Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).
Denis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
I welcome this positive Bill which deals with many the current issues and commend it to the House.
Everyone in this House is aware of the devastating impact of road fatalities on the families who are left behind and on those who are seriously injured in road traffic accidents. We all need to be conscious of that and ensure we can take steps to improve safety on our roads on that basis.
Recently I came across an interesting statistic, that a 15% reduction in fatalities on Irish roads would free up 20,000 extra bed nights in our hospitals. We hear about overcrowding in hospitals and about the number of operations postponed and cancelled. That one change not only would save the Exchequer money on emergency services, the Garda Síochána etc., but would release an extra 20,000 beds. Even from that perspective alone and even from the economic perspective, it is critically important that there is a renewed focus on road traffic accidents.
One issue that has been raised with me recently, now that it is getting dark earlier, is the number of pedestrians who are killed on our roads every year. Many of them are killed as a result of being hit by vehicles on roads that are unlit. In quite a considerable amount of cases the pedestrians have no reflective armbands or reflectors. We need to focus on this, especially as the winter approaches. When driving we all meet people walking on country roads who do not wear reflectors and dress in dark clothes. It is only by the grace of God that we are not involved in road fatalities. If on-the-spot fines are necessary to get the message across to those individuals, they should be seriously considered. A change in attitude is needed in this regard. Pedestrians cannot be careless because they have a responsibility to be visible to other road users.
Deputy Enright raised the issue of speed limits outside schools. It is a farce that 100 km/h speed limits are imposed on narrow roads with 80 km/h speed limits on byroads and culs-de-sac. The Government was prepared to fund local authorities to erect 80 km/h speed limit signs on grass roads, yet it is not prepared to give them 1 cent to erect speed limit signs outside schools. It took the Department almost 12 months to come up with a specification for new signs but, two years after the changeover to metrification, not 1 cent has been provided for the erection of new electronic signs outside schools. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs proposes to finance flashing warning lights outside schools in CLÁR areas, but they do not meet the specifications set down by the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport for electronic signs. I cannot fathom why a Department is paying for electronic signs with flashing warning lights that do not meet the specifications laid down by the Department of Transport. The latter Department has not issued 1 cent in funding to local authorities to ensure they can erect new signs outside schools. They are costly speed limits. That needs to be prioritised for the sake of our schoolgoing children.
Last February, a study revealed 6,000 children under the age of 15 were killed or injured on our roads between 1996 and 2000. A large proportion of these accidents occurred while children were walking to and from school, especially between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. The Minister for Education and Science expressed outrage recently because children are not walking to school and their parents are causing huge traffic congestion, as they drop them off and pick them up. However, the Government is not prepared to ensure it is safe for our children to enter and exit schools. One child is killed or seriously injured every day schools are open and that is a damning statistic, which must be addressed. Since the changeover to metrification, the Government has increased the speed limits outside schools on national primary and secondary roads by 2 km/h and those in built up areas by 1 km/h. Instead of reducing speed limits, the Government is encouraging drivers to speed up outside schools. I ask the Minister of State to put in place funding to ensure local authorities can erect new electronic signs. For God's sake, can the Minister of State and officials in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs sit down and agree that where the funds are provided, one specification for the signs should be used to comply with targets?
I attended the ploughing championships a few weeks ago where I met representatives of the ICA. They have initiated a campaign to abolish VAT on child safety seats in cars. Last month, legislation was amended and under EU law children up to the age of 12 must use an appropriate car seat when they travel in a vehicle. I conducted a search on the Internet earlier and I discovered that the cost of booster seats averages €25, of which €5 is taken by the Government in tax. Baby seats average €50 each, of which €10 is taken in tax. If the Government is serious about promoting safety, optional extras such as air bags and side impact bars in vehicles, as well as baby seats, should be VAT exempt. It is a minor measure, which would not cost a great deal. I cannot understand why motorists who want to make their vehicles safer are being taxed.
Section 2 amends the 1961 Act to provide for mandatory disqualification for dangerous driving. Everyone will recall the Mullingar case in which two men driving recklessly got away with a fine because of the inadequacy of current legislation. Everybody in the media criticised Judge Neilan because he was not prepared to give a harsher sentence, including a larger fine or penalty points or put them off the road. However, the legislation is inadequate and I commend Deputy Olivia Mitchell on focusing on that issue.
Section 3 deals with mandatory breath testing. The analysis of blood alcohol levels of those who die in road accidents is at the discretion of the coroner but, even where a coroner takes a sample and analyses it, the information is not collated or published. A system must be in place to collate and publish such information. The Government has at last established a road accident investigation unit, on which it should be commended, although I had been raising this issue for the past six or seven years. However, it is critically important that this information is compiled and published because it will highlight amazing issues relating to road traffic accidents. There is not much point carrying out investigations unless the information is collated and published.
The Minister of State hails from Donegal and he is well aware of the poor weather we usually experience. I am hugely frustrated by heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, on our roads. Motorists play Russian roulette every time they attempt to overtake a HGV in wet weather because of the spray emanating from the back. The Government promised in 1998 that it would ensure all Irish registered HGVs would be equipped with spray suppression systems. Every time one tries to overtake a HGV in wet weather, one is blinded for between ten and 20 seconds and during that time many things can change on the road, especially if one is travelling at 100 km/h. I do not know why such systems have not been introduced. It is a pleasure to drive behind continental HGVs. I often meet vehicles leaving Kepak in Athleague, County Roscommon, which are travelling to France and Spain. I have absolutely no problem with them because they would not be permitted to travel one mile on a road in France if they were not equipped with this system. One has absolutely no difficulty overtaking such vehicles where appropriate. A total of 37% of road accidents in Ireland occur in wet conditions. Spray suppression systems should be mandatory. They have been promised since 1998, yet regulations relating to these systems were introduced in the UK in 1984. In 1989, the European Commission issued comprehensive rules on spray suppression systems for heavy goods vehicles throughout the European Union, yet we still cannot get our act together in this regard.
We do not have a rules of the road book or a driver theory test book. There are 1,000 questions but no book is available. Why has it not been published? If we are serious about ensuring that young people are capable drivers, it should be published. It should be available on the Internet like every other Government publication so that it does not have to be bought. For some reason, this has become a money-making racket and the Government is not prepared to provide it free on the Internet. I do not know why this is the case.
I commend the Bill to the House.