I thank the Acting Chairman. I respond firstly by thanking all the Members for what has been quite a new experience for me, namely, a mature, sensible, reflective, understanding and sympathetic hearing for the Bill. It has happened in a calm atmosphere. I understand fully those who have asked questions and expressed reservations on the Bill, but the fact that it will pass with, possibly, unanimity, albeit I do not want to anticipate anything, is a tribute to the fact alluded to by Senator John O'Mahony that this is a very interesting Bill.
Normally when Bills go to the Dáil or the Seanad, there is a fair idea where they will go, where the opposition will come from and what the result will be. This Bill has had an interesting journey. Senator O'Mahony will not mind if I refer to him, and I am open to contradiction, but he is reflective of a number of people who have also had an interesting journey on this issue. That journey is that it probably started with a majority of Deputies in a reflex action - I do not know about the number of Senators - and under a huge amount of pressure from the Vintners Association of Ireland being instinctively against it because they felt that in some way it was an attack on rural Ireland, which it is not, and deprived people of the right to drink a certain amount without severe penalties. What has happened, and I do not claim any credit for it, is that gradually over the length of time the Bill has taken to get through the earlier Stages there has been a process of public persuasion and of persuasion of Deputies and Senators, and many of them have changed their minds. That is something I very much welcome. The change of mind by at least one political party on this Bill during these debates is quite unusual and I welcome it.
A lot of this has been due to the fact that the pressure for the passage of this Bill came from outside the political arena, not inside it. I pay tribute, as everybody else has, to the fact that the reason this Bill has changed in atmosphere and moved opinion is because the victims groups, who are in the Public Gallery today, took such an active part. To see those civil society, during the passage of a Bill such as this, putting their point of view, exerting public pressure and enlightening people who were not aware of all sorts of circumstances and changing that view is something that is very welcome. That is quite apparent here today in the general welcome that this Bill has been given. We should say "yes". Those who have been tragically affected by the consequences of drink-driving have been the most persuasive force in ensuring that this Bill eventually comes through. People stopped, sat back, thought about it, met them and said that this is the right thing to do. It took a lot of courage because I know that large numbers of people came under pressure from vintners. Every Deputy, including even myself, got a letter from vintners asking them to vote against this Bill. There was a systematic lobby which was gradually resisted and in the end very few people decided to take the route of the lobbyists and eventually took the route of their party or the route which their individual conscience persuaded them to take. That is a welcome exercise in democracy.
I will address some of the issues which were raised. I take Senator Ned O'Sullivan's point when he says that the L plate is different in Dublin than in Kerry. It is obviously the same but what he is saying is that it has different effects in Kerry than in Dublin. That is a point that was well made. It has been made in the Lower House ad nauseam. I realise, as does anybody who is involved in promoting this Bill, that the effect of some of the measures we are taking is different and that there is the appearance that this Bill will have more dramatic effects in the country than in urban Ireland. I say two things to that. I am sure that the Senator is aware of the fact that there are far more deaths in rural Ireland as a result of alcohol and driving than there are in the urban part of Ireland. If the Senator wants to apportion it, he would say that it is hoped that this would have a disproportionate effect on the number of lives lost in rural Ireland as opposed to urban Ireland. If that is the case, I will have to ask people in rural Ireland to pay a price and maybe it will mean that there are people who are more reluctant to go out to the pub and drink too much. That is a good thing if it does have that effect.
If it has a detrimental effect on social life in rural Ireland, we are moving to address that and we have done so. I was in Kerry last month launching the Local Link buses which have been set up deliberately to address the problems the Senator has rightly identified. Rural Ireland does have a problem with social isolation and with people old and young not being able to mingle and meet at night in the same way as people do in the cities. I know the Senator will be aware of this but what we have done is to say that we recognise this and we have started a pilot project in every county in Ireland, supported by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and I launched it in Kerry a couple of weeks ago. We will see how that goes. We do not know how it will work but I am told by the NTA that it is meeting a huge, pent-up demand in rural Ireland for more social activity. By the way, I am not only talking about people going to pubs. I am talking about people going to bingo, meeting or going to games and all other sorts of activities. If the routes we have designated which were requested by the Local Link groups are not suitable or need tailoring, we will tailor them, change them, increase or decrease them. Many of them are demand response routes which stop anywhere where people want to go. We are serious about this and we recognise that this needs to be addressed. We cannot immediately resolve it by saying we will put a bus here and there but let us see how it works. It is a complicated problem but we know there is a problem there. For some of us it may be something that we were late to recognise because we do not live there ourselves but we do recognise it and we will continue to address it.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan is also right on the issues of tests. The issue of driving test waiting lists being too long is serious and it is unacceptably high. All I can say is that the average now regularly quoted to me in the Lower House is 23 weeks because people tend to quote the most extreme one, but it is down from 14 weeks to 11.9 weeks and it will continue to be addressed by the Road Safety Authority, RSA. It has taken a range of measures to bring down driving test waiting times in acknowledgement of the difficulties that it presents to people, particularly if they fail their tests and they have to go again and wait for 11 weeks each time.
Senator Mullen addressed the human life issue and I agree with him about that and he also addressed the issue of loneliness. He addressed the case where a person allows a vehicle to be driven by an unlicensed driver, especially where it happens if the licence has lapsed. It was a good point. It is not specifically mentioned in the Act, but without anticipating what view a judge would take in such a case, I would presume that an owner can always offer a defence that reasonable steps were taken to see that the person was licensed. On top of that, I presume the owner can also offer a defence in such a case that he assumed that the person, having had a licence, always had a licence, as the person in question probably assumes themselves. I am not sure that will cause as much difficulty as is suggested.
We did not close down the ability of Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae and others to debate the Bill. They had an awfully long time to debate and they took advantage of a parliamentary loophole which prevented us from closing the debate and they kept it going for about six months.
I do not think it is fair to say we did that.
I thank Senator O'Mahony for his support and for telling us what happened to him. The Senator is typical of a large number of people whose instincts might have been elsewhere but who took a reasonable approach to this. I thank him for supporting the Bill.
Senator Devine talked about the fact there are many reasons for these accidents, which there certainly are. She mentioned drug driving, and speeding is another factor. It is not as though we in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are completely hung up on drink driving as the sole reason. We addressed drug driving in the 2016 Act, which I was happy to introduce in the other House. Speeding is an issue which causes a huge number of deaths and which we will, hopefully, also address before the end of the year. The Senator rightly referred to the vintners and vested interests. They were the most powerful opposition to this Bill and I am thankful to all those who stood up against them in that situation.
Senator Devine asked about Garda traffic corps numbers. I agree they have been depleted and have been far too low, and enforcement has been a problem. As she knows, the Garda traffic numbers came down a lot after the financial crisis of 2007-08. I have a table with me, with which I am sure the Senator is familiar, which shows that at the end of 2016 the numbers stood at 674 and at the end of 2017 this figure was 623. A target was set to increase Garda traffic numbers by 10% in 2017 and a further 10% in 2018. Primarily due to the large number of applications, the competition for the 2017 cohort ran into 2018, which is regrettable. The result of this is that both the 2017 and 2018 vacancies will be filled in 2018 with the appointment of a total of 150 members. To date in 2018, 87 new members have been recruited, with a further 63 due in October. This will bring the strength of the unit above 700 by the end of 2018. Further increases are expected to bring the total Garda road policing strength to 1,032 by 2021.
We have a regular meeting, probably every three months, with the Garda, the Attorney General, the Department of Justice and Equality and other Departments on road safety, and we had such a meeting yesterday. I asked the gardaí exactly the question the Senator is asking and they confirmed the figures which I have just given to the House.
Senator Norris is right that there is no lowering of the limit. There is a bit of a misapprehension out there and I have heard this on many reputable programmes, where it is said the limit is coming down to zero, which it is not. I can understand his point when he says that it might be better to bring it to zero so people do not suffer, as Senator Mullen said, by asking themselves, "How much can I drink?" or "Can I drink this amount, that amount or the other?" The advice is that while we do not know the complete answer to that question, I would not ask it; I would just not do it. The advice is: do not do it. The law is that a driver can go up to 50 mg, or to just 20 mg for a professional driver, but the very strong advice is not to do it. We decided we would plug this obvious loophole, which was given for political reasons to get through the lowering of the limits in 2010, and we thought we would do this with a great deal of support. We were a bit surprised by the opposition we got to it from many people initially and also in this final period.
I understand the point Senator Norris is making. The point has often been made that there is a residue of alcohol in people's system on the day after. However, that residue of alcohol quite clearly indicates something - it indicates they are still impaired. The idea they may not feel impaired does not mean they are not impaired.
Senator Norris also looked for some evidence that people in the 50 mg to 80 mg range were the cause of accidents or involved in collisions. The most recent data on alcohol as a contributory factor in road fatalities comes from the national drug-related deaths index, the coroners' data collected on behalf of the RSA by the Health Research Board. This covers the period 2013-14, when eight of the fatalities were in the 21 mg to 50 mg range, six in the 51 mg to 80 mg range and four in the 81 mg to 100 mg range. The fact of the matter is that any alcohol does impair, and that is incontrovertible evidence from the World Health Organization. We can say what we like about statistics and argue about the 0 mg to 50 mg range or the 50 mg to 80 mg range, but it is absolutely beyond dispute that any alcohol causes people to react slower, and that means they are in far greater danger of causing an accident than if they had drunk nothing. That is the World Health Organization - not me or anybody in Ireland, but an international body.
I want to very much thank Senator Humphreys for his support. I consider it very valuable that he rounded off this debate, which has shown what appears to be all-party support for this measure. Whereas the debate in the Lower House was at times offensive, irresponsible and reckless in its treatment of what is a very serious Bill on a very serious issue, I would like to thank everybody here today for taking it seriously and for having carefully considered it, in particular those who perhaps found it difficult in the beginning but who came round to supporting the Bill.