I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to introduce the Bill. It will build on the record of improvement in safety on our roads over the past decade and introduce measures that will further contribute to road safety in the years to come. We have witnessed a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths from 415 in 2001 to 161 in 2012. This did not happen by chance; it was achieved against a backdrop of increasing numbers of vehicles in the country. We have discussed previously the measures that led to the improvement in road safety statistics in recent years. The establishment of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points systems, random breath testing for alcohol and lower permissible limits, the enactment of targeted legislation, the establishment of a dedicated Garda traffic corps and the introduction of safety cameras are some of the contributors to the reduction in fatalities and the positive change in driver behaviour.
Crucially, there has been broad all-party support for road safety measures in recent years. That was important and I hope it will continue. The first legislation passed by this Dáil related to road safety. I would like to acknowledge the essential work done by the Garda in enforcing the law on our roads. In addition, we should remember the vital role of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in the battle against intoxicated driving. Finally, the RSA has played a central role in the many improvements in road safety in the past seven years since its foundation. I would like to acknowledge, in particular, the enormous contribution made by Mr. Noel Brett, the first chief executive officer, who will soon move on from the authority. The RSA has grown in stature and effectiveness under his leadership. The public owe him and the staff of the authority a great debt of gratitude. Few State agencies can measure their success in terms of lives saved and the dramatic decline in road deaths in the past seven years is something in which Mr. Brett and his staff can rightly take pride. The RSA will continue to build in the coming years on the work done under his leadership.
All stakeholders have played a part in bringing the safety message to road users and in stressing, above all, the importance of personal responsibility for drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians who all share our roads. The record low in road fatalities last year of 161 was testament to the work and commitment of a number of individuals and agencies but, most important, it was an indication that the public is heeding the message and amending its habits and behaviour for the good of all. Unfortunately, it looks as though fatalities in 2013 will show an increase on 2012. As of today, 145 people have died on our roads this year. This is 18 higher than at the same date last year. The reasons are not immediately clear. The average monthly death figure has increased to 16, as against 13 in 2012 and statistics show that the increases apply to almost all parts of the country. The two main agencies involved, the RSA and the Garda, meet regularly to discuss the causes of collisions and the steps necessary to address the issues arising. We must all redouble our efforts in this area to try to keep the number of fatalities to the minimum possible for the remainder of this year and to revert to the downward trend of previous years. We must continue to ensure that our cars and vehicles are safe, that road users are educated about how to use our roads safely and, as we move into winter and the days get darker, wetter and icier, that enforcement is stepped up.
The Bill introduces measures that will better prepare learner drivers for dealing with the conditions they will face on our roads and by aiding the Garda in its fight against traffic offences. With a view to building on the success of previous years, I launched, in March of this year, the Road Safety Strategy 2013-2020. The new strategy identifies 144 actions to be implemented by key partners in the eight-year period that will lead to a further significant reduction in fatalities. The strategy also highlights, perhaps for the first time, the need to devote attention to serious injuries caused by traffic collisions. We will not lose our focus on reducing road deaths but we will expand that focus to embrace reductions in serious injuries as well. This is the first road safety strategy to set targets for reducing serious injuries as well as fatalities.
The first step taken on this issue was a conference held in Dublin Castle during the Irish presidency of the EU earlier this year when experts from a number of countries provided insightful input into how the matter of serious injuries should be addressed and why it is important to do so. The main causes of road crashes are excessive and inappropriate speed, intoxication, fatigue and distraction. Initiatives and measures are being taken on an ongoing basis to address all of these. Speed is perhaps the issue that requires greatest attention. I am informed that excessive speed is a factor in the vast majority of road collisions that result in fatalities or serious injuries. As a nation of drivers, we drive too fast and without due care for road or prevailing weather conditions. I established a speed limits review group last year to examine this issue, which comprises representatives of my Department, the RSA, the Garda, the National Roads Authority, the County and City Managers Association, local authorities and the Automobile Association. The group is finalising its report and I expect to publish it in the next few weeks.
Driving under the influence of intoxicants has been a serious problem on our roads for a long time. In recent years, the Oireachtas passed legislation to discourage the consumption of alcohol by drivers. We have reduced blood alcohol concentration levels for all drivers and made mandatory the testing of all drivers involved in collisions where injury has occurred. I am taking a further step in this Bill by providing for the testing for alcohol of drivers left incapacitated or unconscious and removed to hospital following collisions. In recent times, there has been a reduction in the number of drivers detected with alcohol in their systems and while drink driving remains a significant driver behavioural issue, it is timely that we strengthen road traffic legislation in regard to drug driving. Unfortunately, it will not be as straightforward as the approach taken to alcohol detection. Alcohol is a chemical and its presence in the body and levels involved can be measured reliably and scientifically by the devices that have been developed and improved over a number of years. Drugs are not as easily detected and no device can provide evidence of the presence of all drugs.
A number of countries in Europe, including Ireland, are liaising on developments that are taking place in identifying suitable devices. I have asked the Medical Bureau of Road Safety to address this issue as a matter of priority. The focus of the bureau's studies is on oral fluid based roadside screening devices and the implementation group, established under the chairmanship of the bureau, is currently examining the specifications of the required device as part of a future tender process. It is hoped to publish the invitation to tender early next year. In the meantime, while the work of the group is proceeding, I am introducing provisions in this Bill that will assist the Garda in determining if a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant. When I am assured that devices have been developed to permit roadside testing, I will introduce appropriate legislation to allow for their use at that time.
The legislation builds on the work done in recent years and focuses on strengthening the law in three particular areas. These are driver licensing, penalty points, and testing of drivers for intoxication. There are also a number of miscellaneous measures, which I will explain later. The changes proposed in this Bill will contribute to a better quality of driving on our roads and to greater deterrence of intoxicated driving. All the major elements of this Bill have been discussed in advance with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. In the course of drafting, it became clear that it is possible to deal with a number of proposals through secondary legislation which were included in the heads of the Bill that were sent to the committee. These relate to proposals originally made by Deputy Eoghan Murphy in a private members' Bill. Regulations to allow road authorities to provide on-street spaces for car clubs and recharging of electric vehicles have been prepared. In response to input from the joint Oireachtas committee, regulations to prohibit texting with hands-free devices while driving have also been prepared. These are currently being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and I intend to bring them into force as soon as possible.
In recent weeks, there has been much talk of Dáil reform and the need to include committees and backbenchers in the legislative process in a more meaningful way. This is a debate worth having and many have made valid and interesting contributions to it. Sadly, however, some contributors are not as well informed as they might be and do not seem to have noticed the changes that have already taken place; whether it is requiring the chairpersons of State boards to appear before a committee prior to appointment, Friday sittings to enable backbenchers to have their own legislation discussed or the new practice of sending Bills to committee at heads of Bill stage, the pre-legislative stage, for early input and political-proofing by members. The two statutory instruments I will sign into law in the coming weeks are a direct result and concrete outcome of those Dáil reforms. I am accepting the smarter travel Bill proposed by Deputy Murphy and will enact it through secondary legislation and I am doing the same regarding proposals made by the committee at pre-legislative stage relating to mobile phones. Furthermore, a number of other Members have proposed private members' legislation in the broad area of road safety, including Deputies Dooley, Ellis and Lawlor. In so far as amendments are practical and work within the existing policy framework, I am keen to facilitate them and, therefore, I ask that they advise my office as early as possible of the amendments they are tabling in order that I can provide appropriate assistance with a view to accepting them, if possible. Some might find the legislative work done by Deputies and Senators on their own or in committee to be boring or "not newsworthy" but it is important and the changes being made to the way the Dáil operates are opening up opportunities for them to make law.
I refer to the main provisions of the Bill. Part 2 will make important reforms to driver licensing. Since 2010, Ireland has been committed to introducing a graduated driver licensing system, GDLS. The system is a phased approach to driver learning designed to enhance the learning process and contribute to greater road safety. There is no internationally agreed template for a GDLS. The elements which go into the system vary from country to country depending on what is most appropriate to national circumstances. In Ireland, following an extensive consultation process, the RSA developed nine proposals which form a GDLS appropriate to Irish circumstances and these were published in 2010. The RSA's proposals included mandatory tuition, minimum hours of experience of accompanied driving and a period of restricted driving after passing a driving test.
The RSA decided not to recommend some GDLS elements used in other jurisdictions such as a curfew on learner drivers or restrictions on the number of passengers a learner may carry, as they would not be appropriate in an Irish context, particularly in rural communities. Of the nine GDLS measures, three have now been introduced - compulsory basic training with an approved driving instructor; lower alcohol levels for learners; and the reconfiguration of the driver theory test.
The Bill will introduce three more GDLS measures. Sections 3 and 4 will create a new category of novice driver, defined as a driver in the first two years of holding a full licence, and require the display of an N-plate. A person will be a novice driver only once - if he or she holds a full licence in one category, he or she will not revert to being a novice if he or she later qualifies in any other category. The countdown of the two year novice period will be frozen during any period when the driver is disqualified.
I will also provide in section 8 for learners and novices to have a disqualification threshold under the penalty points system of six points, as opposed to the normal 12 point threshold. Section 5 will allow vehicle insurers access to endorsements on a person's entry in the national vehicle and driver file, subject to certain conditions.
Section 6 provides that people taking the driving test must first complete a minimum amount of accompanied driving. The amount of experience required will be set out in regulations. The intention behind this change is twofold. At an obvious level, it is aimed at ensuring a minimum of experience before drivers take the test. More fundamentally, I also intend to promote a culture change in attitudes towards accompanying drivers. In Ireland we still have a tendency to see the need for learners to be accompanied as something of a nuisance or just a technicality. International experience shows, however, that accompanying drivers can and should play an important role in the learning process. Each of the nine GDLS measures is beneficial on its own. However, the more measures we introduce, the greater the cumulative effect of the whole system in enhancing the driver learning experience and, ultimately, improving safety on the roads.
Part 3 of the Bill deals with penalty points. The system of penalty points was first introduced in the Road Traffic Act 2002. The main goal of the system is not to penalise people but to make them more aware of unsafe driving behaviour and encourage greater caution and awareness in driving. The system is always open to change: times and practices change and what might have been a serious problem at one time might not be as great an issue at another. Equally, new problems might arise. For example, few could have realised 20 years ago the issues that might arise from people using mobile phones while driving. The year 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of the penalty points system. While there have been additions and changes to the system over the decade, I decided that this milestone provided an appropriate point at which to conduct a comprehensive review of the entire system and identify any change necessary.
The review of the penalty points system which my Department conducted made recommendations for the introduction of new penalty point offences and changes to the number of penalty points to be applied to certain road traffic offences. When it was completed, I forwarded the review to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications for consideration. As part of its deliberations, the committee met the Road Safety Authority, AA Ireland and the Irish Insurance Federation. I received the views of the committee on 28 September 2012. I am pleased to say the committee was broadly supportive of the changes proposed in the review. We are all agreed on the great importance of reducing the number of road traffic cases that come before the courts. At the same time the committee made a number of very helpful suggestions which have fed into the preparation of the Bill.
The committee also made some very useful recommendations not directly related to the current Bill. For example, it recommended a general review of speed limits which, as I mentioned, is under way. A further suggestion was to provide for routine examination of mobile phone records of drivers involved in serious road traffic collisions. I discussed the matter with An Garda Síochána which has informed me that it does, in fact, have the necessary powers already. The powers in question come from wider justice legislation, rather than road traffic legislation.
In finalising my proposals for changes to the penalty points regime I considered carefully the recommendations contained in the review and the views expressed by the joint committee. I was also conscious of the GDLS proposals to reduce the penalty point threshold for disqualification from driving for learner and novice drivers and the need to keep the path open to harmonising practices here and in Northern Ireland, with a view to mutually recognising penalty points North and South at a later stage. The penalty points proposals in the Bill, therefore, represent the product of a considerable amount of examination and consideration of the issues and input on the part of a wide variety of people and organisations.
Section 7 will repeal section 53 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. That section was designed to introduce a process for recording and accumulating penalty points where an individual was not a licence holder, or where a licence record could not be identified or where the driver held a foreign driving licence. The need for such a provision arose from the Department's national vehicle and driver file having a significant number of such records. In many instances, there was a high confidence in the ability to match such points with known driver records and facilitate the accumulation of points. However, it was also recognised that the Department required additional legal power to carry out this work and, accordingly, the provisions of section 53 were included in the 2010 Road Traffic Act. Subsequently and following receipt of legal advice, it became clear that these provisions were not sufficiently robust to permit such matching. I, therefore, intend to repeal section 53 and replace it with a revised procedure. A number of minor matters also addressed in section 53 will be restated in the Bill.
Section 8 which provides for the new penalty point disqualification threshold for learner and novice drivers also provides for the definition of endorsement of penalty points in cases where a second record relating to the same individual is identified or created.
The principal purpose of Part 3 is to amend the penalty points regime in the light of the Department's review. This involves a significant amount of detail which will be examined further on Committee Stage. At this point, however, I shall give an overview. The changes proposed involve: 11 new penalty point offences; the introduction of the option of paying a fixed charge and receiving lower penalty points rather than going to court for three offences, including driving without an NCT certificate; increases in penalty points on payment of a fixed charge in respect of 17 offences; and increases in penalty points on conviction in respect of 15 offences. The offences where penalty points are being increased include speeding, driving while holding a mobile phone, dangerous overtaking and failure to obey traffic. New penalty point offences include non-display of an L or N-plate, contravention of rules on mini-roundabouts and a failure to respect a Stop sign.
Intoxicated driving issues are addressed in Part 4 of the Bill. In section 11 I will provide for intoxication impairment testing which involves non-technological cognitive tests such as walking in a straight line or touching one's nose. It was originally provided for in legislation in 2010 which has not been commenced. The 2010 provisions are already obsolete. The new provisions which will replace them will allow a member of the Garda Síochána to require a person to undergo such tests, with the details of the tests to be prescribed in regulations. The results of the tests may be used in support of the Garda forming an opinion that the person is intoxicated and will be admissible as evidence in court. The Garda has already received instruction from the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, on the operation of impairment testing.
Section 12 will allow a specimen of blood to be taken from an incapacitated driver following a road traffic collision, subject to medical consent. The testing of drivers for intoxication, whether through alcohol or other substances, is an essential part of ensuring safety on the roads. It is our policy that all drivers should be tested for alcohol and drugs following serious collisions. The law, as it stands, leaves a gap - drivers must give consent to provide a blood or urine sample and so drivers who are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated cannot be tested. The current Bill will close that loophole. In developing the proposed new system for testing incapacitated drivers my Department held extensive discussions with An Garda Síochána, the MBRS, the Irish Medical Organisation, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine. This involved a considerable amount of work in order to devise a procedure which would be both practicable and legally permissible. Under the proposed procedure, a specimen of blood can be taken from an incapacitated driver but only in a hospital and only subject to medical consent. Where a specimen is taken, it will be split in two and both parts forwarded to the MBRS. The existing procedure, with conscious drivers, is that the specimen is split into two parts and one is offered to the driver. I understand it is common for drivers to refuse, in which case both parts are sent to the MBRS. The MBRS will conduct the necessary analysis of a specimen from an incapacitated driver in exactly the same way as a specimen is treated under the current system. This involves tests to determine the presence and concentration of alcohol or the presence of a drug or drugs in the specimen. The result will be retained on file by the MBRS until the driver regains capacity. If and when the driver regains capacity, he or she will be asked to consent to the use of the test result in evidence. Refusal will constitute an offence equivalent to that of a driver with capacity refusing to provide a specimen. If the driver gives permission for the use of the test result in evidence, the MBRS will issue a completed certificate of analysis and offer the second part of the sample to the driver. The taking of a specimen from an incapacitated driver could be a basis for future prosecution of the driver, if he or she were found to be intoxicated. Equally, it could provide exonerating evidence, if he or she were proved not to be intoxicated. The public good, as well as the justice system, will be served by closing this loophole. I have included several consequential amendments which follow from the testing of intoxicated drivers.
In Part 5 of the Bill I address a range of other road traffic issues.