I am pleased to be in the Seanad today for the Second Stage debate on the Road Traffic Bill, 1993. This Bill has already been considered by the Dáil and was examined in some detail by the Dáil Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs. During its passage through the other House, Deputies from all sides participated in a constructive debate. Arising from those deliberations, the Bill has been amended and extended in certain respects and as a result is an improved piece of legislation. I look forward to equally positive and constructive debate in this House.
Road traffic legislation is essentially concerned with setting standards for road users, seeking to influence or regulate their behaviour both in the interests of road safety and securing the most effective and orderly use of our public road network. This Bill is designed to update and improve the existing body of road traffic law in a number of key areas where the need for change has been identified. The basic objectives of the Bill are to restate and strengthen the law relating to drink driving; introduce new measures to secure better enforcement of road traffic law; introduce more streamlined arrangements for making traffic regulations and devolve a range of functions to local authorities.
The first key area is the drink driving provisions. Legislation governing drinking and driving has evolved over a considerable period with significant new measures being introduced in 1961, 1968 and 1978. Existing drink driving legislation is set out in the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act, 1978. While that Act has served us well there is, after 15 years' experience of operation, a need for further changes. These include policy changes, amendments to take account of new technology and new provisions to remove difficulties shown up by court challenges.
The key policy issue in this area, which has generated significant debate, is the proposal to reduce the maximum permissible blood alcohol level from 100 milligrammes to 80 milligrammes. Many different viewpoints have been expressed with some commentators suggesting higher levels and others promoting even lower levels. The offence of driving a vehicle with an alcohol level exceeding a legal limit was first introduced in 1968. At that time, the limit was 125 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. That limit was reduced in 1978 to the present level of 100 milligrammes.
The effect of alcohol on a driver's ability has been the subject of extensive research over many years. All this research clearly shows that drinking and driving are incompatible. Alcohol is a drug which affects the nervous system. It leads to a feeling of well being with an over-estimation of ability and an underestimation of mistakes. There is no doubt that relatively low levels of alcohol in the system impair concentration, judgment and ability to react while at the same time removing inhibitions leading to false confidence in ability and a tendency to take risks.
We all accept that the drunken driver is a menace but some people still do not accept that drivers with a couple of drinks are also creating a serious risk. Studies carried out in other countries clearly show that the risk of being involved in an accident rises sharply when alcohol levels rise above the limits now proposed in this Bill. Apart from the international data, I have consulted with coroners and accident consultants. The message I got is very clear. Alcohol, even in moderate amounts, is an important contributory factor in road deaths and injuries and, if we are serious about road safety, we have to combat drinking and driving.
While the effects of alcohol are well known, there is still no international consensus on a correct legal limit for drivers. The legal limits vary considerably from a base of zero to the existing Irish limit of 100 milligrammes which is the highest in the Community. At this stage, the Government has decided that the limit in Ireland should be brought into line with the majority of our partners in the European Union while, at the same time, providing a mechanism in the Bill to allow for further changes subject to the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The important point is that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers of vehicles. The approach in the Bill mirrors the approach in virtually all developed countries. International practice is to set a statutory limit above which an offence is committed with penalties for non-compliance while, at the same time through educational and publicity programmes, promoting a strong message that drinking and driving do not mix.
The second broad purpose of the Bill is to strengthen the powers of the Garda Síochána in enforcing road traffic law generally and to provide for increased penalties for certain offences. A number of these measures were recommended by an inter-ministerial group on motor insurance. The most significant new provisions are a requirement to carry a driving licence at all times when driving a vehicle; power for the Garda Síochána to impound vehicles in certain circumstances; increased periods of mandatory disqualification and a requirement to pass a driving test following conviction for drink driving offences, dangerous driving offences or hit and run offences.
This element of the Bill was significantly improved arising from the debate in the Dáil. The Bill now includes new provisions to facilitate the use of modern photographic apparatus to detect speeding offences and also includes flexible new powers to allow local authorities to provide a range of traffic calming measures in their areas. I should mention that I have in recent months also made regulations to require the compulsory fitting of speed limitation devices to buses and heavy goods vehicles.
The two broad areas of the Bill which I have outlined are essentially road safety measures designed to reduce the unacceptable level of death and injury on our roads. The statistics are well known but there is no harm repeating them today. Every year, over 400 people are killed on Irish roads and a further 10,000 are injured.
Driver behaviour, particularly drink driving, dangerous driving and excessive speed, is recognised as the single most important factor causing road traffic accidents. Safer roads are largely dependent on persuading road users to change habitual behaviour, persuading drivers to adopt a more responsible attitude when sitting behind the wheel and persuading drivers to think of the risks and the dangers which irresponsible driving habits impose on other road users.
Driver behaviour can be conditioned both by education and information programmes and by laws and regulations and their enforcement. We will continue to tackle the problem in all those ways. In 1990, a major road safety campaign was launched and this campaign is now in its third full year. The campaign has been successful in securing a welcome change in public attitudes to drink driving and other bad driving practices. Promotional road safety campaigns will continue but they must be complemented by adequate legislation and enforcement to provide a real deterrent to the hard core who have not yet been convinced of the dangers of their driving habits.
The level of death and injury arising from road accidents is simply not acceptable. I am confident that the provisions in the Bill, supported by increased enforcement, will reduce the levels of tragedy and trauma for many of our people by reducing road accidents.
The third broad function of this Bill is to streamline procedures for making traffic regulations. The current code governing traffic and parking rules is fragmented. General traffic regulations, which outline the basic rules of the road, are provided in regulations made by the Minister for the Environment. These regulations are complemented by a series of local traffic and parking by-laws, or temporary rules, which are made by the Garda Commissioner for each county. This arrangement has given rise to a significant element of duplication and this Bill provides for an amalgamation of the two codes. This will simplify the procedures, remove duplication and anomalies between the two codes and provide a single reference point for the gardaí, traffic wardens, local authorities and the motoring public as to the source of traffic and parking regulations.
The fourth broad element of the Bill involves devolution of functions to local authorities in line with the Programme for a Partnership Government. The Bill has identified key areas of road traffic law in which the role of local authorities will be considerably enhanced and it will result in a significant shift of power to local authorities in relation to the implementation of traffic management measures, in the introduction and operation of parking controls and in applying speed limits to roads in their areas.
I wish to specifically refer to the role envisaged under this Bill for elected members of local authorities. The main objective in pressing forward with devolution proposals is to place local government in a position where it has the freedom, the discretion and the autonomy to tackle matters of local concern. This Bill has identified important areas of road traffic law in which that freedom and autonomy is to be developed.
In developing these proposals, specific care was taken to maximise the role of elected members of local authorities — it is the elected members who will take the key decisions under these new devolved arrangements. These new measures are a significant boost to local democracy and I am confident that they will lead to more effective and efficient administration.
While it would not be possible to go through the 49 sections of the Bill at this stage, I would like to refer briefly to the more significant policy decisions.
Part III of the Bill replaces the corresponding drink driving provisions in the 1978 Act. While there are changes, care has been taken to retain the provisions and procedures in the existing law which have successfully withstood legal challenge. The main new proposals in this Part of the Bill are set out in the following sections.
Sections 10 and 11 reduce the maximum alcohol level and provide a mechanism for further changes subject to the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Sections 13 and 17 will facilitate the introduction of evidential breath testing. At present, breath testing apparatus is only used for screening purposes. These new provisions will allow the results of breath tests to be used as evidence in place of blood or urine testing. It will obviously take some time to build up confidence in this system. Accordingly, I propose to phase in its operation and to use the system in the early stages in tandem with blood and urine testing. Prosecutions will not be grounded on breath test results until such time as we have gained sufficient experience of its use.
Section 15 removes an anomaly under existing law whereby a person can avoid having to supply a specimen if he or she has been involved in a traffic accident and is taken to hospital.
Section 16 provides a new power to detain an intoxicated driver either for his own safety or the safety of others. A number of safeguards to protect the rights of a detained driver are specified and the maximum period of detention is limited to eight hours.
Section 22 introduces a new provision which will require a person found guilty of a drink driving offence to pay a contribution towards costs incurred in the detection and prosecution of the offence. While the payment of costs will generally be mandatory, the court will have power to waive payment where it is satisfied that there are special and substantial reasons for doing so.
The other sections in this Part of the Bill are restatements with some amendments of the corresponding provisions in the 1978 Act.
Part IV of the Bill will introduce some important changes in the law on driving licences. The most significant changes are in sections 25 and 26. Section 25 deals with the production of driving licences and effectively requires a driver to carry the licence at all times when driving a vehicle. This will give the Garda immediate proof of the identity of a driver and eliminate some of the difficulties which the Garda are experiencing in the enforcement of the traffic code.
Section 26 of the Bill, when read in conjunction with the new Second Schedule provided for in section 49, consolidates, with amendments, the law governing mandatory or consequential disqualification. The principle enshrined in this section is that the court must, on conviction of specified offences, impose a minimum period of disqualification from holding a driving licence. Mandatory disqualification currently applies to most of the offences listed in the Second Schedule — the new offences affected are first convictions for dangerous driving, uninsured driving and hit and run offences. Some of the periods of mandatory disqualification are also to be increased and the section introduces a new requirement that a person found guilty of a drink driving offence, dangerous driving or a hit and run offence will, in addition to the minimum period of disqualification, be automatically disqualified until the person passes a driving test and produces a certificate of competency.
These new provisions are designed to act as a deterrent with a view to influencing driver behaviour. On this point I should mention that an attitudinal survey, carried out in 1991 on behalf of my Department, showed that almost 40 per cent of those surveyed indicated that mandatory disqualification is the most significant deterrent which influences their driving behaviour. Some objections have been raised in relation to mandatory disqualification for dangerous driving claiming that it is too harsh. My view on this is clear. I consider dangerous driving to be a serious offence and one which warrants severe penalties upon conviction. If there is a doubt about the gravity of the offence in individual cases, the courts will decide if a conviction is warranted or if the individual should be found guilty of the lesser offence of careless driving.
Part V introduces new arrangements for applying speed limits to roads. The Bill does not change any of the speed limits on individual roads or the speed limits for specific categories of roads or categories of vehicles. Instead, it is concerned with introducing new structures whereby speed limits on roads can be determined by local authorities. In addition to a devolution of power, the new arrangements will allow speed limit changes to be made more quickly and with the minimum of bureaucracy.
Section 31 provides for a new statutory motorway speed limit which will automatically apply to all motorways and will avoid having to make a separate statutory instrument every time a new section of motorway is opened to traffic. Sections 32 and 33 contain the main devolution proposals in this Part of the Bill.
Part VI replaces the present statutory arrangements for the regulation of traffic, including parking controls. In sections 35 and 36 the procedures for the making of traffic regulations are streamlined and greater power is to be devolved to local authorities. Section 35 provides for national traffic regulations to be made by the Minister and issues which should be dealt with at a local level, such as systems of paid parking controls, are to be dealt with in separate local by-laws to made by local authorities under section 36.
Section 37 assigns greater responsibility and discretion to local authorities for traffic management measures by removing the need for the consent of the Garda Commissioner before providing traffic signs. Local authorities will have full discretion subject only to a requirement that they consult with the Garda Commissioner in advance of providing regulatory traffic signs. The section does, however, introduce a public consultation process before certain regulatory signs can be provided. This will be limited to signs which implement significant traffic management measures which could have a serious impact on road users and property owners in the areas affected. An example would be a new one-way street system. The final decision in relation to the provision of these special category signs will be taken in all cases by the elected members after the public consultation process has been completed.
I have already mentioned the proposed new powers in section 38 dealing with traffic calming. In recent times, a number of urban local authorities have written to me looking for new more flexible powers to control or calm traffic in urban areas, particularly in residential areas. I am aware that existing powers are limited and quite restrictive and the Bill now includes a new provision which will give local authorities the maximum flexibility to provide a range of traffic calming measures and to select the individual techniques best suited to their own areas.
Part VII of the Bill provides for a number of miscellaneous matters and I will refer briefly to four of the issues dealt with in this Part. Section 39 is a new section which outlines the proposed powers of entry to be given to the Garda Síochána. This was debated at length in the Dáil and the new provisions were developed in the light of concerns expressed at the time. The proposals now before the Seanad are, subject to certain restrictions, to allow the gardaí to enter any place, including a dwelling, to arrest a person on a hit and run charge, that is, of leaving the scene of an accident having caused death or injury. This is a serious crime and I believe such powers are warranted in those circumstances.
The gardaí will also be allowed to enter the curtilage of a dwelling, such as a driveway or a garden, to secure an arrest for a drink driving offence. In these circumstances, they will not be authorised to enter the actual dwelling of any person. The revised proposals provide a reasonable balance between the need for effective measures to enforce road traffic law and the need to ensure that the constitutional rights of the citizen are protected.
The proposed powers to impound vehicles are outlined in section 41. These powers will be available to deal with cases where a driver is clearly too young to hold a driving licence — this is designed to help tackle the problem of joyriding. The powers will also apply in the case of driving without insurance and for nonpayment of road tax. Arising from concerns that impounding is unduly harsh in the case of motor tax offences, the provisions were amended in the Dáil to limit the power to impound to cases where road tax is more than three months out of date.
The third aspect of this Part of the Bill which I wish to highlight are the provisions in sections 42, 44 and 46 which introduce changes to road traffic law to facilitate the use of speed cameras to detect speeding offences. At present, the gardaí make extensive use of radar speed metres and in the last two years have also been using in-car video units to detect speeding offences. Using both types of equipment, the Garda Síochána have been extremely active. In 1992 alone, over 30,000 prosecutions were instituted for speeding offences. New enforcement techniques and equipment are being developed on an on-going basis and the purpose of these sections is to cater for the latest technology by providing for the use of modern automated equipment - equipment which has a proven track record in other jurisdictions.
Finally, I wish to refer to the provisions in section 48 which extend the period in which summary proceedings must be instituted. The normal time limit is six months, although up to 12 months is allowed in certain circumstances under existing road traffic law. A period of six or even 12 months can be inadequate in cases such as fraud or making false declarations where the offence may not come to light for some time.
Section 48 is designed to deal with such cases. It is not intended to allow up to three years to institute proceedings for the more common offences which can be detected immediately. I intend to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to clarify this point; to limit the longer period to circumstances where the conduct of the defendant was responsible for the delay in obtaining the necessary evidence to justify proceedings.
The House will appreciate from this short overview that this is an important Bill and I look forward to hearing the views of Senators. I know that I can expect a high standard of debate — a standard for which this House is rightly respected.