Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)
Rory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
I compliment the Minister on introducing the legislation and compliment him and the Government on the progress made to date. The number of deaths on Irish roads has been reduced from 472 to 239 over a ten year period. Ireland, from being the 16th safest country in 2005 was, last year, the 6th safest country in which to drive. The Minister tells us we will even improve on that figure. While it is good news that the numbers are reducing, the number of deaths is still unacceptable. It is also interesting to note that while 3,000 people died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, during the same 30 year period 10,000 people were killed on the roads in this State.
One third of all accidents are linked to alcohol. This creates a major and unavoidable public health problem, the devastation of families, the suffering of victims and an estimated cost to our health services of €500 million. The proposal to reduce the legal blood alcohol level from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml led to much debate when it was announced last autumn. I had no difficulty supporting the decision when it was announced, mainly because of the scientific evidence in its favour. This concludes that a reduction to 50 mg per 100 ml reduced the number of accidents. In Queensland, Australia, the number of accidents was reduced by a similar reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg by 20%. In 2008, a British Medical Association report entitled, Alcohol Misuse: Tackling the UK Epidemic, called for such a reduction to 50 mg. The United Kingdom and Malta are now the only two countries in the EU where the legal limit remains at 80 mg. The Journal of Safety Research, Volume 36 (2006) pp 233 - 243, studied the effects of lowering the level to 50 mg in Australia, France, Austria, Sweden and Netherlands. For all countries, it came to the conclusion that reducing the blood alcohol level reduced the number of accidents.
The relative risk of being involved in a fatal crash as a driver is four to ten times greater for drivers with a blood alcohol limit between 50 mg and 70 mg per 100 ml. The World Medical Association, at its world assembly in South Africa in 2006 called for the limit to be less than 50 mg. It suggested between one and 50.
There is also ample scientific evidence of the effects of blood alcohol levels on the body and on performance. Between 60 and 100 mg there is psychological sedation of all systems in the body, decreased attention and alertness, slowed reactions, impaired co-ordination, reduced muscle strength, reduced ability to make rational decisions or exercise good judgment, an increase in anxiety and depression and a decrease in patience. In the light of such evidence, it leaves the Government with no choice but to introduce a level of 15.
Northern Ireland has a proposal to reduce the level to 15 mg which brings me to the issue of co-ordination and co-operation between North and South in the implementation of road safety measures and penalties. I welcome this morning's announcement of an initiative by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and Minister Conor Murphy, MLA, on parking and tolling fines. While it is a step in the right direction, it does not make much contribution to road safety measures. There are proposals to go further and a proposal has been debated many times at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body to introduce an integrated penalty points system. Interestingly, one of the reasons for the slow movement is that there is not an integrated system between Britain and Northern Ireland, so I understand they must get that right first. I welcome the decisions on the new arrangements for penalties. The penalty is not as harsh for people with lower levels of alcohol.
Driving under the influence of drugs is a matter of serious concern. There is no breath test available currently, so it is necessary to bring people in for a blood or a urine sample. No legal limits are set for the level of drugs in the system and more research is needed. Again, I welcome the decision of the Road Safety Authority to review the regulations in place but we should support more research.
Mandatory alcohol testing has been successful and I welcome its extension to drivers involved in accidents where another person has been injured. Unfortunately, we need penalties and to avoid breaches of the road safety code. I would like to think the day will come, sooner rather than later, when we will have a generation of people for whom road accidents will be eradicated or reduced to a minimum. It is necessary to start with education and information and to develop a healthy attitude to the use of alcohol and the misuse of drugs. We need to restrict advertising.
Rural pubs have made a good contribution, and continue to do so, in alleviating rural isolation, in particular for elderly people. Last autumn when the legislation was announced, I met vintners in County Monaghan. I explained to them why I would support the legislation but asked if they could spend some time with me discussing the decline in the number of customers, because they have problems. We discussed excise duty, cross-Border trading, the change in people's drinking habits and the availability of transport, which is a major issue in rural Ireland. I have long advocated that all transport in rural Ireland funded by the State should be integrated to deliver a comprehensive service. I mention schools and the health service, except the ambulance service, Bus Éireann and voluntary rural transport. This service could help to ensure a rural scheme at night for people who wish to use it and assist in ensuring safe transport home in situations where alcohol is an issue. I support the Bill.