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.