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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 13 Dec 2016

Vol. 932 No. 3

Road Traffic Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Report Stage

Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, are related and may be taken together.

Before we commence, I want to raise an issue about the groupings of Report Stage amendments. Amendments Nos. 7 and 10 to 12, inclusive, are grouped together but I do not believe it is appropriate to discuss them together. While they relate to learner drivers, amendments Nos. 7 and 12 relate to insurance matters and amendments Nos. 10 and 11 relate to the consequences for owners of cars driven by learner drivers. It would be more appropriate that amendments Nos. 7 and 12 be taken together while amendments Nos. 10 and 11 be taken separately.

Having reviewed this, I am of the view that amendments Nos. 7 and 10 to 12, inclusive, can be discussed together. Of course, they will be moved separately.

I accept they can be taken together but I am arguing they ought not to be taken together, given the separate issues they relate to.

I have decided they will be taken together. It is a matter for the Chair. They will be voted on separately.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 8, between lines 34 and 35, to insert the following:

“(1C) Subsection (1A) does not apply to a person in respect of a drug specified at reference number 6 in column (1) of the Schedule where the person is the holder of a medical exemption certificate which indicates that at the time at which that drug was found to be present in his or her blood it had been lawfully prescribed for him or her and which is signed by the doctor who prescribed it.

(1D) The Minister will, upon commencement of this Act, in conjunction with the Garda Commissioner, make regulations specifying the minimum Levels (units in whole blood) in respect of each drug specified at reference number 6 in column (1) of the Schedule.”,”.

I welcome the fact we are finally on Report Stage of this important Bill. When I was driving to Leinster House this morning, I heard an effective advertisement by the chair of the Road Safety Authority, Liz O’Donnell, speaking poignantly and factually as to where we are with road safety. Unfortunately, the trend in good figures in this regard obtained over recent years is in reverse. I hate to refer to figures and statistics when we are actually talking about lives tragically lost through road traffic accidents. So far this year, 32 more lives have been lost on the roads than in 2015. That is regrettable and a movement in the wrong direction. With every one of those fatalities, a family and a community is devastated.

The purpose of this Bill is to improve road safety for everybody and militate against further fatalities on our roads. It is regrettable that it has taken until the end of the year to bring forward the Bill. I know it was meant to have been brought forward last week and Fianna Fáil facilitated the Government when it wanted to kick it forward for a week. That is okay as it is only one week. This Bill, however, was before the previous Seanad and it has taken the guts of ten months to bring it to where it is today. That is regrettable and leads me to question the priority road safety is given by the Department under the Minister's leadership.

Amendment No. 1 aims to extend to the list of drugs which can be tested for on the roadside because we believe the original listing in the Bill is too restrictive. Our amendment will give greater scope for what can be tested on the roadside. The Bill will allow the Garda to use a mouth swab or other detection kits in the same way it uses breathalysers for alcohol. This is a welcome proposal which is long overdue.

Driver impairment, including as a result of the misuse of alcohol and drugs, is still a very large contributory factor in road traffic accidents. The Schedule list of banned substances in section 4(1A) and 5(1A) seems very limited. It only lists the main illegal drugs in Ireland, namely cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Based on the current national and international prevalence data, the drugs to be targeted initially in the roadside chemical drug testing, RCDT, are cannabis, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines. The House will have to excuse my pronunciation on some drugs. I do not take them so I do not have cause for using the pronunciation on a regular basis.

However, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, study, on whose recommendation the Bill is based, relies on a 16-year old study, Driving Under the Influence of Drugs in Ireland: Results of a Nationwide Survey 2000-2001. The study indicates that cannabis and benzodiazepines are currently the most prevalent drugs in driving under the influence of drugs cases, followed by opiates, methadone and cocaine. While it might be the case that these drugs remain the most widely used in Ireland, it is certainly also the case that over the past 15 to 16 years, drugs use in Ireland and internationally has evolved significantly. In particular, the use of psychoactive drugs has become much more prevalent in that period. According to the EU drug markets report 2015, Irish young people are the biggest users of illegal psychoactive drugs in the EU. According to the survey of people aged 15 to 24, the highest level of use in the past year was in Ireland. Spain, France and Slovenia followed after. Such psychoactive substances are not included in the Schedule of banned substances in the Bill.

Another limitation in the Bill, and one which we tried to improve by the amendments we tabled, is that it ignores the possible misuse of legal prescription drugs which can be worse than alcohol for impairing driving. In particular, the misuse of prescription benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax has risen significantly over the past 15 years. According to the HSE, the number of people seeking treatment for addiction to benzodiazepines has more than doubled since 2009. While benzodiazepines are often prescribed sedatives used for the treatment of anxiety disorders and insomnia, they have also become increasingly common as recreational drugs. Recent statistics show that these drugs were the main problem drug of 547 people who sought treatment for substance abuse in 2012. While it is acknowledged the Bill cannot take a zero tolerance approach to individuals driving after consuming such prescription drugs, the inclusion of a provision to address drivers caught abusing such a drug would strengthen the Bill significantly.

That is the context in which we are bringing forward this amendment. We are doing so in the interest of being constructive and in the interest of improving the Bill. In that context, I hope the Minister will take on board the amendments.

Amendment No. 2 proposes to increase the number of drugs included in the Bill. The Bill is restrictive because it only includes heroin, cocaine and cannabis. There are many other drugs and the inclusion of other substances would strengthen the Bill. The Minister said on Committee Stage that he guaranteed the drugs raised in this and Deputy Troy's amendment would be considered for inclusion. He agreed to come back with a timeframe for the expansion of the drugs included in the legislation. Has the Minister given consideration to that? Will he give us a commitment that he will include some sort of timeframe for that?

I support the amendments tabled by Deputy Troy and Deputy Munster. I did not get a chance to attend Committee Stage but on Second Stage we had discussion on this and the Minister came back on it. Quite clearly, the drugs in the existing Schedule are some of the most widely used. Given the crisis at the moment, the increased casualties on the roads, what we know has been happening and the fact we could have begun the process of drug driving testing a decade ago, the wider amendments are the right way to go.

It seems to me that the reference to subsection (1D) in amendment No. 1 gives the Minister reasonable options in terms of dealing with this. It does not prescribe anything at this point in time but provides for a commitment to make regulations in conjunction with the Garda Commissioner on the commencement of the Act. It seems a reasonable amendment which we would be happy to support.

I thank the Deputies for the contributions they made this evening and throughout the debate on the Bill, which has been addressed in a pretty non-partisan way, which is healthy. People realise the importance and urgency of this. Deputy Troy referred to it quite rightly when he said this is a matter of saving lives. All it is about is saving lives and saving people from injuries and collision.

Deputy Troy asked if we take this seriously since it has been delayed so long. That is a fair point. In preparing to bring a road traffic Bill to this House, one is to some extent always chasing the Bill. There are always new measures that are urgent and which have to go in so the Bill is delayed for the next measure. We were preparing drafts on issues such as speeding and written-off vehicles. We were waiting over the summer period when the Dáil was not sitting for them to be drafted and they were included. We produced our own amendments as a result of that and they are included in the Bill. We could go on like that forever but we cannot do that. There are several other measures that are now necessary and which will have to be introduced in a forthcoming Bill. They have been suggested in the House, but for various reasons they cannot be included in the Bill. Some are in the wrong Bill and some will just take a lot longer to include because of various complications and we have to call a stop at some stage. I agree with the impatience over the delay. It was considered urgent to include one or two of these things in this Bill, which we are bringing through now and which we hope to now bring into law before Christmas.

Both Deputies Troy and Munster had again proposed amendments to the new drug driving offences in the Bill which they introduced on Committee Stage. In both cases, though in different ways, they are proposing the extension of the drugs referred to in the Bill beyond the three drugs - cannabis, cocaine and heroin - which are already referred to. I will re-emphasise what it is we are doing in this Bill. It is already an offence to be driving or in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle while under the influence of any intoxicant to such an extent as to be incapable of controlling the vehicle. This offence requires the Garda Síochána to prove the presence of a drug and that the driver is impaired.

Debate adjourned.