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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 5 Oct 2011

Vol. 742 No. 3

Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The main provisions of the Bill refer specifically to the lowering of alcohol limits, that is, blood-alcohol concentration, mandatory testing of drivers and the driving of dangerously defective vehicles on our roads. When the previous Road Traffic Act was introduced earlier this year, it was not possible to address these issues because the required equipment was not in place in Garda stations. The legislation must be enacted before the new alcohol limits are introduced at the end of this month.

It is timely that the Bill is passing through the House this week given that the Road Safety Authority has designated next week road safety week. The legislation is also timely because statistics show that the highest number of fatalities occur in the months ahead. We will shortly set our clocks back for the winter months. As is borne out by statistics, a high number of road fatalities regrettably occur at this time of the year.

Many factors result in road fatalities. In recent years, we have focused strongly on alcohol and its effects on the level of fatalities and serious injuries on the roads. We should take time to examine the consequences of passing this legislation.

I pay tribute to the Garda Síochána, not only for its daily work on road safety but also its contribution to the Road Safety Authority's excellent online resource which maps accidents throughout the country, ranging from fatalities to serious incidents to minor incidents. This is an excellent resource which is well worth consulting. It is interesting that many of the accident blackspots occur on routes which require further investment. I often wonder what role road engineering could play in improving the incidence of road deaths and serious injuries. The Road Safety Authority's online resource could be used to highlight shortcomings in our road engineering programmes, and further study of it could have a significant impact.

The National Roads Authority is reducing funding for road schemes. While the inter-urban routes have been completed, much work remains to be done. I refer specifically to the N22 Cork to Killarney road. The Road Safety Authority's map of road traffic accidents makes for interesting reading in respect of this road. I refer also to the Bantry relief road, for the same reason, for which I would like to see some support.

Insurance figures indicate that for 92% of pedestrians involved in accidents between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. drink was involved, in other words, they were intoxicated. This debate is critical for people living in rural Ireland because it must lead to the point where this legislation must be accepted and welcomed. It tells people not to drink and drive. However, people are still being killed on the roads and they are walking, not driving. It is clear that the availability of low cost alcohol is an issue that must be dealt with, not directly in this legislation but by the Government. If we are serious about improving road death and injury statistics, the pedestrians issue is an obvious one to tackle. There might be other initiatives we might look at. I see a possible role for the Department in asking the drinks industry, for example, to come up with a scheme to provide high visibility vests in public houses. Many people who venture out, particularly in the constituency I represent, leave a public house at night when it is dark. There is no public transport available and, in many cases, no lighting and accidents occur. A minor action such as this could play a role or help to reduce the drink driving fatality or serious injury statistics. It should be taken in conjunction with the legislation.

Another statistic I came across, to which a multi-agency approach might be taken, is that 40% of those convicted of drink driving had previous convictions for serious offences, many unrelated to driving. This issue should be examined. It may be that they come from a different social background. However, the issue is one that merits attention, although it is not clear what the solution might be. There should be closer scrutiny of the statistics.

From time to time the issue of winter and summer time has been raised in the House, as to whether we should change them to be in sync with Central European Time. Efforts and discussions take place with our neighbours across the water. In the House of Commons it has been proposed to align Greenwich Mean Time and Central European Time. Could we undertake studies of this issue? Is there any information available on the possible beneficial effects of having longer and brighter evenings on road safety statistics? That would be an interesting job of work. Perhaps if there were to be a good result from such studies, there might be a case to be made with other Departments on whether we should align with Central European Time.

One of the most difficult aspects is that the drinks industry, vintners in particular, has one of the strongest lobbies and has been against much of this legislation. Obviously, it has a case in regard to its own economics, but no case can be made against the road safety statistics. We must tackle this issue; rather than look solely at drink driving, we must look also at the drink culture in this country. There is a need for a greater element of fairness. In my town and others throughout the country low-cost drink is available to young people and those who may not be used to drinking. They step out onto a street or along a country road and put their lives and those of others at risk. There is no supervision. Vintners' groups will claim they are very careful about their customers and patrons. However, they should not allow them to drink and drive and most are very good in that regard. This move should be supported by other legislation from other Departments which would help in achieving compliance with the legislation.

There are other minor projects that should be undertaken to help to reduce the number of road traffic deaths such as the provision of speed limit signs and better maintenance of signage in country areas. It is 240 miles from the door of Leinster House to my door and I drive, on average, about 60,000 km — 65,000 km per year, on motorways, dual carriageways, national, regional and country roads. I have seen practically everything and one of my bugbears is the local authorities that do not maintain roadside hedging. I do not look for full hedge-cutting programmes but for the maintenance of road signs to ensure visibility.

There are minor issues that could be dealt with in conjunction with the motor industry. Dipped headlights might be kept on at all times or, if that is not possible, vehicles should have dipped lights when the wipers are on.

Although we have focused primarily on drink driving and related legislation which is as it should be, the problem is multifaceted. Now we should focus on other areas. We have reached a point where the statistics clearly show there has been an enormous drop in the number of fatalities at a time when the the blood alcohol content level is 50 mg. We should draw a line under that issue and look elsewhere.

I thank the Minister for the work done to date. It will save lives, but there is much more we could and should do.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 which I welcome and support. Its main focus is on implementing provisions included in legislation passed in 2010 and 2011 dealing with mandatory breath testing, alternative verdicts and the lowering of blood alcohol content, BAC, limits. I support these proposals which are practical and make common sense. They will enhance and bring about a further reduction in the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries on the roads. I support the reduction in BAC levels, from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg per 100 ml for persons who have held a driving licence for more than two years, and to 20 mg per 100 ml for professional drivers such as taxi drivers and for learner drivers.

It is fair and true to say there has been a great cultural change in Ireland in recent years on road safety. The work done by the Road Safety Authority, local authorities and schools and generally throughout the State has had a significant influence and reduced the number of road fatalities by 40%. Last year the figure was reduced to 212. Obviously, every death is one too many; we should, therefore, focus our efforts on ensuring the figures which, although reduced, are still horrendous are reduced further.

I reiterate that there has been a significant cultural change in the matter of drinking and driving. No matter what anybody says, the smallest measure of alcohol impairs driving. As a previous speaker stated, in the region of 30% of all fatal accidents on our roads involve alcohol. In the past ten to 15 years, the concept of the designated driver has come into fashion. In addition, when they go out for a drink, to have a meal in a restaurant or to attend a social occasion, people usually use public transport or avail of taxis or hackney cabs. This represents a major and welcome change in attitudes.

We need to focus on a number of matters in the context of road safety, including speed, pedestrians and cyclists. The previous speaker referred to pedestrians and I agree that this is an issue to which consideration must be given. Far too many pedestrians are either being seriously or fatally injured as a result of accidents. In a good proportion of cases, such accidents occur late at night when people are on their way home from social occasions. While public transport, taxis, and so on, are available in cities and larger urban areas, there is no doubt that a problem exists for people who live in rural areas in the context of getting home after a night out. It would be worthwhile considering providing some form of transport in such areas — whether through an extension of the rural transport scheme or whatever — so that people might travel to functions in local community halls or to participate in charity and other forms of table quizzes being held in their local pubs. Perhaps we could consider adapting the rural transport scheme in order that people who live in the areas to which I refer might travel about at night without having to take their cars.

Publicans also have a responsibility in this regard. They should consider whether they can provide some form of transport for their patrons. I am aware of a number of publicans who provide transport for their customers on an ongoing basis. Their counterparts, particularly those which establishments in rural areas, should examine the possibility of providing transport. This would be of assistance in the context of protecting pedestrians. In view of the number of pedestrians either being seriously or fatally injured as a result of being involved in accidents, consideration should certainly be given to this matter.

I am also concerned with regard to pedal cyclists and motorcyclists. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Kelly, recently brought forward a number of very good proposals in respect of cycle lanes on national primary routes. The need for such proposals is an indication of the fact that a huge number of people cycle. The cycle to work scheme, which was introduced in 2009, has led to a significant number of individuals cycling to work and for leisure. Some of the figures are worth contemplating. A recent report shows that approximately 90,000 bicycles were purchased during the first two years of the cycle to work scheme. This generated an estimated €138.6 million in direct and indirect sales. Approximately 50 new bicycle shops opened during the period in question and over 700 jobs were created. Since 2008, the membership of Cycling Ireland has doubled from 5,000 to 10,000.

There has been a huge increase in the number of individuals who cycle and there is no doubt that we must focus on the issue of cyclists and road safety. When such large numbers of people are cycling on our roads, there is both the possibility and probability that, unless we focus on ensuring their safety, problems will arise in the context of their being involved in accidents. As a result, there is a need to put additional cycle lanes in place and to educate people with regard to road safety in the context of cycling.

The other major issue which arises in the context of road safety is speed. Speed is a significant contributing factor to the number of deaths and injuries that occur on our roads. We probably need to review the speed limits that apply on motorways, bypasses, and so on. I hope the Department and the Road Safety Authority will consider the position in respect of pedestrians, cyclists and excessive speed when the next road safety plan is being drawn up. The work relating to that plan should involve a review of the speed limits that apply on our roads.

One of the key elements when it comes to further reducing the figure relating to road deaths is education. Some education in road safety is provided in second level schools. The matter is being dealt with to some degree but I am of the view that education in road safety should be formally included in the curriculum. Particular emphasis could be placed on road safety if it were included as part of the transition year programme. It will only be by educating young people and by them then educating their peers, parents, relatives and friends that progress will be made. Education can assist in further reducing the number of fatalities and injuries which occur on our roads.

I am concerned about motorcyclists. There is a particularly difficulty there and I am not quite sure how this can be dealt with. However, we need to examine this matter because the number of motorcyclists involved in road traffic accidents is certainly disproportionate to their numbers.

Previous speakers referred to road maintenance, particularly that relating to secondary and county roads. This is a matter in respect of which action must be taken, particularly in view of the fact that the winters of 2009 and 2010 were extremely harsh.

Many of these secondary and county roads have been very badly affected by a combination of frost, snow and rain. Roads in such a condition do not help road safety. There is a need to ensure that funding and resources are available to bring these roads up to a proper standard, as the quality of the roads contributes to an improvement in road safety. We are being told that we are on the verge of another very cold winter and I hope that money can be ring-fenced for improvement, especially on secondary and county roads.

I will mention the purchasing of older or "clapped out" vehicles by young people. The issue has been raised on a number of occasions but still needs further work and review. There was a time when a young person could purchase a vehicle for €100 or €200 and drive it away. This can be and has been a recipe for difficulty, disaster or tragedy. It is an issue that should be dealt with, reviewed and focused upon in the next road safety plan. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill, which I support. I have made some suggestions for a practical and common sense approach to what I hope will be an improvement to road safety.

I wish to share time with Deputy Durkan by agreement of the House. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011, which aims to clarify existing legislation relating to drink driving, as it reflects policy decisions already taken during the course of development of the previous Government's Road Traffic Act 2010 and Road Traffic Act 2011. Previous Bills amending legislation on drink driving had all-party support in the Dáil, and this Bill deals with the implementation of legislation because of difficulties arising from the operation of the previous Acts. This was identified during the debate on previous Bills. The current Bill clarifies legislation with regard to preliminary and mandatory breath testing requirements and alternative verdicts, along with other measures. It also allows for mandatory alcohol testing for lower drink driving limits, as set out in the Road Traffic Act 2010.

There is no doubt there has been a massive cultural change in our attitude towards road safety over recent decades, leading to an enormous change in the standards of roads and driving, as well as issues of vehicle safety, proper driving instruction and the use of alcohol while driving. It is now rare to hear of someone being fined for not wearing a seat belt, which is indicative of the cultural change we have seen. In line with this, the area of road safety has changed dramatically, with significant decreases in the number of accidents and deaths.

No death is acceptable so we must continue to ensure the level of road deaths is reduced. It is interesting to note that in 1972, 640 people died on our roads, or more than 50 people per month. As late as ten years ago in 2001, 411 people died on our roads, but last year the number was 212. Although the current number is unacceptable, it certainly shows a consistent improvement over a period. I will give some of the trend figures since the Road Safety Authority came into being. In 2006, 365 people died on our roads; in 2007 the number was 338; in 2008 the number was 279; in 2009 it was 239; and in 2010, 212 people died on the roads.

Gardaí believe road deaths could fall below 200 this year for the first time since records began and, as of yesterday morning, 151 people had died on the road this year, 15 fewer than at the same stage last year. Were fewer than 200 people to die on the road this year, it would see Ireland match Sweden's record last year. The Road Safety Authority is to be congratulated on the work done since its foundation, and as a Parliament we should recognise its professionalism and promotional work. It is very important that the authority should be facilitated in continuing its work, and the lives of people should come before any cutbacks or savings with regard to its resources. I do not know how savings in any area can be calculated with regard to road deaths, but our fight against road fatalities should not be compromised.

The Road Safety Authority has identified factors contributing to the reduction in road deaths, with one of the main elements being the level of expenditure on and campaigning for road safety. Attention has been drawn to the number of deaths and the need to ensure that people are aware of the dangers related to unsafe driving. Recently, we have seen the level of vehicle safety increase, and we now have seat belts, airbags and improved braking systems. Even if a collision occurs, the chances of death and injury have been substantially reduced because of the implementation of such safety devices. The national car test, NCT, system carries out regular checks on vehicles, and while some may see it as a nuisance, it has contributed to ensuring vehicles are fit for use.

The road network has been upgraded and motorway and dual carriageway driving has been proven to enhance safety. I have seen this on the weekly, or sometimes bi-weekly, journey I take from my home to Leinster House. There is dual carriageway as far as Newlands Cross and there is motorway to Naas. That has increased safety substantially. Even in County Limerick, where serious accidents have occurred over a number of years, the road improvements that have taken place have contributed to reducing the level of deaths and injuries on the roads.

The penalty points system might not have been very popular but it has improved safety and contributed to the reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. There are also fixed penalty notices and charges and, most recently, the GoSafe safety camera network. We have all been educated to be more conscious of road safety. I reiterate my support of and congratulations to the Road Safety Authority on the work it has done since its foundation.

The other point I wish to raise relates to the downside of the introduction of this Act, which is rural isolation. When Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív was Minister he had strong opinions on this. Many people living alone in rural areas saw the local bar as a meeting place for socialising. There is little social activity in many rural areas aside from the local bar. Everyone is aware that some people are prepared to go to a bar and not drink, but there has been a tradition of interaction among rural dwellers at the local bar. There is now isolation, loneliness and an increased level of depression among people in those circumstances.

The road safety figures show that 212 people died on the roads last year, compared with the 609 people who died by suicide. If the Government can take any lesson from its relative success in the road safety area in terms of the contribution of resources, I implore it to examine the situation where 609 suicides occurred last year and apply a similar formula to ensuring there is a professional approach through the development and resourcing of the National Office for Suicide Prevention. That office's campaign is quite different from the road safety campaign, but the principles are similar. There is also the issue of road deaths by suicide, which is linked in some ways to the road safety campaign.

Perhaps someone would examine the pilot projects carried out by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív when he was Minister with responsibility for rural and Gaeltacht affairs. They were introduced when the original Bill was being discussed. Perhaps the Minister could be informed by the civil servants who were involved in those projects why that initiative died.

I welcome the Bill and support the comments by my colleague. Generally, when dealing with legislation of this nature, one must review the success to date, the intentions of the Bill and its likely success. As Deputy Neville said, there has been considerable progress in reducing the number of fatal road traffic accidents over recent years. That is the result of a number of measures that were taken.

First, the improvement in some, although not all, roads, especially the national primary routes, has helped. A general improvement over the last 20 years in the quality of motor vehicles on the road has also helped. To some extent, too, there has been a general improvement in road manners and tolerance of others on the road. However, there are still a number of motorists who should take time out and calm down, as I noticed this morning. I became conscious of the loud revving of a large engine behind my car. As it was a high, very large container vehicle, I was able to see in the mirror that the driver was reading a newspaper. Obviously, when the traffic lights changed and the traffic stopped, he was obliged to stop far more suddenly than other motorists. I have his registration number, even if he might not know it. A little courtesy on the roads is no harm. If someone makes a mistake or a pedestrian steps out in front of the vehicle, it is not necessary to drive over them. One must concede and be careful at all times. Generally, however, there has been an improvement in road manners and tolerance on the roads.

I also spoke when the original Bill was before the House. Of course, someone who is over the alcohol limit must have consideration for other users of the road. It is also not necessary to drive at the speed limit all the time. Furthermore, if one does happen to be driving at the speed limit and overtaking another car, there is no necessity for the driver behind to get almost into the car exhaust with a view to getting ahead of one or the car that is in front. I do not understand why that occurs, but it regularly does.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that there appears to be an increasing number of traffic accidents on the motorway I use, the M4, as it approaches the city. The speed limit is 80 km/h for most of the way until one gets onto the motorway, where there is the standard speed limit. Usually, there are not many incidents on the motorways and I wonder why this is happening now. I believe it is due to bad driver practice at lane changing. The more lane changes a driver makes, the greater the likelihood of making a mistake or not seeing on time a mistake being made by someone else. Has any research been carried out with a view to identifying the cause of these accidents on motorways?

Women drivers tell me that some motorists have a low tolerance of women drivers. They tend to tailgate, thereby intimidating the female driver. I do not know how prevalent that is but it should not be allowed to happen. That type of bullying is unacceptable.

The other issue is the value of the national car test, NCT, which we discussed some time ago. An NCT should not wreck the motor vehicle. It is that simple. When the NCT was introduced, it appeared that the vehicle would not survive it, and in some cases it did not. This is a mechanical issue. Some of us have knowledge of that area to a greater or lesser extent for all sorts of compelling reasons. Care should be taken to ensure the vehicle is mechanically sound.

I do not believe reference to the vehicle's age is as necessary as some believe. A ten year old vehicle with very little mileage can be as good as a three year old vehicle with a lot of mileage. As people in this business should know, the mileage travelled by commercial travellers, doctors, veterinarians and Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas is far more than that of most normal domestic motorists. That has an effect on the vehicle concerned. The NCTs must have some degree of integrity. The same applies to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, DOE, tests for commercial vehicles.

I have brought to the attention of the House previously that it is very important the DOE and the NCT are carried out methodically and with particular reference to the issues which have a direct impact on the safety of the vehicle, the driver and other drivers using the road.

I mentioned consideration for others and road courtesy. There is still some scope for that. For example, one should look carefully at the way some people use roundabouts. The idea seems to be to get a good run at the roundabout from a distance away, to intimidate anybody who happens to be on it and having got on to the roundabout, to overtake on the left or the right, whichever offers the greatest opportunity, in a mad rush to get around the next corner or whatever. I cannot understand that. The law should prohibit overtaking on a roundabout. There is no necessity for it. The purpose of a roundabout is to keep the traffic moving and not necessarily to keep it moving at a particular speed or to get the individual who wants to get somewhere at a particular time there on time even though he or she might not have left on time.

There are fewer than two minutes left.

One could almost do an NCT in two minutes. It might not be a very effective one but it could be done.

Knowledge of the rules of the road still leaves a little to be desired. We need road courtesy and to give the individual in front reasonable space. A driver does not have to be intimidating all the time. The person behind does not have to come in the back window just to let me know he or she is there. People should not get off the road for a person who believes he or she is a more important than everybody else. We can tell by the way someone drives whether he or she believes in his or her own importance. He or she usually beeps the horn and does all sorts of things to intimidate. That is petty and does not do anything to calm the nerves. It certainly gets on the nerves of many other people.

I still have the licence plate number of the guy who was reading the newspaper as he drove along this morning but I will retain it for further use.

I thank sincerely the Technical Group for allowing me to speak on this important Bill. While there are sections in it which I wholeheartedly support, I have serious issues with decisions made by the last Government and by this one.

I refer to the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit for people who hold full driver licences for more than two years from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood. We must be frank and blunt in stating that this will shut down rural Ireland once and for all. Over the past five years in particular, I have seen public house after public house shut down. This debate, about which I feel very strongly, has nothing to do with alcohol. It is about a rural way of life where people rambled to their local public house in the evening to meet friends, play cards and discuss sports, politics, religion and many other items of interest. Drink had very little to do with it. The people of whom I speak would have had only a couple of pints and they would have driven home. They never had, or were the cause of, an accident. However, with the ever-decreasing blood alcohol limit, they have decided to stay at home.

The parish from which I come had six pubs at one stage. Unfortunately, since last weekend, there are only two pubs left in the village. This is reflected the length and breadth of Ireland. A large number of pubs are closing each day — the vintners' association will testify to this — and it is tearing at the heart and soul of rural Ireland.

The Garda has a job to do, and I commend it on its work, but I find it ironic that in rural Ireland, mandatory breath tests occur all over the place and at all hours of the day and the gardaí are very active. Since I started coming to Dublin six or seven months ago, I have not come across one checkpoint despite the fact that tens of thousands of people use the roads and streets around Dublin on a hourly basis. Is it a case that there is one rule for the countryside and another for the cities and larger towns?

When successive Governments reduced the alcohol limit, why was a serious attempt not made to put arrangements in place whereby publicans would be financially encouraged to organise travel for their patrons or for other types of rural transport initiatives using community buses to take people home? No attempt was made in that regard.

The effect of the new limit will mean that people will not be able to have one pint and drive home. Others may condemn me for saying that is wrong, in particular in rural areas where there is no other option or transport available, but that is their opinion. There is no excuse for a person living in a city having a drink and driving because her or she has so many public transport options, including taxis, trains, the Luas and so on. They have everything in the world but unfortunately the vast majority of people in the constituency I represent have no other choice as there is no transport available to them. It is a case of stay at home or if they go out, they cannot have a drink. Our past legislators seem to have been oblivious to this fact.

I am against drink driving, which is wrong, but it is not wrong for a person in a rural area to have a drink, meet his or her friends and to drive home afterwards. Many politicians believe that also but they do not want to say so because they do not want anybody to say they are in favour of or condone drink driving. I am not doing that in any shape or form.

There is an ever-increasing trend towards depression in rural Ireland. What is wrong is evident to anybody studying what has happened in rural Ireland. People are living on their own, including bachelors whose parents have died and whose only social outlet was driving one mile to three miles to go their local public house. They feel that outlet has been taken away from them. If they cannot have a pint or two pints, they will not go out at all.

Everybody recognises that depression and suicide are on the increase, in particular in rural Ireland. Deputy Dan Neville touched on this subject a while ago. I thank him for the great work he has done over a lifetime in regard to suicide prevention and working in that sector. I also acknowledge the great work done by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. This is an ever-increasing problem and the source of that problem is what I have already stated.

Section 3 amends the principal Act and makes it an offence to knowingly drive a dangerously defective vehicle. This offence can apply to either the driver or the owner of the vehicle or to both. Since the introduction of the national car test, NCT, the days of old bangers on the road are gone. I welcome this section because it is blatantly wrong to knowingly drive a defective vehicle. However, people in rural Ireland are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to maintaining their vehicles because the majority of rural roads are built on bogs and are subsiding continually. The poor condition of many of these roads has a detrimental effect on the conditions of the vehicles travelling on them. It is easier for people in cities to maintain their cars in good mechanical order because they are able to drive on solid and even roads.

In the interest of safety and preventing accidents, I strongly suggest that the people in the motor industry should make a simple modification so that dipped headlights turn on when the ignition is started. Certain models of motor car already include this feature but it should be compulsory. Perhaps the Minister will pursue this issue.

The best drivers are those who begin at a young age. This is easy for a person who comes from a farming background because he or she can learn to drive around the farm. Given that it is not possible for everyone to make use of the countryside in this way, I encourage the Department of Education and Skills to provide a course in driver theory and practice at secondary level. Given that all our young people will at some point in life own and drive vehicles, it is crazy that we are not investing time and money in driver education as a proper school subject. In America, students attend driver education classes at their schools when they reach an appropriate age for learning the rules and regulations of driving. Although the classes are an additional cost for families, they are none the less offered in a familiar place and most students attend them. Students must also complete a number of hours behind the wheel of a car under the supervision of their parents or other adults. In Massachusetts, students cannot take their road tests until they have held a learner permit for six months.

I commend the Road Safety Authority on the reductions in the number of road fatalities. I raised issues with the authority in the past because of its concentration on drink driving to the exclusion of speeding, which I maintain is the greatest killer on our roads. It is important the authority be encouraged in its work of reducing the number of deaths on our roads. Anyone who suffered the tragedy of losing a loved one in a road traffic accident will attest that it is a horrendous experience for families, friends and neighbours. Over the years, I have had friends who were killed in road traffic accidents. It is a harrowing experience that I would not wish on anyone. We must do all we can to reduce the numbers killed on our roads.

Improvements in car quality have contributed greatly to reducing the number of fatalities in accidents. It is not 100 years ago when safety belts were not fitted to cars, never mind airbags. It is not unusual now for as many as 20 airbags to be installed in a car. People are safer in modern cars.

I commend the National Roads Authority on the work it has done over the years. If we were left with one legacy of the boom, it was the new motorways that were opened around the country. They were badly needed. In general, our national primary network is up to standard and the bypassing of towns has allowed for safer journeys. However, this should be compared with the experience of travelling on roads in rural areas. The neglect of hedges along rural roadways is a bone of contention which I raised many times at local authority level. The refusal by local authorities to cut back hedges forces people to keep to the middle of local roads and results in daily accidents.

It is definitely safer to travel along a motorway. I may be courting controversy when I suggest that the speed limit on one of the lanes on motorways could be increased. There would be nothing wrong if the speed was increased from 120 km/h to 130 km/h or even 140 km/h. I do not believe it would result in an increase in accidents.

In general, people are more patient on our roads thanks to the good work done by the Road Safety Authority in encouraging people to be mindful and considerate of other road users. We all have had the experience of being passed by a car travelling at a horrendous speed only to catch up with it several minutes later. Speeding should be discouraged except on the motorways.

Several years ago there was consternation when speed limit signs were put on certain roads for the first time. People were concerned about speeding on rural roads. I understand the signs were erected on foot of an EU directive but they were to show that 100 km/h was the speed limit on the road rather than an aspiration.

I hope I have clearly laid out my views on the Bill. One must take into account the effects of the Bill and previous legislation on rural areas. Politicians who represent urban areas might not agree with the points I made. The Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, would, as he has experience of rural areas which have taken a hammering. The further reduction in the permitted level of blood alcohol will finish off many more public houses in rural areas. Some would have no sympathy for them. They might say, "Tough luck," but it was a way of life for people who did no harm. It was the culture. In the future people will still, unfortunately, be killed on the roads, but it will be for other reasons. The people about whom I spoke today were never the cause of road accidents or deaths.

I reiterate my thanks to the Technical Group for allowing me some of its time to make my points.

I wish to share time with Deputies Brian Walsh and Kevin Humphreys.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation, another in a long line of road traffic Bills we have debated in the House and others which were debated long before any current Member was elected, all aimed at regulating road traffic and trying to improve safety on roads. I welcome the specific measures in the Bill, although I appreciate that in most cases it is really putting into law decisions previously made, for instance, the measure about which we spoke earlier, namely, the reduction in the permitted level of blood alcohol when one is driving. I was interested to hear what Deputy Healy-Rae had to say in that regard. I realise people rail against measures such as this. Perhaps I do it myself sometimes. I know it is an inconvenience sometimes and that it has affected public houses and people's ability to socialise in them, but the evidence is beyond question that these and other measures we have introduced previously save lives. For that reason, I do not think we can deny the evidence. We cannot be half-hearted about it. We cannot have separate laws for rural Ireland and urban Ireland either.

When speaking in the Seanad, the Minister made the point that 40 years ago there were approximately 640 deaths annually on the roads and that last year we had 212. That is less than one third of the amount we had all those years ago. That reduction did not come about voluntarily; it was not that people suddenly became better drivers. It came about gradually as a result of a major cultural change that reflected a change in behaviour which itself reflected changes in legislation. There is no doubt that the legislation we make in this House does change behaviour.

When my children were small in the 1970s and 1980s, I had to import child car seats from Mothercare in England because the company was not based in this country at the time. When they were delivered, I was horrified to find that in order to get them, I had to pay the postman VAT at the luxury rate. Then I had to drive to the garage to have them riveted into the back of the car because, of course, there was no such thing as a seat belt in the back of a car. They were probably in the front of cars, but they were decorative and hardly ever used. That just shows how the culture and attitudes have changed. It is due to the legislation we introduce and relentless enforcement by the Garda during the years. That has changed driver behaviour, but it has also changed the public's attitude about what is acceptable driver behaviour. It is an ongoing process at which we must keep if we are to continue to make the roads safer and to try to save lives. The current figure of 212 road deaths represents a great reduction, but it is still 212 too many.

I accept the reduction in the number of road deaths is not just due to imposing penalties. The standard of roads has improved immeasurably, especially in recent years since the interurban roads were built. That has made a significant contribution. We also have better, sturdier cars now with better safety standards. Better driver education is another factor. While public transport in the city is limited, it has improved and this has contributed to road safety in the city by taking cars off the road. Perhaps in better times we will be able to introduce more public transport services. One of the bitter regrets of the financial crisis is that we are not able to invest as we should, particularly in urban areas, in switching people from cars by investing in public transport.

With all these improvements, I have no doubt that traffic legislation and enforcement remain the cornerstone of road safety. I am conscious that very little in the legislation is new; it largely copperfastens existing legislation. It is not sexy, new legislation, but it is nevertheless vital if the laws we have in place are to be enforced and effective. In my years in this House I have seen many examples where road traffic legislation has been revisited in an attempt to get it right, perhaps a second time, and to put provisions in the legislation beyond question in order that when a person goes to court, the case will stand up. In other words, a belt and braces approach is applied to the legislation.

Members are aware that generations of lawyers have grown rich on the basis of examining and finding flaws in the legislation we pass, particularly in respect of road traffic accidents. They go through the legislation with a fine tooth comb in an attempt to find loopholes in order to get their well paying clients off scot free. It is our job to pit our paltry brains against the not inconsiderable brains of lawyers to ensure the legislation we put through the House is watertight, particularly in a case such as this when we are refining legislation a second and perhaps a third time. I am conscious that because of the accretion of road traffic legislation it has become extremely complex and arcane. It has been constantly changed, corrected, refined and revised during the years. I am in awe of barristers, gardaí and judges who can figure out the law in many respects in terms of road traffic legislation because there have been so many changes during the years. I would love to see it codified, although I suppose those who draft legislation are busy meeting the requirements of the troika, but it is something that requires attention.

I welcome, in particular, the measures in respect of mandatory blood or urine tests following an accident. When some years ago I requested the Minister of the day to introduce legislation to this effect, I was assured it could not be done, that it was out of the question. I was told that it would endanger the lives of people on the roadside who were involved in accidents. All sorts of excuses were given such as that drivers might be unconscious. That was a pile of nonsense because automatic testing is commonplace in other countries. It is important to find out whether an accident was caused by alcohol not just to penalise offenders but also to gather data on the causes of accidents. It is ludicrous that it is impossible to get accurate data on the contribution of alcohol to accidents. Any basic regime requires data as well as evidence for court purposes. The data are required in order to make sensible decisions on legislation and other matters.

Testing should be automatic. If it cannot be carried out at the scene of an accident, it should be carried out as soon as possible thereafter, for example in a hospital. In most cases it is required in the case of injury. It should not be a requirement that the Garda should request it; it should be done automatically. It should be made clear to accident and emergency department staff that if someone is admitted following a traffic accident, automatic testing of blood and urine for alcohol levels is required. That is the practice elsewhere and it stands up in court. I cannot see why it cannot be done here. I would like to see similar blood testing for drugs. I accept it is more difficult in that there is not as simple a test, but it is the direction in which we should move.

There are a couple of issues I would like to raise, but one particular bugbear of mine is cyclists' behaviour. I support cycling and I want to see that modal switch from cars to bicycles. Although many do not, I support the campaign and the spending on cycle lanes. I realise that I am generalising, but my experience is that cyclists, as a group, are the least law-abiding, most inconsiderate group of people on the roads. They would say the same about car drivers and I suppose none of us is without sin, but for the most part at least car drivers obey traffic lights whereas cyclists do not. They cycle at top speed through busy streets, weaving in and out between pedestrians. They call for a cycling-friendly environment like Holland. I have been to Holland and I have seen the environment there. Cycling there is slow, sedate and polite and bears no resemblance to the cycling culture that people seem to think is acceptable here — cycling with the head down at speeds infinitely greater than the traffic. It is inconsiderate to other road users, particularly in busy urban areas where there are many road users, including children. I should say those to whom I refer are not child cyclists; I am talking about adults who should know better.

Generally speaking, I support the legislation. It is one part of a process of improving the road safety regime and I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute.

I welcome the opportunity to share my thoughts on this important legislation. It is a further signal of the Government's commitment to road safety and the reduction in the number of tragedies that, unfortunately, occur on the roads annually.

I commend the Minister and his departmental staff on the prompt manner in which they have brought this road traffic Bill before us. It is the second such Bill he has introduced during the short time he has been in office. I suppose that demonstrates his, and the Government's commitment to addressing road safety.

Some earlier contributors described the Bill as being a tidying-up exercise. It is more than that. There are two significant elements in it. The Bill gives the Garda additional powers in respect of the information they can gather at the scene of an accident or in a case where the garda is of the opinion that the driver is over the lower blood-alcohol limit. These measures are welcome because their effect will be to reduce the small number of offenders who, perhaps, are effectively cheating the system and getting away with the offence of drink driving due to technicalities that arise in the court. The second part of the Bill, its most important and significant part, is the reduction in the blood-alcohol limits from 80mg to 50mg and, in the case of learner drivers and professional drivers, to 20mg. Notwithstanding what Deputy Healy-Rae stated earlier, it is entirely appropriate that the Minister is introducing these measures and I commend him on the tough stance that he is taking.

I question why there is a lower limit for professional drivers. Perhaps we should aspire to zero tolerance in respect of those whose profession is driving. Taxi drivers and bus drivers have a duty of care to their passengers and there is also an onus on them to act in a responsible manner. Perhaps there is some obvious reason of which I am ignorant that we need a limit at all in respect of professional drivers. That is the only change that I would suggest in that regard.

It is fair to say that significant progress has been made in recent years in reducing the number of fatalities on Irish roads. We all welcome that. The number of lives lost has almost halved in the ten years to 2010, to its lowest level — 211 deaths — since records began. Already this year, unfortunately, 135 persons have been killed on the roads which represents a decrease of 16 compared with this time last year. It obviously remains the case that even one death is too many and the Government's continued commitment to improving road safety, and the introduction of this Bill, attests to that fact. Given the priority the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, clearly attaches to road safety, it is obvious that the Government is not becoming complacent on this issue.

We are quick on this side of the House to be critical of the previous Government's stewardship of the economy, and particularly its handling of fiscal issues. It is important on this occasion that we recognise the excellent work the previous Government did in the area of road safety in reducing the number of fatalities. Much credit is due to former Ministers, the late Mr. Séamus Brennan and Mr. Noel Dempsey, and others who worked diligently in this regard. The results are there to be seen and those to whom I refer deserve much credit for their efforts in the past.

I suppose the biggest reason there has been a reduction is that attitudes are changing. The acceptability of getting behind of the wheel after a few pints has been consigned to the past. Most of us will remember social occasions or perhaps trips to matches where the long journey was punctuated by a series of pit stops to a number of hostelries during which it was not out of place for the designated driver to indulge in a few pints. Thankfully, mind sets and attitudes have changed, and that is very positive.

The work of the Road Safety Authority in reducing the number of fatalities must be acknowledged and its role in changing people's attitude also must be recognised.

Deputy Walsh has just a minute and a half left.

I will finish up so.

The Road Safety Authority was involved in explicit and aggressive marketing campaigns involving graphic and vivid advertising which highlighted the danger and consequences of drink driving, and that, most certainly, has had a positive and measurable effect on attitudes.

Infrastructural road improvements and advances in car safety have also contributed to the reduction. However, I am concerned about the state of some of the secondary, non-interurban roads. Given the reduced level of resources at the Minister's disposal, that is one of the significant challenges he and the Department will face.

I welcome this Bill. I look forward to a further road traffic Bill, which the Minister indicated he will introduce before the end of the year. I hope that will address other areas of concern, such as driving under the influence of other drugs. I support the Bill and its content and I commend the Minister and his staff on their work.

I agree with Deputy Walsh. There has been a great deal of cross-party support. Much progress has been made over several years on reducing deaths on the roads and everybody, especially the previous Minister, Mr. Noel Dempsey, deserves much praise. The number of deaths on the roads has been decreased from approximately 600 when I started tracking the figures to below 200 now, for the first time since records began.

I listened to Deputy Healy-Rae's contribution earlier. He spoke as if it is all right to have a couple of pints down the road and drive home in the evening. It is not. The reason the number of deaths on the road has decreased is that there has been a hard line against drink driving and it is no longer tolerated. For earlier generations, especially my generation when I started drinking, it was accepted one would have a few pints and drive home and I am delighted we have moved far away from that and that it is no longer tolerated that one would get behind the wheel of a car and drive home. It is not acceptable, especially by young people.

I accept what Deputy Healy-Rae said about the effects on small rural pubs. He spoke of suicide and depression. As far as I am concerned, alcohol has caused far more depression and suicide than has the lack of a few pints for those who would have to drive home from the pub. I do not accept that argument at all. He mentioned this urban-rural divide where when he is down in Kerry he is stopped and breathalysed. From 7 a.m. in the morning to late in the evening, I have been breathalysed on the way home three times in the past year. I welcome it. I am delighted to see that level of enforcement. It is through enforcement that we have decreased the number of deaths on the roads.

On the national media, I was looking at the newspapers this evening and read where they are giving out about enforcement of speed limits in the city.

There were no deaths — not a single one — on the roads of Dublin city between June and the end of September. That had not happened in the city since records began.

Debate adjourned.