Dáil debates

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017: Report Stage (Resumed)


7:40 pm

Photo of Michael HartyMichael Harty (Clare, Independent) | Oireachtas source

The central part of this Bill is that it changes the penalty for the amount of alcohol a person can consume rather than the alcohol limits. Limits are there and they are important but they are being ignored and, as a result, drinking and driving is contributing to road deaths. I do not see it as an urban versus rural issue, nor merely an issue of pubs. It is a national issue. We should not create a situation where it is urban versus rural, which is too simplistic a view. The motivation behind the Bill is to save lives and avoid injury. It is important to bear in mind that multiples of the numbers who die on the roads are very seriously injured. It is an important point. We cannot just measure road safety by lives lost. It must be measured in those seriously injured as well.

The Bill provides a measure of safety not only to drivers but also to their passengers and other road users. I do not want to be on a road where there are people coming against me and behind me who are over the limit. I want to be on a road where people are safe and observe the rules of the road, including those relating to drink-driving. The debate has to be widened out from being one limited to rural issues and pubs.

The Bill is about changing people's attitudes to alcohol, which is important and necessary, especially in attitudes towards drinking and driving. We are making progress but it is important that people do not pass from 0 to 50 mg to 80 mg to 100 mg to 120 mg of alcohol in their blood. Everyone starts at 0. There is no doubt that people's driving ability is impaired the higher a person's alcohol level. The current legal level is 50 mg, which is a relatively generous level of alcohol to have in one's blood and not be found to be driving illegally. I contend that 50 mg of alcohol in one's blood does impair a person's ability to drive. However, this Bill is not speaking about levels of alcohol but about penalties. The penalty ought to be stronger. For people to lose their licence for three months is an advance and a reasonable goal.

Road safety measures are not restricted to drinking and driving. Deputy Eamon Ryan referred to the many different aspects of road safety, of which speed is one. He observed that some areas of Dublin have a speed limit of 30 km/h. Many roads in rural Ireland have speed limits which are far in excess of the limit at which it is safe to drive on them. There are many roads in rural Ireland which have speed limits of 100 km/h when a person could not do anything close to that. We need to re-examine how we decide on our speed limits. Road quality is another important factor. I agree with Deputies Michael Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath and Danny Healy-Rae that some of our roads are in an appalling condition and contribute to accidents. The roads in my area are in serious need of repair.

That is an issue on which the Minister could concentrate. We also have the issue of roadworthiness. Again, that has improved with the obligatory testing of cars. We have also seen the obligatory wearing of seat belts. Seat belts are certainly a very important aspect of driving. I know very few people who would now not put on their seat belt before setting out and I know of many people whose lives have been saved by wearing their seat belts. We also talk about weather conditions. There are some roads in Ireland, some of our new motorways in fact, on which weather conditions seem to contribute to accidents over and above what would be expected for a motorway.

There are issues in respect of the ways in which some of our motorways have been constructed. Carelessness is an issue in road safety and tiredness is a huge issue. As a politician who drives almost 300 km twice a week to come to the Dáil, tiredness is a significant factor for me, for many politicians and for other people who are tired when they drive. We know of people in this House who died because of road traffic accidents related to tiredness.

We have spoken about inexperience, which is an important factor in road accidents. We have been speaking about learner drivers on provisional licences tonight. Young drivers are inexperienced and passing the test, which gives them the legitimacy of driving on their own, does not necessarily dispel their inexperience in driving. We have to recognise that point. When a person does not have a full licence, it is reasonable that he or she should drive with somebody who has experience and learn through the apprenticeship model.

Driving under the influence of alcohol, or under the influence of drugs which is increasingly an issue, is the focus of the central component of this Bill. Road safety is multifactorial. No one action brought about the fall in road deaths from 500 to fewer than 200. It was a result of many actions. We should continue to adjust all the components I have spoken about over the past few minutes to try to improve road safety. It must be remembered that a car is a lethal weapon. It can cause immense damage to the driver, the pedestrian, the passenger or the oncoming vehicle. Quite often that damage is inflicted on one's neighbours and friends because most accidents happen within a reasonable distance of the home.

This Bill comprises two important measures. It is a public health Bill on two counts. It prevents injury and death and it protects all road users. Road fatalities are not the only statistic against which we should measure road safety because every death on the road affects several hundred people. There is a ripple effect throughout the community and throughout the family. It is not just the unfortunate person who dies who is affected. Many people in families are affected. If one pays a visit to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, one will see the consequences of very serious road traffic accidents in which people have had life-changing injuries. That is very important for them, but also for their families. It has economic, social and psychosocial effects on those families. Therefore, this Bill is a public health measure for all.

This is also about the responsible consumption of alcohol. We all enjoy going out to our local pub for a drink, but one can go out and enjoy a drink in one's local pub without driving home. That is the issue. If a person consumes enough alcohol to put that person over the limit, he or she should not be driving home. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae talked about the conviviality of going to the pub, the craic, the conversation and the celebrations that are carried out in pubs. That is perfectly okay and perfectly legitimate. People should engage in that kind of social interaction, but they should not then get into a car and drive home. That is the issue. One can enjoy a visit to a pub without having to get into a car under the influence of alcohol and drive home, putting oneself and every other road user one comes across at risk.

Alcohol causes serious health issues. We are in the midst of a very serious crisis in respect of young people suffering very serious consequences from binge drinking, including medical consequences, particularly liver failure. There has been a change in Irish culture in the past 30 or 40 years. People who had liver failure used to be in their 60s or 70s. They were chronic abusers of alcohol. We are now seeing people in their 30s with liver failure due to the consumption of alcohol. While this Bill does not directly relate to that, it does touch on the fact that we consume too much alcohol in this society.

The issue was also raised that one can be very careful at night and get a taxi home or be driven home by a friend or the publican and yet the next morning one can be stopped at a checkpoint and found to be over the limit. It does not really matter whether one is over the limit at midnight or at 8 a.m., one is still over the limit and putting oneself and other road users at risk. It is a very spurious argument which has been put forward that people are afraid to drive in the morning. They justifiably should be afraid to drive in the morning if they are over the limit. If they are driving to work while over the limit, who are they putting at risk when they turn up to work if they are operating machinery or engaging in activities? The difficulty does not end if they actually get to work successfully. They are also putting their fellow workers at risk if they are under the influence of alcohol. I do not buy the argument that this Bill will prevent people from going to the pub at night because they are afraid they will have to go to work in the morning under the influence. That should not be the case.

It is like the smoking ban. The smoking ban was to be the end of the pub. Pubs would not survive if there was no smoking in them. Pubs are now far more enjoyable places to go to because one does not come out of them smelling as if one had just come out of an ashtray. The proposals in this Bill will not destroy the pub trade. I do not believe that.

I will refer to the issue of social isolation in rural areas, and perhaps also to social isolation in urban areas because one can be living in the middle of a housing estate in Dublin and not know one's neighbours on either side. The pub is certainly not the answer to rural isolation. I contend that the majority of people in rural Ireland do not go to the pub. Only a small minority of people in Ireland go to the pub. Not going to the pub is not going to increase social isolation in any way. Of course one can go to the pub and enjoy a few drinks provided one has a neighbour, friend or relative to bring one home.

Not everybody in rural Ireland drinks alcohol. In my village, the biggest card night of the week is held in our local community centre. It starts at 8 p.m. and finishes at 10.30 p.m. Everybody has a cup of tea and a sandwich. Some 70 people come and play cards. They enjoy themselves and they are home by 11 p.m. The card nights held in pubs start at 9 p.m., 9.30 p.m. or 10 p.m. and finish at 2 a.m. People tell me that they much prefer the card nights that are not related to alcohol. Of course one can go and play cards in a pub until the cows come home but one cannot then expect to drive home safely.

The issue of social isolation does not revolve around pubs. Many social activities do unfortunately revolve around pubs. Many sporting events are celebrated in a pub. If an under 13, under 14 or under 16 team win a local championship, the medals are presented in the pub. That is a very bad message to be sending to young people. It says that this is where celebrations take place. There are many aspects to rural Ireland which do not have to revolve around pubs. Rural society is much more resilient and does not have to depend on the pub culture to survive.

9 o’clock

Rural Ireland has many issues and they have been referred to tonight. Trying to hold on to our young people in rural Ireland is a huge challenge. I went to the Youth Work Ireland open day in the Mansion House this afternoon and met young people from my own county, County Clare. They did not mention anything about going to pubs or drinking and driving. Their main issues were mental well-being, getting a part-time job, the bullying and cyberbullying to which they are subjected in school and outside school, their sexuality and rural transport. Deputy Eamon Ryan referred to the rural transport system that operates in County Clare. It still operates. Anyone coming to County Clare on holidays can get Clarebus from many locations in Clare. It is a wonderful service that is growing and expanding. Public transport was a big issue for young people today at the Youth Work Ireland open day. For example, how do they get from Ennistimon, Kilrush or Scarriff into Ennis or further afield? Their options can be limited. However, none of them brought up the issue of drinking and driving or being put off the roads. Ennistimon once had the reputation of having the highest number of pubs per population in Ireland. It had 49 pubs in its heyday, or a pub for every nine men, women and children. That has changed now. I am not sure how many pubs there are in Ennistimon but it is significantly fewer than that. What has happened in Ennistimon is that the café culture that was disparaged earlier has grown and there are more places to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich there than to get a drink. All these businesses have opened up and it has changed the atmosphere and the culture in towns such as Ennistimon.

One can go out and enjoy a drink, go out and enjoy oneself without a drink or go out and have one or two drinks. One does not have to exceed the legal limit to enjoy oneself, and many young people now have a different attitude to drinking and driving. This measure, I believe, is not directed at pubs or the licensed trade. Many people drink at home now; not everyone goes to the pub. One could be drinking at home or in a friend's house or go out to dinner and be over the legal limit driving home. It is not just that the alcohol is consumed in a pub; it may be consumed in a friend's house or at a function. However, it must be realised that anyone doing so must have someone to bring him or her home. One cannot drink and drive coming from those events. There is a popular myth that people can drive a little better when they have had a few pints, that they are more relaxed and their reactions are better. However, there is a direct correlation between the amount of alcohol one has in one's blood and one's reaction time. Whether one is driving on an urban or a rural road makes no difference: one's reaction times will be reduced. This is backed up by scientific evidence.

I therefore speak in support of the Bill. I am from rural Ireland. I just look at this problem from a different perspective, a different angle. From my personal experience, I have seen the devastation that deaths on the road bring to a family, particularly when alcohol is involved. Many young people have been damaged and seriously injured by drinking and driving on our roads, not only urban, but also rural, so I support the Bill.


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