Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Select Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage
I welcome all members to the meeting. The Dáil referred the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 to our select committee on 18 January 2018. At today's meeting, the select committee will consider the Bill on Committee Stage and then report back to the Dáil. I remind members and those in the Public Gallery to switch off their mobile phones completely for the duration of the meeting.
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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross and his officials. I invite him to make his opening statement if he wishes to do so.
I will make some brief remarks. I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss this short but very significant Bill. In 2010, we overhauled our legislation on drink driving. The measures brought in then have largely worked well. In particular, we quite rightly reduced the permitted level of alcohol in drivers from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood. This was an important step in bringing the law into line with the scientific evidence that even small amounts of alcohol can have a potentially disastrous impact on people's reaction times. When the person in question is behind the wheel of a car, that difference can be the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately, there was a concession made at that time which, frankly, screams off the pages of the legislation. This was the decision to allow some people who are over the limit and in the 50 mg to 80 mg range to receive penalty points in place of disqualification. This makes no sense as law or policy. It flies in the face of the supposed principle that all drink driving offences should lead to a disqualification. The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 provides that the three penalty points which people currently receive in these cases be replaced by a three-month disqualification. This is entirely reasonable and proportionate. It will finally ensure that the law takes drink driving seriously and is seen to do so. It is not about changing the alcohol limits; those remain the same. It is about changing the consequences of breaching those limits.
During the debate on Second Stage, I indicated my intention to address a number of matters by way of amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage.
In 2016, the Oireachtas decided to introduce a measure making it an offence for the owner of a mechanically propelled vehicle to allow a learner to drive that vehicle without an accompanying qualified driver. As anyone who has followed this issue will know, I support this measure as do, I think, a large number of Deputies. However, a point which we must always bear in mind when dealing with legislation is that it is one thing to intend to do something in law and quite another to get the wording correct and ensure that the provision makes sense as law. Unfortunately, the amendment, which was introduced in 2016 in this case, contained a number of flaws and I indicated that I would take the opportunity, posed by the present Bill, to introduce an amendment to ensure that the provision could be repaired and made workable. What has happened since is instructive. The work of making revisions to this provision has revealed a number of other significant issues. One matter which had not been taken into account or, indeed, addressed in the original amendment was that if we are saying it is to be an offence for an owner to allow an unaccompanied learner to drive his or her vehicle, what about an owner who lends a vehicle to a person who is not licensed at all? That should surely be addressed too and I am going to do so. Besides this important addition there have been several significant legal issues to be overcome in order to get this provision right. As a result the Office of the Attorney General has not been in a position to provide a draft in time for the committee to consider today. I shall endeavour to present this amendment on Report Stage. At the same time, I shall propose an amendment to section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 to allow gardaí to detain a vehicle driven by an unaccompanied learner, as well as technical amendments to correct errors in section 78(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1961 and sections 13(1)(a) and (b) of the Road Traffic Act 2010.
I would like to take the opportunity to clarify a point about the detention of vehicles. There has been a great deal of ill informed and alarmist publicity in recent days about the detention of vehicles with suggestions that it would involve going into farmyards and seizing tractors if they were driven by unaccompanied learners. I would like to set the record straight and explain that the requirement for a learner to have an accompanying driver does not apply to tractors nor does road traffic law apply to farmyards or any other private land. It applies to public places. I trust in the farming community to know better than to be alarmed by this inaccurate publicity. I am glad to avail of this opportunity to put the truth on record.
On a more general point, my own experience of how much work is necessary to get provisions like this right is a lesson that I hope we can all take to heart. There is a world of difference between wanting to do something in legislation, particularly in road traffic legislation of this sort, and getting the actual provisions right. If we legislate in haste we may not be able to do what we intend, or worse, create unintended consequences.
The Bill has attracted a fair amount of interest. The overwhelming reaction that I have encountered from both the public and road safety experts has been positive. It has not been unanimously positive but it has been generally very positive. It is interesting that public support is even higher in rural areas in spite of unsustainable claims that this Bill will somehow damage social life in rural Ireland. People in rural Ireland evidently see through that. They know that rural Ireland has suffered more than urban Ireland from the damage caused by drink driving despite the claims to the contrary. They also know that rural social isolation is a real problem and has nothing to do with drink driving. Nothing could be more insulting than to suggest that rural Ireland needs a bit of drink driving as a cure for social problems, and the people of rural Ireland know that.
I thank the Minister for his opening statement. It is our intention, as a committee, to conclude this Bill today if we can. I am happy to take questions in a minute, if possible, during this afternoon's meeting. The Business Committee organises the affairs of the Dáil. I understand that there may be an intervention by the Business Committee if it decides to close business at a particular time and we would have to conform with same. Deputy Catherine Murphy has indicated her wish to comment.
The Minister has indicated his intention to bring forward amendments on Report Stage. I understand his wish to get the legislation right and the risk of unintended consequences from rushed legislation. However, I do not want something that has the potential to save lives unnecessarily delayed. Tabling amendments on Report Stage does not give us an opportunity to suggest amendments, which weakens the legislation.
I am conscious of the important point that the Deputy has made. Perhaps the Minister can make his amendments available as soon as he has them. It is more than likely that Report Stage will not take place for a couple of weeks. I ask him to commit to making his amendments available as soon as possible and, hopefully, within the next couple of days.
I will. I hope to have them by today. There was just a small problem. It was not a material problem in the Bill. I think there was a staffing problem in the Office of the Attorney General. I am flagging my amendments now, specifically what they are going to be about and what they are going to say. I will make them available straightaway to all of the members of the committee the moment I get them, which will give the committee a reasonable amount of time.
I mean amendments from members of the committee and also the Dáil. I shall now refer members to the grouping of amendments for the purpose of debate. I also note that a number of amendments that were submitted by Deputies have been ruled out of order by the Bills Office, and that they have been written to and advised accordingly. Let us proceed to the consideration of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, to delete line 10 and substitute the following:“1. (1) The Road Traffic Act 2010 is amended in section 4 by the substitution of the following for subsection 5:“(5) A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on indictable conviction to a fine not exceeding €10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.”.(2) The Road Traffic Act 2010 is amended in section 29—".
Before we debate my amendment I wish to ask the following. Will we get an opportunity to comment on the legislation?
To be very clear, this is a committee meeting so people can comment as much as they want as long as they keep to the section. I shall be as respectful and as open as the Chair can be to anyone who wants to comment.
I have been advised that I can deal with all of those amendments when we reach the relevant section. The only amendments that have been ruled out of order are in section 3. I can deal with the Deputy's query when we reach section 3. As I have said, there is no restriction on members tabling amendments, just like the Minister has talked about doing for Report Stage.
I seek a clarification. I understand that the amendments were ruled out order based on the fact that this Bill specifically deals with an alcohol-related offence. I wish to refer to my amendment on the minimum passing distance, which has been overridden by the events of today.
I can answer the Deputy. The fact that he has not asked it is the whole point. He is referring to amendments in section 3. First, we shall deal with section 1 and his amendment No. 1. When we do so we can move on to section 2, which has no amendments, and then we can deal with section 3. The details have been circulated to the Deputy.
The Minister is duly entitled to do so and my party has indicated that we will be supportive of this. I was advised that my amendments were ruled out of order because they were not alcohol-related and this Bill is an alcohol-related road traffic measure. I am sure that the Chairman will acknowledge that the Minister will bring forward amendments on learner permits, which are not related to alcohol. I intend to reintroduce some of my amendments that have been ruled out of order and to introduce a new amendment. For clarity, why were my amendments ruled out of order?
The note on this has been issued to the Deputy. According to the clerk to the committee, the note states that the amendments are not relevant to the provisions of the Bill, as read a Second Time and, consequently, must be ruled out of order, in accordance with Standing Order 154(1). The same applies to amendments Nos. 2 and 8, amendment No. 3, and amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive. Amendments Nos. 4 and 6 are in the names of Deputies Catherine Martin and Eamon Ryan, and their amendments have been deemed not relevant, in accordance with Standing Order 154(1). The same reason applies to amendment No. 7 in the name of Deputy Munster.
They have not been ruled out by the Minister or anybody else but rather it is the technical administration of the Houses that has made the point. We will be happy to discuss them when we come to the sections. I want to get on with the Deputy's amendment that is in order.
The records of the Dáil will indicate that I identified this on Second Stage. The Minister would accept that I highlighted the issue in the Dáil. I am just wondering how they can be ruled out of order.
It is done by the Houses. Is there a different rule for the Minister? This is not necessarily about this particular proposed amendment. Is there a different rule or process for amendments introduced on the Government side?
I will give the answer. These amendments pertain to section 3 and do not arise right now. There is an amendment that is in order and in the name of the Deputy. I am anxious that he would commence it. We can debate these matters in the context of sections 1 and 2 and we can deal with all the other issues-----
I presume the Minister's amendments have to go through the same process and conform with the rules of the House. All amendments must do so or there would be no way of dealing properly with amendments. I would think it would be unusual for a Minister to bring forward an amendment that would be ruled out of order.
The Deputy may make as many statements as he wishes to. This is Committee Stage and he may contribute as often as he wishes on each section and amendment before him. There is an amendment in order before the committee from Deputy Troy. Deputy Troy may speak to it first and then there will be no problem if the Deputy wishes to come in on that. Nobody will be stopped from contributing.
In the interests of being helpful I am happy to do so but, basically, the Chairman is just kicking the can down the road. We will want the exact same answers in approximately ten or 15 minutes, or however long it takes to do this.
The amendment is in order because it relates to the alcohol elements of this Bill. It raises the question of whether further amendments that may be introduced at a later stage not specifically related to alcohol will be accepted. Is it "Yes" or "No"? We will need clarification on that and perhaps the Chairman and clerk can get that clarification by the time we get to the specific section.
This has been ongoing for 12 months. The Minister initiated the process in January 2017 and it has taken a long time to come to this stage. My position has not changed and I believe the penalty being introduced by the Minister is disproportionate to the offence. I put it on record that I will bring forward an amendment on Report Stage that would see somebody falling within the 50 mg to 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood category receiving a €500 fine and five penalty points. The Minister is targeting the wrong bracket in trying to bring down road deaths. That is if automatic disqualification is the deterrent it is claimed to be by the Minister. Based on the figures he supplied in pre-legislative scrutiny, 8,063 people were caught over the legal alcohol limit, and of that number, 617 were in the 50 mg to 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood category. The vast majority of the people detected for driving a car over the legal limit had measures in excess of 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. They are the people currently facing an automatic disqualification for breaking the law. I asked the Minister the following questions on a number of occasions but he has not responded in a satisfactory manner. If automatic disqualification is the deterrent he says it is, why were 94% of the people caught in 2016 in a category that brings automatic disqualification? That contrasts with the 6% in the category bringing fixed penalty points and a fine.
I accept the Minister present is not responsible for justice but this is a justice-related matter. On 7 March 2017, I asked the then Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the number of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints performed in each of the years between 2012 and 2016, the number of breath tests performed, the number of drivers under the influence and the category, and to provide the information in tabular form. We are now 12 months on and there have been repeated parliamentary questions and follow-up calls to the Minister but we do not have the information. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is basing what he brings forward today on figures supplied by the Road Safety Authority between 2008 and 2012. Those figures do not take into account the new laws introduced in 2010. If the Minister is serious about reducing fatalities on the roads, why are we not targeting the category of people committing the greater offence? The Minister might look to target the lower category as well but he is ignoring the larger percentage of people who drive and have been caught over the upper limit. That is based on the Minister's figures for 2016.
He is ignoring that category. There is nothing in the legislation to address the category of persons three and four times over the limit. In previous evidence to the committee the Minister stated the overwhelming majority who committed this offence were in that category, yet in this legislation we are providing that those who do the right thing and take a taxi home at night but who drive the following morning and are found to be marginally over the limit will also have their licences revoked. That is disproportionate to the offence committed. During the debate on Second Stage in the Dáil I proposed that a person in the latter category be fined €500 and awarded five penalty points. I propose to table an amendment on Report Stage to that effect, but I would welcome a response now from the Minister on why he is ignoring the category in which the greatest number of deaths have occurred. As I said, 94% of those convicted of this offence in 2016 fell into the over 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood category.
Before I call Deputies Kevin O'Keeffe and Catherine Murphy to speak to the amendment, I advise the committee that sometimes enabling motions are required for amendments to be considered. It is for the Ceann Comhairle to decide when the Minister brings forward his amendment.
I will respond to Deputy Robert Troy's questions first and then address the amendment. As always, the Deputy's questions are legitimate, but they are not relevant to the purpose of the Bill. On his point about the figure of 94%, I presume he is asking why the penalties for those in that category are not more severe. The idea of grading of offences may be worthy of consideration, but this is a very narrow Bill, deliberately so, to enable it to be enacted quickly. However, that has not happened for various reasons, but it is my intention to introduce a road traffic Bill every year I am in office. Such a Bill was introduced last year and the previous year and we are now dealing with this Bill. I am grateful for the Deputy's contribution on the announcement made this morning which was all to do with road safety.
The aim of the Bill is to address a practice which we have identified as being totally and utterly inconsistent and wrong, whereby some people found to be over the limit are not being disqualified. Had we chosen to introduce a much more comprehensive Bill to address drink driving, it would, undoubtedly, have taken longer to get it through than this Bill. When one is in the business of trying to save lives, it is immensely frustrating to be delayed in that mission. Whether members believe this legislation will save lives - I have no doubt that it will - it is difficult to accept delays. If we were to extend the Bill to address a lot more complicated questions, we would meet far greater resistance to it from predictable quarters. There may come a time, however, when we will be able to address all of the issues raised more comprehensively. I would like to be far more radical in a lot of the legislation I am introducing, but this Bill is deliberately narrow in order to address quickly the issue arising in the case of the other 6%. I do not think it is implicit in what the Deputy said that because we are not addressing the 94%, dealing with the other 6% is not legitimate. The argument in that regard has pretty well been accepted. It establishes the principle without a loophole that everybody over the limit will be disqualified. That is the message we want to send. There will be a time elsewhere to review the penalties. I am sure it is the case that they are never up to date or consistent. Road traffic law is full anomalies, but this is one issue we wanted to address quickly.
The Deputy cited particular figures. I could produce figures too. Some people keeping saying the figure is only 6%, but a figure of 6% is huge in the context of the number of people who are dying.
My reference to the figure of 6% was not in the context of the number of lives lost; rather, it was in the context of the percentage of motorists detected in 2016 in the 50 mg to 80 mg category. I am not minimising the loss of life, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge. I accept his bona fides, but why, if automatic disqualification is seen as a deterrent, are 94% of-----