Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)
Seán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. The gestation of this legislation was controversial but the Bill presented to us today is worthy of a broad welcome. It is important that we have a wide-ranging and thorough Second Stage discussion on the important provisions in the Bill. This legislation is, above all, concerned with public safety and road safety, that is, protecting people from death and injury on the roads. Some speakers have acknowledged that priority before pushing it to one side and focusing on other issues. The reality, however, is that it is an issue that cannot be put to one side. We are either committed to improving road safety or we are a little blasé about it. Perhaps it is part of the Irish psyche to be a little blasé about certain issues. We like everything to work properly but we do not like to be pushed too hard in our exertions to ensure that it does. This legislation may push people a little further than they would like to be pushed.
In essence, however, the Bill contains a set of practical legislative proposals. When it was flagged by the Minister some time ago, those proposals were much more severe than what has been presented to the House. It is important when drafting legislation that one should seek, as far as possible, to ensure public support for it. There is nothing worse than the Oireachtas passing legislation with which the public is unwilling to co-operate. Such legislation may make it into the Statute Book but if its enforcement irks people, it will lead only to accusations that we in this House are out of touch with reality. This Bill represents a practical and sensible balancing of the requirements of public safety against the issues that have been raised since the legislation was flagged. It has been in the pipeline for some time but that has facilitated the sensible approach that has been taken.
Some people may not like me saying - which I have no hesitation in doing - that it is likely that we will have to revisit this legislation in due course to introduce stricter penalties. In that sense, the Bill is a step on the road to improving road safety. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, is to be commended on his work in this area. It is not easy to introduce measures that are unpopular in some areas or with particular sectors. As a rural representative, I understand all the concerns that have been raised. While account must be taken of those concerns, the priority must be road safety. Some 14 people have been killed in the past ten years within one mile of my home, which fronts on to the busy N7. Some of those accidents were drink-related while others happened as a consequence of driver fatigue or inattention. We must keep these realities in our mind when fashioning legislation. Any measure that helps to improve road safety represents a mission accomplished.
The main provision of the Bill is the reduction of the blood alcohol limit and the introduction of an associated administrative and fixed penalty regime. For ordinary motorists, the limit is reduced from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. For those found to have a blood alcohol level between 50 to 80 milligrams, three penalty points and a fine of €200 will apply. For motorists with a blood alcohol level between 80 and 100 milligrams, a six-month disqualification period and a fine of €400 will be imposed.
Recently qualified and professional drivers - which I assume refers to anybody who drives for a living - must adhere to a much lower blood alcohol limit of 20 milligrams. Any such drivers found to exceed that limit will be subject to a three-month disqualification and a €200 fine. Nothing frightens people more than coming face to face with a large heavy articulated truck the driver of which has his mobile telephone in hand. It is an inescapable sight on all our roads. Perhaps lorry and van drivers have to hold their mobile telephones in hand because their engines are so loud. When one sees a truck approaching with a 20-tonne load of grit, sand, cement or whatever, one would like to be confident that the driver has not taken any alcohol. We should all be entitled to that confidence that lorry drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, school bus drivers - all who earn a living from driving - do not have alcohol in their system.
In any event, there is an onus on such people to protect their job, that is, it is in their own interest for professional drivers to be more cautious than ordinary drivers about their driving habits. However, the provisions in the Bill will place a greater burden on such drivers in that they will have to monitor their alcohol consumption carefully even on a night out, if they are driving the following day. I have seen people being stopped by the Garda on their way to 10.30 a.m. mass on a Sunday morning even though there may not have been a garda to be seen the night before when mayhem was breaking out in the same town. We have all seen such anomalies. That issue is probably beyond the scope of the Minister for Transport under this legislation but it is a cause for concern. For example, mothers may be loth to go out for a drink on a Sunday night because of the Monday morning school run. While anything that restrains alcohol consumption may well be positive in itself, there is a concern that such measures may lead to an increased incidence of drinking at home.
Behind this legislation is the love affair of many Irish people with alcohol. I am pleased to note that included in an appendix to the explanatory memorandum is an outline of the regulatory impact assessment that was undertaken of the impact of the proposed changes in blood alcohol limits. This assessment included a consideration of whether the provisions would have a particular impact on socially excluded or vulnerable groups:
The proposals are not addressed to any particular group, and as their objective is to change driver behaviour in relation to driving having taken alcohol, they do not have an impact on socially excluded or vulnerable groups per se. The argument has been made as to the potential social impacts if social interactions dependent on driving are affected by a lower BAC level than currently applies, particularly in the case of rural areas. However, the extent to which social life revolves around drinking is a wider cultural issue but not one which changes the relationship between alcohol levels and driving impairment, or the fact that even a modest reduction in road injuries and fatalities is in itself a huge societal gain.
I agree that the social issues arising from the association between alcohol and socialising is a broader societal issue and cannot solely be tackled within the narrow confines of driving legislation. However, there has been some disagreement on this point and a call for more to be done to address it. There are measures that can be taken such as encouraging young people to go as a designated driver and encouraging a greater provision of taxi services in rural areas. I am lucky to live in an area where most of the towns have a taxi service, although there was no such service ten years ago in some cases. A complaint was made to me during the last election that because there are 194 taxis in operation in Portlaoise, drivers cannot make a living. While some rural towns have an abundance of taxis, for the customers of small rural pubs that are ten, 20 or 30 miles from a main town, it remains very difficult to get a taxi. These are issues to consider but, I am in general agreement with the Minister that this is a broader societal issue that cannot be dealt with solely in the context of this Bill.
That brings me on to the issue of rural transport. Laois TRIP is the name of the organisation that manages the Laois rural transport service. It is doing an excellent job, including providing some evening services such as taking people to mass or to bingo on a Saturday evening. Although some of those who use the service may get a drink along the way, it is not a drink link as was suggested when it was first mooted. Such schemes should be supported.
One aspect of this Bill I like is that section 8 deals specifically with mandatory preliminary breath testing for drivers involved in road traffic collisions at or near the scene of the collision where injury is caused or a person requires medical assistance. It is good that people will know that there will be breath tests in the event of an accident. People might believe that although they had a jar or two, the accident was not really their fault because the other fellow crossed the line. However, in the case of those who had a few jars in them when involved in an accident, it is correct that breath tests should be taken at that point in time. Most people cannot object to this measure, especially when a motor accident has taken place.
Having examined the Bill in detail, I ask the Minister to outline, some time before the completion of its passage through this House, what he means by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, which is referred to extensively in several sections following on from section 20. I have never heard of it. Perhaps I should have heard of it and am declaring my own ignorance but I am unsure whether it an offshoot of another body, is a stand-alone State agency or is one of the famous quangos. I cannot understand the reason such a body is not under the remit of the Road Safety Authority. While I have never heard of it, I note its functions are provided for in legislation going back several years. This Bill contains a provision for the ordering by a court of a person convicted of an offence under various sections to pay to the court, unless there are special reasons for not doing so, a contribution towards the costs and expenses incurred by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in the performance of its functions and section 20 restates the provisions of the Act of 1994. The Minister might outline whether the bureau is a stand-alone agency or whether it could work elsewhere within the Department of Transport or the Road Safety Authority. While it is new to me, it obviously has been in existence for decades and constitutes an example of the organisations in operation with which Members are not familiar.
I also am in favour of the Bill's intentions as expressed in section 31, on which I seek clarification from the Minister. Members are aware of the behaviour of a large minority of those who receive in the post a fixed charge notice for speeding past the camera on the Naas Road or wherever while travelling to Dublin. However, they then appear in court and declare they never received the notice because the current regime requires it to be posted out. District Courts around the country have spent hours on end listening to a succession of people taking to the witness box, giving their names, swearing to tell the whole truth, declaring to the judge they never received the notice and consequently having the charges dismissed. This constitutes a great waste of time for the court, the Garda, the prosecution and it defeats the entire purpose. Consequently, I hope that details of section 31 will clarify this matter with a view to ensuring that the weakness within the existing legislation will be thrashed out. At present, it makes something of a mockery of the process when people simply declare they never received the notice in the post. The first they have heard about it is when they receive a summons because they have not paid the fixed penalty. They then appear in court and tell the judge they never received the fixed penalty notice in the first place and should not have been summonsed because they were not aware a notice had been issued. I hope this issue will be clarified because a coach and four is being driven through the current regime at present.
Section 47 is another very good section with which many people in Ireland will agree. It pertains to providing for a new definition of driving licence to include foreign driving licences. This will bring such licence holders into the scope of the application of sanction for road traffic offences, including disqualification from holding a driving licence. It is proposed the foreign people who are driving in Ireland on what heretofore would have been called international driving licences but now are being called foreign driving licences and who are in breach of the law can have their licenses revoked with regard to driving in Ireland, which is a good thing.
Moreover, I would like to see this extended so that when such people fail to pay tolls, either by simply driving through or by finding a mechanism to not pay them, they also can be chased for these fines as well. I acknowledge this probably would be a little more difficult but all drivers on the roads should be treated equally, regardless of whether they are from Ireland or from elsewhere. Many cars from eastern European countries have appeared on the roads here in recent years and it is important that their drivers be subject to the same rules.
Another point I make in this respect is that I was greatly impressed to see the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, appearing on television today to talk about how fines in respect of motor traffic offences that are issued in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland can be chased in the other jurisdiction. I welcome the introduction of this measure because a coach and four was being driven through the law in this regard. This is not simply a money issue because it also pertains to equity and fairness, in that people in the Republic objected to seeing people coming from the North and putting their foot down once they crossed the Border in the knowledge they could not be caught. The Ceann Comhairle and the Tánaiste, who is present in the Chamber, represent Border counties and will understand this point. While the same behaviour probably happens in reverse, people here do not talk about that as much. Moreover, a town like Buncrana or somewhere similar was mentioned today, which has lost a fortune in uncollected parking fines because they were issued to cars with number plates from Northern Ireland. It is good to learn that such fines now can be collected and the Minister confirmed all the details a few hours ago and I am pleased in this regard.
I wish to raise one item that may not pertain to the legislation but which relates to the Road Safety Authority. I have engaged in detailed correspondence and have tabled detailed parliamentary questions in respect of NCT certificates. A number of constituents have asked questions about this matter and while I am not pressing the case, I simply seek clarification. I have asked the Minister to clarify the reason NCT certificates are issued on the anniversary of a car's first registration, rather than two years after the conduct of the previous test. I refer to an example in which one might go abroad for a year, having received certification from the Garda and the garage that one's car was off the road. In such cases, one is not obliged to pay tax or insurance. However, one is obliged to have an NCT certificate covering the car for that period. Consequently, this means, for example, that if one's NCT certificate is 18 months overdue on one's return, one does the NCT test, pays the fee and gets one's certificate. However, the next test will be due six months later, that is, two years after the previous anniversary because these tests are conducted on a two-year cycle. The certificates are issued on an anniversary basis and not on whether the car was on the road. The answer I have received in correspondence is that this practice arises from an EU directive. However, I doubt whether this has been transposed into Irish legislation in exactly the same manner as is the case in other countries because I am informed that the position differs in respect of such issues in Northern Ireland and in England. Essentially, if having a car certified by the Garda as being off the road is applicable in respect of tax and insurance, the same facility should apply in respect of the NCT test certificate.
I also welcome section 61, which I understand relates to a European Union directive. It provides that third party motor insurance data must be made available through the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland to a person who wishes to make a claim regarding the insurance and ownership details of motor vehicles. Consequently, if an accident takes place, a person will have the relevant registration number. It often might be difficult to get it on the site of an accident or a person may not in a position to acquire it due to injuries sustained. However, if one wishes to contact the other person subsequently, there will now be an onus on the information centre operated by the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland to provide such information regarding the details of third party insurance to people within a few days.
Another item of information that should emerge in respect of insurance is that I understand there are many cancelled insurance policies on the road. People take out insurance policies and pay one or two monthly premiums but then stop paying thereafter. Consequently, such people can drive around for an extensive period with what appears to be a valid insurance disc on the windscreen, although no insurance policy exists to back it up. Historically, there is meant to be a mechanism for the Department of Transport to notify the local Garda station and the local garda is meant to chase up such cases. However, this issue should be dealt with by the insurance companies to ensure their certificates are not being abused in such a manner.
I concur with the previous speaker who raised the issue of speeding in urban areas. In urban areas or some of the very large new housing estates that can have 400, 500 or 600 houses, the issue of speed ramps and speeding within the estate is very important. It would be useful were local authorities, perhaps in conjunction with the Department of Transport, to take a consistent approach in respect of by-laws on road width in estates. Some of them can be extremely narrow, which makes it difficult for vehicles to pass in some of the very large estates, in which there are large volumes of cars on the roads and emergency vehicles may not be able to get in or out. It is important that there be consistency in this regard.
Many new motorways are opening. They are safer than current roads because, by definition, cars do not drive in opposite directions on the same stretches. However, I must raise a concern regarding the new phenomenon of large concrete barriers along the middle of motorways. One could be driving at 120 km/h with a concrete barrier only 1 m or so away. If one hit it, one would fly all over the place and cause a major accident involving everything following. Building concrete barriers has been a recent fashion, but the matter should be considered. If they are causing serious accidents or worsening the situation, they should be removed.