Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report Stage (Resumed)

Bill recommitted in respect of amendments Nos. 4 to 21, inclusive, and amendment No. 28.

Deputy Mattie McGrath was in possession on amendment No. 4 which was recommitted.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 4:
In page 3, to delete line 10 and substitute the following:
“1. (1) The Road Traffic Act 2010 is amended in section 4 by the substitution of the following for subsection (5):
“(5) A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on indictable conviction to a fine not exceeding €10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.”.
(2) The Road Traffic Act 2010 is amended in section 29—”.
- (Deputy Robert Troy)

By way of introduction-----

Can we please have order? I ask Deputy McGrath to proceed.

----regarding the recommital of the Bill, I and some of my colleagues who represent rural constituencies have come in for a lot of criticism. It is unfair criticism as far as we are concerned. We contend that we did not recommit the Bill and we did not ask that it be recommitted. We attended on Committee Stage and asked to discuss some of our amendments on different mornings but we were not allowed to do so. We just got stonewalling. The Minister, Deputy Ross, did not have it ready. All the blame cannot be apportioned to us, the Rural Independents, or whatever the Minister called us this morning - I think it was "the lost cause". We are elected by the people of Tipperary, Cork, Kerry and many other areas. The people who will decide if we are a lost cause will be the electorate in our constituencies. I am thankful we have elections and not a dictatorship.

Last week, I appealed to the Minister to reconsider branding us as road traffic terrorists. It has awful connotations, especially in the current climate worldwide. I hope he has reflected over the weekend and perhaps in his opening remarks tonight he might withdraw those comments although they were not made in this House. My colleague, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, who was named, has his own views.

I appeal to the Minister's greater judgment to allow us to have our debate. We feel that parts of this Bill are unworkable and legislation that is unworkable is not good legislation. Legislation implemented in this House must pass a litmus test that there must be relatively broad agreement. We will never get unanimous agreement or anything near that but there must be a majority in agreement and have goodwill to have any legislation accepted and, indeed, self-policed. No police force in the world can police without the support of the general public.

I refer to the proposal to amend the Road Traffic Act 2016 to repeal section 39 and the proposal to amend the Road Traffic Act 2010 to rectify certain technical errors in sections 13A and 13B. We were certainly not responsible, nor was the Minister when he was in opposition, for any technical errors. We are the people who live in and represent rural Ireland. I refer also to the proposal to amend the Road Traffic Act 1994 to provide for the detention by An Garda Síochána of a vehicle being driven by an unaccompanied learner driver. I have been contacted by many people over last week and the weekend. I referred in the main previously to na daoine óga, the young people, but I have been contacted by people aged from their 30s to their 70s about this issue.

One woman is in her 80s and she is driving with an L plate. She is very concerned about the legislation. She is a law abiding citizen and has never done any harm to anyone, thankfully. She wants to finish out her days in relative peace. She does not want to be excluded from social interaction with her peers in her local village - playing cards, getting necessary provisions to live and exist and indeed going to Mass. That is all she uses the car for. I have long called for insurance companies, on issues like this, to charge payment on the kilometres driven. This woman might not drive 100 km in a month, and she does not.

I refer to the proposal to amend the Road Traffic Act 1961 to provide for an offence by the owner of a mechanically propelled vehicle which is driven by an unlicensed driver - the unlicensed driver should not be on the road and I have no problem with that - or by a learner driver who, contrary to regulations, is not accompanied by a qualified driver; and for consequential amendment of the Long Title to reflect the content of the Bill. That is the cause of the delay because the Bill was recommitted in respect of those provisions and we are entitled to deal with them. We are now discussing amendments Nos. 4 to 21, inclusive, and No. 28. That is where we are at now. I did not want to come in here last week to give a history lesson to anyone, but the inadequacies in this area and the sheer inability of people, young and old, but mainly young people, to get a driving test in my constituency, my county and many other counties is simply shocking.

I want those issues to be dealt with before we legislate. If those people cannot get a date for a driving test, how can they prove they are fit to drive without an accompanying driver? I heard an item on Tipp FM this morning and subsequently made contact with a Mr. Thomas Ryan from Thurles. His 23 year old daughter went to do a test last week. She had her car for three years and was learning to drive, like most young people. She had done the required lessons and indeed had taken a second lot of lessons. She is a very careful driver. Her car passed the NCT two Fridays ago. She then went to do her test on the following Tuesday. The car was not driven between passing the NCT and her trip to the test centre. The inspector at the test centre carried out a visual inspection, opening the bonnet. It is important that people understand how a car is propelled mechanically and where all the different parts that need to be regularly checked are, including water, oil and the battery. The inspector noticed that a cap on the expansion tank - not the radiator or the overflow tank - was missing. It had been missing since the car was bought. Mr. Ryan is a mechanic himself. The inspector refused to do the test and failed that applicant, who was devastated. She had spent almost €1,000 on lessons, had purchased the car, insured it, run it and learned to drive it. After presenting for the test, having waited for six months, she was dismissed. When her father contacted the RSA, he was told that the tester has more power than the NCT people.

I asked the Minister earlier about the NCT process and the buildings the RSA rents, and asserted that every provider is operating illegally because they are outside health and safety legislation. I am asking the Minister for a third time to tell me whether I am talking balderdash or if I am correct. Has there been any investigation? Is the RSA totally above the law when it comes to the operation of these centres? Mr. Ryan was told that the tester had the right to fail his daughter's car. Road testing of vehicles should be totally overhauled, and there should be a fair advisory issued. The NCT passed the car, but if a problem is spotted during the NCT there is a fair advisory issued where the owner is asked to get something fixed and then return to be certified. Mr. Ryan's daughter will now have to pay another €55 for another test. Money is not growing in the back garden for these people. We are not talking about mushrooms growing in a shed. The girl had a job offer and she had to turn it down. She is a single parent and now has to mind her child without a car. She has given up the ghost, considering all of the issues she experienced. She had to get the lessons and then get the appointment for the test. Incidentally, she then had to wait a month before she could get a new test. She is now not going to bother; she feels the Minister, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the RSA are vilifying her by passing this legislation, putting her off the road and locking her in her home. She has no access to buses or to the Luas. She does not have access to the rural bus link that the Minister was talking about this weekend. She cannot get access to her work or to schools by train. Does the Minister or his officials have any thoughts about the impact this legislation will have on these particular families? The girl is lucky to have her father and family to help her out, but many of the people I am talking about are living alone.

There must surely be question marks about NCTs. This girl had her NCT certificate. The car did not travel more than 40 km between the NCT centre and arriving at the test centre, but on a cursory look under the bonnet the test was failed. That incident had nothing to do with the girl's ability to drive. Driving skills should be tested on the road. The process of testing should be examined as well; the test is only a snapshot in time and is dependent on traffic and many other issues. The girl was competent, having had all of the required lessons from qualified testers. Many driving instructors have been in contact with me. In the main, they are very professional. They also have huge issues with the RSA and are getting no engagement, meaningful communication or response. We are not operating in a dictatorship. Driving instructors are very important; young and old people need driving lessons. They instill and pass on a proper safe code of practice on the roads. They are not there to deal with a cap on an expansion tank, or to deal with the little bit of rubber on the lever that relaxes the seat.

In another case, on a recent wet morning - of which we have had many - a person taking the driving test did well, but the passenger side window where the tester was sitting fogged up a little. There are no vents on the side windows of most cars. They are at the front but the tester said that the test was unsafe because he could not see the mirror. Of course he could see because it was right beside where he was sitting but issues like this are happening. They should not result in failures but rather act as a caution and an opportunity to learn. The day one does not learn something is a bad day. I believe I learn something every day. Those who are not able to or are not willing to learn are unfortunate. There are many issues concerning the RAS centres.

A lady called Mary contacted me on Sunday. A person went for a test on a horrible wet Sunday about three weeks ago. The tester decided to start without any visual inspection because it was too wet. Thankfully the person passed the test. There should surely be a covered area in each of the test centres to ensure that each candidate is treated equally. It should not be the case that if it is a fine day the car will be checked for problems but that it will not be checked if it is raining. These are facts. This is happening. There must be a level playing field for young drivers and for older drivers on L plates. They are nervous enough. We are all nervous when we go for any kind of test, or hospital procedures or the like.

I remind the Deputy that we are dealing with amendments Nos. 4 to 21, inclusive, and No. 28. I have looked through the amendments and they are largely about penalty points. I do not see that any of those amendments deal with the test.

This applies to penalty points. If a young driver gets six penalty points they are off the road. It is very relevant. On the last occasion I went through the national drivers licence service, NDLS, situation and the problems inherent in it. We want people to go and get their licences. They should start in school. Mol an oige agus tiocfaidh sí. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has used that phrase many times himself. They should be given a proper chance and not be vilified and criminalised before they start.

I mentioned speed cameras on the last occasion. It cost €88 million to provide them and so far only €32.7 million has been collected in fines. These are the areas the Minister should turn his attention to; he was well able to write about such things before he was elected to this Dáil. It cost €88 million and only €32.7 million has been collected in motorists' fines. That would not be good in any business; if any business operated in that way it would go under. Those figures cover the period from 2010 to 22 July 2017 and were provided to me by way of a parliamentary question, from all of the resources the Minister has in his Department. I know that the speed cameras have had a positive effect and have reduced the number of road deaths. I welcome anything that helps in that regard, contrary to what the Minister might want to suggest. I also believe it is time to re-examine that type of contract. There should always be a review clause included in any type of contract and this has not been reviewed for several years.

The impact of the safety camera regime has reduced road fatalities and accidents, particularly in areas blighted with incidents over the years. I am not suggesting we remove them completely. However, I have seen them on several occasions on roadways which are not accident blackspots.

I have asked them personally and I have written to their bosses, requesting that they avoid certain parts of the area. One such well-known spot in my area is Duggan's Bends outside Cahir in Tipperary, where there have been multiple fatalities. As I said, they did not do as I asked. There is enormous cost associated with operating a Garda safety camera contract. In each year from 2012 to 2015, it cost the State over €17 million to maintain the contract, at a cost of almost €16 million in 2011. To date, revenue generated from the safety camera contract has totalled €32 million. There is something very wrong there.

Again, the Minister is basing many aspects of his Bill on figures and statistics. I heard an interesting "Morning Ireland" programme since we last sat in this Chamber talking about this issue. I heard how the RSA had requested information from An Garda Síochána several times. It also requested it from the Minister's Department, but it could not be given. The request was refused. How can we make legislation on the basis of figures that do not stand up, and they do not stand up? It is bad enough to have common, obvious things in the Bill that the Minister blatantly cannot stand over, on which I will ask him to respond, without having a situation where the RSA's requests are refused. I heard someone senior on the radio saying that they had requested information. It may have been on Sunday when I heard it on the news but it was on RTÉ radio anyway. For some reason, the figures or the stats have not been provided.

In the recent and ongoing breath test controversy, it does not give me any kudos at all but rather a sense of shame to note that Tipperary had the highest rate of falsification in the country, with the number of tests inflated by 385%. It is appalling that this would be carried out by State organisations. Nobody was held accountable. I know that an investigation is still going on, but some counties had rates of 60%, 50% and 40% while Tipperary had a rate of 385%. There is an adage that has been there since colonial times that where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows. That relates to the War of Independence and our fight for freedom, but I do not want anyone to follow this because the figures were falsified by a rate of 385%.

The Minister is flicking through his notes. He is not listening, not interested and not bothered in many areas. It is easier to go after the vulnerable learner drivers. It is easier to go after the vulnerable young people who want to get out in life, further their education or get an apprenticeship, and their parents who bought the car for them and got the insurance, which is extortionate. The Minister is not touching the insurance industry. It is a pure cartel. Here is a quote from the Irish Times at the time of the scandal:

Every geographical Garda division in the country had some level of over-reporting of breath tests but the figures varied between areas to a huge extent... These figures were reached by comparing the number of breath tests recorded on the Pulse system with the number recorded on the test devices.

It is as simple as that. There is not much room for discrepancy. A boy or girl finishing sixth class in school could do the maths. This is not for scientists or mathematicians.

As I said, there is a blatant flaw in this Bill. If the Minister builds a house on shaky foundations, we know what will happen. We have had issues with pyrite and bad concrete, but this Bill is rushed. It is not properly considered, and it is certainly doomed for failure. There are too many flaws, and the Minister is refusing point blank to answer any question about the 385% falsification of figures, issues within the Road Safety Authority, the anomalies from test centre to test centre, or the facts that I have put before him about delays in driving tests and the different failure rate in different counties or in different test centres within counties. There is an appalling, frightening degree of variance depending on the test centre. We need a complete evaluation of the test centres and application centres, and for that matter the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS. We need to investigate it.

We hope to attract people back to this country and the Taoiseach talks about the people who get up in the morning. We want to grow our economy and we want to get people back to Ireland to work. We invite them back, and we have road shows all over. We are trying to get nurses, psychiatrists and every profession back to our country. However, if they have been gone for four or five years, they have to go back and start with a theory test and driving lessons. They have to go through the whole lot again. Why are we humiliating our citizens like that, people who might have driven in the busiest cities in the world since they left here, because their licence has lapsed and they have been out of the country?

The cart is before the horse in many areas, and the Minister is refusing to engage with us. He is refusing to engage with the committee, and above all he is refusing to engage with the ordinary people. They will not even be listened to. When we are not listened to, how can they be listened to? There is a lot wrong with this Bill, and that is why we are here debating it. We are not doing it for fun. We are not doing it to delay or annoy the Minister. We are annoyed with the Minister's intemperate language and his habit of continuously writing us off as a cabal. We heard disparaging language this morning on "Morning Ireland". It would fit the Minister better to look at some of those glaring issues that are as obvious on the nose on his face. I refer to the things that are going on in the Road Safety Authority and in the test centres, and the things that are not going on.

There was a young businessman in my constituency, who I thank the Minister for meeting. He came up with a great idea for road safety. He developed a tyre safety app. In fairness, the Minister did meet him, listened to him and was interested, as was anybody that saw the app. I was not aware of the danger that was out there. Between the tread on a tyre is everything a motorist is dependent on, no matter how big the tyre is or whether it is a BMW or a Morris Minor. He had an interesting app and he made attempts, with the Minister's help, to get the Road Safety Authority to engage with him. This was a vibrant, intelligent, excellent idea. He had gone with a prototype to many different national and international insurance companies to see if they would take it up, because it could save hundreds if not thousands of lives. Driving on bad and defective tyres, especially on a wet road, is really very dangerous and serious, which many of us do not know. As I said, that was a wonderful app, a wonderful idea. He went by appointment to meet the head of the RSA in Sligo. He travelled from Cahir in Tipperary to Sligo for a Monday morning meeting. He closed his business early on Sunday night, stayed in a bed and breakfast somewhere around Roscommon and arrived for his meeting, only to find he was the only person there. The head of the RSA did not think it was worthwhile to turn up, even though there was an appointment. It was not as though the young man had gate-crashed. This appointment had come after several months of trying. A wonderful idea to which the Government closed its eyes. There is none so blind as those who cannot see, or do not want to see.

The RSA and the Department do not have all the wisdom here. There are normal people out there who know the roads, the land and the dangers. Any tyre salesman worth his salt will tell a motorist the thread of a tyre. An Garda Síochána has equipment to measure them, and rightly so because it is so dangerous to have defective tyres. If one meets a bit of frost or water, they plainly do not have a hope. That is an area that could be addressed. This was a young man with great initiative, with another business and a young child and partner, who wanted to play his part and have this innovative idea tested. I am not saying that it was going to be 100% perfect but he wanted it to be tried to and tested, and to see where it would end up.

The Minister does not want to see that at all, see those other issues or listen to the complaints of mothers and fathers, and indeed the people who try to do their tests but cannot get the chance. When they do get a test, they are failed for spurious reasons. When they are failed for spurious reasons, they are then barred from testing for one month. They must then apply and go through the system again, which takes six months in my county. As I said, their driving is judged on the snapshot in time of the 40-minute test, the questions afterwards and the visual inspection, if it is not a wet day. If it is a wet day, they can get away without the visual inspection.

There are many anomalies here, but the Minister refuses steadfastly to engage. I am asking him again to please listen and engage with us here. Why are we going to make criminals of young people when they are doing everything in their power to do the right thing? They have tried to learn. They are trying to get on the road. They pay for their lessons and then go to their test. We need a sliding scale there, a kind of advisory fail result if it is something minor and not a driving defect. I refer to cases where the fail is because of something that happens on the test, something about the oil, the water, the oil cap, a broken seat adjuster, or one that is not broken but is not fully covered in rubber. We need a whole-school evaluation from junior certificate up.

Debate adjourned.