Wednesday, 25 April 2018
Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report Stage (Resumed)
I was happy to yield to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and listen to him. His question about what kind of place young people will want to live in is valid. It is the key question for all those in terms of what we are doing in the Dáil. It is as much an issue for urban Deputies as it is for rural Deputies. Politics is central to answering that question and getting it right, both in rural and urban Ireland.
When somebody doubts the power or use of politics, asking what good it does, I always show some practical examples. The most important one for me is what has happened with the number of road deaths in this country over the past 40 years. In the mid-1970s, up to 500 people a year were killed on our roads. Everyone knows the utter tragedy and complete devastation for a family which suffers a fatality through a road accident. Last year, 159 people were killed on our roads. While it is 159 too many, it is significantly lower than the 500 some 40 years ago. Not all of this is down to politics. Much of it is due to road standards and regulations concerning safety belts, for example. However, even the introduction of the safety belt was a political decision. It took Ralph Nader in the United States to take on the power of General Motors, Ford and other car companies to insist they were not thinking safety when they built their cars. It was also due, over many years involving many parties, to political decisions around changing our laws on drink-driving and speed, as well as introducing measures in urban areas such as speed ramps and restrictions. Only last week, we introduced the new 30 km/h limit in Dublin. It has been a continuous slow and tortuous battle to address the tragedy in which 159 people die each year on our roads. It has taken political decisions and commitment, often unpopular decisions, for us to be able to do that.
I am not happy, however, that we are doing enough. There was a protest tonight outside Leinster House organised by the Dublin Cycling Campaign. My first priority now would be creating safe spaces on our roads. Our whole system is completely antithetical to the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. For example, if we are going to complain about things, I will cite the fact the cycling budget for Dublin City Council was halved when the number of cycling fatalities doubled. I cannot understand why we are not putting money into cycling facilities in this and every other city. This is too sore an issue to speak about at this stage because a cyclist died last week in Dublin. However, not only would it protect people’s lives and improve safety but it would transform the urban environment in a way which would make Dublin thrive and be an incredible city in which to live.
I know Deputy Michael Collins’s area in west Cork. I would also like to see priority given to ensuring a short time for people to get their driving tests in order they are not on the road as learner drivers for too long. We must encourage this and put resources into it. I wish such a measure was in this Bill. Like Deputies Michael Collins and Fitzmaurice, as well as others, I too would love to see a real transformation to ensure we have rural bus services. It is not impossible. Deputy Harty will know that in west Clare there were good community bus services. Although they were not perfect, they were experimental and were a good example of what could be done if resourced properly and we were ambitious enough to go the extra yard. Those sorts of initiatives should be at the centre of providing alternatives of having to drive.
I have to accept the Minister, the Road Safety Authority and others have done the analysis and feel there is further room for tackling drink-driving. We have to support it. We cannot say we want all these other measures but we will not support the initiative in question. The Deputies from the Rural Independent Group claim this will have particular consequences for people in rural Ireland because they have to drive long distances and do not have a public transport alternative. This brings difficulties just like some of the other decisions over the past 40 years which helped us reduce road deaths. I still support it because politicians should be committed to bringing that figure down to zero. That should be our aim.
To highlight how this is particularly a rural issue, the 159 people who died last year - God bless every one of them and their families - would fill this Chamber. If one includes the clerk and the parliamentary reporter - I apologise for including them in the proceedings – there are 159 of us in this Chamber, making it representative of that population. There are five Deputies from Kerry, each one of them welcome. However, eight people from Kerry died last year on our roads. There are five Deputies from Tipperary, but, similarly, eight people from Tipperary died on our roads. I do not know if Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice is the only Member from Roscommon, but four people from Roscommon were killed on our roads last year. There are five Deputies from Mayo but 12 people from Mayo died in traffic accidents last year. If one adds those four counties together, we would fill this entire section of the Chamber. This is an issue for rural Ireland that we have to address.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae asked how we can make rural Ireland a place where young people will want to live. We have the exact same question in urban Ireland. My 19-year-old son asked a simple question the other day. He asked me how much of a multiple of our income our house price was when I bought it back in 1997. It was three times my and my wife’s incomes. He asked what it would be today. We replied it would be eight times. Every young person in Dublin is asking how they can live in this city. That is a cutting crucial question for them. Similarly, I am terrified for my son’s safety when he is cycling around this city. How can we make it a safe place for him? The same question has to be asked for rural Ireland.
I believe we need to go full steam in addressing that question to ensure young people in rural Ireland have accessibility. It also has to be safe. It was not that long ago that it felt safe to walk down a country road in rural Ireland. Increasingly, it does not today. Could we not set that ambition? Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said that during the snow, people actually walked to the local pub. It was the same in Dublin and everywhere else around the country. With the snow, we instantly went back 50 years to the sense of community and connection to local small places because we were not dependent on the car and no one could drive. Can we not do that across all of Ireland, where it would be safe to walk down a country road?
Maybe in every single town for as far as we can, we put in footpaths. Let us put the money into that because 30 pedestrians died last year, often on those dark country roads. Are we going to create an Ireland where a person cannot walk along a country road? Is that where we want to go or should we set a different objective whereby these are walking roads and we will make them safe by design?
I listened to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae when he rightly noted that this issue is not only about the countryside but what happens to places such as Killorglin, Killarney and Kilgarvan or the other towns he mentioned. According to jar.ie, which I looked up while he was speaking, Killorglin has 14 pubs and a populations of 2,000. That is still a fair few. While Cahersiveen may have had 52 pubs in the past, according to my very quick research it now has a population of 1,168 and 23 pubs. Clonakilty with a population of 4,500 has 22 pubs. Let us look at which towns are working and why and how we can replicate that. I always use Clonakilty as an example because it is a town that is thriving. I like it as an example because it has its own mayor and I believe in restoring power back down to the local level. When a person does it in towns such as Clonakilty, it seems to work. They have 1,000 people working in the industrial estate there. The town is booming and I think that is partly because they have created an attractive urban centre which is very close to being pedestrianised. Killorglin is another town that I know that is very successful in having created a strong centre with all the vibrant pubs that go with it, because they bring life back to the centre. That is where I think young people will want to live.
I was deeply critical of the national planning framework because ultimately it failed. While it set out with very good objectives, these were abandoned to the extent that it says that 50% of new accommodation will be outside of existing urban areas. How are we going to create a system where, as the Minister rightly advises, people will not drink and drive but at the same time we place people out in sprawl? I do not think that will work. We need to use this opportunity holistically. It is not a question of Dublin versus the rest. It is about building up Carrigaholt or Ennistymon, the fantastic towns with fantastic urban pub culture. That is where we need our young people to be. That is where we need families to be. People can walk or cycle to school or to the local shops, and probably to the local GP whose clinic is probably in the town centre, and they can walk to the pub. Accommodation is cheaper than it would be in Dublin. There are loads of jobs that we could develop if we did it in a co-ordinated way in sectors such as tourism, energy, including forestry, food production and digital services, if we can connect the broadband. We must have a vision for rural Ireland and urban Ireland which is sustainable in every way. Included in that vision would be that this is a country that takes road safety most seriously and that it is a safe place. As part of this, it should have vibrant public transport in rural and urban areas. There would be an expectation that kids cycle to school. The statistics around cycling in Ireland are heartbreaking. One that shook me some years ago showed that in County Monaghan, to use one county as an example, more girls were driving themselves to secondary school than were cycling. Every rural school should be trying to make it safe again for children to cycle to school. I think that is the type of place that young people will want to live and raise families, because of the freedom that allows. Parents do not have to worry that their son or daughter will be safe when they cycle to school. We should go with road safety in everything. It should be part of the vision for creating a vibrant rural Ireland and a vibrant and safe urban Ireland too. It is not impossible. In the past 40 years we have gone from 500 to 159 deaths. In going to zero we could create vibrant rural and urban communities which are socially successful and where people want to live as well as being safer places. That is why I support this Bill and was pleased to be able to contribute to the debate.