I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this motion with particular reference to road safety information for tourists. There is no specific evidence to suggest that tourists are a high risk category of road user. Individual accidents which we are aware of have heightened our awareness in this regard. I join with Members in welcoming Ann O'Brien to the House and the debate.
Road accident facts reports available to me do not provide information in relation to the number of accidents in which tourists are involved or the causes of such accidents. However, in 1995, while 88.4 per cent of car drivers involved in fatal and injury accidents in this country were identified as being residents of Ireland, Britain or Northern Ireland, the other 11.6 per cent were identified as other or unknown. As Senator Naughten said, it is fair to assume that some of these people were tourists.
Special precautions are taken to assist visitors in their understanding and appreciation of driving, cycling or walking on our roads. In 1996 almost five million tourists visited Ireland. The involvement of even one in a road accident that might be avoided is one too many.
Last September I introduced a new multi-lingual road traffic sign to warn drivers of the requirement to drive on the left-hand side of the road. That sign illustrates the left-hand driving requirement in diagram form as well as stating it in English, French and German. It is designed for use, in particular, at exits from ports and airports and for areas of high tourist amenity. Details of that sign were circulated to all road authorities and are also set out in the traffic signs manual which I published and circulated last December.
Provision of the sign is a matter for individual road authorities and as it was only introduced last September it may take some time for local authorities to erect it at all locations where they consider that it necessary. I will do all I can to ensure that more of these signs are erected and seen by the millions of tourists whom we welcome each year.
Another tourist specific measure is the National Safety Council's information leaflet for tourists. This is distributed free of charge to the major car hire firms, including all firms operating from airports and ferry terminals; to Bord Fáilte and to local authorities. The leaflet was redesigned and updated in 1996. The text in English, French and German covers essentials, including clear advice that all traffic must drive on the left; on motorway, information and important regulatory signs; on speed limits and traffic lights.
I understand from my colleague, the Minister for Tourism and Trade, who has a special interest in this matter, that he has been in touch with the Car Rental Council of Ireland on the availability of road safety information to tourists. That organisation has a strong interest in ensuring the safety of their clients and its members are very conscious of the need for proper information to be given to tourists about driving conditions in Ireland.
It is fair to say that the majority of tourists in Ireland speak English to some degree and I hope that at least some of them pick up on the important safety messages on radio and television which advise on drink driving, excessive speeding and the use of seat belts. These are not exclusively Irish factors in the long list of road accident causes: the messages are important for all road users.
I am considering what further measures might be introduced in our effort to avoid the involvement of tourists in road accidents and I will support in whatever way I can any proposals for the fitting of signs or devices in hired cars which I understand are being developed. We must continue to have regard also to the provision of information to the increasing number of tourists who bring their own cars and this is where the provision of information on road signs, in leaflets and through all tourists organisations is crucial. A very positive comment has already been made regarding the use of airlines and ferries to provide on board information for those travelling to Ireland. I will bring this issue to the attention of the Minister for Tourism and Trade.
Road safety with a specific focus on tourists is not the complete picture; we cannot look at that in isolation. Our road accident record for the past two years is not good. The decline started in summer 1995 when accident numbers shot up in comparison with previous years. That rising trend has continued despite the trojan efforts of Government Departments, the Garda, local authorities, the National Roads Authority and the National Safety Council. Since I spoke in response to a similar motion in this House almost 12 months ago, more than 400 people have died as a result of road accidents and many thousands have been injured. This is the equivalent of a small village being eradicated, a sobering and staggering fact.
Because of my concern when the rising accident trend became evident, in 1995 I had a review of road safety policy undertaken. This involved all responsible agencies and was carried out under the auspices of my Department's high level group on road safety. Following that review in May of last year I launched a new road safety strategy entitled "Road Safety Together". It focuses on all responsible agencies, namely, my Department, the Department of Justice and the Garda, the National Roads Authority, the National Safety Council, the Irish Insurance Federation and the local authorities, working together with the road user to increase the effectiveness of our enforcement, education, engineering and encouragement measures.
If experience over the last ten years has shown us anything it is that there are complex factors which influence road accident trends. There are no simple magic wand solutions. It takes time for new measures to achieve positive results. Trying to reverse the upward spiral is a challenging task for all of us. The very sad and disturbing reality is that most accidents can be avoided by the road user whether they are a driver, pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist.
There are many established road safety measures with which we are familiar, all of which are aimed at supporting the safe use of our road network. It is important to ensure that increased levels of road safety are brought about by making it safer for people to move around and not by curtailing their freedom to do so. In recent years there has been major investment in road infrastructure, with record spending on both national and non-national roads. Intensive high profile road safety promotion campaigns have highlighted, in particular drink driving, excessive and inappropriate speeding and the importance of wearing seat belts. These campaigns mounted by the National Safety Council are updated as necessary to accommodate changing accident trends, changes in road user behaviour and changes in advertising and media styles. Improvements in vehicle safety include statutory increases in tyre thread depth, compulsory fitting of seat belts in front and rear car seats and fitting of speed governors in heavy goods vehicles over 12 tons and in buses. Changes in vehicle design and demands for higher safety levels in vehicles tend in many circumstances to be consumer led. This has the great advantage that changes are more readily and speedily accepted.
An intensive review and update was applied to drink driving legislation in 1994 and 1995. This resulted in a comprehensive restructuring of drink driving laws based primarily on the adoption of a limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood and the adoption of one of the most stringent penalty systems in the EU.
There has been a reaction in the past week to the announcement by the EU Transport Commissioner that the Commission will examine, as part of its new road safety programme, the harmonisation of blood alcohol limits in the Union to a level of 0.5. The Commission has suggested that in certain circumstances such a measure could result in a reduction in accidents of between 5 and 40 per cent. While I have no plans to change the limits in this country and it will be some time before there are substantive developments in Europe, if any, we cannot ignore the fact that drinking and driving continues to be a significant contributory factor in road accidents both at home and throughout the EU.
Established road safety measures must continue to be maintained, developed and enforced. I agree that this is not enough and I have recently taken measures in the context of the continuous review and updating of road safety policy by Government. There is no room for sitting back or for complacency. The problem requires us to be continuously proactive in seeking new answers, suggestions and solutions.
In 1996, I published a guide to road safety engineering in Ireland which has become known as the "blackspots manual" and that is literally what it is. It is a code of good practice for the treatment of high accident stretches of roads by means of low cost engineering measures. Such measures will have been noted by Members of the House as they travel around the country. The guide will assist local authority engineers, draughtsmen and technicians in identifying, analysing and treating high risk sections of road and dealing with accident blackspots on the road network. Up to the end of 1996, almost £2 million pounds were spent by the National Roads Authority on the programme of low cost safety measures at high accident locations. A further £1 million will be allocated to the programme in 1997. These works are of direct benefit to all road users, Irish citizens and tourists alike.
Last year I also published a comprehensive traffic signs manual for the guidance of local authorities. It is a good code of practice which will help to ensure that we have an effective and well maintained traffic sign system in this country. This is fundamental to the operation of a safe and efficient road network. One of the thrusts of the manual is the use of less text on road signs thereby getting messages across more directly to road users, whatever their native language.
Some people suggest that enforcement is the most important element of any road safety strategy. I would agree that high levels of highly visible enforcement by the Garda Síochána is a vital and critical element of the strategy. There is a continuing need for unrelenting attention to traffic law enforcement by the Garda. Last year they undertook to provide vigorous and sustained levels of enforcement as part of our national Road Safety Together Strategy. My colleague, the Minister for Justice, confirmed earlier this year in the Dáil that enforcement of traffic law remains a high priority for the Garda and that they would continue to have the necessary resources, both in personnel and equipment, to carry out this task. The Minister also assured the Dáil that the Garda authorities are committed to rigorous enforcement of the Road Traffic Acts, including the law on drink driving, on a year-round basis.
I am particularly pleased to have been informed by the Garda Commissioner that he proposes at an early date to set up a national traffic policy bureau, in relation to traffic policing on a national basis, to ensure a co-ordinated and policy driven approach by all gardaí to the issue of traffic law enforcement. My most recent update of road traffic law was to introduce fixed penalties, commonly known as on-the-spot fines, for speeding offences from 1 December 1996. These fines are only applied by the Garda to minor speeding offences because there is no question of avoiding court prosecutions and appearances for serious and repeated breaches of the law. The aim of these regulations is twofold: to act as a clear, visible and instant deterrent to those drivers who travel at excessive speeds and to reduce the amount of time the Garda have to spend in the courts, thereby allowing them to spend more time on the roads and streets to enforce the law.
At the end of the day we are hugely dependent on the road user in improving our road safety record and in eliminating the scourge of traffic accidents from our society. One of the effects of a prosperous economy is that we have evermore vehicles coming on stream. Increased volume of traffic means more accidents.
All the measures we have taken are directed at the road user, some are passive and some are active. It is up to all of us to receive the message, to use the information provided and to heed the warnings. With regard to tourists I have outlined the measures in place and I have undertaken to support others whenever I can. We can expect up to five million tourists to visit this country during 1997. Those who drive cars will encounter Irish people whether it be when they are buying petrol, hiring cars or looking for directions. Those Irish people who meet the driving tourist can play a part by giving a friendly reminder about driving on the left in support of our efforts at official level. I remain open to any further proposition or suggestion from Senators which would bring about an improvement in our unacceptable road accident record.