Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)
Deirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
I am glad to make a contribution on the Bill, which I welcome on the whole. I certainly welcome the provision changing the legal blood alcohol limits. People might state that it is easy for me to support this measure as I live in a relatively urban constituency with easy access to taxis and public transport and where pubs and restaurants are in walking distance. There is a large contrast between urban and rural areas and I agree with the comments of the previous speaker on rural transport.
We need to develop a rural transport structure and not only to get people to and from the local pub; we also need to ensure connectivity for people living in rural communities who are isolated so they have access to some form of transport. It behoves all of us to support this because small communities in rural Ireland are an essential part of our make up and we need to ensure those living there are not disadvantaged in any way with regard to access to social services and educational facilities. Access to larger towns in the region is also very important.
My constituency has a large number of local transport operators whose services can be utilised. It is interesting to note the number of schools which have organised their own transport. This has been done either by parents or the school itself. It seems to work well as it is flexible and the operator is able to avail of other business opportunities. Unfortunately, Bus Éireann is reducing its services. A balance should be reached between making money on a commercial basis and providing a service to communities. Without public transport not alone rural communities but also communities with low car ownership will be disadvantaged. I am aware of a community which is very dependent on public transport for access to hospitals, third level institutions and further education institutions.
Transport is important in regions and rural areas, but nobody can argue with the figures on the effect of alcohol on drivers. Last year, a conference was held in Dublin at which the effect of alcohol on drivers on Irish roads was discussed. At the time, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, stated that alcohol may have been a contributing factor in more than 1,000 fatal collisions between 1999 and 2008. Behind that statistic are many grieving families and communities shattered by the consequences of those accidents. Many parents have been very brave in telling their story to try to influence other people and reduce the level of road deaths due to alcohol and to increase awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. I commend them on that.
The Bill reduces the alcohol limit to 50 mg and to 20 mg for novice drivers and professional drivers. This is to be welcomed and will bring us into line with other EU countries, apart from the UK. This side of the House welcomes the introduction of the Bill for which we have been calling for some time. Since the penalty point system was introduced it has had a very positive effect on reducing the number of deaths on our roads. In 2008, there were 279 road deaths, which was reduced from 458 road deaths in 1998. That is a significant reduction. Not all of those deaths were due to alcohol. I welcome the emphasis on road safety, alcohol, speed, safety belts and the upgrading of some interurban routes. The motorway from Cork to Dublin is almost complete. It is a much safer road and anyone who drives on it now feels more secure. There has been a much greater emphasis on road deaths and road safety. I continue to support the penalty points system, which is a positive development that has contributed enormously to road safety.
We need to get to grips with drug driving. The Bill addresses the fact that an increasing number of motorists are driving while under the influence of drink and drugs in some cases or just drugs in other cases. Currently, motorists are only tested for drugs following a Garda request if a person is suspected of being intoxicated but there is no evidence of him or her being over the limit for alcohol. The legislation will give the Garda the power to form an opinion that a driver is under the influence of drugs and to carry out a preliminary impairment test, which is based on co-ordination. That is a step in the right direction as CSO statistics have shown a rapid increase in the detection of people driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs. In 2006 there were 117 offences but by 2009 that had risen to 831 offences. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety has indicated that drivers driving under the influence of drugs are a significant problem. That is something we need to address.
Between 2000 and 2001 a total of 2,000 blood and urine samples were taken from drivers who appeared to drive erratically. The results show that of those, 331 who were under the blood alcohol limit had taken drugs and 142 who tested positive for alcohol were over the limit for drugs. Almost 50% of those who were over the limit were under the age of 25 and more than 90% of them were male. Ten years later we need to analyse the figures and categorise the 831 people who tested positive for drugs, to establish what age they were and what effect the drugs had on them. We need to address the issue through legislation and by giving the Garda the power to carry out the preliminary impairment test. Currently, we do not have any tests that can be carried out at the side of the road even though saliva tests are used in Australia. We have to be seen to be tough in this regard. I hope we can introduce a similar system in this country. It is only if people fear they will be caught and prosecuted that we will see a reduction in the incidence of those offending.
We cannot focus enough on road safety. We had a debate recently on the reduction of the speed limit in Dublin city centre to 30 km/h. That has been unpopular in many sectors. The safety of pedestrians, especially in large housing estates is vitally important. I represent an area that has many large housing estates with a lot of young children. People are concerned that roads are not safe, that priority is given to drivers who have easier access and much greater freedoms and that they are not curtailed sufficiently in large urban areas. There should be more of an emphasis on pedestrians. They should be king rather than, as is currently the case, cars being king in our urban areas.
It is difficult to get local authorities to provide pedestrian crossings due to a lack of funding. Reference is made to traffic manuals and the class of the road but pedestrians are not part of the equation in road traffic manuals. I have had this debate with many local authority engineers. We need to reverse our thinking and ensure that we have pedestrian crossings at bus stops and adjacent to shops and churches, not just for children but for elderly people as well who find crossing the road intimidating. Cork is known as a jaywalking city. I accept it is prevalent in Cork. I would welcome the provision of facilities such as pedestrian crossings, road ramps and chicanes wherever possible and the reduction of speed limits to 30 km/h in housing estates in large urban areas. That would alert drivers to the fact that they are entering an area with a large number of pedestrians, young and old. It is important that speed is reduced and that the safety of the pedestrian is uppermost.
I welcome the fact that penalty points incurred in the State can be applied to foreign driving licences. That is an important step that follows on from an EU directive. It was frustrating that those driving in this country with foreign licences could break the speed limit and drive with an excess of alcohol but no penalty points could be attached to their licence. I am pleased that anomaly is being addressed.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill, which are long overdue. I am disappointed that the facilities to detect the blood alcohol level will not be in place until 2011. That is a sad reflection on how slow we are to react. It is difficult to believe that the testing facility cannot be calibrated until 2011. We had a long saga too with the speed cameras, which were a long time coming. It was only at the end of last year that the roll-out started. It was well known that there were no speed cameras and that people would not be caught for speeding. We finally got them at the end of 2009. We must take whatever measures we can to highlight road safety. I commend the Road Safety Authority on its work in this area. Its television advertisements have been extremely effective. Many young people's lives have been saved. The statistics speak for themselves. Many people have benefited from the actions of that authority.