Thursday, 18 November 2021
Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I will have to say a word in defence of the older generation. I do not see myself on a scooter, bike or trike or anything like that in the near future, unless I have been overexposed to the sun or something, but I must announce myself as a motorbiker. It is an enjoyable mode of transport. I still have the bike and still indulge in using it.
My colleague just spoke of sharing space on roads. There are more people competing for that space than ever before, with more vehicles and more types of vehicle. It is important that we recognise that each and every one of us has a role to play in maintaining the highest safety standards. I have noticed a considerable difference between the manner traffic moved before Covid and how it moves now. I detect a lot of impatience. I can understand why people have become impatient, but, as a result, safety standards have dropped. It is in not unusual to find yourself in a queue of traffic, bumper to bumper, and have someone jam in between you and the car in front, and then the next thing the car behind you is in the back window. That has happened on countless occasions on the motorways and on roads and general. There is no need for it. We should all recognise each other's right to share the space and get to and from work or whatever the case may be, causing the minimum impact.
The Minister has a difficult job to do. We are trying to reduce emissions, which we have committed to, and rightly so. I hear the young generation saying that we can all cycle to work but we cannot. Some of us could have cycled to work once upon a time but I have no intention of going back to it any time soon if I can avoid it. For those who can and have a short distance to go, by all means, let us provide the space and the safety standards that will allow that so people can improve their health and have an efficient and emission-free mode of travel to and from work.
I know that he is doing so, but I ask that the Minister to pay special attention to the safety standards, especially on dark mornings and evenings of which we know a lot about now. All users of the roads must pay particular attention to each other. Failure to do so can only result in tragedy. The tragic thing is that we have all seen situations where a family has been bereaved where a child or young person went off in the morning, happy-go-lucky and carefree, and has not come home the same way. It is important that we set aside some time to think about the need to do so. I pay tribute to those on e-scooters and baby trikes and trolleys who pay attention and are careful in how they use their vehicles on the road. Not all do so but quite a number do and it is good to see. It will catch on and there will be more awareness. As a result travel will improve and make the place better.
I would like everybody to have access to electric cars. That has not been possible. I am not suggesting that it could have been done, but we might have started earlier. Like the Kerryman said when asked for directions to Cahirsiveen: "If I was going there, I wouldn't be starting from here". There are two options for vehicles, electric or hydrogen. I do not see any other way to do it unless we put cars off the road altogether and that is not going to happen. People in the cities will say that is the objective and that is what they want to do but that is not going to happen. There are some situations where putting cars off the road just cannot apply. We have to realise that. I know the Minister knows that because we have had this discussion in the past. There are parts of the country where it is not possible to get public transport without enormous cost, and not even then. We have to retain the rights and entitlements of people to go about their business in whatever way possible and do the best we can on emissions.
If the investment is undertaken in time, we will achieve that but if we postpone everything until, say, we have more energy generation in the middle of the Atlantic, that means we will never do so. I have been through that in elections with the anti-wind turbine people. I know what is there. However, we must push on and work towards improving the quality and standard of travel for all our people and improving emission levels in line with the international targets - and there is no reason we cannot do that - while, at the same time, ensuring their safety. We must also ensure that we can close off the roads. During Covid, I thought there was a move by Dublin City Council to narrow the roads to nothing. I think it has done a good job on that so far. Where I used to travel up along the quays at night and it might have taken 15 or 20 minutes, but it often takes an hour now. I am not an expert on traffic movement, but I could do a better job on that. All this is part and parcel of what we need to do.
Times are changing, as are modes of transport. People are working from home. Some say the extra people working from home means that we will not go to work any more. That is not true. The truth is we can wistfully think about those things but it will not happen. The Dáil would be a peculiar House if we all started working from home. An Leas-Cheann Comhairle can imagine what it would be like calling the House to order in that kind of situation.
Let us be realistic about it. The way to deal with that is digital hubs at various locations throughout the country, which can be provided with fast broadband and whatever technology is required. That is on the one hand. At the same time we must provide for the social interaction that naturally takes place when people go to work. Life becomes very boring if people just go to work, shut the office door, stay there all day and walk out the door again in the evening. They like to chat and have a bit of social interaction. That is part and parcel of life. If we abolish that and make it that little bit more dull then obviously people will not want to go to work and will decide to take alternative options.
There are also indications, to me at least, that right now is a good time to provide the alternatives. Right now is a good time to be able to say to people of all ages there are ways and means of alleviating the burden of travel and commuting, and we will look at it and do so practically in a way that fits in with the standards and way of life we have now. Whatever we have to do, we have to do and we should do it. I hope the Minister will be mindful of these issues in the operation of all legislation, not just this particular Bill. I know he is concerned about this and for the right reasons. However, very often people typecast him in a different direction to suit the occasion. We live in a time of change. We must move on. It is possible to do one of two things. We can stick our two feet in the ground and say we are not moving anywhere and that we are going to remain as we were. We cannot do that. The international thinking has moved on as well, so we cannot do that. We can say we want to drive at whatever speed we have always driven at on the motorways because that is what motorways are for. However, what if that motorway is crowded, as many of our motorways now are, especially the M50? The Minister introduced regulation on special speed limits for it, which is quite correct. If the road is jammed with traffic, travelling at 120 km/h is grand provided nothing goes wrong. However, if something goes wrong and the car in front suddenly has to stop, or gets bumped from behind or whatever the case may be, then everything comes to a halt very quickly. Therefore, we need to do that as well.
The last point I wish to make relates to safety. I have not commented on this previously. There are risks with schoolchildren going to school or college or whatever it may be in the early hours of the morning and coming home in the wintertime darkness, and they are not all road traffic risks. I ask that they be borne in mind. The experience in other jurisdictions indicates to me that young kids on their way home from school, especially girls but boys too, have been accosted from time to time. It is something we need to bear in mind because if we are changing the rules, as we must, we need to bring along with us that there may be changes where health and safety is concerned as well. We need to put in a note somewhere to the effect that these are the new rules and this is what is safe. We know from the context of Covid we might have to say it a few times before the message will hopefully get through that this is a safe way to travel, or whatever it may be. I recall travelling up and down the country in a previous incarnation as a Minister of State in different times. There were young kids on the roadsides in rural areas in the darkness of the morning. They were waiting with the rain pouring down on them. It is a different scene from what applies in many other parts of the country. There are countless risks that need to be addressed. I emphasise that to try to ensure that health and safety issues are borne in mind and some provisions made to ensure we can at least protect users of the roads, the footpaths and of various modes of transport that are different to those in existence heretofore. We need to recognise we must put in place whatever provisions are necessary to protect all.