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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 21 Jan 2014

Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2013: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2013 will build on the improvements in safety on the roads achieved in the past decade and will introduce measures which will contribute to improved road safety in the years to come. The transformation of road safety and of our expectations for road safety in the past decade has been striking. In 2001, there were 415 deaths on the roads but by 2012, this had come down to 162. It took a great deal of legislation, a number of initiatives and the work of many people and organisations to achieve this and it was done at a time when the number of vehicles on the roads was increasing.

Figures for fatalities in 2013, however, are very disappointing. After years in which the numbers killed on roads were dropping, in 2013 road deaths totalled 190, an increase of 28 on the previous year's figure. However, serious injuries in the same year were 468, which was down by 25 on 2012. While there was an increase in the number of deaths by 28, the number of serious injuries fell by 25. This was the eighth successive year in which the number of serious injuries was reduced. It is too early to tell if the 2013 figures represent a serious underlying deterioration in the situation regarding road fatalities or rather an unfortunate set of circumstances coming together last year but in either case, they represent a disturbing development and underscore the need to keep up the pressure for road safety using a range of measures. Seen in this context, the Bill is all the more necessary.

It is clear to everyone that no one measure was responsible for the downward trend in road deaths in recent years. There were major legislative reforms which contributed. The creation of the fixed charge and penalty points systems helped to promote greater awareness of dangerous driving habits. The lowering of legal alcohol limits and the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints have also helped to reduce drink driving on the roads. Meanwhile, An Garda Síochána established a dedicated Garda traffic corps to focus on road safety issues and safety cameras were introduced in 2010. The establishment of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, concentrated energy and resources in bringing harmony across a range of interrelated policy areas.

Above all, the measures taken have helped to contribute to a change in culture. Better laws and better enforcement can help but the main objective must be to change the culture of road users. The Oireachtas can pass legislation, the Garda can enforce the laws and the RSA can instruct and educate but, ultimately, responsibility rests with road users to behave in a safe, careful and considerate way towards others. We need to encourage a higher concern for personal safety and for the safety of those with whom we share the road. A good example is the change in recent years in attitudes to drink driving. Drink driving was once regarded by too many as a harmless activity but nowadays, it is widely and rightly socially unacceptable.

At a political level, road safety is an area where there is broad agreement across parties. This has been an important factor in improving the situation nationally and I am glad to say it continues. The work of the Garda in enforcing the law on our roads is essential, as is the role of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, based in UCD, in its battle against intoxicated driving.

The Road Safety Authority has played and continues to play a central role through its input to road safety policy and its direct role in many areas such as vehicle standards and driver testing. I take the opportunity to thank Mr. John Caulfield for his work in recent months as acting chief executive officer of the RSA, and Mr. Noel Brett, who preceded him. In mid-February, Ms Moyagh Murdock will take over as the new full-time chief executive officer of the authority. She brings a wealth of engineering and transport expertise to the job and will, I am sure, build on the work of the RSA to date. I met her last week and I look forward to working with her and would like to wish her very well in her new post.

Just as no one measure contributed to the remarkable decline in road deaths in recent years, no one measure will get us back on that downward trend. Last March I launched a new road safety strategy, approved by the Government, which runs from 2013 to 2020.

The strategy identifies 144 individual actions to be implemented by key partners in an eight year period that will lead to a further significant reduction in fatalities. Previously, we focused on reducing the number of road deaths. While we will continue to do so, the new strategy also focuses on the need to reduce the number of serious injuries caused by traffic collisions. A first step was taken on this issue with a conference held in Dublin Castle during the Irish Presidency of the European Union. A great deal of valuable discussion was held which focused on how to address the issue of serious injuries and reduce them.

The single most significant factor in causing road deaths and serious injuries is speed. If we have got the message across to a large majority on drink driving, there is still work to be done on changing attitudes to speeding. In 2012 I established a speed limits review group, consisting of representatives from all the relevant State bodies and the Automobile Association of Ireland. The final report of the group was published on 21 November last and my Department is now working with the bodies involved to implement its recommendations.

The number of drivers detected with alcohol in their systems has been coming down in recent years. This is a welcome development but set against that there is growing concern about driving while under the influence of drugs. Drugs are not as easily detected as alcohol, and currently there are no acceptable devices comparable to alcohol breathalyzers for identifying the presence of drugs in a driver's system. This will change. Currently, Ireland is liaising with a number of European countries on developments in this area with a view to identifying suitable devices. I have asked the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, to address the issue as a matter of priority. An implementation group, chaired by the bureau, is examining the specifications of the required device as part of a future tender process. I understand an invitation to tender for the procurement of devices will be published soon. I intend to introduce legislation necessary to allow for and govern roadside testing for drugs in the next Road Traffic Bill later this year or early next year.

There are many factors involved in road safety. Some are physical, such as the standard of vehicles and the quality of the roads. There are also human factors - training, experience and responsible behaviour. The Bill I am introducing today focuses predominantly on the human factors. It does this by strengthening further and extending the law in a number of major areas. These are driver licensing, penalty points and the testing of drivers for intoxication. In addition, I am proposing a number of miscellaneous measures. Some of these are largely technical, but some are changes which I hope will have an important impact on road safety. These are provisions to tighten up the law on hit-and-run incidents, and a new offence of tampering with an odometer, the practice commonly referred to as clocking of a vehicle. The changes proposed in the Bill will contribute to improved driver training and provide enhanced measures to deal with intoxicated driving. I will now outline the principal measures in the Bill.

Under Part 2 of the Bill, I am introducing important enhancements to the driver licensing regime. Ireland has for some time been committed to introducing the graduated driver licensing system, GDLS. This is a stepped approach to driver learning, which is designed to enhance the learning process and contribute to road safety. It is intended to refocus driver learning away from simply passing a test and onto the acquisition of skills and experience. The precise elements of the GDLS vary from one country to another according to what is most appropriate to local circumstances. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, undertook a large programme of study and consultation to develop proposals for a GDLS that would be appropriate to an Irish context. This led to the selection of nine elements of GDLS for Ireland, which were published in September 2010. Of the nine components, three have now been introduced, namely, compulsory basic training with an approved driving instructor; lower alcohol levels for learners and recently qualified drivers; and the reconfiguration of the driver theory test.

In the Bill I am introducing a further three GDLS measures, first, the creation of a new category of novice driver; second, the introduction of a lower penalty point disqualification threshold for learners and novices; and, third, the introduction of a requirement for learners to undergo a minimum amount of driving experience before taking a driving test. Each of the nine GDLS measures is beneficial on its own. However, the more measures we introduce, the greater the cumulative effect of the whole system in enhancing the driver learning experience and, ultimately, improving safety on the roads.

Sections 3 and 4 will create a new category of novice driver, defined as a driver in the first two years of holding a full licence. Novices will be required to display an N plate. A person will be a novice driver only once. If they hold a full licence in one category, they will not revert to being a novice driver if they later qualify in another category. The countdown of the two-year novice period will be frozen during any period in which the driver is disqualified.

Section 5 will allow vehicle insurers access to endorsements on a person's file on the national vehicle and driver file, NVDF, subject to certain conditions.

Section 6 provides that people taking the driving test must first complete a minimum amount of accompanied driving. The amount of experience required will be set out in regulations. The intention behind this change is twofold: at one level it is aimed at ensuring a minimum of experience before drivers take the test; more fundamentally I also intend to promote a culture change in attitudes towards accompanying drivers. In Ireland we still have a tendency to see the need for learners to be accompanied as something of a nuisance or some sort of technicality. International experience shows, however, that accompanying drivers should play an important role in the learning process.

Section 8 will set a disqualification threshold under the penalty points system of seven points for learners and novices, as opposed to the normal 12 point threshold. In part 3 I propose a number of changes to the penalty point regime. The goal of penalty points is not to penalise people but to make them more aware of unsafe driving behaviour and to encourage greater caution and awareness in driving. The system itself is always a work in progress and can be adapted to changing circumstances, whether to lessons learned from its operation or to changing driving practices which may bring new dangers to the fore. For this reason there have been several changes in the system since it was introduced in 2002. The tenth anniversary of the penalty points system fell in 2012. This provided a useful opportunity to re-examine the whole system and identify any changes necessary. I therefore ordered a comprehensive review of the system, which was conducted by my Department in consultation with a wide range of interested parties.

I also asked the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to examine the report when it was completed and to provide its observations. I am grateful to the committee and to all other participants whose input fed into the final proposals contained in the Bill. I gave careful consideration to the review and the views of the committee. The penalty point proposals which I have put forward in the Bill, therefore, represent the outcome of a considerable amount of work and consultation involving many people and the input of a wide variety of people and organisations. As there are many changes involved I will confine myself to providing an outline. Senators will be able to examine the specific proposals in detail and I will be happy to answer any questions about them during the passage of the Bill.

The changes I propose involve 12 new penalty points offences; providing an opportunity to pay a fixed charge for three offences instead of the offence going straight to court, which happens at present; an increase in penalty points on the payment of a fixed charge for 18 offences, and an increase in the penalty points on conviction in respect of 16 offences. The offences where penalty points are being increased include speeding, driving while holding a mobile phone, dangerous overtaking and failure to obey traffic light. These are among the most dangerous behaviours on our roads. New penalty points offences include the non-display of L or N plate, contravention of rules on mini roundabouts, and failure to respect a stop sign. I am also taking the opportunity to repeal section 53 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, which has proved to be unworkable as drafted, and to restate or revise its provisions as necessary. The section deals with recording penalty points where they cannot be associated with the record of an individual for whatever reason.

Another major issue addressed in the Bill is intoxicated driving. We have made great strides in legislation in this area in recent years but some improvements are needed and the Bill deals with two important matters, first, the Road Traffic Act 2010 contained provisions for what is called in that Act "preliminary impairment testing". This refers to a range of non-technological cognitive tests such as walking in a straight line or clutching one's nose. The 2010 Act allowed for tests of this kind to be conducted to assist a member of the Garda in forming an opinion as to whether a person was intoxicated. The tests were described in the Act as "preliminary" because they had no standing before the courts and could not be produced as evidence. The evidence for the credibility and robustness of tests of this kind has changed rapidly since 2010 and the provisions there are outdated. As a result, they were never commenced. International experience shows that impairment testing of this type can be conducted and recorded to rigorous standards which meet the test of standing up in court as evidence. I am therefore proposing to replace the 2010 provisions with what will now be called intoxication impairment testing. These tests will be conducted and recorded according to rigorous standards and the results may be presented as evidence in court.

I should, however, emphasise that intoxication impairment tests will not be the sole basis for any prosecution. They will assist the Garda concerned in forming the opinion that a driver may be under the influence of an intoxicant. A driver who fails an impairment test may then be arrested, brought to a Garda station where a blood or urine example will be taken for analysis by the MBRS. If the case subsequently proceeds to court the impairment test will be used as part of the evidence presented.

Gardaí have already received instruction from the MBRS in respect of the operation of impairment testing in order that the system can be put in place quickly once the legislation is enacted and commenced.

My second proposal relating to intoxicated driving arises from a gap in the law as it stands. In principle, we want to test all drivers involved in serious incidents for the presence of alcohol. The law states that a garda shall require a driver in such a case to provide a specimen of blood or urine. The individual may refuse to do so, although refusal is an offence comparable to intoxicated driving. The right to refuse is important, however, because it involves a basic principle of respect for bodily integrity. The unfortunate consequence of the current law is that it is not possible to test a driver for alcohol if he or she is unconscious or otherwise incapacitated and is incapable of giving or withholding consent to the taking of a specimen. I am, therefore, proposing that, under section 12, a mechanism to provide for a specimen of blood to be taken from an incapacitated driver following a road traffic collision subject to medical consent.

In developing the proposed new system for testing incapacitated drivers, my Department held extensive discussions with An Garda Síochána, the MBRS, the Irish Medical Organisation, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine. This involved a considerable amount of work in order to devise a procedure which would be both practicable and legally permissible. Under the proposed procedure, a specimen of blood can be taken from an incapacitated driver but only in a hospital and only subject to medical consent. Where a specimen is taken, it will be split in two and both parts will be forwarded to the MBRS. The existing procedure for conscious drivers is that the specimen is split into two parts and one is offered to the driver in order that he or she may have it tested. I understand that it is common for drivers to refuse this option, in which case both parts are sent to the MBRS.

The MBRS will conduct the necessary analysis of a specimen from an incapacitated driver in exactly the same way as specimens are treated under the current system. This involves tests to determine the presence and concentration of alcohol or the presence of a drug or drugs in the specimen. However, the result will be retained on file by MBRS until the driver regains capacity. If and when the driver regains capacity, he or she will be asked to consent to the release of the result of the test analysis. Refusal to do so will constitute an offence equivalent to that of a driver with capacity refusing to provide a specimen in the first instance. If the driver gives permission for the release of the result, the MBRS will issue a completed certificate of analysis and offer the second part of the sample to the driver. The procedure proposed is the product of extensive consultation with the organisations to which I have referred. It has been crafted to ensure that it is acceptable from a legal point of view and from a medical ethics perspective and that it is capable of being operated by both An Garda Síochána and the MBRS. We have agreed a way of addressing this issue which I am satisfied is both practicable and constitutional. All stakeholders are satisfied that the procedures set out in section 12 of the Bill meet this aim. The taking of a specimen from an incapacitated driver could be a basis for future prosecution of the driver if he or she is found to be intoxicated. Equally, it could provide exonerating evidence if he or she were proved not to be intoxicated. The public good, as well as the justice system, will be served by closing this loophole.

In Part 5, I address a range of other road traffic issues. In addition to a number of minor and technical amendments, the Bill will give a legal basis to an agreement between my Department and the Motor Insurance Bureau of Ireland on recovering moneys from uninsured drivers and will provide for the use of summary summons in cases of this kind. Pension provisions in the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 will be brought into line with the provisions of the Pensions Act and the Pensions Ombudsman regulations. There will be a new offence of tampering with an odometer, the device which measures the distance travelled by a vehicle during its lifetime. While it is illegal under consumer protection legislation for a dealer to sell a vehicle which has been clocked, the act of clocking itself is not an offence per se. The Bill will close that loophole. New provisions will also strengthen the law on hit-and-run incidents and provide tough new penalties, depending on the seriousness of an incident. I am also amending section 87 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 - which provides exemption from some road traffic legislation for the emergency services - to provide greater clarity on the meaning of the term "ambulance service", as well as to ensure that emergency services will not be exempted from the new provisions in this Bill relating to intoxication impairment testing and the testing of incapacitated drivers.

I am making a number of amendments to the Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012 in the light of experience since the passage of that legislation. The amendments in question will enable regulations to be made prescribing the conditions to which a commercial vehicle roadworthiness, CVR, tester authorisation is subject; will allow the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to revoke an authorisation of a CVR tester in cases of repeated breaches of conditions; and allow for the revocation of an authorisation as a CVR test operator or a CVR tester where it is discovered that the person, when applying for an authorisation, provided false or misleading information.

In addition, the provision of information which the applicant knows to be, or should reasonably know to be, false or misleading is made an offence.

An amendment to the Road Transport Act 2011 will allow for the prescription of lower fees for those applying online for road transport operator licences. We hope to move this system online later this year and offer a discount to those who use it. The Bill also provides for a small number of relatively minor and technical amendments.

I thank, in particular, four Deputies who proposed amendments which I was able to accept to improve the Bill. I refer to Deputy Timmy Dooley who introduced an amendment on hit and run incidents, Deputy Helen McEntee who introduced an amendment to ensure the provisions are not excessively onerous on novice drivers, Deputy Anthony Lawlor who introduced an amendment on clocking and Deputy Pat Deering who introduced an amendment on road trains.

The Bill provides significant initiatives in three important areas, namely, the introduction of further graduated driver licensing measures, the updating of the penalty points regime and the strengthening of provisions for testing for driver intoxication. Each of these measures, in different ways, builds on what has been achieved to date and will make a meaningful contribution to greater safety on the roads.

The Bill also proposes a number of other worthwhile measures. Some, such as the hit and run and odometer provisions to which I referred, constitute a significant step forward, while others are more technical but nonetheless valuable.

The Bill is both important and timely. The measures it contains are needed and will make a very positive contribution to safety on Irish roads. The figures for road deaths in 2013 underline the need to keep up the pressure with all means at our disposal to reduce the number of these avoidable tragedies. I hope Senators will support these significant initiatives and look forward to hearing their views and a constructive and positive discussion of the proposals contained in the Bill.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. My party broadly supports the Bill. Every Government measure and all efforts aimed at reducing the number of tragedies on public roads should be supported as they do not belong in the domain of party political debate. To be fair to the Minister, he engaged in the Lower House with Members from all sides and showed a willingness to accept worthwhile amendments, including one very positive proposal on hit-and-run incidents which was tabled by my party's spokesperson in the Dáil, Deputy Timmy Dooley.

The Minister referred to a number of issues, of which speed was the foremost among them. The older I get, the more convinced I become that speed is the major problem on the roads. While there are many other problems on our roads, including drink and drug driving, speed is without doubt the biggest factor in road deaths in this country, north, south, east and west. It has reached the point where those of us who have younger family members travelling to Dublin after a weekend in County Kerry are concerned until they receive a telephone call indicating they have reached home in Dublin safely. This is especially true of bank holiday weekends.

I have been travelling between County Kerry and Dublin for some years and I am becoming increasingly cautious on the roads. Regardless of how careful people are, however, we cannot legislate for some irresponsible person or idiot, for want of a better word, who decides to travel at 90 mph and crosses the white line, placing oncoming drivers in danger. Most Senators will get one scare on the road to Dublin every month. If one drives at speed one contributes to the possibility of an accident occurring. For this reason, anyone with a little grey matter has already decided to slow down. I hope this approach will continue to work.

We have made great strides in road safety in the past decade. The Fianna Fáil Party in government did some very good work in this regard and it was supported by the parties in opposition at that time. The penalty points system we introduced, while highly controversial, has become part of the landscape of the roads.

It has probably saved countless lives. We tightened up the regulations regarding drink driving. We were not thanked for it by many public representatives. At times, the public was very cross about it. We cannot afford to take chances with people's lives. I think the message that if one is going to have a drink, one simply does not drive is getting across to people at this stage. It has been said on many occasions that the younger generation has shown greater responsibility in this regard than some older people, who are probably accustomed to a more lax regime and think they can drink and drive away. I believe young people have to be given credit for shunning the idea of the drink driver.

We also set up the Road Safety Authority, about which I will say more. Its establishment was a big step forward in our efforts to address the problem on the roads in a significant way. I am proud to say that the Go Safe speed camera programme is operated by a company that is native to my own town of Listowel and is doing a very good job. I have seen greater evidence of its vans on the roads recently, especially last weekend. The huge investment in roads infrastructure in the past ten years was probably as important as anything else in contributing to the reduction in the number of deaths on the roads. Good roads make for safer driving, whereas bad roads definitely lead to accidents. The infrastructure is now outstanding in most areas, with one or two exceptions. I refer in particular to the development of the motorway network. A person can drive from Limerick to Dublin in two and a half hours without breaking the speed limit. Fifteen years ago, the same journey took up to four hours.

I would like to comment on some aspects of the Bill and the Minister's speech. The introduction of the new novice category is a positive move and will help to ensure the country's drivers are more mature and more responsible by the time they no longer need to display a letter on their cars. The requirement to display an N plate on their cars will apply to all drivers during the first two years after qualification. Drivers with N plates will face a lower penalty point disqualification threshold of six points, compared to 12 for other qualified drivers. They will also have to record a minimum amount of accompanied driving before taking the driving test. I have one question for the Minister in this regard. I hope he will respond when he sums up. How will this actually operate? In what specific way will learner drivers be able to prove and document with authority that they have accumulated a certain amount of accompanied driving? I would be interested to learn more in this regard.

The introduction of a number of new penalty point offences is an important measure. Penalty points will also be imposed on drivers whose vehicles exceed the maximum length, width or weight. The intoxicated driving offences section of the Bill empowers members of the Garda to require people in charge of a car in a public place to undergo intoxication impairment tests. The results of such tests may be used in evidence in support of the Garda forming an opinion that the person is intoxicated. It will be an offence to fail to comply with a request to undergo this testing and a power of arrest will also be granted where there is a failure to comply. As the Minister has said, this Bill will allow for the first time a specimen of blood to be taken from an incapacitated person, subject to medical approval, following a road traffic collision involving death or injury.

I suppose the downside of this legislation is that it is somewhat clouded in controversy. I am afraid the results and figures relating to road fatalities which have been good in recent times, have taken a downward spiral lately. Maybe the Minister will comment on that. People were quite shocked by the outburst from the chairman of the Road Safety Authority, Mr. Gay Byrne, on the occasion of the departure of Mr. Noel Brett. That was a regrettable departure because Mr. Brett did outstanding work as a public servant before moving on to other things. Mr. Byrne gave some credit to the current Minister but claimed that the Minister is being totally bossed about by his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. He also suggested that there is a problem with resourcing the programme. Mr. Byrne actually said the Government cared as little about road safety as he did about snipe shooting.

That was an extraordinary remark by a chairman of a State board. It has certainly shaken the confidence of the public in the project. I ask the Minister to comment on Mr. Byrne. Does he agree with these statements? Can he live with somebody who has that view chairing what is essentially a board that is answerable to him? Is there a conflict between the Minister and the Minister for Justice and Equality regarding resourcing the road safety programme? I ask the Minister to comment on that item.

In respect of the amendment, the Minister was good enough to accept relating to hit and run incidents, up to now, the hit and run driver has never come under the hammer. It will now be possible under the legislation to prosecute him or her. I raised my final point on the Order of Business today. Perhaps the Minister might comment on today's reports relating to huge numbers of fines being waived by judges on condition that a person makes a donation to the poor box. A total of €2 million was collected in that exercise this year, a quarter of it from my county of Kerry. I would like to understand what this is about.

There is no legislative basis for it. Does the Minister feel it is a good thing or is it frustrating him? Are people getting away with things just because they make a donation? Are people evading penalty points by making a donation? It is good for the charities but it is something on which the Minister might comment.

I welcome the Minister. It is very important that this Bill be debated properly and brought through the House. As the Minister pointed out, the Bill aims to improve safety on the roads and, I hope, reduce collisions, fatalities and serious injuries. We have seen a 65% drop in the number of road deaths between 1997 and 2012. Unfortunately, the statistic rose last year, but we could not legislate for that which related to either collisions or driver behaviour. We have seen a reduction in fatalities ever since road traffic Bills have been introduced and improving safety and driver awareness.

Gardaí point out that young drivers aged between 21 and 25 years, especially young males, make up the main age group involved in road deaths. Another statistic from the Garda that is important to remember relates to speed limits, including those on county roads. A total of 63% of collisions occur on local and regional roads outside built-up areas and 80% of fatal collisions occur on roads with a speed limit of 80 km/h or above. Up to recently, 80 km/h was the speed limit on nearly every road in Ireland. A total of 56% of accidents involve single vehicle collisions with many of these occurring late at night. A terrible statistic is that 13% of people involved in fatalities last year were not wearing a seat belt, which is crazy. Seat belts are in vehicles for safety reasons regardless of whether one is a passenger or the driver.

Another issue relates to novice driver classes. As the Minister pointed out, there is a lower disqualification limit for learner and novice drivers through a change to the penalty points system. The Minister also pointed out other provisions such as the taking of blood samples from incapacitated drivers and an impairment test. Much of the 57% drop in road deaths since 2007 is due to road safety measures brought in in the past few years such as alcohol testing, increased enforcement by the Garda traffic corps, the new penalty points, increased sanctions and the development of the much-needed inter-urban road networks. However, I will compliment young people who have a better attitude than that of my generation. That is not to be critical of the views of anybody in this House and outside it regarding drink driving. Young people do not drink and drive. People of my age grew up at a time when, as the Minister said, drink driving was something that people did. Young people are much more sensible in respect of that and will take a taxi or have a designated driver.

I compliment young people who make those arrangements. The Minister has announced the introduction of a new road safety strategy called Closing the Gap, to run from 2013 to 2020. This aims to reduce the number of deaths on the roads to 124 people by 2020. A total of 124 deaths are too many deaths but the reduction will be obtained by better safety measures, education, enforcement, engineering and evaluation. The Minister aims to introduce road safety campaigns in schools. I suggest he discusses a strategy for transition year students with the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the relevant Ministers of State in the Department of Education and Science. Transition year provides students with the time to undertake projects. The Department of Education and Skills should consider providing driver instruction courses over the school year for transition year students. Some schools send their pupils to driver-training schools and they can see for themselves that a car can be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. I suggest driver training could be introduced as a pilot project in some schools and could include instruction in car mechanics.

I refer to enforcement and the testing of motor vehicles. The NCT service has received bad press in the past but the NCT testing of cars has improved road safety and helped to reduce the number of fatalities and collisions as most vehicles are safer. I listened to a radio programme this morning which aired comments about the NCT service. Some people whose car had failed the test did not mind the result because at least a problem had been discovered. An alarming statistic quoted was that 1,800 cars failed the NCT test last year or were not permitted to be driven away from the NCT centre because they had been classified under code red due to their faulty condition.

This Bill is the latest in a long line of Bills to legislate for road traffic offences. Driver testing and licensing was introduced in 1961. Before that date, one could apply for and be issued with a driver licence. I know of older people in their 70s and 80s who are licensed to drive buses and heavy goods vehicles even though they have never taken a test in those vehicles. It could be argued that novice drivers are being hit hard. Young people are entitled to drive a car at 17 years of age but novice drivers will be required to post an "N" plate on the car once they have passed the test for a two-year transition period before a full licence is granted. A driver accumulating seven penalty points will lose his or her licence as will a driver with 20 mg of alcohol in the blood. These are important provisions in the Bill. If a novice driver accumulates six penalty points will those points be carried over to the full licence?

Only 4% of penalty points issued in 2010 were to young people under 25 years of age and this is a compliment to young people; 59% of penalty points issued were to full licence holders. However, the crazy statistic is that nearly 37% of those who committed penalty point offences did not have a driver's licence. This is a issue of enforcement. When these people are brought through the courts for not having a driver's licence will the judge insist that they are tested for a driver's licence and that penalty points will be applied retrospectively?

The Minister made a good point about the demerit or penalty point systems applied to novice or young drivers in other countries. We are copying some of these. I welcome the Minister's statement that there will be drugs testing. We can test for alcohol with a breathalyser, but gardaí have no way to test for drugs. It is important that this test be included in the legislation. In Australia police officers are allowed to take a swab and can test for cannabis, speed and ecstasy on the side of the road. According to one report, a certain amount of cannabis is equivalent to 50 mg of alcohol. Unlike alcohol, however, the drugs in question are illegal and should not be available for sale or use. Therefore, no one under the influence of drugs should be behind the wheel of a car.

I commend the Bill to the House and thank the Minister for attending.

I endorse Senator Pat O'Neill's comments. The potential of people with no licences being caught in the system was bizarre. I will revert to that matter. As always, I welcome the Minister. I was delighted to hear that he had accepted amendments from Deputies in the Lower House.

Senator Pat O'Neill referred to cases being thrown out. While we do not discuss individual cases, Mr. Greg Harkin of the Irish Independent and Mr. Stephen Maguire of the Irish Examiner reported on a case being thrown out because three locations were included on the same authorisation form for mandatory alcohol testing. We must address such issues. Why should gardaí be compelled to stay in one place if nothing is happening there? It seems strange and that judgment should be examined.

Another issue arising from judgments is that the law does not allow for multiple choices for gardaí. This matter should be addressed so as to give gardaí flexibility. It is also the case that alcohol testing locations must be decided by an inspector. Only 2% of gardaí are inspectors and only 1.5% are above that rank. If we extended this provision to sergeants, we would add a further 14%. Under the current rulings, however, approximately 98% of our great Garda force has been locked out of implementing measures that the Houses and its political parties all want implemented. Before we reach the next Stage, perhaps we might examine this matter to determine whether a fear about levels of seniority when the legislation was introduced led to the requirement for inspectors. This matter seems to relate to today's two newspaper reports on court cases in County Donegal. Imagine the 11,053 gardaí who implement this legislation trying to track down 262 inspectors, who are not on duty at the same time.

I am as concerned as the Minister about the increase in the number of road fatalities last year following many years of improvements. I support the extra penalty points that he is introducing. I note that speeding accounts for 77% of penalty points, but next in line is the use of mobile phones at 14%. I agree with increasing the number of penalty points in this regard, as it distracts from driving safely. However, this side of the House - I am speaking on behalf of Senator John Crown in particular - has pointed out that if dialling a number and listing to a telephone is a distraction, finding a packet of cigarettes, lighting one, puffing on it, throwing it away and wondering what part of the car or person is on fire must be an even greater distraction.

We have the support of the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, but not his officials. We have introduced the Bill approximately three times. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, might look at this as a road safety measure. While somebody in the Department of Health appears to believe a person has a constitutional right to drive around in a car full of smoke, it must have some safety implications. Officials in the Department of Health continue to reject our best attempts and those of the Minister for Health to implement it.

The alcolizer introduced by the Matthews bus company in Dundalk is a terrific invention. I note that statistics in respect of fatalities in this area would not be severe, the number of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles and buses appear to have declined dramatically, which is to be encouraged. On vehicle testing, two serious crashes, one on Wellington Quay and the other in Kentstown, appeared to be the result of vehicle deficiencies. Anything that can be done to strengthen regulation in this area would be welcome. I believe insurance companies should come on board and assist in part funding the safety programme. We all want to see reductions in this area.

Overloading and seat belt offences also need to be addressed. Another issue that arises is that of towing of vehicles which are wider than the vehicle by which they are being towed. I came across an accident once which was caused by a jeep towing a wider vehicle. The accident resulted in serious fatalities. Is the towing of vehicles sufficiently regulated? In some countries, the vehicle being towed must have a separate registration from that of the vehicle towing it.

A briefing from the Oireachtas Library and Research Service indicates that the RSA statistics indicate that learner permit holders accounted for 4.6% of all penalty points issued in 2010. However, as stated by Senator Pat O'Neill, this statistic relates to only 10% of vehicles. I agree with the Senator that the younger generation is more safety conscious and more responsible than my generation. I appreciate what the Minister is trying to do. However, the document prepared for us would indicate that learner permit holders are not a problem in that their share of penalty points is less than the share of licences held by them.

The 2012 statistics include peculiar information, including Sunday was the most dangerous day on which to drive; it was three times more dangerous to drive on Sunday than on Tuesday, only 48 hours later; and June was the most dangerous month for driving and November was the safest month. That is counter-intuitive. What happens to people in June? Are people more careful in November when the weather is bad? Perhaps we have a Sunday and summer driver problem and these are the issues we should be looking at in the context of reducing accident numbers.

I compliment the Minister on what he is doing. I support the taking of a blood specimen and believe it should be produced in evidence regardless of whether the person from whom it is taken agrees with it. Perhaps there are human rights aspects to this but we are trying to address a problem which has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives over many years. There is an onus on county engineers to control access to the main and secondary road networks. People cannot be allowed to just pop out onto all national primary routes. As stated by Senator Pat O'Neill, these are the routes on which accident rates are high. Perhaps the planning authorities, when planning for future housing developments and other facilities, ought to separate them from too many access points. I again compliment the Minister. I wish him well and assure him that he has our support.

We will seriously be considering amendments. I am very pleased he has created the precedent by accepting the ones tabled by Deputies Helen McEntee, Anthony Lawlor and others in the Dáil. The Minister is very welcome and he has, of course, our total support in this matter.

I welcome the Minister and commend him on an excellent Bill. He has been doing tremendous work in his Department and this is more good legislation that will have a significant impact on what we are all hoping to achieve, namely, to reduce the deaths and horrendous carnage that can happen on the roads, with terrible outcomes for families in terms of tragedies and trauma with years of rehabilitation needed in some cases. This is a very comprehensive, wide-ranging and constructive Bill which will lead to better and safer driving, as well as better and safer vehicles on the road.

Unfortunately, the Bill comes against the backdrop of 190 fatalities on the roads last year, an increase of 28 on the previous year. I hope it does not signal the start of a new pattern and it is just a road bump or a glitch for whatever reason. Given that we are still in January I hope we can make strong inroads this year into getting the numbers back down. The legislation will contribute towards this.

While it does not form part of the Bill, I commend the Minister for his ongoing commitment to rural transport. It is very important for people to be able to leave their cars at home and use public transport, such as the rural transport system. I know a new announcement on that was made this week. I also welcome the Department's initiative to introduce a rural hackney licence. While we have made tremendous progress in moving away from the culture of drink-driving, it is important to remove the temptation. Having a rural hackney system will help businesses in isolated areas to provide a service for their customers and offer an alternative to them thinking they might chance it on the basis that they have only had a few, which can be famous - and fatal - last words. While we have made tremendous progress I can remember times when people left pubs full to the gills at 10 p.m., when that was the time for Sunday closing, to drive to somewhere else for a bar extension. That car park would then empty out at 2 a.m. and one would wonder where everyone went.

We have made significant progress in terms of the culture and attitude and drink-driving is no longer acceptable. A person picking up keys to drive away from licensed premises with drink on board would rightly be frowned upon. Nevertheless, I note that just today the Garda announced there were 805 arrests for drink-driving over the Christmas period. While we have made tremendous progress we still have some way to go.

There have been some very constructive and positive contributions by Senator Pat O'Neill and Senators from the other side of the House, including Senator Ned O'Sullivan. I beg to differ with what Senator Ned O'Sullivan said about Mr. Gay Byrne, chairman of the Road Safety Authority. It is his job to stand up and say what he thinks. The Minister is big enough and brave enough to accept constructive criticism and observation. I do not see it as being at odds. I believe Mr. Byrne is doing his job, rightly so. Who wants a lapdog in such an important role? It is up to him to make the observations he believes are correct. I have heard the Minister speak publicly about this and he has said that he has taken Mr. Byrne's views into consideration in good faith. I do not see it as a personality contest or people being at loggerheads. We will all be better off for having a Minister who will be receptive and responsive to such robust and honest observations. One of the important parts of our success is the penalty points system and the dedicated traffic corps.

However, let us be honest about it. The Garda traffic corps has not been as visible in recent months as it had been prior to then. We are working in a time of short and straitened resources. We ask that the Minister raise the matter at the Cabinet because there is a collective responsibility. We must ensure that the traffic corps is not undermined in terms of resourcing, man-hours or overtime when it is necessary for the corps to be patrolling, because not everyone will comply. Enforcement is a key part of the success that the Minister and his predecessors have had in reducing road deaths.

Let us be honest about the quality of vehicle that the traffic corps has at its disposal. If speeding is an issue - it is and the Minister has identified it as such - t is important the officers in the traffic corps have vehicles comparable to those they are trying to deter from speeding. There is no point in a Garda team trotting along behind a high powered vehicle in a Garda van and there is some of that abroad. We must show the Garda some respect and ensure the force is resourced. Visibility in enforcement is a key factor in success. Certainly, it is not the only factor but it is a factor.

Senator Pat O'Neill commented on penalty points. The new range of penalty points, the new system, the manner in which it is being applied and the way the Minister is introducing the system, is to be commended. However, it is important that the penalty points system is taken seriously and given respect. The imposition of points should be pro rata to the offence and it should be accepted as such.

I wish to put up my hand. I have been guilty of speeding in the past and perhaps driving while on the telephone. I have no wish to sound in any way pious on the matter but when that occurs politicians should show leadership. We should put our hands up, take the hit and accept our responsibility rather than looking for favours or seeking privilege. It is a crying shame and an absurdity to see politicians seeking to have penalty points quashed and then coming to the House and debating with the Minister about fatalities and road traffic enforcement. It amounts to speaking out of the other side of our mouths. I am applying this to myself and everyone else. We should lead by showing good example.

The Minister indicated that 2012 was the tenth anniversary of the penalty points system. However, there is a preceding provision which I call on the Minister to consider revising. Perhaps it is something that could be put to the Constitutional Convention in its continuance. Is there any scope any longer, in an modern, open, transparent and competent democracy, for politicians to invoke the privilege of the Constitution to avoid arrest on the basis that they are travelling to or from the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Dáil or the Seanad? The provision was in the Constitution for good reason at the time it was introduced. However, it harks back to an archaic provision and the time of the Civil War. Surely, we have moved on politically and legislatively and we can be more mature and confident these days. Why should politicians be any different before the law to anyone else? If we want people to respect and abide by the law then we should lead by example. I call on the Minister to consider the provision, contained in Article 15.13. It is not something the Minister can address within the Bill but it is something the Government could consider in a referendum down the road at the appropriate time.

The Minister is most welcome, as is the Bill. I am pleased to see how much good stuff there is in it. I had the pleasure of working for some time on the club awards system of the road safety committee which gave awards for good behaviour. I wish to throw that in also. There is a good deal in the Bill which corresponds to the stick, but let us ensure that the carrot is present also. I recall during the years I served on the committee the number of good ideas that emerged to reward good behaviour, ideas and concepts on that basis.

Appointing Mr. Gay Byrne to the Road Safety Authority was an inspired idea. He has been there for some years now, but it seems he has a voice that is listened to. I do not know whether he is correct at all times but it seems to have been a very good move.

A number of things in the Bill make a great deal of sense, particularly the N plate, or Novice plate. The steps on drink driving are worthy of consideration also. One area that must cause some accidents is the frustration of being delayed. I live in Howth and to go to the airport we have to go through a DART turn, and seeing 20, 30 or even 40 cars build up while the gate opens on both sides causes frustration. To what extent is it possible to change that?

I agree entirely with the point that Senators John Crown and Sean D. Barrett made earlier in respect of smoking. I would take the opportunity to add a ban on smoking in cars, at least for smoking while driving. Senator John Crown is pushing hard in his Bill about smoking with children in cars, but what about smoking while driving? There must be something we can do on that basis. Drivers must be treated like adults and the intelligent human beings that they are. Some common sense needs to be taken into account. In some countries, including the United States and Belgium, drivers can turn on a red light if they see that nothing is coming. In Belgium, a driver can proceed at a pedestrian crossing if there are no pedestrians. This may seem outrageous, but if they cause an accident, they are liable. We need to be a little more progressive on that issue. It would speed up traffic and would show that we treat drivers as responsible adults, which 99% of them are.

In the same way, I do not think that cyclists should be fined for breaking a red light automatically. They are much different than motorists and pedestrians and we should not be imposing fines and treating them like car drivers. Paris is now allowing cyclists to turn at red lights, but any accidents occurring while they are crossing will be deemed their fault. These are things that we should consider. We should also be more progressive on the issue of cyclists. Some counter-intuitive measures work better than just banning or fining people.

I have raised the following issue before and have received support from the Government but for one reason or another, the measures have not been implemented. These include making it mandatory to have a first aid kit, carry fluorescent jackets, a warning triangle and a fire extinguisher in cars. These are concrete measures to improve safety and perhaps may save people from injury and even save their lives. It would be much tangible than PR slogans if we could do this. A number of countries have legislation in this area. A warning triangle is already compulsory in many European countries. France and Germany are examples. These could be mandatory items sold with new cars from next year, with a cost of €5 to €10. Many car manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz, have been supplying their cars with triangles for years. Other manufacturers also provide first aid kits. In some countries, such as Spain, France and Belgium, a driver has to wear a reflector vest if his or her car breaks down and he or she must get out. The reflector vest must be kept in the glove compartment or somewhere similar, and not in the boot of the car. It is strongly recommended in many European countries to carry a fire extinguisher in case of an engine fire. Can we look at that issue here? The Minister has looked at a number of these issues, but there are steps that can be taken.

Will the Minister confirm the exact number of people employed directly and on short-term contracts with the Road Safety Authority? I am a big admirer of the RSA, but I looked at its website and would like to know the number of consultants hired.

I note from its website that it has 309 full-time staff. As I believe this may be an old figure, will the Minister please confirm the figures? It seems there are things we can do and there are things we must do. Let us make sure we get as much right. I compliment the Minister and his officials on the work they have put into the Bill. I urge that any steps we can take to improve the Bill be taken.

I welcome the Minister and the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill. The overall purpose of the Bill which has been highlighted is to improve safety on the roads and to bring about a reduction in collisions, fatalities and serious injuries. The main provisions of the Bill include the introduction of the concept of a novice driver class, changes to the penalty points system, taking blood from an incapacitated driver, intoxication impairment tests and making it an offence to clock a car. All of the measures in the Bill will work to improve road safety for current and future road users.

There is a need to promote consistently a change in road user attitudes and to encourage a culture of responsibility in regard to personal safety. We must also strive to ensure a reduction in serious injury, collisions and fatalities which the Bill aims to achieve. I welcome the Road Safety Strategy 2013-20 which will work further towards this goal.

While the number of serious injuries in 2013 wa down by 25 compared with the 2012 figures, clearly it is a shocking figure and it highlights the need for continual measures to be put in place. Unfortunately, the figures for road deaths in 2013 are disconcerting, showing a rise of 28 road deaths to 190 compared to 2012. There are many measures already in place, which are working effectively, such as safety cameras, the visibility of the Garda traffic corps, the penalty points system and the lowering of the legal alcohol limits. There has also been a major increase in awareness that drink driving is no longer acceptable. However, a major factor in road deaths and serious injuries is speed and this needs to be tackled. Therefore, I look forward to the implementation of the report of the speed limits review group, which was published in November.

In addition, I welcome the work of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety which is sourcing a viable device, similar to the breathalyzer, for detecting drugs. I welcome the implementation of the concept of the novice driver and setting a lower disqualification threshold where novice and learner drivers will be disqualified from driving after acquiring six penalty points. This measure aims to ensure that these drivers do not engage in risk taking behaviour. Learner drivers will have to produce a logbook indicating that they have undertaken a specified period of informal driving instruction before taking the test. This is in addition to the 12 lessons with approved driving instructors. I would also question, as Senator Ned O'Sullivan did, how the logbook would be assessed and how the drivers would be able to prove they have undertaken the informal driving instruction.

The changes to the penalty points system to include an increase in points for offences such as dangerous overtaking or using a mobile phone are welcome. New penalty point offences such as failure to respect a "Stop" sign will also work towards curbing irresponsible and dangerous driving and will, I hope, focus road users' awareness on safe driving. I also welcome the provision to make it an offence to tamper with an odometer. In 2012, the FIA issued a press release stating clocking across Europe was at a level of between 5% and 12% of all used vehicle sales in Europe. These figures show that Ireland which reported clocking incidences between 9.8% and 11% is at the higher end of that scale.

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill forward and commend it to the House.

Sinn Féin welcomes the Bill. As the Minister said, much of it focuses on the human factors, driver licensing, penalty points, tests for intoxication, hit and runs and so on. Ireland is a very small country. The close-knit nature of all our communities leads us to be very concerned about road safety. We have all been touched by tragedy on the roads. I come from a county which has witnessed far too many, predominantly young men, die on the roads. Great strides have been made in recent years and as a society and a state we have faced up to the challenge of road fatalities.

We have collectively made travel far safer for motorists and pedestrians.

I will not labour the statistics mentioned by the Minister regarding road safety for pedestrians and drivers in the European Union and the fact that the number of road deaths had fallen for a number of years before increasing in 2013. Some have partly blamed the recent increase in the number of road fatalities on budgetary measures, whether that is in terms of the state of some of the roads or that there are fewer gardaí on the roads to police and monitor drivers. The RSA claims that the cuts to Garda numbers and resources led to a sea change in attitudes among motorists, who are no longer afraid of being caught because they know they are less likely to be caught. We all see it in our daily experience with secondary and major routes. As I have seen when driving on the roads and motorways, there is a good deal of dangerous driving. Whether the cuts to some services are emboldening dangerous drivers, it is true that the Garda is in a less favourable position than in previous years to catch offenders and get them off the roads. The RSA survey found that 70% of the motoring public believed enforcement had dropped and that there had been a drop in the detection of some of the most dangerous driving offences.

I do not know if the Minister or Members have heard a song that is being played on local radio, "Flash The Lights At Me", which includes the words, "Use the code on the border roads and flash the lights at me". That reflects a mentality on many roads whereby if a motorist sees a speed van, they will flash other drivers to let them know. Often when people are passing these speed cameras or gardaí within the speed limit, that would be the exception rather than the rule in their driving behaviour. One can see the speed van and people will let one know it is there some distance in advance; therefore, it is worrying. That could partly be the reason that fewer people have been caught drink driving, driving dangerously, not wearing a seatbelt or using their mobile phone while driving.

The Garda needs resources to help it stop these road deaths and the gardaí must be more visible on the roads. I realise they cannot be everywhere, but there has been a reduction in visibility and preventable accidents are happening more often. However, I commend the Garda traffic corps. It is doing a good job and it was critical in implementing a positive road safety policy, but it needs the resources to hold the line in that regard.

Those who endanger the lives of others, be it through speed, drink driving or driving under the influence of drugs, overtaking dangerously, tailgating and so forth, should face stiffer penalties. Other Members have mentioned mobile phones. While during the years people have been talking on their mobile phones while driving, texting on mobile phones has become far more dangerous. It definitely must be stopped. There must be more vigilance. One can hold a telephone to one's ear and drive, even though it is not right, but if one is texting, one is looking down at the telephone, particularly nowadays when most people have smartphones with swipe screens. They do not have the buttons one can physically feel and, perhaps, root around for the right one. That is something that should be dealt with, particularly among the younger, tech savvy generation. To be doing that while driving and possibly speeding at the same time is irresponsible and shows a blatant disrespect for human life. Nobody should be allowed to behave in such a callous and irresponsible manner.

I seek the Minister's opinion on an issue and ask him to address it. This could be an urban legend but many people have said that there is essentially no effective speed monitoring by the Garda on certain motorways, as an encouragement to people to use the motorways and pay the tolls. What procedures are in place by the Garda to monitor speeds on motorways? I could be driving on the motorway and see somebody travelling at 170 km/h or 180 km/h, with no regard for anybody else. In all my driving on the M3, and I do a great deal of driving as I mainly commute to the city, I think I have seen a Garda speed check once on the road. If the Minister would address that issue, even in the House, it would be beneficial.

I do not propose to use all of the time available to me or regurgitate everything that has been said. I merely wish to make a couple of observations, on which I would appreciate the Minister's feedback.

Senator Sean D. Barrett cited statistics which indicate that younger learner drivers are not really the major offenders on the roads. As one drives throughout the country on the major roads and motorways, however, one will come across what are termed "doughnuts" on the surface. These are circular skid marks created late at night by certain young drivers. I have spoken to several gardaí about this matter and discovered that they have absolutely no way of catching those involved. This is because they use lookouts to alert them if gardaí are approaching. This is a serious issue, but I am not sure whether the type of behaviour engaged in by such individuals has anything to do with road accidents.

As Senator Kathryn Reilly stated, it is frightening to watch people text as they drive because one does not know whether someone engaging in this type of behaviour has a clear idea of the position of one's vehicle on the road. Another matter to which the Senator referred and of which I have experience in my area is that relating to the gritting of regional roads. For many years local authorities have been selective with regard to the roads they will consider gritting. I am aware of young men in my constituency who, while travelling to work early in the morning, were the victims of car accidents as a result of the fact that roads were not gritted. I know one man who is now in a wheelchair as a result of an accident caused by a road not being gritted. This is a matter of concern and it should not be forgotten in the context of the overall debate.

I would like the Minister to consider what I am about to say about a particular bugbear of mine. I refer to the cost of insurance for young learner drivers. In many instances families simply cannot afford to pay to have their 18 or 19 year old sons and daughters insured to drive their own cars. Many insurance companies also will not insure young learner drivers as additional drivers on their parents' policies. Families are being adversely affected by the fact that their insurance companies will not facilitate their offspring. I have discussed this matter with many parents. In the current economic climate, parents do not have the money to pay for car insurance for their children. Large numbers of young people who are away at college for five days each week may receive motor insurance quotes of €1,500 for the year. In that context, would it be possible to consider introducing a two-tier insurance system? Perhaps those learner drivers who are insured to drive seven days each week could display red L plates on their vehicles, while those who are only insured to drive on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays could display a blue L plate. If such a system were brought in, it would result in the introduction of pro rata insurance charges for learner drivers. As matters stand, many families just cannot afford to pay for car insurance for their children.

I will also not use up my full five minute allocation because I am aware that other Senators wish to contribute. I welcome the Minister and also welcome the Bill. As Leas-Chathaoirleach, I have been in the Chair for the majority of this debate and most of the points made by Senators and many of the aspects of the Bill highlighted by the Minister are both laudable and very acceptable.

We must crack down hard on those who use mobile phones - whether to make calls or text - while driving. I have racked up approximately 420,000 kilometres on my old Skoda car to date and I probably travel more than most Senators as a result of where I live. I am of the view that two out of every three people with mobile phones - even those who drive trucks and tractors - have no scruples when it comes to using them when driving on motorways and other roads. Such behaviour is extremely dangerous. Texting while driving is pure madness. Anyone who is caught texting while driving should be given an automatic three-month suspension. Given that 90% of people have mobile phones, it should be compulsory for new cars to be fitted with in-built Bluetooth or similar systems in order that there should be no necessity for drivers to hold their telephones to their ears while driving.

Another bugbear of mine, with which the Bill does not deal, relates to people driving with no lights on. Not so long ago I was driving between Ballydehob and Bantry on a misty, wet evening. Visibility was poor, but I encountered four cars coming in the opposite direction that were travelling at approximately 50 mph and did not have their lights on. In Scandinavian countries people are obliged to use their lights more often than is the case here. People here should be encouraged to drive with their lights on, particularly on country roads. Driving with one's lights on should become compulsory.

I admire those who walk, jog or cycle in order to maintain their fitness or for other reasons. However, many of these individuals do not wear high-visibility vests. I was driving home recently and came across a person I know who was dressed all in black. The individual in question was finishing a five or ten mile jog and it was almost dark. I came around a bend in the road and had another car been coming in the opposite direction, I am not sure whether I would have been able to avoid the person. Thankfully, there was no other traffic on the road. If, however, I had been dazzled by the lights on an oncoming car, I might not have seen the individual in question. People, young and old, who are out walking, jogging or cycling should be encouraged to wear high visibility vests and armbands. I recently came across a group of cyclists traversing a mountainous road. I admire them for what they were doing but with the exception of two individuals, all of them were wearing dark purple cycling gear. People should be encouraged to wear bright clothing when out walking, jogging or cycling and those driving should be obliged to use their lights rather than just flashing them when they come across approaching traffic.

My final point relates to Garda checkpoints. I accept that it is not possible to have such checkpoints at every crossroads. I was returning from Listowel at approximately 10.30 a.m. last Saturday when I encountered a very obvious checkpoint on the Tralee bypass. When I passed the checkpoint, it was in the forefront of my mind to watch my speed for the remainder of my journey back to west Cork. Visible Garda checkpoints actually remind people that they may be stopped from time to time. They also encourage individuals not to drink and drive and to reduce speed. I welcome the putting in place of checkpoints, but I accept that most people do not want to come across them. Being stopped by a garda and having one's tax, insurance, NCT discs, etc., checked is a minor inconvenience. I know it is impossible to have them everywhere but I would encourage the putting in place of Garda checkpoints more often on motorways and other major roads.

I accept that I have made a number of nitty-gritty observations but, overall, I welcome the Bill. With the exception of some minor amendments we may bring forward on Committee Stage, those of us on this side of the House generally support the legislation. The Bill will add to the armoury of tools available to the DPP and the Garda for use against those who abuse the rules relating to our very busy roads.

I welcome the Minister. From listening to the contributions of previous speakers, there appears to be overwhelming support for him and the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2013.

The changes proposed in the legislation will make a major contribution in the context of, perhaps, reducing the number of fatalities and serious injuries which occur on the roads on an annual basis. I welcome the graduated driver licensing system, the new penalty points regime and the plans relating to testing drivers for alcohol and drugs use.

That the number of road fatalities decreased between 2001 and 2012 from 415 to 162 was welcome, but last year saw an increase of 28. This was despite our improved motorway system and national roads. While there has been an increase in the number of vehicles using the roads, the number of fatalities remains too high. Some 56% of fatalities involve single-occupancy vehicles. Has this statistic been broken down in order that we might determine whether the fatalities were self-inflicted or accidental?

Young drivers represent the highest percentage of fatalities. As has been alluded to, however, they are also more aware of drink driving than ever before. The young members of my family and the circle of young lads and ladies with whom I am involved through sports would not for one second think of getting into a car if the driver happened to have drank a beer or two. They would always assign a non-drinker to drive. However, fatalities and serious injuries on the road do not just involve the young.

People are always prepared to take risks and try for an adrenaline rush. There will always be distractions when a person gets behind the wheel of a car or hops on a motorcycle. It is a question of attitude. On a day-to-day basis, I drive my car and my motorcycle and run around the streets of our constituency for a little bit of exercise. Particularly when one is on a motorcycle or travelling as a pedestrian, one is amazed by what one sees such as: the amount of speeding and traffic lights and stop signs being broken; the number of children sitting in the back of cars without proper safety equipment; the number of adults not wearing safety belts; and the number of people using mobile phones and texting. Despite the public awareness campaigns undertaken by the Road Safety Authority, drivers with an attitude problem will not listen and will not respect or care for the law or their fellow citizens. They tell themselves that it will never happen to them. While I am out jogging or on my motorcycle, I sometimes refer to people using mobile phones on their blind sides where a pedestrian, car, cyclist or motorcyclist is not visible. They just give me the two fingers and tell me to mind my own business.

We welcome the new legislative changes being introduced by the Minister, but perhaps they do not go far enough. People will still disobey the law and have an attitudinal problem when they are behind the wheel. In the United States, the laws on drink driving and using mobile phones are more restrictive than they are in Ireland. If one is caught having drank two beers or glasses of wine in the United States and one's blood alcohol level is 0.08%, one's car will be impounded and one will be locked in jail overnight, charged $400 for the car's return and lose one's driving licence for six months. One will need to attend driver education classes and AA meetings at a cost of $30 and $40, respectively. After their completion, one must wait six months to get one's licence back. One must also install a breathalyser in one's car and blow into it. We support the new changes, but more are necessary to ensure people take action.

Regarding texting, I read a message on the front of a US church recently. It warned people about the use of mobile phones. It told them to honk if they loved Jesus or to text if they wanted to meet Him. This is the message that we must send to people who use mobile phones in their cars. If we do not, perhaps we should instead immobilise mobile phones while they are in cars. This would be similar to the buzzer that goes off if one is not wearing a seat belt.

I commend the Minister for being highly progressive in the legislation he has presented since assuming office. This is his fifth Road Traffic Bill. Any constructive legislative measure aimed at reducing the number of lives lost on the roads is to be welcomed and applauded. This Bill is yet another step in that regard. Its provisions build on successful legislation that has led to a dramatic reduction in road fatalities in the past two decades. We cannot lose sight of this reduction despite recent statistics.

In recent years a new culture surrounding road safety has been fostered through awareness campaigns and educational programmes under the RSA's patronage. There has been notable success, particularly in combating the prevalence and perceived acceptability of drink driving. I concur with Senator Eamonn Coghlan's statement that young people simply do not think of drink driving now. This is welcome.

The greatest challenge facing the Government and the RSA is complacency. Clearly, work must continue on reducing the threat of road accidents and the inevitable loss of life. It is disappointing that the number of fatalities increased last year. This highlights the difficulty we face in trying to continue reducing the number of road accidents and fatalities.

The Bill contains a number of welcome provisions, particularly the introduction of a new category of novice driver who will remain in this category for two years after he or she passes the test. Further welcome provisions include the lower penalty point disqualification limits for learner and novice drivers, with the limit reduced from 12 points to six. This will undoubtedly focus minds on driver behaviour, especially among male drivers in their early 20s, a category that presents a particular problem to be addressed. On a related note, many Senators have referred to texting while driving. This could be combated among younger people. Everyone texts, but they are much more into it.

The most up-to-date RSA statistics show that 26% of all road fatalities in 2013 were among people aged 25 years or under. This figure was down from 40% in 2009. While the trajectory is fortunately in the right direction, that this category represents more than one quarter of all road deaths is unacceptable.

The legislation provides for amendments to the penalty points system. It will introduce a new range of offences and provide for a reduction in the penalty points accrued for failure to display an NCT disc. This is a sensible approach. Since the NCT's introduction, the standard of vehicle has improved considerably. Most accept that the NCT has been positive for road safety. As recently as this morning, I heard a segment on RTE Radio 1 where people expressed their woes after their NCT tests. However, no one claimed that we should get rid of the NCT or that it was unfair.

Many view penalty points as harsh, but we must educate people to view them as incentives towards better behaviour. Road safety must be everyone's primary focus when taking to the road.

The provision on taking blood from an incapacitated driver without consent is welcome. Anyone involved in an accident should be tested. That this provision is not already in place does not make sense. Under the Bill, such a sample could be taken and tested, which is an excellent idea.

Fatigue is something for which we cannot easily test. It leads to many accidents. I have seen RSA advertisements on this issue.

Fatigue is one of the contributory factors to fatalities on the roads. I accept it is difficult to test for it, but it is an issue that must remain a priority for us.

I concur with Senator Denis O'Donovan that proper lighting on cars can contribute to better road safety. I understand that in Canada cars are manufactured in such a way that they do not function without their lights being on. Perhaps that is something for which we should legislate in this country. Senator Denis O'Donovan also spoke about pedestrians. As a lawyer dealing with litigation on a regular basis, I know that there is no winner in a situation where a pedestrian is harmed or killed. In law, and almost always in terms of insurance, accidents involving pedestrians are the driver's fault. There are many reckless pedestrians who take to the road in circumstances where they are not taking care of their own safety, which is something of which we need to be mindful.

We should not lose sight of the progress made in the past two decades. It is important this is emphasised in the context of the fairly negative recent statistics. Between 1997 and 2012 there was a 65% reduction in road deaths. During the same period, the number of cars on our roads increased by 66%. Although the number of road fatalities did, unfortunately, increase in 2013, I believe the Bill will strengthen the measures required to continue the good work. I compliment the Minister on his good work and commend the Bill to the House.

I would like to take up a point made by Senator Pat O'Neill about transition year students. As one who could drive a car at the age of 14 or 15 years, whether I should or should not have been doing so-----

I hope on a farm rather than a bumpy road.

We were all driving tractors at that age.

-----I consider myself to be a reasonably good driver. I support Senator Pat O'Neill's suggestion that driving instructors visit our second level schools for one hour a week for four or five weeks to explain the rights and wrongs of driving to our students. I ask that the Department of Education and Skills seriously consider that proposal. It was mentioned that 80% of fatal road accidents occured on roads with speed limits of 80 km/h and above. Senator Eamonn Coghlan mentioned that 56% of these accidents involved a single vehicle. Does the Minister have information on the likely cause of such accidents and at what time they occurred? Only three weeks ago, I lost a relative in a serious car accident in County Mayo at 5 a.m. Does the Minister have information on what time serious accidents involving only one car are occurring? Is the likely cause over-intoxication, texting while driving or the driver having fallen asleep at the wheel? As stated by other Senators, texting is a terrible distraction and has been the cause of many accidents. Does the Minister have information on the number of road deaths involving single vehicles driven by drivers under 25 years of age? I know of one driver under 25 years of age who crashed into a tree and died. Had that tree not been there, he would have ended up in a field and perhaps would not have been killed. Perhaps the local authorities should be removing trees on dangerous bends, thus lessening the possibility of serious or fatal accidents. Some 13% of occupants of cars killed in the past 12 months were not wearing seat belts, which is hard to believe and a startling number of fatalities. Once I sit into my car a beeping sound, which gets louder over time, alerts me to put on my seat belt.

Like other Senators, I commend Members of the Lower House, in particular Deputies Timmy Dooley, Helen McEntee, Anthony Lawlor and Pat Deering, for their work on the Bill and, in particular, the Minister for taking on board their suggestions and proposals. While I am not sure of the purpose of those suggestions and proposals, the Deputies concerned were obviously, like the Minister, trying to improve safety on our roads, on which they are to be commended. I agree with Senator Denis O'Donovan that the primary concern in terms of road safety is speed. I travel the motorway from Dundalk to Dublin several times a week. I am often overtaken by cars being driven at 120 km/h, which is an excessive speed. I acknowledge that most major accidents do not occur on motorways.

I commend the Minister and his officials for the introduction of the Bill. On penalty points, on 23 December I received two penalty points for driving at a speed of 63 km/h while in a 60 km/h zone. I did not challenge the offence but simply paid the fine of €80. I know of others who received penalty points in similar situations. Is there, or should there be, any discretion in the penalty points system? I support the Bill which no doubt will result in our roads being safer for all to traverse.

I thank Senators for their interesting and valuable contributions. I will try to address some of the issues raised.

Senator Ned O'Sullivan and others asked about the accompanying driver provisions. It is already the case that a learner must undertake a particular number of lessons before taking the driving test. Following enactment of this legislation, a learner will have to produce a log book which sets out the amount of accompanied driving done by him or her. It will be a straightforward process prescribed by regulation. The log book will most likely be completed by a parent, relative or friend. There is always the possibility that people will complete the log book fraudulently, but we must trust people in this regard. I am sure parents will want to ensure their children who are learning to drive gain experience by way of their driving in a car with them.

When it comes to enforcement, I agree with Senators that there is a need for greater Garda enforcement on the roads. I do not, however, believe it is true to say there is a direct correlation between Garda numbers and enforcement and road deaths. As Senators will be aware, the number of gardaí in the traffic corps peaked in 2010, during which year the number of deaths on the roads was higher than for last year or the year before.

Therefore, it is not a direct correlation, but I would certainly like to see more enforcement.

Mr. Gay Byrne was appointed as chairman of the Road Safety Authority under the previous Government. I took the decision with the support of my Government colleagues to reappoint him. One of my reasons for doing so is because he has access to the media. He is also an independent person and can criticise the Government, the courts and the Garda from time to time when appropriate. By and large, when it comes to making public appointments I do not appoint yes-men or yes-women because I do not want people like that. That is the reason he was appointed and long may he continue to speak his mind, even if sometimes my colleagues and I might not like what he has to say.

Senator Ned O'Sullivan spoke about the poor box. I am not sure if people heard Ms Catherine McGuinness speak this morning on NewsTalk. She spoke very authoritatively about this issue and pointed out that there was provision in law for the poor box. It is a convention that goes back to long before the foundation of the State. I understand why it is there. It is there because judges in certain instances do not want to impose a criminal conviction where it may not be appropriate because a criminal conviction sticks with a person for a long time and he or she must declare it if subsequently applying for a visa to travel or work overseas. Nobody wants to impose this on somebody unfairly. The problem is that there are no proper guidelines and it is clearly being applied inconsistently. If the figures quoted in the newspapers today are correct, 25% of all poor box moneys were collected in one county, County Kerry. As 25% of the population do not live in County Kerry it does not add up and that is a matter of concern. Clearly, there is an issue in that regard.

Perhaps it has 25% of the criminals.

I do not believe they do; clearly, therefore, there is an issue in terms of consistency. I would also have a concern that people are using it to avoid penalty points. When they get to the point where their licence is under threat, they take a chance that they will be able to tell a sob story in the courts and get away without being disqualified from driving. It is a matter about which I have great concern. The Law Reform Commission published a report on how the area could be reformed in 2005, which is some time ago. I know it is something the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, is examining and I hope he will make a decision on it quite soon.

Senator Pat O'Neill pointed out that young people did not drink and drive and that the culture among young people was very different when it came to drink-driving. I echo that because it is absolutely correct. For the older generation there was a time when drink-driving was acceptable. Even when I was learning to drive for the first time, it was something that many people considered to be acceptable but it is absolutely not the case among younger people now which is very encouraging. However, it is not the case when it comes to speeding and young people speed a lot. They also do not have experience which really matters when it comes to driving.

It may be that young drivers do not show up much when it comes to penalty points and I do not know why that is. However, 36% of all the deaths on the roads are of people between the ages of 16 and 30 years. When broken down to categories of five years, the people most likely to die on the roads are in the 21 to 25 age group, of whom 27 died last year; followed by the 26 to 30 age group, of whom 25 died last year; and followed by the 16 to 20 age group, of whom 16 died last year. It is very clear that people in their 20s are twice to three times more likely to die on the roads than those in their 40s or 50s, which is why the insurance is so much higher and why we need to treat novice drivers somewhat differently. Let us bear in mind that these are novice drivers; it is not because they are young but because they are inexperienced. The two-year rule will apply to someone who starts to drive at 45 just as it would to someone who is 17 or 18. Certainly there are no grounds for an age-discrimination equality case, should anyone be considering it.

A few people have thrown around the figure suggesting 37% of drivers stopped for penalty points offences do not have a licence. I do not believe it is correct. I do not know where it comes from and have yet to see it authenticated. It may be that the drivers did not have their licences with them and were then required to produce the licence in a Garda station within ten days. In some cases they may be drivers with foreign licences and cannot have points applied. I would be very surprised if 37% of people on the road did not have driving licences. I find it hard to believe and have yet to see the figures authenticated.

Penalty points stay on a driver's licence for three years. It does not matter if someone goes from a learner permit to a driving licence or a person moves from being a novice driver to being a fully experienced driver; the points just stay for the three years after which they expire.

Senator Sean D. Barrett spoke about some cases thrown out of court recently. I understand the authorisation form did not specify the exact location point of the checkpoint. The authorisation forms just identify the townland or a number of townlands. It appears and the courts have interpreted that the legislation requires that the location of the checkpoint be specified. That may be wrong and it may be something we need to change in this legislation or in future legislation. However, that appears to be the law, regardless of whether we like it. The legislation specifies that the checkpoint must be signed off by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of inspector. The Senator may have been suggesting extending this to the rank of sergeant. I have an open mind and will ask my officials to consult the Garda between now and Committee Stage to see if that is something that could or should be done, or even if the Garda wanted it to be done.

I am not sure to what extent smoking while driving is a road safety issue. Of course, we know that operating a mobile phone while driving is very dangerous and have statistics and evidence to back that up. Other things are less clear. Perhaps smoking, listening to the radio or talking to a passenger could be distracting. It is a matter I am open to considering. However, everything we do in road safety is research and evidence-based, and we believe it is proportionate. I would like to see some evidence that smoking while driving results in collisions. If it does, I can consider it; if it does not, I do not want to make legislation just based on theories rather than evidence.

Senator John Whelan spoke about Article 15 of the Constitution which provides that somebody cannot be detained while travelling - I believe he said - to the Dáil. I always thought that Senators were also included because I believe that article refers to either House. That was inserted into the 1937 Constitution probably for a good reason. At the time all over Europe dictators and authoritarian governments were stopping people getting to parliament or burning down the parliament in some cases. I personally believe it is probably outdated. I asked the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to at least produce some guidelines. I certainly cannot understand how anyone could invoke such a privilege if the Dáil or Seanad was not even in session or if the Member were leaving the House. It would be one thing to miss a vote, particularly a vote on a money Bill on which the Government might fall, but I would have liked it to take up the challenge of coming up with guidelines we, as Members, could follow. Unfortunately it did not and so perhaps the Convention on the Constitution is the right vehicle for that to be reconsidered as the Senator suggests.

Senator Feargal Quinn spoke about level crossings, a matter about which I know a considerable amount given that there are five in my constituency, including one beside my house. They are a real pain. I have looked at the issue frequently because I am a victim of them in many ways. The difficulty relates to sight lines and stopping distances. It takes a long time to stop a heavy train - much longer than for a Luas tram for example. I have investigated in my constituency whether the time the barriers are down might be reduced, but it just cannot be done unfortunately.

Close the rail line.

That is one option I will not be proposing and certainly not in Dublin West.

Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned making it mandatory for cars to have a first-aid kit, a warning triangle and a high-visibility jacket. That is one of the 144 actions in the road safety strategy. It is not covered in the Bill but will be included in a future Bill. The Senator asked about the numbers of staff in the RSA on short-term contracts. I do not have those figures to hand, but I will ask the RSA to correspond with the Senator directly on them.

"Consultant" has become a bad word and people misunderstand what consultant means sometimes. Consultant does not always mean glossy documents and reports. The kind of consultancy in which the RSA is involved comprises a considerable amount of outsourcing. The NCT is outsourced. The NDLS is outsourced to three contractors to perform front office, middle office and back office functions. The commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing is largely outsourced. Therefore, the RSA probably has many contractors, but they are contractors doing real work and are not just writing papers, giving advice and engaging in that type of thing.

Senator Kathryn Reilly raised the issue of texting as opposed to talking on a mobile phone. The current law makes it an offence to hold a mobile phone and we believe that should be robust enough but others do not. We are working on regulations to make it a specific offence to text while driving.

It is with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and I hope to sign it in the next few weeks, lest there be any confusion about the law. I do not see how anyone can text without holding a telephone, but apparently it is possible because it can be placed in a cradle and the driver can press away on it and seemingly that does not constitute holding the telephone.

They can use Siri.

That is a good point. There is a good reason for that regulation and I can do it by regulation. It does not need to be specifically included in the Bill.

I am not aware of any Garda policy on motorways that is any different from national primary or national secondary roads. It is the case that motorways are the safest roads in the country; therefore, it makes sense that the Garda should focus on enforcement in areas where accidents happen on dangerous stretches of road, rather than just trying to catch out people on roads that are relatively safe.

The cost of insurance was raised by Senator John Kelly. It is so expensive for young drivers because they are involved in the most accidents. Insurance in Ireland is a function entirely of the market. Companies have to offer a quote and the best people can do is shop around. The Senator made a suggestion of something like a three day insurance policy. It sounds like an interesting idea. I do not know if it will be workable or whether it will be enforceable, but I suggest the Senator make contact with the insurance companies and see if they would take it on as an idea. Perhaps they would offer some kind of weekend insurance, but the decision would be for them and not for the Government.

A few Senators, including Senator Denis O'Donovan, raised the issue of cars having their lights on during the day. There is now an EU requirement that all new cars be fitted with daylight lights, but that will not be fully in place until 2022, because there are cars still in use that do not have proper lights. It is the norm in France and other places for people to have their lights on all day and the evidence is that it is safer to do so.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan raised the issue of single vehicle fatalities and whether some of them could be suicides. Certainly some of them are and when they are adjudged to be suicides, they are no longer counted as road traffic deaths, but that is down to the coroners to decide. It is fair to say that for very good reasons, coroners are loath to put something down as a suicide, unless it is clear that it is. That usually involves some sort of intent or a suicide note. They do not jump to the conclusion lightly that it is a suicide and I think they are probably right in that respect, but I have no doubt that some of those single vehicle deaths are suicides are more so than that which appear in the official statistics. They are also down to other reasons such as speeding, fatigue, dangerous driving, careless driving, drink driving and so on.

Senator Terry Brennan asked about penalty points. The speed limit should be the speed limit. I would not like to get into anything too complicated about being 5% or 10% above the speed limit. However, one thing under consideration for legislation is treating it differently depending on how much a driver is above the speed limit. A person gets three penalty points whether he or she is going twice the speed limit or 5 km/h above it. We are considering, in a future Bill, making a distinction between those who are just above the speed limit and those who are very much above it. We already do this in the case of drink driving. We do not do it in the case of speeding.

I was only going 3 km/h above the limit.

That was harsh. It is tricky as to how that will work out. Should it be a percentage above the limit or a number? We need to figure that out before we put it into law.

I thank Members for their contributions. I do not know when the Bill is scheduled for Committee Stage. I hope we can do it next week or the week after. I was able to accept four amendments in the Dáil. I am open to amendments in the Seanad, but the sooner Senators get them to me, the better, in order that they can be redrafted to ensure they are accepted by the Attorney General and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. We do not want to get them a day or two beforehand, when it is too late to go to Office of the Parliamentary Counsel looking for approval. If Members have particular amendments that they think I might accept or that would improve the Bill, I would be grateful if they can get them to my office sooner rather than later.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Those penalty points to which Senator Pat O'Neill referred are in our digest on page 13.

We will discuss that matter next week.

As the Minister was interested in the figures, it is just a point of information.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 28 January 2014.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.