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Wednesday, 8 Oct 2003

Vol. 1 No. 26

Scrutiny of EU Proposals.

Today we will deal with scrutiny of EU legislative proposals. I welcome the delegation. I wish to draw the attention of all to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege, but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. I also wish to remind members of a long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Members have received copies of the various proposals. We must first deal with COM (2003) 132, which concerns road tolling. I am delighted to welcome Mr. Jim Humphreys, Principal Officer at the Department of Transport; Ms Laura Behan, Assistant Principal Officer in its roads policy division, and Mr. Gerry Murphy, head of the PPP unit at the National Roads Authority. Perhaps Mr. Humphreys might make his submission to the committee.

Mr. Jim Humphreys

The directive which has been referred to is aimed at ensuring the technical and commercial interoperability of toll systems throughout the EU. It proposes to do so by standardising toll collection technology and establishing a European toll service to ensure the commercial interoperability of toll systems. The objective of the European toll service would be to ensure the interoperability for users of the electronic toll systems that have already been introduced at national or regional level by member states, as well as those to be introduced in future throughout the Union. I will describe the main provisions of the draft directive.

First, it proposes that on 1 January 2005, toll operators must make available to users onboard equipment, suitable for use with all electronic toll systems in service in the Union and in all types of vehicle, which is interoperable and capable of communicating with all the systems operating in the Union. Second, it proposes that, as of 1 January 2008, all new systems brought into service as part of the European electronic toll service only use satellite positioning and mobile communications technology and that the use of current microwave technology cease by 1 January 2012. The third main element is that it proposes the establishment of a European electronic toll service and that member states ensure that the service be available for all vehicles exceeding 3.5 tonnes and vehicles carrying more than nine passengers as of 1 January 2005 and for all other types of vehicles as of 1 January 2010. Essentially it proposes one vehicle, one tag and one account.

Currently electronic toll collection is available on the Eastlink and Westlink bridges. The technology in use is in-car tags using microwave technology to communicate with the toll system. The Drogheda bypass, which is also tolled, does not provide for electronic toll collection as yet. However, as part of the Dundalk bypass PPP scheme, the concessionaire will be required to make electronic toll collection available in 2004 at the toll booths on the bypass and also be obliged to ensure that the in-car unit used for the Eastlink and Westlink bridges will also be capable of being read and processed at the Drogheda bypass. As each PPP contract comes on stream, each concessionaire will also be required to introduce electronic toll collection compatible with the existing system, i.e. in-car tags using microwave technology to communicate with the toll system. As various concessionaires will be providing in-car tags, it is intended that a clearing house arrangement will operate to facilitate payments to be made by the owner of a tag issued by one concessionaire in respect of a toll charge levied by another. Accordingly, it will be possible for an Irish motorist to purchase one in-car tag and pay all tolls within the country using it; that is, one tag, one account.

The implications of the proposal for Ireland are that in the short-term, the electronic toll collection mechanisms currently in use here are compatible with those prescribed in the draft directive, that is the microwave technology-based mechanism. However, the draft directive proposes that the use of this technology must cease by 1 January 2012 and new systems introduced from 1 January 2008 must use satellite positioning or mobile communications technology, which are currently not in use for toll collection in Ireland or anywhere else, although some countries are moving towards their use. As currently proposed, the draft directive could have implications for Ireland in terms of meeting the implementation dates proposed, technology replacement costs and the cost of setting up and participating in a European electronic toll service.

In relation to Ireland's position on the draft directive in negotiations, while we welcome the move toward the harmonisation of technical standards, which is necessary, the feasibility of various aspects needs to be considered further and confirmed. In particular, the proposal to rule out microwave technology for new toll schemes from 1 January 2008 and for existing toll schemes, needs to be considered in more detail. Also, the feasibility of the proposal that toll operators would make available, on 1 January 2005, to users of on-board equipment such equipment, which is suitable for use with all electronic toll systems and services in the Union and on all types of vehicles, remains to be established. Considerable further work is required also on the proposal for the establishment of a European toll service.

The technical feasibility of meeting the binding dates proposed has not been fully established and the cost for those likely to be affected needs to be estimated as well. More preparatory and analytical work needs to be carried out in relation to the issues before binding commitments are made.

The cost implications for Ireland need further consideration and analysis. Some of the issues that need to be borne in mind, however, include the fact that the migration strategy from one technology to another could have significant costs, as it fixes an arbitrary date for the changeover. Reinvestment in new on-board units and new software, coupled with discarding viable systems before the end of their economic life, could prove expensive, particularly as a number of toll roads will open in Ireland in the short-term using microwave technology. It is also likely that the NRA will be required to specify this requirement for schemes awarded prior to the introduction of the new European electronic toll service, which would have further cost implications.

No legislative implications have been identified so far, although toll by-laws and schemes may need to be amended. There have been some negotiations at the working group in Brussels to date and I will give a flavour of those discussions. At the initial consideration of the proposal, member states gave their general initial reactions. There was agreement on the principle of interoperability but member states had difficulties with the proposed time-scale and technical feasibility. There was a further meeting at which the Commission conceded that the target dates should be subject to further consideration. These will now be considered in further discussions and negotiations in the Council working group.

A technical electronic toll committee has also had an initial informal meeting at which strong concerns were expressed regarding the phasing out of microwave technology within a set timeframe. There was a general view that microwave and satellite technology should be allowed to co-exist within time limits.

That is an outline of where things currently stand as regards the draft directive.

I thank Mr. Humphreys for his detailed presentation. We are looking at the tolling mechanisms that we are going to use throughout the country, which will be rolled out over the next five or six years. Would it not make sense at this point to establish a tender process for an overall operator of the tolling mechanisms throughout the country? Having tendered at the lowest price, such an operator could then provide the clearing house. When the National Roads Authority is signing contracts under the PPP process they would have to use that particular clearing house and system. As part of such contracts, any agreement reached at EU level would have to be implemented by that organisation. That would reduce the risk and costs to the State as a result of changing from the current system of microwave technology to satellite technology.

Is the satellite technology not available now? One insurance company here is currently using it to provide cheaper insurance, whereby they track cars throughout the country. Could that method not be used for our tolling system now?

I join with Deputy Naughten in welcoming Mr. Humphreys and in thanking him for his presentation. Can Mr. Humphreys tell us why the system is not yet available on the Drogheda by-pass, considering that the technology is already deployed in two other positions in the State? Has any consideration been given to the civil liberties element of using satellite technology, given that not everyone wants to have his or her vehicles traced? There is a rather serious civil liberties issue involved in this. While such tracking methods have been used as regards insurance cover for younger motorists, the use of the same technology may end up being a deterrent to some people if used for payments at toll booths. Cars can be tracked throughout their journeys, not just at toll booths. Perhaps Mr. Humphreys could give us his views on that.

It would be very useful for tracing stolen cars.

Should this equipment not be fitted as standard in all new vehicles from a certain date, rather than people having to buy it as an extra? This could become another add-on that motorists will have to pay for at a reasonable cost. There is no point in saying that such equipment will not be used by every motorist because within ten years everyone will have to pay road tolls in order to travel. It might be a way of reducing delays at toll booths, such as those on the M50. If the equipment was fitted as standard in all new vehicles, at a later stage one could implement a much more user-friendly tolling system.

Mr. Humphreys

I shall answer the last question first, concerning fitting such equipment as standard in new cars. Mr. Gerry Murphy from the NRA may wish to elaborate on some of the technical aspects later. As I understand it, using the current microwave technology, the tag is relatively inexpensive at €30 or €40. However, for satellite technology, an on-board unit is available for HGVs but it still has to be developed for cars. It is pretty expensive at this stage, although I will not quote a figure. I have heard a figure mentioned but I am not sure of the exact details. I expect that, in time, as the cost of these units reduce, they will be provided as a standard part of new vehicles.

On the question about civil liberties, it is a specific issue that has been identified in terms of the development of an interoperable system. Validation of the chosen technical solution is specifically referred to in the directive vis-à-vis European rules protecting the freedoms and fundamental rights of individuals, including their privacy, and in particular conformity with European directives on these matters. It is an issue that has to be taken on board in terms of the type of tolling systems being talked about here.

As to why it was not installed for the Drogheda by-pass at the beginning, the position is that the NRA decided to get the toll plaza up and operational, while the Drogheda scheme was being built. As I said in my introductory remarks, one of the first jobs the concessionaire will have to do on the Dundalk-western by pass will be to install electronic toll collection facilities on the Drogheda by pass.

On satellite tracking in terms of metering and billing, does Mr. Humphreys think the Commission is ultimately trying to get to a point where motorists will be charged per kilometre of motorway they use? Is that where this type of technology is leading?

Mr. Humphreys

The directive does not deal with that.

Is that what is driving this?

Mr. Humphreys

I would not like to second-guess the Commission but there are developments elsewhere in Europe. It is proposed to introduce a system in Germany that is distance based. There has been some reference in the United Kingdom to similar policy developments.

Microwave certainly works at present on a point by point basis.

Mr. Humpreys, you said that strong concerns were expressed regarding the phasing out of the DSRC. Who expressed those concerns?

Mr. Humphreys

Member states expressed concerns.

Which member states?

Mr. Humphreys

I do not have a record of the meeting so I cannot say which ones, but it was a general view among member states.

What was the basis of their concerns?

Mr. Humphreys

Much investment has gone into existing microwave technology. I presume it was the member states that make fairly extensive use of tolling at the moment, but I do not have a record of the meeting with me. It would be member states currently using microwave technology. Much investment has gone into those systems. The satellite technology has not been fully proven and there are certain issues and costs associated with it.

Bearing in mind what you said, do you think it will be introduced? Is there a target date for the introduction of the directive?

Mr. Humphreys

I think that will emerge from the discussions of the working group in Brussels. On the question on the clearing house, I will ask Mr. Gerry Murphy from the National Roads Authority to deal with it because proposals are being developed by the NRA on that.

Deputy Naughten raised the issue of a number of operators on the network. There is no difficulty having a number of different operators on the network provided that technical systems are to the European developing standard. The issue then is how does one process the transactions, and this is where the clearing house comes in. We, in the National Roads Authority, are developing proposals to set up a clearing house which would facilitate this, but it would not be mandatory. Our legal advice is that we could not necessarily make it mandatory. It is available to commercial operators but if they do not use it, they have to set up their own clearing house. There will be a clearing house arrangement.

On tolling, I notice that some other countries do not use the barrier system. Once a microwave transmitter is based on some kind of frame, cars are able to move freely. They are obviously monitored to see whether they have a tag. I presume a file is sent to the police if someone does not have a tag or a valid tag and uses the express lane. That is something that could be considered locally. It works well throughout the United States and provides for the free movement of cars while at the same time ensuring that those who do not have a tag or a valid tag are apprehended at a later stage. Has the NRA or the Department given any consideration to that?

Mr. Humphreys

Barrier free tolling on electronic toll collection lanes is an issue. There are issues surrounding it. One would probably find that abroad, it is supported by camera based enforcement so if that somebody goes through, there is an enforcement regime in place and they can be tracked. There is the cost of camera-based enforcement and the risk of revenue loss from defaulters. It is an issue about which the NRA has been talking to the operators on the West Link.

There are a number of successful schemes being used throughout the world. They generally serve large metropolitan areas with high volumes of traffic through them. It has significant extra costs over the traditional plaza but where one has a high volume network, it is the only feasible way tolling becomes of particular value.

I think Jim Humphreys mentioned the dedicated express ETC lanes that will be in all our schemes. Although they have a barrier at 50 kilometres per hour, there will be pre-reading of the tag and the barrier will lift up so one can pass through without stopping at 50 kilometres per hour. If enforcement regimes are satisfactory, they could leave the barriers up. At present on the West Link, there is a dedicated lane and they process double the volumes through on that lane as they do on any other lane at peak hours. We are in discussion with them to see if there is a way to leave the barriers up on such dedicated lanes.

Mr. Humphreys is correct about large metropolitan areas. Atlanta in Georgia has a particularly good system on its ring road. Cars go through at the standard speed limit and they have the enforcement capacity.

We have raised questions but can we make a recommendation? Can the Clerk to the committee advise?

Of course we can. That is what we are here for.

This directive seems logical on the microwave technology but I, and I am sure other members of the committee, would have concerns about satellite technology from the point of view of expense. A unit at this time costs approximately €1,000 to install. We are a long way off seeing something of €30 or €40 being installed in vehicles. I do not see why, in the short to medium term, the EU cannot look at using the microwave technology throughout the EU where one could have a centralised clearing house for it rather than taking it a step further to satellite technology. That is my recommendation.

If that is agreed, I will ask the Clerk to convey it to the Department on behalf of the committee. I thank Mr. Humphreys, Ms Behan and Mr. Murphy for attending and explaining to us COM 2003 (132). I hope the discussion will be of benefit to them in their further discussions. I call Mr. Ó Méalóid who will deal with the unfair pricing practices among airline carriers.

Mr. Micheál Ó Méalóid

I am not a principal officer but an assistant principal officer in the aviation regulation and international relations division in the Department of Transport. My colleague, Niamh O'Brien, is a higher executive officer in the same division. I have circulated a briefing note that I hope all members have in their possession. I now propose to summarise it. I would first like to thank the joint committee for inviting me to discuss this proposal. This is my first time to address an Oireachtas committee, so if I am somewhat nervous I ask the forgiveness of members.

The European Commission proposed this regulation in March 2002 to deal with subsidies and unfair pricing practices being given to some non-EU carriers by their governments. Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, governments around the world were forced to intervene to enable worldwide aviation to continue operating. The only state aid permitted in Europe was limited to compensation for the closure of United States airspace for four days and to insurance indemnities for war and terrorism risk cover. Both types of aid have long ceased.

However, many non-EU governments continue to give substantial assistance to their industry, leaving European airlines at a competitive disadvantage. This proposal will allow the Commission to redress that situation by imposing duties on non-EU carriers if they are found to be benefiting from subsidies from their governments.

Any person can complain to the Commission about such state aid. If the Commission considers there is sufficient evidence that such subsidies are damaging the European aviation industry, it can initiate an investigation. If the investigation shows that such subsidies are damaging the European industry, duties can be imposed on the non-EU carrier of an amount sufficient to redress that damage.

This proposal, which is based on the 1986 regulations in the maritime sectors, has the support of a qualified majority in the European Union. Ireland supports it since it will be useful to the Commission in its dealings with third countries. The regulation will have no adverse implications for Ireland or for Irish aviation; in fact, it is intended to have the opposite effect by restoring fair competitive conditions to the market. I would welcome any comments.

I thank you, Mr. Ó Méalóid for your succinct summary. As members are happy with it no questions arise. Is it agreed that the joint committee notes the proposal and has no formal observation? Agreed. I now ask Mr. Coppins to deal with the four proposals relevant to vehicle standards.

Mr. Des Coppins

With your agreement, Chairman, I would like to deal with it on the basis of two separate directives, because while there are four, the first deals with speed limiters while the other three are complementary in that they deal with seat restraint systems.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Coppins

I did not prepare a further note for the committee because while these directives are technically complex, their effect is simple and we consider that we have dealt with the issues adequately in the information note we prepared for the committee beforehand. At present, speed limiters are required to be attached to coaches and large trucks. The proposal supports the extension of a requirement to fit them to effectively all vehicles other than passenger cars. A directive earlier this summer which has been completed and adopted - 2002/85 - requires member states to require all vehicles except passenger cars to use speed limiters.

The proposal before us sets down the technical standards for those speed limiters under an EU-type approval process, which basically sets out their functioning, assembly and construction and the tests that have to be undertaken so that they are approved. There is a two-fold reason for this. The first is to have a standard, uniform approach to these types of road safety issues across the Community while the second is the internal market. The proposal effectively sets out the technical requirements that speed limiter manufacturers must comply with for their speed limiters to be approved and fitted in vehicles other than cars. I will be happy to deal with any questions.

A big difficulty with speed limiters in current use is that many of them can be tampered with. Will the new specifications address this? While nothing is 100% secure, will the security offered by the speed limiter be greater than what is available at present?

Mr. Coppins

There is a problem with the tampering of existing speed limiters. We try to deal with that in the context of the annual roadworthiness test for these vehicles. Simply put, someone who presents his or her truck for testing with the speed limiter in operation can stop it operating the next morning at the commencement of a year's work. There is a problem here, of which the Garda Síochána is aware. There are huge difficulties with enforcing it.

This proposal does not fully address that, but it recognises it as an issue. However, it does not specify a technical solution that would solve it. Perhaps the only way to deal with it is by way of an engineering solution that integrates the speed limiter with the engine management system so that if it is tampered with the engine does not work. The technology is developing but has not come to fruition.

Has any thought been given to passenger vehicles? I do not suggest all passenger vehicles should carry speed limiters, but there is an argument for considering their application to drivers under a certain age or those holding a provisional licence to assist in reducing the numbers of deaths on the roads, especially when account is taken of the age profile of those involved in many such accidents.

That is not relevant as the proposal is concerned with commercial vehicles and technical standards. I will not ask Mr. Coppins to become involved in what could be a political issue.

Mr. Coppins

I thank you, Chairman, for your supportive comment, but with your agreement, I could set the scene for the Deputy. There are two approaches to this. The first is voluntary, which insurance companies such as Hibernian and AXA are using with the black box technology, where a black box is installed in a car. While some of the systems that can be installed physically limit the speed of the vehicle, others simply monitor the speed to ensure the driver does not exceed the limit. That is a purely voluntary approach which at least two insurance companies are beginning to find is worthwhile in terms of road safety and savings in terms of insurance costs.

The broader issue of whether it should be a requirement for all cars is tied in with the European type approval process. Part of the reason for the type approval process is to ensure there are no barriers to trade. It is driven by the completion of the Internal Market. If a member state like Ireland were to go down the road, and there are certain merits in it, of introducing it on a compulsory basis, we have to go to the European Union and get the agreement of all the member states. It is a very complicated issue. In a nutshell, it is possible but it is a problem.

Is it agreed that the committee notes the proposal and has no formal observations? Agreed. Is it agreed to take COM 361, 362 and 363 together? Agreed.

Mr. Coppins

This is useful for us all because it saves time. Again, I have not prepared a note on this proposal because it is an engineering issue and the principles of it are covered in the information note given to members.

The background to it is that an EU directive was issued earlier this year - 2003/20 - which dealt with the wearing of seat belts where they are provided. In other words, seat belts have to be worn in every vehicle where they are provided, and that is as far as the proposal went. It did not require seat belts to be fitted in the vehicles.

These three proposals deal with the fitting issue. They require seat belts to be fitted in all vehicles. Currently they are only required to be fitted in passenger cars. Many light and heavy goods vehicles have them on a voluntary basis but it is not mandatory. Similarly, with coaches, they are being put in on a voluntary basis but it is not mandatory. These three proposals will require seat belts to be fitted to all vehicles where they are not currently required.

The three proposals are complementary because we are talking about seat belts and regardless of the strength of the belt; it is of no use unless the anchorage fitted to the vehicle is very strong. The construction of some vehicles like coaches means the seat belt cannot be fitted to the vehicle; it has to be fitted to the seat. That is why that particular subject is addressed in the directive.

The three proposals state that these are the requirements vehicles have to meet to have proper seat belts and safety restraint systems fitted. It is complementary to the existing requirement that they have to be worn. When this proposal is adopted, there will be a requirement to have seat belts fitted to every vehicle and the directive adopted earlier this year will require them to be worn by every vehicle.

I have two questions and if Mr. Coppins cannot answer them now, perhaps he might get back to me on them. First, what is the date for the implementation of the requirement to have seat belts fitted to all new coaches? The second question relates to the anchorage of seat belts, an issue that was raised with me following an accident that almost had tragic consequences. An individual who was quite heavy was trapped in the seat of his burning car with the seat belt on and no one could physically reach in over him to unhook the safety belt. Can we not have a system where the anchorage is located on the outside rather than the inside of the driver so that in an emergency the person can be unclipped from the vehicle? For example, if someone comes across an unconscious person trapped in a vehicle which is about to go on fire - the emergency services have these facilities - they need to get that individual out of the vehicle extremely quickly but that is virtually impossible with the clip located on the inside. I realise that causes other problems in terms of the fitting of the seat belts but has that area been examined?

Mr. Coppins

To take the first question on the fitting of seat belts in coaches, currently it is a proposal and it will depend on the final dates of adoption but the date included in the proposal for the seat belts in coaches is 2006. If it takes some time to get through this process, between the EU Parliament and everything else, it might be a year before it is adopted and there is a good chance that it would be put back by a year but——

As of now, that is only for new vehicles coming into the system?

Mr. Coppins

Yes. That is only for new vehicles. There is no question of a retrofit system. The UK authorities, if I can say this inside these four walls, undertook a retrofit programme and it has created huge difficulties for them in terms of quality control and assurance. To give one example, most coaches have plywood floors and if one tried to fit seat belts to plywood floors, one might as well not have a seat belt but some converters who were contracted to do retrofits simply bolted the anchorage to a plywood floor. That did not work and there were huge problems. If it is an old vehicle with badly corroded floors itgives also. That is the situation in regard to the retrofit.

On the idea of the seat belt release being on the inboard rather than on the outboard side, I am not aware, in my time dealing with vehicle standards, of a debate about that issue but I would be happy to check it out for the Deputy and let him know if there has been a debate and the reason for that. I suspect it has to do with the vulnerability of it in that the outside of a vehicle is probably much more vulnerable to distortion in an accident, but that is purely conjecture on my part. I am happy to check it out and try to give some information to the Deputy on it.

Is it agreed that the committee notes the proposal and that it has no formal observations? Agreed.

I thank Mr. Coppins and Mr. Ellis for coming in to tell him that his salary is not beingreduced.

Mr. Coppins

Thank you very much, Chairman.

Unless the members have any other business, it is proposed to adjourn until Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 9.30 a.m.

The joint committee adjourned at 11 a.m.sine die.