I welcome the Minister for Transport who is here to assist us in our examination of the reform of the Irish insurance market. I also welcome our consultant, Mr. Myles O'Reilly, who has been so helpful to us during the entire investigation.
Reform of Irish Insurance Market: Ministerial Presentation.
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the invitation to attend and look forward to our discussion. I noted the recommendations of the committee published in its fourth interim report on the reform of the Irish insurance market and road safety. I welcome constructive suggestions which can lead to improved road safety and create a more robust motor insurance environment.
There are now in excess of 1.2 million vehicles registered in the State. The cost of motor insurance represents a charge on virtually every household and every business in the country. The insurance industry operates within a free and open market. Under EU law, I can have no responsibility for setting motor insurance premiums. The provision of insurance cover is based on actuarial or statistical data, together with other underwriting or commercial factors such as driver details, the nature of cover required and the type and use of vehicle.
I am pleased that the Government's insurance reform programme, initiated in 2002, has resulted in cheaper and the increased availability of motor insurance. Overall, motor insurance premiums fell by 31.5% between April 2003 and October this year, according to figures supplied by the CSO. There are various factors that contribute to this reduction. The introduction of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board was a major step, as was the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 which includes penalties for giving false and misleading evidence in personal injury cases. Random breath testing, increased resources for the Garda traffic corps and the roll-out of the penalty points system are expected to deliver better driver behaviour and a reduced frequency of traffic accidents. These initiatives are having a positive effect on motor insurance premiums and I am confident they will continue to do so.
I have noted the recommendations of the committee on the procurement of an event data recorder or black box system by my Department. The European Commission has made a proposal on a similar system known as eCall, a system that would provide an electronic notification for the emergency services in the event of a crash. The case for these systems is unproven at European level. There are no common technical specifications developed and no standard operating procedures in place. I understand many of the larger member states have not yet committed to the eCall proposal and are in the process of studying it in more detail to inform their policy on the issue.
Like its European counterparts, my Department is also studying the eCall proposal. As part of this study, we are also reviewing the American style data recorder approach similar to that proposed by the committee. The analysis will assist in understanding the potential implications and benefits of eCall and data recorder systems for Ireland with regard to road safety, the means by which the systems would operate and the costs involved. The main purpose of the study is to inform the Department's future approach. It is clear, however, that any approach proposed would need to be consistent with and interoperable with developments at a wider EU level.
In the committee's report the question was raised as to whether insurance companies could make a greater contribution to road safety. Several of the committee's recommendations are specifically directed towards insurance companies to take steps in regard to improved road safety. I am aware of the contribution the Insurance Federation of Ireland and individual insurance companies have made to road safety over many years, particularly in regard to the provision of funding for road safety programmes. I am sure the insurance industry will examine the recommendations made by the committee in a positive manner and in a manner that contributes to road safety. It is in all our interests — legislators, the insurance industry and citizens alike — to seize every opportunity to improve road safety.
The Road Safety Strategy 2004-06 set an ambitious primary target of a 25% reduction in the number of road collision fatalities by the end of this year with regard to the average annual number in the 1998-2003 period. Achievement of the target would result in no more than 300 deaths yearly by the end of this year. The planning horizon for the strategy was limited to three years and the realisation of many of the key central policy initiatives was planned for delivery at the end of the three-year period. While the target of 300 has not been achieved, there has been a considerable improvement in the number of road deaths over the 1997 figure of 472. The reduction to 396 deaths in 2005 took place against the background of a very significant increase in the number of cars and drivers on our roads during that eight-year period.
In an environment where pedestrians, cyclists, cars, motorcycles and very large buses and goods vehicles are mixed together in competing for space on our road network, risk is inevitable. Acknowledging that risk and acting to minimise the potential for tragic incidents is the immediate responsibility of all road users, particularly drivers. However, reducing the general level of risk is the particular challenge of the Government and those agencies tasked with the promotion of road safety and the enforcement and application of traffic laws.
One of the lessons we have learned in recent years regarding road safety is that the best approach is to adopt a co-ordinated approach involving all those who can contribute to safer road travel. Such an approach should be based on a targeted programme of initiatives directed at the main contributory factors in collisions. In fact, such approaches are the bedrock of road safety policies in the best performing countries. In that context, the Government has sought to bring a collective focus to road safety initiatives directed at the achievement of specified targets. The strategic approach to road safety works. It is likely that if we had not adopted a strategic approach from 1998, we would have seen the maintenance of the level of fatalities prevalent through the 1990s, when the average annual number of road deaths was 442.
Achieving measurable progress is better realised where challenges are set. With this in mind, the new Road Safety Authority has commenced work on developing a new road safety strategy for the period post-2007 and is carrying out a public consultation process on the matter. Substantial progress has been made on a number of key policy initiatives, particularly in the areas of changing driver behaviour and drink-driving. There has been investment in new, improved and safer roads, a new system of metric speed limits has been introduced, while the penalty points system has been extended.
Legislation has been enacted and commenced on a number of key policy measures, including the provision enabling roadside mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, a ban on the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving and the legislative provision supporting the operation of privately operated speed cameras. Since the commencement of MAT by the Garda Síochána, the numbers of road deaths and collisions have fallen dramatically. The Garda has been successfully operating MAT checkpoints since July, with over 30,000 drivers being tested at such checkpoints each month. The increased deterrent effect is reflected in the fall in the numbers of deaths and collision rates since August.
The establishment of the dedicated traffic corps last year by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with a distinct management structure under the command of an assistant commissioner, addresses a particular commitment given by the Government. The corps, when fully staffed, will provide the basis for the achievement of the significant gains in road safety that emanate from consistent high levels of traffic law enforcement. By the end of 2008, 1,200 gardaí will be deployed to the traffic corps, over twice the number currently engaged in traffic duties.
The new Road Safety Authority was formally established on 1 September. It is a single agency with responsibility for a wide range of functions which have a bearing on road safety, including driver licensing and testing, road safety advertising and education, road safety research and data collection and the regulation of driver instruction.
A high level group on road safety, with representatives from various Departments and agencies, has been working for some time to promote full co-operation on cross-cutting issues and an integrated approach in the development of the road safety strategy and its monitoring and implementation. As an indication that road safety is at the very top of the political agenda, the Government has replaced the official high level group with a ministerial committee on road safety under my chairmanship. It includes the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Finance, Health and Children, and Education and Science, as well as the Attorney General. The Taoiseach regularly attends also. I look forward to discussing these issues in more detail with the committee.
I thank the Minister. On behalf of the joint committee, I wish to state we are grateful the suggestion we made on random breath testing was taken on board by the ministerial committee and that recommendations were made on the matter within a fortnight. I believe the targeted reduction from 472 to 300 in the number of road deaths for the year from 1 August 2006 to 31 July 2007 will be met. Random breath-testing has saved 30 lives in the first three months, but whether it was only one life or 120, the measure is welcome. I commend the Minister on his speedy action on our suggestion.
The committee is adamant that black box technology should be considered by the ministerial committee as a matter of urgency. There has been a number of bus crashes in the State in the past two or three years which resulted in a number of unfortunate deaths, for example, the accident on the quays in Dublin or those resulting in the deaths of schoolchildren. If black boxes were in place, data would be available within 20 minutes on the reason for an accident. It is of paramount importance that the use of black box technology is made mandatory in all State transport services, whether trains, buses or any other vehicles used. We urge the Minister to consider this suggestion.
We are anxious to find out when the additional 600 speed cameras will be in operation. Currently, there are only three fixed cameras used in approximately eight locations. We visited five locations in the USA in a period of one week and found that fear of the law was the greatest deterrent. The sooner we see the 600 cameras in operation, the sooner we will see a massive reduction in the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries.
We are in the process of putting together our final report on road safety issues and would like to know what is being done to reform the provisional licensing system. As we said to the Minister's predecessor and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he attended the committee, the high number of drivers holding provisional licences is unacceptable, although I know the Minister is working hard to address the issue. We need to know what progress is being made and would be grateful to receive an update from the Minister on the matter.
I thank the Chairman and committee members for their support and encouragement, as well as their invaluable proposals regarding transport that arose from their work and activity. The Department and I, through the political system, are doing everything we can to respond. It is evident that some proposals are working. As I noted, the Department is studying the black box technology and the eCall system. As members are aware, there is a European-wide approach to this issue. I am familiar with the black box system and have spoken to promoters of the technology. A range of issues arise as to how one can encourage people to fit black boxes into their systems. I am aware that the joint committee has emphasised, certainly as a starting point, that public sector vehicles should so do. The technology is under examination and I hope to have the completed report to hand before April.
We have received the most up-to-date data from the University of Maryland. The university which may be the number one location in the world regarding simulation has been extremely helpful to the joint committee, as has the University of Iowa. A committee delegation visited the United States and all the data are available to departmental officials. If the Minister wishes, we can let him have the data before we publish a report.
That would be appreciated. It is always helpful to have all relevant information. If the committee forwards such information to me or the Department, it will be taken on board. Undoubtedly, however, in the broadest sense, technology such as the eCall system or the black box system, etc., will form part of the future. It is very important to get this right from the outset.
As for the Chairman's second point, members are aware that legislation to deal with the outsourcing of the operation of speed cameras has been passed. All elements under my Department's aegis to facilitate this have now been put in place. I understand the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is engaged in a procurement process to provide for the outsourcing of the operation of speed cameras. The process will be completed by mid-2007.
I again emphasise that the decision on the location of cameras will be taken by the Garda in co-operation with all key relevant authorities. I also emphasise that there will be no connection between the fees earned by the company which secures the contract and the number of motorists caught using speed cameras. It is important for public confidence in the system that it is not viewed as a fast or easy money-making one. Hence, there will be no connection between the collection of fines and the contract given to a private sector company. As there will be no relationship between the two, the number of motorists caught will be irrelevant. In the public mind this will instil much more confidence that the system will be designed for and will deliver its stated purpose, namely, substantially improved road safety and alerting people to the dangers posed at black spots and on back roads, etc. In addition to fixed cameras, I understand that under the system there will be a substantial proportion of mobile cameras.
On the third item raised, after much general discussion I only met the board of the Road Safety Authority in the past couple of weeks. Among a range of issues with which it is dealing, it has two significant pieces of work before it. The first is a new road safety strategy, to which the Chairman referred, which is to take effect at the conclusion of the current strategy at the end of this year. Second, I have asked it to present a fully prepared system for new licences. In other words, I want to bring to an end the provisional licensing system. It served its purpose at a time when the number of cars on the roads was one quarter the current number. I look forward to a fully thought out system that will reflect best practice for drivers. It will be a graduated system and involve much greater and more significant training. It has often been stated that it is easy to get a licence and hard to lose it. However, it should be the other way around, that is, difficult to get a licence and easy to lose it for misbehaviour. I look forward to seeing the proposals of the Road Safety Authority in the near future.
Is the current number of approximately 400,000 provisional licences reducing?
There are two elements, namely, the backlog and the number of people holding provisional licences. There appears to be significant duplication and overlapping. I am happy to inform the joint committee that the waiting time for driving tests has been significantly reduced as a result of the introduction earlier this year of overtime packages for existing testers; the contracting of additional testers, on which we worked with the Road Safety Authority, and outsourcing to the private sector. The waiting time is down from an average of 62 weeks to approximately 28. While the position is much improved in some areas, it may be a little worse in others. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, has responded positively to my request for increased funding. In that regard, I am providing a sum of €10 million to be specifically targeted at further reducing the backlog. I am confident the waiting time for a driving test will be reduced to approximately eight to ten weeks before the end of next year. This will allow for the introduction of a new licensing system.
That is good progress.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. The Minister has brought about much improvement of the roads by way of capital investment. Many of the new roads opened by him are helping to alleviate congestion and reduce the number of car accidents. As our road infrastructure improves, there will be fewer accidents, as is evident on the main arterial routes.
An issue we are neglecting is that of tailgating which is taken very seriously in the United Kingdom. While it is an offence to tailgate, there are not enough advertisements to warn people of the dangers. There have been many pile-ups on the roads as a result of tailgating. We must address the issue.
I have a few questions only, as the Chairman dealt with many of the issues I wished to raise. A source of concern is the construction of roundabouts. I recently studied information from the United Kingdom where roundabouts are much wider than here. Road hauliers regularly complain about the lack of road space on roundabouts. The Minister visited my constituency recently to open the Mitchelstown northern bypass, on which there are two roundabouts which are tight on space. The roundabout in Macroom is big and spacious. This may relate to trying to save on land acquisition costs, although I may be wrong. However, it is an issue which needs to be addressed. Perhaps the Minister will address it in his response.
Another cause of many accidents is the closeness of signage to exits on our roads. This issue must also be addressed. I regularly travel on the Portlaoise bypass. I want to know — I have raised the issue on two occasions in the Dáil — why the exit from the Portlaoise bypass to the Cork road has not been completed. This is a serious matter, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, given that he travels a great deal.
During a recent meeting with the Garda Síochána we raised with the Commissioner the possibility of using unmarked cars. This would be the icing on the cake, although such vehicles should display local registration numbers. In the modern world people are very clever and can easily identify the registration numbers used. Local Garda vehicles with the registration letter C or W would result in the use of greater surveillance techniques.
I come from a rural constituency. While I do not condone drink-driving, random breath-testing is being over-exercised by the Garda Síochána. It is frightening and annoying people. This issue was raised with us during a recent meeting with the Vintners Association of Ireland. Many road accidents, although we do not have great statistics in this regard, are caused by people leaving pubs and nightclubs late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Ireland, more than any other country, has a drink culture. We must address late opening pubs in our licensing laws. That is one of the major issues. It would be quite simple for a garda to set up a checkpoint and randomly test 100 people. The pubs should close on the hour. Nightclubs are definitely a major cause of all sorts of difficulties, particularly car accidents involving those in the crucial age bracket of 16 to 24. There are also boy racers, about which I cannot do much and which are a fact of life. At the crossroads, there are spinning-top drivers who wheel around and try to buck the system. These are the areas which should be addressed.
Matters are fairly well controlled and both the Garda and the Minister for Transport are doing an excellent job, but there are a few issues here and there. How detailed are our statistics on car accidents? I continually ask that question. Do our statistics include the driver's age, the time of day or night, and the circumstances? How many people in the different age brackets are killed due to alcohol, carelessness and overtaking? We seem to be slack vis-à-vis other countries on those kinds of statistics. I have asked for such information here previously and it is difficult to get an answer. A drink-driving accident can often involve a pedestrian on the road who is hit by a car, and the victim, strictly speaking, cannot be described as having had a drink-driving accident.
I welcome the Minister who is doing an excellent job. By continuing the capital expenditure on the roads he will cut down the number of car accidents substantially. The capital expenditure is already bringing about a major improvement in the roads infrastructure.
I welcome the Minister. Road safety is at the top of the agenda. In recent years, Monday morning stories of people killed on the roads are frightening. I will not go over what has already been said but there are a couple of issues I want to raise with the Minister, one of which relates to uninsured drivers.
I can see when I am in a car park that many cars do not display an insurance disc, but something that happened to me during the summer was frightening. I got a parking ticket from Ennis Urban District Council.
It is one of the tough parts of the country.
As it turned out, I was in Ennis during the summer but not at the time of the parking fine. I phoned the clerk and we sorted that out. When I looked at the document, the car registration number concerned was not mine and I said I would go further with it. There was a car of which I knew nothing on the road and registered in my name. It was the same make of car as mine. I contacted the vehicle registration unit and ended up speaking to the Revenue Commissioners, but there is still such a car out there. If the car is registered in my name, the tax and insurance documentation should be posted to me and therefore that car must be out there uninsured. I could get no answer.
I made a statement to the Garda because if that car was in an accident and the owner ran away, it is I who would be responsible. I do not know what we can do about that. I do not know how it happened, but it is worrying. I have made my statement to the Garda and I have disowned the car, but I wonder is this happening in other places.
I am concerned about the cost of insurance for young people. A woman who phoned me yesterday stated that she was paying €230 a month for her son's motor insurance and she could be buying a house with that sum. I realise that many young people have accidents but the innocent are always the ones who suffer.
There have been no new entrants into the insurance market in recent years. Would the Minister agree that if there were new insurance companies coming into the market, there would be some hope of people getting reasonably priced insurance because there would be competition? What is the Minister's opinion on that issue.
He spoke about "L" plates and the provisional licence. Does he think the driving test will continue as we know it? I raised this issue a number of times because the driving test centre in my home town of Killarney has no permanent home. Is the Department holding off on a decision on this until the Road Safety Authority decides whether the driving test will continue in its current format?
Deputy O'Keeffe spoke about random breath testing and I want clarification from the Minister on that issue. When a person is randomly tested, the machine currently used produces either a positive or negative result. The old machine advised the garda whether a person was over or under the limit. As I understand it, when a person is now tested, he or she could produce a positive result, but could produce a negative result following a blood test at the Garda station. The new machine produces black or white results, whereas the old machine gave a percentage.
I raise this issue because someone in my constituency was arrested on suspicion of drink driving, but it turned out that the person was not over the limit. The person wanted to know whether there was a record of an arrest for drink driving on that person's file. Apparently there is a record, even though the person was not over the limit. That is a problem and it will have to be addressed by the Department of Transport and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. If a person is found not to be over the limit, there should be no record of an arrest for drink driving on his or her file. That is worrying.
I welcome the Minister and compliment him for the great work he has done with the roads infrastructure throughout the country, including the west. I also compliment him for securing money from the Minister for Finance to cut the waiting list for the driving test. That is very important because it was a long wait for many people.
We must go down the educational route when it comes to young drivers. It is important that road safety is part of the curriculum in every school. The Minister also mentioned that the Department might bring in new criteria for provisional licences. We would welcome that and I suggest that someone who applies for a provisional licence should have to do training beforehand. One has to do some kind of training before starting a job, yet one can get a provisional licence and take a car out on the road without any training. A car can be a lethal weapon in some cases.
I want to raise the issue of non-nationals and uninsured drivers. What criteria are used for non-nationals when they drive in this country? They may have a driving licence, but are they good enough to drive on our roads? Should they have to do a test when they come here? Many of them drive lorries, but do we know if they are good or bad drivers?
It was stated that if one wanted to pay tax on-line, all that had to be done was to enter the number of the insurance company. One does not have to enter the date the car is insured or even if the car is insured at that stage. Surely it is madness that there is no proper link between insurance companies and local authorities. That leads to young people taking a chance and such an opportunity should not exist.
I wish to raise the issue of engineering in the context of roads. Most roads under the control of the Minister are main roads. A survey should be carried out on roads with a view to identifying black spots. There are lethal bridges on county roads which have not been dealt with. They should be surveyed to find out what we can do to make them safer because they can have fatal consequences for young people driving at night.
The other matter from which local authorities have moved away is that of hedge-trimming. If this was done as it was some years ago, there would at least be improved visibility. We should write to local authorities and ask them to allocate sufficient funding in their estimates to ensure hedge-trimming takes place on county roads.
Is the Deputy suggesting the regulation is in place but not being enforced?
The Minister has a wide range of questions to answer.
I thank colleagues for their remarks. I take the point made by Deputy O'Keeffe and others that improved roads, particularly motorways and dual carriageways, make a major contribution to road safety. That is without question. We can see clear evidence that the number of serious accidents on such roads is far smaller than on single carriageways, particularly older roads. The roads programme will continue to make a substantial contribution and help to reduce the level of deaths and injuries on the roads.
Deputy O'Keeffe raised a number of general points with regard to driver behaviour on the roads such as tailgating, of which I see evidence every day. The issue comes back to the education and training of drivers and their understanding of what they are doing on the roads. For example, one type of behaviour that annoys me, particularly on new extended motorways with three lanes, is drivers pottering along in the outside lane as if it is their right to be there. They have no such right. No driver has a right to potter along in the outside lane on a motorway, which is an overtaking lane rather than a driving lane. If one travels abroad and rents a car, as many Irish people do, one will see very good examples of discipline in the use of motorways. We tend to fall in with this when abroad but why we do not apply it when we come home bemuses me.
On the issue of tailgating, general behaviour and understanding of one's obligations on different roads, there is a crucial lesson that needs to be learned by young drivers before they come onto the roads. I have no doubt that this will form part of the new driving licence regime when it is introduced. A number of programmes and advertising campaigns have targeted the behaviour of all drivers. The 35 penalty point offences which were rolled out deal with many of what are seen as more minor issues are essential in conditioning our general attitude and behaviour on the roads such as entering box junctions and blocking traffic. Simple measures can make a big difference to our overall behaviour, a number of which were highlighted by Deputy O'Keeffe.
Deputy O'Keeffe also raised questions about the size and scale of roundabouts. I do not have an answer immediately but I would like to raise the questions and get specific answers. I have seen good roundabouts. Sometimes they appear to be small but this may be because of the fact that the volume of traffic on them is heavy.
Minimum safety standards are applied by the NRA to all roads. Whether we should look at building larger roundabouts is an open question. Much of the design is carried out by local authorities in conjunction with the NRA. The engineers involved would have a good handle on traffic flows and demands and no doubt take these figures into account when designing projects. Nonetheless, I will raise the matter.
A new programme of signage is being put in place, on which we will work with one or two other Departments with a view to substantially improving signage on all roads. It is necessary to do this.
I am not overly familiar with the Portlaoise bypass. The Deputy asked why work on the Cork exit had not been completed. I will check that with the NRA.
There is no doubt that more unmarked cars will alert people to the fact that speed traps are not just about fixed cameras and that they are likely to be caught anywhere. The breaking of speed limits contributes significantly to death and injuries on our roads, not only in car collisions but through the death of pedestrians, particularly in built-up urban areas. Therefore, a good balance between fixed and mobile cameras and unmarked cars is part of the mix the Garda wants to put in place.
I am interested in seeing the overall figures with regard to the times and how random breath testing is applied throughout the country. The introduction of random breath testing has already had a significant impact on the numbers of deaths, crashes and injuries on our roads. It is difficult for gardaí to find a balance in how it is applied across the country, but they want to maintain public support for its enforcement. The reality is, and this is something I have repeated constantly, if people take a drink, they should not drive. I am aware this causes problems in rural areas, but habits must be changed. It is possible to change to systems such as car pools or the use of taxis and public transport, where available. The message must be consistent. There is no argument around the fact that drinking contributes substantially to deaths and injuries on our roads.
Boy racers are an issue. We have seen some horrific video footage of this and know it is on some Internet sites. It is appalling behaviour. I do not want to blame all young drivers, as some of them are very good. Some young people take great care of their cars and despite doing them up, they behave very well. However, there is a cohort which seems to think the law does not apply to it and this is the group we must target.
About 5% of drivers are uninsured. Some confusion may arise in this regard as foreign registered cars do not display an insurance disc. The UK, for example, does not require an insurance disc to be displayed and there are many UK cars here. Under EU law, we cannot impose our domestic laws on people coming into the country in cars registered in their own country. This accounts for a large proportion of the number of cars seen without insurance discs displayed. Many of the cars are UK or foreign registered cars. We have clamped down on the matter of insurance in recent times, because it is important that everybody is insured.
That is not the case in the USA where people must display their insurance disc on their windscreens. Perhaps we could start by bringing that regulation to the attention of the EU Commission and seek to push this issue in that way. I apologise for interrupting the Minister.
I am well aware of the situation in the USA. However, most European countries do not display insurance discs and are loth to do so. We have raised the issue. I have consistently raised road safety issues at the Transport Council. It would be helpful for the EU to require the displaying of insurance discs just as it requires the transfer and sharing of information on many other issues.
With regard to motor tax and insurance, as part of the plans to implement the fifth motor insurance directive, we seek to establish, and are doing so, an interface between the insurance companies and the national vehicle driver file. This point was raised with regard to the correlation between registering, taxing and insuring cars on-line. The interface or information centre will facilitate the verification of insurance details during motor tax renewals on-line. The IT system for this is currently being put in place.
The driving test will change and the manner in which one procures a driving licence will change substantially. I do not wish to speculate on any of the issues as everyone has a view in this regard. I have asked the Road Safety Authority to take on board all suggestions, to examine international best practice and to establish what system would be applicable in Ireland. However, the present system of driver testers will undoubtedly remain as part of the future. The question as to how the Road Safety Authority might wish to expand the system and how internal efficiencies might be maximised is open to all.
I have given some figures in respect of drink driving and arrests. Deputy Moynihan-Cronin referred to the box used by gardaí on the side of the road. This is merely an indicative test and the test that matters is the blood test taken at the Garda station. As the roadside test is indicative, it does not prove definitively whether a person has tested positive. However, when such a test clearly indicates that a person has tested positive, he or she is obliged to take the proper definitive test.
Apparently in the old system, the breath tester gave——
It was recorded.
It was recorded. However, the new test is simply positive or negative. An individual approached me to ask whether the fact that he was arrested on suspicion of drink driving when he was actually under the limit could be examined. His record incorrectly included his arrest on suspicion of drink driving. I ask the Minister to investigate this important matter.
I will take that point on board.
I agree with Deputy Callanan's comments regarding education. The Road Safety Authority has engaged in extensive discussions with the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children on possible measures to address greater awareness through the school curriculum on road safety issues, as well as the general question of driving vehicles on roads. I understand a programme is being worked out by the Road Safety Authority and the Department of Education and Science.
This idea was picked up in America by Deputy Callanan and other members. The joint committee is of the opinion that transition year would be an ideal start. If possible, this should become part of the curriculum for transition year students.
It is a matter for the Department of Education and Science to examine this system. Transition year appears to offer an obvious route. However, this issue is more fundamental than the provision of transition year education and there is much to do. I would also like to see some effort being made in primary schools to get young children to think the right way, in order that one can follow through with it. In addition to primary and secondary school education, this issue should also form part of third level education. In the main, third level students are the drivers being killed.
Has the ministerial committee taken note of this issue?
Yes, I can confirm it has already discussed such issues. Deputy Callanan suggested that non-nationals should take an Irish test. This is not possible as there is mutual recognition of driving licences within the European Union. Hence, just as an Irish person who goes to another European country cannot be forced to take a test there, we cannot do so in Ireland. The underlying issue pertains to the quality of people's training. The correct approach is to address what they do to get a driving licence in Ireland. In effect, this is what my Department is doing.
I will return to the joint committee, if it invites me, when I have received the proposals for the new system and the consultation process is under way. I am sure members will be interested in the proposals and I must return before it to discuss them.
I promised to have the Minister out by the time the Order of Business was taken in the Dáil.
I welcome the Minister and his officials before the joint committee. He is doing an excellent job as Minister and has mastered his portfolio. He has come to terms with many of the issues which were outstanding when he took over. The joint committee has suggested significant improvements and recommendations that have been accepted.
In respect of uninsured drivers, the Department has calculated that 5% of total car ownership is uninsured.
This was confirmed when the joint committee started its deliberations four years ago.
Can the Minister confirm this figure comes to approximately 100,000 drivers?
There are 2.1 million vehicles on the road.
The number comes to 100,000.
That is an enormous number of cars.
The joint committee helped to bring about the establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. It has contributed to the reduction in the cost of insurance, as has this committee, the Minister and others. We led the way in this regard.
There is no reason cars cannot be seized irrespective of storage problems. There are many facilities such as Army barracks and so on that could be used to store them. Uninsured drivers should not be permitted to drive. Those of us who insure our vehicles are paying for uninsured drivers through higher premiums. The Minister should undertake a campaign in a particular month pointing out that those caught driving without insurance the following month will have their cars seized.
The vehicles should be impounded.
Yes. This would make a major contribution to addressing this issue. I am taken aback by the continuous opposition of solicitors to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. I was disappointed to hear the Fine Gael spokesperson on justice, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, lead this campaign in the Dáil. He should declare a vested interest in this, given that he is a solicitor. I commend the Government for the hard line it has taken on this. The PIAB is doing an excellent job in terms of bringing down the cost of insurance.
I have a few questions for the Minister in regard to the very important issues highlighted by Deputy Moynihan-Cronin. I received many parking tickets at my place of residence for a person who insured a vehicle giving my address as place of residence without my permission. There is an anomaly here in that a person can give any address when insuring a vehicle. The Minister's officials have been alerted to this situation this morning which is directly related to the number of unpaid parking fines. I could not locate the individual concerned who had legally insured and taxed a vehicle care of my address in Castlecoote, County Roscommon, without my permission and was told by the licensing authority that it could not raise objections in relation to the addresses provided by people for the purpose of obtaining car insurance. I believe Deputy Moynihan-Cronin made a very good case in relation to this point. I also support the case made by her that where a person is caught drink driving and not charged the file in that regard should be completely cleared.
On the new Kinnegad bypass in the Chairman's constituency, I find it extraordinary that the National Roads Authority chose to bypass Mother Hubbard's and the Monastery Inn as a result of which there is no access to a restaurant, petrol station, rest area or toilets between Mullingar and Dublin. This has led to people having no choice but to go to the toilet on the side of the road. I am sure the Chairman has witnessed this. There are no facilities on the stretch of road from Mullingar to Dublin despite the fact that there is an enormous amount of land available there. Perhaps the Minister or his officials will tell the joint committee how the National Roads Authority could have allowed all of the excellent restaurants on that stretch of road to be bypassed without providing facilities for which the companies involved or others could have tendered in regard to the provision of facilities on that road?
There are no services from the Spa Hotel in Lucan to the Downs Roadhouse, a distance of approximately 40 miles.
The Chairman is correct.
There is nowhere one could even buy a lollipop.
In regard to speed cameras, I note the Minister's statement that these will not be seen as a cash cow for companies. In that regard, there should be a separate appeals system to the judicial system. There are circumstances, namely, a person bringing a woman to hospital to give birth, wherein a driver will not be concerned about speed cameras. There should be provision for people to appeal fines for speeding in such circumstances.
We have to move on as the Minister must leave soon.
Councillor John Cummins, a Fianna Fáil councillor from Boyle, County Roscommon, recently raised the important issue of the sale of cars and boats along the roadside and at junctions. The road from Roscommon to Dublin is like a car sales showroom. Every corner and every junction of the Longford bypass is being used——
The Senator must ask a question.
I am asking that the Minister ensure this practice is banned. It is not good practice to have cars for sale at every road junction. I came across a boat for sale on the roadside in County Mayo.
I want to keep it at a certain level.
Multilingual driving instructions and rules of the road are not yet available although there are 150,000 Polish and there are Latvians, Portuguese and Brazilians who cannot get the rules of the road in their own language to learn how to drive. Would it be in order to train multilingual driving instructors? For instance, if a Pole is being given a driving test, surely the person giving that test should speak Polish. The Minister should ensure that some Polish residents are employed for this because there are excellent drivers among them. It is difficult to take a test in a language with which one is unfamiliar.
I agree with my colleague, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, that road signage is totally inadequate in places and that we must improve it. The Minister has made little progress in the reduction of speed limits at schools on national primary and national secondary routes. The councils blame the Minister and he, in fairness, has put the responsibility back with the local authorities where it belongs, but he is not getting the action required. There should be better co-operation and co-ordination between the Department of Transport and the local authorities. I resent some of the Opposition Deputies blaming the Minister on the matter of the reduction of speed limits throughout the country when it is not his fault and exploiting the issue for their political advantage.
Deputy Ned O'Keeffe wanted to make a brief point. There are many others wishing to contribute.
I want to make a brief point as well.
You will be next to speak.
This is not a Fianna Fáil gathering.
I will wait.
Deputy Ned O'Keeffe spoke of the physical dangers arising from the standard of some of the roads. There is a psychological issue arising from that as well in that if a person is held up in a traffic jam for a half an hour, or is caught behind somebody travelling at 30 mph on a national road and can do nothing about it, he or she tries to make up for all the time lost when a chance arises.
I realise projects are planned and in the pipeline for County Galway, but that is of no assistance to the motorists who are out there currently. I ask the Minister to expedite those projects that are planned for the entire county of Galway, both national roads and rail.
The Minister will be aware that there are difficulties in Tuam, in Claregalway and along the entire N17. There is a new N17 planned to overcome those problems. The NRA states that it is the solution and I agree. The construction of a bypass at Claregalway is not the solution. A new N17 is the solution, but that is down the line. If we must wait for the new N17 to come on stream, there will be a revolution in that part of the country.
The same may be said of the western rail corridor, which is also down the line. I was struck by the Minister's recent announcement of a major project in Dublin extending light rail to the airport and beyond which is to be completed in five or six years. However, part of the western rail corridor is not timetabled to commence for five or six years. The difference is that in the line for the western rail corridor exists and it need only be refurbished. It indicates that we in the west are not getting the same level of attention as other parts of the country.
Some of those matters are ones which are relevant to the Joint Committee on Transport. This meeting is about insurance reform.
Deputy Cullen is Minister for Transport.
I accept the seriousness with which the Deputy represents his constituents.
It is all enshrined in the frustration motorists feel because they cannot make progress.
I apologise for being late. I welcome the Minister and promise Senator Leyden I will not make a party political broadcast. He need not worry about this.
I was concerned that the Deputy's party would not be represented at this hearing.
Deputy Hogan who is unable to be here sends his apologies.
We all know of the availability of drugs to young people. Drink driving is being tackled, but what measures are being put in place to tackle the problem of motorists driving under the influence of drugs?
We spoke about the provision of driving courses for transition year students. What about more mature individuals? I know many people who are frightened when approaching roundabouts. Would the Minister examine the idea of providing refresher courses for elderly drivers?
My last question may sound parochial, but it is a national one. The Minister is due to visit Ennis to open the bypass in mid-December. While the new bypass will have crash barriers, there is no layby between the two sides of the road. People will be frightened because they will be driving very close to cars on the opposite side of the road. The lanes also seem very narrow. It looks like this is the way forward for many of the new roads as it will save money.
I welcome the Minister and commend him for the work he is doing in the construction of roads. I hope he will still be in office when the Carlow bypass is opened next year.
In view of the fact that there are over 2 million vehicles on the roads, is there any way of fast-tracking the increase in the number of gardaí in the traffic corps which I know is to have 1,200 gardaí by 2008? Given the number of serious car accidents, especially at weekends, there would be public support for such a move. I also acknowledge the role the committee has played in the reduction of insurance premiums by 30% in recent years.
I received a most bizarre inquiry last year about a driving test. A constituent of mine who was taking the test in Dublin was told on arrival that the examiner would not be going ahead with it because of weather conditions. It was a frosty morning in January, but the individual in question, as well as the examiner, had to drive to turn up at the test centre. Surely the purpose of testing the driving competency of individuals is to ensure they can drive in such conditions. It was not the case that there was a foot of snow on the ground. Around six individuals were not tested and had to reapply. One of them had to wait three months for his test to be rescheduled. That is unacceptable. These are the weather conditions in which people will have to drive for the rest of their lives. They should be tested in the conditions prevailing at the time of the test.
I welcome the development of the Watergrasshill bypass. However, I wish to refer to the blackguardly way it has been treated by hauliers. Those who are drawing ore from the mines near Urlingford are the biggest culprits in trying to jump the toll.
We are discussing insurance reform.
This is part of it. Insurance will not be right if we cannot get people on the right road. The situation is horrendous for the community of Watergrasshill and I want corrective action taken. The Minister should carry out costings in this regard. I have no doubt it is much cheaper to go through the toll than to take the route travelled by hauliers. There was recently a serious accident in the village when a truck overturned.
I support Senator Leyden with regard to the sale of cars on the side of the road. Regulation must be introduced. Any person can set up a car sales operation without regulation. One could not set up a shop selling foodstuffs without a licence and without working with the health authorities. This must stop. It is a way out for those who have money to invest which was earned through other activities. One can launder money through a car sales operation outside a house without planning permission or a licence. Senator Leyden has put his finger on the button. This issue must be addressed.
The Minister has many questions to answer.
I thank members for their contributions. I want to be clear with regard to the first point made by Senator Leyden. All vehicles in this country can be impounded under current law for not being insured. With the help of colleagues, the law was extended earlier this year to include foreign vehicles brought into the country, which had not been included in the mix. The old law referred to every vehicle registered in the State but it was changed to refer to every vehicle within the State.
The law is clear. It is a matter of enforcement, which is an operational matter for the Garda. The Oireachtas has done its job. We have given the powers, not alone for Irish registered cars but for all vehicles. I could not agree more with the Senator. If somebody is driving without insurance, the car should be taken off that person. The lesson will be learned quickly when a person finds himself or herself standing at the side of the road and unable to use a vehicle. It is that simple.
I will examine the issue with regard to what address can be used to register a car. I intend to bring this matter into the mix of issues being considered, as there may be other reasons for this problem.
One of the most bizarre issues I have encountered in my political life was the one I encountered when I took office in the Department of Transport, namely, the policy decision by the NRA to have no services on motorways. I found this utterly astonishing and, to this day, I find it hard to contemplate which genius came up with the proposal. I immediately moved to have the policy reversed. To be fair to the current chief executive, who took up his position at roughly the same time as I took up mine, we both agreed that this policy needed to be reversed.
We need proper service areas on all of our roads, particularly motorways. This is particularly the case given the identification of driver fatigue as a clear issue for the new road safety campaign. Rest areas for drivers are important. I understand the policy is currently being completed by the NRA, which will announce a new range of facilities to be built on our motorways, which is right and proper.
I intend to come down as hard as is legally possible on the issue of cars being sold on the side of the road. I could not agree more with members in this regard. This trade has mushroomed. Every road in the country will soon be like a rally course with every junction, byway and rest area filled with caravans, motorbikes and boats, as the Senator noted. These catch the eye of drivers and distract them. I would question the quality of many of these cars. While young people may buy them, they may not be up to the required safety standards.
To be fair to the motor industry, its investment in facilities throughout the country in recent years has been fabulous. The quality of motor sales offices has improved dramatically. Vehicle service areas have also changed. That is an important contribution to road safety. Selling goods at the side of the road is an issue and I am working within the Department to deal with it. It is an outrageous practice that I want to bring to an end.
We published the basic rules of the road, not the entire gamut, in ten languages about six or seven months ago. We have been drafting new rules which can be found on our website and will be published shortly. We will have to publish the entire document in various languages in recognition of the number of foreign nationals living in the country.
That is good idea.
The rules we published in ten languages six or seven months ago are available from the Road Safety Authority and local authorities, as well as at various other places. I will check if there is a shortage and ensure there is a sufficient number of copies available. Important and all as the rules are, we all know without reading them that drink driving, the breaking of speed limits, the not wearing of safety belts and the use of mobile phones are the major contributors to deaths and injuries on the roads. I reject the notion that people from another country do not understand the basics.
That was not the point made. I raised a separate issue.
I am aware of the point being made and do not disagree with the Senator whom I fully support. We have acted by producing the basic rules of the road in a number of languages. There is no argument. However, I do not want to give the impression that because the rules are not available to the degree the Senator suggests, people——
I am not.
I know that, but I am sending a message outside this arena that from wherever a person comes, the basic rules of the road should be understood by everybody.
It is common sense.
Exactly. An interesting point was raised with regard to foreign driving instructors. Many new driving instructors have been taken on and I must check to see whether some of them are foreign nationals. If not, there is a career opportunity for some. It would be helpful if we had instructors available in their own languages for larger population groups which have come to the country.
The Minister said drink, speed and the use of mobile phones were three of the four chief causes of accidents. What was the fourth?
Not wearing seatbelts. The wearing of seatbelts is crucial, not just for drivers but also for passengers.
Are foreign registered cars subject to the MOT?
All cars driven in the country over a period are subject to the MOT.
Some of them are quite suspect.
It depends on how long they have been in the country. There is an issue which we have referred. The MOT standards applied in the main European countries are similar to ours.
The speed limits issue is frustrating from my perspective. The move to a metric system went smoothly. When we made the change, we reduced the overall general speed limit. Nobody wants a situation where somebody sitting in an office in Dublin decides the speed limit to be applied on every highway, back road or boreen. Therefore, I vested the power to set speed limits in local authorities. In my former Department I was often accused of removing powers from local authorities. Now when I give them more powers, they are not using them, although some have. I find this extraordinary. The system has proved very successful where councils have made the setting of speed limits a priority and forced officials to come to councillors with a plan for the reorganisation of limits. I urge councils to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. It is not rocket science. As the Opposition parties control most councils, I urge them to use their influence. Every mayor I meet around the country is——
Independents are not that popular.
They are not necessarily all Independents. Deputy McHugh raised an issue that is related to road safety and I have stated that new roads certainly have a contribution to make. I am familiar with the issues pertaining to the road network around Galway, particularly the connectivity between Shannon and Galway. The Ennis bypass will open ahead of schedule next month and all other developments are proceeding apace. While I wish I had a magic wand with which I could produce huge pieces of infrastructure overnight, it is not possible as one must go through design, planning and proposals for compulsory purchase orders. However, this issue is at the top of the agenda. Apart from the five motorways, no other road network has a higher priority than the issues pertaining to Galway, Claregalway and the connectivity to Shannon. I am moving on such issues as quickly as possible.
Recently, while speaking abroad to a finance-based audience, I noted that no First World country has attempted such a volume of investment simultaneously in terms of its capacity to deliver. I refer to the attempt to simultaneously build five motorways, seven light rail systems and two metros, as well as totally changing and rejuvenating the heavy rail system. Ireland should take some pride in its achievements because they are recognised internationally. However, if one listened to some people here, one would think that nothing is happening. In terms of budgeting and speed of delivery, our agencies are managing this process well and we should be very proud of it.
In terms of the western rail corridor, since I took office as a regional Minister with responsibility for re-investing in the west of Ireland and nationwide, I have done more than any other Minister to rebalance the programme in favour of the regions. The western rail corridor has started. While the programme of delivery extends over the lifespan of Transport 21, during the next ten years Iarnród Éireann must balance the delivery of its very significant investment programme as equally as possible. It cannot simply put all the human and other resources into one project. However, the western rail corridor has been started to the great delight and appreciation of people in the west and the Government will continue to develop the entire corridor as the programme moves forward.
Deputy Pat Breen raised the serious issue of drugs. There is no internationally agreed roadside drug testing system. While seven or eight systems have been piloted, all have failed. I understand that another system based on saliva is being tested in a small way in Australia at present. However, its capacity to pick up substances is extremely limited. Interestingly, I understand that much of the drug abuse among drivers pertains to prescribed, rather than to illegal drugs. The volume of people who drive having taken an excessive quantity of a prescribed drug constitutes a serious issue. A test must be developed and there is significant activity in this respect within the European Union and internationally. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety is acting on Ireland's behalf in the effort to come up with a system that can deliver a satisfactory roadside test.
To be definite,one would be obliged to take a blood sample.
Yes. However, I refer specifically to roadside testing and having a quick and mandatory test. Such a system has not been developed.
Everyone should understand that is it illegal to drive with drugs of any shape or hue in one's system. A garda who believes that a person may not have any alcohol in his or her system, but who suspects something wrong in respect of drugs, can arrest that person and bring him or her to a Garda station to have blood samples taken and tested for drugs. It is not as though nothing is happening in terms of confirming such conduct or that no powers are available to arrest people on suspicion. They exist and the Garda can and should exercise them.
Has the Minister statistics in this regard?
I have no statistics to hand but I will try to obtain them for the Deputy. However, this is a new area. We must get to the specific point, namely, the ability to randomly test on the side of the road. At present, neither Ireland nor any other country has a system to so do.
The joint committee's recommendation on breath testing was intended to include drugs as well as alcohol.
Yes. Everyone wishes to do this. A roadside system based on a saliva test is being assessed in Australia at present. It can only test for the presence of methamphetamine and cannabis. We know that a large proportion of drug users take prescribed drugs.
How does one differentiate between whether a person is driving under the influence of prescribed drugs or unauthorised drugs?
A garda can make a judgment call in regard to the driving behaviour of an individual. Where he or she is found to be incoherent in terms of speech or unable to stand or walk the garda may take the person to the Garda station to undergo blood tests which will disclose what type of drug, if any, the person has taken to cause him or her to act or react in a particular manner.
The crash barriers on the Ennis bypass are a safety feature. I am not familiar, as I have not yet travelled the road, with how close the two motorways are.
They are side-by-side.
It is a modern system. I have no doubt the Ennis bypass meets all the relevant safety requirements. The issue of difficulties for older drivers was raised. I am anticipating what will happen next year when I announce the new driver licensing regime. I have been approached about people who have been driving on a provisional licence for the past 20, 30 or 40 years and their concerns in regard to the driving test. What we are trying to do is to remove from our roads those who are not qualified to drive. I understand this is a difficult issue for many people who have driven for years on a provisional licence and have never been involved in an accident. It is an interesting issue with which we will have to deal.
Deputy Nolan is correct in saying that the traffic corps makes an enormous contribution towards road safety. By the end of this year 800 officers will be employed in the traffic corps. This figure is well ahead of the number provided for in the programme. The reason for this is as stated by Deputy Nolan, namely, the impact of the traffic corps in terms of enforcement which is a crucial element of road safety. The Government has provided an enormous amount of funding for the recruitment and training of more gardaí and if more staff can be allocated to the traffic corps we will do that. The traffic corps does not exclude the Garda Síochána through all of its activities from playing a role in road safety. While a specific number of gardaí are dedicated to the traffic corps, all gardaí have a legal obligation to involve themselves where necessary in the operation of traffic law.
I agree with the Deputy that the situation as outlined by him in regard to the driving test system is bizarre. I would like to introduce a test similar to that used in the Nordic countries where a person must pass a test in various conditions, namely, on a good day when it is dry, on a bad day when it is wet and windy, in icy conditions, in snow, in daylight and at night time. I agree with the Deputy that it was nonsense for the tester to suggest that somebody who drove himself or herself to the test centre could not be taken out to be tested. The current system is reaching the point of being discredited. The volume of traffic on our road requires the introduction of a more robust system that will result in better drivers on our roads and that is what we intend to do.
I thank the Minister for his response. I have one or two final questions arising out of our discussion this morning. Perhaps the Road Safety Authority, when next putting together an advertising campaign, could point out to drivers that the outside lane should be used for overtaking only and not for driving in. People need to be reminded of this fact.
The other matter is possibly the most important. When we started our deliberations four years ago, the insurance industry was on its knees. It was losing money but now it is making substantial profits. This year the industry is poised to make a profit of approximately €1.3 billion. Does the Minister have any plans to bring about the entry of new insurance companies to the motor insurance market, given that Ireland is now an attractive destination since the Government set up the PIAB, introduced the civil liability and health and safety legislation, as well as penalty points? This has made Ireland a safer place in which to do business. The Minister's initiative on random breath testing, following our proposal, has saved 30 lives in the past three months. I hope we will get the number of road deaths down to the target figure of 300 which has been set.
As members stated, motorists must fear the law. The dedicated traffic corps has a major part to play in this regard. When penalty points were introduced, motorists feared the law and we witnessed a massive reduction. Then, when they did not see members of the Garda Síochána on the roads, the figures increased again. Now it is obvious that gardaí are being vigilant.
Most local authorities are not implementing the new speed regulations. Surely there should be a blanket 120 km/h speed limit on motorways and a minimum speed limit of 100 km/h on dual carriageways. Would it be possible for the Minister to provide a timeframe, for example, 13 December 2007, for local authorities to undertake a complete review of speed limits on all roads within their jurisdiction?
I again thank the Chairman with whom I agree. The Road Safety Authority will use its advertising campaign to send the message that the outside lane should be used for overtaking only.
The insurance industry, as the Chairman correctly stated, is now far more profitable. However, it is a free market in which we would welcome far more competition. Having sustained considerable losses, it is inevitable that there will be more competition because the business has become profitable. There is evidence that this is already taking place. We hope this will further drive down premiums for all drivers, building on the success of the Government's decisions across a range of Departments in recent years. I refer, in particular, to the establishment of the PIAB.
I expect to receive reports from all local authorities much sooner than the end of next year. I hope that early in the new year I will be in a position to confirm that all local authorities have confirmed to me that they have looked at the entire spectrum of their responsibilities and put in place what they believe are the correct speed limits. The speed limit on motorways is clear. Some councils have an issue with the speed limit on some dual-carriageways and other roads. We obviously want to see the matter resolved. I am aware of some speed limits in Dublin which are too low.
At the Montrose Hotel.
The Minister should give them a deadline. He should telephone the director of services and managers to state he will not accept this any more. He is getting the blame, although they are responsible.
Unfortunately, they are not under my direct control and I do not possess many legal rights, but the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been assisting us in dealing with the issue. I want to make it clear to the committee that we will be naming and shaming——
——local authorities which do not participate where they have a fundamental responsibility to assist in improving road safety. They had better exercise their duty.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the Minister for assisting us in our final deliberations on the reform of the Irish insurance market. I thank him for all the help he has given us in recent years.
Thank you, Chairman.
I propose that the committee deal with a number of housekeeping items in private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.