I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill, which affords us an opportunity to discuss many of the issues relating to road safety issues and to consider the Government's priorities in this area. Most of the focus in regard to this Bill has been on blood alcohol limits. There is no doubt that the consumption of alcohol impairs driving and is a direct contributor to road accidents. However, I intend to question the proportionality of the proposals before us, an issue that is being ignored in the debate. I have no doubt that a reduction in the blood alcohol limit will have an impact in terms of road safety, but I would question whether we are using a sledge hammer to crack a nut and diverting limited resources from the real causes of road accidents.
Any measure that saves lives must be given serious consideration by everybody in this House. However, the Government seems to be of the view that it has overall ownership of the issue of road safety, despite its own unimpressive record in this area. The recent decision to downgrade motorway public lighting specifications in order to save a few euro is a case in point. While the issue of costs is pressing in every area of expenditure, a decision to save a few euro on the operation of public lighting on motorway junctions, where vehicles are travelling at 70 mph, is of doubtful merit. Nothing has been done to address the decision by the former Minister for Transport, the late Séamus Brennan, to increase the speed limit outside some of the busiest schools in the State. During the severe weather after Christmas, salt was not available for gritting roads, which caused numerous accidents and marooned many people.
In the debate to date, certain figures have been thrown out as facts. The reality is that figures can be twisted in a particular manner to support a particular agenda. We have had lies, damned lies and statistics. Statistics can be and are used to support any argument whatsoever. The latest figures that have been published by State agencies and are publicly available show that in 2008, seven out of ten samples tested by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety were over the legal blood alcohol limit. Of these, 85% pertained to the old limit of 100 milligrams per 100 millilitres. The legislation before us will do nothing to deal with that particular figure, which has been ignored. Moreover, one in six of those found to be over the legal limit was two and half times over the limit. This legislation will have absolutely no impact in this regard. Given a conviction rate of 52% in 2008, there was a 50:50 chance of getting away with having a blood alcohol level of more than 100 milligrams per 100 millilitres, as was the case in 85% of those found to be over the limit.
This issue is being shoved aside because it is a question of putting the resources in place to ensure prosecutions are secured in the case of motorists identified as being far in excess of the legal limit. When the former Garda Assistant Commissioner, Mr. Eddie Rock, attended a meeting of the joint Oireachtas committee, he pointed out that gardaí spend between 40 and 100 hours preparing a drink driving file for court. Yet after all that time and effort in the context of limited Garda resources, half of the infringements detected do not result in prosecutions. This scandal is being ignored because it reflects poorly on the Government.
We hear much about the causes of accidents. It was interesting recently to hear Mr. Noel Brett make the point that road conditions are the cause of 3% of accidents. He is not able to provide figures on accidents caused by blood alcohol levels. He will say that alcohol is a contributing factor for a percentage of accidents. When he wants to airbrush out the issue of road conditions, he will use one set of figures, yet when he wants to steer an argument in another direction, he will use another set of figures. The problem is that we do not have proper figures on the cause of road accidents in this country.
We are awaiting the first report of the Garda forensic collision investigation unit. I would like to see the exact causes of accidents in this country. The reports are being complied by the 42 forensic crash investigators into fatal accidents or crashes causing serious injury that have occurred on our roads. They will give us for the first time a clear record of the causes of accidents in Ireland.
There has not even been an acknowledgement by the Government or the Road Safety Authority that the global accident risk exists. This is the baseline for road accidents, because once somebody sits into a car and turns on the ignition and moves the vehicle, there is a statistical probability that he or she will be involved in an accident. We have never calculated that figure here. That will give us a baseline on which we can develop our road safety policies. Why have we not done this? How big a factor is tiredness, listening to the radio, using a mobile telephone, driving a car with children on board, or driving on medication? We do not have figures for these factors. We do not even have an accurate estimate on the potential rate of accidents on those factors.
Research has been carried out in this area in the UK, and the police there have been investigating road accidents for years with the type of thoroughness that the road accident investigation unit of the Garda Síochána has recently been using. The British police examined 2,613 fatal accidents that occurred in 2005 in that country. According to its research, 66% of road accidents were due to driver error or incorrect driver reaction to a certain situation. Behaviour and inexperience were the main factors in 25% of accidents. The road environment was the main contributing factor in 15% of accidents. Pedestrians contributed to 13% of accidents by not looking properly. Alcohol, surprisingly, caused only 5% of deaths on UK roads. The figures for alcohol related deaths in this jurisdiction may or may not be lower than 5%, but the figures show that alcohol is not a big factor in the UK.
The argument in favour of reducing the blood alcohol level here has been based on the road accident statistics for 2003. That research was provided to us by the Road Safety Authority. It states that there has been no assessment of the implications of alcohol since random breath testing was introduced in this country. Surely we should be assessing the impact of random breath testing. I have no doubt that this form of testing had a huge impact on alcohol consumption by drivers when it was introduced. We know that the resources given to the Garda to enforce this since its introduction have fallen dramatically, but if we were to highlight that, it would lead to a bad reflection on the Government and it is far easier to bring forward another Bill than deal with the issue of resources.
The HSE report in 2006 based on road accident statistics in 2003 showed that 5% of fatalities involved drivers with a blood alcohol reading of 20-80 milligrams. Of those involved, 24% were over the legal limit — this will not be addressed by the Bill — and 7% involved pedestrians who are over the legal limit. Alcohol was a factor in 36.5% of fatal crashes, two thirds of which involved those who were over the current legal limit. The mean blood alcohol level based on that study was 99.2 milligrams per 100 millilitres, which is 25% over the current legal limit. The mean blood alcohol level for males at 107 milligrams per 100 millilitres was 34% over the legal limit.
Mr. Noel Brett was quoted in the Sunday Independent in November, when he gave an interview to the newspaper as chief executive of the Road Safety Authority. I have a high regard for Mr. Brett. He has done a great job as the head of the RSA, and the authority has brought the issue of road safety to the fore in this country. However, he states in the article that “It is time to provide people with the facts . . . It is estimated that alcohol is a contributing factor in one in three fatal collisions. That is a fact”. My problem with the Bill is that we are using estimates and quoting them as facts. I am not just highlighting this now. I have made several contributions on road safety over the years and I have constantly highlighted this issue and stated that we must provide the accurate data to support the case being put forward.
A case is being made for the alcohol factor. There is no doubt that any amount of alcohol will impair drivers, but I question the level of that impairment and the amount of resources put on it. For anybody involved in a road traffic accident with a level of alcohol in the blood, alcohol will be considered as a contributing factor in that accident. However, there was a case last year of a young man who left a suicide note and drove his car into a lake. He had drink taken, so alcohol was considered to be a contributing factor in the statistics. In an another case, an elderly driver had a heart attack at the wheel of his car and ploughed into a group of men who were smoking outside a pub. Drink driving had nothing to do with the accident, but it is considered to be an alcohol related accident if one of those individuals is killed.
Another piece of research was carried out on single vehicle collisions in County Kildare by Dr. Cliona McGovern and Professor Denis Cusack in November 2006. It makes for very interesting reading. It examined the issue of single vehicle accidents, so does not deal with pedestrians or other drivers. I believe that it provides a more accurate reflection of the impact of alcohol on road traffic accidents. These results clearly show that the majority of driver fatalities in single vehicle accidents are well in excess of the legal limit, with the greater number being twice or three times over the legal limit. This is consistent with the Medical Bureau of Road Safety's annual reports, which continually highlight the large volumes of alcohol that people have consumed prior to being involved in a road accident. I would question the real potential benefit to be gained from reducing the blood alcohol limit to 50mg.
In 2002, the Canadian Traffic Injury Research Foundation examined this specific issue. The report's conclusions stated:
Our critical review of the evaluation of the research literature failed to support strong, consistent and unqualified support for the lowering of blood alcohol limits. At best, the results were mixed and the methodological weaknesses in the studies questioned the robustness and veracity of the evidence. There is little evidence that lowering the blood alcohol limit from 80mg to 50mg will in, or of, itself result in fewer alcohol-related deaths.
According to the Canadian estimates, implementing and enforcing a 50 mg limit would double the amount of arrests with few, if any, savings of lives to be shown for it.
The chairman of the Irish Road Safety Authority, Gay Byrne, has said in the past that he would be in favour of enforcing the existing law. There is a strong case to be made for enforcing the existing law, which is being ignored to a great extent.
Random breath testing has brought down the monthly averages of people caught for drink-driving. It has also contributed to bringing down road death rates to the lowest levels since records began. Those figures are based on research by the Garda Síochána and the Road Safety Authority. However, we are basing our argument for a reduction in the drink-driving limit based on 2003 figures, which pre-date the introduction of random breath testing.
In the first full year since random breath testing was introduced in 2007, there was a 9% reduction in the number of people caught over the legal limit. In 2008, the second full year of random breath testing, there was a 23% reduction in the number of such offences. It is clear, therefore, that random breath testing is working. We should be giving gardaí the resources to enforce these measures because there is substantial evidence to support this approach.
The thesis being used to reduce the blood-alcohol limit is flawed. If the Minister has figures on this matter I will be happy to accept them, but having gone thorough a lot of the research I have yet to see these figures. By reducing the limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, I am afraid we will be diverting limited resources from serious offenders who are blatantly ignoring the law. They are putting the lives of all road users at risk. It also diverts us from the scandalous situation whereby we are failing to secure convictions. Even if someone is two or three times over the legal limit, there is only a 50% chance of their being caught. We are air-brushing that out of the whole debate, however.
We are also ignoring the issue of drug use and abuse by drivers. Some 76% of specimens analysed by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in 2008 were certified for the presence of drugs. They were not just illegal drugs, as there is a significant problem concerning people who have prescribed drugs in the blood stream, which is having an impact on the standard of driving in this country. Those issues are being ignored, however. We are putting far too much focus on one particular aspect without putting resources where they are needed.
Many of those who have contributed to this debate raised the issue of rural transport and rural isolation. The lack of rural transport is a bigger issue for people during the day than at night. The CSO's research shows that 50% of rural families have difficulty accessing public transport. In recent months, we have seen services being curtailed; some 100 Bus Éireann services have been withdrawn. For example, the last bus to Westport, taking in Athlone, Roscommon and Castlebar, leaves Dublin at 2 p.m. That is supposed to be a public transport service, but in reality we are seeing a clawback of resources for any type of public transport. The Minister pays lip-service to that issue, while at the same time allowing Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus to curtail their level of services dramatically. That is a disgraceful situation and should not be accepted.