Dáil debates

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage


12:00 pm

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)

In the interests of road safety generally and of good governance, I am anxious to co-operate in the speedy and efficient dispatch of this business, that is, passing this Bill into law, because I recognise it is urgent. I share the hope of the Minister that our road safety legislation is perhaps beginning to have an impact. I hope the better figures for last month and the previous one are part of a trend rather than one off figures.

I am compelled to say it is really a bit of an embarrassment that we are amending legislation we only passed the last week we sat before the summer break. We have dealt with three transport Bills this year, including this one, and the Minister has promised a fourth one. I was pleased to hear him say we should consolidate all this legislation into one Act rather than try to do almost the impossible.

What has happened here is an example of what happens when we do not have the type of scrutiny which is absolutely essential for legislation. We passed a series of unrelated items — a hodgepodge — quite apart from the mandatory breath testing, or MAT as it is called, before the summer break. It was done in an enormous hurry — like a rabbit pulled out of a hat — even though we had been told for some time it was not possible. I feel sorry for people in the drafting departments who are asked to produce legislation at very short notice. In this case, we had been told all along it was impossible to bring this legislation forward.

To add to our difficulties, the Opposition was told not to delay the passage of the legislation — that it was not to do its job, that it was not to try to amend or even examine the legislation in any great detail for fear it would hold it up. The debate was guillotined and the result is defective legislation. Both myself and Deputy Shortall warned of that at the time and we have been proved right. I hate to have to say we told the Minister so. It became an issue in the media and, as far as the Minister was concerned, we had to produce something but what we produced was defective. Let us be honest about it.

It is the role of the Dáil to scrutinise legislation and ensure it is robust but that did not happen with this legislation. As the Minister is aware and mentioned in his contribution, I warned of the danger for our road traffic laws generally of a secretion of Acts, one amending another and inserting, deleting, enhancing, refining or expanding on what went before. The Minister's description of the mistakes and how they happened was so archaic that it is a mystery that any of the legislation is implemented correctly in the area of road traffic because it has become almost impossible for those trying to draft legislation. Not only is there legislation but there are all orders, schedules for new offences created by legislation and new penalties imposed, changed, refined and so on. I suggested consolidating legislation and I believe Deputy Shortall has also spoken about that. I have tabled an amendment asking the Minister to introduce such legislation and I am pleased it is a suggestion that will be taken on board.

Of the four elements in the Bill, two seek to address errors in the road traffic legislation. One corrects an oversight and the other one extends to nurses the ability to become involved in evidential testing. That refines rather than corrects the legislation. However, the above shows a record of poor legislative scrutiny. By failing in what we do, we make it almost impossible for the practitioners — judges, barristers, solicitors, local authorities and, most of all, the unfortunate gardaí — to do their jobs. If the written law is not clear, its implementation will not be clear. It is almost impossible to unravel the labyrinth of road traffic offences and penalties attaching to them which are often amended.

It is no wonder that in recent cases daily practitioners of the law and of road traffic law, in particular, assumed the offence of dangerous driving carried a mandatory penalty. They assumed the offence carried mandatory disqualification but when it became clear that was not the case, it was assumed that at least penalty points attached. The reality is that neither applies. That is a genuine mistake, although I know the Minister suggested in a reply to a parliamentary question that one would not get penalty points if there was a possibility of losing one's licence in the courts. However, the reality is it is only a possibility. There is also a possibility that one would lose one's licence for careless driving. Surely, if there is a hierarchy of offences, such as dangerous and careless driving, there should also be a hierarchy of penalties attaching to them. That is an error and a loophole in the law which we should try to solve. Whether the Minister accepts my amendment to solve it or does so in another way, it definitely needs to be addressed. It is no wonder practitioners of the law assume there must be a law stating that one loses one's licence or one gets penalty points.

Recently I spoke to a member of the Garda Síochána about enforcing the law in regard to cars parking on cycle paths. The garda told me there was no such offence as parking on a cycle path. I told him to look again which he did. There is such an offence but he did not know that. It must be impossible for young gardaí, particularly those coming out of Templemore, to even know where to get the information about what is and is not legal in terms of road traffic.

In terms of road transport, even more disturbing is that there was no legal basis for the granting of the road passenger and road haulage licences as it was deleted by accident. Again, it is perfectly understandable how that happens when one sees just how archaic the whole system is. We can only hope that now the information is public, it will not have any implications for the Minister or licence holders, particularly in respect of their insurance if accidents took place during the period when they were not legally licensed.

I hope that if we pass this legislation, we will move immediately to try to introduce a consolidated road traffic Bill in the interests of clarity for all the practitioners involved in trying to impose the law. Every time we make a mistake, either in the drafting or implementation of the law — they are not unconnected — we devalue the law in the eyes of the public and show ourselves not to be serious when we speak on the one hand about the importance of road safety but on the other keep failing to get it right.


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