I thank the Chairman and members for giving me an opportunity to appear before the Joint Committee on Transportation and Communications to assist in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the road traffic Bill 2015.
The Road Safety Authority very much welcomes the proposed Bill and the measures contained in it. The new Bill is particularly timely as we have seen an increase in the numbers of road deaths in the past two years. New measures are needed to tackle existing and new road safety challenges. I am accompanied by Mr. Declan Naughton, director of driver licensing and testing, and Ms Miriam Scott who are here to assist with specific details if someone has a question that falls within the remit of the RSA.
I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of the position on road safety today, as well as providing some context for the measures included in the heads of the Bill.
A total of 49 people have been killed on the roads in 43 fatal collisions so far this year. That is seven fewer than the number this time last year, which is to be welcomed, although it is certainly not something to be complacent about.
In the past decade Ireland’s road safety record has improved measurably thanks to the work of many agencies and individuals, some of whom are present, working in a strategic way to prevent deaths and injuries on the roads. In the ten year period from 2003 to 2013 the number of road fatalities fell from 335 - almost one a day - to 188, a decline of 44%. In the same ten-year period we have seen a reduction of 16% in the number of serious injuries. However, since 2013 the numbers of road deaths have begun to rise once more. Last year there was a 4% increase to a total of 195. The current road safety strategy which runs from 2013 to 2020 has set a specific target to reduce the number of deaths on the roads to 124 a year and the number of serious injuries to 330. These drops are necessary to close the gap between Ireland and other best performing countries such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia.
I would like to add context to some of the contributory factors in collisions. Driver error represents the single biggest contributory factor, accounting for at least 80% of fatal collisions in recent years. As previously stated, we know that speed, impaired driving through alcohol, drugs, fatigue or distraction, the non-wearing of seat belts and unsafe behaviour by or towards vulnerable road users remain the main contributory factors, both here and internationally. I would like to give an overview of the evidence for some of these factors, focusing on the topics of particular relevance to the new Bill.
Excessive speed was cited as a contributory factor in 15% of all fatalities and 11% of all serious injuries in the period 2002 to 2012. From our analysis of road collision data, we can confirm that speed related fatal or serious injury collisions are most likely to occur during the summer months on rural roads; on roads with a speed limit of 80 km/h or 100 km/h; on bends; and, tragically, involve male drivers aged between 17 and 24 years, followed closely by male drivers aged 25 to 34 years. From our observational studies of drivers in recent years, we also know that as many as eight in ten drivers exceed the posted speed limit on urban roads, while a lower proportion, about one in five, exceed the speed limit on higher speed rural roads. The extent to which drivers engage in speeding in urban areas poses a significant threat to the safety of vulnerable road users. We firmly believe a reduction in speed limits in residential areas specifically and urban areas generally is crucial to protect the safety of vulnerable road users based on all of this evidence.
On impaired driving, alcohol has played a significant role as a causal factor in road traffic collisions in Ireland, as well as in the rest of the world. Previous research in Ireland indicated that alcohol had been a factor in over 36% of fatal crashes in 2003 and over 28% in 2004 and 2005. The Road Safety Authority analysed the role alcohol had played in fatal collisions in a two year study period from 2005 to 2007. This period was relevant to establish the effectiveness of the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, which came into play in July 2006. This provision allowed the Garda to breath-test a driver without the requirement of having formed an opinion that the driver had consumed alcohol. It allowed the Garda to test a greater number of drivers than had previously been permitted.
The study also analysed the cases in which a breath test had been administered in cases involving a fatal collision. The result of the analysis showed that there had been a significant reduction in the role alcohol had played in fatal collisions during the period. It showed that the number of cases in which alcohol had played a part had decreased to 15.5% in 2007, from 28% in 2005. This was a significant reduction and appeared to be directly related to the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing in 2006.
Professor Cusack from the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, when he appeared before the committee last Thursday, referenced a report on roadside drug testing, in which there was a section on prevalence. Chapter 3, in particular, provided a most comprehensive overview of the available data for drug driving. A review of road collisions and an analysis of drug and alcohol toxicology results from the Coroner’s Court in Kildare during an 11-year period, from 1998 to 2009, showed that of 92 driver deaths examined, a positive toxicology result for alcohol and-or drugs was recorded in 50% of cases, while there was almost a 10% figure for the number of cases in which drugs had had an influence.
A prevalence rate of one driver in ten being under the influence of drugs undoubtedly points to a need to have an intoxicant impairment testing regime. We also know, as Mr. Faughnan stated, that there is strong public support for such testing. Our own survey of public attitudes among 1,000 motorists conducted as recently as November 2014 showed that 93% of motorists agreed that the Garda should have the power to conduct roadside testing to detect drug use. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, the State body with responsibility for the testing of all blood and urine specimens taken by gardaí, tells us that in the case of approximately one in ten drivers killed in a crash there will be a positive toxicology result for a drug or drugs.
As Professor Cusack outlined last week, a two-step process has been identified to tackle the drug driving problem. The first step was the introduction, in December of 2014, of the field impairment testing. This new roadside impairment test provides An Garda Síochána with additional powers to test drivers whom they suspect of driving under the influence of drugs. The second step, introduced in this Bill, will see the introduction of roadside chemical testing, which is modelled on successful mandatory alcohol screening. When in use, it will test for certain key drugs like cannabis, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines which are the most prevalent in drugged drivers. I have no doubt that such additional powers will mean more drug drivers apprehended by gardaí and the fear of being arrested and disqualified from driving will force drivers to reconsider such dangerous behaviour, similar to alcohol testing introduced some years ago.
International evidence suggests that driver distraction is a contributory factor in up to 30% of all collisions. Experts in the area say that distraction can be any one of three types: manual which is hands off the wheel, visual which is eyes off the road or cognitive distraction which is mind off the road. A distraction can be internal or external to the vehicle be it manual, cognitive or visual. For example, texting or using a mobile phone in any other form, can potentially include all three types of distraction - the mobile phone is in the hand and the hands are off the wheel, the mind is off driving and the eyes are off the road. International evidence suggests that texting while driving makes one four times more likely to crash.
Of all drivers aware of the increase in penalty points for mobile phone use, three in ten say that since the introduction they now use their hand-held mobile phone less, but I believe that three in ten is still not enough. Of the high risk group which admits to using the phone more regularly while driving, over half admit to now using their mobile phone less, so the culture is changing. This is a very positive endorsement of the effectiveness of enforcement measures in changing public behaviour. Further strengthening of legislation on the use of electronic devices is welcomed in the road traffic Bill and is to be expected in future Bills. It is, as Mr. Faughnan pointed out, a changing technology and it continues to pose new threats.
I will now turn to vehicle defects. The most recent data available show that vehicle defects have contributed to 3% of fatal road collisions and to 1.5% of serious injury collisions over the period 2007 to 2012. Tyre issues are most likely to feature. These data are based on the preliminary investigation of vehicles by a member of An Garda Síochána. A more detailed vehicle inspection, conducted as part of the forensic collision examination, will provide a more accurate assessment of the extent to which vehicle defects contribute to collisions. Preliminary results from the pre-crash behaviour study indicate that worn, bald tyres and inappropriate pressure of tyres, contribute to collisions to a greater extent than previously thought.
There is new provision in the regulations for written-off vehicles. This is a key component in ensuring a high standard of vehicles in the national fleet. It is essential that severely and irreparably damaged vehicles are never let back on our roads. Where a vehicle can be repaired, it would only be allowed back into service if repaired correctly by competent people. Having a firm statutory basis in road traffic law will allow the Minister, in conjunction with other Departments and public bodies, including the Road Safety Authority, to progress the implementation of a robust system for dealing with written-off vehicles in Ireland.
The current position on information provision is that insurance companies voluntarily notify, through a third party, the Department’s driver and vehicle computer services division, DVCSD, in Shannon of vehicles that are damaged beyond repair. These are statutory write-offs and the DVCSD lock these vehicles down so that no transactions may take place such as motor tax renewal or change of ownership. In 2014, there were 2851 vehicles notified to the DVCSD as being statutory write-offs and their details were locked down.
The current process is administrative and although it is subscribed to by most insurance companies, it does not have a statutory footing. Categories of vehicle write-offs are not legally defined and motor insurance companies are not compelled to provide the written-off vehicle information to the DVCSD. The current register does not account for financial write-offs, also known as economic write–offs. In such cases, insurance companies can use their own inspection and certification procedures to allow the vehicles back on the road. Estimates suggest that over 45,000 vehicles are written off by motor insurance companies in each year. Of these, an estimated 18,000 financial write-offs make their way back onto roads.
The RSA carried out a review, with full public consultation, which identified legal and procedural shortcomings existing in the current system for dealing with written-off vehicles. As a result, the RSA issued proposals to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. As a first step, the appropriate primary legislation needs to be put in place. The draft head of this Bill before the committee will allow the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to make regulations on the use, detention and destruction of written-off vehicles. The Minister will be able to define the various categories of written off vehicles, specify the written-off register to be maintained and prescribe the credentials of those who may make a determination that a vehicle has been written-off.
The Bill will provide the primary legislative basis to allow written-off vehicles to be assigned either of two core classifications - a statutory write-off or a financial write-off. Statutory write-offs are vehicles that are damaged to such an extent that their integrity of construction is seriously compromised. These vehicles are unsafe to go back on the road and must be disposed of correctly in line with end of life vehicle requirements. This will eliminate the possibility of such vehicles making their way onto roads again and will also prevent them from becoming an environmental hazard through illegal dumping. This addresses the market forces that may see Ireland as having a loophole in disposal of such vehicles.
With regards to mutual recognition of driver disqualification, the UK and Ireland have, since 28 January 2010, recognised licence disqualifications across each other’s borders. This was a very isolated case as not all European jurisdictions do that and we had a very good relationship. As the UK withdrew from certain legal frameworks that enabled this to happen, from 1 December 2014 mutual recognition of licence disqualification does not apply to cases where a driver was disqualified after that date. Both jurisdictions recognised the value of this measure and are taking steps to restore mutual disqualification. The necessary legislation and memorandum of understanding are being worked on to effect this. The draft road traffic Bill 2015 incorporates the necessary provisions from Ireland's point of view.
The provisions applied to court disqualifications for offences that were similar in both jurisdictions. It did not apply to penalty point disqualifications, the danger of which was raised by Mr. Fintan Towey in discussions about the complexity of the issue with this committee last week. The types of offences include speeding, drink driving, dangerous driving and hit and run cases. The role of the Road Safety Authority, in the mutual recognition of disqualifications, was to take cases here when we were notified by UK authorities that a person was disqualified in the UK but gave an Irish address as his or her residence. In addition, the Road Safety Authority forwards to the UK licensing authorities details of cases where a person disqualified here gives an address in the UK. Given the differing legal systems, the RSA goes through the court system to apply the disqualification whereas the UK applies disqualifications administratively, without having to take court proceedings.
I want to express my sincere thanks on behalf of the Road Safety Authority to all members of the committee and their colleagues in all parties in the Oireachtas for the encouragement and continued support provided to us on the issue of road safety.