I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have spoken on various issues related to road safety many times on the Order of Business. There has been considerable lethargy in enforcing action to rectify the difficulties that exist. It was a shocking indictment of the Government when the previous chairman of the authority mentioned that he believed that more than 200 lives a year could have been saved if proper action has been taken. After nine years in process, this legislation is better late than never. However, it is only in the past year that I have noticed a sharper focus on road safety and a consciousness of our responsibility to ensure it. Many Members would make the point that road safety is the responsibility of the individual motorist but it is equally the responsibility of Government to provide the necessary framework to ensure people appreciate what is involved in road safety and that the necessary deterrents to penalise motorists driving at speed, etc. are in place.
In every county, including my own, certain locations are noted as accident blackspots and there have been fatalities. The road from Newcastle West to Foynes is a classic example, on which there is a large volume of heavy trucks. I am sure the position is similar in other parts of the country. Following such road fatalities the council concerned tends to take remedial action by erecting red and white signs and making road markings. While all that is fine as a measure, I do not understand why the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not require local authorities to pinpoint the locations in a county, whether it is five, ten or 20, where serious road accidents have occurred and take proper remedial action to rectify the problems that exist at those locations. It does not take a genius to work out that if remedial action is taken to improve these locations, at least something may be done to reduce the number of accidents that occur.
It is remarkable that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, said in May last year that the direction of his policy in this area would be to reduce the number of people waiting to do the driving test. It is a sad commentary to think that in May of this year 10,000 more people were waiting to do the driving test than in May last year. A total of 135,000 people are waiting to do the driving test compared to 125,000 in May last year. The filling of nine driver testing positions was help up for many years because sanction was not approved for the posts. It is a shocking indictment of the Government that this number of people are waiting to do their driving test throughout the country. The latest statistics show that in driving test centres the waiting time for a driving test has extended rather than reduced.
It was regrettable that IMPACT, representing driving test instructors, recently pursued a mechanism to evade a position whereby the Minister sought to privatise the testing of 40,000 people waiting to do their driving test in order to reduce the number on the waiting lists. I do not understand the fears of driving test instructors because their jobs are guaranteed. There is no threat to the jobs in the long term given the volume of road transport and the number of people on the waiting lists. They were rewarded with extra overtime to carry out additional driving tests. The action taken by the union in using the mechanism of the partnership talks was wrong. It was able to refer to a relevant section used in the past to ensure its representatives could not be compelled to accept the private contracting of driver testing. I said recently that I hope the latest partnership talks, which regrettably have taken political representatives who have a great understanding of the whole process out of the equation, do not a allow a similar situation to emerge. I read a recent newspaper article which implied that the representatives had changed their attitude and that there may be some movement. I hope there will be positive movement, as it is important that we reduce the number of people on the waiting lists for driving tests and in that way reduce the number of motorists with a provisional driving licence.
The driving test was introduced in the early 1960s. We cannot compare the number of cars on our roads then with the number on them today. There is a driving test centre in my town of Newcastle West and instructors in the driving test schools bring provisional licence holders on the routes taken by driving testers. In my estate many learner drivers practise driving around a corner, which poses a hazard for the people living in the estate. The current driving test does not take account of the situation that exists in terms of number of cars on our roads, driving on motorways, driving at night and so on. We need to examine the format of the driving test, make it a little stiffer and ensure it conforms with the situation that pertains.
The position in regard to speed cameras is an indictment of the Government. The small number of speed cameras in Dublin has been well publicised. There is a promise to address that situation but we have to wait and see what will be done.
One feature of the penalty point system annoys and galls me and many others who often seem to be given penalty points for rather trivial offences. When I drive to Dublin from Limerick I, like many, have to grin and bear it when I see motorists particularly with Northern or foreign registrations show me the two fingers when they zoom past while I am driving at the 120 km/h limit. They know that the penalty points system that operates in the Twenty-six Counties does not apply to the motorists from Northern Ireland, the UK or eastern European countries. I have raised issues such as this, which are pertinent to North and South, at meetings of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. Motorists from the North who travel South should be subject to the penalty points system. That they are not must be galling for motorists in Border counties, such as the Minister of State who lives in Donegal, and motorists in Sligo, Monaghan and other counties where there is a large volume of traffic to and from the North. It must be upsetting for such motorists that they are obliged to be law abiding citizens and comply with the penalty points system operating here, while motorists in the North can get away with not complying with it. That position must be addressed and changed. Statistics on penalty point offences last year show that 20% of them could not be proceeded with on the basis that the offenders were from outside the Twenty-six counties and for other minor reasons.
Mr. Gay Byrne has been appointed to his new position and I will mention him only once. He is a national figure. I saw him on a television programme last week and did not like his attitude. He almost appeared to say that legislation will go through these Houses and everybody should subscribe to it immediately, accept it lock, stock and barrel and not question or probe it. He said that he hoped the other side would not object to it. The other side does not object; it embraces anything that happens in a positive fashion to improve road safety. It is up to Members in this and the other House to seriously examine legislation when introduced and to ensure that what is embodied therein is compatible with what is required outside these Houses. I wish Mr. Byrne well in his position as a supremo. He said that if he does not get satisfaction he will walk away from the job.
Perhaps many positive strands are beginning to come together in terms of road safety, especially if there is a degree of privatisation of driver testing, if more speed cameras are erected and more gardaí become involved in traffic corps activities. If we can put all the pieces of the jigsaw in terms of road safety together, of which there are many components, we could succeed.
We have to cope with the new situation as regards the rapidly expanding east European population coming into the country. Is it right that a person with a car only a few years old is subject to NCT testing? Is it right that a person from an eastern European country can come in with a very old car and not be subject to the same testing? It is obviously wrong. We are accustomed to driving on one side of the road while they are used to driving on the opposite side. We all know the difficulties involved in trying to pull out from behind a truck and get sight of the correct distance in front of us. A new potential hazard to emerge for many of these left-hand drive cars relates to the increased dangers in trying to overtake trucks. Regrettably, the fatality figures in this regard demonstrate the hazards involved.
As regards road safety policy, the changed situation and environment, the eastern European dimension etc. must be factored in so that we can see how we cope. There are even basic considerations to be dealt with, for example, the road safety book, in which miles rather than kilometres are denominated, with the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Howlin, still being depicted ten years later. It does not take rocket science to appreciate that this book must be brought up to date rapidly. If a person goes into a shop in Limerick and is Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian or whatever and wants to seriously learn about the rules of the road, translations should be available in the appropriate language. Let us get on with it and put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. Ultimately, the objective is to stop all the casualties on Irish roads. We are moving in the right direction but there is a good deal more to be done before we get matters right.