Deputy Kevin Humphreys was in possession. He has two minutes remaining.
Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
As I said last night, I support the Bill. There is a real change in mood on the part of young drivers in terms of their compliance with legislation. Will the Minister provide some figures indicating the age breakdown of persons found to be in charge of a motorised vehicle after consuming alcohol?
Deputy Mitchell referred to cyclists on the roads. Next week is Road Safety Week 2011. I am a cyclist and a strong supporter of cycling in the city. I assisted the current Lord Mayor, Mr. Andrew Montague, with the introduction of the Dublin bike scheme. The removal of heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, from the city has been a great success, resulting in an explosion in the use of bicycles in the city. This is also due to the last Government's cycle to work scheme. These have been positive elements in encouraging more people to use bicycles.
Unfortunately, a proportion of cyclists act irresponsibly and they have not been taken to task. A system of fixed charge penalties or on-the-spot fines is necessary. There are obvious problems with this because there is no necessity to carry identification. However, under current legislation, there are sufficient powers for the Garda to impose fixed charges on cyclists who cycle on footpaths, break red lights and so forth. This behaviour adds to the dangers on the roads and I ask the Minister to examine the matter. The majority of cyclists are responsible. but the next road traffic Bill will have to include a measure to provide for the enforcement of the rules on cyclists. If he has time, will the Minister find out the number of cyclists who have been prosecuted for cycling on footpaths? It is said this is a no-impact crime, but one should talk to people who were knocked down as they emerged from their front gate. It has led to hip replacements and periods in hospital. This is a serious matter.
Yes, we should fully support cyclists and encourage the use of bicycles, but with this comes responsibility. I urge the Minister to examine the issue.
I support what Deputy Humphreys said. I represent Dublin Central and receive a number of calls about this issue, particularly from elderly people who are at the mercy of cyclists, a certain percentage of whom simply do not abide by the rules. This is also a problem at bus stops. A person asked me if Dublin Bus would be able to do something about the signage at bus stops. People standing at a bus stop watching out for the bus must also watch out for cyclists who do things they should not do.
On the other hand, we have the fantastic bike scheme introduced by Dublin City Council. There was some debate at the time of its introduction, when it was said it would not work in Dublin, that the bikes would end up in the River Liffey or be vandalised and so forth. Recent figures show, however, that only two bicycles have been vandalised since the scheme started. It has been a real success.
Once again, I thank the Library and Research Service for the digest it put together on the Bill. I refer to the quote from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, at the back that the combination of lower blood alcohol limits and mandatory testing represents a considerable tightening of the drink driving regime. This new aspect certainly toughens it up. Any initiative which sets out to reduce the number of fatalities on the roads is very welcome because so many families have paid a heavy price as a result of terrible accidents on the roads, many of which have been caused by people driving with considerable amounts of alcohol in their blood. There is no doubt the campaign has done extremely well. There is a culture in much of the country that one does not drink and drive, but, unfortunately, there are parts where that is not evident. I am always intrigued by the numbers of cars outside public houses. They cannot all belong to designated drivers. Some are still taking a risk and driving under the influence of alcohol.
The Minister has stated the Bill is a necessary step to maintain the good work done so far on road safety and to ensure Ireland continues to make progress. I am not sure we are making the progress we should be making. One of the reasons is that we are not really tackling what many others and I believe is the main cause of fatalities, namely, excessive speed on the roads. We know that a particular age group and sex are mainly involved in road fatalities where alcohol or drugs have been consumed, but there is also an element of excessive speed. Young men in their early 20s are involved. I have taken lifts from young men in their 20s and it is part of their psychological make up that they cannot stick to the speed limit. It is part of the boy racer image to turn the steering wheel with one hand. They do not know what the speed limits are and they are totally convinced of their immortality, that nothing can ever happen to them. Studies have been done of the psychological aspects, of what will work with this age group and what will get them to slow down. However, slowing down and being young do not go together. We are losing the battle when it comes to speeding on the roads because in many cases young men are not adhering to speed limits. That is not to take from others who do and who would not dream of getting into a car and doing these things. There is a huge issue with young men whizzing around.
I read recently about something which might be introduced in cars to indicate one's alcohol level when one gets into it. It is more important to attach something to cars to ensure they cannot go above a certain speed limit, in particular for under 25 year old males. That would be a major step forward and I would like to see something like this happen.
We must tackle those who drive under the influence of drugs. We are not paying enough attention to this aspect as we seem to be hooked on the alcohol aspect. If one knows about addiction issues, one will know that the use of prescription drugs is on the increase. Many are driving under the influence of prescription drugs and not heeding the warnings on the effects of these drugs.
Another aspect of road safety is motorway construction. While it is great to be able to drive from Dublin to Cork in two and a half or two and three quarter hours, the fact is permission was given to build that motorway without providing for lay-bys at particular points; it is an accident waiting to happen. I have been driving for 40 years and the only time I was involved in an accident was on that motorway as a result of driver fatigue and having to wait to turn off the motorway to drive a few miles into a town. I know a particular franchise has received money to build something, but it should have come first and I am not the only person who says this.
I welcome the introduction of the offence of knowingly driving a dangerously defective vehicle, which is long overdue. I also welcome the placing of an obligation on a driver to provide a blood or urine specimen while in hospital where that person has been involved in a road traffic collision. This has been a loophole in certain cases.
While I represent Dublin Central, I have many contacts and spend time in rural Ireland. I mention the impact of the lowering of the blood alcohol level, in particular for elderly people whose one social outlet during the week is going to mart or to collect their pension and having two or three drinks afterwards. They will now be over the limit if they do so. I do not advocate that people drink and drive, but there is a category, the members of which are not causing accidents on the roads. There have been calls for a better transport scheme which in some places have been taken on board, as we do not want to contribute to further isolation, particularly for elderly persons living on their own in rural areas.
I call Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy who is sharing time with Deputies Paul Connaughton, Alan Farrell and Michelle Mulherin.
I welcome publication of the Bill and commend the Minister for his commitment to improving road safety and tackling the problem of the consumption of alcohol and driving because it is an inescapable fact that Irish drivers drive after consuming alcohol. The issue has been well researched by the Road Safety Authority and it has been shown that alcohol consumption is a major factor in road deaths. Many drivers found to be over the limit are involved in accidents with other vehicles, passengers and in single car collisions. It is fair to say any amount of alcohol in the system of a driver poses a risk not only for him or her but also for his or her passengers and other road users.
We have been successful in reducing the number of road deaths through efforts such as graphic television advertising campaigns to reduce speeding and the level of drink driving, the introduction of penalty points, random Garda breath testing check points and a vastly improved road infrastructure. In the past eight years the number of road deaths has been reduced from almost 400 to approximately 200, but one road fatality is one too many. We must, therefore, continue with our efforts to ensure pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of motorised vehicles can travel in safety and be protected from other road user who, as a result of being impaired by alcohol, pose a threat to them.
The practical measures contained in the Bill specifically targeting alcohol impaired driving are welcome. The further reduction of the blood alcohol limit for drivers and learner drivers and mandatory testing by gardaí of all drivers involved in collisions which result in injuries will enhance efforts to reduce the number of road deaths.
Having said that and acknowledging that drink driving has become increasingly socially unacceptable, I am concerned about how people living in rural areas, in particular older men, can access their local public house. Most are moderate drinkers for whom playing cards and having a couple of drinks represent the only outing they might have in a week. We must have a further debate on how people living in rural areas are to be accommodated as availing of public transport or a taxi rank is not an option for them. Perhaps there is scope to consult the rural transport programme or other voluntary organisations or statutory agencies to address this problem.
There are other matters which deserve consideration which I previously raised at the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The presence of drugs in the systems of drivers is known to impair their driving and lead to road fatalities. Some means of detecting both legal and illegal drug use should be investigated and provision made to provide for mandatory testing for these substances in exactly the same way as for alcohol.
Another issue which many constituents have raised with me is that of the decibel level which in some cars is excessive as they have been modified to increase engine sound. It is most notable at night and can be very anti-social and distressing, particularly for the elderly and parents of young children. This is a matter which needs to be addressed urgently.
Other matters to be considered include the introduction of penalty points for the illegal dumping of vehicles, many of which are to be found decaying in many of our scenic areas. Another measure is the education of young people in road safety, perhaps during transition year. Young men in particular, as the research shows, are, sadly, the most likely to be involved in car accidents at weekends, late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
While the political system takes action to reduce the number of road deaths through the introduction of legislation, we must not forget our own responsibilities to ensure safe travel through not driving while tired and wearing a high visibility vest while walking on rural roads.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We must do all we can to reduce the number of deaths on our roads. It has become too real to hear about someone who was killed or seriously injured in a car accident. The damage caused to families and community is immense and leaves lasting scars.
We have been dealing with the issue of drink driving for many years but I am glad to see a cultural shift away from the practice. Young drivers get a hard rap but drink driving is not socially acceptable among my generation. I welcome the reduction in blood-alcohol limits from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg, and 20 mg in the case of learner drivers. These limits should be set at zero. When a person drives, there should be no alcohol whatsoever in his or her system.
The issue of rural isolation has been raised by speakers on both sides of the House. I come from a constituency in which many people live outside of towns. We cannot accept that the solution to this issue is alcohol or pubs. I acknowledge that the pub offers an opportunity for social interaction for rural dwellers, some of whom are very elderly, but surely we can come up with a better way of serving these people. During yesterday's debate, one Deputy announced that he was against drink driving but claimed there was no issue with two or three pints. That attitude is culturally unacceptable if we want to solve this problem. People say they can take two or three drinks without going over the limit but this turns into guesswork. The problem is that by the time they realise they have made a mistake it is too late because they have already caused an accident in which someone is killed or seriously injured. If we want to see a massive cultural shift, we have to be tougher. If we want to help people in rural communities, we will have to come up with innovative ways of connecting them and getting them to their local towns. The local pub is not the answer for everyone. In many instances publicans are looking for ways to facilitate these people, and I ask the Minister to support these efforts.
Coming from a rural constituency, the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, will be aware that the state of the roads regularly arises as an issue. Roads can deteriorate quickly over the space of several weeks or months, but under the current system, one road could have been selected for repairs three years ago while others are left to deteriorate. People driving down these roads must swerve to avoid potholes. I urge the Department to work with local authorities on devising a better system that would be more reactive to local events. I have been inundated with calls from people whose roads have been destroyed, even though their neighbours' roads were repaired. It is a dangerous situation for drivers, walkers and cyclists and if we start thinking outside the box, we might be able to come up with better solutions.
I welcome the introduction of speed cameras. They have already had a massive impact on driver behaviour. I hear from people around my constituency that they know where they are located on any particular day. They are being deployed to make our roads safer. I have also been contacted by people who were caught out by them, but if there is a speed limit we have to adhere to it.
Alongside solving the problem of drink driving, we must also educate young people about driving skills and driver behaviour. Does the Department plan to implement programmes in our schools and colleges to educate young drivers about what to expect when they start to drive? We cannot have a situation whereby someone who reaches the driving age simply gets a licence and is allowed on the road. Driving is a privilege rather than a right. When one is on the road, one must care for oneself as well as other road users. Sometimes young people do not understand this responsibility and it would do no harm to develop an education policy in our schools to change that attitude. I welcome the Bill, although I believe there is more to be done in regard to educating young drivers.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I intend to speak about road safety, driver education and dangerously defective vehicles.
I support the calls made by a number of speakers for standardised speed limits. A significant number of substandard rural roads have speed limits of 80 km/h or 100 km/h. Joined-up thinking is needed in regard to the implementation of speed limits. Perhaps the Minister can consider this issue in the context of the next road safety Bill. The manner in which speed limits are applied by local authorities should also be reconsidered. In my own constituency, a dual carriageway near the airport has a speed limit of 50 km/h. Drivers are accustomed to speed limits of 100 km/h on dual carriageways and the road in question is perfectly capable of handling such speeds. We also have rural roads with speed limits of 80 km/h or 100 km/h despite sharp bends and blind corners.
I am particularly annoyed by the issue of heavy goods vehicles occupying the overtaking lane of motorways. The spine of Dublin North is the M1, which allows me to drive the length of the constituency in approximately 20 minutes. During rush hour periods heavy goods vehicles tend to drive in the overtaking lane at their speed limit of 100 km/h. While that is safe and acceptable in terms of the speed at which the vehicles can travel it presents difficulties when driving conditions are not ideal because trucks can fly out in front of cars to get ahead of slower vehicles. A ban on heavy goods vehicles from overtaking lanes on motorways would be welcomed by the majority of car drivers.
The Bill provides for mandatory testing and allows gardaí to use their judgment and experience in deciding whether to demand a blood or alcohol sample. This toughening of the legislation is welcome. The blood-alcohol limit in 2011 should be lower than that which applied heretofore because we know about the dangers drink driving present in terms of the carnage that occurred on our roads over many years. Every year between 400 and 500 people have died on our roads. While I commend the Road Safety Authority and the Department on the steps it has taken in this area, one road death is too many.
Drug driving is an issue we should consider further when we come to draft future legislation. Drugs are, unfortunately, all too available. It is a regular occurrence for younger drivers to avail of such substances and it is almost impossible to test for them.
The previous speaker, Deputy Connaughton, referred to education. I support the approach of starting to convey to schoolchildren at a young age the requirement on them to learn the rules of the road early, perhaps even in primary school and throughout secondary school so that when they reach the age of 16 or 17 and they apply for their licence and learn to drive they are aware of the incredible dangers that exist. I imagine virtually every family in this country has lost an extended family member. I did in Castleknock almost 30 years ago. It is a heart-wrenching experience. Today, as always, a member of the Garda Síochána is present in the House. I cannot imagine that when they leave Templemore they relish the unfortunate duty of having to call to the home of someone who has died to inform a mother, father or brother that their loved one was involved in a road traffic accident especially when alcohol or speeding are involved.
I had the pleasure of attending a couple of road safety road shows in Fingal in 2008 when I was mayor of Fingal County Council. They were held in the auditorium of the Helix theatre in DCU. Such road shows are a worthwhile endeavour. An insurance company, AXA, is involved and the Road Safety Authority spearheads the programme. They bring in schools, predominantly fourth year classes, and show them footage of accidents and the knock-on effects. We should continue that approach as a tactic in the battle against the carnage on our roads.
I wish to address the issue of dangerously defective vehicles. I live close to the M1 motorway. As a recent father I am up a lot in the middle of the night and I hear cars flying up and down the motorway. I refer to modified vehicles in particular, predominantly exhaust additions to make them louder, as mentioned by previous speakers. In the Laois-Offaly Garda area, gardaí had some success prosecuting or cajoling young drivers into removing these after-factory modifications to their vehicles under legislation which, I think, dated from the 1960s. This was a couple of years ago. I would like to see a robust attitude towards the modification of vehicles purely for the purpose of increasing the noise they make. I have seen many young drivers driving around in imported Micras with huge expanders on them that make them look ridiculous. They are noisy and most distracting especially in residential areas.
I commend the NCT regime. I accept it has received a bit of stick in recent times but if we have a robust car testing system in place which is trusted by the public and that can alleviate any fears road users have about the safety of vehicles on the roads then we will take a step closer towards ensuring that we do not have further deaths on our roads. Fundamentally, the Bill is about saving lives in one way or another which must be welcomed.
I welcome the Bill. As Deputy Farrell indicated, the underlying effort is to stop people being killed and maimed on our roads. What is particularly helpful and welcome is the provision in the Bill requiring mandatory testing of drivers in hospitals. Drunk driving and the prosecution of it by the Garda is a technical area and gardaí need all the help they can get from legislation. I regret the limit in the past on the ability to test a driver who had been hospitalised following a road traffic accident. Alcohol can be involved in more serious road traffic accidents and it has happened that people have escaped prosecution for causing an accident due to being drunk because they required hospitalisation. Therefore, I welcome the amendment to the legislation.
In welcoming the Bill I join with colleagues who have referred to drug driving. It is an area that requires to be tackled. Drug driving must be treated in the same way as we treat driving with alcohol. When one considers the age profile of those involved in road traffic fatalities one must consider the possibility of drug use. In many cases young men are involved in single-car collisions and the suspicion is that it is not alcohol that they have on board but drugs. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the speed at which young men drive but when one adds drugs to the equation one would definitely feel invincible. Not only should drug testing be mandatory following an accident but it should be random and the full rigours of the law must be applied where people are suspected of driving under the influence of any intoxicant. The same should be said for prescription drugs which carry warning notices. Just because one is prescribed drugs does not mean one is fit to drive, especially when it puts one's life and other road users at risk. I am interested in hearing a response to that.
A rural public house is an entirely different creature to a public house in the city. We are aware of the community aspect of such an establishment in a small village where it draws people together. That is where one gets one's news. It is what people think of when they think of this country and friendliness. A stranger can go into a rural public house and be made to feel welcome. We can cry about people not being able to go to the public house but it is preferable to examine what is required to ensure they continue. Public houses are entitled to open from 10.30 a.m. until 11.30 p.m. The reality is that many public houses have closed and many others only open in the evening. Such premises only operate for a couple of hours per day such is the extent to which their business has been reduced. They do not provide food because it is not viable. It is important for communities that public houses continue to exist in the same way as the church or post office. They play a valuable role in the community.
The enactment of the Bill will probably make people even more fearful about going to public houses. We must tackle the issue. One way in which we could address it is to consider a reduction in VRT for publicans who wish to transport their customers and another option is to reduce rates. If there is an opportunity to open a business full-time but the reality is that it is not worth a person's while to do it then we must examine the rates regime and reduce it to accommodate such public houses. Publicans are running a business and providing a service and they are not costing the State anything. In fact, they are making VAT returns and they may employ people in rural areas. We should act to preserve them. It is not inevitable that they would be a casualty. People become sentimental about retaining the local public house. If we want them to exist and Johnny down the road wants to go there for his pint that is fair enough but publicans are the ones who must keep the show on the road. They deserve special attention if we are serious about keeping rural public houses open and allowing them an opportunity to continue to run their business. Otherwise, we will not have rural public houses. It will not be a case of whether Johnny should have one, two or three pints; there will not be any public house for him to go for a drink. These public houses are in a minority. They do not have large populations and there will not be crowds marching on the street, but they must be considered. Those are a couple of my thoughts on the matter.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to this important legislation. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, this is my first opportunity to congratulate publicly the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, on his new Ministry. I wish him well in the future and the best of luck.
I welcome the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 and I commend some of the comments on it. We should look at its detail and discuss it in an open and transparent fashion, and that has begun already in this important debate.
One of the purposes of the Bill is to allow for mandatory alcohol testing at lower limits in line with the Road Traffic Act 2010. The debate is about drink driving, speeding, and road safety. This is an important debate. I will ask fundamental questions on these issues. The vast majority of road traffic accidents are caused by speeding. A substantial minority, I accept, are caused by the abuse of alcohol, and recently, there has been the abuse of drugs by motorists. These are the issues we must consider.
We also have a responsibility. From driving up and down the country and all over the place, I am aware that on a brand new road it is tempting to drive quickly and that when one has a powerful car, it is difficult to remain in total control in such situations. I put it up to the car manufacturers that they also have a responsibility. If they could design a car that would reach a certainly limit only and could not go any faster, that would be a major contribution. It would save many lives and nip in the bud the male macho young-driver syndrome evident in wider society. From my direct experience, by the way, this type is not all young. These are issues at which we must look as well.
In speaking about the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill, it is important to show leadership and bring the public with us. Road safety campaigns are important. When I was a primary school teacher, I saw the impact of such campaigns. Some were effective but some were boring for young people and we had to think outside the box to come up with ideas. A helpful contribution is the practical experience of bringing children to traffic schools and showing them DVDs and videos and all sorts of things about road safety. So, too, is the practical experience of young primary school children meeting the gardaí who work in the traffic corps. They come in, advise them and support them, and give them that sense of adventure and excitement while at the same time emphasising road safety. There is a broader aspect to the road traffic issue and to this issue.
Section 2 clarifies the situation where a person fails or refuses to produce a driving licence or learner permit when asked by a member of the Garda Síochána. Section 40 of the principal Act, inserted by section 59 of the Act of 2010, is being amended to clarify the provisions.
It is also important to recognise that the vast majority generally comply with the law and that is something we often forget about in the debate. Since the introduction of the tighter controls on drink driving, the vast majority of drivers have gone along with it. People do their best, and they have taken the hit well. It is important that we accept the reality that the vast majority of motorists comply with the law and the day has practically gone when those who go to their local to have one or two pints would drive home. It is easy enough for those of us who live in urban areas as there is no difficulty in walking or getting a taxi to the local, and when there are two or three sharing a taxi, it costs only €2 or €3 each, and it is common sense as well. We also must take into consideration that, as I stated previously, the vast majority of those people would comply with the law and would fit-in. They have no issue with section 2, which is about produce a driving licence or learner permit, or anything like that. Sadly, and it is a little like other issues in this country, the minority sometimes dominates the setting of the political agenda. The man in his 50s or 60s who used to go and have a quiet pint or two, now cannot do that because of those who had nine or ten and were totally irresponsible. That is something I sometimes regret because I know many sensible people in that situation who would be responsible, and yet they are being hammered and are suffering again. I raise this with the Minister in the debate because it is important that we talk about these issues.
I note that some of the other Members mentioned the position of the rural pub. I am strongly sympathetic. As somebody who spends a great deal of time in Dromineer, as the Minister of State will be aware, I understand from meeting people there the hassles of driving. In fairness to some of the publicans, they have been creative and have barmen and bar staff who bring people home from the pub, or they provide a good local service. I would say to the publicans that if they want to keep their punters, they will have to provide a service as well. From talking to people, they do not mind paying €2 or €3, if it will get them to the pub and home safely, and they can meet their friends.
There is still a nanny state brigade in this country about drinking as if there is something immoral or wrong about it. There is nothing wrong with somebody having a few pints with his neighbours and friends and talking about local issues, and particularly for senior citizens, meeting their neighbours and friends in such situations. It is almost like part of the community welfare service. It is not a question of binge drinking. The vast majority are moderate drinkers who have a few drinks, enjoy themselves, talk to their neighbours, get on with their lives and use that social setting as a support. Those who have the arguments on the rural pub have a strong and valid argument. I feel strongly about a situation where a man is living three or four miles up the mountain and it is a big issue for him to come down to participate in social life. Publicans must react to that and the Minister must look at these issues too in dealing with public transport in rural areas.
This is not a major issue in an urban area. However, I also see it in the context of job creation. In the past 12 months I have met many in the catering trade who are losing a barman here or a catering staff member there, and that is an issue also. The Minister must consider it, not only as a road traffic issue but also in the job retention debate. As most Members accept, the only game in town is job creation. We must do everything to that end and part of that debate must be the catering trade, which is directly connected with this legislation.
In Part 1, section 40, subsection (6) is being inserted to clarify the type of information a garda may demand of a person. For starters, it should not be acceptable that anybody would refuse or would fail to produce a licence. Section 40 (6) is important. If one looks at it in more detail, a person may be required to provide all of the following: name and address and date of birth. An offence is committed if a person fails or refuses to provide any of that information or provides false or misleading information. Subsection (6) is a simple subsection with which the vast majority will comply.
Subsection (7)(b) of section 40 of the principal Act is also being inserted to clarify the provisions relating to the power of arrest where a person refuses or fails to give the information specified in the provision or where the Garda suspects that the information being provided is false and misleading. That is also a matter on which we must be strict. It is important that we deal with such persons, who are not among the vast majority who will comply with the legislation.
Overall, I welcome the legislation although some people have concerns about it. When somebody comes forward with sensible legislation, regardless of differences on other issues in the House, Members should support it. I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Seán Kenny, for the opportunity to speak on this matter.
I would like to share time with Deputies Griffin, Maloney and Conway.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Like all other speakers, I welcome this legislation. As Deputy Finian McGrath said, we should support common sense legislation when it comes before the House, regardless of any other differences we might have. The ongoing legislative initiative aimed at tackling road traffic carnage and road deaths is a work in progress. It is working. Road traffic deaths fell by 48% in the ten years to 2010. The number of people killed on the roads that year — 212 — was the lowest since records began in 1959. Every one of those deaths, like every one of the 142 road deaths so far this year, is a story of tragedy for the family and community in question. Each road death is unacceptable because it leaves a mark on the affected family and community forever. It is probably unrealistic to expect to eliminate road accidents and deaths entirely, but we have to strive to meet that aim.
Most accidents are caused by defective roads, defective vehicles or defective drivers. This Bill seeks to deal with one aspect of the issue of defective drivers. Those who drive when they are tired, when they are under the influence of drink or other substances, or in a reckless manner can be defective in their driving. I commend the RSA, the AA and the Minister's office for working together on initiatives aimed at increasing driver awareness of these issues. For example, learners cannot get a learner driver permit until they have passed the theory test. They then have to take 12 hours of lessons — no more than one hour at a time — at an accredited driving instruction school. The new system costs learners money but also allows them to demonstrate their commitment to acquiring enough skills to take sole responsibility for a vehicle. It is a question of driving responsibly.
I would like to speak about the drink driving blood alcohol limit. This legislation would probably have been unacceptable ten years ago. Over the last ten years, we have seen a gradual but continuous acceptance of the fact that drink driving does not work. Drinking impairs the ability of drivers to make sound judgments. Statistics show that one in three accidents results from drink driving. In a survey, some 87% of drivers said it was shameful and irresponsible to drink and drive. I suppose we have to continue to worry about the 13% of drivers who do not share that view.
I suggest that drink driving is a generational issue. It is accepted that younger people, notwithstanding that they tend to drive at greater speeds, have a more responsible attitude to drink driving. They were brought up to think that way. It has been much more difficult for older people to change their attitudes. As other speakers have said, it used to be customary for people in rural areas, in particular, to go out and have a couple of pints before driving home at a speed well under the speed limit. That is not acceptable any more. This Bill will change the legal blood alcohol limit to a level that is generally accepted across the world. When the limit in Australia was reduced to 50 mg, the number of road deaths in Queensland decreased by 18% and the number of serious collisions decreased by 14%. It is effective. We cannot run away from it. We have to follow best practice and put it into law here.
This legislation will pass through the House shortly. It will be law within a couple of weeks. As other Deputies said, we need to consider the next steps. We should continue to improve the quality of the vehicles on our roads. The quality of the road network is a particularly challenging issue in these financially constrained times. We need to educate our young people and maintain their awareness of these issues. It is important to continue to improve vehicle standards.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Some excellent speeches have been made by Deputies on Second Stage. I hope the Minister and his colleagues will take some of the positive ideas and suggestions proposed by various speakers into account when they are formulating future policy. I welcome any measure aimed at reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our nation's roads. It is shocking to think there were over 600 road deaths per annum in some years in the 1970s. There were over 400 road deaths per annum in the earlier part of the last decade. As Deputy Doyle mentioned, the figure has dropped considerably to closer to 200 in recent years. I agree with the Deputy that every road death is one too many. In ten years time, I hope we can look back in shock at the fact that there were approximately 200 road deaths in each of 2010 and 2011 as the number will have reduced substantially in the interim. I welcome many of the measures included in this Bill. Anything that will reduce the incidence of death and serious injury on our roads is very welcome.
I suggest that in the run-up to the next finance Bill, the Minister should reflect on the application of vehicle registration tax to optional extra safety equipment in new cars. It is surprising and perhaps shocking that increased vehicle registration tax is applied if a person wants to install additional safety equipment, such as side air bags or an anti-lock braking system, when he or she is buying a new car. Given that such optional equipment has the potential to save lives, it should not be more expensive than necessary. Surely the State should not tax important equipment that has been proven to save lives. Perhaps that can be considered in the context of the finance Bill. I know this is a very difficult economic time, but we need to ask whether we can put a price on human lives. It would be easy to rectify this anomaly in the finance Bill. It should be considered because it could represent the difference between life and death for a number of individuals in the future.
I mentioned that many positive contributions to this debate have been made in recent days. As a rural Deputy, I must mention the difficulties that are being experienced by people living in the countryside. Rural publicans, in particular, are the big losers from the tightening of the drink driving laws. Rural dwellers who were used to a certain way of life have also lost out because life has become much more difficult for those whose social lives depended on being able to drive to the pub, have one or two pints and go home. We need to balance the measures we are implementing with measures that will make it easier for rural dwellers to maintain some social contact with their neighbours and friends. Many Deputies have mentioned that we need to work in tandem with rural publicans to find a solution that allows people to socialise in the traditional manner. As many rural shops and post offices have closed in recent years, the rural pub is one of the final outlets for rural people who wish to socialise. I know many elderly people whose only contact with other people is when they go to the pub for a pint at night. The Bill will make that impossible for them without the support of taxis or other form of transport. People cannot get taxis or hackneys in many rural communities and, therefore, the publicans need to be subsidised and helped in this regard.
There is a good argument for this as publicans contribute hugely to the economy, including to the Exchequer through VAT, rates, income tax and employer's PRSI, as well as providing a social outlet for people who would otherwise suffer from isolation. There should be measures such as tax breaks for publicans and, as Deputy Mulherin suggested, we need to consider the area of rates. We need to work with the publicans. I would like to see a concentrated approach towards ensuring people in rural areas will be able to go to and from the pub legally and avoid social isolation. This is very important and should be a focus of Government for the future.
I want to focus my remarks on one of the provisions of the Bill, taking into consideration some of the previous debates in the House on the same subject matter, namely, the question of the lowering of the blood alcohol limits. I am one of those who, over the years, have reached a strong conclusion that there should be no tolerance of driving while under the influence of alcohol or any other drug. Whether this Dáil or a future Dáil deals with the issue, it is something all of us know is inevitable.
I read some of the previous records of the House on this matter. As recently as eight years ago, not one single Deputy stood up in the House and said we should question whether it is right or safe that there should be a tolerance level for those who use alcohol or some other drug and then use their vehicle. We have heard certain arguments put forward today and yesterday. Why do we not take to its conclusion the argument that every so many years we would reduce the permitted level of alcohol and use the scientific evidence that this lowers the death rates? I read one contribution which stated the death rate was now down to "only six per week". If one were to say that to a family that has lost a member as a result of the actions of a drunk driver, one would get very little understanding, and rightly so.
We must think this through. Every time we, as parliamentarians, water down these measures, we must ask why we do not go the extra mile, as other Parliaments have done, and just ban it entirely, whether it is alcohol, cannabis, heroin or cocaine. We should ban it once and for all. That is the message people want to hear.
It was refreshing to hear today and yesterday that there are perhaps an increasing number of people who take the view I take, namely, that we must face up to an outright ban on the use of any drug, including the national drug, alcohol, which I enjoy myself occasionally. It may be the new Minister who will have to make a stand and be the only Minister in the history of the State to say this issue has to be confronted and that there must be a public debate on it. If there were a public debate, I believe I know on which side it would come down.
If one considers how other jurisdictions have dealt with this, not just in Europe but worldwide, there is no great difficulty for us. There are some who say we must reduce the alcohol level and try to reduce the number of deaths but then contradict themselves by asking us to consider our country cousins who want to go off for a few pints and then drive home. The life of someone living in the country is just as valuable as that of someone, such as myself, who lives in an urban centre. There should be no distinction.
Speakers in the debate have drawn a distinction between alcohol and drugs. If one compares the figures regarding illegal drugs and road casualties with those concerning the national drug, alcohol, the illegal drugs are out of the frame and are scarcely of consequence in the statistics.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the legislation. I want to comment first on an issue raised by several speakers. When a Bill is before the House and a problem is identified, people immediately turn to the work of the schools and suggest we should have some programme in the schools. When people make this point, I ask when our children will learn to read and write if we are all going to be preoccupied with alcohol programmes, sexual education programmes and mental health programmes. I understand this is an important aspect, but as individuals, parents, families and as a society, we have a responsibility to act in regard to the questions that arise in the context of this legislation. For example, we need to ask how we are to deal with drink driving in our society and not just place it at the foot of the school gate, time and again.
In the short time I have to speak, I would like to focus on one of the benefits of the boom, which is the relatively good road network. It has taken us a long time to catch up with the rest of Europe but, as a Deputy from outside the Pale who spends a lot of time on the road, I can definitely say the road infrastructure has improved. To be fair, my car is an extension of my office and, thanks to the late Mr. Steve Jobs, my iPhone and the hands-free kit are where I do much of my work. As I travel to and from Waterford on the M9, I am struck by the lack of services, which is a point raised by Deputy O'Sullivan earlier in the debate. This section of the Bill deals with the limits for drink driving, which is undoubtedly an important issue for us to tackle. Tiredness is another big killer, however, although it is not often spoken of. To be fair, the Road Safety Authority usually does a good job in terms of advertisement campaigns and public awareness coming up to bank holidays, but while the advice is to stop, have a coffee and take some time, if one is on the road from Dublin to Waterford there is nowhere to stop.
The majority of motorways throughout the country, including the M9, do not have stops where drivers can take a break. This is partly because it took until 2006 for the National Roads Authority to decide that motor service areas are a good idea. Just as the 2007 Act got up and running, however, the money ran out, and we are now left with the dilemma of what we might call "ghost motorways". Instead of signs telling drivers where they can stop on a motorway to take some time out to ensure their tiredness is not impairing their driving, they merely are being escorted off the road to a petrol station. This is not adequate for people who now commute long distances to work. They need to be able to pull in somewhere and this issue should be given serious consideration in the future. My concern is many drivers will simply choose to hold on until they reach their destination but if they already are fatigued, such time saving could come at a cost to their health and safety. Like other Members, I am aware that money is scarce, but service stops are important and one must ensure drivers have proper facilities available to them.
The legislation passing through the House is to be warmly welcomed as it helps to tighten up on breath testing for drink driving. It was interesting to learn from reading the Minister's helpful notes accompanying the legislation that a further road traffic (No. 3) Bill will be required to tidy up another mess left behind by Fianna Fáil. In 2010, the previous Government announced with great fanfare the harsh stance it intended to take on drink driving but did not equip the Garda with the requisite equipment to ensure the implementation of the legislation.
I will conclude by noting many Deputies have raised the issue of the need to educate young drivers. I commend Gay Byrne on the fantastic job he does, but is he the man one needs to reach out to young drivers to effect change? As one of the younger Members of the House, I am not being ageist and commend him on his work but consideration should be given to identifying a better role model to engage with such young people to ensure they change their behaviour.
I thank the Deputies who have contributed to the debate for their views and their general support for the Bill. The large number of Deputies who contributed to the debate demonstrates the seriousness with which the House views road safety issues. All are agreed that improvements have and are being made on road safety and that the country as a whole is reaping the benefits with the reduced fatalities on our roads. There is also general agreement across the House as to the reasons for the improvement. The vehicles being driven are more safety-focused, the roads on which people drive are better and safer, initiatives such as safety cameras are in place, enforcement by the Garda has played a key part, education for existing drivers and the next generation of drivers is vital and the laws Members have passed have ensured that road users must adopt a more responsible attitude. During the debate, there also were warnings against complacency. That will not happen and will not be allowed to happen. Although we are on target for the lowest annual fatalities on record, it is sobering to consider that since the Minister introduced this Bill in the Seanad on the Tuesday before last, seven people unfortunately have died as a result of road collisions. The fight must go on and I believe the enactment of this Bill will be another positive step in making the roads safer.
I now wish to address some issues raised by various Deputies. A number of Members raised the issue of driving under the influence of drugs. To clarify, it is illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a vehicle. When a garda suspects a motorist is driving under the influence of any intoxicant, that garda may arrest the person. Unlike alcohol, there is no legal limit for drugs and the garda must be satisfied that a driver is under the influence to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a vehicle. The Minister already has indicated he proposes to introduce stronger measures regarding impairment testing by the Garda as part of the next road traffic Bill. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, with the school of medicine in UCD, already has begun to train gardaí to enhance their assessment of drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs other than alcohol. Training commenced in April 2011, is at an advanced stage and will be completed before the impairment testing provisions come into legal effect. The MBRS is also keeping abreast of developments in Europe and across the world in respect of roadside testing for drugs. There is no feasible basis as yet in Ireland or in Europe for the introduction of a preliminary roadside test for drugs, as any testing devices are still in the prototype stages. While random drug driving testing, based on saliva specimens, is in operation in some jurisdictions, it is very limited in application. The Government is aware that drug driving is becoming an increasing problem and will not be slow to introduce feasible and workable measures to deal with the issue.
A number of other Deputies referred to the need for continuing education, particularly of young people and schoolgoers, to instil proper practices and good road behaviour at the earliest possible opportunity. I listened carefully to Members' comments in this regard. Since its establishment, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has carried out extensive information and education campaigns aimed at all sectors of society. The most significant activity has seen the RSA join forces with its counterpart in Northern Ireland, the Department of the Environment, to promote anti-drink driving message on an all-island basis. This has resulted in the development of the most successful and hard-hitting road safety advertisements ever to be viewed on television, North and South, and Members will be familiar with those advertisements. The RSA has also developed comprehensive integrated road safety education programmes at preschool, primary, post-primary and third levels, as well as in the community. Specifically, education resources are used in secondary schools and include tailored modules on raising awareness of drink driving issues. In recent years, the authority has also developed a transition year road safety programme which targets the next generation of drivers before they begin formal instruction. In addition to the major campaigns, the authority has also produced a suite of educational literature, including posters and leaflets that have been distributed to communities throughout the country. This distribution has been assisted by An Garda Síochána and road safety officers with local authorities.
Deputy Broughan referred to the testing of unconscious drivers. In the general scheme of the Bill which the Minister discussed with the Oireachtas joint committee, provision was made for taking a blood specimen from a driver involved in a collision who was brought to hospital in an unconscious state. In the joint committee's response to issues raised, its Chairman referred to the joint committee's concerns that this proposal might raise constitutional issues. As a result, the Department has asked the Attorney General's office to examine the proposal. I appreciate this is an issue of concern and the Department would like, if possible, to make provision for dealing satisfactorily with such occurrences. When the views of the Attorney General's office have been received, the Department will decide how best to proceed with the matter either in the next road traffic Bill or thereafter.
Some Deputies raised the issue of speed limits. The power to decide the speed limit applying to individual roads within an area rests with the relevant road authority in consultation with the Garda Commissioner and with the consent of the National Roads Authority in the case of national roads. Road safety is a major consideration in the application of speed limits and enforcement is a matter for the Garda Síochána. The then Department of Transport issued guidelines in January 2011 to all local authorities and the onus is on each local authority to take them into account with regard to the speed limits to be set for all roads in its area of responsibility. The purpose of these guidelines is to provide advice and guidance on the making of speed limit by-laws by county and city councils for the purpose of applying special speed limits. After taking the guidelines into account, it is considered best practice for local authority officials to advise the elected members of their respective councils on what should be a suitable speed limit regime for different roads in their areas of responsibility.
A number of Deputies have raised the issue of rest areas on motorways. At present, three motorway service areas are open, two on the M1 and one on the N4, and the NRA has planning approval for a further four such areas. While they are not a substitute for service areas, there are a number of parking areas along the motorways at which vehicles can be parked safely to allow drivers to take breaks or rest periods. However, this is a valid issue that must be addressed in the near future.
Deputy Farrell raised the issue of heavy goods vehicles, HGVs. It already is an offence for HGVs to use the outside lane on a three-lane motorway and on a two-lane motorway, they can only use the outside lane for overtaking and must then move into the inside lane.
A number of Deputies on all sides raised the issue of rural isolation, various other matters pertaining to rural Ireland and how this Bill will affect rural Ireland. This issue must be addressed in a wider context and the Government is committed to examining the entire issue of integrated rural transport. As the Minister of State responsible, I hope to make proposals in the near future to consider how to make better use of the transport services across the HSE, Bus Éireann, school buses and the rural transport programme with a view to advancing service provision in rural areas. The issue also will be coming up for consideration in the taxi and hackney review committee that I chair.
Deputy Healy-Rae asked about daytime running lights, DRL. After an extensive consultative process the RSA decided against making DRL compulsory. However, it is an issue that will continue to be monitored. There are several safety issues in cars and this issue will be considered over a period to determine how it can be better addressed. Deputy Durkan spoke about the age of cars. Statistics indicate that the older the vehicle, the greater chance of defects and therefore the greater danger presented on the road. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised the legitimate issue of signage at bus stops for cyclists. The matter will be looked at and taken up in the Department forthwith. Deputy Harrington spoke about high-visibility vests. The Licensed Vintners Association and FBD Insurance have provided funding to the RSA for the purchase and distribution of such high-visibility vests, which we support.
Deputy Ellis spoke about response times from emergency services to collisions, particularly in remote areas. There is an action point in the current road safety strategy that requires the HSE to examine best practice and put in place a system to improve the survival, treatment and recovery of those involved in road collisions. Regular meetings of the relevant stakeholders take place to examine progress on the strategy. The next meeting is scheduled for next month. The Deputy also raised the possibility of North-South co-operation on road safety matters. Discussion is taking place at official level with the authorities in Northern Ireland, under the North-South Ministerial Council to agree a system of mutual recognition of penalty points. As a pilot scheme, it is proposed to identify a small number of offences where an appropriate level of penalty points can be applied. This is likely to take some time to conclude because the systems in both jurisdictions differ considerably.
As part of the graduated driver licensing system, my Department, with the RSA, the Garda and the Courts Service is examining the possibilities for alternative sentencing for road traffic offences. The type of penalties suggested by a number of Deputies will be considered as part of that examination. I expect the group to finalise its views before the end of the year.
Deputy Eoghan Murphy raised the issue of car clamping. The programme for Government contains a commitment to regulate the clamping industry. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, proposes to discuss this issue with the Oireachtas joint committee soon and to publish a Bill in 2012. Deputy Hannigan and others expressed reservations about taking specimens from drivers in hospital. Taking of blood or urine in hospital is already provided for in legislation. This Bill provides that the blood or urine will be tested at the lower levels. The purpose of the provision is to ensure that all drivers, involved in collisions where death or injury has occurred, will be tested for alcohol. For a long time, drivers removed to hospital after a collision were not tested, which seems unreasonable. The blood or urine tests will only be taken when the treating doctor agrees.
A number of issues were raised that relate to important aspects of road safety but are not contemplated by this Bill. As the Minister mentioned in his opening statement, it is proposed to introduce another road traffic Bill later this year and the issues raised will be considered for inclusion at drafting stage.
The provisions in the Bill will have a very positive effect on road safety. Mandatory breath testing at the lower blood alcohol concentration levels will ensure that all drivers, involved in serious collisions, who have exceeded these limits will not escape detection.
As we are all well aware road traffic legislation is the most challenged legislation in our courts. As a result we continually examine Road Traffic Acts to strengthen the provisions and close any perceived loopholes. The Bill makes further strides in this direction. It is our wish to have it enacted as quickly as possible so that its provisions can be commenced at an early stage. Strong legislation reduces death and injury on our roads and this Bill contributes in this regard.
I thank the Deputies for facilitating the introduction of the Bill and their contributions to the debate.