Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Road Traffic Bill 2011: Second Stage
James Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his appointment and wish him well in his new role. I have no doubt that, with his vast experience, he will do the country proud. I also congratulate the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, on his appointment and wish him every success in his new portfolio. I extend good wishes to all the Ministers and Ministers of State appointed by the Taoiseach and look forward to the new Cabinet delivering many ambitious programmes in the months and years ahead.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to this important Bill. Although my perspective on the legislation is from a new position on the Government side of the House, much of what I said in February 2010 on the Road Traffic Bill 2009 still holds good. Road safety is conditional on the provision of safe, well maintained roads. If changes are to be enacted on blood alcohol content, the appropriate number of gardaí required to enforce such changes must be made available. I am aware that the economic constraints we have inherited from the previous Administration will impact on Garda numbers, as they do elsewhere across the civil and public service, the fact remains that without manpower to back it up this legislation will amount to empty rhetoric.
Many of our roads are in a shocking condition. While it is admirable to amend legislation to help curb drink driving, which is a major cause of accidents, it is just one of the issues which urgently need to be tackled. Coming from Longford-Westmeath, which has some of the worst roads in the country, I am aware that speed on substandard roads plays a major part in road fatalities and must also be tackled.
The Ceann Comhairle will forgive me for being parochial for a moment. This week, we signed off on the project to build a new bypass for Longford. The allocation of funding for the project, one of the few to proceed in 2011, will, I hope, improve safety in and around the town. County Longford has one of the highest crash rates in Leinster and substandard roads have played a major part in the problem. The funding of slightly more than €9 million provided for the bypass will increase driver safety.
Severe weather conditions over the past two winters have had a detrimental effect on already poor roadways. We must bear in mind the increased burden placed on local authorities as they seek to cope with the fallout from unprecedented levels of snow, ice and flooding. The Minster, who is from an urban constituency, is only too aware of this problem, having visited counties Longford and Westmeath on numerous occasions. While I know he is busy reading into his new brief, I would welcome an opportunity to show him some of the worst roads in the country when he next visits the midlands. I have every confidence he will bring new thinking to what is a matter of life and death.
The Bill essentially serves as a rubber stamp to facilitate the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing of drivers prior to the coming into force of the Road Traffic Act 2010. The restrictions the Government has inherited mean the provisions of the Act will not commence before September of this year owing to a lack of suitable evidential breath testing, EBT, equipment to physically implement the changes. The apparatus used to measure the alcohol in a driver's breath cannot be recalibrated to 20 mg. per 100 ml. until 2011. Again, we are being forced to overcome restrictions arising from a lack of forward planning by the previous Administration.
We must not overlook the fact that Ireland is subject to the targets set by the European Transport Safety Council, ETSC. The council's stated objective was for all European Union member states to cut road deaths by 50% by 2010. To achieve this target, the number of road fatalities in Ireland should not exceed 205 per annum from 2010 onwards. The Government's Road Safety Strategy 2007-12 proposed to reduce the number of road fatalities to not more than 252 per annum. While admirable, this figure remains almost 50 higher than the figure laid down by the ETSC.
I welcome the fact that various measures have resulted in a reduction in the number of road deaths in recent years. While recent figures show that the number of road fatalities declined by 41 to 238 between 2008 and 2009, we must bear in mind that the human face behind this figure is the bereavement of 238 families and loss of 238 lives in shocking circumstances. Some 40% of these fatalities were young people aged under 25 and Sunday was the most dangerous day of the week, with 51 deaths. Some 49% of road deaths happened at the weekend and the hours between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. were the most dangerous, with 30 deaths. The average monthly fatality rate in 2009 was 20 compared with 23 in 2008 and 28 in 2007 and the safest month of the year was September, when 13 deaths occurred. This was also the safest month on record.
I welcome any initiative to reduce such fatalities, including the introduction of speed limits and television advertising campaigns. A young person with whom I spoke during the general election campaign expressed concern about the television advertisement campaign on road accidents and fatalities, which he believed was very frightening. This proves the effectiveness of that advertising campaign, which I welcome. Other initiatives introduced to reduce fatalities include penalty points, random breath testing at Garda checkpoints, the reduction in blood alcohol content from 80 mg to 50 mg and improved roads infrastructure in some parts of the country. I referred earlier to the problems being encountered in this regard in the midlands, in particular, Longford-Westmeath. It is hoped the new Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will take note of my concerns in relation to the condition of the roads in Longford-Westmeath and will raise them at the Cabinet table, resulting in a substantial increase in the allocation for roads in next year's budget.
As a rural representative, I must talk out of both sides of my mouth this evening. I could not be more committed to making Ireland a safer driving environment for all our citizens, drivers, pedestrians and tourists and to removing the all too present spectre of death on our roads. However, I must also consider the business and social aspects of this legislation as they apply in remote rural areas, in particular, remote areas with a public house. It is essential that we take a long hard look at the issue of rents and rates on public houses as publicans are under immense financial pressure owing to the current recession and the reduction in the number of people drinking outside the home.
The other side of the coin in relation to legislation such as this is the reluctance of people to leave their homes to enjoy a social occasion. Therefore, falling consumption rather than a major increase in cross-Border trade is impacting adversely on publicans, in particular, in Longford-Westmeath and other Border counties. I am asking the Minister to look at night time public transport provision in rural areas. Such provision is essential to allow people, in particular, the elderly, to enjoy a night out in their local pub as it is not safe for people to walk home on dark and often dangerous roads. Elderly pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to accidents and robbery on lonely country roads at night. It is essential that such provision is put in place. This is about doing the right thing for the well-being of our communities. We must focus on what is best for our fellow citizens from a safety and social perspective.
When in conversation with an older person recently, I was told that growing old is not a matter of age but of a lack of mobility. For those who are unable to keep in touch with the outside world over a couple of pints owing to a lack of transport, the resulting lack of movement is a form of death. A lack of social contact for people in remote areas leads them to believe they would be better off dead. Many rural Members will know of elderly people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are isolated.
Rising suicide rates in Ireland, amounting to more than ten per week, are perhaps too easily attributed to the recession. The economic fall-out during other recessionary periods did not lead to the same level of suicide or anything near it. Rural isolation is a new phenomenon and is a cause of great concern to me and other rural representatives. A combination of job losses, a lack of transport and of social interaction are a recipe for disaster. Loneliness is a major contributor to suicide and the destruction of the fabric of rural communities is leading to increased isolation and depression. Let there be no mistake, I am in no way advocating or condoning drink driving. What I am seeking this evening is balance. Let us bring in every imaginable regulation to prevent the abuse of alcohol by drivers but let us also pledge to put the necessary public transport initiatives in place to allow our citizens to avail of social interaction in a manner that safeguards everyone. Solutions to the pressing issues on both sides of the coin can only be found in a comprehensive cross-departmental approach, comprising the protection of life through every possible means to promote safe driving, improved roads infrastructure, driver education, measures against drug driving, a scheme to protect the Irish way of rural country life, the Irish way of socialising and to allow people to remain living, working and spending in their own locations, and, most important, a rural transport network that allows isolated people to leave their homes and meet their neighbours. People living in rural areas do not have the same facilities as people living in towns and cities. Many do not even have access to a reasonable transport service, something with which I am sure the Minister will become familiar in the future.
In addressing the issue of drink driving and road deaths, consideration must also be given to drivers under the influence of drugs and those who abuse the speed limits. Every crossroads in the country is marked by a series of black rings which are evidence of high speed chases and doughnut spins. Perhaps the Minister will in his response provide us with the number of fatalities as a result of such actions or drug misuse. Is it the case that fatalities as a result of drug abuse are recorded as having been caused by fatigue? I am sure the Garda Síochána could provide the Minister with statistics in this regard.
Driving under the influence of drugs has been a statutory offence in Ireland since enactment of the Road Traffic Act 1961. This Act prohibits driving in a public place while under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of a vehicle. However, there is currently no legislation in place - the Minister can correct me if I am wrong - to allow for road testing of drivers believed to be under the influence of drugs. While one can acquire penalty points for drink driving, no penalty points grading system is in place in relation to the concentration of drugs found in a person's system.
It is to be welcomed that this legislation will provide the Garda Síochána with the powers to form an opinion, following a preliminary test, that a driver is or is not under the influence of an intoxicant. In a recent road safety report Ireland is ranked as the sixth safest country in the EU. I hope that one day everyone in the Chamber and all our citizens will see this country become the safest place in Europe to drive and free from alcohol. I thank the Minister and I compliment him and wish him well in his new portfolio. I am sure he will have answers to some of my questions later on.