It is good to note when other matters are being discussed in the other House that the Seanad, in keeping with the role it plays, will discuss this afternoon matters of life and death. The Bill represents the continued resolve of the Government to save lives and reduce injuries on our roads through appropriate legislation that supports our policies on traffic law and road safety generally. That is why I am pleased to take the Road Traffic Bill 2009 in the House this afternoon.
Senators will be aware that road safety is to the fore of our national consciousness. Legislators from all sides of the House and policy makers are fully aware of the pain and anguish associated with the road collision statistics we see on a daily basis.
In this context, the Government and all parties in the Oireachtas have responded to the issues through the promotion of legislation to support road safety initiatives and the ongoing advancement of safety performance. The cohesive policy structure that binds the various road safety measures has been set down by the three Government road safety strategies to date. The current strategy, covering the period 2007 to 2012, has been the trigger for many of the major provisions being discussed here and contained in the Road Traffic Bill 2009.
To emphasise the importance that the Oireachtas places on road safety, this is the sixth major legislative initiative that has been taken on traffic law in the past decade. The legislative progression during that time has seen the introduction of many innovations: the fixed charge and penalty points systems, a new structure of speed limits based on metric values, the introduction of mandatory alcohol-testing checkpoints, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority and most recently and the introduction of the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the United Kingdom.
The advancement of road traffic legislation reflects a response to the changing nature of road usage. This past decade has seen a significant increase in vehicle volumes. To put this in context, there were nearly 2.5 million registered vehicles in Ireland by the end of 2009. This was a 27% increase on 2003, a 74% increase on 1997 and a 275% increase on 1983. The increased number of vehicles on the road has led to many changes, a principal one being the unprecedented levels of investment in our road networks. This investment continues into 2010 with allocations of more than €412 million for regional and local roads as well as €1.1 billion for the national roads programme. A total of €15 million has also been provided towards road safety measures under the programme. This persistent investment has played a major role in reducing deaths and injuries on our roads in recent years. The major inter-urban roads programme, which is well advanced and will be completed by the end of this year, is a significant improvement and will continue to support our safety objectives for many years to come.
Road safety was one of my priorities as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the 1997-2002 Government. The first road safety strategy, published in 1998, and subsequent strategies have reduced the numbers of people killed on our roads. In 1997, 472 people lost their lives in collisions. These fatality records provide a sad reminder of the losses suffered by people over the years, particularly in 1972 when road deaths reached a staggering 640 despite having a good bit less than half the number of vehicles on our roads that we do now. This figure is astonishing. In contrast to 1972, last year was the safest year on record with fatalities reaching 242. While this represents a large reduction, it also represents a great deal of pain for many people. It is never good news when discussing lives lost, but our roads are, without question, becoming safer for all users.
In 2009, the European Transport Safety Council, ETSC, ranked Ireland sixth in the top ten best performing EU countries for road safety. To put this in a wider context, we were ranked 16th in 2005. Our latest high ranking position was based on figures for 2007 and it is anticipated that we will achieve even better results this year when the statistics for 2008 are taken into account.
Last Tuesday, I was privileged to accept the 2010 Road Safety PIN Award from the ETSC in recognition of the Government's sustained successful strategy in reducing road deaths. The award marks outstanding road safety performance among the 27 EU member states. The award was a tribute to the road users in Ireland for the manner in which they have embraced road safety, to the Garda and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, for their commitment to reducing fatalities and injuries on our roads and to the many campaigners who have focused on the issues of road safety and reducing the number of road deaths. Everyone has played a part and it was my privilege as Minister to receive the award on behalf of Ireland.
Senators will recall that the first road safety strategy, which ran from 1998 to 2002, asserted the necessity for co-ordinating actions across a range of disciplines and organisations. It is estimated that not doing so would have resulted in the number of road deaths reaching approximately 550 in 2002. A continuation of the "business as usual" approach would have seen annual road deaths rise to well beyond that figure in 2009. Through the adoption of road safety strategies, we have been able to identify and link measures that reinforce the advancement of the safety message. The establishment of the Garda national traffic corps and the RSA has had a profoundly positive effect on transmitting that message through enforcement, detection, education and awareness.
The current strategy was the subject of a wide-ranging consultation process, not only with the public at large, but with key stakeholders. The outcome of this process is reflected in the 126 actions in the strategy. Each of those actions has a designated stakeholder responsible for its delivery. Such debate informs policy and leads to the kind of legislative development being considered today. The experience gained to date from consultations and involvement with stakeholders has been invaluable in forming this Bill.
As everyone knows, road traffic legislation is one of the most challenged in our courts and, therefore, requires that the drafting process of any new legislation must also focus on making the provisions as robust as possible. This is a concern and the Lower House had a good debate on various provisions. Good suggestions were made, some of which I was able to take on board. Others I was unable to take on board because of strong legal advice to the effect that some provisions were tried and trusted in the courts and that case law backed up the use of certain words and phrases. It is important that we bear this fact in mind as we discuss the Bill, particularly on Committee and Report Stages.
Turning to the specific provisions promoted in this Bill, it has passed through the Dáil and a number of amendments to strengthen its provisions were agreed. The primary focus of the legislation is to advance the road safety agenda through changing driver behaviour, particularly in the area of intoxicated driving. In this context, the Bill provides for lowering of the legal blood alcohol concentration, BAC, from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 20 milligrams for learner, novice and professional drivers, and from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrams for other drivers. The equivalent levels in urine and breath will apply. This provision is central to the approach of the 2009 Bill. The Bill also provides for the mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions where injury has occurred. It introduces administrative fixed penalties for certain drink driving offences and preliminary impairment testing to assist the Garda further in its enforcement role, particularly in respect of the increasing problem of drug driving.
The Bill amends the fixed charge and penalty point provisions by introducing the option of a fixed charge payment on receipt of summons. It sets out certain presumptions in respect of the delivery of fixed charge offence notices and seeks to improve certain matters relating to the endorsement of penalty points on driver records. Regarding driving licences, the Bill amends related provisions to ensure that penalty points and disqualification can be applied to non-national driving licences and to give the Garda powers to seize a licence in certain circumstances. In addition, the Bill amends provisions and penalties in respect of inconsiderate, careless and dangerous driving. It also restates provisions on intoxicated driving, consequential disqualifications and fixed charge offences in a consolidated and clearer format and includes a number of minor amendments to the Road Traffic Acts.
On Report Stage in the Dáil, I also introduced an enabling provision for a payment deposit scheme in respect of out-of-State drivers detected for road transport offences, initially those relating to driver hours, tachograph and operator licensing. Drivers suspected of committing these offences will be required to make a payment deposit at the roadside. It is proposed that any payment deposit received will be treated as a fixed charge or as a deposit against any fine imposed by the courts if no selection is made by the driver within the prescribed period.
In more specific terms, sections 4 to 7 provide for intoxicated driving offences. The scientific evidence on drink driving is conclusive and irrefutable. Alcohol consumption impairs driving and affects driver capacity in a variety of ways, including psychomotor skills, cognitive functioning, choice and simple reaction times, visual function, vigilance, perception as well as the ability to divide attention and absorb information. The current road safety strategy identifies the need to legislate for and introduce a reduction in the legal blood alcohol concentration, BAC, level for drivers, but does not specify what that level should be.
In determining the limit to which the BAC should be reduced, I sought the advice of the Road Safety Authority. That advice was informed by a number of issues, including known driver behaviour, past offending rates, enforcement practicalities, best international practice and research as well as analysis of data held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety.
In taking the approach I have advocated in this Bill, I am encouraged by the findings and recommendation of a recent report in the UK by Sir Peter North. Drawing on new comprehensive research commissioned from the National Research Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the North report has recommended that the current drink drive limit in the UK be reduced immediately from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres. The research concludes that as many as 168 lives, approximately 7% of road deaths in the UK, could be saved in the first year of the reduced limit, rising to as many as 303 lives saved by the sixth year following any changes to the law. This could have significant implications for road safety and enforcement on the island of Ireland if it proves possible to have the same BAC levels on both sides of the Border.
While the RSA's advice does not address the issue of appropriate penalties for drink driving offences, following the reduction in the BAC level, I have given much consideration to the structure of penalties under the Road Traffic Acts for such offences. The deterrent effect of a potential disqualification is a significant factor in changing driver behaviour in this country on drink driving. While wishing to maintain the overall principle that intoxicated driving is and should be considered a serious offence, one which attracts such automatic disqualifications, I am mindful that in providing for lower BAC levels, some recognition should be made for those detected for the first time at the lower levels.
Accordingly, the Bill provides for two measures in this regard. As a transitional measure, in advance of the introduction of the lower BAC levels, provision is made to amend section 5 of the Road Traffic Act 2006 to allow for an administrative option for those detected within specified lower levels, not exceeding 100 milligrams, to pay a fixed charge, accept a six month disqualification and avoid having the matter dealt with in a court. Following the introduction of the new levels, penalties are provided for on payment of a fixed charge. The status of the driver and the BAC level detected will determine the disqualification period and associated penalties. For learner drivers and the recently qualified, as well as professional drivers, the penalties on payment of a fixed charge associated with the specified BAC will be three months disqualification and a €200 fine. All other drivers will receive three penalty points and a €200 fine for a first offence. This fixed charge option in lieu of court proceedings will only be available once in a three year period to drivers who are not disqualified at the time of detection.
However, the application of appropriate penalties will not single-handedly save lives. Good enforcement and detection practices are also vital in achieving this aim. In this context mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, was introduced in 2006 and has proved to be a very successful intervention. Close to 530,000 breath tests were carried out in accordance with the MAT scheme in 2009. The Garda Síochána, as a key partner, has had a major role in delivering on road safety results through ongoing roadside operations and a stringent testing regime. The percentage of drivers detected with excess alcohol levels continues to fall, thus confirming the deterrent effect of this measure.
Section 9 of the Bill provides for mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions where a member of the Garda attends at the scene of the collision and where injury has been caused to another person who requires medical assistance. This is yet another improvement on the current legislation. In fact, through a Dáil amendment I have strengthened this provision still further by making it mandatory for a member of the Garda to test drivers where he or she is of the opinion that the driver has consumed intoxicating liquor.
I have been asked, previously, to explain why there is no provision to test drivers involved in all collisions. This is because, in many instances, the collisions result in material damage to vehicles only, are generally minor in nature and are settled by the drivers concerned. Having the Garda called to each and every one of such instances would be a waste of Garda time and distract gardaí from more important road safety functions. I would prefer to have gardaí trying to detect real breaches of road traffic law rather than settling relatively minor squabbles.
Complementary to the measures already outlined will be the introduction of preliminary impairment testing. I want to emphasise that it is illegal in Ireland to drive while under the influence of drink or drugs, to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle. Gardaí are obliged by law to determine whether a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent. This obligation is more difficult when trying to determine the presence of drugs, since the tell-tale smell of alcohol from the breath is not present. There is currently no suitable device available that will permit roadside testing of drivers for drugs. However, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety is keeping abreast of developments in this area and will inform me when a suitable device has been identified for testing and certification. I am aware of devices being used in other countries such as Australia but the different atmospheric conditions in that country and in certain parts of Europe may render these devices unsuitable here. Considerable efforts are being made at a European level to find a solution to these particular issues. I can assure the House that as soon as such a solution is found, we will move to have it introduced here. Unlike alcohol, however, there is no legal limit for drugs. Detections for drug driving are on the increase and as concern grows for the effects of both polydrug use and incidences of mixing drugs with alcohol while driving, a more detailed review of the regulatory regime in relation to this issue has been raised in the context of the current road safety strategy 2007-12. It is planned that such a review will commence this year and will require very detailed consideration and consultation by the relevant key stakeholders involved.
In the interim and arising from the actions in the strategy, section 11 of this Bill provides that a driver may be required by the Garda to perform tests, known as preliminary impairment testing, to assist in determining the extent to which he or she may be under the influence of an intoxicant. That section also provides for the making of regulations by the Minister to prescribe how such tests should be carried out. I am absolutely certain that the combination of the reduced BAC levels, along with the introduction of preliminary impairment testing and the extension of the testing regime at collision sites will further augment the momentum that has been achieved to date in reducing road fatalities and increasing road safety overall.
As previously mentioned, enforcement needs to be a key element in any road safety agenda. The Bill contains a number of provisions aimed at improving aspects of the enforcement of road traffic offences. The Garda Síochána is responsible for the detection of road traffic offences. Many of the offences are included in either the fixed charge or the penalty point scheme. The aim of these schemes is to increase the effectiveness of Garda enforcement, to improve driver behaviour through the deterrent effect and to reduce the volume of road traffic offences coming before the courts. From a road safety point of view, I see this trend continuing into the future with more offences being included under these schemes.
With regard to fixed charges, at present payment is possible within 56-days of the issue of the notice but there is currently no option for payment after that date. While some 70% of fixed charge notices are paid, an estimated 30% end up in court for failure to pay within the prescribed 56-day period. The case has been made to me that, for a number of reasons, a person may not be able to make a payment within the prescribed time but many would rather make a payment than be prosecuted in court. The Bill, therefore, provides for a final option of payment not later that seven days before the date set for the court hearing. If the payment is made within that period, prosecution will not proceed.
Where fixed charge offences proceed to court, other amendments have been included in the Bill to improve the effectiveness of the overall fixed charge system. Section 38 sets out certain presumptions for prosecutions for fixed-charge offences, in particular the presumption that a notice has been served where there is proof of posting or delivery of the notice.
Any penalty points or driver disqualification arising from paid fixed-charge notices or court convictions must then be applied to the driver through the driver licence record, held on the national vehicle and driver file in the Department of Transport.
The Bill's main provision on penalty points is under section 53 which provides for amendments to facilitate the endorsement of penalty points where a licence record does not exist or has not been identified, or where the person is the holder of a foreign driving licence. It also provides for the transfer of any penalty points accumulated from such a record to a pre-existing record which is later identified.
The 2002 Road Traffic Act provides that a person who is alleged to have committed an offence under the Road Traffic Acts must produce his or her driving licence to the court on the first day he or she is due to appear before the court or on a subsequent date at the discretion of the presiding judge. The Act also provides that the court shall record whether the licence has been produced. The purpose of this requirement is to enable the court to record the driving licence details to facilitate endorsing penalty points on the licence record of drivers convicted of such offences.
Issues arising relating to the application of these provisions were identified during the extensive discussions that preceded the drafting of the Bill. Consequently, section 63 establishes a requirement to produce a driver licence and a legible copy of the licence to the District Court clerk on the first day of the court hearing. This will further assist administrative procedures in the courts and the application of the penalty points to the appropriate driver licence record.
In this context, it is vital the driving licence system is robust from an enforcement perspective. Accordingly, this Bill has established a new requirement that will further validate the identification process of licence applicants.
Section 57 specifies that licence applications including renewals must include a personal public service number, PPSN. In addition, section 58 provides for the offence of applying for a driving licence or learner permit while disqualified for holding a licence.
The introduction of mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between Ireland and the United Kingdom on January 28 marks a significant road safety measure because it aims to target some of the most dangerous drivers on our roads. It is also a good example of the co-operation between the jurisdictions and, separately, our joint determination to save lives and reduce injuries on our roads.
Part 6 also provides for amendments to the definition of a "driving licence" to bring foreign driving licence holders into the scope of the application of sanctions for road traffic offences including a disqualification from holding a driving licence. Section 64 will also ensure a person who is in receipt of a disqualification order stands disqualified from holding a driving licence, whether that person holds an Irish or a foreign driving licence.
The Bill provides for several necessary initiatives that will help to bring clarity to a number of areas with particular attention being paid to deterrents. In addition to the new and amended provisions already described, I have taken the opportunity in the Bill to consolidate the intoxicated driving provisions from several earlier Road Traffic Acts in a clearer format and with consequent repeals. This means all intoxicated driving provisions will now be together in one Act. I intend to achieve the same for other areas, such as bringing all provisions for penalty points under one section.
A key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Consequently, the primary focus of our road safety strategy is positively to influence that behaviour. This can be attained through initiatives across a range of areas including the enactment and enforcement of laws that promote good road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications as well as well as the necessary technological resources.
The Road Traffic Bill 2009 is another important element of our road safety programme and will, without doubt, build on the achievements of recent years. It will help to deliver additional improvements to the manner in which all drivers interact with our road system. Society expects and requires these improvements whether in the short, medium or long term.
Road traffic legislation is the most challenged in our courts. I want to ensure, therefore, that this Bill is as watertight as we can make it. Since passing the Bill in the Dáil, I have asked officials to undertake another detailed examination of the provisions. This exercise has brought to light several minor drafting issues for which I propose to move amendments on Committee Stage.
The Bill is targeted at specific areas of driver behaviour. Road traffic legislation is complex, covering a wide range of activities. I have taken the approach of concentrating on certain key priority issues. I hope this approach will help to deal with these issues in a more focused and prioritised way. When taken with the institutional changes referred to, the Bill marks a significant watershed in the deployment of road safety policy.
I look forward to the co-operation of Members in facilitating the Bill's passage. I commend the Bill to the House.