Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Road Safety Strategy: Discussion (Resumed)
I remind members, witnesses and people in the Visitors Gallery to turn off their telephones as they tend to interfere with the broadcasting equipment.
We now turn to the issue of road safety in Ireland. This is the second in a series of meetings to discuss the issue of road safety. Previously, we heard from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Road Safety Authority. We are joined today by representatives of An Garda Síochána and the Irish Road Victims' Association. I am delighted to welcome Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn, who deals with roads policing, major events and emergency management in An Garda Síochána; Chief Superintendent Aidan Reid, Garda national roads policing bureau; Superintendent Con O'Donohue, Garda national roads policing bureau; and Ms Donna Price, Mr. Leo Lieghio, Ms Gillian Treacy and Mr. John Wilson of the Irish Road Victims' Association. The topic of discussion is very sensitive. It is a tragic matter and I reiterate my comment at the start of the previous meeting that, as a committee, we express our sympathy to everybody in the room and everybody who might be watching the proceedings who has suffered a bereavement or other loss in respect of road safety on our roads. It is a very sad topic and, unfortunately, it has probably knocked on every door in the country, as it were, at this stage.
Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to give the following notice. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the assistant commissioner, Mr. Michael Finn, to make his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Finn:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to address them. My colleagues, Chief Superintendent Aidan Reid and Superintendent Con O'Donohue, are very experienced members of the Garda traffic bureau. This is my first appearance here in my new role. If I do not have all the answers to all the questions, I will revert to my two colleagues.
The Garda Síochána has a very important role to play in road safety, given that we are the primary enforcement agency. Our goal is to save lives and reduce the number of families who suffer the trauma of losing a loved one. We are committed to ensuring our roads are a safe place for all who use them regardless of where they live, the day or the time of year. We are out there every day of the year, including Christmas Day. Unfortunately, this is the nature of policing and road fatalities. In our enforcement role, we are very committed to putting more people into traffic to enforce our road traffic legislation. We are committed to making greater use of our analytics and technology in order that we can have smarter policing. We are committed to ensuring all our activities are focused on achieving the outcomes we have set out in the Government road safety strategy to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads.
As of last Friday, our collision data were on a par with 2016. Today we are up on the same period last year by two fatalities. On the way here this morning, we got news of another fatality. There is some good news in that our serious injury accidents are down 30% on last year. Last year, our fatalities increased by 16% or 18%. It was very disappointing for us. The previous year was a very good year for us and it was our lowest year on record. It is disappointing to see an upward trend again. The chart in my written submission shows there is a good news story in that we have reduced the number of fatalities and serious injuries. We cannot be complacent. The statistics for 2016 show the necessity for all of us to be more focused on and committed to reducing the number of fatalities on the roads.
Drivers and passengers of vehicles continue to be the category in which we see the greatest impact in fatalities. Last year, 35 pedestrians died, which is 19%. The bulk of the fatal accidents occurred in the 100 km/h and 80 km/h zones, which are our national primary routes and national regional routes. Only approximately 4% of accidents take place on motorways. This reinforces the significant role our road engineering plays in road safety.
The 16 to 35 age group are the cohort that account for most of the fatalities. There were 79 fatalities in this age group last year. The other cohort in which we see high numbers of fatalities are those aged 66 and over. They accounted for 44 fatalities last year, which represents 23% of our accidents. Pedestrians and cyclists make up a large part of that group. As people get older, their chances of being able to survive a road accident are reduced. It is a serious cause of concern. We are still very much focused on our Government target of reducing fatalities to 124 and serious injuries to 330 by 2020. It is a major challenge. While we realise we cannot do it alone, we have a very significant role to play. There have been very good news stories for Ireland and where we have come from. We are joint fifth or sixth in the EU for the number of fatalities per million. We still have a lot to do.
Despite the drop in our numbers, our level of enforcement has remained proportionally high over recent years. Driving under the influence has an impact on approximately 29% to 30% of fatalities. Of the cohort involved in those fatal accidents, approximately one third have no insurance and 15% are driving while disqualified. This is a very serious concern when we link those three statistics together. In 2016, we had a 9% increase in our drink-driving and our checkpoints were up 2%.
Our Christmas campaign was very successful in the impact it had. We had a very positive, strong media campaign which captured the attention of the entire community, not just our own people within the organisation. We also increased our enforcement activity for Christmas. Early indications we had after a week or two that there was a spike in drink-driving reinforced our vigour for our Christmas campaign. At the end of it, there had been a 34% increase in drink-driving. While it is not a good news story, it shows the level of drink-driving. We had improved our rate of compliance with drink-driving laws. This evidence shows there is a serious issue which we need to tackle. To date in 2017, the trend for driving under the influence seems to be continuing. There has been a 14% increase this year so far. We have not got the message out to everybody. We will focus on the message.
We issue fixed charge notices, FCNs, for drink-driving and we have issued more than 5,700 since 2011. Almost 50% of them are in the 50 to 80 mg per 100 ml blood alcohol category, followed by 31% in the over 80 mg per 100 ml category. The 20 to 180 mg per 100 ml "specified driver" category accounts for 20%. There is a 75% payment of these FCNs, which means our time in court is reduced significantly. Any garda will say one of the most contentious cases is going to court to contest a drink-driving case. To have 75% of the charges paid up front without having to go near court is a great saving for us. It means we have more people out on the road longer rather than sitting in a court. The FCN is a positive story for us.
In 2017, we will have roadside breath testing for cannabis, cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines. For the fist time, we will have an offence of exceeding a specified limit for the presence of cannabis, cocaine and heroin. We will be able to take people to court. In the past, we had to prove impairment as well as the presence of the drugs. With technology, we can measure the amount of each of those drugs in the system. We welcome it and look forward to being able to enforce the legislation.
Speed is very important to us, given that it is a factor in approximately one third of accidents. It is very much in our focus. Speed plays an even more significant role in fatalities among motorcyclists. It is one of our top priorities. I recently saw a survey that stated one in five people admitted exceeding the speed limit. This statistic tells a story. However, 80% of people are complying. There is a high level of compliance. Our GoSafe vans in the speed enforcement zones have proved very successful. There is approximately 99% compliance with the vans. Their presence is impacting on road safety and reducing speeds.
That is a very good news story and we will certainly be continuing that programme. We signed a new contract with GoSafe and we will roll out and extend that programme. The committee may not be aware that we extended the number of speed detection zones last year, going from approximately 770 to over 1,000. That means there were 355 new speed detection zones around the country. We still get inquiries from various communities around the country asking why they do not have such a zone. They have proven to have a very positive impact in reducing fatalities within the zones. When we started, 30% of fatalities occurred in those zones, but five or six years later that rate is down to 15%. It certainly had an impact. We will not be able to maintain that because we have extended the number of zones and it will take a while before we come to that level again as we increase our coverage across the country. The speed detection zones and the GoSafe vans are a good news story for us on the speeding issue.
I was looking at some statistics on the detections for those GoSafe vans before I came here today. If we compare the volume of traffic coming through on a daily basis with the increase in fines, there is an increase in the level of compliance with speed limits across the country. That arises when we factor in the increased amount of traffic and the amount of detections. It is certainly a good news story overall and we will pursue it. There is a very high rate of compliance with regard to speed limits. Our role is not all about detections and we are quite happy to have GoSafe vans out there and reducing the number of people caught speeding. Our role is about getting compliance through enforcement. We are not out to catch people, although sometimes we are accused of that. To me, we are successful if we are catching fewer people. It would be good news for all of us and the GoSafe vans have proved it.
With regard to general to general road traffic enforcement, there were fixed charge notices, FCNs, for all sorts of offences last year. We issued over 326,000 fixed charge notices for offences relating to speed, safety belt usage, a lack of tax and so on. Like the FCNs for drink-driving, there is a 74% payment rate for them. When I was a young garda, every time we detected an offence relating to speed or anything else, we ended up going to court to prosecute. The gardaí spent a significant proportion of their time in court but now we have an almost 75% payment rate, our gardaí will not have to spend that much time in court. The FCN statistics are another good news story.
From June this year we will have a third payment option. In the past, a person going to court could argue that a notice was not received but that excuse will no longer be valid; the day a person gets a summons for court, he or she also gets the option to pay the fine instead of going to court. A person cannot then go to court and say he or she would have paid the fine if he or she got the opportunity. We will now give people the opportunity to pay the fine, which will have an impact on the number of cases of people going to court and people getting off with speeding because of an argument that the fine was not received. That loophole will also have a good impact on enforcement. We will have online payment facilities for non-penalty point offences. If there is a fine for not displaying tax, a person can go online and pay the fine, as people do for most utilities nowadays. That will assist us and the motoring public.
Non-use of seat belts and mobile phone usage are in our category of "killer offences". Our enforcement strategy for 2017 will be very much focused on that. Last year we had approximately 10,000 FCNs for not wearing a seat belt. By and large, that has reduced significantly over the years. I had a look and ten years ago the number was something like 22,000. The level of compliance is there and even in modern cars, the alerts are there and people are more compliant. There are people who are still out there committing these offences and, unfortunately, it has a very significant impact when somebody is involved in a collision and is not wearing their seat belt. Our road safety campaigns have illustrated the issue only too well. The other area I should flag as a cause of concern for us is mobile phone usage. Despite technology and people having the facilities of hands-free kits in their car, there are still many people out there using mobile phones on a daily basis in cars. They are probably a silent killer in road traffic accidents. It is very hard to detect their usage after the incident but surveys carried out by the Road Safety Authority suggest the level of usage is still ongoing. We will certainly target that in 2017.
Another area in which we have seen significant activity is taking a number of vehicles off the road that are either defective or where people are using them with no insurance etc. Last year we saw an increase, with an additional 6,000 vehicles taken off the road. We are talking about 30,000 cars seized from the public because of no insurance or something seriously defective in the car. That level of activity will continue because those people are putting other road users at risk either with vehicles being defective or having no insurance to drive those cars. We welcome any new legislation to help in that regard.
With regard to the policing plan for 2017, as I stated at the outset the killer offences of speeding, impaired driving caused by mobile phone usage and non-use of seat belts will certainly be targeted. We are very determined to maximise our full potential in terms not just of using the traffic corps but the district personnel we have in every Garda station around the country. We got massive buy-in at Christmas time with the extra contribution they made. They did more checkpoints than we did in the traffic area. That is something we need to leverage and our policing plan for 2017 is built very much around that type of engagement. We have more people out there in every division and Garda station around the country because of the new recruitment campaign. There are 800 new gardaí on the streets and we want to engage with them, ensuring they are tuned into traffic and focused in terms of road traffic policing for 2017. We certainly see them as having great potential and being a great asset to us. They are young and energetic and we want to exploit that.
Roads policing is very much about depriving all the criminals on the road and we have had some good success. The other day we had a checkpoint on the N7 and with the use of our automatic number plate recognition technology we were able to "ping" somebody passing by who we knew has an interest in drugs. Lo and behold, we made a significant drugs seizure from that. I suppose that is smart policing in terms of using all our resources to our benefit. Our enforcement campaigns do not have to relate solely to drink-driving or traffic and they can be useful in a cross-section of elements. Using technology can be of great advantage to us in that regard so it is up to us to leverage that and make more of it in future. As I stated, we have shown with GoSafe and robot vans that we can detect more people initially, which results in more compliance. Technology will help us and we can leverage it in that regard. Chief Superintendent Reid will describe later his initiative with the port tunnel where we will put in cameras and use technology to detect people speeding through the tunnel. We have the technology and capabilities so the investment in a modernisation programme for An Garda Síochána will give us opportunities to leverage that and do more with less, which is what we are trying to achieve.
There are other initiatives we are involved with through the year. We are involved in many of the European Union operations and we work with agencies such as the Road Safety Authority, the Health and Safety Authority and the Revenue Commissioners. There are multi-agency checkpoints and it is not just about policing; there are other agencies with an interest and our working together has been very beneficial to us in the past. Our public awareness campaign was very much about complementing the Road Safety Authority and media campaign for Christmas and it is very useful to us. We have a big following on Twitter and Facebook and we get great feedback when we put up a car seized for driving with no insurance or tax, for example. The public welcomes us doing that and we can use that as a message to get out there to the cohort who drive and use social media as their method of engagement. They do not read The Irish Timesor listen to RTE 1. We must focus on them and consider how to engage with them through the likes of Twitter and Facebook. That has been very beneficial for us so far.
We also go to schools with the Road Safety Authority's safety programme. We have taken road shows out there.
It has had an impact on tomorrow's drivers. If we engage with them today and get them into good practices we will reap the benefits.
I am sure the committee is interested in resources, which have been a challenge for us. Over the past five years the numbers in the traffic corps have declined, as did the numbers in the organisation. The numbers are in my presentation. New graduates are coming out of Templemore however, and the Commissioner has agreed to a 10% increase in the traffic corps for 2017. Only last week I brought a proposal to her that we would bring each of the 800 people now in training into the traffic corps for a ten-week cycle so that they get an appreciation of the importance of the role they have to play in road traffic. We can give them the experience and tools so that when they are out doing their day-to-day work, they will be focused on traffic. The impact of that this year will bring benefits for enforcement and getting the message out on road safety.
We are not too badly off for new cars and equipment. Last year the investment came and we have new high-powered cars for the motorways. That helps us to have a presence. There are several initiatives in the pipeline for working with the driver licence and Superintendent O'Donohue will allude to that shortly. We can do much more if we link with the agencies such as the Road Safety Authority, RSA, on the licences and the courts. Utilising technology we can do much more, faster and better, which will increase our presence on the road.
Ms Donna Price:
We thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to address them here today.
The Irish Road Victims Association, IRVA, is a non-governmental organisation, NGO, run entirely by volunteers that works nationwide. We provide practical and emotional support to road victims and their bereaved families free of charge, seven days a week. We advocate for the bereaved and injured victims, and work with all road safety stakeholders in our combined efforts to reduce road dangers. As members of the Victims Rights Alliance, we also work to ensure the transposition and full implementation of the EU directive on victims of crime into Irish law. IRVA is a member of the Global Alliance of NGOs for Road Safety and of the European Federation of Road Traffic Victims, both of which have UN consultative status and through them, we are also members of the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration.
We are regularly consulted by the World Health Organization, WHO, and we were asked to speak as a panellist at its Post Crash event, which focused on the post crash response and on justice for victims at the second high level conference on road safety in Brasilia in 2015. Following on that, the WHO has now asked us to contribute to an e-learning module on legislative aspects of road safety and in particular to one module dedicated to the experiences and needs of those affected by road traffic injury, relative to legislation.
I founded IRVA with members of the Defence Forces who had lost colleagues on the roads, following the death of my son Darren who was killed in 2006 while travelling to college in Athlone, the same year that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, was launched. It was a particularly horrific year on our roads, not just for my family but for the 365 families who had a loved one killed on the roads that year, not to mention the many more who were seriously injured, estimated at five times that number. During that time, together with others, we were invited to address the transport committee when mandatory testing for alcohol following fatal and serious injury was included for the first time in our legislation. Quite unbelievably, and to the horror of all of our families, we found that in nine out of ten fatal crashes, the surviving driver was not tested for alcohol or drugs. Our families have had to live with the consequence of this failure, a grave injustice.
Since 2006, we have almost halved the deaths on our roads, and we commend the RSA, the Garda, the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and all stakeholders on their efforts in helping to bring this about. However, no life is dispensable and even one avoidable death is one too many, knowing as we do, the utter devastation caused to our families and communities. Our lives have been destroyed forever. There is still so much that we can and must do to save lives.
It is 11 years this very month since my son Darren was killed and 11 years also in September, since the RSA was established. These were 11 years during which we have had too many more totally avoidable deaths and serious injuries, despite all of our efforts. We are still fighting for more resources for the Garda Síochána, for improved Garda investigations and for required changes in legislation. We are still fighting for criminal charges, prosecutions and sentencing that reflect the seriousness of the crime committed of taking a life or affecting the quality of a life. These are real crimes and not just misdemeanours and we feel there should be a vehicular manslaughter charge included in legislation to reflect how seriously society sees these deaths, a charge of careless driving in such circumstances being clearly inappropriate.
The Garda investigation forms the cornerstone for justice. In the absence of a thorough investigation, in which there are mandatory checks of all of the known contributory causes of these fatal collisions, we will not see prosecutions which reflect the taking of our loved ones' lives. We firmly believe that criminal court cases highlighted in the media in recent years are sending out the wrong message and that they are certainly not acting as a deterrent. Too few of these deaths are resulting in prosecutions for the crime of taking a life or affecting the quality of a life. Fewer than 15% result in a charge of "dangerous driving causing death", the only homicide offence. Why? We believe there is too much victim blaming and that there is still no routine and mandatory checking of all of the known contributory causes of these collisions. This is vital work which must be done in all cases to determine what crimes have been committed before a file is forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, with the Garda recommendation regarding prosecution. This must change now both in order that justice is seen to be served and to act as a deterrent. Our road safety work and data collection must also be truly evidence-based. Road deaths should be investigated and prosecuted like other homicides, with hearings taken out of the lower courts, and heard instead in the higher courts before a jury. Road crime is real crime and road victims are entitled to the same information, support and protection that is afforded by our criminal justice system to other victims of crime. Just because a death is caused by a car it is no less of a death. These deaths and serious injuries are not accidents and terminology is vitally important. Our legislation and road safety efforts should reflect this.
We are aware that there has been some discussion in recent weeks about the Minister's proposal to change the penalty for some drink-drivers. We support these changes wholeheartedly. The evidence is there that if the changes deter people from drink-driving, lives will be saved Some Members of the Oireachtas may have concerns about the impact of that on rural areas but there is no proposal from the Minister to change the law as to when an offence has been committed. I am sure no Member of the House wants to be seen to condone anyone in whatever pub in whatever part of Ireland drinking and driving and endangering others. The same law applies to all of us.
I know the Minister's new proposal will come before this committee in the weeks ahead. I hope that the committee will look at the proposal with an open mind and listen to the evidence to back it up instead of listening to the lobbying of vested interests. This is something that the citizens of this State want. I had a brief discussion with Deputy Troy at our vigil outside Leinster House. I was encouraged to hear that his party has not yet taken a definitive decision to propose amendments to the legislation, despite media coverage to the contrary. We appeal to the esteemed members of the committee to listen to the voices of the victims who have lived this nightmare and who have, unfortunately, experienced the injustice of our legal system which has failed to meet our needs. Members have in their hands the power to enact legislation that will save lives. We cannot excuse or condone drunk or otherwise impaired driving at any level, so I ask members to please think very carefully of the message they will be sending out.
I am joined by Leo Liegheo whose daughter Marsia was killed by a hit and run driver, and by Gillian Treacy whose son Ciarán was killed by a drunk driver. Gillian herself sustained horrific injuries in that crash. We are joined by retired garda John Wilson. Together we are happy to answer any questions the committee may have.
I thank Ms Price. I acknowledge that it is difficult for the witnesses to come here to give their evidence and engage with the committee. It is very much appreciated and we thank them for that. I will first go to Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick to ask his questions of the witnesses.
I will start off with the Irish Road Victims' Association. I thank its representatives for appearing before the committee today. I was deeply moved to hear the families' stories. To lose a family member as a result of a traffic accident must be traumatic, but to lose them as a result of drink-driving or dangerous driving must be heartbreaking. I understand completely the families' frustration and I will, as they will, continue to fight for continued resources for the Garda. I would like to show the families my complete support and I look forward to working with them in the future to ensure our roads are a safer place for all. What measures would the families like to see implemented immediately that would make the roads a safer place?
Ms Donna Price:
Many measures must be taken. We need to see more enforcement on the roads. The Garda must be properly resourced for this to happen. We were happy to hear from the assistant commissioner that the traffic corps levels are going to be increased by 10%, that 800 new gardaí will be introduced and that they will take part in traffic enforcement for ten weeks once they qualify. This is welcome news.
As I said in my opening statement, another measure would be to send out the right message that these are criminal offences, that they are crimes and not just misdemeanours. Terminology is important and we cannot continue to refer to them as accidents. They are not accidents because they are totally avoidable and preventable. We would prefer that the terms crashes, collisions or road crimes were used. We want to see an end to careless driving charges, especially in cases such as those seen recently in the media - and I am sure the members have heard of them - where repeat offenders with many previous convictions have killed people on the roads and they are getting away with charges of careless driving. Clearly this is inappropriate. Let us call them what they are. It is vehicular manslaughter and the sentences in legislation should reflect the seriousness of the crime committed, which is the taking of a life and affecting the quality of a life. More severe sentences are required, not because we are looking for vengeance or restitution but simply as a deterrent and for people to realise that if they are going to drink and drive, they are committing a crime and they are endangering our families on the roads. Quite simply, we cannot condone this behaviour.
My opening statement also suggested that when the worst happens and a person is killed or injured, then we must ensure there is a prosecution in most cases. We are not seeing that. For instance, the homicide offence, which is the only one under the legislation, is for dangerous driving causing death. We performed a quick analysis for the four year period 2009 to 2012 to find there were 99 such cases, yet in those same four years there were 799 road deaths. What happened to the other 700 cases and why do we not read about those cases in the media? They were not all as a result of victims' error on the road. We are seeing many prosecutions for minor road traffic offences such as no insurance, no tax, bald tyres or perhaps exceeding the speed limit, but no mention of the fact that a death has occurred as a result of that offence. We need to see more cases for vehicular manslaughter before the courts, not just the lesser and minor offences.
For that to happen we must have thorough Garda investigations. I know the gardaí carry out the investigation but they may be led down a certain route to the exclusion of all others. We advocate for a garda investigation that will thoroughly and routinely check all the known causative factors of these crashes before the file is sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions with the Garda recommendation regarding a prosecution. It would be a box-ticking exercise with somebody overlooking these files to ensure the tachograph chart, for instance, has been checked for the working hours for commercial drivers, that the mobile phone records have been checked, or that the tests for blood alcohol and drugs levels are checked. These things should be done routinely. Unfortunately, we found that until it was mandatory under legislation to test for alcohol, it had not been done with the surviving driver in 90% of cases. We ask that these checks are part of the legislation.
An Garda Síochána implements the law to the word. If it is not in the legislation that these checks must be done and shall be done, then the likelihood is that they will not be done in all cases. The result of that is our families having to live with the consequences. Without the Garda evidence that a crime has been committed, our families are left with no prosecution and we cannot prove, for example, that the death of our loved one was as a result of a driver texting on a phone. We cannot prove it unless that check is carried out and the evidence is submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is vital. The Garda investigation forms the cornerstone for justice and this is why we want those things included in legislation.
We also want the legislation to be consolidated. As we know, the Road Traffic Acts go back to the 1960s and they are a maze. One cannot navigate a way through that legislation without legal expertise. The Road Traffic Acts are the most challenged of legislation so it is imperative that the law is modernised and updated. It must be clear on what crime has been committed and what will be the penalty or punishment. These are a few of the changes we think need to be made. I hope it answers Deputy Fitzpatrick's question.
I would also like to welcome the assistant commissioner and his colleagues. I was alarmed at the number of pedestrian deaths recorded in the 50 km/h zones - the assistant commissioner stated 16 - while there were no pedestrian road deaths recorded in the 30 km/h zone. This is very revealing and it suggests that we must look at the 50 km/h zone and, where possible, look to have those zones reduced to 30 km/h, particularly in built up areas. I am interested to hear the assistant commissioner's views on this and perhaps he can give some insight into why there is such a large difference between the two zones.
Mr. Michael Finn:
The Deputy is right. More than 40 people killed in the 50 km/h zone, 16 of whom were pedestrians. Three people were killed in the 30 km/h zone. It is a scientific fact that the lower the speed at which a vehicle is travelling, the greater the likelihood of the person surviving an impact. The rule of thumb is if we could lower the average speed by 1%, we would reduce the chances of injury by 2%, serious injury by 3% and death by 4%. I will put this into context. If we can reduce the speeds in built-up areas, the net effect is that a pedestrian, a cyclist or other vulnerable road user has a greater chance of surviving a collision.
It is a no-brainer for us. A lower speed is good news for us. We welcome the introduction of even lower speed limits in some of the areas. We support lower speed limits.
I also know from the data supplied that the number of road deaths has fallen from almost 400 in 2005 down to under 200 in 2016. While I welcome this dramatic reduction in the number of road fatalities, I am concerned that the number has risen in the past couple of years. What is the reason for the increase? What immediate measures can be taken to ensure we halt a worrying upward trend?
Mr. Michael Finn:
As I said in my statement, we welcome the good news that Ireland has reduced its number of fatalities over the past ten years. A lot of work was done such as new legislation on drink-driving and the introduction of GoSafe vans. All of this increased the public perception that one would be caught if one committed an offence. The level of compliance has brought about a change, particularly in the behaviour of road users and, primarily, motorists. The change in behaviour has been instrumental in reducing the number of fatalities.
Enforcement is a key aspect. Our role is important and, hence, we have committed to increasing the size of the traffic corps to increase the level of enforcement and address the increases in the number of road deaths we saw last year and in the two preceding years. Without doubt, enforcement has a role to play. That is why it is important that we increase our numbers and, now that we have the resources, we have put extra resources into the traffic corps because new recruits have been deployed to the traffic unit. We place importance on the traffic corps due to the undeniable positive impact it has on the number of fatalities.
Alcohol is still a major contributory factor in road deaths and was responsible for almost 40% of road deaths in 2016. Can the witnesses tell me why the figure is so high and rising? How does the figure compare with other types of addictions? What measures are needed to curb drink-driving in Ireland from the point of view of the Garda?
Mr. Michael Finn:
Enforcement is probably the most important item for us. That is our primary role. We are the enforcement agency so we must be visible. We upped the ante with our Christmas campaign and utilised all of the resources that were at our disposal to make an impact. The 34% increase at Christmas time was because we were out there and so did more. The media side of the Christmas campaign was powerful and even inspired our own people. We could see from an early stage in our campaign how many people were prepared to drink and drive. There must be a deterrent. If people do not see a deterrent then they will continue to take a chance. A combination of factors act as a deterrent and our presence is one of them. To me, good strong legislation and a good penalty act as a deterrent. All of this has an impact when people are deciding whether to chance driving home. People weigh up certain factors when trying to make a decision such as the chance or likelihood of getting caught and the penalty if one is caught. I support any measure that will convince people of the dangers of getting caught drink-driving. I do not just mean the immediate impact drink-driving has on other road users. I believe one reason that drink-driving legislation is contested so vigorously is because losing a driver licence has an impact. I recollect from the time when I was a young garda on the street that drink-driving cases were vigorously contested in court. People value their driver licence and the potential to lose one's licence makes people reflect.
Mr. John Wilson:
As I am sure the assistant commissioner will agree, it is the responsibility of every member of the Garda Síochána, not just members of the traffic corps, to enforce the road traffic legislation in this country.
On Deputy Fitzpatrick's question, quite simply, drink-driving is not classified as a crime. Drink-driving is only classified as a road traffic offence. It is time, in 2017, that drink-driving became a crime in this country. It is a crime in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Imposing a fine and a disqualification is not good enough.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has found it difficult to enforce tougher legislation that deals with drink-driving. It is time that we considered introducing mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of drink-driving. I suggest a period of three months to five years. Has anyone here ever heard of an individual being sent to prison for drink-driving? The maximum sentence that can be imposed for a drink-driving offence is six months imprisonment or a fine of €5,000 or both. It is very rare to hear of an individual being jailed for drink-driving in this country. It is merely a road traffic offence. If an individual shoplifts and steals chocolate or a pair of underwear from a shop on Grafton Street and is convicted in the District Court then that person has committed a criminal offence and is, therefore, a criminal. The same individual can drink five times over the legal limit and if he or she is convicted in the District Court, it will be deemed a road traffic offence. It is time we made drink-driving a crime. Anyone who gets behind the steering wheel of a car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs is nothing more than a criminal.
In terms of the despicable sentence that was handed to the criminal who killed Gillian Treacy's son Ciarán, the presiding judge, God bless him, handed down the strongest sentence possible. Subsequently, the Court of Appeal overturned the sentence and reduced it by a couple of years down to six years all because of a legal precedent. It is time that dangerous driving causing death was replaced with a charge of vehicular manslaughter that carries a 15 or 20-year sentence. The measure would focus the minds of criminals like the man who destroyed the Treacy family forever.
In terms of the Deputy's original question, it is time that drink-driving was reclassified as a criminal offence and that harsher penalties were introduced. I agree with the assistant commissioner when he claimed the solution is enforcement. In many parts of this country the fear of getting caught is almost non-existent. I respect Deputy Michael Healy-Rae in terms of other legislation that he has been involved in or commented on. His reluctance to impose harsher penalties on drink-drivers is unfortunate. I am very disappointed by his actions.
As recently as last Sunday I spoke to an individual in Cavan. He is a very decent and hardworking man yet, in 2017, he sees nothing wrong with going to the pub, drinking four or five pints and driving four or five miles home in his car. The people in rural Ireland deserve the same protections as those who live in urban Ireland. If we want to stamp out drink-driving we must make it a criminal offence and impose proper penalties, not just fines and disqualification. We must ensure that anyone who is convicted of drink-driving is deemed a convicted criminal in the same way as a person who commits an armed robbery or serious assault.
As I have stated in the House, I am 100% behind zero tolerance. I firmly believe that if one has a drink then one cannot drive. I have pushed the Minister and told him the sooner that we criminalise drink-driving the better.
I have asked the families in the IRVA what do they want. Garda resources have been mentioned. Has the assistant commissioner received a commitment that some of the 800 new recruits will be deployed to the traffic corps? He has said that he is happy enough with the resources available, the data, new cars and everything else. I have been lucky that none of my family has every been connected with a road death. I have three children and the last thing I would want to get is a knock on my front door and being informed that something has happened to any one of my children. Has a commitment been given to increase resources?
I agree with Mr. Wilson that we must seriously consider introducing a zero tolerance for drink-driving. People already know that they are over the limit if they take one or two drinks. That is why I maintain we must have zero tolerance. I have three children and I have tried to convince them and other people that once a person has taken a drink that he or she cannot drive. Zero tolerance would be worth it if the policy saved one life. I would like to know the opinions of Mr. Wilson and that of the families present to zero tolerance for drink-driving.
Mr. Michael Finn:
The change in legislation where a novice driver or learner driver is now limited to 20 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood has been a significant factor in addressing that cohort of young people who may not have experienced the same level of that education programme which we have had in the past ten years to change the culture of drink-driving. We need to work on that cohort and the message that while 20 mg is not zero, bringing down the limits has helped to change the public's attitude towards drink-driving. It was 100 mg when I was a young garda. The penalties and enforcement, as Mr. Wilson has said, are the real deterrents to drink-driving and are going to impact most on it.
I was asked about resources. We have committed to increasing our level of resources by 10% this year. That is the start of it. As more people come out of the Garda College, we will continue to build the traffic corps back up to the 1,000 we had in 2007, when our force was at its peak. We have that cohort of young people who have joined An Garda Síochána since 2014. More than 800 have completed their training. I have a commitment from our own senior management that I can take those young men and women into the traffic corps and give each of them that experience. That will be valuable for changing their mindset about the people they engage with and to teach that drink-driving is something that we have to get out there and enforce no matter what part of the country we are in. Deterrent is the biggest factor.
Mr. Leo Lieghio:
As the assistant commissioner said, deterrents are important. I drove a taxi for 20 years, and in that time I saw the disrespect there is for the law. I was stopped about five times to be breathalysed. There is an impression that one is not going to get caught. I back everything Mr. Wilson and Ms Price have said. I have campaigned for vehicular manslaughter to be brought in since Marsia died 12 years ago. I would also like to see the confiscation of cars, especially from repeat offenders. I find that this would have a huge impact on people, especially young people, if they thought their car would be taken off them for drink-driving or speeding. If there are advertisements on a television that a person will have his or her car taken, I guarantee that it will cause a cut in road deaths.
If one uses Google to search for drink-driving, the first thing listed is a solicitor advertising an 80% success rate in getting people off charges. Such things should not be allowed either. The Members of this House have the power to do something to save lives in this country and to save other families from going through what we went through. Justice for our families is long gone now. We will never get justice. We are not looking for revenge. Do Members want to wait for that knock to come on their door or a phone call to tell them that a child or family member has been killed? In this day and age, there is no excuse whatsoever for drink-driving or driving while impaired. The warnings are all there.
I know zero tolerance for drink-driving is going to be difficult to achieve, but the proposal of the Minister, Deputy Ross, is not to reduce the limit, just toughen the penalty. I beseech the Members of this House to act on this, support the measure completely, and toughen the sentences. The consequences are drastic.
I welcome everybody. An opportunity to engage like this is very productive. We are here because before Christmas, we as a committee wanted to bring forward hearings on the issue of road safety and the worrying trend last year where we saw an increase in fatalities on our roads for the first time in a number of years. Collectively, all the political parties, though I can only speak for my own, want to bring forward legislation that will address the number of fatalities on our roads. I am not as emotionally involved in this debate as the witnesses evidently are. I sympathise with the families who have been bereaved over the years.
As one of the contributors said, we have to ensure penalties are proportionate. We have to ensure that sentences reflect the seriousness of the crime and that there are deterrents. What I am getting from the presentation is that the biggest deterrent is enforcement on the roads. That has been backed up by facts. In December 2016, there were 34% fewer fatalities on our roads because there was a greater presence of gardaí on our roads and because there was an extensive media campaign about the consequences of drink-driving. We seem to be focusing all our attention on drink-driving, which incidentally is not the biggest contributor to deaths on our roads. If one compares it with to December 2014, there was a 24% difference when the Garda had a greater presence on our roads.
I welcome that Assistant Commissioner Finn has been appointed to his role. It was left void for a long time and that in itself gave an indication of the commitment to road safety. The most senior position in this area in An Garda Síochána was left void, with nobody in a leadership role, and there was nobody at the management level that Mr. Finn speaks about to fight to secure the additional resources. We want to welcome and acknowledge that. The strength of the force is still 400. Will Mr. Finn explain to me the difference between the traffic corps and roads policing? He spoke about the number of people in the traffic corps and about roads policing. For my benefit and perhaps that of others, will Mr. Finn explain the difference?
Mr. Michael Finn:
We are talking about the same thing. We are looking at calling the old traffic corps "roads policing". We did not want the traffic corps to be out there for a sole purpose and not seeing other opportunities. I mentioned the M7 recently with regard to drugs. If we are there and we are policing, whether as a traffic corps member or whatever, if a car comes along and it pings gardaí and they know it is a drug thing, they have to pull it over. That is a bit of semantics on the names, but we are talking about the same thing. Roads policing is about being on the road, enforcing traffic rules, and that applies to everybody.
There is an additional 10% this year, and I welcome that Mr. Finn has been able to secure the work placement of the recruits. That is positive because it will enable them to fill in voids or cover holiday leave in future. When does Mr. Finn envisage that the traffic corps will be back at full strength?
Mr. Michael Finn:
There is a limit to the number of people that we can bring into the Garda College annually. At the moment, somewhere between 800 and 900 get into the organisation each year. If we can continue or expand that, it would help us accelerate the numbers we bring into the traffic corps. We are operating around that 10% figure. It is what we have focused on with regard to resources that we are going to put into the traffic corps. If we can get more people in or other factors come into play, we would certainly be open to it and I would welcome getting more people into the traffic corps. I will be there at the management table looking for more.
Mr. Finn made a point on the fixed charge penalties for those who were in that bracket of 50 mg to 80 mg, and that 75% of those accept their penalty and fine, and that is done straight away. It saves members of the traffic corps from going into court where the person who has been caught is fighting the case. It gives Mr. Finn an opportunity to have more of his force out policing the roads.
I have a question about someone who is caught over the limit. No one for a moment is condoning the behaviour of anyone caught over the limit. What is the turnaround time from when they are caught? What is the timescale for someone caught this evening? It could not be me because I do not do it, but if I was caught this evening, how long would it take for me to lose my licence by going through the courts system?
Mr. Michael Finn:
I will ask my colleagues to reflect on the answer. Before I address that question, I wish to comment on the categories. The rate is approximately 75% for the payment of fixed charge notices. It is 82% for those with a blood alcohol concentration, BAC, of between 50 mg and 80 mg per 100 ml. The figure is 75% for the people with a BAC of between 80 mg and 100 mg. There is a greater level of payment among those in the category between 50 mg and 80 mg. However, even at the higher BAC level, there is still a 75% payment rate for those who get disqualified – 75% still pay up.
Deputy Troy asked about the time for a case to get through the court. It varies. I would have to come back to the committee with an exact answer.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
It probably somewhere between six and nine months. It depends on how busy the court is and whether the person is charged at the time. Deputy Troy used the example of someone who was arrested today. Let us suppose a driver is taken to a station and the evidential breath testing instrument is used. Then, let us suppose we get back a reading straight away. A garda can charge the driver and bring him before the court. In that case it could be dealt with within a month or six weeks, given an adjournment and time for the defendant to get a defence in place.
Let us suppose the driver gave a blood or urine sample that has to go for analysis. It would come back from the medical bureau in a couple of weeks. Under that process, the driver is issued with a summons. The court date depends on how busy the court is and the associated scheduling. It could be six to nine months. A small percentage could go outside that timeframe. With a summons, it can take six to nine months and with a charge, the timeframe is probably within six to eight weeks.
Does it mean that a person who is perhaps drunk and clearly incapable of driving a car could in fact continue to drive the car for six or nine months while he is waiting on the case to go to court?
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
There is a difference in the fixed charge system. Let us consider the same scenario except that the driver is issued with a fixed charge. If the evidential breath testing results come back, the case of the driver will be checked to see whether the driver qualifies for a fixed charge. The fixed charge will issue within approximately six weeks. The driver will then have 28 days to pay. In that case, we know the driver is amenable for the crime – it is a crime. The driver is made amenable and gets a penalty probably within six to eight weeks, regardless of whether he or she falls into the penalty point category or the disqualification category. That case would be dealt with completely under the fixed charge system.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
This applies to anyone who gets a fixed charge, including those with a BAC of between 50 mg and 80 mg or drivers with a level between 20 mg and 50 mg. It applies to anyone who gets a fixed charge. The chances are that the check is completed within two weeks. The driver is issued with a fixed charge and given 28 days to pay it. It is essentially a period of a month.
Mr. Michael Finn:
It is a far better process. Certainly, it has been a great aid to us and even to the entire criminal justice system in terms of getting penalties imposed quicker. Let us suppose someone gets disqualified on the basis of the example described by Deputy Troy. Disqualification could be in place within six weeks as opposed to six months. It is a far better process from our perspective in terms of enforcing the law without having to go to court every time.
What about the number of people who are disqualified? There is a major focus on the 38% figure from last year. There was a level of alcohol in their systems. Let us break down the number of pedestrians, passengers and people who were disqualified but who were driving when they should not have been. Let us include the number of people with no insurance who clearly have no concept of law. Then, let us compare the number of people who have a BAC between the 50 mg and 80 mg with those with a BAC over 80 mg. Can the assistant commissioner quantify the figures?
The figures the Minister quoted last week on the "Drivetime" programme were based on the Road Safety Authority analysis from 2008 to 2012. New legislation came in dealing with penalty points and the fixed charge notices only came in during 2012. Since then, there has been a downward trajectory in the number of fatalities on our roads. Does that match the particular focus at the moment in respect of fatalities with a given alcohol level in their system?
Mr. Michael Finn:
I will offer some examples that might put it into context. Deputy Troy referred to the Minister's figures. The Minister was perhaps alluding to the pre-crash survey which we did with the RSA. The data went back to 2008. I will offer a snapshot of some figures that might help to answer the question. Between 2012 and 2015 the number was 879 for the category of specified drivers who get a three-month disqualification and pay a €200 fine. For those with a BAC of between 50 mg and 80 mg we had 1,844-----
Mr. Michael Finn:
That is correct. Alternatively, they might be novice drivers or young people. They all fall in to that category. A total of 879 fell into that category. In the same period, the number for the next category, a BAC of between 50 mg and 80 mg, we had 2,245. The number for the third category, which is a BAC of over 80 mg, is 1,380. Of the three categories under which drivers do not get a disqualification, the 50 mg to 80 mg category had the largest number of the fixed charged notices. These cases do not go to court. These drivers are in the fixed charged notice category.
I think this is something people are not aware of. I raised this question with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. I asked about the number of prosecutions under the fixed charge notice system. Our data table does not correspond with the table provided by the Garda Síochána at all. I want to clarify that we are referring to the same legislation.
With effect from 27 October 2011, certain offences contrary to sections 4 and 5 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, including driving or attempting to drive or being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant, may be dealt with by way of a fixed penalty notice in lieu of the commencement of criminal proceedings for persons deemed suitable by the regulations. I have to hand a data table showing the number of fixed penalty notices issued to persons arrested having been recorded as having in excess of 50 mg but less than 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood for the period 2011 to date. In 2011, when these laws were commenced, seven people were prosecuted. In 2012, a total of 111 people were prosecuted. In 2013, a total of 68 people were prosecuted. In 2014, a total of 47 people were prosecuted. In 2015, a total of 62 people were prosecuted. In 2016, a total of 69 people were prosecuted. In 2017, only one person had been prosecuted up to two weeks ago. I asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality about it. The Minister, Deputy Ross, indicated that people were not showing respect for this legislation. I asked the Tánaiste to set out the number of repeat offenders but she could not come back to me with an answer.
She said she would come back to me, but she has not. That is the argument we had the last day at this committee. Where are the figures being verified?
To clarify for the information and the work of the committee, when the witness says detections, is that the breath test alone or is it following a blood or urine sample? For detection to be classified in those figures, is it after someone is brought to a station and gives a sample or is it just after a breath test?
Ms Donna Price:
I was interested to hear the assistant commissioner outlining the level of compliance compared with the payment of the fines. Around 75% of people are prepared to paid their fines when caught for drink-driving rather than appear in court. Apart from the financial aspect, we have so many people prepared to take the chance to drive while impaired on our roads, endangering all of our families. Very few of them are going to court. They take the fine and continue to drink-drive. What we have seen in the five-year period between 2012 and 2016 is that 40,000 have taken that risk and have been done for driving while intoxicated. It is an appalling vista to have that level of disregard for the law and for our safety and that of our families. That is why it is so important to get away from the fixed charge penalty notice and to send out the message that drink-driving is quite simply not acceptable, that one will lose one's licence and will have to engage with solicitors to go to court to be represented. That is how serious this offence is. It is an endangerment offence and that is why it needs to be taken out of the District Court and into the higher level courts because of the devastation that it is causing.
We simply cannot condone people drink-driving, drug-driving, texting and driving or any form of impaired driving on our roads. It is simply unacceptable. We have to tackle it at source. While fixed charge penalty notices are well and good and bring revenue into the coffers, they are not stopping that endangerment on the roads. That is where we rely on our legislators to amend the law to make it a crime. People will then take notice because people do not want to have a criminal record, lose their licence or lose their jobs. Quite simply, one can be a repeat offender for drink-driving and be in and out of the District Court with hundreds of offences, yet one will not lose one's job. It is not seen in the same light as another criminal offence.
Mr. Leo Lieghio:
Deputy Troy said that we are more emotionally involved but this is an emotional subject. People are not just statistics. It is the duty of this Government and any government to protect its citizens. How in God's name can people with so many previous convictions, especially motoring convictions, still be allowed to walk the streets and go out and kill other people? My daughter's killer knocked my daughter out of her runners to the height of the traffic lights and was only charged with careless driving. The gardaí told us that she showed great remorse. Two weeks later she nearly killed another 18-year old girl in Belfast. That was after showing remorse. This remorse thing has been used so many times in court. The judges and the justice system are just accepting it. Repeat offenders should be taken off the roads. Either their cars should be confiscated or preferably they should be locked up and not be walking the streets. The Government at that time and at present is responsible for so many deaths. It is the Government's duty to protect these people but it is not doing it. It is protecting the criminal. These offences should be taken out of the Road Traffic Acts and made into criminal offences.
It is a criminal conviction. What is the number of gardaí in the traffic corps at the moment? I know that the numbers were reduced down through the years around the country. No one condones someone who is three, four or five times over the limit, which I have seen. With the best will in the world, if the limit was down to zero, has An Garda Síochána the resources? It all comes down to whether An Garda Síochána has the resources to go out from A to B. What are the numbers are in the traffic corps at present? I think it was up to 1,200 but came down to 700. Is that correct? What are the numbers of gardaí on the ground?
They were in the supporting documentation. The Deputy did not get them as he is not a member. They were circulated to the members of the committee. We are still looking at a significant reduction compared with the maximum number that was in place a number of years ago.
Mr. Michael Finn:
When the figure was up at 1,046, we certainly had a greater presence out there. There is no doubt about that. Anybody would acknowledge that greater presence on the road leads to greater enforcement. There is definitely a correlation between the two. The sooner we can get our numbers back up to where they were above 1,000, the better it will be for all of us.
Mr. Michael Finn:
Feet on the ground and smarter enforcement from our perspective. I now have two analysts working in our traffic department full time to make sure that what we do targets the right locations at the right times using the data we share with the Road Safety Authority and the data from our own figures. That helps to make sure that when we are out there, we are doing the right thing in the right place. In the past, we were not as scientific in terms of how we did our business but now we can be. We have hotspots and mapping in order that when our resources go out every day to every district, we know where the hotspots are and what times and locations are the most likely to see drink-driving based on our evidence. With a combination of better resources and better technology, I think we will have better outcomes. That is what we are focusing on.
Mr. John Wilson:
The assistant commissioner is adamant that intoxicated driving is a crime. If a member of An Garda Síochána is convicted in the District Court or any court for theft or fraud, he or she will be dismissed from An Garda Síochána having notched up a criminal conviction. If a member of An Garda Síochána is convicted of drink-driving, he or she will not be sacked from An Garda Síochána unless he or she is on probation. Otherwise, I am aware of a couple of cases in which gardaí were convicted and remained on as serving members of An Garda Síochána. Drink-driving is not a crime, it is a road traffic offence.
It may be included in the canon of crimes or whatever but it is not seen or regarded as a criminal offence. That is a fact. If an individual is before the court for the first time or 101st time for drink-driving or driving while intoxicated, the maximum conviction is six months imprisonment and a €5,000 fine. That is a fact. Drink-driving is not classified or regarded as a crime in this country. To reiterate, if an individual is convicted of stealing a pair of underwear from a shop in Grafton Street, he or she would have a criminal conviction. As Ms Price has correctly stated, all drink-driving cases are heard in the District Court.
This is very important. We are having these hearings in order to interact and engage with one another. As I stated at the outset, we have a duty and responsibility to ensure sentences should reflect the seriousness of the crime and penalties should be proportionate. To be fair, there is a big difference in somebody who adheres to the law, has a few pints one night, takes a taxi home and gets up the next morning with a residual amount of alcohol in his or her system. Someone like this should be dealt with differently from a person who leaves a public house having drunk a serious amount of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car.
I am conscious that we are focusing much of our effort on one particular issue when speed is still the largest contributing factor to deaths on our road. We brought forward legislation in this committee that was supported across all the political parties relating to introduction of random drug testing on roads. I would be interested to know when that will commence. With regard to the use of mobile phones, I had to pull in the car on a small regional road as a driver of an articulated lorry was coming along with one hand on the wheel of the vehicle and the other with his phone to his ear. I could not believe it. There are laws in place to prevent that happening and people speeding but they continue to do both.
My colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, was right in saying it is about ensuring we have the greatest amount of enforcement on our roads. For me it is about ensuring we do not clog our court system by giving people the opportunity to come in and fight legislation. The witness correctly pointed out some of this exists since 1960 and perhaps there is a job of work to be done in consolidating the law, leaving it fit for purpose so lawyers cannot have a field day in trying to defend the indefensible. People caught breaking the law severely should not be left on the road for six or nine months. Perhaps the penalty for somebody disqualified from driving but who is caught driving a car is not sufficient. A number of issues must addressed and fleshed out further.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
Deputy Troy mentioned an example of somebody driving the morning after having a few drinks the night before. Research indicates that people at 40 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood are twice as likely to be involved in a collision. The legal limit for the majority of drivers is 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. At the 80 mg level, people are six times as likely to be involved in a collision. In research from 2008 to 2012, based on culpable drivers and alcohol factors, between the zero level and 80 mg level, we estimate seven to eight people were being killed every year with those sorts of levels. No matter what the level, there is an impact.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
Yes, and a person is six times as like to be in a collision at the 80 milligrams level. There are seven or eight people killed at what people consider the lower levels. The morning afterwards, people might have a lower blood alcohol level but even at the 40 milligram level after a skinful the night before, people are still twice as likely to be involved in a collision.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
No. If we are talking about pedestrians, the figure is 38%. The passengers are not relevant. If we are talking about pedestrians, drivers and motorcyclists, the figure is 38%. If we include just drivers and motorcyclists, the figure is 29%. The rest, or 71%, did not have alcohol in terms of culpability.
Most of my questions concern the alcohol issue for a particular reason. It is surprising that 4% of fatalities are on motorways. One might think because a car is travelling at 120 km/h, there would be many more accidents. Although 4% still equates to a large number of deaths, why are there comparatively few incidents on a motorway? Is it because people feel there is a far better Garda presence on motorways to stop speeding? Do people who consume alcohol know there is a far better chance of being caught on a motorway rather than in a rural village? The people in rural villages have one or two extra glasses or wine or bottles of beer and may think there is a greater chance of them not being caught.
I keep going back to this and the Chairman knows it; if people drink, they should not drive. The bottom line is we should go for zero tolerance. There is the idea of going for a 20 mg level but people who drink can be stubborn. I have done a bit of bar work in my time and trying to get keys from someone who has consumed alcohol can be very hard. Not too many people would take on a person trying to get into a car with a set of keys. I know Mr. Wilson stated it is not really a criminal offence but the punishment must suit the crime. There are three people here who have lost loved ones and no matter what happens, nobody is going to replace them. I remember years ago my daughter had meningitis and, touch wood, she survived. As a parent, I am always in fear of the knock on the door. I would not wish it on anyone. The advertisement years ago had a garda coming to a house.
We talk about speeding and everything else but with alcohol, a person has the choice of drinking or not. I am involved with sport and many people go out. For example, there might be a designated driver in a group of four or five. We should encourage that more. The punishment must suit the crime. Until we go with zero tolerance, we will have a serious problem on the roads. There could be many knocks on doors.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
The figures for the parliamentary question related to blood only. That did not include urine or breath specimens. That accounts for the difference in the figures.
We will run it again for the committee but the figures we produced today, which the assistant commissioner has given, include those relating to blood, breath and urine specimens.
Ms Gillian Treacy:
I find it appalling that anybody thinks that drinking and driving go together because they do not. I witnessed my son lying on a trolley dead and then to learn he was dead because of a drink-driver was completely unacceptable. His death was not natural and it was not right. It is simply not acceptable. Deputy Troy's opinion of somebody getting a taxi home and being a good person but still getting caught the next morning is not acceptable either. If that person hit a car and killed the person driving it, that death would not be any less than if that person was hit after hours. There is no excuse, be it morning time or night-time. My crash happened at 8.30 in the evening. I did not in my wildest dreams expect to meet somebody who was out of their mind from drink and for that person to be injure me very badly and kill my son. That mindset has to change. It is completely unacceptable.
Ms Donna Price:
Yes. I want to reply to Deputy Troy's concern for those caught the next morning with residual alcohol in their system, and I want to allay his fears. The proposal is not to change the blood alcohol level at which it is an offence to drive, which is 50 mg. For any reading below 50 mg, it is not a crime or an offence to drive and people with a reading below that level will not be prosecuted. The Deputy should also bear in mind that before a prosecution takes place and the level of alcohol present in one's system is decided, the reading on the machine is reduced by 17.5% in order to be sure to be sure that a person is over the limit before he or she is prosecuted. Anybody driving with alcohol in their system up to or around 50 mg gets off with it. We have cases where families have lost a loved one, where their only child has been killed by a person who was driving at the limit of 50 mg after that allowance of 17.5% was taken into account, and that is completely unacceptable. Even if we are leaving the legislation as it stands, families are losing their loved ones because somebody has chosen to drive and may still be on that limit. We have to send out the right message from here. I believe zero tolerance is right. I agree with Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick. We will get there eventually because this has to be the case, but all we are seeking to do now is to send out the right message - and to have in place a stronger deterrent - to people that if they do take a chance and drink drive, they will lose their licence. That has to be the case because given that the level of enforcement is much lower there is little chance of being caught and people are taking chances.
I do not agree regarding the speed issue. The assistant commissioner said earlier that the compliance level is better now. I drove here today with my speedometer at 80 km/h and the other cars on the road were flying past me. I was the only motorist driving at the speed limit in Lucan coming into town this morning, and that is not acceptable.
I thank Ms Price. I want to ask a few questions and there will be time later for further questions. All the members of this committee agreed that we would have sessions on road safety because, as was pointed out by Deputy Troy, we are extremely concerned about the increase in the number of road fatalities last year. This relates to a cultural mindset. In the 1970s, more than 600 people were dying on our roads each year and that was kind of accepted. Even though we know the figure now is far too high, it is accepted that there will be some road fatalities. A cultural change is needed to shift that mindset because every road death is one too many. There are just over 20 people in the room and that is the number of people since 1 January alone who have lost their lives on our roads, not to mention the number of people who have been seriously injured. This is a very worthwhile exercise but the outcome of it is what is important. It is probably very dangerous to focus on one particular area over another. As a committee, we are trying to get an all-encompassing approach and to explore everything that can be done. My view is that not enough is being done across the board on this matter.
I have a few questions for the members of An Garda Síochána. I note the number of members in the Garda traffic corps in the south region. The figure represents just under 20% of the current total membership of the corps. As I recall from a meeting at which representatives of the Road Safety Authority in attendance three or four weeks ago, the number of road fatalities in the Munster area is much higher than elsewhere. I asked if there is a correlation between the number of road fatalities that occur and the number of Garda traffic corps members deployed in an area. Does the southern region comprise the six counties of Munster or is any particular county excluded?
Mr. Michael Finn:
The three counties of Cork, Kerry and Limerick make up the south region. There are five Garda divisions in it. Cork has three divisions and Kerry and Limerick make up the other two divisions. The number in the traffic corps would have been proportionately down to 10% or we started off with around a figure of 10% in each region. For example, when I was in Cork we had 60 people in the traffic corps and the total number of gardaí was 600 or more. That was our yardstick when we were increasing the number of staff in the traffic corps, namely, that it would be approximately 10% of the total number.
We have spent much time discussing the enforcement of speed limits and drink-driving limits. I have raised with the Department, the Minister and the RSA the use of technology to prevent the crime form happening in the first instance. If we have an agreed blood alcohol limit in legislation, the use of an alcolock device will ensure that a vehicle cannot be activated by a person who is over that limit. That would perform a service for the general public and for person who is not sure if he or she is over the limit or it would remove the possibility of he or she losing his or her licence if he or she cannot activate his or her vehicle. An argument could be made that because speed contributes as much to road fatalities, if not more, than people who drive over the blood alcohol limit, that a person who drives at speed should also lose his or her licence. Where do we draw the line in terms of what is and is not an appropriate response?
There is technology that can limit the speed at which a car can be driven. Limiting the speed at which a vehicle can be driven to 120 km/h, which is the motorway speed limit, will not prevent a person from driving at an inappropriate speed in a 80 km/h zone or on a country road incorporating a 50 km/h zone or in a built up area, given that 25 out of 40 road deaths last year involved non-motorists in 50 km/h zones. Global positioning system, GPS, technology could also be used to enforce the law in that if one drove over the speed limit in a 50 km/h zone, one could be caught by virtue of one's GPS information. That would represent a massive leap forward. It would change the game completely in terms of the figures we are dealing with, but I do not see any urgency about this in the Department. Would the witnesses view the use of such technology in this respect as representing major progress and would they be in agreement with its use? Ms Price spoke about adhering to the speed limit in a 80 km/h zone. We have all had that experience. When one sticks to the speed limit, one can be guaranteed that one will be overtaken and some people even have the audacity to toot their horns as they pass because they one are in a hurry and one is in their way. It will lengthen journey times, but are people willing to make that little sacrifice? I would be in interested to hearing the witnesses' views on that.
Mr. Michael Finn:
From our perspective, the technology exists. There are already limiters in place on buses and trucks and the drivers of those vehicles are prohibited from driving over a set speed limit. What can we not do this in respect of motorways? The maximum speed at which anyone should drive on a motorway is 120 km/h. The technology exists to do as I am outlining. Likewise, if one is not wearing one's seat belt, one will hear a beep noise in the car and that beep noise will continue until one puts it on.
We have other technology. For example, my satnav system will recognise that I am in a 80 km/h zone. Why can it not make the connection or keep pinging until my speed goes under 80 km/h? This type of technology exists and we should be looking at it. These things influence people's behaviour. Likewise, it is possible to put limiters on the sides of motorcycle engines to limit speed capacity for young people or learners. We would welcome that. We have a technology group that includes a representative of the Road Safety Authority. Superintendent O'Donohue is on the group. The group is considering these technology developments. Likewise, alco-meters can go into cars to stop us from making ill-informed decisions. If people did not have alcohol consumed, they would be more savvy but the alcohol does affect our common sense.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
I know some countries have introduced alco-locks. In fairness, some businesses here have introduced alco-locks. It makes sense in terms of work related vehicle safety. We are all for vehicle safety. The autonomous vehicle is not too far away. We already have collision avoidance systems in cars. For example, the anti-lock braking system represents technology to help collision avoidance. Technology is advancing all the time. Certainly, we are to the fore in promoting its introduction here as well as in promoting people to buy vehicles with that technology.
Mr. Michael Finn:
Deputy Troy described a driver being on the telephone and driving an articulated lorry. This is where we have to work with the industry. In today's world, a truck costs €100,000 or more. I cannot understand why drivers do not have a hands-free unit. It is inexcusable that a driver would have a telephone to his ear. This is where we have to work with the industry. We must ensure those in the industry do not skimp on the extra cost of putting in the equipment to facilitate drivers. It is inexcusable that such behaviour takes place.
I sat on the previous joint committee responsible for transport. Is the Garda Síochána in favour of other proposals? I am in favour of one proposal but it never got anywhere. The idea was that a speed limiter would be put in the car of young drivers. The limit could be set at 50 km/h or whatever. These devices can be installed in the same way as they are installed in trucks. I know because I come from a trucking background. Insurance could be given at the same price for everyone. Then, if the driver has a crash, it is his problem. Is the Garda Síochána in favour of that?
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was before the committee some weeks ago. I made a suggestion, as did other members, relating to the filling of positions and vacancies on the board of the Road Safety Authority. A suggestion was made that a group such as the IRVA would be well equipped and could have a positive impact. The association could make an input in terms of the workings of the RSA. The Minister said it was something he was going to consider. He said he would look at filling board positions within the RSA. Have any approaches been made to the IRVA in respect of becoming a nominating body for the board of the RSA?
Ms Donna Price:
No approaches have been made to us yet. Obviously, we work with all stakeholders. We have been working for several years with the RSA, the Health and Safety Authority and the Garda Síochána. We would welcome being involved in anything like that.
We are coming from a different perspective. We are emotionally involved. We have experienced the absolute devastation. Having experienced that and knowing how shattering it is for our families, we are compelled to do something about it. These are avoidable deaths. Deputy Fitzpatrick commented on how it was bad enough to lose a child through a serious illness. Losing a child is the end of the world for families. To lose a child in a situation like this, where the crashes are avoidable, is senseless. We are compelled into action and into doing something about it. That is why we do what we do.
Our families ask us why we do this. They say it will never bring our loved ones back. That is precisely the answer. The members of the committee and the Members of the Oireachtas have it in their power to do something to change that situation and to help to save lives. That is a great gift. They have been given this trust by the electorate. They are here to represent the needs of the electorate.
I understand what Deputy Troy said about not being emotionally involved. We would never wish Members to be emotionally involved. They do not want that knock on the door and we would not wish it on our worst enemies. However, we want the committee to examine the scientific evidence and the facts. The Road Safety Authority and the Garda Síochána will provide the facts to the committee. I appeal to the committee to make its decision based on that evidence. I appeal to the committee to avoid listening to the vested interests. I hope we have allayed the fears of the committee about people being caught the next morning. There is a difference between someone who has ten pints and someone who has two. The allowance for that is already in the legislation because we do not prosecute with a blood alcohol concentration of under 50 mg per 100 ml, except for novice drivers. As I said, to determine whether an offence has been committed, an allowance of 17.5% exists. An Garda Síochána can make allowance for this on the reading from the intoxilyser machines.
Mr. John Wilson:
Reference was made to speeding and mobile telephone use. It is my understanding that the fixed charge notice for speeding is still €80 regardless of whether the driver is doing 5 km/h over the 80 km/h speed limit or 160 km/h in a 120 km/h zone. The fine is still €80. I believe that must change. A graded system should be introduced whereby if an individual is doing 150 km/h in a 120 km/h zone, there should be a €300 or €400 fixed charge notice and six penalty points.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
It is necessary to categorise. If a driver is doing 30 km/h over a 50 km/h limit, it is the same as doing 30 km/h over a 120 km/h limit. The fine is €80 and the driver is issued three penalty points. If the driver goes to court and is convicted, the driver is issued five penalty points. If a garda stops a driver for excessive speeding, he may also prosecute or pursue the driver for dangerous driving. That can be added on.
Safety camera vans can detect people driving at a higher speed and provide the information. For example, GoSafe, the private operator, provides that information and we can see whether we can pursue a prosecution for the additional offence. For speeding by itself, the fine is €80.
Mr. John Wilson:
Speed is only one part of the definition of dangerous driving. Believe it or not, it is not easy to prove dangerous driving against someone who is caught speeding. There should be a specific speeding charge.
In the case of a graded system, consideration should be given to increasing the fines dramatically and the imposition of penalty points for speeding instead of the flat fee or penalty that exists at the moment. If someone was facing a €500 fine plus the imposition of ten penalty points on the licence for a single offence, it would concentrate the mind.
There is an epidemic of mobile telephone use at the moment, as committee members will appreciate. Deputy Troy referred to the driver of the lorry on the mobile telephone. I believe we are going to have to give An Garda Síochána power to seize mobile telephones at the side of the road and have them examined to prove that an individual was using the telephone. Moreover, there should be a major increase in the financial penalties for mobile telephone use as well as the imposition of penalty points. I am also in favour of bringing in an automatic disqualification for mobile telephone use. I regard it as being that serious.
When the Road Safety Authority, RSA, representatives were before the committee, they pointed to drink-driving and speeding. They included in the same category not wearing seat belts and mobile telephone use.
Mr. John Wilson:
Mobile telephone use is horrendous. I counted 17 drivers one day, including a lorry driver, using a mobile telephone. A driver cannot concentrate on driving and using a mobile telephone, I do not care what class of a genius the driver is. There is an epidemic of mobile telephone use.
Ms Price alluded to speeding. Despite the GoSafe vans and the fantastic work of the Garda traffic corps throughout the country, it still is a major problem. I believe the penalties are not severe enough.
I welcome the witnesses. I wish to congratulate Michael Finn who serves in Cork on his elevation to assistant commissioner and wish him all the best. Rural Ireland is not bandit country. In the past few days, an old age pensioner had the misfortune to be murdered in Ballysaggart, which is just over the road from me. As the Garda was able to do its job, that means the force is on the ground and there is a Garda presence in rural Ireland. I commend the force on what it is able to do even with such limited resources.
Everyone has been touched, directly or indirectly, by drunk drivers who cause fatalities on the roads. We must acknowledge there has been a phenomenal increase in traffic on the roads in the past number of years, especially in the past two years compared with four or five years ago. That is borne out by statistics. It was mentioned that 3% of accidents are due to the condition of the road and the condition of the roads is not keeping pace with the volume of traffic. Most cars that go for the NCT fail it. If a car ends up in a crash, the technical people who investigate the crash sites are able to determine whether there were vehicle problems as well. Do the Garda statistics show up whether faulty vehicles were involved in crashes?
A campaign by the Road Safety Authority on driver fatigue, where drivers who were feeling tired were told to pull in, was a very good campaign that should be run again.
I am aware of two fatalities on the motorway I use because people accessed the motorway from the wrong way. It is back to the RSA and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in regard to road design. Deaths occur on the roads for many reasons. I thank the witnesses for coming before us today.
I am looking at motorcyclist fatalities in particular. A motorcyclist does not have the shell of a vehicle to protect him or her. I am concerned about the central reservation, which are literally steel poles with connecting wires and when a motorcyclist is dismounted in this area, they effectively come in contact with razor blades. Similarly, signposts and telecommunications poles are involved in many fatalities. Can we do something better in regard to the engineering on that front? Is there a way to try to reduce risk to motorcyclists? The central reservation area is fine for a car, as it stops a car crossing over onto the oncoming vehicles but it has a different impact on motorcyclists. I do not want to come across the type of stuff members of the Garda come across in the line of their work but is the central reservation area an issue for motorcyclists?
Mr. Michael Finn:
To my recollection, and I can come back to the Chairman with statistics, I am not familiar with a great many motorcyclists fatalities as a result of the road surface, because the Cork-Mallow road is similar to the road in Kerry. Motorcyclists are a problem for us, especially as there seems to be a culture whereby enthusiasts go out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon. The attraction of the motorcycle is speed and we are working with the Road Safety Authority to see how we can target and educate that cohort on the dangers and risks. As the Chairman said, the motorcyclist does not have the shell of the motor car if one has an accident when on a motorbike. The motorcyclist is very vulnerable. Last weekend I saw a statistic where we had a fatality and the motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet. We must educate people. They are even more vulnerable when on a motorcycle.
Ms Donna Price:
I welcome the measures that are being introduced with regard to learner drivers following the experience of the family in Cork, where Mr. Clancy lost his wife and daughter. We have been approached by a number of approved driving instructors who have raised their concerns with the Road Safety Authority on learner drivers arriving to do their driving test unaccompanied and perhaps failing their test and leaving the centre unaccompanied. Obviously the Road Safety Authority cannot do anything about it because they are not involved in enforcement, but it is the duty of the Garda Síochána. Would the assistant commissioner like to address that point, if he is trying to do something about it?
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
That has been brought to our attention. For the past number of years we targeted learner permit operations at centres like that, so we look. A person who is on his or her way to do the driving test may be stopped by the Garda Síochána to check his or her licence and the person may be unaccompanied. We have an impact on it.
There is an issue with the licence for those who have a hitch for trailers, as they would have used the trailer to go to marts. For years the use of a trailer was part of the licence. People had a licence for years and were well used to twisting and turning their trailers. New rules were introduced and if one was on one side of a date, the rules of the old licence still applied but otherwise the new rules applied. We sometimes make laws that push people outside the system. Some people never had the opportunity of an education and are not able to read or write. I am very critical of the RSA and the way it conducts its business by touch screen technology. Would the Garda Síochána try to come in behind my proposal of a practical system in some place like Mondello Park, where they could do all the practical exercises with the car and trailer? The people I am talking about are bamboozled by this new system, and although they had a licence in the past it is pushing them outside the law.
This is totally wrong and should not be the spirt of the way things are done. The Garda Síochána need to move with the RSA and try to get something done on that.
I question the way the GoSafe vans are located and parked on the hard shoulder. Is that safe? Is it legal?
In regard to drug testing for drivers, I know the Garda was trying to find a way of conducting such tests, but has a foolproof system been found to conduct such tests?
I note Dublin has been allocated almost as many Garda members as the whole western region.
Mr. Michael Finn:
I may be able to answer some of the Deputy's question but I am not so sure that I can address the number of Garda in the western region overall. I terms of the traffic corps, I will be looking to see that the western region gets its proportion of people in the traffic division.
On the question of the GoSafe vans, it must go through a very rigorous process on where it parks its vehicles. Superintendent Con O'Donohue meets the company on an ongoing basis. I have been present at some of their meetings.
Mr. Michael Finn:
There is a very vigorous process which GoSafe must go through with the Garda Síochána and Superintendent O'Donohue on any sites that are chosen on which to park the vans. Not only does the location have to pass our own risk assessment in terms of whether it is safe, one has also to talk to the owner of the location where the vans are parked. One cannot go along and park in a driveway without the consent of the owner of the property. There is a pretty rigorous process in regard to the GoSafe vans.
I understand what Deputy Fitzmaurice is saying about people who had licences for many years and could drive the car and trailer and are intimidated by the whole process he described. I come from rural Ireland and I know the type of people he is talking about. I am certainly prepared to work with the Road Safety Authority to see if there is some mechanism where we can facilitate the-----
I have got on to the Road Safety Authority a few times on this issue. I think we need to put pressure on the authority. I hope this committee, as well as the Garda Síochána, will try to bring common sense to bear because we are pushing ordinary decent people into being criminals because they have no licence.
Mr. Michael Finn:
That is certainly not our remit. Our raison d'être, is to get compliance through enforcement not to criminalise people. Success for me is when I have to disband the traffic corps because we have changed the culture but until we get to that point, we certainly have to be out enforcing the legislation.
We do not want to criminalise people. We want to get people to comply. If we can educate and help them and change the culture, it will be a win for society because we will have fewer victims, accidents and collisions.
Mr. John Wilson:
I have a proposal which perhaps the Chairman might see some merit in. Road safety and driver training should be core subjects on the second level curriculum in our schools. Every second level student should have an opportunity to leave secondary school having obtained a full driving licence. That subject should also carry the same points as French, Irish, German and any other subject with a view to going on to third level education. It will encourage all students to participate and it would cut out an awful lot of the youthful bravado we see with guys trying to impress girls, for example. If driver training and road safety was a core subject on the second level curriculum it would go a long way to doing that. It is about time it happened. Young people should be able to obtain driving licences at the very earliest convenience. It might cost an awful lot of money to put in place but in the long run society will benefit.
When people leave their home in the morning, get into their car and start it, the most important thing is that they get home safely. What impact do GoSafe vans have on road safety? When people see them, they put their foot on the brake so it is a deterrent for speeding, but what impact do they have on saving people's lives? Does the Garda have any say in their locations? If so, why? I come from Dundalk and most people in the area know where the vans will be on a particular day. They are a deterrent but what impact do they have on safety? Do they save one life or two lives? They have cut back on speeding. What opinion do the witnesses have of the GoSafe vans?
Mr. Michael Finn:
I will allow my colleague speak in a minute because he is the expert on that. They are certainly having a massive impact in the zones where they are present. Fatalities halved in the first 700 zones because people knew they were there. The Deputy is dead right. People knew they were there and they complied. Should we have more? I would love to see more. In other countries they have fixed cameras so it is not hit and miss. The camera is there all the time and that is a massive deterrent to people. It influences behaviour because if people think they will be caught and get penalty points, they will behave. My colleague is probably more au faitwith its nuances because he was there from the very start of the programme so I will let him in to speak about it.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
Every single van is based in a zone where we have identified clusters of collisions. No other factor is taken into account in deciding where GoSafe vans go other than the collisions. We identify the cluster of collisions on the road, we identify a stretch of road that is 2 km, 3 km, or 5 km long and then with GoSafe we select a site to carry out the enforcement. It is the history of fatal and serious injury collisions that determine where they go. We then deploy the vans there based on the times of the day and the days of the week when the collisions occurred. We match it up.
GoSafe has key performance indicators it has to achieve and we give them some latitude in terms of time. It cannot give exactly 15% of its time to a particular location so we will say we want between 12% and 18% of its time. We give them some latitude either side of 15%. It stays between the lines all the time in terms of the days of the week and the times of the day. It is very much strategic in terms of enforcement. It has reduced the deaths by 50% in the zones. In some years we are talking about saving 22, 26 or 28 lives a year. That is the figure we are looking at for recent years based on the halving of deaths, or less than that, in some of the zones.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
Sometimes there are images of the rear of the vehicle. If they are of the front of the vehicle, it depends on whether it is day time or night time and on lighting sources and the reflection on windscreens. There is no guarantee it will identify the driver. Sometimes the images are crystal clear. Other times they are not.
Mr. Con O'Donohue:
They are manned all the time. They submit a draft roster to me. I look after the office for safety camera management as part of my responsibility. GoSafe submits the draft roster and I sign off on it every week to make sure GoSafe meets its key performance indicators. If a particular zone is less compliant, then we put extra hours into it and cut back on some of the other zones. We very much watch the effort we put into our speed enforcement.
Ms Donna Price:
I want to mention the GoSafe vans. I am not sure what we really think about them. They are in areas where fatal collisions have occurred and they have changed driver behaviour in those areas in that when drivers are coming up to the speed van, they slow down, and when they leave the area they speed up again. In that given spot, the collisions have decreased but outside of that area, on country roads, the collisions have increased. That is because driver behaviour has not really changed. A Garda presence on the road is vital. Gardaí can make this cost-effective if they are out there in numbers. The number of people speeding is outrageous. I experienced it this morning. The number of people on their phones is outrageous. Every time a person goes to his or her car, he or she is surrounded by people texting and driving, regardless of the speeds. Some of them do it at 70 mph. The Garda could be raking in the money. If they can keep it in the traffic corps, that is well and good. We need to get gardaí on the road. People need to see a Garda presence. It is only then that they will not take chances with their lives and with the lives of our families. That is very important. The GoSafe vans are outside contractors. I think the contract is for 6,000 hours a year.
Ms Donna Price:
If that is broken down into the different counties and districts, it is a very sparse presence. The likelihood of encountering them is minuscule. I rarely encounter one on my journey up and back to Dublin. If they are there, we know where they will be, as the Deputy said. People modify their driving behaviour in that little space. I am not sure it is right.
In my time in the local authority, we had big demand for signs to be erected because they were seen as a hindrance. Obviously we will not get gardaí situated at the same point every day 24-7, 31 days of the month and 12 months of the year. The vans are the same thing. People are aware that the byroads are danger zones and that it is hit and miss with the vans.
At the previous meeting, Senator O'Mahony asked if the signs where the GoSafe vans are would also indicate the speed limit. He asked if the signs would be amended to include the speed limits to give motorists an extra opportunity to adhere to them.
I do not want to say anything on the public record that might be an issue in this respect and perhaps we could discuss it privately after the meeting. If there are concerns about this, it is important that this committee would know about them. I call Deputy Troy.
I want to make a final contribution. I could not agree more with what two of the previous speakers said - one being Ms Price who lives in my constituency - about the need for a Garda presence on our roads. That is critically important. I am delighted that an assistant commissioner now has responsibility for the traffic corps. I encourage him at every opportunity to fight to ensure the number of people working in this area is increased. Education is a key factor. That point was proven in December 2016 with the very good media campaign highlighting the dangers on our road. As a consequence of that, coupled with the Garda presence on our roads, there was a very significant reduction in the number of road fatalities.
It has been suggested that an app can be downloaded on one's mobile phone that will monitor one's driving patterns. That should be examined in greater detail. It would help influence policy and help correct the driving pattern of motorists. A person who always adheres to the law in terms of driving within the speed limit, the non-use of a mobile phone, wearing a seat belt, stopping at stop signs and all of that, could be rewarded with a cheaper insurance premium. That is a measure that the Road Safety Authority might examine and that our committee will examine. Someone will be appearing before the committee in the next few weeks or months with a proposal. We will be working with the RSA on that.
We did not have much discussion about vulnerable road users, namely, pedestrians and cyclists. I nearly knocked down a pedestrian before Christmas because he was walking on a country road, dressed in black from head to toe. It was the luck of God that I copped him in time and swerved out to avoid him. I have suggested previously that we should examine introducing a penalty for such behaviour as that person was acting irresponsibly. Not alone could his life have been lost but I could have pulled out in front of another car and caused a much more serious accident and a number of lives could have been lost. I would welcome the assistant commissioner's opinion on that.
In terms of proposal regarding a required distance to be observed in overtaking cyclists, I believe it is 1.5 m in rural areas and a reduced distance in urban areas. What is the assistant commissioner's view on the practicalities of implementing that legislation? It is unimplementable in some areas because of the width of roads. There is also the issue of the behaviour of cyclists. I met a cyclist on a Dublinbike cycling up the wrong way on Kildare Street on my way to Leinster House today. What measures are in place to police that behaviour?
We have had a very good interaction with the witnesses, albeit there was a difference of opinion in one area. Mr. Wilson spoke of the introduction of a gradient system of penalty points being a good system and a good suggestion for addressing the speed issue. The only gradient system we are currently discussing is in regard to the blood alcohol level, which we have been debating for two and a half hours. That is the only area where there has been an element of disagreement. I thank the witnesses for giving of their time. As one of them said, they are acting in a voluntary capacity. They have engaged very honestly and truthfully and I hope we on this side have done likewise. I look forward to engaging with the representatives of the association and with the Garda in working towards reducing the number of road fatalities because we want to halt and reverse the shocking upward trajectory of 2016 and to make sure that our roads are a much safer place in 2017.
Mr. Michael Finn:
In terms of the app the Deputy raised, some of the insurance companies are already using it. That is an area we should explore. Such technology exists and we should use it to help save lives on our roads. I would support and encourage any proposal in that regard.
Regarding vulnerable road users, I know exactly what the Deputy spoke about in terms of pedestrians walking on the roads at night time. I would have to argue that there is an element of irresponsibility if one is dressed totally in black. Collisions and near misses occur, just like the one the Deputy described, because people do not take simple precautions. The RSA has done a great deal of work on educating the public about road safety. It even gives us yellow visibility vests to give it to people we come across who not wearing high visibility clothing and our members have done a good deal of that. I can see the logic and merit in what the Deputy has said. He asked whether we should consider introducing an offence where a person behaves recklessly in contributing to being a danger on the road by being out in the dark dressed in black where they cannot be seen by motorists on the road. Such people put themselves, and other road users, at risk because a motorist may have to swerve to avoid them. I can see the logic in the Deputy's proposal in that respect.
Mr. Michael Finn:
Correct. We have brought in a fixed charge notice that can apply to cyclists, of which my colleague, Chief Superintendent Aidan Reid has reminded me. He is very disappointed to hear that a person was cycling up Kildare Street the wrong way. We will pursue such offenders as we now have fixed charge notice for that.
The legislation being considered on motorists observing a minimum distance when passing cyclists will be problematic in terms of its enforcement in some areas. It will be hard to adhere to the 1.5 m distance. Not everyone will understand how to measure that. Motorists would nearly need a tape to measure if they are maintaining a 1.5 distance and if they are stopped in traffic a cyclist can move in beside them. There must be two-way responsibility. Cyclists must accept that they cannot move out in the path of motorists. A motorist may be complying with the law but the cyclist may not be playing his or her part in terms of compliance. Enforcing the measure will be challenging in some ways. As a yardstick, yes it is a good measure. If the message we deliver from this debate is to tell motorists to stay out on the road, away from cyclists, that is a good thing. Cyclists, because of potholes and other works on roads, can deviate and motorists need to be mindful of that.
I concur with the Deputy regarding having a variation in the awarding of penalty points. It does not seem logical that the same penalty points would be awarded regardless of whether one is 2 km/h or 22 km/h over the speed limit. Maybe that is an area we should examine.
Mr. John Wilson:
Regarding cyclists, I listen to George Hook on a daily basis and I hear him talk about his battles with different cyclists. Perhaps it is time to consider introducing a registration plate for bicycles. Cyclists are not easily tracked down. They break red lights, almost run over people and head off on their merry way and there is no way of tracking them down. There is an argument for putting registration plates on pedal cycles. I am just throwing out that proposal for discussion.
Mr. John Wilson:
It is about time that suggestion was considered. We are not talking about isolated cases but about cyclists who break the law on a fairly regular basis. They treat red lights as being there just to add colour and they totally disregard them. If there was some form of identification on bicycles, the offenders could be tracked down and punished. It is currently very difficult to track them. Gardaí have an impossible job in tracking down cyclists.
Ms Donna Price:
Mr. Lieghio referred to a case involving a person with 500 previous convictions. The problem with that case was that it did not even get to a judge and jury. Initially, the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions accepted a guilty plea on careless driving. Clearly, that is not satisfactory where a life has been taken by someone with that driving history. That is why we want these crimes treated differently. They should be treated as vehicular manslaughter – let us call it what it is.
Let us suppose a person had 500 convictions, had served time and was disqualified from driving. I know people who might have been disqualified but have then driven. These people get jail terms. Is that correct?
Mr. Michael Finn:
Yes. People have gone to jail for driving while disqualified. A certain cohort will probably ignore the law regardless - they are totally reckless. Imprisonment is probably the only solution for these people. There has been considerable debate about publishing the list of disqualified drivers. There is certainly merit in that. The committee could talk to our colleagues in the Revenue Commissioners about this approach. The chairperson of the Policing Authority worked there previously. She has commented on those who have been named and shamed in that context and how there has been a certain level of compliance as a result. It certainly assisted in that regard.
Mr. Leo Lieghio:
The driver was already serving a driving ban from the previous year for drink-driving. The garda in charge of the case told us the driver should have been in prison but was not. My daughter would still be alive now if that driver had been put in prison. The daughter of another lady in the Gallery would still be alive now if the driver in that case had been in prison.
We need to do something when we leave the meeting today. Repeat offenders should be punished. It is important for us as legislators and for the Garda assistant commissioners to address this. I imagine they have been in constant contact with the Minister. We need to push from both ends. I am a firm believer that everyone deserves one chance in life. However, when a person makes one mistake, he should not be able to make two mistakes. On leaving the committee today, we need to do something like that. Repeat offenders should be prosecuted.
We hope to compile a report with specific recommendations on what needs to be done. That is why the input of everyone here today is valuable and very much appreciated. Ms Price wants to make a further contribution.
Ms Donna Price:
I wish to add to what Mr Lieghio said about recidivist offenders. We have to look at cases where a defendant accepts a guilty plea on a lesser charge, thereby tying the hands of the judge. Our families would prefer that the case goes to a judge and jury. The hearing should take place and the jury should decide on guilt or innocence. In the particular case in question, the driver fled the scene and had to be extradited. Yet, the judge had to allow a reduction for the guilty plea and for remorse.
An apology means so much to our families. As we have said, we are not looking for vengeance. However, we want a strong message to go out that we are not going to accept impaired driving on our roads. It is horrifying. I have before me the figures from the Road Safety Authority for the five years in question. Over 150 people per week were arrested for drink-driving. These are only the people who are caught. I have never been breathalysed and I am in my 50s. There is such a small likelihood of being caught. Over the five years, in excess of 40,000 people have been caught drink-driving and endangering others. That is an appalling vista. It is something we must tackle.
Deputy Troy referred to tiered penalties. Can he indicate what we can do to reduce the level of carnage on the roads? Does the Deputy condone this level of law-breaking? How does he believe we can put a stop to it? Does he believe the status quois okay and that we can continue to live with 40,000 people breaking the law in every five-year period? I reckon the figure is ten times greater if we include those who have taken chances and not been caught. What do we do in that situation?
Reference was made to vulnerable road users. People come to us after a serious crash has taken place. A loved one has been killed. Our experience in many cases is that vulnerable road users are dead and gone and so there is no prosecution. In too many cases, the vulnerable road user is blamed for his or her own death. This is why I believe it is too easy for the other party, the surviving driver, to say she did not see the deceased driver, the deceased pedestrian stepped out in front of the car or she did not see the deceased in the car mirrors.
This is why we call for mandatory checking when the investigation is taking place. If all of the known contributory causes of crashes are investigated and if the other driver is then seen to be a careful driver, then we can blame the pedestrian. Otherwise, we have to be extremely cautious. It is simply unfair. The families concerned have to live with the consequences of a loved one being blamed for his or her own death. The families have no justice as a result. Also, it is sending out the wrong message to the effect that the driver need not be careful or look out for vulnerable road users. After all, it is in the law. Everyone knows they must drive and keep a safe distance such that they can see clearly. We have a duty to look out for vulnerable road users. It is right to have a distance for overtaking cyclists. All of us have seen the horrific clips on the cyclist Twitter accounts of lorries overtaking cyclists and whizzing past them as though they are ants on the road. They are people and have the same right to be on the road as the lorry driver. If it is not safe to overtake, then the driver simply has to bide time, wait until it is safe and give the cyclist the necessary distance.
I wish to clarify one point. Let us suppose a driver comes around the bend in a car at night and it is foggy and a pedestrian is wearing black clothes. It is reckless on the part of the person wearing the black clothes. Let us be clear about that. If it goes to court, the driver of the car always goes down and there is a big insurance pay-out. However, let us be clear on this point: there should be some responsibility on the person walking the road and that person should not be in black clothes.
Ms Donna Price:
I agree with the Deputy. Obviously, we all have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe on the roads. I am suggesting that where the cyclist, pedestrian or vulnerable road users is killed, we should not automatically blame that person for his or her death unless or until we have established all the factors involved. Therefore, if the driver was texting and did not see the vulnerable road user and then killed him or her, at least we have the evidence.
I have an issue with the question of drunk pedestrians. The Road Safety Authority broadcasted an advertisement that we have all seen. I have raised this with the Road Safety Authority. The claim was that 66%, two thirds, of pedestrians killed had alcohol in their systems. That is victim-blaming. Let us consider the figures. Over 200 were killed during the period in question, but there was only blood alcohol levels data for 40 of those. Of those 40 odd, two thirds had alcohol in their systems. We cannot continue to perpetuate that notion. It is so hurtful to our families, who have suffered an injustice.
Mr. John Wilson:
I wish to make another comment on disqualification orders. At the moment, if an individual is banned from driving for 20 years in County Monaghan, he can drive legally several yards up the road in Northern Ireland. There needs to be a Europe-wide ban. If an individual is disqualified in France or Germany, he should be automatically disqualified in Ireland.
We are joined by several people in the Gallery. I acknowledge the presence throughout the meeting of Ms Karen Newman, Mr. Ronan Treacy, Ms Julie Patton and Mr. Justin Temple. They are welcome to the meeting. I thank them for their attendance. In fact, I thank all those present for attending. I know the meeting was heavily dominated by the alcohol issue. It may assist the committee if you have further information, especially on the discussion on the cohort with a blood alcohol concentration of between 50mg and 80mg. Much of the attention centred on that.
If there are any statistics or anything else the witnesses feel is pertinent to this argument could they please furnish them in writing to the committee? That would be helpful in our work.
The Garda Síochána and IRVA will never know the lives they have saved. Unfortunately, we hear about the accidents that occur but not about those that are averted as a result of their work. I said the same to the RSA and to officials from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The overall statistics show that. We will never know the identities of the people who are walking around today because of their work.
We will be compiling a report and making recommendations. This has been a very good meeting - we have been here for over two and a half hours - and a worthwhile exercise.