Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Road Traffic Bill 2011: Second Stage
Finian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
I congratulate Deputy Varadkar on his appointment as Minister. I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill 2011. Before I go into the detail of the Bill, it is important to state here and now that drink driving is a no no for all motorists. Driving is dangerous enough so it is essential that drink driving is put beyond the Pale.
There are issues about having one pint and the problems faced by rural pubs - I understand that - but there are other solutions and ways to save the local pub. Allowing drinking and driving is no solution and we must all face that. Too many people have been killed or maimed, and too many families have had to suffer the loss of a loved one. That is why I support this Bill.
The Bill amends the existing legislation to allow for the mandatory alcohol testing of drivers following a collision in specific circumstances. The Bill was introduced following a delay in commencing the Road Traffic Act 2010. When we look at the details of that Act, it provides for the mandatory testing at collisions where an injury has occurred, as well as lowering permitted blood alcohol content levels to 50 mg per 100 ml and 20 mg per 100 ml for novice drivers. The Acts will not be commenced pending completion of the testing of evidential breath testing machines that are capable of testing at the new lower levels. Testing and training in their use will be completed this autumn.
Until the 2010 Act is commenced, breath testing is not mandatory and permitted blood alcohol content levels remain at the higher level of 80 mg per 100 ml. The Road Traffic Bill 2011 provides for mandatory testing where a collision leading to an injury takes place at the higher blood alcohol level of 80 mg per 100 ml. This is the main point of the Bill and it is a very important issue.
There is a lot of emphasis on alcohol but I would like to address the issue of drugs. We must face up to the reality that many young people are on drugs, often when they are driving. This is a major issue for society and for road safety. We must tackle this and I do not accept for a minute any blame being placed on disadvantaged young people for being involved in drugs when most of the market now for drugs like cocaine is driven by wealthy individuals; they are keeping the drug barons in business. Recent convictions in the courts prove my point.
Speeding is a major problem because of some of the new roads and the speeds of which modern cars are capable. The motor industry must look at this. Most young male drivers and many older male drivers, when they get into the car and see a clear run, will put the boot down and the reality is that the vast majority of these people do not realise how powerful the cars are.
I heard people in the last Dáil talking about the crisis in rural pubs. That is an issue, where senior citizens face difficulties in getting to the pub for a pint or two. I accept that point but we must come up with other solutions. A proper rural bus service would be one solution and publicans themselves can often be creative and put in place services to collect and bring people home. In many rural areas, the pub is the focal point for community and voluntary groups and fundraising activities. We must face that reality while recognising that the solution is not drinking and driving but coming up with other radical and sensible ideas. I call on publicans to be creative about this because they must face up to the issue. Elderly people who want to frequent their local pubs should be provided with transport. We must, therefore, re-examine the idea of community spirit. This country enjoyed ten to 15 years of massive wealth but one of the greatest mistakes we made during that period was to lose that concept. We need to bring back a sense of community spirit among people, particularly as it is relevant to the debate on the legislation relating to road traffic accidents.
I take this opportunity to commend the people directly involved in providing accident and emergency services. I commend ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors who do a tremendous job in this regard. Such people are obliged to deal with the results relating to the issues with which we are dealing in this legislation. Theirs is not an easy job and it is important to ensure that they are not hammered on a regular basis by those in the media or by some elements in this House. Many of those individuals are obliged to work late shifts and must deal with antisocial behaviour or with being assaulted. I am aware of many cases where ambulance drivers and others who work in accident and emergency departments have been assaulted while trying to do their job. These people should not be subjected to violence. In that context, we must ensure that the real issues are dealt with as part of this debate.
In dealing with issues relating to road safety, alcohol and drugs, we must also consider the position with regard to our roads. I welcome the fact that a number of fantastic motorways and roads were constructed in the past nine to ten years. I also welcome the fact that the putting in place of these carriageways has led to a reduction in the number of accidents and has improved the position with regard to road safety. We must, however, focus on the condition of minor roads. This is an issue up to which the Government must face.
It is not just a case of building roads for the sake of doing so or in the context of commercial interests in order to ensure that our economy gets back on track. In the context of job creation, major potential exists to develop, restructure and repair minor roads to a proper standard. Consideration should be given to this matter when the capital expenditure programme is under review. The Government should not run away from this issue because we are not just discussing road safety; we are also concerned with the many tens of thousands of workers who were laid off following the downturn in the housing market.
The putting in place of ramps on many roads and streets throughout the city of Dublin has also been of assistance in the saving of lives. In my constituency, people prefer to refer to them as speed cushions. These ramps have been extremely successful and the doctors who work at the National Children's Hospital in Temple Street will say that the reduction in speed to which they have given rise has led to many children's lives being saved. These are all matters of importance.
The Minister should inform the NRA that it must wake up and smell the coffee in respect of our motorways. The latter built a number of fantastic motorways but there are no areas where, during long journeys, people can pull in to rest, use the lavatory or have a cup of coffee. Such areas must be provided. During the past 20 years, I and my family have driven around France while on holiday. In that country, one can pull in and get a cup of coffee or avail of other services. This is a fantastic plus for people who are obliged to drive long distances. In addition, it generates employment in the catering industry. The Minister should tell the NRA to get its act together and provide some of the services to which I refer, particularly as this would lead to job creation and would also be of assistance in saving lives.
Section 3(4) provides that before making a requirement under subsection (1) the member of the Garda Síochána shall consult a doctor treating the person and if a doctor treating the person advises the member that such a requirement would be prejudicial to the health of the person, the member shall not make such a requirement. This is an important subsection and I hope that its provisions will not be abused.
Section 3(5) provides that for the purpose of making a requirement of a person under subsection (1), a member of the Garda Síochána may enter without warrant any hospital where the person is or where the member, with reasonable cause, suspects him or her to be. This is an important additional power that is being bestowed on the Garda. Again, I wish to impress upon the Minister and his officials, particularly in the context of section 3(5), the fact that an approach more geared towards the community policing model is required when dealing with issues of this nature. Officers with good communication skills will be required in order to deal with the type of situations which might arise.
There is also a need to deploy additional community gardaí to patrol accident and emergency departments, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. One can practically predict the times at which rows will break out in certain accident and emergency departments. As stated earlier, this is an area where action must be taken.
Section 3(4) and (5) deal with the question of Garda powers. Such powers should never be abused. Gardaí are meant to serve members of the public and society as a whole. That is a crucial consideration they must be reminded of when it comes to exercising the powers envisaged in the Bill. Members of the force must be both professional and objective. I welcome the fact that there are no costs associated with the proposals contained in the legislation.
I support the Bill. As an Independent Member of the Oireachtas, I will vote on individual items of legislation as they arise. If a Bill is sensible and is in the public interest, then I will support it. If the opposite is the case, I will oppose the relevant legislation.