Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 26 Mar 2002

Vol. 169 No. 15

Road Traffic Bill, 2001: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to be in the Seanad today for Second Stage of the Road Traffic Bill, 2001. This Bill has already been considered by the Dáil and was examined in some detail by the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government. During its passage through the other House, Deputies from all sides participated in a constructive debate. Arising from those deliberations, the Bill has been amended and extended in certain respects and, as a result, is improved legislation. I look forward to equally positive and constructive debate in this House.

The primary purpose of road traffic legislation is to establish standards for motorists and other road users for the safe and effective use of public roads. Since the passing of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, a number of legislative advances have been made. These have concentrated primarily on the areas of drink driving, speed limits, the development of streamlined arrangements for making traffic and parking regulations and the devolution of a range of important functions to local authorities. In 1984, the current structures applying to the financial penalties associated with traffic offences were reviewed. As is the case in many aspects of our lives, road traffic seems to be in a permanent state of evolution. Improvements in road infrastructure and vehicle design and capabilities, allied to settlement experience, require that the laws governing road traffic should be the subject of review on a regular basis in order to respond better to change.

Recent years have seen a significant increase in the profile of road safety and a growth in demand for significant improvement in our overall record based on the number of road accidents. The Government's road safety strategy gives a particular focus to this debate. The Road to Safety strategy, launched in 1998, covers the five year period up to 2002. The primary focus of the strategy is the achievement over its lifetime of a reduction of 20% in the number of deaths and serious injuries resulting from road accidents.

There are those, including Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, who claim that the Government has done nothing to apply and implement the strategy. This Government is the first in Ireland to have adopted a road safety strategy. We have made ourselves more accountable for road safety than any previous Government. The House should consider just some of what has been achieved since 1998 under the auspices of the strategy. Detections for drink driving in 2001 were 53% higher than in 1998; on-the-spot fine notices for the non-wearing of seat belts, introduced in 1999, were issued in respect of 59,000 people in 2000 and 64,000 in 2001; on-the-spot fine notices for speeding offences issued in 2001 are 165% higher than in 1998; mobile and static cameras are now in far greater use and this year will see the culmination of a major study on the use of speed cameras which is being carried out by a team of experts from the state of Victoria, Australia; the driver theory test has been introduced for first time applicants for provisional licences; significant improvements have been made in waiting times for driving tests – now averaging 12 weeks, with the larger centres at or below ten weeks; special educational programmes have been launched for both primary and secondary schools, and major publicity campaigns targeting drink driving, seat belt wearing and speeding have been produced.

Over the lifetime of the strategy so far, these and other initiatives have delivered real progress. Between 1997, the base year for comparisons within the strategy, and 2001 the level of road deaths fell by 13%. The number of serious injuries in 2000 fell by almost 25% relative to the reduction target of 20%. This significant improvement follows a trend in most developed countries and has been achieved in the face of increasing traffic volumes and road travel.

The Bill has, as its central background, the further promotion of road safety. It is aimed in particular at the introduction of a more relevant and responsive structure of penalties and associated deterrents aimed at those who breach traffic laws. The most immediate manifestation of the approach being adopted in the Bill is the introduction of a system of penalty points. However, the theme of enhanced enforcement deterrent is also supported by a comprehensive review of the financial penalties that can be imposed for all traffic offences and the introduction of a new scheme of fixed charges, which will replace the current on-the-spot fine system.

There is also a major extension to the range of offences in respect of which cameras can be used to establish a constituent of an offence and the provision of a framework for the implementation of the EU-sponsored European convention on driving disqualifications. This permits the imposition by member states of driving disqualifications for offences committed in another state. Finally, the Bill sees the extension to provisional licence holders of the requirement to have their licences with them when driving, as in the case of fully licensed drivers.

While the law relating to drink driving was comprehensively reviewed through the Road Traffic Act, 1994, this new Bill provides for a further enhancement of that code by the extension of the powers available to the Garda to utilise preliminary breath testing. The Bill also streamlines the process of the procurement by the Minister of certain services under the Road Traffic Acts through the use of service providers drawn from the private sector; permits the control and management of traffic by local authorities for reasons of environmental protection and assigns responsibility for the control of taxi stands and bus stops from the Garda Commissioner to local authorities.

The principal purpose of the Bill is to provide for the introduction of penalty points. The design of the system has been the subject of careful consideration in consultation with the Attorney General in view of the exclusive constitutional role of the courts in the administration of justice. That position differs somewhat from that in other countries in which penalty point systems operate and, accordingly, the system promoted in the Bill differs from other systems in a number of fundamental ways. However, the success of penalty point systems in other jurisdictions has been well documented and they are regarded as having provided a positive contribution to the achievement of a reduction in road casualties. It is our aim that penalty points will prove as positive here as has been the case in those other states.

It must be recalled that penalty points of themselves will not address all the elements that negatively influence road safety. In many of the more advanced states in the EU, penalty points systems do not apply. The success of their road safety programmes has been based on a multifaceted approach that features various related initiatives. The approach in this Bill promotes a variety of initiatives that will support and add value to the penalty points system and will lead to an improvement in the overall environment for the enforcement of traffic laws and, consequently, in road safety.

The Bill proposes a radical review of the maximum financial penalties associated with traffic offences, the introduction of a new system of fixed charges and the extension of the circumstances where cameras and other equipment can be used in the detection of traffic offences and the introduction of a requirement that provisional licence holders must carry their licences. The main financial penalties provided for in the Road Traffic Acts have been in place since 1984. This Bill provides for across the board increases to the maximum penalties applying to traffic offences. The general penalties which apply to the majority of the minor offences under the Road Traffic Acts are being raised from its present value of £150 to €800 in respect of first offences and from £350 to €1500 for a second or subsequent offence. The many specifically designated maximum penalties in road traffic legislation are also being considerably increased.

The legislation relating to administrative penalties has remained essentially unchanged since 1961. This Bill promotes a major review of that. The new system of fixed charges involves a redesign and refinement of the present on-the-spot fine system. The new system will underpin the penalty points system and will bring greater certainties to the operation of administrative penalties generally. It will feature the introduction of a two tiered payment that will see the level of the charge increased by 50% where payment of the original amount is not made within 28 days of the issue of the original notice.

The range of offences to which the penalty points system will apply creates the impetus for a major extension of the scope of the offences to which fixed charges will apply. In addition, the significant increases in the maximum fines for offences being promoted through this Bill will allow for the introduction of significant increases in the levels of fixed charges when compared to the current on-the-spot fines. Regulations to give effect to those changes will be pursued following the passing of the Bill.

The advent of the penalty points system allied to the approach adopted in relation to that system, the significant upward review of the maximum financial penalties that the courts can impose on conviction for a traffic offence and the revamped system of administrative penalties promoted through the fixed charge system will, it is hoped, result in improved driver behaviour through the promotion of a more precautionary approach to driving. It will also promote the transfer of most of the enforcement of traffic offences from the courts to an administrative process.

Senators will share my frustration over the fact that heretofore it has not been possible to give full effect to disqualifications imposed on drivers from other jurisdictions. The European Union-sponsored European Convention on Driving Disqualifications is aimed at addressing this anomaly. This Bill will result in this important initiative forming part of our overall traffic laws.

Section 25 of the Road Traffic Act, 1994, provided for the replacement of section 40 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, and introduced the requirement through which a driving licence had to be produced immediately on the demand of a member of the Garda. This in effect required that the holders of full driving licences had to carry their licences when driving. While that section of the 1994 Act has not been commenced as yet, its application is now essential to facilitate and support the operation of the penalty points system. As penalty points will apply equally to provisional licence holders and full licence holders, section 18 of the Bill provides that the requirements established through section 25 of the 1994 Act will extend to provisional licence holders. The revised section will be commenced subsequent to the passage of this Bill.

The Bill provides for the implementation of the commitment given in the road safety strategy to extend the circumstances through which a preliminary breath test can be taken in order to establish if a driver has consumed alcohol.

While the central focus of the Bill is on the enhancement of enforcement, it also contains a number of other initiatives which will add value to the overall legislative code relating to traffic and the role of local authorities in implementing traffic related initiatives. It provides for a streamlining of the basis for agreements between the Minister and other parties for the carrying out of certain functions under the Road Traffic Acts. The Bill also introduces for the first time a provision through which restrictions may be imposed on traffic for the exclusive purpose of the protection of the environment and further streamlines responsibility for the application of controls relating to traffic and public service vehicles by the enhancement of local authority control.

Sections 2 to 7, inclusive, and the First Schedule provide for the introduction of penalty points. The primary focus of this system is to improve driver behaviour and thus contribute to road safety and should be seen in particular as an effective addition to the current measures applying to the overall enforcement of traffic laws. The most serious offences created under the Road Traffic Acts automatically lead, on conviction, to the imposition of a consequential disqualification. In many instances the disqualification applies only on conviction for a second or subsequent offence. The penalty points system will apply to certain of those particular offences in circumstances where a consequential disqualification order would not apply and extend to a range of other offences that have a direct impact on road safety. It would not be appropriate to further extend the system to address offences that are focused more on traffic and parking management issues.

It is a central feature of the system that in the case of the majority of offences, there will always be a distinct choice presented to a person who receives a notice of the commission of a penalty point offence. Where a person chooses to pay the fixed charge he or she will incur a low level of points. If on the other hand the matter is allowed to proceed to court, on conviction the level of penalty points is increased significantly. A key feature of the system proposed here is the element of certainty that it will apply. In every case, the person will be fully aware of the number of penalty points that will apply where a fixed charge is paid or where a conviction is imposed by a court. This is not the situation in other states in which penalty points systems apply.

Senators will note that in the case of certain offences, the option of the payment of a fixed charge is not being made available. These represent the most serious of the offences referred to in the First Schedule, including careless driving, using a vehicle without insurance and driving a dangerously defective vehicle. In the case of those offences a second or subsequent conviction attracts a consequential disqualification.

Penalty points will be recorded for three years and where a total of 12 is reached the person will be automatically disqualified from driving for six months. This is the first occasion where a disqualification will be applied without the direct intervention of a court. Indeed it is important to note that the courts will have no direct involvement in decisions relating to the endorsement of penalty points. Where a person is convicted of a penalty points offence, the endorsement will follow automatically. To reach the threshold for a disqualification, a person must have been involved in a number of separate incidents involving offences that attract penalty points. In many incidents the penalty points will have accrued from the payment of fixed charges, which will result in the person avoiding the matter proceeding to court. The current arrangements through which a disqualification following a conviction for the commission of a single serious offence is imposed by a court will continue.

The operation of the penalty points system will be supported by information technology developments in a number of areas. The business specification for the addition of penalty point functionality to the national driver file has been developed and the necessary software amendments to record the points have been made. Necessary amendments to IT facilities administered by both the Courts Service and the Garda are being progressed.

Section 22 provides that in certain circumstances where a person is to be tried in court for an offence that attracts either penalty points or a consequential disqualification, he or she may be required to present his or her licence to the Courts Service for recording purposes. This provides direct support to the operation of both penalty points and consequential disqualifications.

Section 9 facilitates the entry into force of a framework for bilateral co-operation with other EU member states in applying driving disqualifications. This is based on and gives effect to the European Convention on Driving Disqualification adopted at EU level and signed by Ireland in 1998. The focus of the convention is to ensure that a person who commits a serious traffic offence in one country cannot escape the full effects of a disqualification imposed by that country by the simple expedience of going to another state. This also creates the certainty that where disqualifications are imposed, all recipients suffer the full consequences and effects of the disqualification, irrespective of whether they are citizens of that state. Senators will appreciate that this is a significant advance in terms of adding value to national systems of disqualifications.

The Bill promotes a more advanced system for recording disqualifications generally. With the advent of penalty points, the concept of the courts applying endorsements to licences is not being continued. In addition the method for the recording of penalty points, which is based on the details being recorded in the national driver file, will also apply to all disqualifications imposed by the courts. This is facilitated by amendments to section 37 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, being introduced through section 8 of the Bill. In addition to improving the overall administration of disqualification orders generally, this new approach reflects the fact that developments in the design of driving licences will mean that the current arrangements through which disqualifications are endorsed on licences can not be continued in the medium to long term.

Section 10 extends the grounds on which a member of the Garda Síochána may require a driver to provide a preliminary breath specimen. The section provides that where a driver is involved in a road accident or where a garda considers that a road traffic offence has been committed, he or she may require that the driver provide a specimen. This is in addition to the present grounds where the garda has formed an opinion that a driver has consumed alcohol.

The use of alcohol by drivers is still a major cause of accidents. International research indicates that alcohol is a factor in up to 40% of road accidents. Estimates in Ireland suggest that alcohol is a factor in 33% of fatal accidents. Despite the ongoing and long-term campaign of promotion and enforcement and the availability of serious deterrents, drink driving remains a major contributory factor in accidents in this country. Therefore, there is a clear case for directing this proposed enhancement of the enforcement of drink driving legislation at drivers involved in accidents. A similar argument can be made in respect of incidents where motorists breach traffic laws. This particular issue was considered at great length in the debate in the other House. In light of that debate, the argument that breath testing, on the more selective basis provided for in the Bill, represents a significant improvement on current arrangements while promoting the efficient use of resources remains compelling. It also brings us into line with practice in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Sections 11 and 12 provide for the replacement of the current on-the-spot fine system with the new system of fixed charges. The new system will offer a greater degree of certainty to the enforcement agencies and will offer the accused person a clear and unambiguous choice. The ramifications of each of the alternatives available to him or her will be clearly identified. This will be of particular importance in the context of penalty point offences.

In association with the development of the fixed charge system a number of significant improvements over existing arrangements are proposed to give greater support and clarity to the enforcement agencies. This will be the case particularly where a detection of an alleged offence does not involve the direct intervention of a member of the Garda or a traffic warden. In addition, the sections place a greater level of responsibility on the registered owners of vehicles in relation to their use. The sections specifically provide that, in the absence of the naming of another driver, responsibility for the alleged commission of an offence will lie with the registered owner.

Section 13 introduces, for the first time, a legislative basis for the adoption of controls on traffic and vehicles for the express purpose of the protection of the environment. Regulations under this section may be made in respect of a very broad range of activities which in most instances are the subject of existing regulation from a safety or traffic management perspective. One particular area where regulations can be specifically applied under this section allows restrictions to be applied to the use of specified fuels in vehicles.

Section 14 of the Bill provides for the streamlining of the statutory basis for agreements between the Minister for the Environment and Local Government and other persons for the more efficient performance by these people of functions under the Road Traffic Acts, other than functions involving the making or approval of statutory instruments. The section allows the Minister to enter into an agreement with a person or company for that person to provide specific services under the Acts. Agreements may provide for any fees or payments to be made and for the disposal of those moneys. Examples of agreements of this nature already entered into are those relating to the national car test and the theory test.

The Bill provides for a further advancement of the policy, promoted to such good effect through the Road Traffic Act, 1994, to provide for a far greater empowerment of local authorities in respect of the determination of key traffic controls. Sections 15 and 16 introduce further changes to traffic law that are being promoted in line with the same overall theme that underpinned the developments in 1994.

These sections will introduce a more defined structure to the legislative provisions that related to the operation of buses and taxis. Section 15 transfers powers to make by-laws in respect of taxi ranks from the Garda Commissioner to local authorities. This is in response to a commitment given in the report of the Dublin taxi forum. Section 16 transfers powers from the Garda Commissioner to local authorities to determine the locations at which bus stops can be provided. In a related initiative, section 20 extends the range of matters in respect of which the Minister for the Environment and Local Government may make regulations under section 35 of the Road Traffic Act, 1994. Henceforth, it will be the Minister, as opposed to the Garda Commissioner, who may make rules relating to the control of the stopping and parking of vehicles at bus stops. These initiatives effectively complete the transfer from the Garda Commissioner of powers relating to the making of traffic laws that have been in place since the passing of the Road Traffic Act, 1933.

With regard to road safety and traffic law enforcement, section 18 of the Road Traffic Act, 1968, provides that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government may make regulations in respect of the control of driving instruction. That section is being amplified significantly by way of amendments to section 19 of the Bill. These amendments will, in particular, empower the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to approve bodies for the purpose of the quality control of driving instructors. In addition, the new provisions will allow for an exemption for driver instructors from the direct licensing requirements in the section where they are granted certificates from an approved body. This implements a measure identified in the road safety strategy.

The purpose of section 21 of the Bill is to introduce a new and significantly augmented legislative basis for the use of cameras and other equipment for the purpose of the enforcement of traffic laws. At present, under section 105 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, such equipment may only be used in the context of establishing the speed of vehicles. The new section provides that the equipment may be used to establish any constituent of a range of offences that relate to road safety. This will provide significant support for the enforcement of traffic laws generally and for the enhancement of the deterrent value of the new penalty points system.

The Bill will enhance the existing framework set out in the Road Traffic Acts relating to the overall application and enforcement of traffic law. Its aim is to support the overall themes identified in the Government's road safety strategy and to add value to particular measures identified in that strategy. The immediate headline measure provided for in the Bill is the introduction of the penalty points system. However, when one considers the various provisions aimed at enforcement as a whole, one should realise that the Bill will foster a new reality in respect of traffic law enforcement. Where a person commits a traffic offence, he or she will be penalised and, if that behaviour is repeated, the person will be disqualified. Therefore, the Bill represents an important addition to the overall legislative code that applies to traffic and road safety. I commend it to the House and look forward to the Senators' contributions.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the broad thrust of the Bill, the major aim of which is to reduce the numbers of accidents on the roads, particularly fatal accidents. In the Lower House the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, talked about a reduction target of 20%. I am not sure how he reached this figure, but if the Bill is capable of achieving that goal, it is to be welcomed.

With regard to the imposition of penalty points, I am glad a two tier system has been devised whereby penalty points will remain lower if fines are paid within 28 days and cases do not proceed to court. However, there are a few issues that concern me. Irish motorists are being asked to pay substantially more for their cars than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe due to vehicle registration tax. I have asked that the Minister re-examine the reasons we should have to pay so much more. Irish motorists pay a substantial amount, through taxation on their cars, road tax and high insurance premiums.

A lady indicated to me the other day that, despite a five year no claims bonus, her insurance premium went up by 50%. Insurance companies are charging substantially more and will justify this on the basis of the number of young people involved in accidents, particularly fatal accidents. However, I would love to see their books opened up to see the actual costs and the profits being made by them. My fear is that when penalty points are introduced there will be a change in the regulations to ensure every time a person accumulates a certain number of penalty points his or her insurance costs will increase accordingly. That might be fair enough if one is starting from a low base, but as the majority of young motorists are paying well over £1,000 or £2,000 for insurance cover, any percentage increase will penalise them severely.

We have all been touched in some way by a serious or fatal accident on our roads, and are all concerned to reduce the number of road accidents, if not eliminate them. Practically, they cannot be eliminated, but they can be reduced. There is an inclination to point to the major causes. The Minister of State referred to the issue of drinking and driving. He mentioned that in 40% of accidents elsewhere in Europe drinking is a factor, whereas in Ireland, it is a factor in 33% of fatal accidents. That is a phenomenally high percentage, and means drink driving is a major cause of accidents and a major source of concern. It would be unfair to suggest, however, that it is the only cause or that little else matters.

As someone who travels a lot, one of the things I notice is that road conditions in some areas are unacceptable. I would like to know the number of accidents that have taken place on the new N4 motorway relative to the volume of traffic it carries. It is a road on which a person can drive at 70 miles per hour. Compare this with a minor county road where there may be just enough spare for two vehicles to squeeze past, yet drivers can legally reach a speed of 60 miles per hour. I am sure the majority of accidents occur on roads not intended for heavy or high speed traffic.

Drivers burdened with enormous costs are not getting a fair return for their money because the roads are not being maintained. Despite what the Minister of State said, roads in Ireland are primitive in comparison to our neighbours elsewhere in the European Union and on mainland Europe. Conditions are absolutely primitive when one considers the amount of money motorists pay. They are also a cause of many accidents. Badly lit and badly marked roads, bad road edgings, narrow roads, roads subject to flooding on a continuous basis, and roads with bad signs all contribute to accidents. If we are to penalise drivers, we should also penalise the Department of the Environment and Local Government which must accept responsibility for the number of accidents on the roads.

Attention was focused recently on the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy's introduction of a new regulation on car phones, a matter I raised in the House because I was confused. It turned out that the public and possibly even the Minister of State were also confused by the regulation. I agree that a person who drives with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a mobile phone should be charged with careless driving. However, it was not necessary to introduce any new regulations. Current regulations allow any garda to charge someone who is not in proper control of their vehicle with careless driving. This regulation does not offer any new benefit to road users. Last week, a speaker described it as an experimental idea that appeared to have been written on the back of a cigarette box with a view to impressing the public before the general election.

This regulation is ill-thought out and ill-timed. It will also affect the Garda – I can imagine a scenario where a garda in pursuit of a criminal must pull over to the side of the road before he can summon the help of his colleagues. Must a garda ask a bank robber to wait around while he calls for the assistance of his colleagues? I know it sounds farcical, but it is the truth given the way that the regulations will operate.

When the Minister refers to a "hands-free" phone, what exactly does he mean? Is he referring to a phone that is fixed in place or a phone that a user can install in his or her car and remove when he or she is leaving? The Minister has also stated that phone users may not have an additional earpiece, but I believe such devices are safe, if not safer than the system suggested by him. Using an earpiece means the driver is less distracted and the sound is clearer, allowing him to pay attention to the road ahead. This regulation is not practical. How will a garda prove that a driver was using his or her phone in the car? When the Minister refers to a mobile phone being "on the person", does he mean that a driver is responsible for the phone that is in his or her bag in the back seat or that someone who has his or her phone in his or her pocket will be liable to a charge of careless driving? I am sure the Minister will agree this is a ridiculous situation and that a more practical regulation is required.

Speed cameras have a role to play in improving road safety. However, such a technique can only ever be a snapshot in time. For example, if a driver wishes to overtake another road user who is driving at 45 mph in a 60 mph zone, to do so safely, it could be possible that the driver must attain a speed of 70 mph to overtake. That driver could be charged with speeding, despite the fact that all he was doing was overtaking at a point on the road where it was safe to do so. Another example of fines being issued unfairly can occur when other road users accelerate to prevent an overtaking car from moving back onto the correct side of the road. These things happen and if penalty points are to be issued for minor offences, some people will lose their licences on the grounds that they committed a number of non-offences. I wonder if the Minister can think of any way of avoiding such a scenario.

I agree that the use of rear seat seatbelts is both reasonable and practical. The Minister should also consider the introduction of regulations similar to those in Sweden where the sidelights of vehicles are on at all times. I have often noticed people driving at twilight without any lights on; one would think that their electricity bill was going to increase. Visibility is often poor on a grey evening or when the sun is low and it can be difficult to see these cars on the road.

I have, on previous occasions, addressed the issue of insurance costs for young drivers. With a view to reducing insurance costs and improving the skills of young drivers, the Minister should consider the introduction of simulators. I heard a lecturer at Trinity College discuss this idea and it is a good one. Airline pilots learn how to fly in simulators which reproduce random conditions which they must then learn to cope with and I do not see why a similar programme could not be introduced for the driving test. Test candidates could be required to demonstrate their ability to respond to all types of driving conditions that may not prevail on the day on which they sit their tests. A candidate who takes his or her test on a sunny day may find it easier to pass than someone who is examined on a wet winter's morning. A simulator would fully test all aspects of a driver's ability in all circumstances. I know the Garda has various levels of driving tests which its members may take. Insurance companies should consider rewarding drivers who pass advanced driving tests with lower premia. This is a reasonable concept. People who take part would incur costs, but they would get this back in experience and reduced insurance costs.

The Minister is from Cork. I drove from Cork to Dublin recently, using a machine that measures the average speed of my car. Three years ago, the National Roads Authority stated that its aim was to ensure road conditions in Ireland were such that users could drive at an average speed of 50 mph. When I drove from Cork to Dublin last Saturday, I registered an average speed of 27.8 mph. Think of the delays that are incurred by people transporting goods. Road conditions are so poor that I wonder why anyone in this country has a car. If this situation continues, all road users will do is sit in gridlock. If we had a proper public transport system, perhaps fewer people would be on the roads. I cannot see how the NRA will ever reach its target.

There is no doubt that the national car test is a great idea. However, there are extensive delays for drivers who need to have their cars tested. I appeal to the Minister to find a way of ensuring that no one has to wait longer than a fortnight for an NCT. The costs involved in having a car repaired to meet the standards are high and people should not have to wait.

I support the general concepts in the Bill but I would like the Minister to address the issues I raised.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus molaim é mar go bhfuil an Bille tábhachtach seo á phlé. I welcome the Minister of State and this important legislation which is very comprehensive. While it covers a wide range of areas, the primary purpose of the Bill is the introduction of the penalty points system which has been spoken about for some time. As the Minister of State rightly pointed out, in countries where this system is not in operation they take a multifaceted approach to driver behaviour and safety. While the introduction of the system will be an important component of improving road safety, it is just one of a number of changes required to significantly reduce the level of accidents, particularly the number of injuries and fatalities on our roads.

One of the most important issues is the enforcement of the various road traffic legislation which was referred to previously in the House. It is fair to say that in jurisdictions where enforcement is of a very high level, motorists are much more careful because the likelihood of detection is much greater than perhaps is the case in this country. That in itself is a tremendous incentive to avoid breaking traffic regulations.

In that regard, the thrust of the Bill in increasing and improving the remit of local government in the whole area of traffic management is to be welcomed. While it is just a small step, which includes the issue of taxi stands and so on, there is an argument for a specialised section to deal with the enforcement of traffic legislation. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, alluded to the issue at the recent party Ard-Fheis and this was welcomed by many people. Similar systems work very effectively in other countries and one of the benefits would be to release gardaí to allow them to become involved in crime detection and other areas of responsibility rather than being involved in multi-purpose tasks, including road traffic management, which could divert them away from their other duties.

Senator Coogan referred to the condition of our roads. We have had a number of debates in the House and it is proven statistically that where there are very good quality roads, particularly motorways and high standard dual carriageways, the number of accidents is significantly reduced. Senator Coogan referred to travelling from Cork to Dublin at 27 mph or 28 mph. I often find – I will come back to the issue later in the Bill – that this causes time to be lost and frustration on the part of drivers, leading subsequently to chances being taken which might not be taken otherwise. I look forward to the acceleration of the national development plan, which clearly spells out our objectives for the future in the whole area of road improvement, so that people will have the benefit of travelling on good quality dual carriageways and motorways, particularly between the major centres of population. This will, in turn, significantly reduce the number of accidents.

As the Minister of State outlined, the Bill deals with a range of issues, including the penalty points system. It also deals with breath testing and I was interested in his comments and statistics in this regard. It will enable local authorities to take control of taxi stands and so on, including a range of other provisions. It is interesting that it will apply to all licence holders, whether full or provisional. In this regard I want to refer to a point I made during previous debates. The time has come to consider the introduction of an improver driver licence. Once a provisional licence holder has passed the test, he or she would qualify for an improver licence, perhaps for a period of two years, before getting a full licence. The system we are now introducing of licence records would perhaps facilitate the introduction of this system where, if an improver driver committed some offences within that period, he or she would revert to a provisional licence. If statistics are drawn up, they would probably indicate that in the early years people who move from a provisional licence to a full licence think they know it all. We have all gone through such a phase at some stage. However, these people lack the experience which is so valuable in the area of driver safety.

It is a very good innovation in the penalty points system where, upon payment of a fixed charge, one will qualify for a lower penalty than if one goes through the courts system. That will avoid clogging up the courts with minor offences, an accumulation of which can often lead to serious consequences. The mere fact of incurring penalty points will, in turn, make people much more attentive to their driving to avoid penalty points and putting themselves in line for disqualification. However, there are issues that may need to be considered. Obviously, breaking the speed limit is an area where people will incur penalty points, and rightly so. This should be the case particularly in built-up and traffic controlled areas in villages and so on where speed limits are in operation. Most members of local authorities, including myself, if they are honest, will concede that during various discussions on the introduction of speed limit signs in villages or reducing speed limits they have heard comments that if people lived within the existing limit of 40 mph, there would be no need to reduce the limit to 30 mph. The response has been that if a 30 mph speed limit is introduced, perhaps people would remain within the 40 mph limit.

In this instance, if the speed limits are unrealistically low, it may bring the system into disrepute. This is an issue which should be considered. There should be some standard set nationwide in regard to where there should be 30 mph or 40 mph speed limits. I am aware of certain areas where these limits have become status symbols to signify the entrance to or exit from a village and where, in many instances, there is very little residential accommodation.

The Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong, but I did not come across the issue highlighted by Senator Coogan in the list of offences. He said that when passing a car one may find it impossible to pull in ahead of it simply because the driver may be driving too close to the vehicle in front. There is a much more dangerous situation where one may feel it is macho not to let a driver pass. Therefore, he or she closes the space so that one cannot pull in in front of him or her. It is highly dangerous to decide to pass someone who may well be travelling well below the speed limit but suddenly takes off at 60 mph to close the space. This is a serious offence which should be included in the legislation. A high number of penalty points should apply for this type of behaviour, the consequences of which could be fatal for passing drivers or oncoming traffic.

When travelling on dual carriageways or motorways in Holland, if the person in front indicates to pull out, he or she has the right of way. As one has full visibility, there is an obligation on one to slow down and let him or her move into the outside lane. My recollection is that in Ireland the person who is driving in that lane has the right of way. Issues such as this could usefully be looked at to improve driving patterns.

A three-year roll-over of penalty points with automatic disqualification, enforced administratively without going to court, is a good innovation. The Bill is first class and it provides for what is needed to enhance road safety. However, there are certain anomalies. There is a question regarding the penalty imposed for having inadequate brakes. It will be one or three points depending on whether a person pays the fixed charge or is convicted. Having inadequate brakes is hazardous and the number of points imposed appears low when considered against the range of offences.

The mobile phone is mentioned but it is not clear whether the hands-free set is exempt. Another area where the points are too low is in regard to trailers without rear lighting. Tractors and machinery on the roads without rear lights, in particular at twilight, have been the cause of many fatal accidents. The penalty of one point for that offence, or three points on conviction, is too low. If someone drives into the rear of a tractor because it is not lit the consequences are usually serious and often fatal. The penalty points should fit the consequences of that dereliction of responsibility.

I found the issue of penalties for crossing white lines interesting. The penalty is two or four points depending on whether a person pays the fixed charge. There is a proliferation of white lines on national routes. I am sure others will agree that in many places where there is clear visibility, a person will find themselves beside a continuous white line and he or she will have to wait 20 to 35 metres before meeting a break where he or she can pass. It would often have been safer to pass 20 or 30 metres earlier. From a driving point of view, it would be much safer to cross the continuous white line and overtake than to wait until reaching the broken white line where visibility and space to pass may be curtailed. Will common sense be applied in regard to such technical breaches of the regulation?

The prohibition on vehicles limited to a speed of 50 mph from passing on the outside lane of motorways is new. How practical is it? Articulated lorries are limited to a speed of 50 mph. If they are behind someone doing 40 mph, they will not be allowed to pass. That does not seem right. We have few motorways here and they are mostly two carriageway motorways. Anywhere I have seen this regulation has been in cases where there are three lanes, the first for driving, the second for heavy vehicles to pass or for motor cars and the third specifically for motor cars to overtake. How practical is this provision? The Bill's provisions are first class but the anomalies that might arise should be considered.

The introduction of the bilateral agreement within the EU is welcome. It does not make sense that a person convicted of a serious motor offence in a member state could subsequently drive with impunity in Ireland. If we subscribe to the notion of an integrated European community, we must have community wide provisions in this regard. Has any consideration been given to changing our driving from the left to the right hand side? With the exception of Britain, all the other EU countries drive on the right.

Not Cyprus.

Cyprus is not a member yet. Our many European tourists and our American tourists find it difficult to make the adjustment to the left hand side. It is an issue people are concerned about, particularly around entry points such as Rosslare. When people come off the boat there is a real risk of accidents because they may overlook the fact that they must drive on the left. Senator Coogan made a valid point in relation to this matter. He said that cars probably would be cheaper as a consequence of such a change. One of the reasons given for cars being so expensive here, apart from the high taxes, is that they are left-hand drive.

I welcome the provision to extend the remit of the Garda in regard to taking breath specimens. It is alarming that 33% of fatalities result from people being under the influence of drink. Any legislation that remedies that must be welcomed. We must change our habits. Human life is inviolate and the Minister should be applauded for this provision.

I welcome the Bill. The Minister deserves commendation on the various safety introductions he has made. Of the many provisions I have seen over the years in regard to road safety, this Bill will have the biggest single benefit. It will put people on guard that unless they comply with regulations and legislation they stand a risk of losing their licence. We need strict enforcement so that the high likelihood of being caught will be the ultimate deterrent.

There is carnage on our roads and every death is a tragedy. Last night I listened to Vincent Browne interrogating various candidates for the forthcoming general election. He asked Deputy Denis Naughten about road fatalities and particularly about spot breathalyser checks. The Deputy replied that he was in favour of it. We need that type of courage. I was touched by his reply because I remember when the Deputy's father, Liam Naughten, who was Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, was tragically killed in a motor accident. He was not even driving but was being driven by a State driver. One day he was vital and alive and the next we were attending his funeral. That brought home to us how terrible the situation is and the necessity to do something about it. The Minister can be congratulated because road fatalities have dropped by 12% over the last year or so and he has a target drop of 20%. I wish him well in reaching this target.

My colleague on the Fianna Fáil bench suggested changing the side of the road on which we drive. There are initial apparent advantages to the suggestion. He pointed out that many tourists are faced with readjustment when they get off the boat. That is true, but just imagine the other side of the problem and the scale of it. First, look at the mayhem and chaos that would be caused trying to re-educate our own drivers to change to the other side. Also, we have a Border with Northern Ireland. They would have to change when they drove here. The English are piggish about hanging on to their own traditions. They want their own coinage, currency, etc. I imagine they see something quaint and charming about driving on the opposite side of the road to the continentals.

We could phase it in.

Does the Senator mean we would drive in the middle of the road? I can envisage carnage on the Border so I am not sure how practical this would be.

I welcome the introduction of the points system. We called for this vigorously on this side of the House, particularly my colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, and the answer given was that there was a problem with the computerisation programme. I assume this has been brought up to speed because that was the technical reason for not fully implementing it earlier.

Car phones are a menace. I frequently see people using them, including someone the other day who was driving a large lorry. The man had one hand on the wheel and was telephoning while driving around a corner. Women used to be careful drivers but they are just as bad offenders with regard to telephones. I use the hands-free kit in the car but, even with that, there is a particularly dangerous point when one is dialling because one has to reach down and push little buttons. I presume the technology will eventually arrive whereby one can dial by voice in some manner, although even that may not be safe. Most of the time I try to pull in to the side of the road when using the phone because I am aware that one takes one's eyes off the road when dialling, even though one does not have to hold the telephone.

I am glad to hear people referring to the practice of keeping car side lights on – it is a good idea. I have to say that because two weeks ago I spent a morning in a recording studio making some of the advertisements which will be broadcast from July in order to promote this practice which I believe started in Scandinavia. We always did it when there were showers or fog and it is a good idea to do it all the time.

I always thought it was an offence to drive a vehicle with an illegible number plate. This happens for two reasons: they are covered in mud and cannot be read and – which is more intriguing – they are becoming fancier. I saw a Westmeath registered car yesterday and, with the curlicued writing, it could not be read. I had to drive right up behind it at traffic lights to discover that it was from Westmeath.

Was it the car belonging to the Leader of the House?

I do not think so. It was not a Mercedes.

The practice of vehicles stopping on the hatched box which is supposed to be kept clear is a bad practice from the point of view of traffic management and is also dangerous. Is it possible to have – certainly at the busiest junctions where these hatched boxes occur – a fixed point camera which would automatically register the numbers of cars? It is a dreadful practice and this would help to stamp it out, particularly if penalty points were applied.

Is there a plan to send a warning notice when about two thirds of the maximum number of points have been inflicted on the driver? This would have a salutary effect. People are quite blithe about it. For the first few points they will shrug their shoulders, but as they get closer to the danger level, their care in driving will be increased if they receive notification in writing that they have only so many points left beyond which they will lose their licence.

Members have spoken about the speed at which lorries are driven and someone suggested that lorries are subject to a 50 mph speed limit but the drivers do not observe it nor do they keep to the inside lanes of roads. I have seen it. I have travelled behind them and most of the time they were driving fast away from me – I have to include that caveat in case I get awarded a few points myself. These lorries are travelling at 70 mph in the fast lane along with buses which is dangerous.

In the city of Dublin, there is a responsibility on those who are charged with the management of traffic to be really responsible, not just in terms of the welfare of car owners and users, but also cyclists. There has been a series of tragic cases in the last year. One that comes to mind is the case of Doctor Olivia Potterton, a splendid young woman who was giving remarkable service in Ballymun as a medical practitioner and who was flattened by a lorry on O'Connell Bridge. This has happened several times and the corporation has done absolutely nothing about it. It is very dangerous.

There is increased danger for cyclists because of the corporation's traffic plans which are aimed at squeezing the cars out but they are actually making it more dangerous for cyclists. It is like an obstacle course. In the principal street of our capital there is no provision for cyclists, which is a grave mistake. This Bill is an advance in legislative terms and I see it as part of a programme by the Government to reduce road fatalities. I hope it will be successful in reducing road deaths to a minimum.

I am glad to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this legislation. Senators who are used to using the road and driving can see the dangerous aspects of road traffic.

Will the Senator be getting a special exemption for the next few months?

We must still observe the rules of the road no matter whatever rush we are in. It is frustrating when one is in a hurry and there is a slow driver in front when one is trying to make time. Indeed, slow drivers can be as dangerous as fast drivers in traffic.

Senator Norris referred to truck and bus drivers travelling at 70 mph and faster but my experience is of motorcyclists. I might be driving at 70 mph – perhaps breaking the law at the time – when a motorcyclist will overtake me, crossing two white lines and eating up the road at 80 or 90 mph. How many of these motorcyclists are being prosecuted for dangerous driving? I guess that the percentage of motorcyclists who are prosecuted as a proportion of the total number of motorcyclists is smaller than the corresponding percentage of motorists. If the statistics were known I am sure we would see motorcyclists are getting away with murder as far as violating road traffic laws is concerned. I see cyclists driving through red lights, which is a danger to traffic and pedestrians.

Senator Coogan mentioned that in winter, especially when it is raining or in dusk, it should be an offence for drivers of motor propelled vehicles not to use their lights. This should be included in the range of offences for which one would be docked three penalty points. Anyone driving without sufficient lighting when natural light is poor – in rain, dusk and so on – should have penalty points deducted. I appeal to the Minister to make this an offence. On a day like today it is all right to drive without lights, but it would cost vehicle owners nothing extra to use their lights when visibility is bad.

The Minister of State said the Bill "permits the control and management of traffic by local authorities for reasons of environmental protection." Earlier today I travelled to Dublin by car from my home in County Limerick. I left home at 6.30 a.m. and was barely in time for the Order of Business. I stopped for 20 minutes on the way for some refreshment, not drink.

Tea, I hope.

Yes, tea and some toast. As usual, I came via the Naas Road and turned right on to the Long Mile Road. However, there was a queue on the inside lane back to the Red Cow roundabout because traffic lights at the junction were changing frequently. This caused a big backlog which can be frustrating to those trying to make it to their destinations on time. The control and management of traffic approaching the capital should be improved in order to avoid such undue delays.

The Minister of State also said "significant improvements have been made in waiting times for driving tests." I welcome this. He further said "special educational programmes have been launched for both primary and secondary schools." Driving lessons should be included in the school curriculum with a knowledge of the rules of the road. When I went to school, a long time ago, we all learned the rules of the road, even though there were very few cars in use. If students undertook a test on leaving school to ensure they had a proper knowledge of the rules of the road, there would not be such a waiting list for the driving test and it would also reduce the number of failures. I do not know what provisions are being made for this in the Bill. The Minister of State only said "special educational programmes have been launched for both primary and secondary schools." Are these programmes voluntary or compulsory, and are teachers available to provide them?

We will have to ensure potential drivers learn the rules of the road at a young age because many fail the driving test due to insufficient knowledge in this regard. If more were aware of them, they would not make mistakes when sitting the driving test. The best time to ensure people have a grasp of them and, thus, pass the driving test later on, is in the fifth or sixth class of primary school. While that may be a job for the Minister for Education and Science, such training should be included in the primary school curriculum, perhaps for 30 minutes per week. In that way less people would fail the driving test and, consequently, young people could obtain full driving licences at an earlier stage.

The penalty points system was also mentioned, under which drivers will lose their licences after incurring a total of 12 points. The use of mobile phones has recently been outlawed, but other actions by drivers can also constitute a danger to road users. These include lighting a cigarette and eating a sandwich or bar of chocolate. Anyone undertaking such practices can pose a danger on the road. I was listening to a radio programme recently and someone said they saw a couple engaging in sexual activity while driving a car. I am sure that is very dangerous also.

There should be a double yellow line for that.

It is no joking matter.

Did the Senator stop to see it?

I did not. It would be a danger to the people engaged in that activity while driving. It would also be a danger to the people who might observe it.

And other ancillary matters.

The Senator will require a reply to that.

I just wanted to make the point that, apart from using mobile phones, people engage in other dangerous activities while driving cars, such as eating bars of chocolate. The Minister should also consider making these activities illegal.

I give the Bill a guarded welcome. While the Minister of State set out the issues involved, I was amused by some of the terminology he used because in some cases it is contradictory. He stated:

It is our aim that penalty points will prove as positive here as has been the case in those other states. It must be recalled that penalty points of themselves will not address all the elements that negatively influence road safety. In many of the more advanced states in the EU, penalty points systems do not apply. The success of their road safety programmes has been based on a multifaceted approach that features various related initiatives. The approach in this Bill promotes a variety of initiatives that will support and add value to the penalty points system and will lead to an improvement in the overall environment for the enforcement of traffic laws and, consequently, in road safety.

On one occasion we heard Senator Lanigan say Ireland was not just the envy of Europe but the envy of the world. Here, however, the Minister of State is stating, "In many of the more advanced states in the EU, penalty points systems do not apply." If that is the case and we are as advanced as we are supposed to be, why are we not following the example of the more advanced EU member states? Perhaps the Minister of State will answer that question.

The Minister of State has quite rightly pointed out that the penalty points system will not, in itself, deal with our road safety problems. On many occasions Senator Farrell and I have sought a code of practice or conduct for road users. While the Bill deals mainly with the penalty points system, a great opportunity has been missed to introduce a code of conduct. The Garda Síochána would play a major role in implementing such a code which is needed, as those of us who travel around the country know. Every day we see motorbike, car and lorry drivers breaking the law and showing no concern for other road users. Drivers in England, however, are very courteous. They will allow another driver onto the road or to move in front of them. In this country, if a person even so much as shoves out his or her nose, it will be taken off. That is the reason I say a golden opportunity was missed in the Bill to introduce a code of conduct.

The legislation is being rushed through because nothing has been put in place in the past five years. The carnage on the roads is increasing despite initiatives taken which were referred to by the Minister of State relating to the drink driving laws and so forth.

The Minister of State said: "In many instances the penalty points will have accrued from the payment of fixed charges, which will result in the person avoiding the matter proceeding to court." This obviously means that, if a person commits what the Garda believes is an offence, he or she will pay an on-the-spot fine and accrue a penalty point. Who will oversee the accumulation of points for each driver? Who will administer the system and how will it be set up? The Garda Síochána does not have the manpower to do this nor does the courts system. There is also a huge backlog of applications for the driving test. It is in this context that we should bear in mind that probably every driver will at some stage accrue a penalty point over a three year period. It will be a hefty administrative workload for whoever will be in charge of the system. The Bill does not set out how it will be controlled and administered. It does state on-the-spot fines will be imposed. It appears the Government wants to collect the receipts. This is yet another way of filling the State coffers. We have seen this happen in recent years where on-the-spot fines have filled its coffers. This is one of the priorities in the Bill.

I agree with previous speakers who referred to the issue of people driving with their sidelights on during the day. This is important, especially during certain months of the year. It is done in other jurisdictions. The reason they deem it necessary should be investigated.

One of the greatest hazards on the road is drivers whose rear foglight is turned on at night. Such people should receive double penalty points. A person in front of or who pulls in front of another driver and has his or her foglight turned on will impact seriously on the driving capability of the person behind him or her. The person whose foglight is turned on may not be aware of this, but he or she should be made so aware and made to pay the price for it.

The reply to a recent parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Hogan showed that the driving theory test is administered by a company in England. It is a sad state of affairs that we cannot do this ourselves. It has been brought to my attention that, when a person applies for a provisional driving licence, he or she must sit an oral test. When he or she applies for the driving test, he or she must pay a second fee and sit a second oral test. People who are required to do this believe they pay twice for an oral test. This should be examined.

I agree with some parts of the Bill into which I will go in more detail on Committee Stage.

I compliment the Minister of State on bringing the Bill forward. It updates a code of law which dates back to 1961, since when major changes have taken place in society. One need only look at the road infrastructure and how the pattern of life has changed dramatically in recent decades to see this. The number of houses in each locality and the number of cars outside each one give a clear indication of the amount of traffic on the roads today. It is important we take stock of this when asking the reason there are so many road traffic accidents and young people behave so irresponsibly on the road.

The Bill is timely in this regard. I am pleased to congratulate the Government on bringing it forward and acknowledge the road safety strategy in place for the past four years. I welcome the fact that it is being updated and brought to its grand finale, namely, the introduction of a penalty points system whereby, if one accrues 12 points, one is automatically disqualified from driving.

This is the way forward and the system should be implemented quickly. When the public sees this happening, it will welcome it because it wants it more than anything. We only have to read the newspapers to see the number of families with tragic stories to tell because some young culprit decided to do his speed trick while also possibly having drink taken, thereby not only destroying himself but others in the process. It is a pleasure to compliment the Government on bringing the Bill forward.

It is important that the conditions laid down and the rules and regulations specified in the Bill are implemented. Otherwise, it will lie idle as legislation. That is not what the Government wants. It wants to go the whole way on this because that is what the public wants. It is timely that we are bringing initiatives in this area to their grand finale today.

I also welcome the review of on-the-spot fines. The statistics have been well documented for the number fined in recent years for not wearing their seat belts or speeding. The number of fines in the latter category has increased dramatically in recent years. I also welcome the fact that speed cameras and electronic equipment will be updated. Gardaí cannot always be on traffic duty and must rely on electronic equipment which I am glad to see is being updated in the Bill.

It is important that there is co-ordination. New planning legislation was enacted last year which provided for action plans to deal with infrastructure, parking facilities, road traffic management and so on. It was well overdue. It also provided for the transfer from the Garda to local authorities of responsibility for traffic calming measures and parking in residential areas. While this is important, perhaps the Minister of State will tease out further how local authorities will manage this. We know they will, for some unknown reason, pass the buck and state something is not their responsibility.

I welcome this timely measure. When I have spoken at local authority level about traffic flow and the fact that parking facilities can be a cause of accidents, I have been told that is a matter for the Garda. It needs to be made very clear where the responsibility lies.

The Bill also refers to education facilities and programmes for young people in relation to the rules of the road, respect for other people and responsible behaviour. If those traits are inculcated in young minds, it may be possible, with a co-ordinated effort between local authorities, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of the Environment and Local Government, to make progress.

Parents must take responsibility for their children. Many households have two or three cars and too many young people are engaging in late night drinking and driving. Parents must play their part in inculcating a responsible attitude in their children. We must try to change behaviour patterns at individual and societal level in an effort to redress the factors contributing to the awful carnage on our roads. I compliment the Minister of State and his Department on this Bill and I look forward to its speedy implementation.

I might be accused of exceeding the limit if I were to heap any more praise on the Minister of State—

That is true. The Senator is heading for danger.

—following what Senator Ormonde has already said. Nevertheless, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This Bill is one more very specific measure aimed at promoting road safety and protecting life and limb and it is to be warmly welcomed. Má's maith, is mithid.

Next July, four years will have elapsed since a penalty points system in traffic legislation was first mooted. We have waited a long time and I do not say that with any rancour but rather in appreciation of the fact that the Bill is now before the House and that this Government has not left office without introducing this very essential measure to promote road safety and protect human life. While there is more to this Bill than just the penalty points system, that is a major innovation and it has a great deal to recommend it. I believe it will act as a preventative measure against bad and careless driving.

On-the-spot fines for speeding offences were increased to £50, but young people now have so much money in their pockets that it is no problem for them to pay up and forget about it. It was not a great preventative measure. However, the fear of losing one's licence is a huge deterrent and I believe it will work. Desperate cases sometimes need desperate remedies.

The Minister of State and I have observed the introduction of the clamping system in Cork city. Under the disc parking system, people were prepared to take a chance on parking over time in the hope the traffic warden would not get there before them, but since the clamping system has come into operation, people no longer run such risks.

I fully support the strategy of bringing in a very severe measure for people's own protection and to prevent serious accidents. The toll of death and injury on our roads is such a deep tragedy. People went into overdrive in speaking of the slaughter in Northern Ireland over recent decades – and rightly so. That was a huge political issue and a huge political effort was put into breaking the cycle of violence, putting peace in place and stopping the carnage. Yet, in the last 30 years, substantially more people have been killed on our roads, more families left in grief and more people consigned to wheelchairs and life support machines.

Fatal accidents usually make news but we do not always hear of those road accidents that cause irreversible brain damage and serious incapacity to young people who should be in the prime of their lives but are suddenly struck down, many of them reduced to an almost vegetable existence. That is only part of the overall cost of the death and destruction which occurs on our roads.

It is fitting and not before time that the measures in this Bill are being introduced. In any one year, the carnage on our roads can wipe out the equivalent of the population of a sizeable village in Clare, Kerry or west Cork. Imagine the outcry if the Taliban or some other terrorist group came into the country and caused such loss of Irish lives. Yet we are doing it to ourselves. I believe the measures in this Bill will be effective but a great deal more needs to be done.

I agree with those who have advocated more systematic education. In the conditions of this new century, we must teach better human behaviour to growing young people. In more innocent days, there was a belief that if people were educated, they gained a moral and ethical outlook towards their fellow beings. We can no longer take that for granted and we must focus on responsibility for one's own behaviour. Careless behaviour is having a terrible impact on innocent people. While I appreciate that this is not a debate on education and I must not side-track myself, I believe we have to teach young people to think and how to drink and drive responsibly. We need a good code of safe driving, courtesy and consideration for other road users. That has to be an inbuilt part of our education, though I am reluctant to say that because our schools are already being overloaded with responsibility for looking after the prevention of all kinds of social problems.

Another Senator commented earlier on the on-the-spot fines, a measure of which I fully approve. I am glad to see money going into the State coffers, where it can be used in education, health or other areas of public service rather than going into the pockets of lawyers. I welcome any measure which brings issues out of the courts and achieves an on-the-spot settlement to the benefit of public funds which can be put to good use. That is a major feature which this Bill has to recommend it.

A number of things need to be done simultaneously with the introduction of this Bill. I am concerned that relatively good and safe drivers could find themselves losing points very easily. The location and positioning of speed limit signs is a matter of concern to me. On entering a town one usually sees the speed control signs and one slows down to 40 mph and then 30 mph, but on driving out of the built up area there is often a lack of signage or very poorly positioned signage announcing the end of the speed limit area. I hope the Minister of State takes this point very seriously. A thorough audit of speed limit signs in towns and villages is necessary. We owe that to good drivers. How effective are they at present? How visible are they? We must also bear in mind that areas have become even more built up since some of these signs were put in place. It would not be fair if good drivers were caught for speeding out of towns where it was not clear that they were still in a restricted speed area. Very often laws catch out the least culpable people and the ones who break the law to beat the band get away with it. I urge the Minister of State not to let that happen with this law.

Another area of concern is the disgraceful quality and positioning of many directional signs. This very often leads to accidents when people who do not know the road come to a junction and are forced to drive to a point where they become a hazard because they cannot read the directional signs. This is especially the case with older county roads where the directional signs are often very poorly positioned; some are invisible and others are pointed in the wrong direction. I include the "Yield" signs and the "Stop" signs as well as the directional signs. I appeal to the Minister as a matter of urgency to initiate a thorough review of those signs as it would certainly enable the objectives of this Bill to be fully met.

Centralising the control and management of traffic is a good idea. Traffic congestion can be a scourge in cities. How many times have we heard county managers say that the Garda is the traffic authority and the local authority only has responsibility for the roads? It is a ludicrous division of authority. One would hardly have traffic – apart from aviation and the birds – without roads, or would not expect to have roads without traffic. It is nonsense to have a division of authority between the Garda and the local authority. It should be co-ordinated and streamlined, which would lead to a greater promotion of safety. I am pleased to see that will be done in the context of this Bill.

In order for this Bill to be fully and fairly enforced, we need to put in place a special Garda traffic corps in cities, as they have in the United States and other places. Their sole function should relate to the promotion and monitoring of road safety. They need a wider brief than the Garda has at present. Gardaí are pretty good at speed detection but their approach is somewhat erratic. They go at it in bursts and people get to know where they are and slow down until there is a relaxation of Garda efforts. There has to be a more consistent approach.

In cities there is one set of people in uniform enforcing the litter laws while another set of uniformed people enforce parking regulations and then there is the Garda. They are all looking after the same community of pedestrians and motorists. All these functions should be brought into one special corps of people to look after the needs of cities. This would allow an incorporation of the laws in regard to parking, driving, litter and public order. That would be a good day's work.

I endorse this Bill and look forward to its speedy implementation. I repeat a point made earlier by the Acting Chairman, Senator Coogan, and a number of others that motorists must be required to use their side lights at dusk. There is no one single measure that will achieve the objectives of road safety and the protection of human life, but if we could bring all the disparate strands together then much would be achieved. A good day's work is being done in the context of this Bill, which I support.

Very much of what I want to say has already been said. I welcome this Bill and see it as a great move forward in trying to improve the standard of driving. Unfortunately people take very little notice of fines. People who are rich enough to pay them do so and those who cannot ignore them. Our prisons are unable to cope with the numbers of people who are sentenced for non-payment of fines and discharged almost at once.

City driving needs to be looked at very carefully. We do not pay enough attention to it. Most of the debate this afternoon has been about driving on the open road but driving within the city is of great importance. A considerable number of pedestrians and cyclists are knocked down every year, some of them fatally injured. If we want to pedestrianise the city more and give pedestrians and cyclists more power within the city, it follows that we curtail the activity of drivers. It is regrettable that so many drivers in the city seem to feel a pedestrian crossing is of minimal concern if nobody is on it. Even outside Leinster House where there is always a garda on duty people frequently drive through red lights.

The number of pedestrian crossings in the city is very limited. I made my own efforts to get a crossing on Merrion Street. A couple of years ago I fell on that street having had to rush across. I contacted Inspector Tim Doyle who said he would investigate the matter of putting in a crossing. One of the reasons given by the then corporation authorities for not doing so was that it would slow the traffic – that was one of my intentions. If I were hit at 20 mph it would do far less damage than if I were hit at 40 mph.

Traffic islands were installed but I have been waiting for two years to see the lines painted on the road. I have constantly been given the excuse that they are waiting for a fine day. It has been fine several times in the past two years and I would be most grateful if they would try to complete the crossing.

There are other parts of the city where there are no traffic crossings for nearly half a kilometre. I do not know the length of the side of St. Stephen's Green where Iveagh House is located but when the Minister for Foreign Affairs was trying to walk to his Department he was knocked down one day by a motorcycle. It is quite ridiculous that there are no traffic lights to allow pedestrians to cross the road. What does it matter if traffic is slowed down? The idea is to have it pass through the city more slowly to allow pedestrians to make more use of the streets. This is what we are trying to encourage.

Another problem is the very short length of time which traffic lights allow to pedestrians to cross the road. Some allow only 20 seconds. I have even had complaints made to me about the traffic lights outside Trinity College, which are mainly used by students who are very fleet of foot. It is not as though we have elderly people trying to cross there all the time, yet it is the young people who complain that the traffic lights change extremely briskly. This matter should be pursued in favour of the pedestrian in order that we get people to use public transport and their feet more when in the city. Although improvements have been made, the city is still designed mainly to cater for the car.

I have great sympathy for drivers regarding the state of road surfaces. The repair of roads in cities and the country leaves much to be desired. We need to address this problem. Accidents are caused by potholes. A friend of mine drove into a very bad one on her way back from County Clare recently which bent her wheel. She pulled into a garage and was told that hers was the fourth car that morning that needed to have a wheel changed. That is intolerable and drivers are entitled to complain bitterly about it. Though there may be a considerable number of houses along them, private roads also have problems. People living along on private roads with between ten and 20 houses have told me of the difficulties they have had in getting roads resurfaced.

We have to do things to help drivers too. I do not want them to think that I want them off the roads, but the effect they have in the city is incredible. I suggest that, for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, whoever tots up the penalty points in cities takes into account people going through traffic lights at pedestrian crossings and endangering others by driving too close to cycle lanes. Driving in cycle lanes is another way in which the law is being breached.

I commend the Minister of State and hope the Bill has a speedy passage through the House.

I thank Senators on all sides for their contributions to what has been an invigorating and informative debate. I acknowledge the general welcome the House has extended to this innovative legislation. This House has been to the fore in generating public debate on road safety and engaged with Ministers on a regular basis in addressing the issue. It is, therefore, no surprise that contributions have been both thoughtful and focused and I will endeavour to respond to them as positively and constructively as possible.

I am particularly pleased that the House has enthusiastically endorsed the proposed penalty points system and agreed that there is a need to enhance current enforcement efforts. Penalty points will, however, have no direct relationship to insurance. Since the aim of the system is to improve behaviour, we should look at it as a means of supporting that improvement. Avoidance of penalty points should be the focus of drivers when the system is introduced. Senator Walsh referred to penalty points with regard to vehicle standards. Again, it must be recalled that the system is targeted at improved behaviour, not at disqualifying drivers. We are giving them the opportunity to improve their performance on the road.

Travel on all roads, irrespective of type, entails a risk to road users. Analysis of Garda road accident reports consistently shows that driver error is the major contributory factor in accidents and was the cause of in excess of 80% of road traffic accidents in 2000. In the case of two vehicle accidents where specific contributory factors were identified, the main driver faults were travelling on the wrong side of the road, exceeding safe speed levels and driving through "Stop" and "Yield" signs followed by improper overtaking. It is neither feasible nor cost effective to provide high quality dual carriageways and motorways in all cases given the projected traffic volume to be catered for on specific routes and the overall scale of funding requirements for the current national roads improvement programme. Safety is, however, an integral feature of the design of the appropriate type of road in all cases. Issues relating to junctions strategy for national roads, including safety, are kept under constant review by the authority and changes made where relevant.

On 19 March my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, signed regulations dealing with the vexed question of people using their mobile phones while driving. This is a road safety issue as using any mobile phone while driving is a distraction, which is compounded in the case of a hand-held unit. Using a hand-held device is doubly dangerous because it impairs the driver's ability to control the vehicle, particularly in an emergency which is more likely to be caused because of the distraction in the first place. The volume of representations to my Department from the public and elected representatives over a long period shows that this is a serious road safety issue. The representations called for action along the lines of last week's measure. The high level group on road safety also saw the need to give attention to the matter as a road safety priority. It is not the case that the regulations are draconian or confused and their effect will be to prohibit people from using mobile phones while driving, unless they are being used in conjunction with a conventional hands-free kit. It is nonsense to suggest that the ban covers extreme circumstances, let alone a switched off mobile phone in someone's pocket or purse. A common sense reading of the regulations makes it clear that the phone must be in use before an offence can be committed. The regulations make for a positive road safety initiative that has a good deal of public support and should be supported here in the interests of reducing death and serious injury on our roads.

International research literature on the daytime running of lights shows substantial disagreement on the measure's effectiveness in improving road safety. The European Commission has given detailed consideration to this complex question but, to date, has not reached any conclusion. It has included daytime running of lights among road safety priorities to be progressed at EU level which will involve more research before a consensus evolves. At the heart of the discussion is that while daytime lights can have certain safety benefits for the motor vehicles that use them, their use may lead to additional deaths and injuries among more vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, because they are relatively less visible in those circumstances. It is, therefore, prudent not to take a definitive position in Irish law until there is much clearer evidence about where the balance of costs and benefits lie.

Senator Walsh raised the matter of driving on the left hand side of the road in regard to which there are no proposals to change the rules. The House might be interested to know that, in world terms, more people drive on the left than on the right. Senator Rory Kiely referred to the road theory test, which is not a requirement in the granting of a provisional driving licence.

Senator Burke referred to the penalty points systems of other states. It is true to say that not all EU member states employ such systems – Sweden and Holland being examples – but the United Kingdom and France do. The United Kingdom and Sweden are ranked best in terms of road safety in the European Union. The administration of the penalty points system will be shared by the Garda, the Courts Service and my Department, as set out in the Bill.

Senator Quill raised the matter of traffic signs. The Traffic Signals Manual, published in 1996, provides information on the three categories of traffic sign and road markings generally. The manual provides a comprehensive guide to the provision of road signage in Ireland and sets out the technical and other standards to be followed in the provision and maintenance of signs. Use of the manual is intended over time to lead to greater uniformity of practice and to the creation of a more consistent approach to signs generally. While regulatory signs must be in accordance with the sign regulations, all other signs and road markings should be in accordance with the traffic signs manual unless otherwise authorised by the Minister.

In its oversight role of the non-national roads programme, the Department issued a circular letter to road authorities in August 1998 emphasising the importance of providing and maintaining a high standard of road signage. The Department's memorandum on grants for non-national roads, issued on 5 February 2001, again reminded local authorities of the need to bring their signage on the non-national road network up to the standards of the Traffic Signs Manual. An extensive review of the existing traffic sign regulations and the Traffic Signs Manual is proposed in 2002. The road traffic, traffic and parking regulations, No. 182 of 1997, and the road traffic, traffic and parking regulations of 1998, Nos. 274 and 441, provide for the general regulation and control of traffic, including the parking of vehicles, and pedestrians in public places. The application of traffic or parking restrictions in other areas is for individual road authorities to consider in the light of particular circumstances.

I hope the Bill will contribute to a more rapid reduction in road casualties. Our aim is to see Ireland ranked among the most progressive states in Europe in terms of road safety. Much has been achieved over the lifetime of the road safety strategy but we must move forward and the passing of this Bill will move us towards the achievement of our goals. I thank Senators for their positive and encouraging response to the Bill, which promotes measures that will contribute to our efforts to combat the horrific carnage on our roads. I look forward to our continued consideration of the Bill tomorrow.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 27 March 2002.
Sitting suspended at 4.13 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.