Chairs Designate of the Road Safety Authority and Dublin Port: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Deputy Michael Lowry and I welcome his substitute, Deputy Verona Murphy.

Today's meeting will involve two sessions. The purpose of the first session is to engage with Ms Liz O’Donnell, Chair Designate of the Road Safety Authority, and Mr. Jerry Grant, Chair Designate of Dublin Port, to discuss the strategic priorities for their roles and hear their views on the challenges currently facing the organisations. On behalf of the committee I welcome them both. Accompanying Ms O'Donnell is Mr. Declan Naughton, and attending virtually is Mr. Brian Farrell and Mr. Sam Waide from the RSA. All are welcome.

All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise to engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if the statement of a witness is potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, the witness will be directed to discontinue these remarks. It is imperative to comply with any such direction.

For witnesses attending remotely, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and as such they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should be mindful of their domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or against an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

In terms of housekeeping, participants will be aware that under Covid rules we are limited to two hours, so we have had to split the session, and this session is 30 minutes. The witnesses have made statements that all members have received. I ask that the witnesses confine their contributions to a summary of their statements that lasts four minutes to allow us time for questions.

I call Ms O'Donnell to make her opening statement. The time is restrictive and we have her written statement, so I ask her for a summary that lasts four minutes.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

I am very happy to continue to serve in this capacity as Chair of the Road Safety Authority. It has been an honour to contribute to the organisation and ambition of the Road Safety Authority for the past five years.

I would like briefly to put on the record a recognition of the work that Gay Byrne, my predecessor as Chair, put into the Road Safety Authority. He was the first Chair and served two terms. Because he was such a fabulous broadcaster in every way, an interviewer of people and a chat show host, it would be a shame if his contribution to road safety was a footnote in his career. He made a very big difference to public awareness.

The aim of the RSA is quite simple. It is to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce the number and severity of road injuries. To achieve success in delivering this is quite complex. Although the RSA is the lead agency in co-ordinating the Government's road safety strategy, we depend absolutely on collaborations with stakeholders and partners such as An Garda Síochána.

Since the Government’s first Road Safety Strategy 1998–2002, the number of deaths on Irish roads has fallen from 458 in 1998, which is an extraordinary number, to 140 in 2019. Ireland's safest year on record was in 2018 with 139 deaths reported. None of the success could have been possible without all the stakeholders. It is the Government’s road safety strategy and many people have contributed to its success by working in a co-ordinated way.

Unfortunately, this year we have seen an increase in fatalities, with 11 more people dying on our roads this year compared with last year. This is a concern and emphasises the need to continue focusing on educational and enforcement measures to tackle the main causes of collisions. A breakdown of road deaths is included in the appendix accompanying my statement. Having said that, Ireland is now a world leader in road safety, which is to the credit of the Irish people and the efforts made by successive governments. Ireland is now ranked the second safest European Union member state in 2019 after Sweden and the fourth safest country in the world. At an EU level Ireland is contributing to helping less progressive nations in Europe to improve their road safety performance.

The current road safety strategy started in 2013 and concludes at the end of this year. Between 2013 and 2019 fatalities have reduced by 26% in Ireland while EU 27 rates have reduced by only 6%, so we are doing well. The new road safety legislation has had a positive impact on behaviour. For example, there were new laws for learner drivers, safe overtaking of cyclists, the introduction of screening for drug-driving at the roadside, tougher penalties for drink driving, and an increase in penalty points for speeding and for seat belt and mobile phone offences.

The introduction of the Garda mobility enforcement app has made a big difference to the capacity of the Garda for enforcement. The graduated driver licensing system saw the introduction of the novice grade for newly qualified drivers and a lower penalty points threshold for both novice and learner drivers.

As for the new Government road safety strategy, we are now entering into the next ten years. It is a very exciting time for the Road Safety Authority, and we look forward to the next ten years. We are putting in place new measures and engaging with all our partners. More than 2,000 members of the public have made submissions to the Road Safety Authority for the next strategy. That is very encouraging.

The vision zero approach is the way forward at European level, and we hope to play our part in that.

I am trying to summarise as much as I can. The next road safety strategy is an opportunity to improve and broaden the base of our studies, research and data collection and to look more seriously at the number and gravity of serious injuries on the road. Our remit in the legislation is to reduce the severity of fatalities and serious injuries, so that will be a main focus. At a practical level we are engaging with our key partners, namely, An Garda Síochána, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, the Health and Safety Authority, the Department of Justice and local authorities. All these bodies will be extremely important in improving road safety in the next ten years.

Like other organisations, the RSA has been materially impacted throughout 2020, both financially and operationally, by the Covid-19 health emergency. We have put measures in place that allow for the operation of our services in a safe manner, adhering to public health guidelines. Doing so has, of course, reduced capacity. However, protecting RSA customers and staff is our primary goal. While we have resumed most of our public services and continued to operate most services through the current level 5 lockdown, they have, as I said, been operating at reduced capacity. I am very aware that the issue of most concern and frustration for our customers and for this committee, I am sure, is the delay in driving tests arising from Covid-19. The RSA has taken steps to increase our capacity and we have made a formal submission to the Department of Transport seeking sanction for the recruitment of additional driver testers. In October we made a submission for the recruitment of 80 extra driver testers, and I am hopeful that that will be approved soon. The RSA has continually engaged with the Department of Transport on its financial position because, unfortunately, Covid-19, the suspension of our services and the loss of revenues have really affected our finances. We are hoping to continue this engagement with the Department.

If the committee ratifies my nomination today, I will continue in my role as chairperson working with my fellow board members and the staff of the RSA and other agencies to prevent further needless loss of life and injury from road trauma.

Mr. Jerry Grant

I am delighted to be here. I look forward, with the committee's approval, to taking up the appointment of chair of Dublin Port Company at a very exciting time in the development of the board. The committee will be aware of my background. I have a lot of experience in major infrastructure planning and development and considerable executive experience in both the public and private sectors. I consider that I am in a good position to be able to help the board and the executive in delivering on the major challenges they face over the coming years.

My predecessor, Lucy McCaffrey, has left a very powerful legacy in Dublin Port, principally in ensuring a strong commercial entity that is profitable and efficient. There have been huge efficiency improvements over the past seven or eight years. I refer in particular to the 2040 master plan for the port which, with the funding we hope to have available, will be able to self-generate and deliver a doubling of capacity in Dublin Port over the next 20 years to potentially up to 77 million metric tonnes per annum by 2040. That figure is currently approximately 38 million metric tonnes. That is purely a reflection of the growth pattern that has existed for almost 50 years in Dublin Port. It has been consistent year on year at between 3% and 4% per annum, occasionally reflecting economic declines in downturns.

The efficient, effective performance of Dublin Port is vital to the economy of the country. As the committee will probably be aware, the port handles approximately 84% of the unitised trade in goods, or up to 1.5 million units, per annum. One third of the national energy requirement is catered for by the petroleum imports through Dublin Port. Very significant quantities of ore from Tara mines are exported through the port. The port welcomes approximately 2 million passengers in a normal year. In the context of all that, we welcome and continue to be very supportive of national ports policy on diversification and the opportunities for growth in throughput in other ports, notably in Rosslare because that takes some pressure off Dublin Port. The more successful that diversification is, the longer the capacity of Dublin Port will be available and the more we can be somewhat slower, perhaps, in rolling out the investment.

The scale of investment that is required over the next ten years is up to €1 billion, and that can all be delivered for a number of reasons. First, the port has been very successful in obtaining planning approval for huge parts of its master plan. It is not just a plan on a shelf; we now have two major strategic infrastructure development approvals that between them cover the entire long-term development of the northern port. Work is now commencing on preparing the ground for the next major strategic infrastructure application to An Bord Pleanála, which will be for the south port and Poolbeg, where there are a lot of interfaces with Dublin City Council and TII. There is the new access road, for example, to service the south port and link it back to the north port. All that work will form part of the application. There has been a huge amount of consultation. Furthermore, the master plan that Ms McCaffrey and her board oversaw incorporates very strong features linking the city back into the port, or the port back into the city. In some ways over the past 30 years, that link has been broken. That access through and connectivity between what is a port city is really important. A lot of work has been done on the reinstatement of the old archaeology of the port and on pedestrian and cycle routes now being developed to link the Tolka and the Liffey rivers. It is not just about the port; it is also about how the port and the city work together. I am delighted to say there is an excellent relationship between the city council and the port, which was not always the case.

In 1999, the throughput achieved was 38 million tonnes. Nine years earlier, it was 27 million or 28 million tonnes, so one can see the scale of growth that has been happening. The port achieved turnover of €93 million and €39 million profit after tax. That profit is what will drive the investment potential over the coming period. The port currently has debt of approximately €199 million and a further €250 million available and drawn down for investment in order to deliver the immediate projects it will undertake in the coming years. It is a very exciting time.

Covid has hit the port. In the middle of the year, we were looking at a decline in activity of approximately 20% but, thankfully, the final figure will be nothing like that and is looking like a 6% reduction. Whereas foot passengers are down by 80%, lo-lo and ro-ro traffic is almost back up to last year's levels, so there has been a very significant recovery. Again, this is a reflection of how the economy has stayed strong and developed.

The big challenge in the immediate term is Brexit. I know that the committee will talk to the chief executives in a little while so I will not go into this in detail, other than to say €30 million has been invested in Brexit-related infrastructure between the buildings and the facilities in the port and the rearrangement of traffic routes through the port. All that work is on schedule and is being delivered. The relationship and the co-operation between the State agencies, notably the OPW, the Department of Transport, TII and the port company, has been second to none. There is a significant challenge now to get the operation of all that functioning effectively. I know that Eamonn O'Reilly will talk about that when he comes before the committee shortly. As I said, we welcome the new link between Rosslare and Dunkirk. Anything that takes pressure off the land bridge is very welcome because that is a significant concern. We are not in any way complacent about the circumstances on 1 January, but at least I can say with hand on heart that the port company has left no stone unturned in putting the facilities in place.

I am happy to take questions and leave the statement at that.

I thank Mr. Grant for keeping within the time. We have approximately 12 minutes left, so I propose to give each Member two minutes, which we will stick to rigidly. Fianna Fáil has the first slot.

I welcome both Liz O'Donnell and Jerry Grant to our committee. I speak for myself but I am sure they will get unanimous ratification. We would be delighted to see them take on these new roles.

I will home in on one or two small issues. I am delighted to hear that Ms O'Donnell is pushing for the appointment of 80 new driving testers because there is a very significant backlog. Families are taking risks getting to and from work when their 20-something-year-old children are driving without a licence. It is a fact. It is what is happening in rural Ireland because of a lack of connectivity. It is certainly a positive thing to hear that tests will be advanced.

The only other brief point I would like to make is that I would love it if, during her tenure, Ms O'Donnell would champion schools. Throughout my primary school years, with the exception of those mornings when it was horrible and raining, I always walked or cycled to school and back. It was fresh and healthy and one would arrive at school in better form. Most of our schools are now not safe to walk or cycle to. There is no place for children to leave their bikes when they get there. I would love to see the Road Safety Authority, RSA, engage proactively with this committee, with the Department of Transport and with the Department of Education to ensure that a day will come when children can get to school in a healthy and safe way. Will Ms O'Donnell share any thoughts she has in that regard?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

Everybody is concerned about the delays in driving testing. They are, unfortunately, inevitable. It is a legacy issue arising from the suspension of all of our services during the first lockdown. Since July, we have managed to increase our capacity to deal with the backlog. There are currently 64,500 people either scheduled or eligible to take a driving test. Before Covid, our waiting time was a very healthy six weeks but it is now in the region of 25 to 30 weeks. This is of concern. We are trying to eat into the backlog. Since July, we have managed to carry out approximately 30,000 tests at an average rate of 3,500 tests per week. We have a shortage of driver testers. We have applied to the Minister for Transport and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for authority to hire 80 more testers. The Department has been helpful in that it allowed us to again recruit or rehire 18 driver testers whose contracts had finished and 16 others whose terms were due to expire. It is basically a capacity problem. We are doing our best and carrying out an average of 3,500 tests per week. We have carried out 30,000. The capacity plan has been submitted to the Department and I hope it will respond very quickly because we are aware of the inconvenience to members of the public.

I thank both chairpersons designate for their presentations. I compliment Ms O'Donnell on the work she has done. She is coming back to us with a proven track record, which is exceptional. She has laid out very clearly the efforts she has made in advancing the strategy that was drafted. The results of those efforts speak volumes. I hope she continues with the good work and I wish her well. We are also very pleased that she addressed the issue of the backlog, which is not of her making but rather has arisen as a result of the pandemic. It is a significant problem. I will put on record that the RSA has been engaging with people who can produce documentation to show that they need a driver test as they are essential workers. That has worked very well. My constituency office has dealt with many such cases and I compliment the staff in the RSA on the responses we have been getting. They really have been working with people to address their needs and concerns, which is very welcome.

I also wish Mr. Grant well. He has a significant track record in many other areas and we have seen him before committees in the past. He has an enormous task before him in dealing with the implications of Brexit for Dublin Port. I wish him well and I look forward to having him before the committee when he has got his feet wet in the post, both metaphorically and literally. We look forward to that engagement.

I wish Mr. Grant and Ms O'Donnell well. I have some questions for Ms O'Donnell. I welcome the push to recruit 80 additional driving testers but is it not the case that we have fewer driving testers employed today than we had on 31 December last year? The figures I have show that we had 145 testers at this time last year and that we now have 139. I heard the Minister of State say that 18 were to be rehired and 18 were to be kept on. How quickly can we expect to see this additional 80? What is the hold-up?

With regard to driving instructors, there is currently a lock-out whereby driving instructors are being refused access to testing centres. I have raised this issue with the junior Minister. A driving instructor posted a video which showed that she had to stand outside in horizontal rain. The only response she got from the RSA was to say that she should not take a video in the vicinity of a testing centre. It is my understanding that a review is under way. When will that be concluded? Will Ms O'Donnell give a commitment that it will be expedited and completed as quickly as possible?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

As I understand it, we are seeking permission for the additional 80 driver testers through the capacity plan we have submitted to the Department of Transport. We are hoping to reduce waiting times to an average of ten weeks but it will take time. It is a capacity problem. The Department has responded well to our requests for support so far. We submitted that plan in October so we hope to have the resources necessary to eat into that backlog.

With regard to the approved driving instructor, ADI, situation, I am aware that driving instructors have complained that they are not allowed into test centres. This is, unfortunately, essential. Nobody is allowed into the driving test centres with the exception of those taking tests and driver testers. This measure is required to comply with Covid rules. Mammies and daddies are not allowed into the test centres either. It is not as if we are focusing on refusing entry to ADIs.

In fairness, these are essential workers. They are not mammies and daddies. Workers are entitled to some degree of dignity when they go to work.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

The purpose of the test centre is to facilitate driving tests. We have discussed this issue and the executive is confident that, to comply with Covid rules, it is necessary to not allow anybody else into the test centres. Our own RSA staff are not allowed in as they normally would be either. This measure is aimed at protecting the integrity of the test and ensuring safety.

Will Ms O'Donnell look at this matter again? Will she undertake to see whether this matter can be re-examined?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

Now that level 5 has passed, other people may well be allowed into the test centres. As of now, however, the public health advice is------

Is it a matter into which the RSA can look? It is something that, as a committee-----

Ms Liz O'Donnell

We can, of course, look into the issue.

Will Ms O'Donnell come back to us in that regard?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

Yes, of course.

I thank Ms O'Donnell and Mr. Grant. The issue in respect of instructors is significant and needs to be resolved. With regard to the capacity issues, the committee might look at writing to the Minister. This issue needs to be expedited. I accept that the RSA is trying to move it on as quickly as possible.

The main focus of the RSA is, obviously, on reducing the number of fatalities and the severity of injuries. Ms O'Donnell has already talked about legislative changes, penalty points and so on. Does she see any other useful actions that Government could take in the future?

My other question relates to Dublin Port. I welcome what has been said in respect of Brexit. I believe Mr. Grant said that sufficient preparations had been made. Does the port company have all the resources it requires, including those relating to building work or IT systems? Does it require anything else from Government to deal with the situation as regards Brexit?

Mr. Jerry Grant

With regard to infrastructure, we have everything we need to have in place. Our concern now relates to the operational performance of the entire supply chain, including culture and how customs arrangements will function. We are also concerned as to whether everyone involved in the supply chain is aware of what is needed so that people turning up at customs will have the right paperwork. It is a matter of how all of that will perform from 1 January. One of the things that is required in the coming weeks is a significant information exercise. I believe the CEO will deal with that in detail during his contribution.

Mr. Grant believes the IT systems are sufficient.

Mr. Jerry Grant

As far as we are aware, yes. The port company is really only a provider of infrastructure.

I understand that.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

I imagine that the next road safety strategy will build on the success we have had so far and will reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries in line with a European approach which aims to reduce the number of fatalities to zero.

That is very ambitious but as we are leaders in road safety, we can achieve very good targets to reduce fatalities and serious injuries.

The Covid-19 experience has changed the way we are using the roads already and we can see the number of pedestrians and cyclists - vulnerable road users - who are now allowed to share the road space with motor cars. That has happened very quickly because of the pandemic but we can build on that. Irish people will not go back to the old days of the car having the priority on the roads. Many children and other people are cycling to school and work, as well as recreationally, and this will continue. The new strategy must embrace the fact that people want to live in sustainable communities and societies while sharing the road safely. I look forward to that.

Does Ms O'Donnell wish to comment on Government actions?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

We will need resources for all of this and we have had cross-party support for our efforts over the years. This wide public support for our efforts to reduce fatalities has paid a significant dividend for road safety. As an example, we asked for submissions from the public of ideas for road safety and we have had more than 2,000 of them. It is an unprecedented response and there is major public support for our efforts to remove the trauma of road deaths.

I welcome the witnesses to the meeting and am happy to support their ratification in the roles. I ask about waiting times for driving tests, particularly around Cork. There was a list of 5,936 in October for the three Cork test centres so could that be addressed by the Road Safety Authority? It is important.

The RSA's advertising campaign was brilliant and it resonated with people. There are three elements involved with this, including education, enforcement and engineering. There is a deficit in engineering and that involves the councils and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. I hope the RSA can address that. I have a "hobby horse" issue in the way the speed vans and Garda checkpoints are located on motorways in particular. I hope they are not a money-making exercise. I am 100% supportive of the need for enforcement and the reduction of fatalities, and I commend the RSA on its work in this regard.

I thank Ms O'Donnell, who is underselling herself. She followed the late Mr. Gay Byrne in the role but she is doing so with distinction. She is creating her own niche and I hope she continues to do so. I met Mr. Grant before when he worked in a previous role. I hope this work will not be as stressful. He comes with a great track record and I wish him well.

I have some quick questions. We will deal with the port's chief executive in the next session but the lack of a vehicle booking system in Dublin Port is a major issue with hauliers. Is it a matter of which Mr. Grant is aware and will a system be put in place? I hope the answer is "yes" to both questions.

Ms O'Donnell indicates an application relating to the capacity plan has been put in with the Department of Transport but when did that happen? How long will it take? I ask in order that we can support that application. Drug testing of drivers is a major issue in Limerick and the local chief superintendent has applied for testing equipment. It falls under the remit of the RSA so is it supportive of providing such equipment. More recently, there have been as many drug-driving tests on the roads as there were for drink-driving. It appears to be going under the radar. This costs people their jobs and they could have drugs in their system a month after taking them. I am not certain people are aware of the potential consequences. Will Mr. Grant answer the question about the vehicle booking system in the port?

Mr. Jerry Grant

I am aware it is an important objective in getting more efficiency in the port and the company is supportive of it. It requires other actors to engage on it.

Is it a priority for you as chairman of the board?

Mr. Jerry Grant

It is a priority insofar as we can action it but it is not within the capacity of the port alone.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

There was a specific question on the submission and capacity plan that has gone to the Department. Mr. Naughton will clarify when it was submitted.

Mr. Declan Naughton

This relates to the 80 testers. We understand there are resources and funding involved so it is only right we provide the Department with the information it requires.

Has the plan been approved?

Mr. Declan Naughton

We have not yet received a final response. We are engaging with the Department.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

We would be grateful if the committee supported it.

We will send a letter of support. This matter must be expedited as young people are paying high insurance costs because they cannot get driving tests. It is not viable to have nearly 100,000 people overall waiting for driving tests. Is Ms O'Donnell aware of the drug-driving issue?

Ms Liz O'Donnell

Yes. We had a discussion with Garda Assistant Commissioner Paula Hilman very recently. It seems that during the Covid-19 lockdown, the incidence of drug-driving detections was exponentially higher.

Correct.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

We are playing catch-up and it has been a problem for some time. Due to increased detection because of Garda checkpoints and visible Garda presence, the incidence of drug-driving is now almost the same as for drink-driving. Fortunately, we have been able to provide the technology to detect drug-driving on the roadside, which has led to the increased incidence detection. We need more of this and we will support such action. It is a current problem.

I thank the witnesses for coming before us. With regard to the RSA advertising and educational campaigns, I do not see much attention on parking on footpaths. It is problematic and it has an impact on wheelchair users, people with buggies or even those who are now walking kids to school using narrow footpaths. Many motorists may not be aware of the problems they cause when they park on a footpath but it causes considerable road hazard and safety concerns.

As part of the RSA strategy, I ask for an advertising campaign that highlights the difficulties presented by parking on a footpath. Often a motorist would not see the perspective of a pedestrian and see the problem being caused. I ask that this concern could be addressed as part of the strategy.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

We will certainly take that on board. Parking on footpaths is a matter for the Garda to enforce but our focus is primarily on protecting the rights of vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. As I mentioned, the recent Covid-19 restrictions have allowed us to expand the space for pedestrians and cyclists, and this will continue with road engineering. All over the city we can see that space has been provided for vulnerable road users. We will not go back from that.

I really hope we do not. We seem to have learned quite a bit and people have adapted. There have been improvements in cycling infrastructure that have been rolled out very quickly, which is really positive. We could highlight to drivers how, when they park on a footpath, other road users are affected. These include people in wheelchairs and those using buggies. Some of the footpaths are very narrow in our towns but people think it is right to park on a footpath to leave the road clear. We need to flip it to show the impact on pedestrians.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

I take the point and thank the Deputy.

I propose that we invite the RSA delegation before the committee at a later date for a more substantive meeting.

Ms Liz O'Donnell

I am happy to come in any time.

I have no doubt we will also invite Mr. Grant before the committee at some stage as well. I thank the witnesses for attending today and engaging with the committee. We wish them well in their new and continuing roles.