the way to achieve this is to praise drivers for being among the safest in Europe and to encourage excellence through education. Batting people with an endless succession of sticks may be favoured by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and his friends, but people in this country do not take kindly to such aggression and abuse of power, and they never did. It is better for legislators to bring people with them, to legislate for all the people fairly and honestly and not to stigmatise any group. I hope this Bill can be amended to allow us all to live our lives safely, peacefully and honestly.
Tá mé ag tabhairt tacaíochta don Bhille seo. Measaim go bhfuil sé léirithe ag fianaise go gcuireann fiú an méid is lú d'alcól isteach ar ábaltacht an tiomanaí. Ardaíonn aon alcól an dainséar go mbeidh duine i dtimpiste marfach. Nuair atá gluaisteán á thiomáint ag duine atá faoi thionchar alcóil nó drugaí, is gléas marfach é. Is de thairbhe tiomáint faoi thionchar alcóil tromlach na dtimpistí nach bhfuil ach gluaisteán amháin iontu. Tá baint ag an alcól le trian de thimpistí marfacha. Tá méadú ag teacht chomh maith ar an líon dóibh siúd atá ag tiomáint faoi thionchar drugaí mídhleathacha agus drugaí dleathacha.
The final point I was making as gaelige is that the incidence of drug driving is increasing. The Garda Síochána need to be given adequate resources to test not alone for alcohol but illegal drug taking by drivers. I was interested to hear that 30% of accidents are caused by poor road surfaces, a figure which I believe will increase in the forthcoming year given the state of our roads not alone in rural Ireland but in this city and the response of Government through its measly grant to local authorities, which was robbing Peter to pay Paul, to help them address the problems that have emerged, including to repair potholes. Unless we invest in a proper road structure and address some of the blackspots which remain visible throughout the country, pothole candidates, such as those who surfaced during the campaign in this regard in Cavan and Monaghan some 15 or 20 years ago, will resurface. We appear to be returning to those days owing to the failure of Government to invest in non-national roads and to ensure they are maintained at a standard that is safe to drive on. Since Christmas, I have driven on many roads in this State that are unfit for driving. They are a danger not alone to drivers but to people walking or cycling on them and will lead to further accidents.
As regards the main topic of this Bill, we need preventative education and good, strong laws to challenge the widespread culture of impaired driving that has existed for many years. For many people it was, and continues to be, socially acceptable to drive while impaired. We need to do more by way of education to ensure the message goes out to each person with an inkling to get behind the wheel of a lethal weapon having consumed one, two or up to ten drinks, that this is not acceptable and that he or she is as guilty of anti-social behaviour as are the thugs who maraud the streets at weekends. We need to develop a culture of drug and alcohol free driving. While young people in particular have a role to play in this regard, there is an onus on older people to show they too can change and lead by example.
We need to be more imaginative in this respect. I do not believe the proposal in this Bill to lower the drink driving limit will curb the culture of drink driving. We need to examine other initiatives, including making available adequate resources to the Garda Síochána to enable it to carry out random breath testing. The widespread public education campaigns, some of which are already underway, need to be hammered home through many more media. We must accurately inform drivers of the full effects of alcohol and in regard to how long it takes alcohol to work its way through the system, including how long after one consumes alcohol one should wait before it is safe to drive a vehicle. We must promote the culture of alcohol and drug free driving. This campaign should be implemented not alone at primary and secondary school level but in the general community through youth clubs and pubs and anywhere alcohol is sold.
While I support the Bill, I take major issue with its failure to address any of the issues around public transport services, in particular rural transport provision. There is no point in Government implementing this Bill unless it gets its act together quickly on the issue of public transport, in particular rural transport. I heard Deputies White and Aylward lament the shortfall in our existing rural transport network. Deputy White stated that if a member of a future Government she would seek further investment in this area. The Deputy does not appear to have noticed that her party is in Government now and is presiding over cuts in the rural transport initiatives and public transport area. Perhaps somebody needs to switch on a light somewhere.
I am a Dublin Deputy and I can, as Deputy Mattie McGrath stated, if I wish, go for a drink in the safe knowledge that I can hail a taxi outside my home, pub or workplace easy enough, despite it being costly to do so. While we were told deregulation would drive down prices, prices have increased owing to the taxi regulator's attitude towards costs. I can also avail of public transport in this city, including a bus service, the Luas and DART service. There is a problem in that all public transport systems finish early. Bus services finish at 11.30 p.m. and the Luas finishes at 12.30 a.m., even at weekends. This needs to change. We must provide a form of transport beyond taxis for people wishing to enjoy themselves beyond 12.30 a.m., at weekends in particular. I suggest the Minister examines this proposal.
People in rural Ireland do not have the luxury of being able to hail a taxi from a rural pub even though there are tens of thousands of licensed taxis in this country. Also, an issue of cost arises owing to the distances and so on involved. In some cases, taxis will not travel to isolated areas. Deputies on all sides of the House have demanded that the Government make proper investment in rural transport initiatives not alone in respect of the service provided up to 6 p.m in Tipperary and other areas but beyond that to ensure social services are available to those who are isolated in small towns that are haemorrhaging people, businesses and a social network. Rural communities have seen their small towns and villages suffer disproportionately after recent budgets. They have seen their local post offices, Garda stations, and in many cases pubs, shops and businesses close down. They have seen many businesses pulling out which has led to a significant jump in unemployment in those areas. On top of that, they have seen cuts in the public transport provision in recent months. Far from investing in public transport, the Government has seen fit to stand by while our already inadequate public transport services have been cut to oblivion. In truth the Government is anti-rural Ireland and anti-public services. Successive cuts to Bus Éireann have further undermined rural and regional transport. Some 100 Bus Éireann routes are due to be cut or severely curtailed in coming months. Last summer the night-time rural transport programme was phased out. Such illogical cuts of successive projects cannot be defended.
The Bill needs to be grounded in the provision of adequate rural transport services but it is not. For many in isolated rural areas the only social time people get is when they go to the local pub on a Friday or Saturday night. Without adequate rural transport the Government is consigning thousands of people to a very lonely life.
The 2002 national rural transport survey found that 380,000 people described the rural transport system as inadequate for their needs. The result of this survey showed that 24% of the total rural population perceived themselves as having unmet transport needs while in some key groups the proportion with unmet needs was higher. While private transport is the predominant mode of transport in rural areas, some 20% of people in counties Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim do not have access to a car. The nonsensical cuts to public transport and rural transport in particular will come back to haunt the Government. Those cuts will not contribute to the purpose of the Bill and will not help in curbing the culture of drink driving; they may do the opposite and encourage it. The Government and in particular the Green Party need to wake up to these cuts and, particularly in the context of this debate, to the cuts in the night-time rural transport initiative. I never understood the logic to the cuts especially from the Green Party point of view. That party claims to be about saving the environment and reducing emissions, yet it is encouraging people to get into their private cars and drive even though there was quite a successful initiative to get people to leave their cars at home and take some form of public transport. The Green Party presided over the cut in that initiative.
I heard Deputy Cuffe say that the need for Garda resources was a matter for the Garda Commissioner. In many ways it is a matter for the Commissioner to ensure that when we pass this Bill, the Garda has the resources and equipment required to test people on a more regular basis to ensure that nobody driving over the alcohol limit escapes detection and the penalties that go therewith. At the end of the day, however, the Commissioner can operate only within a budget. If the Garda has a budget that prevents it from recruiting and promoting gardaí and from giving them the basic tools such as e-mail or broadband in stations, the appropriate cars and radio equipment, it is a matter for the Government and not the Commissioner. Deputy Cuffe should focus on his Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in this regard.
Many pubs in rural areas have invested in minibuses to bring the punters to and from the pub in a safe and efficient manner. That has worked and I have enjoyed the company of people whom I would never have met before in some of these minibuses going to and from pubs over the years. This scheme needs to be explored in greater detail. Not only does it create jobs, but it also encourages an environmentally friendly way to go home and creates local community transport networks. Is there a mechanism which would make this cheaper and encourage other publicans to get involved in such a scheme? Perhaps the Minister can be encouraged to look again at the night-time rural transport programme and to reinitiate it and reinvest in it.
Another bugbear of mine is that it is cheaper for me to drink a pint of an alcoholic beverage than to drink a pint of a mineral. Yet I can go to the shop next door and find it is much cheaper. There must be some way for us to encourage publicans to make minerals and bottled water cheaper for those who are the designated drivers and who wish to enjoy the company and craic in a pub at night but who are getting penalised because they are not drinking alcohol. There needs to be an initiative to encourage publicans to mark down the prices of soft drinks. There was an initiative for a while whereby those who indicated to the publican they were designated drivers got a free mineral or whatever. Perhaps that needs to be reconsidered.
We need to ensure this legislation is passed and I will support it. I support the lowering of the drink-driving limit.
Thank God for that.
Did the Deputy think I was going to give out again?
I was worried for a minute.
The Bill on its own is not the answer. The cuts to public transport services must be reversed. Further cuts need be to be revisited and initiatives should be considered. One initiative would fall under the remit of the Road Safety Authority and the Minister for Transport. There is a gadget that prevents a car's ignition being turned if a driver is over the limit. Some insurance companies have encouraged new cars to have such a device. This legislature could set that as a minimum requirement for all new cars being sold. It is a matter for legislation and should be considered. I do not know how successful the mechanism is, but I have seen it promoted. Perhaps we should consider setting a new standard for cars being sold on the Irish market and throughout the European Union as a whole so that we can ensure people — even if they wanted to — could not get behind the wheel of a car.
Sa deireadh thiar, níl aon loighic leis an méid atá an Rialtas tar éis a dhéanamh maidir le seirbhísí iompair poiblí. Tá gá láithreach le infheistiú substaintiúil sna seirbhísí seo, seirbhísí poiblí, ní hamháin do thairbhe an timpeallacht ach i dtaca leis an gceist atá á plé againn anseo. Tá, dar ndóigh, athrú cultúir i gceist. Cultúr ólacháin atá sa tír faoi láthair agus síleann daoine go bhfuil gá dóibh a bheith dearg ar meisce chun sult a bhaint as an saol. Chomh maith leis sin, síleann go leor acu go bhfuil sé de cheart acu tiomáint abhaile. Is tragóideach ar fad é an líon daoine óga, ach go háirithe, atá tar éis bás a fháil le blianta beaga anuas ar a mbealach abhaile ón teach tábhairne nó ó rince. Caithfear stop a chur leis an slad sin. Cuideoidh an Bille seo, ach ní féidir leis an obair iomlán a dhéanamh. Caithfidh an tAire agus an Rialtas díriú isteach ar na ceisteanna móra — córas taistil, acmhainní don Gharda Síochána agus infheistiú ceart i mbóithre na tíre. Muna dhéaneann siad an infheistiú sin agus muna dheisíonn siad na bóithre, cosnóidh sé i bhfad níos mó ar an Stát go fadtéarmach, mar tosóidh na bóithre ag titim as a chéile go hiomlán agus beidh ar an Stát iad a athnuachan ar chostas i bhfad níos mó. Molaim an Bille seo. Tá súil agam nach gnáth Bille é agus go ndéanfar beart de réir briathar chomh luath agus a mbeidh sé rite.
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I note that the Road Traffic Bill 2009 restates and amends the Road Traffic Acts 1961-2006 and introduces new provisions to reduce the current blood alcohol content for professional and novice drivers as well as introducing alcohol testing for drivers involved in collisions and roadside preliminary impairment testing, to detect drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In addition, the Bill will introduce a penalty for drink driving that does not result in an automatic disqualification period. I shall preface my remarks by welcoming the attendance in the House of the Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen and I wish him well for whatever the future holds for him.
It struck me, listening to Deputy Ó Snodaigh's excellent contribution that over the next ten minutes I could talk about everything, starting with bus services. I could call for a bus service for Bohernabreena in rural Tallaght, talk about the prices of——
I am sure the Deputy would not do that.
I am going to chance my arm anyway. I could talk about mineral prices because I am a 7-Up drinker. As the Deputy said we get fleeced, although I am quite happy to go into all the pubs in Tallaght. I presume I could also talk about the Luas, Shamrock Rovers, unemployment, Garda resources, Gay Byrne and even Deputy Mattie McGrath, but I shall try to contain myself.
No, not that.
This is important legislation and I shall leave it to the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to defend himself, which I am sure he will do very well. I am always happy to——
Back him up.
Absolutely, and that is what loyal Fianna Fáil people do, as Deputy Durkan well knows. I shall send him the handbook some day, if he wishes.
The Minister is always responsive to me when I contact him as regards different issues in relation to Dublin South-West, very often about the extension of the Luas which I am glad to see is now progressing.
There is no Luas for poor old Mattie.
This is relevant to the Bill because if people get on the Luas they will not be tempted to drive their cars when they have a few drinks. One can go from Tallaght all the way to the Point Theatre, enjoy a night out and not worry about consuming alcohol and driving home.
Mattie could do that when the Luas goes to Tipperary.
Indeed, and I had better tell the Deputy——
Will Deputy Durkan not encourage Deputy O'Connor to stray from the subject matter of the Bill? Such encouragement is not helpful.
I have no complaint about my good friend, Deputy Bernard Durkan. I am a big fan, and I am not going to tease him. It is important, however, to make the point that I do not have any country blood and I am not, therefore very well versed on rural issues or as regards how this matter affects rural people. I have received extensive correspondence, including some from pubs and lounges in the Dublin area, since I am happy to represent a Dublin constituency. I try to keep in touch with people in all the pubs in Tallaght, Greenhills, Firhouse, Templeogue and even Bohernabreena.
He missed one.
No I did not — and Brittas. I am listening to what people are saying and am particularly interested in what Members are telling me about the difference, as they see it, between life in an urban area — where there is easy access to public transport or one can walk home without difficulty — and that in rural Ireland. I do not know a great deal about rural communities apart from the one in Bohernabreena. I could not expect Deputies from the depths of the country, for example Wexford, Clare, Carlow, Kilkenny or Kildare to understand that I do not have any expertise in matters that affect these counties. I appreciate what colleagues are saying, however, as regards matters being very difficult for people in rural communities. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows that I visit Wexford on occasion as my sister has a property in Ballygarrett, a nice place. I recall meeting a man there early one morning and telling him that I had come down for a rest, and to hide. He replied that I would not be doing that there since half of the people of Tallaght were down on the beach.
As a Dublin person who gets lost when he lives in Tallaght, I am cognisant of the challenges rural people have as far as this legislation is concerned, from my occasional visits to Wexford. Different colleagues have articulated the position and although I did not hear all of Deputy Mattie McGrath's speech, I suspect he covered that, which is fair enough.
He was fairly comprehensive all right.
I have some sympathy in that regard while at the same time having other experiences in my area. That is why I am prepared to fight all the time for the further provision of decent public transport in all areas. Certainly, that is true of the greater Dublin region, and I have already talked about the Luas and the difference it has made to many communities, not alone on my side of the city but right throughout Dublin.
I have always tried to use public transport, where possible. People need to be able to trust public transport and to know that when they go for a night out and have a few drinks, it is a safe means of transport on which to return home. I hope the provisions of this Bill will continue to get that message through right across communities.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has been very patient with me, but I just want to stray for a second to put on record my strong support for an organisation in Tallaght, the Dublin Bus Community Forum, of which I am a member. It comprises a partnership between Dublin Bus management and unions, the community, public representatives and the Garda. We have had a number of challenges in recent times as regards anti-social behaviour which threatened the bus service. That puts people who want to go home after a few pints, having watched a match, in danger. Wherever they go, whether it is Molloys, the Penny Black, Aherne's or any of the other pubs — I shall probably get into trouble for mentioning only a few, but I had better mention the Cuckoo's Nest——
——they come out of the pub to be told that the bus service is not available. That is why I very strongly support the Dublin Bus Community Forum. I appreciate the fact that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has allowed me to make that point. I shall continue to fight to ensure that public transport is available to all our communities. If we can restore confidence among communities in the public transport service, this would be very compatible with some of this Bill's provisions. I hope the Minister takes the opportunity at some point to agree with me in that regard.
For a number of years the Government has been taking a strategic approach to road safety, something I strongly welcome. The current road safety strategy 2007-12, which takes us up to just before the general election, is the most ambitious and comprehensive to date. I thought Deputy Durkan would have heckled me on that one, but no.
I was waiting for the Deputy to go further along the road.
I am sure he will be happy to have an election in 2012.
Deputy O'Connor should not encourage heckling. There is one minute left before we move to other business.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The strategy identifies 126 specific and measurable actions and is being implemented by a number of agencies and Departments, including the Department of Transport, the Road Safety Authority and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Its core objective is to reduce the number of fatalities to no greater than 16 per million or 252 per annum, by 2012. Obviously, that is something towards which I believe we should continue to work. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and his colleague for affording me the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. I look forward to listening to other contributions, to supporting the Bill when it comes back before the House and to taking an interest in the committee business.