Adjournment Matter. - Speed Limits.

I wish to advise the Cathaoirleach that I would like to share my time with Senators McDonald and Magner. With the Chair's permission I will take the first ten minutes and they will have five minutes each.

I do not mind as long as you are not sharing time which you do not have.

First, I would like to thank the Minister for coming here for this important motion in which I am asking him to increase the speed limit from 55 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour and on carriageways and by-passes to 70 miles per hour. The speed limit we have is unique. It was brought into effect in 1974 by the then Minister because of a fuel shortage. At present there is a surplus of fuel and the sales of fuel have dropped. I would ask the Minister to harmonise our speed limits with those on the continent so that tourists, who are very valuable to this country, will not be confused. The Minister and his Department have done a great job on the by-passes, dual carriageways and roads in the past few years. We have by-passes which cost approximately £3 million per mile. In a country which has the most expensive cars in Europe and which has a considerable mileage of arterial roads second to none in Europe, it is a nonsense to have the speed limit restricted to 55 miles per hour.

At present many people are bringing the law into disrepute by breaking the speed limit. Many are doing it unconciously. It is a nonsense that on some of our roads on which a very high speed is feasible you have to drive at 55 miles per hour while you can still drive at 55 miles per hour on some of our secondary roads on which such speed is not feasible. For that reason I would look for harmonisation of speed limits. I would also like to congratulate the Minister and his Department on the number of new roundabouts which have been provided. They are valuable and in towns they will do far more to restrict speed than anything else. The signs indicating speed limits as you approach a town are too small and should be made bigger. I would also like to refer to motorcyclists. As in all built-up areas there is a 30 miles per hour speed limit in Dublin city but motorcyclists drive around this city as if they were on a racetrack. There is a ward in the Richmond Hospital known as the Honda ward because not a day passes without one or two motorcyclists being admitted. They should be restricted because they drive recklessly. One often sees pedestrians jumping for their lives off the road.

I would appreciate it if the Minister would take these matters into consideration and review the speed limit for the purposes I mentioned. It would be valuable for our tourism and for people buying very expensive cars who could then drive on suitable roads such as the by-passes and the dual carriageways at a higher speed. I drive regularly to Kerry. At one time I could drive to Limerick comfortably in three hours whereas it now takes me four-and-a-half hours to do the same journey. You drive along the dual carriageway out of Dublin and along the Naas by-pass. You have a clear run until you come into Newbridge where there is a bottleneck. From there to Portlaoise you would think it was the middle of the summer or a holiday weekend with the traffic jams that are on the road. Many accidents are caused because of traffic jams. It would be in everybody's interest if the Minister would have a good look at this matter and review it as I suggest.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion on the Adjournment and I compliment my colleague, Senator Daly, on tabling it as it affects many people in all parts of the country. The speed limits in this country are unrealistic. As has been explained by Senator Daly that the relatively low limit of 55 miles per hour was introduced at a time when there was a great national effort to conserve fuel and when the importation of fuel was a major problem. I accept that motorists should always travel with care and show consideration for other persons using the road but the present regulations which have a blanket 55 miles per hour maximum right across the country do not differentiate between, on the one hand, dual-carriageways, arterial roads, national primary roads, national secondary roads, county roads, or indeed laneways or bog roads. On the other hand, neither do they differentiate between a 20 year old banger with drum brakes worth £50 and a new Mercedes or Jaguar with over 100 brake horsepower, costing £50,000 or more. Under Irish law both may travel at 55 miles per hour on the open road.

Senator Daly has made the case for recognising the fact that over the last number of years the Minister and his predecessor have provided a considerable amount of money — I think £500 million — in the present national road building programme to upgrade and greatly improve the arterial road network. It seems ridiculous, with the new high standard of roads — and we have a considerable mileage of very high standard on the arterial roads — that there should be a blanket speed limit of 55 miles per hour, which so many people are not over zealous about acknowledging or keeping within it. The time has come for the Minister to review the matter and perhaps categorise it, so that on new arterial roads motorists would be allowed to travel at a higher speed, certainly, than 55 miles per hour.

While it is desirable that people should be encouraged to keep within the law, it would seem that the gardaí are wasting their time pulling in motorists for exceeding 55 miles per hour travelling, say, from Laois to Dublin on the Naas dual carriageway late at night, or early in the morning, when there would be no other motorist in sight in either direction. There must surely be more important things for the gardaí to do. I would support the idea that, perhaps on arterial roads, the speed limit could be raised to 70 miles per hour. Also, the Minister might consider putting a blanket speed limit on county roads. If one stays within the law and does 55 miles per hour down a bog road, one certainly cannot be considered as having great consideration for other users of the road, but that is the law as it stands. The Minister in his programme has made a significant contribution to the development of our road network which is quite obvious in the number of major road building programmes on arterial roads in every county in the Republic. I hope he recognises the need to review the present speed limits and give motorists who want to get from one destination to another as quickly as possible some chance of doing their business and going about their day's work without making small infringements in the law as it stands. I support the motion.

The suggestion put forward by Senator Daly is a very modest one. He is not asking that speed limits be abolished although I am sure that, however modest Senator Daly's proposal is, there is some lobby somewhere waiting to oppose it. It seems that in Irish society at the moment no matter what is proposed somebody wants to stop it. Any law that is observed more in the breach than in the observance should at least be considered. The reality is that people simply do not obey this law. In many cases we should take political credit for the excellent roads that are now in existence.

It is natural for most people — and they are ordinary people, not criminals — travelling on an excellent road to want to exceed the 55 miles per hour limit. If I were to observe that law travelling up and down from Cork every day, I would probably be classified as some sort of road hog. There is no way one can do 55 miles per hour heading on to the Naas by-pass, unless one wants to be very unpopular. If there were a more reasonable upper limit perhaps it would be more easily acceptable.

The massive investment in road infrastructure was supposed to have a spinoff in time saving, energy saving, etc. Certainly the British industrial authorities always stipulate that some journeys take two hours from London using the M4. They use that as a bait to attract foreign investment so that one can move one's truck from point A to point B rather rapidly with a tremendous saving in time, labour and so on. We do the opposite. We provide very good roads so that we can increase our competitiveness and then we insist on our drivers driving at 55 miles per hour or 40 miles per hour, as the case may be. It makes no sense to have this blanket speed limit, irrespective of road conditions.

I am not ignoring the very important safety aspect of speed limit per se but, as Senator Daly said, the initial introduction of this limit was not to do with safety, it was to do with energy conservation in a crisis. I may be wrong. If I am, I am sure the Minister will correct me, but my understanding is that it was introduced as an energy conservation measure. That crisis has long passed and it is timely that this legislation in terms of the rules of the road was recognsidered. The gardaí have more important work on which to concentrate their efforts although, obviously, they have a vital role to play in traffic control, safety and so on.

One of the great contributors to accidents is that trucks, in particular, will insist on travelling in convoys. Truck drivers, sometimes from the same company, seem to have special places to stop to have their lunch and tea and they insist, like husband and wife, on being together, irrespective of whether the truck is 90 feet long. This means there is a 180 foot monster in front that cannot be passed out because these drivers want to chat at 2.30 in the afternoon and put their feet up for a while. They simply have no regard for other road users.

In the United States, company trucks have massive signs at the back saying that if people see a person doing anything wrong to please phone them. If he is causing an obstruction, if he is discourteous, or driving dangerously, road users are asked to telephone the company and complain. I am not advocating that, but certainly something should be done to ensure that people who drive huge juggernauts have more care and concern for other road users.

Senator Daly's proposal is, in the main, for car transport. I do not think he was referring to 180 foot container trailers. I accept that trucks of the dimensions I have spoken about would possibly need different rules — different strokes for different folks — but in the main, given the fact that we have improved our road system beyond recognition in many areas, it is time this prohibition was lifted in the modest way Senator Daly proposes. I recommend it to the Minister.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. I sympathise with the Members of the House, because from my observations here the Senators must be among the worst housed people in the country. Of course, my Department operate a very generous scheme of house improvement grants, and if the House wishes, they might perhaps consider an application.

I appreciate the opportunity to be here and the fact that Senator Daly raised this matter. There is no gainsaying the fact that the general speed limits that theoretically operate here are not appropriate, especially for large stretches of newly imported roadways. The general speed limit was reduced from 60 miles an hour to 55 miles an hour as an energy conservation measure in 1979. Following that reduction An Foras Forbartha conducted a review of traffic speeds and found that there had been no appreciable reduction in speeds. In a subsequent review, An Foras Forbartha came to the conclusion that the lowering of the speed limit did not have any particular beneficial effect from the point of view of road safety or the incidence of traffic accidents. However, the question of restoring the limit to 60 miles an hour or to some other limit has not up to this time been addressed publicly.

In 1982 the Department of the Environment initiated the possibility of changing and increasing the speed limits but events caught up on them in that the EC Commission proposed in 1984 that they would endeavour to introduce a harmonisation of speed limits throughout Europe. As 1986 is European Road Safety Year the Commission had hoped to have published proposals suggesting a harmonisation of limits during this year. So far that has not happened although there is still a possibility that the Commission may come up with proposals for European standards of speed limits before the end of 1986. Irrespective of that, I will in the next few weeks publish proposals regarding revisions of speed limits.

A variety of questions need to be addressed and some of them were touched on by the three Senators who spoke. We have a small but growing mileage of motorway, as distinct from high standard dual carriageway and also a radically improved national primary road network. Whether it is any longer appropriate to impose a general limit which would apply or appear to apply to roads of the varying standard, from motorway to county roads and county lanes, is a question which needs to be addressed. On the other hand, if different regimes were to apply for county roads, national secondary roads, national primary single carriageways, national primary dual carriageways and finally the increasing length of motorway, there is some danger that that would create an amount of confusion in people's minds as well as an extraordinarily extended signposting system to alert people to the changing limits from one area to another. It will have to be decided, as to whether there should be one speed limit standard for motorway, perhaps another for improved national primaries of which there is now a very high mileage, and perhaps a third for secondary roads, county roads and outside the urban areas where the 30 mile an hour and 40 mile an hour speed limits still apply. At that time we might also consider taking the opportunity to express the speed limits in kilometres rather than in miles per hour.

I am surprised that the Senators did not dwell more on commercial traffic, because as Senator Magner said, one of the main objectives in the extraordinarily heavy Government outlay of money in the three year national road programme which involved spending £500 million over the three years from 1985 to 1987, was the objective of decreasing average journey times. Our industries, especially our exporting industries competing in Europe suffer very much from the fact that we are an island off mainland Europe and as well as long sea or air journeys, before their product can get to mainland Europe to compete with other produce, there is the journey time from wherever the industry is located to the ports of exit. An interesting comparison is that on average, the average miles per hour achieved by Irish commercial traffic is 25 miles an hour, whereas the comparative average for similar traffic moving on the mainland European road network is 45 miles an hour. That gives a fair indication of why so much money has been devoted to the upgrading of our national primary road network.

Apart from the general 55 miles an hour speed limit for private cars, the speed limit for commercial traffic is 40 miles an hour and 45 miles an hour in respect of buses. As the Senators will know, with new technology and the improvement in design, modern commercial traffic can and does move at a much faster pace than that, once on a road system capable of handling it. One of the things that will have to be looked at again is the question of overall speed limits for commercial traffic, bearing in mind as would have to be done in relation to any possible increase in speed limits, the question of road safety and the assertion which has been always put forward with great effect that speed kills. We have to try to balance the need and the aspiration for road safety. We have a commendable record in the improvement in road fatalities and injuries figures in recent years. Our objective is to allow people to travel on better designed and better built roads in vehicles which are better designed and built, and to achieve higher standards of speed in safety. I hope my remarks will satisfy the Senators that the questions which they have raised will be addressed in the coming weeks.

I take issue with Senator Magner as to the ability of one to travel from Cork to Dublin at 55 miles an hour. It is possible. I did so myself about six weeks ago on the basis that I decided that of all the people who might feel embarrassed to be prosecuted for an infringement of the speed limit applying, the Minister for the Environment is probably the one to feel most embarrassed if he had infringed the limit set by himself or his predecessor. I assure the Senator that it is not a pleasant journey to travel at 55 miles an hour from Cork to Dublin. It was following that that I initiated the review of which I have spoken, and of which I hope the House and the general public will hear more in the next few weeks.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 October 1986.