I thank the Leas Cheann-Comhairle, I wish well the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, and I congratulate him on his efforts. I was delighted to welcome the Minister of State to Henkel in Tallaght this week.
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).
He was very good on the radio this morning.
His visit went down very well.
His job interview is done anyway.
There is a touch of groundhog day about this issue. I was here last night, as was the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and I am very impressed that Deputy Bernard Durkan has chosen to come to the House to hear me continue my speech.
I have no wish to disabuse the Deputy, but Deputy Durkan is the next listed speaker.
I could not have missed it.
Will the Deputy forward me a signed copy?
I am pleased Deputy English is here as well.
I am sure he will listen attentively to the Deputy's contribution.
I realise that and I note that Deputy Brian Hayes, my colleague from Tallaght, has come into the Gallery with guests to hear me speak, by which I am also impressed. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, will be aware given the political climate in which we find ourselves——
The Deputy should not mention Limerick.
I am not moving to Limerick.
Do not mention the war.
I am a fan of the Minister of State and I am pleased to welcome him to the Chamber and to wish him well for whatever the future holds.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will recall that last night in my contribution I dealt with the Bill and I made numerous remarks about it and other matters. I stressed my support for the concept of good public transport. I refer to the Dublin region, Dublin South-West and Tallaght and the need for rural transport in Bohernabreena.
Deputy Durkan was impressed last night when I remarked that the development of public transport in my region of Dublin is important, including the extension of the Luas. We all received a note in our letter boxes this week, including Deputy Brian Hayes, to the effect that the RPA has announced that the metro west, Tallaght east to Dardistown line is under way. The RPA has stated it has identified the preferred design option for metro west at the junction of Belgard Road and Embankment Road and it continues to consult locally.
In case the Leas Cheann-Comhairle looks in my direction, this concerns the Bill, which attempts to improve public transport and creating a situation where people can access good public transport. This takes the pressure off those who might be tempted to drink and drive.
I refer to Part 5 and I wish to put forward some views in this regard. I note that sections 47 to 51 provide for amendments to the definition of a driving licence and include foreign driving licence holders into the scope of the application for sanctions for road traffic offences, including a disqualification for holding a driving licence. There are Garda powers to seize a licence where a driver is disqualified or a licence is suspected to be fraudulent. The new measures require the production of a driving licence and a copy of the licence to the District Court clerk on the first day of a court hearing. This is a very important issue.
Several colleagues were in Cavan at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly for the 20th anniversary plenary session. The highlight of the meeting was the visit of the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, who came to talk to the members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on the economy. A very interesting debate took place in the afternoon session. We were joined by the Garda Commissioner, Fachtna Murphy, and the new Chief Constable of the PSNI, Matt Baggott. Many good issues were raised. I took the opportunity to invite the chief constable of the PSNI to visit Tallaght.
Perhaps Deputy Durkan should do so as well.
Given the rate of executions it would not be safe for him to visit.
We have an excellent partnership in Tallaght between the Garda and the community, of which I am very proud and I am pleased the Commissioner acknowledged my remarks in this regard. I suggested to the Chief Constable that this was a matter he should consider.
I refer to one point in respect of the Road Traffic Bill 2009. A recurring issue frequently mentioned across the floor and in committee meetings relates to the fact that people can cross the Border between the two parts of the island. There are difficulties in enforcing road traffic law and regulations. We should continue to examine this matter. There is excellent co-operation between the Garda and PSNI and between politicians on both sides of the Border. On the few occasions I have been to the North recently, I noted a seamless divide. It is no longer clear where the Border is. These issues will increasingly come into focus.
Members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly are anxious, as I am, to find a new agenda for that body. When it was founded 20 years ago, the northern part of our island was completely different and there were many challenges. Times were difficult in the years immediately after its foundation. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly must reinvent itself to some extent and find issues to address. Road safety is certainly an issue on which its members could have much debate. It is relevant to this Bill.
The Road Traffic Bill was published last October. In line with the decision of the Government, the legislation aims to advance the road safety agenda by amending the law on driving while intoxicated. The primary amendment will be to reduce the blood alcohol limit. This will not only reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads but will also reduce the incidence of collisions and the cost to the State. The Bill is arranged in eight parts.
I do not drive my car every day and try to use the Luas and Dublin Bus as much as possible. On a number of occasions when I was driving, I was stopped at a Garda checkpoint. A little while ago I was stopped for a routine check by a garda. As she approached, she said, "Oh, good God, I didn't realise it was you". I told her I am no different from anybody else and told her to do her job on the basis that I fully supported what she was attempting to do. She tested me and I said that, because of the very sad life I lead, I would not be over the limit. I only drink 7UP, the price of which is a disgrace, not only in Tallaght but also everywhere else. I told the garda I would not be over the limit and this proved true.
Was the Deputy not lucky having drunk 7UP?
It might have sent my blood sugar level all over the shop.
I am sure Deputy Durkan will support me in contending it is important that we understand the Garda has a job to do. Some of my colleagues referred to the considerable work the Garda must do and the resources necessary in this regard. I strongly support the view that there should be regular checks on our roads, both in urban and rural areas. Deputy Mattie McGrath might not be happy with my saying that but if nobody tells him he will not know.
I do not want to upset anybody in the Labour benches by making my next point. I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle not to tell them about it. I receive a lot of mail asking why the Garda needs to enforce what many believe to be a ridiculous speed limit in Dublin city centre. I do not want to be controversial in saying that and do not want Mr. Gay Byrne writing to me saying I am against road safety. Of course I am not against it but I wonder about certain regulations. I am from this city. I do drive and also use the Luas. One wonders about the speed regulation in the city centre. I hope the Labour Party leader in Dublin City Council, whom I am sure is a good man, will understand there are issues and that people are confused about them. Constituents have asked me why the Garda is enforcing the new speed limit. I am in the city three days per week but do not see gardaí out in huge numbers enforcing it, which is fair enough.
We have had a very good discussion on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. I listened to many of the speeches and will continue to do so. I hope the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, is listening to what people are saying and to their concerns. As I stated last night, I have no real contact with rural communities other than Bohernabreena in Tallaght but I know colleagues from many parts of the country, from all parties and none, have issues they want to bring to the Minister's attention. I hope the Minister will listen, as he does. I look forward to the passage of the Bill through the Houses and I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his courtesy.
I have listened with interest to Deputy O'Connor and to the Members who spoke last night. Their comments were very informative and educational.
That could get the Deputy on a Fianna Fáil leaflet.
I was not exactly going to join Fianna Fáil as a result but I was very impressed. I was very impressed with Deputy Mattie McGrath. He made a commendable speech. Even the Members on this side of the House were inclined to applaud.
This Bill is positive and its purpose is to amend the law and make provisions that it is hoped will ultimately improve congestion and reduce the number of accidents. I want to raise a number of matters that have not necessarily been raised to date. Over the years I tabled numerous parliamentary questions on road traffic accidents. I never got the answers but know they were available. I used to ask about the degree to which drink driving was associated with individual road accidents and discovered some peculiar facts. For instance, if a pedestrian had a drink and was struck by a car, it was deemed that the accident was caused by drink driving. It may not have been the driver's fault at all.
I do not agree with many of the views expressed by Deputy Mattie McGrath. There are issues that need to be considered in the overall context of what is occurring. There are a number of factors that cause road accidents. Bad driving habits comprise a very serious cause, as is evident from how motorists approach roundabouts, for example. The practice should be that one gives way to traffic on a roundabout. One does not have to give way to traffic half a mile from the roundabout that is driving at 70 km/h or 80 km/h but there are those who believe one should.
Bad driving habits that are unfit to take traffic travelling beyond a certain speed are also a factor. It is not possible to change the speed limits every four or five miles, although this has been attempted. However, it is possible to improve the roads. At this stage we should have improved them. A great number of accidents are being caused all over the country by roads that are inadequate and totally unsafe. Given that this is the case, preaching about how we should drive is taking us to the fair.
A section of a roadway in my constituency has cost the lives of 24 people in the past 18 or 19 years. None that I knew was inebriated at the time of the accident, but the accident took place nevertheless. That should send a message to everybody. People eventually got the message and road improvements took place, yet the roadway is still not perfect. There have been accidents thereon in recent years.
I draw to the attention of the Minister for Transport and his Department the absolute necessity to tackle the condition of roads. There is no use saying we will reduce the speed limit to whatever limit is required to make the roads safe. One cannot make them safe or travel safely on them.
Speed is another cause of accidents. One can travel on roads in this country which have a 100 kph speed limit and one can reach a section of the road that is incapable of taking a vehicle at any speed above 50 kph or 60 kph. I cannot understand how that happens. However, there are also sections of relatively good roads which have a speed limit of 50 kph or 60 kph for some unknown reason. I cannot understand the rationale for that either.
Poor lighting in urban and rural areas, particularly at junctions, is definitely a major contributory factor in accidents. I accept we cannot eliminate all accidents. There always will be accidents. One cannot eliminate them unless the wheel is banned or its shape changed to ensure it does not work anymore or one puts a guy carrying a red flag in front of every vehicle. Accidents cannot be abolished so we must try to reduce the potential for accidents and the factors that contribute to them. I have no doubt that poor lighting is a major contributory factor in accidents. Mechanical failure in vehicles is also undoubtedly a contributory factor. Despite the existence of national car tests, NCTs, and various ways and means of checking vehicles, a number of accidents have occurred in the past four or five years, with tragic consequences, in the course of the application of legislation regarding possible mechanical failure, NCTs and so forth. While it remains a fact that there is a necessity to reduce the number of accidents, with all the legislation we have in place there are situations which we do not appear to be able to identify and deal with beforehand.
Another matter that has been mentioned on a number of occasions recently is the notion that if there is a very lucrative speed trap system that involves cameras and all kinds of regulatory police other than gardaí, we will have a safer system. I do not believe that. All it will produce is a huge amount of entrapment whereby the person who does not generally speed will be caught in a particular area at a particular time. Some drivers habitually speed. One knows them when one sees them. If one sees a speed camera sign on the road and a driver goes shooting past, one can be sure the driver does it all the time. Those type of drivers do not care; they laugh about it. On the other hand, the ordinary, conscientious driver will automatically slow down, even though the camera might not be working. The warning is sufficient, and it may well be that the warning is as good as anything else. I anticipate that in the future there will be a huge degree of enforcement, which will be hugely expensive. I believe there are other ways of doing it which would have the same effect but at much less cost.
I mentioned roads earlier. There are a number of accident blackspots. Most Members drive throughout the country from time to time and will be familiar with signs warning of an accident blackspot. What in God's name is being done about them? The simplest solution is to do something by repairing the blackspot or re-aligning the road. What about all these experts who tell Members of the House what we should be doing and what we are incapable of recognising? Why not do something about the accident blackspot? Eliminate it, as happened with the area to which I referred earlier that cost 24 lives. We can remove the accident blackspots by simply addressing the issues causing the accidents. It is nonsense to say the accidents were not anticipated. The fact is that if the area is identified as an accident blackspot, somebody somewhere must have known there was a problem with that section of road and that it would be a good idea if something was about it. If something was done about it, it could save lives. It is simple.
Another matter was mentioned by a colleague. I do not wish to disagree with a colleague but I know many families, as I am sure all other Members do, who have been bereaved as a result of road traffic accidents. I do not agree with the graphic advertising campaign. The theory is that it warns and shocks people who might not necessarily take note of their driving habits. I do not believe it does, but it upsets some of the bereaved families, although not all of them. It forces them to relive what happened. Some of the advertisements should be a little more sensitive in how they convey their message. It is true that some families that have been bereaved in that fashion do not have a problem with them and readily give their permission to produce them. However, it affects other families who, when they see the graphic portrayal of a road traffic accident, relive their experience. In some cases more than one family member might have lost their lives in such circumstances. Graphic details are not necessarily therapy for people in that situation. Perhaps the Minister will take on board this issue and examine what can be done about it.
I will not get into a debate about drink driving. Everybody knows we should not drink and drive. We also know people do it and have done it. It is against the law and that is the end of it. However, I have a doubt about the portrayal of the person who goes to the local pub once or twice a week and drives home, in either urban or rural areas, as being the major contributor to road traffic accidents. I do not mind the self righteous who will say I am suggesting something because I am not. I am merely posing a question. Do the statistics show anything about that type of situation? I have put down reams of parliamentary questions over the years in an effort to identify the cause or causes of individual accidents, but I am as wise now as I was when I started. Sadly, the information we get is imprecise. The Minister might not agree but in all the cases of which I am aware, and everybody knows about individual cases, I am always anxious to have that precise information.
Deputy Mattie McGrath is correct that there is a need to provide an alternative means of transport in rural areas. There is no public transport, for socialising or anything else. I listened to Members speaking in the House last night about the Luas being extended to all areas in their constituencies. There are many parts of this country that a Luas will never see and if a Luas were found or seen in those areas, the person who alleged they had seen it would be accused of being inebriated. We do not live in an equal society. There are people in parts of this country who do not have access to modern means of transport. One thing is certain, however. The social life generated by the rural tavern or pub will disappear and that will change the social fabric of our society. The danger that will arise from that, and there are already signs of it, is that there will be increased incidence of home drinking.
Home drinking caused serious problems in rural areas 60 and 70 years ago. There were very enterprising people who decided to make their own brew, which a gentleman from a certain part of the country referred to recently as "white whiskey". It became so prevalent and caused so much social strife in rural parts that clergy from all churches and community leaders everywhere came out and spoke strongly against it. I do not think anybody has recognised that. There is a danger it will cause a serious problem and it is beginning to show up already.
How many times in recent years have we seen accidents, assaults, serious assaults or killings at house parties? One did not have house parties 25 years ago; people went to the pub. The difference was they were in a supervised situation. There were a few exceptions, such as when people drank as much as they liked and drove as far as they wanted. Some people who did not drive at all could become obnoxious after having too much to drink. There was supervision in pubs and it was not unusual for a person to be told, in fairly explicit terms by a barman or the owner of a pub, that he or she had enough and should be going home, if he or she had a home to go to, which was the famous phrase. That does not happen in an unregulated, unsupervised drinking area. The future of social drinking, in rural Ireland in particular, could be headed in the wrong direction. It requires close observation and, if we do not do that, we could have equally serious consequences further down the road.
I am in favour of changing and improving the law, and making it more effective. Given the amount of legislation which has come before the House over the years, very few Bills have been proven to be effective, workable and do the job they were intended to do. For example, last year the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill came before the House. I understood it was introduced to ban guns from people who shoot people in the middle of the night all over this city, other cities and the country, but it was not. It dealt with the control and regulation of legally held guns throughout the country. I could not believe it. The theory was the guns could be stolen by people with nefarious intent, and would then be illegally held guns.
I wonder about Ministers. When they are too long sitting in the backs of Mercedes they get too comfortable. It must be too warm because there is something wrong. The practice I like best is when they preach to the rest of us on how we should travel up and down the country and what we should do in the circumstances we are likely to meet, while most of them have never driven a car in business mode for at least 25 or 30 years. I presume it is a great feeling, if one is a Minister. We hear a lot nowadays about experts — the Acting Chairman, who chairs the Joint Committee on the Constitution will know this — who tell us how we should do things. In most cases, they do so from a pedestal.
Ministers have also been on a pedestal for a considerable length of time. From listening to backbenchers on the other side of the House, I can understand their frustration because there is no doubt a vast gulf is developing between what Ministers have to say to us on this side of the House. It may sound funny and exasperating. I have been a backbencher while in government and understand what it is like. There is nothing as galling as listening to preaching from people who have not lived in the real world for 25 or 30 years of their lives. They are walking and driving in a cloud and a bubble. They pontificate about how the law should affect the general public, having been carried around, cosseted, protected, looked after, dusted down and aired at every possible opportunity.
Is the Acting Chairman practising a cast for a fishing competition?
I am indicating that the Deputy's time is up.
That is different. I do not like when people wave their hands at me in a winding fashion. I am sure the Acting Chairman does not like it either.
The Bill, it is to be hoped, will do the job it is intended to do. If it does not, I hope somebody will have the gumption to come back into the House, say it did not work and that it will have to be changed, because that is a problem we have regarding all the legislation which comes before this House and others.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Road Traffic Bill. I have lost members of my family and close friends, including people who worked in this House, through road traffic accidents and deaths over the past number of years. I know full well the pain and anguish which goes with road traffic deaths. I understand the issues which pertain to it and the devastation it can cause. Anyone who travels the length and breadth of the country will see the roadside monuments to those who have lost loved ones to road traffic deaths.
The Bill is about saving lives. In correspondence the Minister said he is saving lives and reducing injuries on our roads. There must be another debate, a point on which a number of other speakers have touched. I refer in particular to the lowering of the blood alcohol level from 80 mg to 50 mg. The evidence is that will contribute to saving lives on our roads. I have studied the reports and information available. We should implement the current legislation, which sets the level at 80 mg. Further reducing it, and making criminals of people, in particular elderly people in rural Ireland, those living in isolated areas and travelling once or twice a week to their local pub for one or two pints or glasses of Guinness, does not shine a great light on us as legislators.
I note, in particular, that a section of this Bill outlaws the use of the Probation Act. Other legislation on drugs and serious crime includes the Probation Act. We outlawed its use in this Bill in order that elderly people, people living in isolated areas or people who drink one or two pints or glasses of wine are not affected. The Probation Act applies to major criminals, including those who are dealing in drugs and destroying the fabric of society in cities and rural Ireland. It is a nonsense and must be reflected in any discussion on this Bill. We should examine that. It is very easy to have a Garda checkpoint at 11, 12 or 1 o'clock in the morning on the outskirts of villages and towns. I do not agree that people should drink excess alcohol but I support those people who want to go to their pub one or two nights a week for one or two glasses or pints of Guinness. I support their right to avail of that opportunity.
We debated this subject last November and there was a great deal of media attention on it. Of course, the finer points of the debate were lost. It was interpreted as support for drink-driving. Nobody supports drink-driving. As I stated, I have lost family members and very close friends in road accidents. However, during that debate reasonable people who are dealing with social and rural isolation were in touch. I forwarded to the Minister documentation from Suicide Aware, a group set up to prevent suicide and to promote discussions on the issue. The group wrote to me at the time about the issue and about the media coverage of the lowering of the blood-alcohol level limit. I shall read from the letter for the record of the House and perhaps the Minister and the Department of Transport might take the point seriously and form an opinion on it. It is fundamental to the issue we are discussing, particularly with regard to the lowering of the blood-alcohol limit. Suicide Aware stated:
We are a Cork-based organisation involved in the areas of depression and suicide-related issues in the community. We are extremely concerned with the proposed new legislation regarding the further reduction of the drink driving alcohol limit and we congratulate you on your stance in relation to the isolation of rural communities and the effect this new proposed legislation will have on rural Ireland. Like ourselves, you are obviously in touch with the ordinary people of rural Ireland whose only weekly contact with either neighbours or friends is a few hours weekly in their local pub. Their further isolation will be very regrettable and have serious consequences for these communities. Current figures show that a 20% increase in suicide and depression related illness presents in rural Ireland. What statistics are there regarding these issues and the same isolated rural dwellers regard death on our roads due to alcohol, and, most specifically, the more senior members of our community. It is time for the Minister to get in touch with the ordinary people of Ireland and deal with the real issues concerning these same communities who in many cases are afraid of criminal attacks in their own homes. We believe his concern in this regard would be of far greater help than increasing isolation in rural communities. Again, I congratulate you on the stance you are taking on behalf of isolated people in rural communities.
That is a fair statement from people who are at the very coal face of trying to prevent depression and isolation in rural communities. It would behove the Department of Transport and the Minister to listen. The Minister wrote back to me when I sent this letter, saying that he respected my right to believe whatever I like with regard to this matter. I outlined my response on these points but that was the only response I got. When an organisation dealing with a fundamental issue in our community brings this matter up, at least we could have the decency to respond and reflect the legislation accordingly.
I feel very strongly about this because I see the effects. I come from a very rural part of County Cork and I see them. I see people who travel one or two nights a week into their local pubs for two or three glasses of Guinness. Even the Probation Act is outlawed with regard to this Bill. When we are passing legislation, surely to God we should have the decency to look out for these people who have difficulties. We do not all have taxis or family support, people who can drop us up and down to the pub. Any society should consider these vulnerable people.
I read the report on road safety and I refer to a particular paragraph that mentions the blood-alcohol level: "However, the research on reducing the level further from 80mg to 50mg has not seen the expected decline in alcohol-related collisions." My point is that the vast majority of fatally injured drivers who have blood-alcohol levels recorded display a higher rate than 80mg. The accidents that occur happen to people with greater amounts of alcohol. I have read all the reports on this matter and the smaller amounts of alcohol recorded are completely inconclusive with regard to this. I appeal to the Minister to look at this point.
I hope somebody is listening who might look reasonably at this matter and take a sensible approach to it. First, I believe the Probation Act should be allowed to apply. If we are going to criminalise and penalise people who drink two or three glasses or pints of Guinness while we let the drug barons and all the rest of them have the benefit of that Act, it is a sad reflection on the people who drafted this legislation and on those who are bringing it through this House.
A concession was made with regard to penalty points for the first offence. As it stands, the Bill allows penalty points and a fixed fine to be used only once in every five years for a person caught with a blood-alcohol level of between 50mg and 80mg. What should be enacted is that on the first occasion three penalty points would be imposed, on the second, four points and on the third, five penalty points. That would be a realistic proposal. I hope somebody is listening who can reflect it adequately and that the officials can take the suggestion back to the Department. I am disappointed that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is not in the House to hear the debate.
The Bill allows for penalty points to be imposed only once in every five years. The period should be reduced to one year. The Probation Act should be applied, there should be a little bit of common decency and we should not criminalise people who drive to their local village for a game of cards on a Tuesday or a Friday night, have two glasses of Guinness and drive home. No sensible person wants to make common criminals of such people.
I have discussed this legislation with very many people. If the legislation that is currently on the Statute Book were to be enacted properly we would not need to go any further. Let us enact it. Nobody agrees with what was happening ten, 15 or 20 years ago in regard to drink. However, we have seen, and see still, the demise of the rural pub. We note the amount of alcohol being drunk at home and what happens after those home alcohol binges. At least in pubs there is a controlled environment. When the night is over, no further alcohol is available but when one goes into houses, one sees a very great amount of alcohol being consumed. The measures, especially of spirits, are huge. Pubs have been an integral part of society throughout the entire country. Irrespective of whatever legislation this Dáil or any other Parliament may enact, we will have issues with regard to alcohol and intoxicating drugs.
There is a far more serious issue in rural areas and urban settings, which latter have been blighted by drugs for decades. Information has been reported to every Member of this House about the availability of drugs in the most remote rural communities as well as in the cities. People are exasperated because there is no legislation in place to allow the Garda go after the people responsible in a coherent and positive way. However, this legislation will be rammed through the House to ensure that the man or woman who wants a glass of wine in a house, or the man who wants one or two glasses or pints of Guinness, will be made into common criminals. We must be mindful about this. Everybody, myself included, wants to ensure that our roads are as safe as humanly possible. However, I do not want it achieved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can do this in a sensible, coherent and positive way.
We know of the various issues in regard to the Road Safety Authority and the great many other issues that need to be dealt with. However, any safe and balanced view of this legislation would have to be that it is draconian. I propose that the Department would reflect on what I am saying and consider the issue in regard to penalty points for a second offence. The Bill should be reconsidered to allow for three points for the first offence, four for the second and five for the third, and penalty points should be allowed to be re-imposed after one year, not once every five years. The judge should have discretion in regard to some offences because they are at the minor end of the scale. These are sensible approaches.
I know of a man who drinks two glasses of Guinness and no more. He has a problem with his hip and is living in an isolated rural community. On one occasion, local gardaí thought he was walking in an intoxicated manner and he was taken home in a squad car. It frightened the living daylights out of him and he will now not even go out at night and is isolated in his house. I hope that is not the intention of the Minister or legislators.
While this issue is vital for rural communities in particular, when it was discussed on the airwaves in November last, we were surprised at the number of people in urban areas who contacted us to try to ensure they could at least have one drink and some social interaction after, say, a round of golf. By and large, we are talking about elderly people who are retired and may be isolated in their communities, with no family backup. Where there are large families, support networks, cars and drivers, the situation is all very well, but this matter needs to be examined.
I have made my points as fairly and squarely as possible. Reducing the blood alcohol level from 80 mg to 50 mg is a direct attack on vulnerable, isolated rural people. I appeal to the Government, the Department officials and the Chief Whip, who is present for the debate, to reflect very carefully on this matter and to ensure we are not breaking a nut with a sledgehammer. I have outlined the issues about which people dealing with suicide and depression in rural communities have contacted us. They take a very balanced view and it is they who are at the coalface of what is happening in rural communities. As the previous speaker said, one would wonder whether the Minister is in contact with what is happening in rural communities or understands the level of social isolation.
We talk about better public transport and having transport available for people in rural communities at a time when Bus Éireann is cutting routes, not providing more routes. Thankfully, we were able to ensure that the rural transport initiative which is being set up was spared the cuts proposed by an bord snip nua. I contend that the an bord snip nua report was intended to cut off services to rural communities because they were not being used enough. It is said measures to help rural communities will be put in place and that consideration will be given to social isolation. At the same time that this is being said out of one side of the mouth, this legislation is being pushed through and Bus Éireann is cutting routes throughout the country due to reduced usage. This is creating a huge problem for rural communities, and I appeal to all concerned to give serious consideration to this issue.
This message needs to be related in a very strong and positive way. I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I sincerely hope the officials present and the Minister will reflect carefully on what I have said.
I looked forward to this debate. Very few Bills will engender the type of interest either for or against as a Bill such as this, which has lived up to my expectations. As is the case with most Members, my family has not been spared being visited over the years by road traffic accidents, some involving drink driving.
On a more global scale, I wish to give credit where credit is due. As a member of the Joint Committee on Transport, I have been very impressed by the activities of the Road Safety Authority. The figures speak for themselves. Many people who are going about their jobs this very day would not be on the face of the earth were it not for changes that had been sought for many years being implemented by the Government and the Road Safety Authority. The graph is certainly going in the right direction.
While we will deal with more micro aspects shortly, it was said five or six years ago that if more cars were on the road due to the increase in population, it would mean there would be more accidents. Not so. It is now beginning to be proven that it is possible to change the culture and the way people think in this regard. A similar change happened in regard to the smoking ban, which worked. While I am not a smoker, over the years I attended places where there was no shortage of smoke. I now find that people genuinely believe they are social outcasts if they smoke in certain places. We want to transfer that psychology and cultural approach to people sitting behind the steering wheel who would drive at an unsafe speed or in an unsafe condition. I fully accept it is much more difficult to achieve this than in regard to smoking, but at least the targets have been put in place whereby we can see that if drivers take certain steps, the number of fatal accidents and the terrible problems with severe injury can be reduced.
As has been said in all major discussions I have attended in the House over many years, the two major problems that lead to fatalities on the roads are drink driving and speed. For many years, I believed that drink driving was five times worse than speeding but I have changed my mind and now believe they are of equal importance. As the Chief Whip is present, I take the opportunity to say I cannot understand why it took the Government so long to introduce speed cameras.
To take the example of the major road I know best, the inter-urban route to Galway has a speed limit of 120 km/h. It is a fine road, the drivers on it have fine cars and one could argue that drivers should be able to drive faster than 120 km/h, but I have been convinced that this is the maximum speed in order to ensure safety, even on a very safe road. I guarantee the Acting Chairman, any Member of the House or any official that if one drives down any of the inter-urban roads at 120 km/h, it will not be long before one is overtaken by several cars, which means they are travelling at more than 120 km/h. The minute the speed cameras are introduced they will have the same effect as the drink driving laws have had and we will see an overnight change in behaviour. I will not pontificate because I drive fast if given a chance but on a number of occasions it did not pay me to do so. It is amazing the lesson one learns on receipt of penalty points. The most I ever incurred was two or four but by virtue of the fact I got them, I will always remember how and why I got them. That is the psychology of how it works.
Like everybody else in this House, I am familiar with the trauma and the awful harrowing sorrow that is landed on families because of road traffic accidents. Whether speed or drink driving is the cause does not make any difference, in the sense that a loved one is gone or severely maimed. One only has to live through that to know it because it lasts for years; it is like a cloud that sits on top of a family for years and years. Anything that can be done to reduce the number of people killed on our roads is good business, good government and good for the whole country.
I represent a rural constituency and there is hardly any other Member with a more rural background. I fully appreciate some of the points made here today. I might have a slightly different attitude in the sense I am aware of the significant level of rural isolation and it has worsened in the past five or six years. As the previous speaker said, it is absolutely true that rural pubs are going through bad times and they are not the only ones. I was delighted when the McCarthy cuts to the rural transport initiative were not implemented by the Government. This initiative is only in its infancy and it is certainly not a comprehensive scheme or anything like it. However, the concept is good and it needs to be rolled out to more places. Unless one is visually impaired, one will always see buses in urban constituencies at most times of the day. A person could stand in parts of my constituency and not see a bus in one full day and there will be fewer now that Bus Éireann have taken away some of the routes. Those are the facts.
The reduction in the blood alcohol limit down to 50 mg means that unless there is a nominated driver to bring people to the pubs, there is no other way of getting there. There is no taxi service in several of the parishes I represent because they are too sparsely populated. If there was a taxi service, the driver would have to drive from Tuam or Mountbellew and it would cost a fortune and this is not an option.
I know a good deal about the rural transport initiative and I know the areas where it is working. My suggestion would require more resources to be made available. The buses and the personnel are available from the private sector. They bring elderly people shopping in the mornings and bring people to bingo in the evenings and there is no reason with a little co-operation between publicans and their clients, that those buses could not provide a service. This suggestion was regarded as a fairy tale when first aired but the fairy will have to leave now. It is true that this legislation will mean fewer people in rural Ireland will go out to the pub. If the rural transport initiative was included as part of this legislation it would go a good way towards alleviating and assuaging the fears of people.
There will be no need to buy more buses in order to provide this service. The country is full of people who run eight and ten-seater buses but they have no work at present because there are not as many football teams to be transported. Their commercial business has collapsed and the schools cannot afford to pay them most of the time. However, there is work to be done in this area which would also lift a great depression hanging over many people.
I have one problem which is bothering my conscience. There seem to be accurate statistics to prove that people over the age of 50 and under 80 are not as alert as drivers as they might have previously been. This is a small category and very few people in this age group are involved in accidents but if someone drives with drink taken and causes an accident and someone is killed, then if this Bill stops them driving, it would be the right thing to do. Some people in rural Ireland argue very cogently against this legislation and make the point that only a small number of people are involved and that the research is not as clear-cut as the research I have seen. It is a balancing act in that the overall principle of the Bill is to keep as many people alive as is humanly possible and to save them from being killed on the roads.
I note the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, is in the Chamber. In my view, the speed cameras cannot be installed quickly enough and they will cause an immediate and significant change in behaviour. I believe 45 cameras will be in use initially and there will also be mobile cameras. I cannot understand why they have not been installed up to now.
I refer to the compulsory breath-testing of those involved in traffic accidents. I could never understand why this was not implemented many years ago. I welcome that aspect of the Bill as this is a very important measure and the sooner it is introduced, the better.
Regarding penalty points, it is remarkable that a person up in court for a driving offence is not required to hand up his or her driving licence as part of the process so that when the judge makes a decision, the court registrar is then in a position to manually enter the details on the driving licence. Perhaps someone will explain to me why that cannot happen or would not work. I do not see why it cannot be done from an administrative point of view. A research document shows that penalty points have not been imposed on thousands of people even though the courts have decided they should receive penalty points. When the Minister for Transport is summing up at the end of this debate, can he state whether such people will start with a new sheet? Can anything be done about what has happened? Is it possible to take it from here? That is not good business. It is simply not a good way of doing business. If it is allowed to continue, at the back of their minds people will think they have just a 50% chance of being given penalty points. This loophole must be closed off very quickly, for obvious reasons.
My understanding of speed limits is that they are usually put in place to protect those who live in built-up areas. I was a member of Galway County Council for a long time. A number of years ago, an official from the National Roads Authority, or the equivalent body of the time, addressed a meeting of the council. He spoke about the roads as they were then. He said that the aim of the policy being pursued at the time was that if one sat into one's car in Galway city to drive to Dublin, one would have an idea of the average length of time it would take. There was a desire to keep the traffic going so that people would make good time. There was nothing particularly wrong with that. The planning process we had in this country for many years allowed our towns and villages to extend outwards during the good times. As a result, speed limits have not been extended to several areas where new houses have been built. I am sure the NRA would argue it is important to compromise so that the travelling public can do the maximum amount of mileage for every hour spent on the road.
The development of interurban roads, for which I give some credit to the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has changed everything. The problem to which I refer does not apply on such routes, which connect most of the country. While I accept that responsibility in this regard lies with the local authorities, I strongly suggest that the Minister should try to change significantly the thought process that informs them. If a person who lives on the edge of a town is endangered by the failure to extend the relevant urban speed limit, there is a case for extending the limit to cover the relevant area. Most people who are travelling long distances can use interurban routes. They might not have to spend as long travelling between Galway and Roscommon, for example, as they used to. I assume the Minister understands the point I am making. A major change is needed in the interests of the safety of people who live beside secondary routes. Many speed limits will have to be extended outwards, if not reduced.
I would like to mention an old chestnut of mine in this context. I accept that it is a difficult matter to handle. When one is driving on some of the laneways of Ireland, one sees road signs advising that the speed limit is 80 km/h. I fully understand that one does not have to drive at 80 km/h, but when some people see such road signs they think they have the right to do so. I suggest that local authorities will have to reduce such speed limits significantly. I see people driving at absolutely outrageous speeds, albeit within the law, on back roads throughout the country.
As I said before the Minister for Transport came to the House, there has been a decline in the number of people being killed on our roads. No matter who one is, one has to admit the graph is going in the right direction. Various Ministers, including the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, have worked with various officials, including Mr. Noel Brett, his colleagues in the Road Safety Authority and their counterparts in the National Roads Authority. Their efforts are beginning to work. I hope some of the provisions of this Bill will ensure that next year and the year after, there are more people alive on the roads of Ireland than there otherwise would be.
If this legislation is to be tweaked in some way, I suggest that the rural transport initiative should be extended. I made that point before the Minister came to the Chamber. Although it will be painful from a budgetary point of view, money will have to be invested in the initiative if we want to overcome the problems associated with this reduction, which are evident to many people in rural Ireland. Everything else will fall into place if that is done.
I welcome the Bill to the House. I am pleased to have an opportunity to make a few points on it. The Minister for Transport will accept that it has been the subject of emotive debate within the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party and among urban and rural Deputies on all sides of the House. As we try to strike a balance between keeping rural Ireland alive and protecting people's lives, we should ensure that road safety is paramount. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, intends to table some amendments at a later stage. I am sure he has listened to the comments of Deputies from all sides of the House on improving safety while treating people in rural Ireland, in particular, in a reasonable manner.
A great deal of road safety legislation has been enacted over the last number of years. During my time in the House, we have moved from having very little road safety regulation to introducing a raft of new legislation. Since 1998, we have introduced the fixed charge, the penalty points system, the new speed limits structure and mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints. I welcomed the establishment of the Road Safety Authority a few years ago. The mutual recognition of driving disqualifications in this country and the UK was introduced recently. The staff of the Road Safety Authority have been doing tremendous work to highlight the importance of road safety. The authority has introduced new initiatives and regulations and generally gone about its business in a practical way to ensure our roads are reasonably safe. People have criticised some of the measures introduced by the Road Safety Authority, which is an independent body to all intents and purposes. It conducts research, listens to people's views and engages in discussions with all the stakeholders on how best to make progress with new legislation. It has been doing an excellent job in this area.
As a result of the rampant movement of the Celtic tiger economy, the number of registered vehicles increased to 2.5 million at the end of 2008. That represents an increase of approximately 75% on the 1997 figure. The large number of vehicles on our roads has brought its own problems. Many of our roads were not up to the standard needed to meet the demands of the additional registered vehicles. In recent years, different Governments, with help from the EU, have invested substantial moneys in road developments and structures to ensure that our regional, local and national roads are of a higher standard. Of course there is a long way to go. The Minister is very supportive of the New Ross and Enniscorthy bypasses, which are still on the agenda in County Wexford. I hope the problems with the New Ross bypass, which are being caused by objections, can be resolved quickly so we can make progress with the huge stretch of road that is needed between Gorey and New Ross as a gateway into the south east. I hope we will not have many more delays in that regard.
When I talk about the problems faced by families as a result of road accidents, I speak as someone with experience in this regard. One of my daughters was killed in a road accident 12 years ago. I would not like that to happen to too many families up and down the country. It brings tremendous grief and sadness to families, taking them a long time to deal with it. Every time I hear of a major road accident in which young people were killed, I empathise with their families and the difficulties they will have as it takes a long time to deal with such a fatality. One is always wondering if one's child were alive today where they would be working, would they be married or have gone abroad. No one can object to the Minister improving road quality and safety, particularly for young people.
All road safety programmes from the Department, the Minister and other road safety agencies must always get the message across to young people that fast driving, driving under the influence of alcohol and taking chances are not acceptable.
Some claim road safety advertisements on television are stark, alarming and can cause upset and concern for families which have suffered a road fatality. Naturally, whenever I see one on the television it brings home to me and my family our loss. However, if it can get the message across to young people, I would have no problem with it. A car can be a lethal weapon. Young people must bear in mind that they should slow down, be properly trained and have a full licence. I welcome the fact the Minister is moving in that direction.
Balancing the new provisions concerning drink-driving and preventing rural isolation is a difficulty for all parties. Many in rural areas have no access to taxis, buses or other modes of transport other than their own cars when they want to socialise. The rural transport initiative has been successful where it has been introduced. I would like the Government to examine how it could be extended into more rural areas. It may need more funding from the Government or for the vintners' association and rural-based companies to come on board? It would ensure transport for rural dwellers to socialise at weekends. In Enniscorthy, the hackney and taxi business is certainly thriving. At my local GAA club, which has modern bar facilities, every Sunday morning I always notice the number of cars left overnight in the car park. People have more sense now about getting a taxi home on a Saturday night after a few drinks. The message is getting through not to drink and drive.
I have some concerns about home-drinking which is becoming more prominent in both rural and urban areas. Drink is cheap in the supermarkets and I am concerned at how they are able to lash out the drink at reduced prices morning until night. There seem to be no regulations as to how they operate. As a result, home-drinking has become very common. I accept some are responsible when drinking at home with a few glasses of wine or beer. However, young people drinking at home are effectively unsupervised. No one can bring a bit of discipline if matters get out of hand. At least in a pub the owner can call on a group to behave or call the Garda. However, in many cases of home-drinking, people get too drunk, a fight breaks out, someone gets stabbed or beaten up and ends up in hospital. This is not alone causing grief for people but costs for the health services. I have no instant answer for dealing with this but it must be recognised as a major problem.
There was much criticism about the lowering of speed limits in Dublin city centre. I am not too familiar with driving in Dublin as I tend only to drive in and out on the Stillorgan road on a Tuesday morning and Thursday night. In many towns, however, many people are seeking speed-limit reductions. Many schools are located in towns, in some cases in the centre. School buses and parents driving their children to school mean there is a large volume of traffic in towns. Nearly every week in every town, a child is knocked down. The reduction of speed limits in built-up areas that can save lives and reduce the number of accidents is a good and welcome development. I would like more liaison between the Department and local authorities on speed limits in urban areas.
The Garda is essential to the implementation of road safety measures and that people observe the traffic laws. One could argue we do not have enough gardaí on the ground, but I believe the force is doing an excellent job in traffic management. The establishment of liaison groups between the Garda and local public representatives is a good development. Monthly, we can sit down with the local gardaí in a two-way process on improving road safety in a local community. It also allows local politicians and the gardaí to get to know each other and allows them to become more involved and active in their communities.
While driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious issue, many medical people have informed me that many road accidents are caused by people driving under the influence of drugs. Drug usage has become more common not just in cities, but also in rural towns and areas. There is no system in place to instantly detect whether people in a traffic accident have taken drugs. How long will it take to devise a proper system and one which will stand up in the courts? The lack of insurance on cars is an issue. The Garda Síochána tells me there are a significant number of people driving cars without insurance. Some get caught; some do not. Usually one is not caught until one has an accident and then one must produce an insurance certificate. We could have a better system of detection of those without insurance.
A number of people raised the issue of mobile telephones with me. We all take a chance on using mobile telephones in our hands. When people are caught the points are on the license for three years. A number of people said that three years is far too long and that it should be one or two years. If one collects a number of penalty points one could find oneself out of driving. Perhaps the Minister could examine this and see if the three year period can be made more reasonable. Different types of fixed charges and penalty points are being introduced under the new legislation and the Minister should examine this idea.
Many people have come to live in this country over the past ten years and they are very welcome. Many are employed in the hotel industry and they helped to drive the economy during the boom times. There seems to be problems with penalty points, driving licences and insurance. The Minister referred to these issues in his speech. There will be mutual recognition between this country and the UK but I wonder if the Minister is considering mutual recognition with other countries. There are many drivers from Poland, Romania and other countries, some of whom are here on a part-time basis and some on a full-time basis. The agreement with the UK is welcome but I am not sure how we will operate the system. It must be seriously examined.
A number of Deputies made good suggestions about how the Bill could be improved. I do not refer to watering it down but improving it by taking on board some of the views expressed. We had a lively debate at our parliamentary party meeting when we discussed the issue. There is a mix of views between urban and rural areas. When the Minister is finalising the legislation and tabling amendments I ask him to take on board suggestions made, particularly those that relate to rural Ireland, driving licences and fines. I welcome the change whereby a fine is sent in the post, notifying someone that they have been caught on the camera. If one pays within a certain period, one does not go to court and if one does not pay within 56 days, one must go to court. The Minister is changing this provision so that if one pays within seven days of going to court the on-the-spot fine will be acceptable. That is a good change because when people get the initial demand they throw it in a drawer or leave it to one side. There may be problems within families or illness and people do not pay on time. Then the person must go to court and must pay the solicitor's fee, the penalty points are doubled and many other issues arise. This is a welcome change the Minister is making. I welcome the Bill and hope the Minister will make some changes. Any Bill in this House that will save lives is an important Bill and one that we must support.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. We must be conscious that we are dealing with the serious problem of drink-driving but there are a series of problems related to road traffic. Before the Minister leaves the Chamber, I ask him to address, in co-operation with the local authorities and the NRA, the situation on the N17 in County Galway, where there was a horrific accident involving the deaths of three young girls. It will not cost a lot of money but if it saves lives it is worth it. There is an opportunity to save lives at a low cost. I plead with the Minister to address the area between Milltown and Ballindine on the N17. We know about the loss of lives and these were in no way associated with drink or speed. The families and those left behind must be considered.
This debate is honing in on drink and I welcome the provisions concerning the reduction in the alcohol content in blood permitted. If we are serious about this we must accept it. Other issues arise as a consequence of these and they can be fixed but lives cannot be fixed. We must think about speed and the new issue of drugs.
If this legislation is to be implemented in full there is a need for resources. In replying to this debate on Second Stage I ask the Minister to indicate if there is a commitment by Government to provide resources to implement these provisions in full. I refer to the equipment and speed cameras. It will be costly but it will show that the Government is committed to saving lives. This Bill was published in 2009 and 12 months later we still have not seen the results of it.
I must acknowledge the great work of the RSA. There is no doubt it has made many people aware of the consequences of unsafe driving through its constant advertising and what it presents on television. Tragically, we have seen the clip on television of the results and consequences of a young person who survived an accident in Lettermullen, County Galway. There is a contrast between his awareness prior to the accident and with his current situation. This has an impact on road safety. It is an horrific item of advertising but at the same time it has an impact on young drivers in particular when they see a young person confined to a wheelchair and the contrast with the life that was previously enjoyed.
One aspect not highlighted in this Bill is the advertising of alcohol. Some restrictions have been placed on it. We must call on television channels to take a bold step. While they do contribute in respect of the RSA campaign, they must stand up and be counted, regardless of the financial loss that will occur from a change in the rules. Likewise, it is incredible that sporting organisations across the board remain very dependent on sponsorship by alcohol companies. Although this Bill deals specifically with road traffic offences and driver penalties, we must take the opportunity to introduce some joined up thinking in how we deal with all the issues that contribute to road deaths. There is no doubt that alcohol is a major contributory factor but this Bill affords us an opportunity to address some of the other factors. Everybody is aware that there has been a change in the mind-set of many people in regard to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. The Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Health and Children, Transport and Justice, Equality of Law Reform must work together in a joined up and comprehensive way to tackle, once and for all, the issue of alcohol abuse. That is the way to make progress.
I am not sure of the precise figures but I draw the Minister of State's attention to recent reports on the cost of road accidents to the health service. Road accident victims are naturally afforded priority in accident and emergency departments because of the usually serious nature of their injuries. There is also a cost to the Courts Service in processing the resulting criminal prosecutions and to the Garda as a result of court attendances, attendance at the scenes of accidents and the compilation of reports for criminal cases. If a sum equal to all of these costs were invested on an annual basis in the implementation of a comprehensive policy incorporating the input of the various Departments, we would not have the ratings we have relative to other European countries in respect of the health impacts of alcoholism and its social consequences within families and communities, and the areas of justice and road accidents. I hope the Minister will give attention to that. If he cannot do it within this Bill, he should, as a matter of urgency, bring forward related items of legislation so that we can finally have a comprehensive package.
We were given commitments on numerous occasions in the past ten years that speed cameras would be introduced on roads throughout the State. Initiatives in this regard were launched repeatedly by various Ministers who gave numerous speeches on how the system would be implemented. A decade later, however, we are still waiting. There is no doubt that many of the accidents on our roads occur as a result of speeding, particularly in the case of young drivers. In some cases all that remains of the speeding car is wreckage.
It is important that we are absolutely certain that no legal eagles will be able to come into court and point to a loophole in the legislation in order to have a person acquitted who is guilty of serious charges in regard to drink driving or speeding causing the death of others. After all our experience over the years, going back as far as 1975 when the first challenge to a drink driving charge was successful, we should by now be aware of the danger of such loopholes. The 1975 case established a precedent which was repeated for years without any Government of any political persuasion moving to close the loophole, despite the many instances where people escaped punishment. It could be argued that people who are involved in accidents causing death can never get away with it because surely they experience a flashback every time they get behind the wheel. Nevertheless, the Bill must be foolproofed to the hilt or it will be to our shame if a guilty person is acquitted of a charge brought against him or her under the Bill. It is horrific for the families of those who have died to see the perpetrators going unpunished. Something must be done to ensure that can no longer happen.
In regard to alcohol advertising, the Minister should take this opportunity to request RTE and the other television channels in the State to forfeit entirely their income from advertising of alcohol. The notion of it being acceptable after a certain hour when young people are less likely to be watching is irrelevant. I ask the Minister to make this case to the television channels. The Government might consider some type of subsidy in order to compensate the television channels for their losses. There is a need for a genuine consultation with all the sporting organisations, including horse racing, GAA, rugby and so on, which are major beneficiaries of alcohol company sponsorship. There finally must be a genuine effort by the Minister to bring them on board and request that they show their support for a particular sport in some way other than through alcohol advertising. We saw in the case of the GAA that other sponsors are willing to come in when the previous sponsor bows out. Every community has teams that have been victorious in some competition or other, whether in hurling, football, rugby, soccer or another sport. The first place they head to for the post-match celebration and presentation of medals is more likely the pub than the community hall. We must seek to break that connection between alcohol and sport.
Deputy Browne referred to speed limits. There undoubtedly have been improvements in the quality of roads. However, speed merchants are finding an outlet on our motorways where the 120 km/h speed limit is frequently broken. Are we serious about addressing this issue? If all of the legislation in place in this respect was implemented to the letter of the law the number of deaths on our roads could be reduced even further than that achieved by the Road Safety Authority, which must be commended on its efforts and endeavours in this regard. There are other more practical ways this can be done. The absence of speed cameras is an obvious issue. I raised with the Minister before he left the Chamber the position in regard to the capital outlay of €800 million that has been provided for the installation of speed cameras, a figure which may have been adjusted in current circumstances. If the Government is serious about addressing this problem, it should find the capital outlay required to provide speed cameras and the people required to use them.
The greatest new difficulty facing the Garda Síochána is drug driving. There is no doubt many accidents are drug and alcohol related. The Bill provides that a Garda may form the opinion that there may be another substance involved. Surely, this provision will be challenged by the legal profession who may cast doubt in regard to, say, the lifestyle of a Garda and so on, resulting in a case being dismissed. As regards closing time of public houses, when exactly is closing time? When has the provision in this regard ever been implemented? In fairness, the Garda Síochána do not have sufficient numbers or resources to adequately police this provision. We have heard much about the commitment of Government in this regard. However, when we peel off the layers of spin, with what are we left? We are left with a serious situation. Were it not for the Road Safety Authority, there would not have been a reduction in the number of tragic deaths on our roads down through the years. While I welcome that reduction, it must be attributed almost in total to the work of RSA personnel in terms of their advertisements about the horrific nature of accidents and the wrongs done by those who get behind the wheel of a car having consumed alcohol.
The Road Safety Authority report, Working to Save Lives, was mentioned. The tragedy is that the statistics contained therein are out of date. The report provides statistics on the number of people arrested, successfully charged and so on. We must ensure we have up-to-date information on the problems arising as a result of alcohol. Another matter which I have raised previously in this House is the lack of control over the sale in the most unusual of places of packs of shots which are high in alcohol content. These shots are being imported from England and are being sold by people licensed to sell them. They can be also bought on-line. I brought a sample of one into the House and showed it to the Minister with whom I pleaded to take action on the matter but nothing has been done. A petrol station located on the motorway as one leaves Dublin has shots of Red Bull — not the ones I mentioned — available for sale to young and old without question in terms of their entitlement to purchase. The likelihood is that these people will have consumed these shots before they are two miles down the road.
I have asked for joined up thinking on these issues and plead with the Government to ensure this happens. Let us not have the road traffic corps, the RSA and the Garda Síochána doing their thing without calling in the NRA, county councils and relevant Departments to address issues such as speed limits, realignment of bad roads and so on. With this Road Traffic Bill, we must see the bigger picture. If not, we will be back in this House seeking to close off loopholes when other tragedies occur, and many families and communities suffering as a consequence.
There is no doubt great progress has been made in recent years in terms of tackling road safety. This has been brought about with the assistance of three Government strategies. The current strategy is very much the blueprint for many of the changes and alterations being introduced in this Bill. When one considers the number of casualties and deaths on our roads in the 1970s, enormous progress has been made. As stated by other speakers, 1972 is the worst year on record for road fatalities, with approximately 640 deaths having occurred that year. This figure has decreased consistently, although not every year, to only 39 deaths having occurred on our roads last year. This is extraordinary particularly given the growth in the number of vehicles on our roads. There are currently four times as many vehicles on our roads than was the case in the 1970s.
There has been a huge cultural shift in regard to drink driving. Young people in particular have a totally different attitude to drink driving. While people now may have more money to drink than was the case some years ago, young people, although they may drink more, are far more responsible in terms of their drink-driving habits. We also have better roads and vehicles. There has been considerable investment in our roads in recent years. The figure for this year is more than €1 billion. Data released earlier this week indicated that €400 million has been provided for the maintenance of local roads. While there has been much investment in our roads, the public response, whether through encouragement or having been beaten into it, has been extraordinary. At the same time, however, one death is one too many. There is no doubt accidents cause severe anguish, pain and turmoil for families and communities. This is true not alone in respect of deaths but in respect of people who are injured. I recall attending a presentation in the Department at which I and people from a number of agencies contributed. Having listened to us concentrate on the number of deaths on our roads, a medical doctor stood up and spoke of the road accident casualties at the hospital at which he worked. He said there had been 25 casualties at his hospital that year which had gone on to the mortuary. He then went on to speak about his speciality of dealing with severely injured and brain damaged people, many of whom are returned to having a useful life with the help of the medical services. However, people who are badly injured often remain so, the pain and anguish of which can be as great or even greater than the pain and anguish caused when a person dies.
Our current strategy includes 126 actions, one of which is to reduce the blood alcohol level to 50 mg. While there has been upset among some political and other people because they may not have known this was about to happen, it may be a failing in the system here and a failure of politics that, even though we spend much time dealing with legislation, we do not often zone in on strategies. There may be a presentation at a committee or something but historically we have not been great at zoning in on strategies and what is coming down the line. Historically some people may have seen strategies as just a wish list that will never happen, but people should have realised that on road safety where we have had approximately six pieces of legislation in ten years, the Department does not just deal with wish lists. It is very much about real and frequent action to deal with issues as they arise.
I agree that the 50 mg level was contained in the strategy and that we are out of line with many of our EU partners. The UK as our nearest partner is one of the few along with Malta to still operate to the 80 mg level. On winding up perhaps the Minister might update us as to what is happening there. When I last heard the British were undergoing a consultation phase to reduce the limit to 50 mg or thereabouts. I am referring to England, Scotland and Wales as distinct from the North, where they might be clearer in their thinking as to what they want to do.
In many cases while the limit in those EU countries might be 50 mg, the penalty that applies is very different. In many cases the penalty is not the mandatory suspension that we would have. It is very much a case of having a maximum figure. Much of what I have read and heard would suggest that the maximum penalty is only occasionally applied and is not the norm. While we must do the right thing and move with the times, there is no point in moving too far ahead of the times. We need to be balanced and look at the big picture of the benefits of road safety. However, we do not want to go overboard. We want to be the country with the lowest number of casualties; we do not necessarily want to be the country with the most draconian legislation. Deeper examination of the countries with 50 mg limits needs to be carried out to get an analysis of not just the statutory penalties, but also what happens in reality.
While the strategy referred to the 50 mg limit, it did not indicate what the penalty should be and that is where the legislation comes in. That is a role for the Oireachtas at this stage. We need to concentrate on continuing to get across the message. We need to make people aware of the dangers and educate them. We then need to detect offenders and enforce the legislation. It is a carrot and stick affair. We need to bring people with us while at the same time encouraging and forcing them.
We need to remember that accidents are caused by many different factors, including the driver, the vehicle, the roads and the weather. Regarding the driver it is about having a person well trained and qualified to drive. I very much support these measures for lower limits for qualified drivers and for beginners. Several factors affect the driver's ability including, alcohol, drugs, speed, tiredness and stress. Stress at home and at work are very big factors that cannot be measured by simply blowing into a bag. Other people have spoken about speed which is an enormous factor. However, other factors like tiredness and stress are much harder to measure and as such we need to tackle what we see as the weakest link and what can be attacked. We need to continue to get across the message that alcohol is a very important factor. We need to do all in our power to discourage people from driving after drinking.
I commend all those involved in road safety measures in recent years because enormous progress has been made in the Department of Transport and before that in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I also commend the Department of Transport's various agencies, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety and the Road Safety Authority, and the Garda. Tremendous work has been done. Sometimes agencies that are established can be great particularly if they have only one job to do and off they go to do it with missionary zeal sometimes. Government is about trying to bring along everything and having a co-ordinated response with different policies and strategies interlinked. We need to ensure that everything is done together.
Approximately a month ago I attended a seminar about the problems, dangers and hazards alcohol can and does cause to families and communities, and the major health problems that people are creating for themselves and the misery they often cause. We were advised that the consumption of alcohol had increased greatly in recent years. Someone said the safest place for people to drink is in the pub, which might sound strange, because there is a level of supervision there. We can all talk about the person who got served at a bar and who should not have been served, but there is a level of supervision and one is in the company of friends and often social activities are going on. So it is probably the safest place to drink. The problem is trying to get people there and get them home safely.
As society is changing, fewer people are going to the pub and there is more drinking. I am not sure to what extent enforcement of road traffic legislation had reduced attendance in pubs. There is much silent drinking at home and many people are buying alcohol in off-licences or going up to the North and filling the boot of their car with it. Great damage is still being caused by alcohol to the health of people, which has a knock-on effect on the other people in their homes. I sometimes wonder whether all Departments signed up to the road strategy. When this legislation was circulated I hope it got to the relevant official in the Department of Health and Children dealing with the excesses of alcohol and was not just left to the Minister to pass comments at the Cabinet table. There are major problems with alcohol outside its road safety aspect.
The fundamental point of the legislation is to reduce the limit to 50 mg for the qualified driver and to 20 mg for the beginner. That has been done to emphasise the dangers of alcohol, to get the message through and to get people's co-operation to continue with the progress in promoting the culture with which we have had such success in recent years. The penalty of three penalty points and €200 fine is about right. However, I have a problem with the clause that states the penalty of three penalty points can be applied only for a first offence or once in five years. I disagree with that. That is not necessary and is somewhat harsh. It is not trying to bring people with us. We are, after all, bringing in a much lower blood-alcohol limit. People have been driving around for years at a level higher than that. It is difficult to get people to accept change. While it can be easier to get people to accept change in other respects, it is difficult to reduce a limit. Perhaps I should not mention the war. It is one thing to ask people to change their work practices, but it is another to tell them they are having a pay cut. This is the equivalent, somewhat, of people being asked to accept a much lower blood alcohol level while hitting them very hard if there is any breach in this regard. It is very important to continue to build the trust between the authorities and the drivers and to bring them along, rather than isolating them, so to speak, from the general direction in which we all want to go.
The words "first offence" should be discussed further and the Minister of State might consider tabling an amendment on Committee or Report Stage taking that out, because it is somewhat unnecessary and harsh. If people are caught a couple of times they will be put off the road in any event by having penalties. In trying to get people to live with a new limit, I would not like to be too hard on them initially. The other main point of the Bill is the administrative penalty charge, and I am a total believer that is the direction in which to go. There is absolutely no need for so many cases to be going to court. The courts system is something of a black hole for prosecutions. Garda figures on people over the limit are always impressive, but the figures from the courts for suspensions never seem to match up. I tabled a parliamentary question a couple of months ago to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Transport and whatever I was told was not that obvious to me. Perhaps when the Minister is State is winding up, or on Committee Stage, we shall see those figures in a clearer light. There is an enormous black hole, I believe, in the courts system.
We tried to implement the administrative penalty system before and there was a legal difficulty, but we should be embracing it in the legislation. The Bill seems to be somewhat half-hearted about the administrative penalty system. Are we afraid of taking too much business from the legal profession? If anyone is afraid of that, be assured the lawyers will not starve. The judges have not even paid the levy, never mind accepting pay cuts. We need not worry as regards their not having enough business, as they have plenty to do. Perhaps someone believes we have to pay homage to the legal profession, tip the cap so to speak and ensure its members have sufficient business. There is a black hole there, and we do not have to accept the notion that one can be fined or suspended and pay €1,000 or €5,000 for a smart barrister to get you off. I have heard of too many instances where people have got off because of a smart barrister, and I do not like that. That is why I am very much into the administrative penalty system. If there was a better incentives method, and not necessarily one confined to once every five years, we should be taking that route for speedy justice. People would take their medicine and get on with life instead of having to go through the courts system all the time and it becoming bogged down. I do not know where all the cases are. They go in, but they do not seem to come out. Are they just being deferred over and over again with people making money on them?
The Department officials are probably wondering what I am going on about. We are getting the administrative penalty, thank God, but we need not be shy about using it. I would like to see greater use of it. We have to make the system quicker and fairer. The incidence of people getting off on technical grounds should be reduced and the system should be allowed to make progress in this regard.
While everything is fine and logical and the Bill has been anticipated for some time, I would like changes in place to allow greater use of the administrative penalty. Also, I would like the words, "once only in five years" removed, with reference to blood alcohol levels of 50 mg. to 80 mg. While the legislation attempts to sort out a number of problems that have come to light, and this is very gratifying, the one in relation to impairment testing needs to be addressed. I know from my former dealings with the drug strategy, that while there is no equivalent to blowing into the bag as regards drugs, a problem exists when drivers may be under the influence of a mix of drugs, or a mix of drugs and alcohol — polydrug users. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, with Professor Denis A. Cusack, is keeping abreast, as is the Department, of pilot schemes worldwide for introducing the equivalent of the breathalyser system. However, it will be some time before we have a system that will satisfy the legal system here.
It is good to see issues are being addressed including that one, blood tests at accidents, the driving licence issue and the mutual recognition of disqualifications. They are all valid, and certainly there was enormous lobbying by PARC and other groups as regards testing at accidents. I am sure they will be happy to see all those issues being provided for in legislation, although I was somewhat amused to read in the papers some weeks ago as regards penalty points, that convictions were not getting onto driving licences. I was somewhat suspicious about that appearing in the newspapers, and I wondered whether it had emanated from one of the Department's agencies. That might have something to do with the fact we are all sensing conspiracy theories here, left, right and centre. I am glad to see the issues are being dealt with and I compliment the Department. However, I would like one or two changes, but these can be discussed further on Committee Stage.
There are two very serious obstacles in the changes being proposed as regards alcohol consumption and road fatalities, as outlined in this Bill, namely the shocking condition of many roads and the lack of gardaí to enforce the proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Acts 1961-2006.
Road safety is conditional on safe, well-maintained roads and if changes are to be enacted in the blood alcohol content, the necessary gardaí must be provided. Failure to deliver on these two requirements militates against any safety provisions in the Bill. These are the areas in which the Government has failed to deliver.
In my constituency, Longford-Westmeath, we have some of the worst roads in the country. A recent AA report pointed out that the road from Granard to Longford and into Cavan towards Monaghan is like the road to hell. It is one of the worst roads in the country. Just before Christmas my brother and I were travelling in the Clones direction and we were very lucky to escape with our lives because of the condition of a stretch of the road between Butlersbridge and Clones. These are issues that need to be addressed. Year after year this Government has consistently refused to fund our road infrastructure adequately. This is especially relevant now since many of our roads have been so dreadfully affected by the recent severe conditions and are unusable from a safety perspective. Throughout the country roads have been closed, especially county roads and this has had a serious impact. People must make diversions and this brings about a situation where speeding occurs because diversions can make journeys longer. People must get to a destination on time but no awareness is being created in the media that certain roads are closed. This is a serious problem, especially in the midlands and the situation is similar in other areas.
The National Roads Authority allocations for road improvement and maintenance for the midlands announced earlier this month were miserly in the light of the great damage done to roads by the recent severe weather conditions and flooding, especially in south Longford and the Athlone area of County Westmeath. The total allocation of €21,396,201 for improvements and maintenance for Westmeath County Council falls far short of last year's allocation of well in excess of €70 million. Total funding for County Longford is approximately €3,021,000, a small increase on last year's allocation which is minor considering the allocation for Longford has been falling annually.
While I am pleased to welcome funding for the improvement of Longford-Westmeath roads, which are some of the worst in the country, the allocations announced are inadequate in light of the devastation caused by the recent snow, frost and flooding. The Longford County Council shortfall in funding of €250,000 for the clean up of large parts of the county following the flooding is having a serious impact on the safety of our roads. In the aftermath of the flooding, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, met several county councillors and officials of local authorities, but he did not include Longford. To add insult to injury, the Minister was highly provocative when he remarked that councils were free to add their own money to the much reduced 2010 regional and local grants announced last Monday week. With spending on regional and local roads reduced from the 2009 figure of €607 million to €411 million, a drop in funding of €200 million, cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to make good the damage caused by the big freeze and flooding before and after Christmas.
Longford is being forced to work with a miserly grant aid of €5 million while Westmeath has been allocated reduced funding of €12,064,899. To suggest councils can make up the deficit when they are struggling to cope with the unprecedented damage caused by severe weather is an extraordinary statement of the "Let them eat cake" variety.
The Minister is well aware that councils have suffered from reduced funding and have no spare cash in their coffers to make good any further repairs. The decision of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to scale back essential funding with no provision made for weather damage will be directly linked to serious accidents on many roads that have been ignored and are in need of remedial works. His actions will result in further deterioration of the already dangerous roads or the shelving of essential projects to make good weather-related damage and improve the safety of our roads.
The Government and the Minister are saying no extra money will be available to ameliorate severe weather damage to roads. Each local council must prioritise and juggle as best they can with reduced funding. This is untenable and the Government should note as much. No doubt various managers, directors of services, mayors and councillors throughout the length an breadth of the country have warned the Government of this situation and the serious effect it will have on the safety of our roads.
Valuable infrastructure in Longford-Westmeath is being overlooked again as the Government seeks to fill the coffers it emptied. Despite this, the Government contends it is committed to improving road safety.
I refer to enforcement of drink-driving limits and the lack of necessary Garda numbers to enforce change. The programme for Government contained a commitment to increase Garda numbers to 16,000 in the lifetime of this Dáil. The chances of this taking place look very bleak given the vast number of retirements and the Government's failure to allow recruitment. We are seeing the continued closure of rural Garda stations throughout the country along with reduced man power hours.
One in four pedestrians killed in road accidents are drunk at the time. An examination of Garda files relating to fatal road traffic accidents between 2003 and 2005 shows that alcohol was a contributing factor in 50 deaths or 24.4% of the total. In 22 cases, pedestrians were three times in excess of the legal limit and 82% of fatalities occurred between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Where were the necessary gardaí on the beat, especially in rural areas?
The breakdown in the norms of behaviour can be directly related to the lack of a Garda presence on our streets. The tendency towards binge drinking, especially among young people, cannot be controlled without the deterrent of well-policed streets and 24 hour opening of rural and urban Garda stations. A major weakness of the Bill is that it does not introduce a full, graduated licensing system but rather an element of a graduated licensing scheme into the existing driver licensing system. It is disappointing that measures which are not overly-prescriptive, such as zero alcohol levels for young learner drivers, have not been included or introduced in the Bill. Such a measure was considered under the proposals for the graduated driving licence, GDL, system and would be a positive move in terms of driver education. This is badly needed and I trust the Government will consider tabling amendments to this effect.
A major omission of this legislation is the lack of a mandatory treatment programme or driver education for those convicted of drink-driving. Individual judges have, on occasion, ruled that persons convicted of drink-driving must attend alcohol or drug treatment programmes but this Bill does not include a statutory obligation to do so. This strikes me as a serious omission because there is no long-term incentive to change behaviour beyond the duration of the disqualification. On the matter of drink-driving and road deaths, consideration must be given to drivers under the influence of drugs and those who abuse the speed limits. Every crossroads in the country has a series of black rings, evidence of high-speed chases and doughnut spins. Do we have figures for fatalities caused from such actions? No. Do we highlight those fatalities caused by drug abuse or fatigue? I am unaware of statistics from the Government in these areas. Driving under the influence of drugs has been a statutory offence since the enactment of the Road Traffic Act 1961. This Act prohibits driving in a public place while under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of one's vehicle. However, there is currently no legislation in place to allow for the roadside testing of drivers for the consumption of drugs. There are no graded penalties based on the concentration of drugs in a driver's system, as there are in respect of alcohol. It is to be welcomed that this Bill will provide the Garda with powers to form an opinion that a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant by carrying out a preliminary test. I very much welcome this.
In a recent road safety report by the European Transport Safety Council, Ireland is ranked sixth safest country in the European Union. However, the council warned that Ireland is not likely to reach its target of reducing road deaths to 205 by 2010. This would represent a reduction of 50%, the target set by the council in 2001 for all EU states.
There is a strong difference of opinion over whether the lowering of the blood alcohol limit will have an impact on the number of road deaths. It has been stated the reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg for an experienced driver will have no effect on fatalities. However, those in rural areas have seen a shocking reduction in public transport and will be forced to stay at home. This will result in a further erosion in trade for rural pubs. We all know at least two are closing per week.
There is a very innovative answer to the problem as to how to enjoy a night out without worrying about drink driving but its cost-effectiveness is likely to make it an urban rather than a rural solution. Started in the United Kingdom under the name Scooterman and now available in Dublin and the greater Dublin area as Carhome, the service to which I refer involves hiring a driver to bring one home in one's own car. The fully insured driver arrives on a specially designed scooter or motorbike at whatever venue or time one chooses. He or she folds the scooter into the boot of one's car and takes one home. The service is designed to be cheaper than a return taxi journey. Given the logistics of rural transport, this option would be financially impossible for those in remote areas or those just outside towns or cities unless it were heavily subsidised by the Government. Such a subsidy should be put in place by the Government to start up the new concept. There are many entrepreneurs and young people out of work at present. If they were assisted in starting up in this area, they would do so. This would result in a job in nearly every parish nationally. The idea is very innovative and is being implemented in this city. It was commenced in the United Kingdom some years ago.
I was interested in Deputy Noel Ahern's statement that the Bill has a half-hearted approach to road safety, bearing in mind the fact that there was so much huffing and puffing late last year at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting on the Bill. Several meetings were held with Deputies, including Deputy Mattie McGrath, who was speaking through both sides of his mouth on the issue. He made some comment to the effect that a few pints would settle one's nerves.
Only if one is getting on a scooter.
A club of 24 opposed this Bill. Seeing that none of them is in the House this afternoon, I call a quorum.
Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,
Only 20 of the club of 24 attended on that roll call. I do not see Deputy Mattie McGrath from Tipperary South, who spoke about having a couple of pints to settle his nerves. He has done a U-turn on this Bill in conjunction with his 23 colleagues. What carrot was presented to those Deputies who were objecting to the Bill? They delayed the legislation but luckily it has been introduced at this stage. This Bill raises a number of questions. Is it reasonable or necessary to lower the legal limit for drink driving?
What is the Fine Gael policy?
Is it fair to force rural communities to spend more time in isolation——
Answer the question.
——due to cutbacks in rural transport?
There are no cutbacks.
There most definitely are.
There are no cutbacks. We started that scheme.
The Deputy should speak to my constituents in Longford-Westmeath. There are plenty of cutbacks. The Deputy need not get angry. The Government did a U-turn on the matter.
Deputy Bannon without interruption.
I thank the Acting Chairman for protecting me.
We started that scheme.
The Deputy has only 40 seconds left. He should use it to best advantage.
Have the implications of the provisions of this Bill been thoroughly considered by the Government, which could be said, as ever, to be missing the wider picture? Certainly, we are anxious to achieve a reduction in road fatalities, but has the nanny state gone too far and at what cost? I am disappointed that Deputy Mattie McGrath did not come into the Chamber.
I am here.
He is very welcome.
Give the Deputy a loan of your glasses, Deputy McGrath.
He did a U-turn on this, anyway.
I call Deputy McGuinness.
I am delighted Deputy Bannon has acknowledged Deputy Mattie McGrath's presence. It is important, after all the remarks he made about him, to acknowledge it so it will appear in the Official Report.
In the earlier part of Deputy Bannon's contribution he gave us a long geographical tour of his constituency and referred to potholes and so forth. Perhaps the Deputy should contact his local Fine Gael and Labour Party councillors because those parties have a majority in most county councils and are in charge of the budgets they receive from central Government. How they manage those budgets will be a test of them, and the Deputy, as to whether they are fit for national office. I do not believe they are.
I welcome the Bill. Again, Deputy Bannon has misrepresented the discussion at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting. The standard word people reach for is "revolt" when, in fact, it was a discussion about the issues covered by the Bill. It was a case of a number of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas using their membership of the parliamentary party and of the Houses to raise the issues in a way that reflected the difficulties faced by their constituents and having a positive and constructive input into the direction of the Bill. Perhaps Deputy Bannon and others do not understand that process or, for their own political ends, simply do not want to understand it, but that is the reason Members who have a view, not only on this Bill but on others that come before the House, are elected. They are not elected to sit on their hands, but to make a contribution. Depending on the level one has reached, that contribution can be made by way of one's parliamentary party meeting or by direct contribution on the Bill on Second Stage and, if one is a member of the committee, on Committee Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to deal with some of the issues raised in the Bill. The Bill must be considered in the context of the increased number of vehicles on roads. The Minister said 2.5 million vehicles were registered at the end of 2008, an increase of 74%. Although there has been a setback in the motor industry during 2009 and 2010 and the number of vehicle sales has reduced dramatically, there is still the same number of cars, trucks and other vehicles on our roads. Consider, also, the spend on our roads, a total of €1.1 billion on the national roads programme and €412 million for regional roads. It is a significant amount of money. However, as a previous Fianna Fáil election slogan put it: "A lot done, More to do". A great deal has been done and there is more to be done, but that is the nature of politics and of budgets. There must be an overall framework or strategy and one must ensure all one's actions fit into that overall strategy and, indeed, the overall budget that might be available. Whether the budget is big or small, money will always be spent on the roads and we must continue that work.
Unlike Deputy Bannon, I acknowledge the significant amount of money that has been spent on the roads. Anybody who travels on the road network throughout the country must readily acknowledge that today's roads infrastructure is different from that of five, ten or 15 years ago. As demands are met and things improve, there will have to be continued improvements and particularly spend on our county roads. I acknowledge the damage done to those roads by the recent floods and bad weather that affected all parts of the country. Undoubtedly, as we focus on those problems, we will probably spend more money as we go along.
We sympathise with the families who suffered as a result of the 240 road deaths in 2009. That is a central consideration in the improvement of legislation and its implementation by the Garda or any other agency of the State charged with ensuring the legislation passed by the Houses is implemented. That is of huge importance.
Education has been mentioned. I was reminded when Deputy Bannon raised it that the only programme available is from a company located in my constituency. It has the equipment, technology and so forth to present to the Road Safety Authority the ability to carry out appropriate tests to ensure people who have been off the road, be it as a result of drugs or drink, can go through a programme to prove to the licensing authority that they are capable of going back on the road when they have acknowledged whatever deficiencies they might have had and the time they spent off the road. That educational process is available. I have encouraged that company to make a submission to the Road Safety Authority. Given that it has the only technology available in the country, I ask that the submission be considered as part of the Road Safety Authority programme and that something constructive be done to process that application and to ensure the programme is available to the relevant authorities, be they the Garda or the courts. It will ensure an educational tool is available to people in terms of verification of their qualifications and whatever else is necessary to go back on the road again.
Previous speakers mentioned that there has been a long discussion about this legislation and that there were objections to the reduction in the blood alcohol content level. This is the place to raise such queries. The parliamentary party system is another forum for Members of this House who are members of political parties to raise these issues. Yes, indeed, we had a robust debate. However, from my point of view, the debate was not solely about the reduction of the blood alcohol content level. I favour the direction outlined in this Bill. Along with that, however, there must be an understanding that in rural areas there is not the same level or extent of public transport as can be found in urban centres. It is hugely important, therefore, that there is joined-up thinking, which has been called for by most contributors to this debate, about our public transport system. The public transport system in rural counties is appalling.