I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Road traffic legislation sets standards for motorists and other road users which are essential for road safety and for effective and orderly use of road space. With the exception of drink driving legislation, which was last reviewed in 1978, the vast bulk of Irish road traffic law is contained in the Road Traffic Acts of 1961 and 1968. A general review of all existing road traffic legislation is now desirable, but this will be a major task and take several years to complete. In the meantime certain aspects require urgent change and this Bill will address these. In particular it will restate and strengthen the law relating to drink driving; introduce new measures to secure better enforcement of road traffic law; introduce more streamlined arrangements for making traffic regulations; and devolve a range of functions to local authorities. Before dealing with individual provisions in the Bill, I propose to order my remarks on the basis of the general objectives I have just mentioned.
The law relating to drink driving has been updated and amended on a number of occasions. The Road Traffic Act, 1933, contained a prohibition on driving "while drunk". This was replaced, in 1961, by an offence of driving while under the influence of an intoxicating liquor or a drug, and a separate offence of being in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating liquor or a drug. The Road Traffic Act, 1968, added an additional offence of driving, or being in charge of, a mechanically propelled vehicle with a blood alcohol level exceeding 125 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. That Act was the basis for the current system of analysing specimens for levels of alcohol and for the use of the results of the analyses as evidence in drink driving prosecutions.
The Road Traffic (Amendment) Act, 1978, introduced further changes to the drink driving laws, including a reduction in the blood alcohol level to 100 milligrammes. Some of the changes arose from successful court challenges while others were made to take account of developments, including new technology, over the previous ten years.
The present Bill is designed to introduce further policy changes and to update and strengthen the law in the light of experience since 1978. It will replace the 1978 Act entirely but, while there are significant changes, care has been taken to retain those provisions and procedures set out in the 1978 Act which have successfully withstood legal challenge. I am sure the House will agree that it would not be advisable to change tried and trusted statutory provisions purely for the sake of change.
The main new provisions in relation to drink driving are as follows. The maximum permissible alcohol level will be reduced from 100 to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, with a corresponding reduction in the level for urine. There is provision for the introduction of evidential breath testing and for a maximum permissible breath alcohol level which would equate with the reduced blood and urine alcohol levels. There will be power to vary the maximum alcohol level, by regulations, and to set different limits for different classes of drivers. Any such regulations will be subject to the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Garda will have power to detain intoxicated drivers for up to eight hours where the release of the drivers could be a threat to the safety of themselves or other persons. There will be a specific power for a garda and a designated doctor to enter hospitals to take a blood or urine specimen from a driver involved in a traffic accident. The type of specimen to be provided — breath, blood or urine — will be at the discretion of the garda. There will be mandatory orders directing persons convicted of drink driving offences to pay the costs and expenses incurred by the State in taking a prosecution. Additional amendments to existing drink driving provisions will be made to close loopholes shown up by court cases. These include power for a member of the Garda Síochána to enter on private property to secure an arrest.
The second broad purpose of the Bill is to strengthen the powers of the Garda Síochána in enforcing the Road Traffic Acts and to provide for increased penalties for certain offences. A number of these measures were recommended by an inter ministerial group on motor insurance. The most significant new provisions are: a requirement to carry a driving licence at all times when driving a vehicle; power for the Garda Síochána to impound vehicles where the vehicle is not taxed, for uninsured driving, or where the person driving is in the opinion of the Garda too young to hold a driving licence; and increased periods of mandatory disqualification, and a requirement to pass a driving test, following conviction for drink driving offences or for a dangerous driving offence.
The new drink driving and enforcement provisions are aimed primarily at improving safety on our roads. To appreciate the need for such measures it is essential to reflect on some basic statistics. In 1992 a total of 415 people were killed in 384 fatal accidents on Irish roads and a further 10,000 people were injured. International statistics are even more chilling. Every year road accidents are the cause of about 50,000 deaths and more than a million and a half injuries on the roads of the European Community. Since the Treaty of Rome was signed almost two million people have been killed in the 12 countries which are now Community members and almost 40 million injured. There are statistics. Behind those statistics lie the trauma and tragedy, the loss in human, social and financial terms which is not easy to describe. Young life has been cut off in its prime. Parents leaving the home in perfect health have, minutes or hours later, crossed the great divide.
For a long time the increase in road accidents was regarded as an unavoidable corollary to the increase in motor traffic. However, experience in recent years has shown that this need not be the case and that it is possible to reduce the number and seriousness of road accidents.
Driver behaviour has been identified as the single most important factor causing road accidents. The challenge which we face is to persuade road users to change habitual behaviour: each road user has to be made aware of his or her personal responsibility and of the risks they take or impose on others through behaviour which is careless or contrary to the normal rules of conduct. Driver behaviour can be conditioned both by education and information programmes and by laws and regulations and their strict enforcement.
In 1990 a new approach was adopted towards the promotion of road safety in this country. A campaign was launched in September of that year which recognised that a successful road safety programme had to have a multi-dimensional focus. Thus the campaign, which is now in its third full year, features initiatives in the areas of publicity, education, enforcement, research and legislation. These campaigns and other initiatives have contributed to a reduction of the order of 7 per cent in deaths on our roads in each of the past two years. The support of the Garda has been crucial in achieving this. Equally, the financial support provided by the Irish Insurance Federtion to the National Safety Council has been significant. Legislative initiatives have also featured in the approach adopted. Particular emphasis has been laid to date on initiatives relating to vehicle safety. Most realistic speed limits have also been introduced, coupled with better enforcement, and a new Rules of the Road booklet has been published.
While these initiatives have changed public attitudes to drink driving and other bad driving practices, more needs to be done. Promotional road safety campaigns will continue but they must be completed by adequate legislation and enforcement to provide a real deterrent to the hard core who have yet to be convinced of their individual responsibility. On this point, it is worth nothing that in both 1991 and 1992 more than one-third of all specimens analysed by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety had alcohol concentrations of more than twice the legal limit.
The level of death and injury arising from road accidents is simply not acceptable. I am confident that the provisions in the Bill, supported by increased enforcement, will reduce the levels of tragedy and trauma for many of our people by reducing road accidents.
The third broad function of the Bill is to streamline procedures for making traffic regulations. The current code governing traffic and parking rules is fragmented. General traffic regulations, which outline the basic rules of the road, are provided in regulations made by the Minister for the Environment. These regulations are complemented by a series of local traffic and parking by-laws, or temporary rules, which are made by the Garda Commissioner for each county. This arrangement has given rise to a significant element of duplication and so this Bill provides for an amalgamation of the two codes. This will simplify the procedures, remove duplication and anomalies between the two codes, and provide a single reference point for the gardaí, traffic wardens, local authorities and the motoring public as to the source of traffic and parking regulations.
The fourth broad element of the Bill involves devolution of functions to local authorities in line with the Programme for a Partnership Government. The existing role of local authorities in road traffic matters is based on the provisions of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, which was enacted at a time when local authorities had little expertise or experience in traffic matters and when there was an undue emphasis on central controls. The Bill will give greater recognition to the contribution which local authorities can make. It proposes a significant shift of power to local authorities in relation to the implementation of traffic management measures, in the introduction and operation of parking controls and in applying speed limits to roads in their areas.
I would now like to draw attention to some of the more important provisions of the Bill.
Part III contains major new provisions to update and strengthen the law in relation to drink driving. Sections 10 and 11 contain the most significant policy change. They reduce the maximum permissible alcohol level from 100 to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, with a corresponding reduction in the level for urine. These sections also introduce a new breath alcohol level of 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath, equating with the reduced blood and urine levels. The present alcohol limit has been in existence since 1978 and now ranks as the highest in the European Community. The reduction of the limit will bring us into line with the majority of our European partners.
Sections 10 and 11 also empower the Minister to make regulations varying the levels of alcohol permissible in a person's blood, urine and breath, and to set different limits for different classes of drivers. This provision will facilitate implementation of any further amendments in the maximum permissible alcohol level without the need for primary legislation. However, because of the sensitive nature of these provisions and the fact that the current levels are set out in primary legislation, the Bill provides that any such regulations will only be made with the prior approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
A new power for a member of the Garda Síochána to enter on private property to secure an arrest for an offence under either of these sections is also proposed. This is necessary because the Supreme Court has determined that, in the absence of such a specific power, an arrest effected on private property is unlawful as the Garda would be trespassing.
Section 13, which replaces sections 13 and 14 of the Act of 1978, contains the provisions which require persons to provide breath, blood and urine specimens following arrest. This section, together with other provisions in the Bill, will facilitate the use of the results of breath tests as evidence in drink driving prosecutions. The use of evidential breath testing apparatus is now the norm in many European countries. The advantages of this method of analysis are obvious: the breath test is easy to administer, the presence of a doctor is unnecessary, specimens will not require analysis by a laboratory, and the result of the test is available on the spot. The procedures to be followed in the taking of breath specimens are outlined in section 17.
As the addition of evidential breath testing to the drink driving code is a new departure here, it will obviously take some time to build up confidence in the system. Accordingly, I propose to phase in its operation and to use the system in the early stages in tandem with blood and urine testing. Prosecutions will not be grounded on breath test results until such time as we have gained sufficient experience of its use. In time, however, I anticipate that evidential breath testing will become the norm in drink driving cases and that it will eventually replace blood and urine testing.
In section 15, both the Garda Síochána and a designated doctor are provided with a specific power to enter a hospital to take a blood or urine specimen from a driver suspected of being involved in a traffic accident. This section removes the anomaly under existing law whereby a person can avoid having to supply a specimen if he or she has been involved in a traffic accident, is injured or feigning injury, has been removed from the scene of the accident, and is under the care of a doctor.
Section 16 provides a new power for a member of the Garda Síochána to detain an intoxicated driver who has been arrested where the person's release could constitute a threat to his or her own safety or that of another person. A number of safeguards to protect the rights of a detained driver are specified and the maximum period of detention is limited to eight hours.
Section 22 introduces a new provision which will require a person found guilty of a drink driving offence to pay a contribution towards costs incurred in the detection and prosecution of the offence. This will be in addition to any fine, term of imprisonment or disqualification. While the payment of costs will generally be mandatory, the court will have power to waive payment where it is satisfied that there are special and substantial reasons for doing so.
Part IV makes important changes in the law on driving licences. Under the Road Traffic Act, 1961, a person is required to produce a driving licence if demanded by a member of the Garda Síochána but is allowed a period of ten days within which to produce the licence at a nominated Garda station. It is only where a driving licence is not produced within ten days of the demand that an offence exists. This system has given rise to difficulties in the enforcement of the road traffic code. The new section 25 provides, therefore, that a driving licence must be produced immediately and thus effectively requires a driver to carry a driving licence at all times when driving a vehicle. This will give the gardaí immediate proof of the identity of the driver and will be of great assistance in enforcement.
Section 26 sets out the mandatory disqualification periods which will apply for drink driving and other road traffic offences. The principle of mandatory or consequential disqualification, which has applied since 1933, is that the court must, on conviction of specified offences, impose a minimum period of disqualification from holding a driving licence.
Under section 26, a person found guilty of an offence listed in the Second Schedule will be automatically disqualified from holding a driving licence and the court will have the option of imposing a disqualification until a certificate of competency — on passing a driving test — or a certificate of fitness, is obtained. The section introduces a new requirement to the effect that a person found guilty of drink driving offences or dangerous driving will, in addition to the minimum period of disqualification, be automatically disqualified until the person passes a driving test and produces a certificate of competency. This new requirement gives effect to a recommendation of the inter-ministerial group on motor insurance and is to be applied to offences which clearly signal doubts about a driver's judgment and competence.
Section 27 amends the provisions which govern the removal of disqualification orders. It inserts a new subsection into section 29 of the 1961 Act extending the minimum period which must pass before an application may be made to the court for a review of disqualification orders and for the removal of such orders where they apply for a period of two years or more.
Section 28 restates section 42 (4) (d) of the Road Traffic Act, 1961 which provides for licensing authorities to be notified of disqualifications to endorsements and extends it to include other prescribed persons. This extension will facilitate the notification of details of disqualifications or endorsements to other bodies, for example, insurance companies. Section 29 puts beyond doubt that certain provisions of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, will apply to provisional licences, as well as to driving licences. The sections concerned are mainly those relating to disqualifications and endorsements.
Part V introduces new arrangements for applying speed limits to roads with the primary aim of assigning the maximum responsibility to local authorities. Existing legislation provides for four different types of speed limit. One of these categories, described as ordinary speed limits, applies to specific categories of vehicles such as buses and goods vehicles, whereas the remainder apply to the road. The general speed limit of 60 mph normally applies to roads in rural areas and a built up area speed limit of 30 mph normally applies to roads in urban areas. Both these speed limits are currently determined either in primary legislation or in regulations made on a national basis by the Minister for the Environment. Exemptions to those speed limits can be found generally on roads approaching urban areas where special speed limits of 40 to 50 mph apply.
Section 31 provides for a new motorway speed limit of 70 mph. This will automatically apply to all motorways and will avoid having to make a separate statutory instrument every time a new section of motorway is opened to traffic. Section 32 and 33 contain the main devolution proposals in this Part of the Bill. They assign responsibility to county councils and county boroughs for determining the speed limits which will apply to individual roads in their areas. The need for ministerial approval is eliminated, except in the case of national roads.
Part VI replaces the present statutory arrangements for the regulation of traffic, including parking controls. In section 35 and 36, the procedures for the making of traffic regulations are streamlined and greater power will devolve to local authorities. Section 35 provides for national traffic regulations to be made by the Minister. Issues which should be dealt with at a local level, such as systems of paid parking controls, are to be dealt with in separate local by-laws to be made by local authorities under section 36.
Section 37 assigns greater responsibility and discretion to local authorities in the application of traffic management measures in their areas. Local authorities will no longer be obliged to obtain the consent of the Garda Commissioner before providing traffic signs. As traffic management measures are generally implemented by the provision of traffic signs, the House will appreciate the significance of this change. Under the amended provisions, local authorities will have full discretion, subject only to a requirement that they consult the Garda Commissioner in advance of providing regulatory traffic signs. The section does, however, introduce a public consultation process before certain regulatory signs can be provided. The intention is that this requirement will be limited to signs which implement significant traffic management measures which could have a serious impact on road users and property owners in the areas affected. An example would be a new one-way street system. The final decision in relation to the provision of these special category signs will be taken in all cases by the elected members, after the public consultation process has been completed.
The most significant provision in Part VII, section 39, will empower a member of the Garda Síochána to detain and impound vehicles for motor tax and motor insurance offences or where the driver is, in the opinion of the Garda, too young to hold a driving licence.
Non-payment of road tax and motor insurance evasion are serious offences which impact on law abiding motorists who, essentially, subsidise the offenders. The income lost to the Exchequer in unpaid road tax must be found elsewhere and, in the case of motor insurance, the loss of premium, income coupled with the cost of paying compensation for the actions of uninsured drivers, results in an added burden for the vast majority who meet their own obligations.
The impounding provisions are designed to give the Garda Síochána the powers they need to tackle both motor tax and motor insurance evaders and to eliminate this unacceptable practice. The power to impound vehicles being driven by under-age drivers is specifically designed to help tackle the problem commonly known as joyriding and I have no doubt this will be particularly welcomed by the House.
It is clear from the overview of this important legislation that it does much to improve and update road traffic law. I look forward to a positive and constructive debate on the Bill and I commend it to the House.