Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)
Seán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
I support this Bill which should have the effect of fundamentally changing our culture by ensuring that everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car does so in the full knowledge that new penalties will be imposed for certain driving behaviours. As a result of this legislation, those who drink will have to significantly change their behaviour. We need to modify how we, as a society, deal with the issue of alcohol and the only way to achieve this objective is to ensure there is no ambiguity about the blood alcohol limits that apply while driving.
Having served on Cork County Council with him, I have the greatest respect for the previous speaker, Deputy Christy O'Sullivan. I, too, am only too well aware of the conditions experienced by rural dwellers who are frequently disadvantaged by virtue of their rural isolation and experience a lack of access to services. I find it difficult to listen to Government Deputies deplore the state of rural roads and the problem of rural isolation.
If people are to have access to the services they will require as a result of the measures provided for in the Bill, we must ensure ancillary services are in place to meet their demands and needs. For instance, in my area Bus Éireann has decided to withdraw the No. 66 route which serves a rural area and individuals living in rural isolation. They include older people who travel to towns such as Fermoy, Ballyhooly and Castletownroche to enjoy a drop before taking a bus home later in the evening. Many of these people do not drive and will no longer have access to the service as a result of the decision to close the route. This problem is a function of Government policy because an ancillary rural transport programme is not in place to pick up the slack arising from the loss of the service. In particular, a night time bus service is not in place to facilitate those who want to act responsibility but are unable to avail of a bus service. Government policy militates against the very people who experience rural isolation.
We need to be clear about the implications of the legislation. If we support the Bill on the basis that driver behaviour must change significantly, we must also take into account that some people, by virtue of residing in rural areas and deciding to behave responsibly as required under the legislation, will no longer have access to the local pub. Current policy does not meet their needs. If Bus Éireann drops routes at a rate of knots and the rural transport programme is not rolled out quickly enough to pick up the slack, particularly with regard to night time services, those who live in the rural areas obviously will be affected. This issue needs to be teased out in greater detail.
On the commencement of the sections which will become operational before mid-2011, I refer to the Bills digest produced by the Oireachtas Library and Research Unit. It states:
...different sections may become operational before others. Some of the provisions of the Bill will not come into force until mid 2011. This is because evidential breath-testing (EBT) machines used in Garda stations to measure the alcohol in a driver's breath cannot be recalibrated to the 20mg/100mL limit as yet.
What is the current state of play with regard to the Garda's capacity to recalibrate the EBT machines as required?
I understand the legislation reduces blood alcohol limits and introduces mandatory alcohol testing for drivers who are involved in traffic collisions as well as roadside preliminary impairment testing to detect drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One would expect the Government to have ensured all necessary technology was available prior to or in parallel with the implementation of the legislation. Will the Minister provide an update on the Garda's capacity to use the required technology?
On road collision statistics, while I do not doubt the bona fides of the Road Safety Authority, I have a healthy scepticism about some of the statistics produced on road traffic accidents. The Government has stated its commitment to improving road safety and the number of deaths on Irish roads declined to 240 in 2009. It is estimated that 25% of road accidents and 33% of fatal road accidents are attributable to alcohol. I often wonder how such statistics are measured and what process is used by the Road Safety Authority or Garda Síochána to produce their statistics, particularly those relating to road fatalities. I am not sceptical about the figures but I question the qualitative methods used to compile the statistics used for making an argument for a particular proposal. I ask for a response in that regard.
I welcome the provisions on new drivers. We cannot disregard the link between driver impairment and alcohol consumption. It has been proven scientifically and is supported by anecdotal evidence. Common sense says that if a person imbibes, their ability to operate a machine or vehicle will be impaired.
The Vintners' Federation of Ireland opposed the reduction in the limit and I can see its point. Anecdotal evidence suggests that their regular rural customers might drink a pint and a drop before ambling home. They never go beyond their usual level of imbibing, which is a social outlet for them. We must be able to provide for those who use the pub as a social outlet. If they are not able to drive, how will we facilitate them? Some of them will be able to get taxis while others will travel with neighbours. However, do we now have to tell them that there is no other alternative? In implementing the legislation, we need to strike a balance and speak for those people as well.
The section creates a distinction between newly qualified and other full licence holders. Novice drivers are subject to a lower BAC and will be automatically disqualified for three months if an administrative fixed penalty is accepted, or disqualified for six months if found guilty after a court hearing. Other licence holders do not face automatic disqualification following a first conviction. Can the Minister of State clarify if this is an age-related distinction, or does it merely distinguish between novices and experienced drivers? Is any qualification brought into play concerning an older person who may have transgressed? It is not that I am advocating a particular position on that, but I am seeking clarification in the Minister of State's response.
On balance we are experiencing a serious erosion of services in rural areas. Some argue that the decline of the rural pub reflects a decline in overall infrastructure, particularly roads. As someone who meets members of the public every day, I hold that view myself, because they are finding it increasingly difficult to access services. That is particularly the case for older people. I would distinguish between older and elderly people, because the use of the word "elderly" sometimes implies a certain infirmity. Many older people are mobile, although they may not drive. We always had a sense of inter-generational solidarity in this country, but it is being undermined by stealth. When drafting legislation we must, therefore, ensure that if it impacts on one service we should try to replace it with another service if possible.
The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that lives are saved and one cannot qualify that. While it is a black and white issue, there are grey areas where some public services will be diminished. Government policy on rural transport should be structured in such a way that people can access community centres or pubs outside normal office hours if they wish to do so. We must facilitate them in this respect.