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.