Thursday, 28 April 2005
Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the general objectives which the Bill seeks to promote, namely, shorter waiting times for driving tests and better standards of driving. However, one must question its necessity. The Department should have all the necessary requirements to achieve these objectives. It is typical that when an issue becomes too troublesome to handle, the immediate reaction of Ministers is to establish a quango with which to distance themselves from the problems and avoid direct accountability to the Oireachtas.
This Government starved the driving test section of the Department of Transport of funds which would have enabled it to establish a proper system. It also starved the Garda Síochána of resources to implement the penalty points system properly. The promised significant reduction in waiting times for driving tests has failed to materialise and in most cases the situation has worsened. We are now told that the driver testing and standards authority will be self-financing. According to the Minister, this new authority will greatly speed up waiting times for driving tests and introduce systems to improve drivers' competence greatly. It will apparently do so within a shorter period, despite that the Minister and his Department have failed to get such results previously.
For the new system to work, it must be properly resourced. The Minister should make it clear that if the authority is to be self-financing, the cost of a test will double or treble. A test could cost anything in the region of €100 and the necessary preparatory work and training between €500 and €1,000. This is not necessarily a bad development if it saves lives, but the Minister should spell out the implications of the Bill for the already hard-pressed car owner. Added to this is the commercialised system of speed traps and the increased insurance premiums for penalty points given for speeding on regional roads, although this is under review. The Government's mishandling of these issues has led to seriously increased costs for all motorists.
There is already concern among motorists and car owners about the operation of the private national car test. Are there systems built into the operation which guarantee substantial profit for the private companies? What safeguards has the Minister put in place to ensure this does not happen with privatisation?
These issues are of concern to ordinary motorists but not to a Government which does not understand the tight weekly budget on which many families must live. The system has been a fiasco for many years. The Government and the Department have willingly turned a blind eye to various infringements. An amnesty was introduced which led to a careless and haphazard approach on the part of the driving public to driving licence regulations. Who would blame them? They were taking their lead from the Government implementing the system. Faced with the implications of a European directive, the Government became indignant and intolerant of non-compliant drivers.
More difficult problems exist than the delays in driving tests. Some 120 provisional licence holders are in line for the test but, despite the introduction of the penalty points system, more than 200,000 provisional licence holders and many more with expired licences are in limbo. For years, the authorities' interpretation of the law was that if one held a second provisional or expired licence, one could still be fully insured. Most of these people are over 55 and live in rural areas with no public transport. I have raised this issue before and accept that it is difficult to resolve in terms of road safety. The Minister now has the opportunity to put the matter on an acceptable footing when issuing instructions to the new authority.
There has been a general acceptance of different driving licence categories from small scooters and motorbikes to cars to lorries and buses. Many experienced driving instructors believe a comprehensive training programme should be compulsory. As part of the many recommendations they have made for the regulation of their sector, they also believe that lessons should be broken down into driving modules such as motorway, national primary route, rural, day and night-time driving. People who pass a test in any one of these modules should hold a driving licence for that module. For example, a person who passes a rural driving test should hold a licence to drive on rural roads during daylight hours and a person who passes a rural driving test in addition to a night-time driving test could hold a category of licence which allows them to drive on rural roads both day and night. By completing training in any of the other modules, they can expand their driving experience and licence category to national primary roads and motorways and driving other vehicles. This system would ensure that all drivers were properly trained and tested for the category of licence they held.
Other countries have systems designed for this purpose. In certain parts of Germany, elderly people can obtain local driving permits. As a result of Japan's tradition of respect for the elderly, special laws are enforced to enable them to drive safely. We must look at a safe and secure way to allow these people, many of them elderly, who have driven on provisional and expired licences for many years to attain an acceptable level of driving for which they are trained and tested. The social consequences of ignoring this would be enormous, not only for the people themselves, but also for their immediate family and friends. The loss of independence will affect the entire family and community. Many retired grandparents provide invaluable assistance to their children and grandchildren. Most young married couples work and now depend on the support of their elderly relatives. The last time I raised this issue many of our well-heeled commentators did not grasp the enormity of the problem and I must accept that a solution from a road safety point of view is not easy. The concept of having different categories of licences is well established. By adding the concept of training and testing in modules we could have the beginning of a solution to a problem, which can have very serious social consequences.
The Minister seems determined to establish this authority, which if it is to be successful and well run will inevitably represent an additional cost on the motoring public. The authority must be properly resourced and if it is self-financing then the motorist or potential motorist must provide the money. If the Minister instructs the authority to come up with imaginative solutions that help to compensate for years of confusion, that will give everybody — especially those on long-term provisional licences and expired licences — a chance to get on the first rung of the driving ladder by introducing a modulated training and testing system mostly for older people, then some good will have been achieved. If it introduces a system of testing for young drivers that uses the most modern training to clearly demonstrate to them the dangers particularly of driving in hazardous conditions and it reduces the waiting lists for tests then although much more expensive it will be worth the effort.
I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. When I got my first licence, I went to the local driving office, handed over £1 and was handed a licence. I may be giving away some State secrets regarding age etc. in saying that. I still have the licence among my papers at home.
Things have moved on since then, with the speed of traffic and the sophistication of vehicles. In many cases our roads are unable to handle these vehicles well. The National Roads Authority is addressing that issue. However, we still have many problems with drivers. Many drivers are not careful and have not bought into the culture of safety that is so necessary now. In his speech yesterday, the Minister mentioned the frightening number of deaths on the road so far this year. Many of these people were pedestrians. The speed at which vehicles now travel mean that people are badly injured if not killed outright in road accidents.
The Minister has said that more instructors will be employed and has promised a new Garda traffic corps or considerably more gardaí allocated to traffic duties. The Minister should meet the assistant commissioner who will deal with this matter. In my experience driving around the country I notice that the gardaí with speed guns are normally positioned on very safe parts of the motorway. I would have thought that any Garda district superintendent would have a map on the wall of his office showing the accident black spots in his area and would send gardaí to monitor and control traffic in these areas until the local authority or National Roads Authority got around to improving the roads in such areas.
The previous speaker spoke about separate licences for motorways etc. Before anybody is allowed behind the wheel of a car he or she should be required to complete a certain number of hours on a simulator in a driving school, as airline pilots do. We would not dream of letting an airline pilot behind the controls of an aircraft, no matter how small, without him or her having completed a set number of hours on a simulator. The same should apply to potential drivers. Before they are given a provisional licence they should be required to show evidence of having completed the required number of hours in a simulator.
The Bill seems to focus entirely on motorists and drivers of heavy goods vehicles. However, other road users are stakeholders in driving safety. I refer to cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. I frequently cycle around the city and due to the slowness of the traffic I find it quite safe to cycle in the inner city. However, on the main roads out of the city with heavy goods vehicles travelling at 60 or 70 mph the experience can be somewhat less than enchanting. Pedestrians must also buy into the culture of safety. Many of them seem to believe that the footpath and the road are coterminous and it is possible to step from one to the other without looking to see if it is safe to do so. On Committee Stage the Minister might place more emphasis on this aspect.
I would like to speak about elderly drivers.
Moving in that direction, one has an interest in the matter. Many elderly people are being refused insurance on grounds of so-called "physical disability". However, cars are now highly sophisticated with power steering and automatic transmission as well being capable of being adjusted. For many elderly people cars represent their only lifeline to the outside world. Especially those living in rural Ireland need a car to go about their ordinary every day life.
I recommend that the Minister send for a copy of the form for a disabled person's parking permit. Given the restrictive clauses, including the loss of either one or two limbs, one would want to be nearly moribund before one would get a disabled person's parking permit. While many people of advanced years suffer with problems with their lungs, heart etc., such ailments do not preclude them from driving. However, according to the restricted clauses on the application form, they would not qualify for a disabled person's parking permit. They need to get out to do their shopping and need to be able to drive and park near the shop. They need a disabled person's parking permit to allow them to walk into the shop, as they are incapable of walking more than 100 or 200 yards. I ask the Minister to consider these matters on Committee Stage.
One must look after one's elderly neighbours. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill and to congratulate the Minister on its introduction. We are dealing with one of the products of the Celtic tiger. Unlike Deputy Fitzpatrick, my period of reflection is quite short. If one goes back 20 years, 900,000 people were at work with a proportionate number of cars. Unfortunately, I do not have the precise figure. Now twice as many people are at work and a direct result of this hugely positive development is that there are twice as many cars on the road. In turn, this puts pressure on all the different support systems for motorists such as road construction, traffic control, speed regulation and driver testing. In all of these areas, we are working hard just to keep pace with the massive number of cars and the dramatically changed circumstances on the roads.
The primary function of the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 is to improve delivery of the driver testing service. There has been a marked lack of legislation in this area for some time. I do not remember being able to buy a licence for £1 but clearly remember my parents' recollection of how easy it was to do so. That was a reflection of the time when there was much more space on the road, when automobile manufacturing was less technologically advanced and when driving was more a pleasure and social activity than an absolute quotidian necessity for the vast bulk of the population. Given the changed circumstances as a result of the increased number of cars, our primary difficulty is with safety. Anything that improves the safety environment on the roads such as improvements to the driver testing system is to be welcomed.
Deputy Fitzpatrick made a good point when he drew an analogy with airline pilot training and the aircraft simulator in which all pilots must practice for a certain number of certified hours before being deemed capable of taking an aircraft in strictly controlled situations. Given some careful consideration, a worthwhile parallel activity could be brought into play in the driver testing arena, particularly for emergencies. One feature of the driving test that has often struck me is that it is all very well until one actually encounters a glitch or emergency in a car, especially an emergency created by another road user. How many times have driving tests been conducted without the inclusion of a genuine emergency in the course of the test? It is the ultimate test for any driver. It must be possible, using Deputy Fitzpatrick's useful suggestion, to create a system with at least one test on a simulator where an emergency can be included to test the driver's reaction.
Another point concerns the number of heavy goods vehicles on the road. We have already had a debate about the port tunnel. I am sceptical of the pattern that appears to be emerging with the number and size of super-trucks on the road. If a normal truck was a permanent building, it would require planning permission. Yet we see trucks become bigger and bigger, hurtling along our motorways, invariably — I say this deliberately — in excess of the speed limit and providing a huge danger to all road users. This happens both on and off motorways. Recently, the port tunnel's height was called into question. Are we to continue to adjust our way of life because commercial entities want to employ bigger, uglier and more dangerous trucks? If trucks did not have wheels on them, they would be subject to planning regulations and would invariably be refused permission, as they are totally out of context here. A time must come when a line is drawn on commerce and its requirements vis-À-vis the greater need and the greater good of society in general.
We are all aware of the excessive waiting periods currently encountered in the existing driver testing system. I am particularly conscious of this as I represent a Dublin constituency, a county, namely, Fingal, which does not have its own driver testing centre although it has a population just short of 250,000. Recently, this population has been growing at the average rate of approximately 25,000 people per annum. To put that into context, 25,000 people is almost the population of Leitrim and the growth in Fingal's population for the past three years has been the equivalent of lifting the population of Leitrim and transposing it into Dublin on an annual basis without the infrastructure.
We have a difficulty with respect to driving test centres. I fully accept the problems encountered in recruiting appropriately qualified driver testers. However, it is one of the facts of life of Ireland in 2005, in the era of the Celtic tiger. We must address the issue and under the terms of the Bill, along with the Minister's vision of the new authority's scope, it will be addressed. While speaking of the new authority's scope and parameters of activity, I am delighted to see that it will be responsible for encouraging better driving in general. However, what plans exist for a better, or a new relationship with the new Garda traffic corps? It strikes me that great potential exists in this regard, as it does with the National Safety Council and similar bodies that have contributed hugely to public awareness of the necessity for increased safety on our roads. On similar lines, I understand an EU directive is currently before the European Parliament on the provision of "smart card" driving licences with improved security features. I would be interested to hear what opportunities might be open to the authority in this regard. Perhaps we could emulate the United States and use such cards for identification purposes in bars and off-licences, thereby contributing to the campaign against under age drinking and drink driving.
We must encourage and insist on standards of responsible driving. We must ensure that the rule of law, especially with regard to road traffic, is abided by. There will always be a small minority that will choose to flout the law, be it statutory or moral. It is up to us to ensure that there is as little scope as possible for this minority to break the law. We must put the appropriate structures and machinery in place. Equally, and this applies to the majority of legislation, we are only drawing up the rules within which people must operate. All road users, be they motorcyclists, pedestrians or drivers, have a responsibility to ensure that they and others in their immediate vicinity show responsibility and maturity in their use of vehicles and roads.
If there were a more immediate means by which attention could be drawn to those who break road traffic laws while engaged in the act, there would be much fewer breaches of the law and much more respect shown to the law, for example, in the area of speed limits. If there were a way whereby law-abiding and responsible road users could draw attention to those who break the law, for example, by flashing their lights, it would be a positive development. In many cases, speeding results from genuine misjudgments on the part of drivers. They creep over the speed limit without realising it. A high incidence of speeding could be reduced by the method I outlined. However, there will always be the 5% of road users who deliberately flout the law.
I congratulate the Minister on the Bill, welcome it and look forward to its implementation. Any measure that makes our roads safer for those who use them is to be welcomed.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and wish to raise some points about it. Over the last ten years, approximately 5,000 people have been killed on the roads. The overall cost of this death toll to the community is approximately €7.5 billion, not to mention the grief caused to the families involved in such tragic circumstances. This is the background to this Bill. If one translates this figure of €7.5 billion down to every man, woman and child in this country, it equates to approximately €2,000 per person. This money could be better spent on education, health and the protection of the most vulnerable people in society. The greatest waste has been the lives of many young people who have been involved in road accidents.
If one assesses a young person who has passed the driving test and compares him or her with a young person who is about to sit the test, there is no difference in driving ability. There is something wrong about a system where the driving test does not improve a person's driving ability and in some instances disimproves it. Young men in particular who have sat the driving test gain a sense of false confidence and proceed to drive too quickly afterwards. The driving test does not achieve any of its aims. Even the report produced by the Minister for Transport's consultants concludes that this Bill will not challenge this difficulty. The report concludes that the new authority will not reduce the waiting times for learner drivers and will not improve learner drivers' standards, that the Bill is much too limited in its scope and needs to be expanded to include many elements relating to such matters as licensing and driver instructor registration and that there is a need for a road safety authority with a much wider remit that the one proposed in the Bill.
I want to address the issue of driving instructors because it was stated at the commencement of the Bill that one of its elements relates to driving instruction and the regulation of driving instructors. However, the Bill does not really address driving instruction. I think we all accept that there is a need for some type of regulation of driving instructors and that unless it is introduced, road safety will not improve. Ireland is the only country in Europe that does not have a register of qualified driving instructors. Anyone can put a roof sign on his or her car and call himself or herself a driving instructor. Driving instructors are not even required to sit the driving test and there are driving instructors who have not sat the test, yet they are supposedly teaching driving skills to learner drivers. While the former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Bobby Molloy, introduced legislation to facilitate the establishment of a qualified driver instructors' register, this has not happened. This Bill tips its hat in that direction but does not go any further. There is still no timescale for the introduction of a register.
Section 4 of the Bill gives the Minister the power to transfer the powers under section 18 of the Road Traffic Act 2002 and section 18 of the Road Traffic Act 1968 to the new Driver Testing and Standards Authority. Other than the reference in section 4 of the Bill, there is no further reference to driving instruction in the Bill. Driving standards cannot be improved unless the issue of driving instruction is addressed because properly qualified driving instructors are needed to improve driving standards on our roads. It appears that the Minister is trying to pass the decision on who will be exempt and who will issue certificates of competency for driving instructors to this new agency. This seems to be the only purpose of this legislation. The Minister does not want to take the decision regarding driving instructors. In his response, will the Minister clarify what will happen with regard to the driving instructor register? There are other instructors who are qualified under other agencies. Will they be exempt, as indicated by Bobby Molloy when he introduced the legislation in 2001? The former Minister of State intended for there to be a number of organisations which would provide qualifications and for them to be certified by the new authority. Will the Minister inform the House which organisations will act as training bodies for driving instructors?
I have a suggestion to make to the Minister which may skirt this issue of the regulation of driving instructors which seems to be a thorny one and the reason the legislation pays such scant regard to it. There is provision within the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 to provide for certification of different instructors. However, FETAC is not ready to certify private providers of training services. A way around it would be for FÁS to certify driving instruction courses, thus allowing the courses to gain FETAC recognition which would mean that instructor's qualifications would be recognised throughout the EU. Currently, an instructor's qualification obtained under the DIR system is not even recognised in Ireland. The current system of driving instructor training is a mess. FÁS could certify the trainers who would carry out the training and the driving training courses themselves. This could be one route around part of the difficulty that the Minister appears to be experiencing and which leads to driving instruction being ignored in this Bill. The ambiguity of this in the legislation gives rise to concerns among driving instructors as to the Minister's thinking on the issue. Will the Minister elaborate in his response?
There must be greater transparency in the driving tests and the administration of the system. We need additional testers. The Department must ensure the full complement of testers is employed, which has not yet been the case. We must also rid ourselves of the shambolic situation of having a 20% variation in the pass rate around the country, from a 35% pass rate in some centres to a 55% pass rate in others. This situation is making a farce of the Irish driver testing system. There should not be so large a range and a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on this issue recommended that measures should be taken to address the massive variations.
I recently met some driving instructors in Carrick-on-Shannon. They say that part of the reason for such a variation is the different interpretation of the rules of the road by examiners. For example, does one see a yield sign at a stop junction as a simple yield sign or as an actual stop junction? If one stops at the junction, one can be marked for a lack of progress and four of these marks would lead to a failure. The situation could be the other way around when one progresses and is viewed to have gone through a stop junction. The road markings do not correspond with the signs on many driving test routes and this is crazy.
There is a roundabout with three exits at a bridge on the N4 in Carrick-on-Shannon. Under the rules of the road, if one takes the second exit, one should indicate left when on the roundabout but the examiners say, if one is exiting after 12 o'clock, one should indicate right when coming around the junction. There is nothing about this in the rules of the road, which is supposed to be the bible for examiners and those being tested. Driving test applicants in Carrick-on-Shannon use a one-way street. However, as ESB lorries go in the opposite direction on the street, people who think they are on a one-way street meet heavy goods vehicles. This is an example of where the driving test route itself is wrong and is causing major problems in the interpretation by examiners. This could be a part of the reason we have a farcical situation regarding a 20% variation.
I am sure the Minister has digested his consultants' report by this stage. It recommends an end to the rotation of testers. This would bring some testers up to speed and ensure there is equivalence around the country. I do not know how the Minister will address this matter but it must be done, as the lack of equivalence is making a mockery of the system. Deputy Glennon spoke about the crazy backlog, which extended to two years at one stage. On average, it is now approximately 20 weeks or five months. This is another farcical situation, as it should not take so long before one can sit one's driving test. Macra na Feirme has estimated that this is costing provisional drivers approximately €50 million per annum in additional premia.
We have a 50% failure rate in driving tests on average. To be exact, the figure is nine out of every 20 people. Something is wrong with the system. If this were happening in the leaving certificate examination, there would be a significant public outcry. We are prepared to turn a blind eye in this instance. The driving test has not been reformed in approximately 20 years. The test does not take into consideration parking, emergency braking, motorway driving or other critical techniques that should be part of the competency. We must encourage a more thorough training process that emphasises scanning ahead and anticipating other road users' behaviour, which returns to the issue of the current campaign regarding pedestrians.
We should seriously examine the prospect of continuous assessment, especially when dealing with nervous applicants. There are many applicants who are competent and capable drivers who will drive in an exemplary fashion seven days out of the week but put them sitting beside an examiner and everything goes pear-shaped. The exact opposite also occurs, where people without the skills can come up to the mark in the examination and pass it. The Minister could take on the Fine Gael proposal for a logbook, a mechanism to provide an element of continuous assessment. If one had qualified and competent instructors, they could verify someone's competence through this mechanism so that the driving test does not become the be all and end all.
There are problems with the driver theory test, in particular considering our multi-ethnic population. We should think about introducing languages other than English, Irish and European languages. An audio service could be provided for persons with seeing difficulties and so forth. This must be examined in connection with the touch-screen services that should be provided as part of the theory test.
I was contacted recently by someone who rang the freephone number to arrange for an appointment for a theory test and got through to a person in the UK who could not understand the applicant's accent. Perhaps people in the UK taking calls from Ireland should brush up on their Irish brogue. We could have a number of Irish people to take the calls instead. This seems to be causing a difficulty for many people applying for the theory test.
I will return to the issue of insurance. If we are to reform the system to have a proper, sensible driving test, there must be a clear incentive for people to pass their tests. Up to one quarter of the driving population are on provisional licences because there is no difference between it and a full licence in many circumstances. There must be an incentive built into the system. We need to examine fixed discounts per year for young drivers who have been accident free on their parents' insurance. The Director of Consumer Affairs must have the authority to ensure that insurance companies quote prices and that these prices are fair. The report in today's newspapers claims that, if people shop around, there is as much as €1,700 to be saved.
The difficulty here is that many young people cannot get a quote. If they are fortunate enough to get one, many insurance companies will pick a figure out of the sky to turn them away. This is why there is such a variation. Insurance companies are not looking for their business and are not providing a fair and reasonable offer to young people. If we are to make young people respect the rules of the road, they must see a benefit for themselves. If they are safe, competent and capable drivers who have passed their driving tests, there must be recognition of this when it comes to getting insurance. The insurance companies have much to live up to regarding young drivers and they still have not addressed the issue. These companies continue to load their decisions purely on age and ignore the experience of many drivers on their parents' insurance.
I also note in today's newspapers that some people are purchasing fake licences to try to get a discount on their insurance but I will focus on a larger component of this issue in that they are quite common at present. The driving licence can be easily copied with laser printers, scanners and colour photocopiers. Some of these copies are extremely good and are many in number. While today's newspapers claim they can be bought for €100, they can be bought for much cheaper. Our driving licences must be modernised and we must use the ID systems that other European countries have. Now that we must by law carry our driving licences, they must be in a form that is easy to carry around.
I mentioned a number of problems with the current system. I note the consultants' report mentioned an increase in the cost of the driving test from €38. If the cost is to increase, we must get our act together about the lack of standards. There is a 20% variation in the pass rate throughout the country. Nine out of every 20 people who sit the driving test fail. One could shop around to find the location with the shortest waiting list and the highest pass rate. These anomalies must be addressed if we are to have a system over which people can stand. No one could stand over the current system.
I mentioned yield junctions versus stop junctions earlier. The Minister indicated yesterday that he has issued guidelines to local authorities on speed limits outside schools. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, went on radio and said local authorities were not getting their act together in regard to the 2 mph speed limit increase outside schools on national primary roads and the 1 mph speed limit increase in urban areas and that the Department had not issued the guidelines to them. Given that the new measures were put in place last January, why has it taken until April for the guidelines on speed limits outside schools to be issued? The situation is farcical and should not be tolerated.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach said in the House that up to one in seven accidents on Irish roads are caused by road conditions. Will the Minister seriously consider establishing a road accident investigation unit independent of the National Roads Authority which currently compiles statistics? It is not in the NRA's interest to highlight that road conditions are part of the problem. We all know of accident blackspots which are not officially designated as such because Garda statistics are not available to back it up. There should be an independent unit in the Garda, in this authority or in the expanded road safety agency mentioned by the consultants to carry out an independent evaluation and state how many accidents are caused by road conditions.
I would like the Minister to travel on the N5 between Tulsk and Ballinagare because it is not wide enough for two heavy goods vehicles to pass. One HGV must pull into the side to let the other pass. It is a miracle there has not been a major tragedy. If the Minister is travelling to the west, I will point it out to him. It is a national scandal that should not be tolerated, is putting lives at risk and is a genuine threat to those who use that road.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I compliment the Minister on trying to ensure we have better and safer roads. I spoke to a young man last Saturday who was making a film on road safety. He said he was of a particular frame of mind when he started making his documentary but his preconceptions changed the more he heard from different sources and the more he read. It was interesting that he was using his spare time to put together his thoughts and those of others from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Last summer in Donegal North-East, there were 12 deaths from road accidents in 12 weeks. One can look for reports and, in many cases, spend a great deal of money finding out something the average local person would know such as the location of a bad pot hole or that a person was travelling at a certain speed. I know one needs facts to react but much of the time local knowledge could overcome the need to spend vast sums of money drawing up reports on facts which are quite clear to some. There have been many road deaths in Donegal since last summer and I take this opportunity to extend my condolences to the many families who have lost loved ones in road accidents.
The investment in roads does not necessarily result in safer roads. While it results in wider and straighter roads, it ultimately leads to faster roads. By the same token, much investment in roads is needed. Donegal County Council had a tough time when its local improvement scheme, LIS, money was pulled by the former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, on the basis that it was spending it in a piecemeal way. My problem with some of the county roads money is that it is given to the local authority in a piecemeal way. As a result, funding for dangerous stretches of road is only provided on a yearly basis. While it is not this Minister's responsibility, with joined-up Government, the Department should talk to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure adequate money is provided to a small number of projects. Safety should be the first criterion in determining how money is allocated.
I was surprised to find out relatively recently that breath testing is not mandatory for drivers involved in fatal accidents. Again, this is not the Minister's responsibility but he should talk to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about the issue because it would make sense to deal with it.
I have spoken previously about the changes to the speed limits. I was not happy with the blanket change to speed limits. The peninsula on which I live does not have any national primary or national secondary roads and the speed limit was reduced to the equivalent of 50 mph. In some cases, it has nearly been the cause of accidents because many of the roads concerned are straight and have hard shoulders. I understand criteria have been agreed to enable speed limits to be increased but many months will have elapsed since the blanket change of speed limits to 60 km/h or 100 km/h. Not having realistic speed limits can be a danger in itself.
I do not believe many road deaths are caused by people driving 40 mph or 35 mph in a 30 mph area. People who live in built-up areas might not agree with me. In my area, I sincerely believe the trouble is caused by people driving far in excess of the speed limit. Gardaí concentrate their activities in the 30 mph areas and take the soft option. Even at the last Garda conference it was admitted by gardaí that the soft option was not the right approach to road safety.
I agree with the need for more instructors. Deputy Naughten seemed to imply that people were putting a sign on their cars and becoming driving instructors. There are many good instructors, although there may be people who are not as qualified as others. However, no one has suffered as a result of competition in an area. If there were more well qualified instructors, their impact would be very positive.
There was talk of a school for drivers. I observed in Spain and other countries where small playgrounds were laid out with potential road hazards. They had roundabouts, lights and hills. One course was a miniature of a road route with the different signs, turns and junctions one encounters. It was a training course for primary schoolchildren cycling bicycles. The children were brought there after school or during the school day and encouraged to cycle their tricycle or bicycle around what was almost an obstacle course. Negotiating it taught them the rules of the road, respect for other road users and what one does when one comes to a roundabout, a set of traffic lights and in other circumstances. Giving such instruction to primary schoolchildren cycling bicycles is a good idea and road safety is primary to it.
Transition year presents an opportunity for students to be taught how to drive in such a controlled area. Many schools have an area of tarmac or a car park that could be used at specified times for driving instruction. In such controlled areas, students could learn about road safety and respect for other road users which they might not hear about if they were driving on their own.
It was strange to hear the point made about what a provisional driver would expect to be tested on in a driving test. For a long time in Donegal there were very few roundabouts, pedestrian crossings and proper road markings. At one stage there was only one set of traffic lights in the county. I recall a time when even though there was a test course in Buncrana, the road markings at many junctions did not concur with the way the provisional driver was expected by the driving tester to drive. In my region when a test is being taken, it is not normal to have to negotiate traffic lights or roundabouts. That may sound strange to people from Dublin but that is the position in many towns in rural areas. Some facility must be provided whereby learner drivers can get experience of negotiating junctions and gain confidence to cope with any junction or roundabout etc. before they get their fulllicence.
I made the point to the person who interviewed me last Saturday, about which he probably was not too pleased, that boys will be boys, girls will be girls, young people will be young people and speed and young people are often mentioned in the same breath. Similar to my suggestion of secondary schools having controlled areas for driving instruction, I wonder if it would be beneficial for young people to be able to drive around stock car or rally car tracks to let off steam in a safe environment. By using such tracks in that way, they would not meet, for example, a car with a family coming around a corner. However, the use of such a track may hinder matters on the basis that if young people get experience of driving fast, they will always want to drive fast. However, they will probably drive at speed anyway.
We have had significant problems with people driving at speed. They may have bought a car for €20 to €50, it having failed the national car test or having been brought in from the North. Do we examine the reality of what people will be and deal with that or do we hope that they will in some way magically change? Many people can be involved in serious accidents and scary experiences, yet they can get into a car a year later and perhaps drive as recklessly as the person who was killed driving the car in which they were a passenger the previous year. Either this or, having recovered from a serious accident, they may drive at the same speed as previously. Has psychological research been carried out on people who have had serious accidents to establish if there is a way of using their experience and gaining an insight into their mindset to try to work out why people do what they do? That is deep and meaningful but I had to contribute that thought.
A person complained to me recently that the road safety advertisements on television are scary. Some parents find them extremely upsetting. That person made the point that because these advertisements are shown after the watershed, many of the young people who need to see them are out gallivanting in their cars. We should review the time these advertisements are broadcast, although I yield to other people's advice on that.
I am strongly concerned about the road safety of cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. I raised the issue of cyclists' road safety previously. Bicycles should be manufactured with a light attached to them. I raised this issue with Deputy Tom Kitt when he was Minister with responsibility for labour affairs. At global level there needs to be an awareness of the need for bicycles to be manufactured with lights attached. One would not have to walk too far from this building at night and wait terribly long before one would count half a dozen people having cycled past without lights on their bicycles. It is scary for a motorist if a cyclist suddenly swerves in front of him or her at night without a light on his or her bicycle. Pedestrians are also often not aware that sometimes they cannot be seen and I would be as guilty of that as anybody else. People need to think about their visibility to others on the road. In that respect, they should have courtesy for each other and respect for themselves.
Similarly, I am strongly of the view that in regard to the mirror issue for lorry drivers raised in the recent past, a moral imperative must be placed on drivers to address that visibility issue. It was reported that such a mirror costs approximately €38. If people do not equate the spending of €38 with the saving of a life, where are we going in ensuring road safety? People should not mess around when it comes to what is needed to ensure road safety. If we can define what will help people, they should take that on board.
Regarding the big stick approach in terms of the penalty points system, there are areas where motorists believe they will never incur a penalty point. Enforcing the system throughout the country presents a major challenge. If motorists believe they will never get caught, they will continue to drive at speed. Some young fellows rev their cars outside Garda stations in the hope of being chased. There is the danger that an unsuspecting motorist with his or her family in the car may drive around the corner and meet such young motorists who are on the road for the thrill of the chase.
There is great merit in the carrot approach to road safety. I refer to the flashing warning signs asking if a motorist realise the speed at which he or she is travelling. When one approaches roadworks, a sign may indicate roadworks ahead and that motorists should reduce their speed to 40 mph or lower. Warning signs can be very useful.
In my area I know that gardaí will be on duty at a particular roundabout. Four out of ten times one approaches that roundabout, a garda will be there. Regardless of what speed one is travelling at, whether it is 40 mph or 60 mph, one's foot automatically comes off the accelerator just in case one is over the speed limit. A garda might not be at that roundabout all the time, but one is there four out of ten times one travels that road and, on approaching it, one does not know if a garda will be there. It helps for gardaí to be visible and to let motorists know what they are doing. However, the vast majority of road users are responsible on the road.
There is a need for advanced driving courses to instruct motorists how to drive in dangerous conditions. I would like to know exactly what one should do when the road is frosty or if one meets a motorist travelling on the wrong side of the road. An advanced driving course should be available.
After a certain number of years motorists should be required to take a second driving test to take account of the faults he or she may make and to correct them. A learner driver in the North displays an L plate and on getting a full licence displays an R plate for a year. When travelling home last week, a driver displaying an R plate was in front of me on a motorway in the fast lane. I stayed behind him because I did not want to be on the wrong side of the law in terms of the road safety. However, three other motorists overtook him on the inside lane. That motorist was either within a year of having passed his test and did not learn a great deal from his written test about how a motorist is supposed to drive on a motorway or the motorist was a parent or older sibling of the owner of the car and had forgotten about how one should drive on a motorway. There is the usual example of driving for 20 miles or 30 miles behind a very slow driver and when one reaches the climbing lane that driver decides to remain in the fastest part of the climbing lane, which is not very helpful.
I enjoyed the idea of Dr. Fitzpatrick and the licence for £1. I come across situations to which Deputy Naughten referred, where people need a car to drive their elderly parents around, even though they themselves are not in the first flush of youth. These people may have done their driving test eight or nine times but became nervous when they got in beside a driving inspector. These people may have been driving for 20 years or 30 years and have never been involved in a crash, and they only travel from their house to the church and shop. I know it is not right to say that they should be on the road without a licence, but one wonders how they survived for so long without being involved in an accident, yet they are not able to get the test. I am not sure what the answer is but I thought I should raise the issue.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of each road user to take responsibility for their actions. We can introduce legislation, and legislate from morning until night. We can also complain about the legislation not being enforced but, ultimately, those of us who use the roads — some of us use them a great deal — have a responsibility to respect ourselves and other road users. Until we accept this responsibility, no amount of legislation or enforcement will resolve the issue of so many deaths on the roads. It is easy to blame the matter on the Government or the Garda, but people must realise that while they have a right to be on the road they also have a responsibility to drive carefully.
People going out socialising at night is not the problem it was in the past. People of my age group who socialise at night designate a driver. People are now accepting more responsibility in this regard. I do not know whether there has been any advance in regard to drink driving or people who take drugs and drive. I am chairman of the committee on community affairs which is examining the issue of cocaine use and abuse. The issue of drinking while drugged must be addressed.
I commend the Minister on his efforts. I ask him to encourage the NRA to examine a built-up area in Bridgend and Letterkenny. While there are commercial premises in these areas, the 100 km/h speed limit still applies where it should have been reduced. The speed limit on the good roads in my area is the equivalent of 50 mph while built-up areas in Bridgend and Letterkenny, from one roundabout to the other roundabout, with just commercial developments, have maintained a speed limit at 60 mph on an NRA road. I do not have direct input into this, but the county council has asked the NRA repeatedly to reduce the speed limit on these stretches of road. The Minister might advise the NRA to reconsider the issue of Bridgend and Letterkenny. Whatever about increasing the speed limit on suitable roads — I welcome the 75 mph limit on motorways — the speed limit on narrow roads and in extremely built-up areas should be addressed.
I concur with Deputy Naughten that areas near schools should be highlighted. I commend the initiative on flashing lights. Most schools of which I am aware have flashing lights. The boards of management have been supported in developing this initiative. Very few areas are without that facility. The blanket nature of the previous legislation created some gaps and local authorities should be supported in ensuring these problems are resolved. The problem was that councillors were asking if they increased the speed on a particular road would they be personally liable for any accidents that might occur. I believe the legislation was framed so that this would not be the case.
I wish the Minister well in the passage of the Bill through the House. I hope it will have positive implications for road users and the reduction of road fatalities.
I welcome the Bill. It is important that Bills should deal with the need for road safety, regardless of what aspect of road safety is being dealt with. We are dealing mainly with the driving test aspect here today.
Deputies on both sides of the House put forward proposals here today with which the Minister cannot deal in this legislation. Some great ideas were put forward on both sides on how to the take the necessary steps to ensure our roads are safer, namely, to change the mindset of the Irish people. If the Minister can walk out of the House today and say he has achieved this goal, he will have done an enormous amount of good. It is not possible in the short term. In the long term, however, this legislation, plus impending legislation, can be of assistance. Ultimately, it is all about changing people's mindset to get young people, adults and even senior citizens to recognise the importance of road safety, protecting oneself, one's neighbour or a complete stranger. Unfortunately, one could be involved in a fatal accident and families who are complete strangers to each other could suffer the loss of a loved one because of someone's lack of competency, understanding or knowledge of the basics of road safety.
As someone from south Kildare, I am aware of some tragic accidents in recent years. Three people were killed in one accident, four in another and three pedestrians were killed. I could go on and on about such accidents. I have no doubt the same could be said for other Members of the House.
We appear to blame gardaí for remaining in one spot with the speed gun, which is not a logical response. If gardaí sat in the one dangerous spot about which Deputy Wall told the local superintendent, would it change things? I doubt it. Once people become aware of what is going on, they reduce their speed on that stretch of the road because they know where gardaí are positioned. I am sceptical about the criticism of gardaí taking the handy option because people continue to exceed the speed limit on motorways and so on. If someone is caught for speeding, he or she should be penalised, irrespective of where he or she is caught.
We are putting too much emphasis on the fact that gardaí are taking the soft option. People want to know where gardaí are positioned so that they can break the speed limit when gardaí are out of sight. People are often aware that a garda will be positioned at a bad junction or an accident blackspot because the superintendent has succumbed the pressure from people in his area and decided that a traffic corps should be situated in the area. I no longer agree with this idea. We must change people's mindset. We must educate young people so that they will benefit if they obey the rules of the road. If we succeed in getting people to read the road signs, we would be halfway towards changing their mindset. If we all read them, would we not be halfway towards changing that mindset? When I am travelling on a dual carriageway at the speed limit, which is 100 km/h, I must move over frequently to allow cars to pass. Otherwise I would be cut off the road by people who do not or do not want to recognise the signs. These are the people who say gardaí are not in the right spot. Gardaí should be at the blackspots but also at the good spots at which the signs are clear and where one should not break the rules of the road. People break the rules every opportunity they get.
This Bill will assist in addressing this problem. Other Members referred to increasing the level of driving instruction given to the young. We must do this. Deputy Keaveney mentioned television advertisements. There is nothing wrong with these advertisements. They are tough and strong. We have seen advertisements warning against the dangers of smoking and drinking and driving dangerously. I have always maintained that there should also be advertisements showing what drugs can do to a young person's life and their effects on his or her family and friends. There is nothing wrong with taking a tough line in this regard to highlight the tragedy that can be caused by one stupid act upon the road, for example.
There has been a great increase in traffic recently and this is generating problems with road surfaces and drainage. Perhaps the National Roads Authority and the local authorities have a different opinion on this than me. The great volume of traffic is leaving a coating on the roads which results in a slick surface and problems with water spray. It is a nightmare driving in proximity to large trucks on wet days. They travel at the same speed on wet days as on dry days. One wonders whether something can be done to reduce the speed at which people drive on wet days to protect drivers. The coating of rubber and oil prevents drainage which would allow roads to dry quickly.
The legislation is to change the format of the driving test at driving centres. There are three driving test centres in my area: Portlaoise, Carlow and Naas. There is a considerable backlog at each because of the population increase in this area of the midlands. There has been a considerable population increase in all major towns and even in the villages in counties Kildare, Laois and Carlow. This means young people who apply for driving tests must wait for long periods before they are tested, and therefore they have difficulty obtaining insurance because of the high costs involved.
A youngster who attended my clinic some days ago said he received a quotation of €6,000 for insurance. He could not even consider this and was anxious to determine what could be done about it. One must ask whether people in this position will take the chance of driving on the roads without insurance. One must also consider the effects of doing so.
I am concerned about the high failure rate in driving tests. Between 35% and 55% of candidates fail their tests at various centres. This reflects on driving schools' ability to transfer their knowledge of the rules of the road, given that they know exactly the route a driver must take with the tester on the day of his or her test. Drivers attending these schools may take five or ten lessons. If one goes to an area with a driving test centre, one will be sure to see teachers from one or two schools of motoring teaching people on the route of the driving test. Consequently, one must ask why the failure rate is so high.
Deputy Naughten said that if the leaving certificate failure rate was as high as that pertaining to driving tests, there would be cries of amazement. Certainly steps must be taken to reduce the high failure rate. Section 4 states that one of the functions of the new authority will be to regulate driving instructors. This is necessary because the failure rate is such that major questions must be asked. Showing a driver the route of the driving test is the equivalent of giving examination papers to a leaving certificate student before he sits his exams. Driving instructors have the equivalent of the examination paper in their hands to give to applicants for tests, yet the driving test failure rate is between 45% and 65%. This problem should be alleviated. I hope that when the new authority comes into being, one of its first tasks will be to put in place a mechanism to ensure that driving instructors are properly qualified.
Some Members spoke about speed limits outside schools, making reference to both national and county roads. I attended a meeting with a school board of management some nights ago at which it was stated that motorists not only disobeyed the speed limit outside the school but also ignored the lollipop person when he or she signalled to them to stop. If this is the case, the Garda should certainly address it. If a driver were to disobey a lollipop person, it could have catastrophic consequences.
When an applicant presents himself to a driving examiner, he is often refused a test for seemingly insignificant reasons. In such cases, he must go to the end of the waiting list for a retest, which could take months. If the applicant needs to renew his insurance in the meantime, it can be terribly costly.
I received a phone call during the week from a young man who went to a test centre to sit his test but was not allowed to proceed with it because the glass in the car was tinted. This implies there must be something wrong with the car. If so, why do we allow cars with tinted glass on the road? If the applicant was breaking the law such that the examiner would not allow him do his test, he and his parents, who owned the car, must have been doing so on a regular basis. There is a need for leeway to be granted when a car is roadworthy and safe mechanically. Some leeway should be afforded for a minor problem such that the tester notes the problem and tells the driver that before the certificate is issued, he or she must return with a letter stating the problem has been rectified. The driver should not have to go back on the waiting list for six or seven months for a new test because of a small matter that does not affect the roadworthiness of the vehicle.
Deputy Keaveney said that people involved in accidents do not have to give samples. Someone told me recently that because his general practitioner was not available, a sample was not taken. I do not know whether that is true. Out-of-hours services such as KDoc provide only one doctor after 6 p.m. Thus many GPs are not available to their regular patients. This is a grey area. I am not sure it is true that a person involved in an accident can insist on having his or her GP present before giving a sample. If it is the case, this should be addressed to ensure that those involved in accidents do not get away with driving under the influence of drugs or drink.
There is a continuing problem with regard to drink driving. At certain times of the year, such as Christmas and Easter, the increased vigilance of the traffic police is advertised. I would prefer increased vigilance without a public announcement. When it is announced for bank holiday weekends and so on, people are on the alert. To change the mindset of these drivers we must make them suffer. I do not suggest that I am pure and everyone else is wrong, but when we inform people this will happen at a particular weekend, we diminish the force of the examination of drink driving.
The licensed trade must also take responsibility. There is a continuing problem in that regard. Publicans know that a person who has taken drink has a vehicle outside their premises but make no effort to deal with this by asking the person's friends to drive him or her home.
It is difficult to change attitudes to speeding and drink driving. I hope this legislation may increase the chance of young people being tested, improving their driving skills and seeing a benefit by way of a decrease in insurance premiums. In that way we can make Ireland a safer place for all those using the roads.
The final issue is that of the area licence or the problem of a senior citizen in an area who is unable or too frightened to go for a driving test. I do not have a solution to this problem. It is difficult to see how an area licence would function given the increase in traffic in rural areas. It may not be feasible. I understand, however, the case made that if one partner in an elderly couple who always drove the car were to die suddenly, it would be difficult for the surviving partner to access the local town, shops or friends owing to the lack of public transport.
I wish the legislation well. Some people will criticise it but legislation moves an issue to the foreground and this Bill has made proposals which provide food for thought. I hope the Minister for Transport will take some of our comments on board. If he cannot include our suggestions in this legislation he may find a way to do so in further legislation or by amendments to existing legislation.
I wish to share time with Deputy Cuffe.
According to the Department of Transport the new authority's primary responsibility will be to deliver a more efficient driver testing service. No one doubts there is a need for that improvement. The average waiting time for a test is 39 weeks, with the longest wait being 61 weeks and 14 the shortest, which is unacceptable. This compares unfavourably with our counterparts in Northern Ireland where the wait is only four weeks. Some people put their names on the list before they are ready to be tested because they know they must wait a considerable time.
The agency will also have a general duty "to promote the development and improvement of driving standards" and make recommendations to the Minister. It will have scope to be innovative and develop services to encourage better driving. While that is useful and important, does it go far enough? A recent article in The Irish Times stated that improving driving standards is more complicated than simply imposing more stringent methods or improving the efficiency of the testing service in general, something with which we all concur.
The consultants' report commissioned by the Department of Transport states that the legislation to centralise the operation of driver testing does not go far enough. It advocates an integrated and multidimensional approach to driver testing and safety.
It does not matter how well a driver is tested if there is not a concerted effort to tackle, for example, accident black spots. A graphic in a recent newspaper showed a cluster of black spots which was well documented. It does not take a newspaper to tell us this because local authorities plot the incidence of accidents reported to the Garda Síochána and marks them on a map. A significant quantity of data is taken which in turn becomes part of a report by the National Roads Authority. Applications are made to the Department of Transport, and perhaps also to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to address some of those. I was involved in the transportation SPC in Kildare and we were trying to see what could be done on the issue of road safety and road conditions. From that it appeared there was a small number of low cost schemes allowed for each authority in a year. That does not take account of a county with a high level of congestion which in turn has a higher number of accident black spots. A more concerted approach will have to be taken to the issue of black spots. Often there will be a cluster of accidents involving material damage and then a fatality. One can anticipate that a fatality will not occur if there is intervention.
Given the cost not least to the individual who has the accident, it is important to identity the clusters because it may be possible to avoid fatalities rather than respond to them when we see a graphic with many clusters at the same time. While the focus of attention is on fatalities, given the dramatic nature of accidents, one is more likely to have an accident between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. during peak time traffic. The congestion caused by the M50 and the roads surrounding it results in a high level of accidents. When considering the cost of changes to the M50, and hopefully removing the tolls, the costs resulting from accidents should be factored in.
According to the consultants' report commissioned by the Department of Transport, the new authority was charged with reducing the long waiting times learner drivers face for tests and improving motorists' skills. They say its scope is too limited to bring about a significant change. We have to pay attention to people when we invite them to give of their expertise. They recommend that the Minister urgently consider establishing a new road safety authority rather than the envisaged driver testing and standards authority.
During the Second Stage debate in March, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, indicated he would be willing to assign additional functions on road safety to the agency on Committee Stage. I am concerned that may be a piecemeal approach rather than a broad concept of what is required but I hope serious consideration will be given to a comprehensive number of new functions. Even if this is not the ideal it can be improved and it requires a broader remit. According to the consultants, because the new authority is not being established there is an opportunity to change the remit by amending the Bill, which I hope will happen.
On the question of attitudes and driver training, in Mondello, County Kildare, a group of transition students is taken for a training programme and a talk is given by a person who has had a family member killed in a road traffic accident. He or she speaks of the impact of that tragic event on the lives of the members of his or her family. It is important to work into the mindset that there is a responsibility once one gets behind the wheel of a car to think of other people. It is useful to see that built into driver training. It is an excellent and enlightened approach.
The article talks about not hiding speeding cameras. On a Saturday or Sunday one will almost certainly see the Gatso van on the widest part of the N4 that can accommodate a higher speed limit. A resentment builds up instead of having people on one's side. It is important not to build up a resentment where a road is built for a higher speed limit than the speed limit apportioned to it. If one was fit and had a good push bike one could, on the straight stretch, get up to 37 mph or the equivalent in kilometres. There is no danger of reaching those speeds during the week, particularly at peak times, due to congestion.
The article which was useful referred to the issue of signage and road markings. Often local authorities do not pay half enough attention to replacing very cheap road markings. Given the cost of putting a new road in, it is outrageous that the road markings cannot be seen on a wet night, a regular occurrence. Intelligible uniform signs would be a useful asset. I do not envisage that happening in the absence of an overall approach. Perhaps the Minister will examine this.
In his press release the Minister said the authority would be established outside the normal Civil Service structures and should be in a position to deliver a more focused and flexible service. That is positive because people live busy lives. It is important to reduce the length of time learner drivers are on the road. The argument that I and others make is that the authority will not have the power to influence some of the critical factors in terms of road safety.
A provision that is not in the Bill, and never will be, but one that would contribute to road safety in urban or rural areas is a comprehensive public transport system. By reducing the need for people to travel independently in cars such a system would contribute to road safety. I refer, for example, to late night taxis and the Nitelink services. We should not lose sight of the fact that there are issues other than driver testing that have an impact on road safety.
I welcome the Bill. It is a small step in the right direction. Perhaps to those who are intimately involved, it is a giant step. Looking at it from outside the structures of the Department of Transport I see it as only a small step towards addressing the issue of safety on roads. A Bill such as this should address the carnage on Irish roads and the appalling death and injuries that occur daily under the control of this ministry. We need a sea change in approach to safety and road design to reduce the high level of fatalities and injuries on our roads. We have one of the highest rates in Europe of child injuries on roads. The Minister and his staff have to address these issues as part of a strategy to look at road safety, driver testing and standards. An air of complacency about road safety is evident in the road safety documentation and strategy. I am not convinced enough effort is being expended in every level in reducing the carnage. Stricter standards of driver testing are required as is testing of the instructors on an annual or biannual basis because nothing but the best is good enough to try to reduce the hundreds of deaths occurring every year on Irish roads.
A stronger emphasis should be placed on research. The so-called cowboy licences given out 20 years ago should be investigated. These licences were issued to people who had repeatedly failed the driving test and were driving on a third provisional licence. I recommend research into whether those drivers are more prone to being involved in road accidents. I am astounded by the absence of any commitment to examining the driving of that cohort since they obtained those licences.
A car is like a loaded shotgun and one small mistake can kill many and impact on the lives of hundreds. The crude statistics are available but more analysis of the causes of accidents should be carried out. The mantra of, "Improve the road conditions and there will be a reduction in deaths and injuries" is true to a point. However, a synergy of effect is evident in every aspect of road safety, which needs to be addressed in more detail.
Section 4 deals with the issue of testing vehicles and the regulation of driving instructors. This should be examined in more detail. Statistics showing the safety of different classes of vehicles and the different types of vehicle should be available.
Significant problems associated with sports utility vehicles are evident in the United States. These are four-wheel drive vehicles with a high wheel base that seem to overturn easily. This vehicle is beginning to dominate the sales market in Ireland. I suggest the Minister's Department carry out research into whether these vehicles are intrinsically more dangerous for drivers, pedestrians and the occupants of other vehicles, which I suspect they are. The larger the vehicle, the higher the wheel base, the more likely that vehicle will cause death and injury on the road. I ask for something other than a deafening silence from the Department.
The Bill provides for greater regulation of driving instructors. Both the instructors and those drivers with full licences should be tested on an ongoing basis. I suggest this could be every two years for instructors and every five or ten years for those with full licences. A much more hands-on approach in the management of these issues is required, given the level of death and injury on the roads.
Section 6 refers to the functions of the authority as promoting improvement and development of driving standards. The section is not sufficiently rigorous as there should be indicators and targets set down. For far too long, platitudes have dominated this area and nothing has been done to reduce the toll. Has there been an improvement in terms of child deaths per passenger per kilometre in different vehicle makes and on different classes of roads? I am not aware of sufficient research being carried out. While I accept the National Roads Authority is carrying out some research in this area, it does not go far enough.
Section 12 refers to the factors to be considered in the appointment of the members of the board. It proposes members should have wide experience and competence in respect of roads, road safety, transport etc. I suggest those parameters should be widened to include traffic management, traffic experience and risk management. The heart of the debate about driver testing and the level of injuries and deaths on Irish roads must include consideration of risk. Professional risk management expertise should be included at the centre of the board's deliberations. I ask the Minister to extend the parameters of the membership of the board.
It would be advisable for some members of the board to have experience of local government. The ongoing debate on road safety is being led by developments at European and global level. Conferences are held every year on the causes of injuries on the roads. Those with experience of European developments should be included in the debate. I suggest this be provided for in section 12.
I make a plea for lower speed limits in residential areas. Most countries in Europe have a speed limit of 30 km/h in such areas. It should be the prerogative of local authorities to set such speed limits. I am aware local authorities may apply to the Department for permission to impose lower speed limits. While 30 km/h seems very slow to a person behind the windscreen of a vehicle, it is a very high speed when viewed from the perspective of a three year old walking along.
I disagree with many of the previous speakers. A driving licence is the most important document anybody can have in rural Ireland. We do not have the DART or Luas, nor a public bus transport service or taxis. The driving licence is the most vital document for many people in the west.
This Bill will set up another money racket for the Government, just like the driving theory test and the NCT. I welcome the review of the NCT because it is the greatest racket that was ever set up. The former grant of £1,000 allowed people to scrap cars over ten years old. The Government was surprised at the take-up of this scheme. There are not many bad cars on the road as a result, even though one may see bad drivers. This is probably part of the problem. If the Government is serious about restriction, why does it not introduce legislation to ensure no vehicle in the State can travel faster than 60 mph? I ask the Minister to reply. This is a reasonable request.
The Government has handled the situation in regard to driving tests badly. Many people working in the driving test section of the Department are upset. Why were extra staff not employed over recent years? Why was there a failure to reach agreement in negotiations with staff on overtime work to clear the driving test backlog? The reason is that the Government had it in mind all along to privatise the operation. I am surprised to hear the Labour Party calling for privatisation in this area. We should bear in mind that privatisation does not always work. The driving test service has deteriorated because the Minister and the Department did not provide the necessary staff and resources. The waiting list could have been tackled with sufficient application. However, it was in the Government's interest to sell this Bill and ensure the backlog was not tackled.
What will be the situation of smaller test centres such as those in Kilrush, Clifden and Buncrana? I was surprised a previous speaker from Donegal did not raise this issue. It seems smaller centres will be closed and incorporated into larger centres. Will the Civil Service status of those employees working in the Department as testers be protected? If they move to the private sector, will their pension rights be affected? These people have given loyal service to the State and are uncertain as to their future. The Government has lost a similar battle in regard to the situation of civil servants working in An Post.
I disagree with Deputy Naughten's comments on the driving test. If we are serious about road safety, the State should provide centres throughout the country where new drivers could learn and practise their driving skills before taking to the roads. In addition, driving skills should form part of the second level curriculum. We are all aware of the numbers of people killed on our roads daily. A car is a high-powered vehicle which is more dangerous than a gun when used in the wrong way or controlled by a person with inadequate driving skills.
Younger people have shown an admirable propensity for obeying the law. They have taken on the smoking ban and are generally aware of the dangers of driving after consuming alcohol. The younger generation has grown up with an awareness of road safety whereas older people are more likely to engage in speeding. However, where young people are involved in accidents, it is usually as a consequence of alcohol consumption. The Garda should have the authority to breath-test all motorists involved in a traffic accident and it should be permissible to use such evidence in court.
Young people should be educated to be aware of the responsibility involved in taking a vehicle onto the road. However, the Government and the insurance companies seem concerned only with extracting money from young drivers. The new driving test system will become another money racket. As many as 70% of applicants may fail the test because it will be in the interests of the private company running the tests to make as large a profit as possible. We have seen something similar in respect of the NCT service. A constituent whose vehicle failed the NCT test told me how he decided to test the NCT operators. He brought his car back a week later and it was passed even though no work had been done on it. The NCT system is all about money and the same will happen in regard to road safety.
I have a number of questions for the Ministers. If he cannot answer them today, I ask that his officials respond in writing. I have already tabled a number of parliamentary questions in respect of these matters. What legislation exists on the use of spotlights on cars and lorries? I have been raising this matter for years and cannot get a straight answer from the Department. There are motorists driving high-powered cars with high-powered lights and people have been killed because drivers do not dim these lights quickly enough.
There seem to be no clear legislative provisions on vehicle lighting. For example, I drove from Athlone to Dublin on Monday night. Ahead of me during this journey was a lorry bearing the name of a prominent business. The driver of this vehicle had the hazard lights on throughout the journey because there was no lighting on the back of the track. Moreover, I make this journey regularly and often encounter lorries which have different number plates front and back. Drivers who commit these types of offences should be apprehended.
In recent times, an Independent Member pledged loyalty to the Government on the basis of a promise from the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that action would be taken to rectify the incidence of large trucks throwing water on the roads. If one is a quarter of a mile away from such a vehicle, one can be dangerously dazzled by the water. What legislation exists to ensure such vehicles are properly equipped so that water does not splash out? Why is the law of the land not implemented in respect of such situations?
The law is always implemented in the case of the ordinary taxpayer travelling on the roads. In the United Kingdom, the police force admits that the reason it lost the confidence of the public was its traffic management operations. A speed camera cannot be installed in that country without it being clearly identified and signposted. The cameras installed on the N4 at Lucan work effectively because motorists approaching Dublin are aware of their existence and every vehicle slows down. The proper purpose of cameras is to slow down and manage traffic rather than to extract money from motorists.
Those responsible in the Department must recognise that road safety is not about collecting revenue for the Government but is a matter of saving lives, apprehending those who break the law and ensuring motorists can travel safely. We rarely see pedestrians being prosecuted for traffic offences. Every morning, 100 yards from this building, one sees people crossing the road when the light is green for motorists. A motorists who drives through a red light will be prosecuted but pedestrians must learn that they also have a responsibility. I have driven up the quays many times and have encountered pedestrians running across O'Connell Bridge when the light is green for motorists. I do not understand how more people are not killed because of this.
A garda should be posted at busy junctions in the city to apprehend and prosecute pedestrians who engage in this behaviour. The law should be equitably enforced for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. The current situation where the driver is disproportionately penalised is unacceptable. Motorists must pay for insurance and road tax because that is the legal requirement. The law of the land must be applied equally, however. If a driver breaks the law, he must be dealt with, as must a pedestrian or cyclist. I have not seen too many people being brought to the courts for jumping red lights.
If we are serious about road safety, we must recognise that the greatest breakers of the law are the Government and local authorities. The Minister travels throughout the country like me and other Members. The greatest scandal we see is traffic calming areas. Calming measures and special lighting are installed by local authorities on straight stretches of road to slow down traffic. About 95% of the time the lighting for those calming measures is out of order. I looked at a traffic calming area again as I was travelling last night. Some places can be dangerous when they are wet, and they can be miserable late at night. Coming into Bellavary, I wondered how more people are not killed there because of the traffic calming lights always being off. The same goes for the country in general.
If the Government is serious about this, then the road should be checked daily to ensure that the traffic calming lights work in the eventuality that somebody makes a complaint against the local authority. We cannot apply the law to drivers who break it if the State breaks the law and gets away with it. On my way to Ballinrobe I noticed a large pothole in a national secondary road. I deliberately did not ring the local authority about it for five or six days. Every single lorry and car moved out into the centre of the road to avoid it and it is a wonder somebody was not killed as a result. It took the local authority two weeks to fix it. Why should those responsible not be brought to the courts, prosecuted and fined €100 or €150 to show that they break the law when they do not carry out the duties and responsibilities given to them by the State? Among those duties are ensuring that our roads are safe and that the potholes and faulty lighting and whatever else are repaired.
Roadworks take place in local authority areas throughout the State. The other day, I was in a certain place where roadworks were taking place and the machine that was being used broke down. The authority was ready to tar the road, but for three days it was left untarred. That was dangerous and there was no signage to show people there were roadworks ahead. It is no wonder people are killed on the roads. Local authorities seem to think they can do what they want. Are there no health and safety practices in local authorities? Does nobody supervise workers to ensure they uphold the law, as should be the case in building sites? If a builder gets a contract, he must abide by health and safety regulations. Local authorities think they can break the law. That should not be the case. That situation should be dealt with by the Minister and the Government.
Young people should be educated how to drive. If we are serious about this matter, the time has come for us to provide centres throughout the State. We talk about road safety and young people driving and getting their licences, yet how do people learn to drive? How did we in this Chamber all learn to drive? Somebody took us out to a green area and tried to teach us how to drive. People get their brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers to teach them. There are no green areas left in this country now because there are all built on. There is no place for young people to learn how to drive. The time has come for the State to provide centres. With all the public money and community schemes that we have, we should investigate how we can set up centres to teach young people how to drive and to teach them the laws and regulations of the road. The time has come to do that.
There is FÁS and the various schemes. We have squandered money on different community groups. The money should instead be used to build fine centres. I see this in my constituency. There are more groups now than ever. If there is a public meeting about some issue, the local representative or Deputy is put at the top of the hall to be nailed by the public if there is a problem. When something is opened, all the chairmen, vice-chairmen and so on who are all in receipt of large salaries from the State are at the top table and the poor politicians are down the back. Only if the politician is needed to be belted and battered will he be put at the top table.
Whether we like it or not, the greatest killer in this country is drinking and driving. The abuse of alcohol in this country must be tackled. I know the Minister used to smoke and he did not like the smoking ban in public places. I am not a smoker but I know it took a long time for people to become accustomed to the ban, especially in rural Ireland. We must achieve the same level of tolerance towards drink as now applies to smoking. If we look at our streets, towns and villages, it is clear that drink driving is no longer a city problem. It is a national problem and we must deal with it.
Unlike previous speakers, I do not agree with the Bill because I know what it is. It is another racket to make money for the Government. In a few years' time, people will say how well they thought they did in their test and how they thought they had passed it. They might have been trained by instructors. They might think they had done everything right. Despite that, they could be failed for the most minor thing. The waiting lists might be reduced slightly, but I guarantee that the failure rate will increase because it will be in the Government's interests to ensure that people sit their test three or four times so that it can make money out of it. I do not agree with that.
Neither do I agree with the national car test. The NCT was needed 20 years ago when we had many bad cars on the road. Now everybody has a fairly good car. The NCT has served its time. It is being reviewed. The Minister should abandon it and forget about it. The NCT is cleaning up money from the taxpayer and its time has now come, although I would ask for its staff to be protected. What is happening with the situation?
I wish to share my time with Deputy Pat Breen. I welcome the Bill which I view as an important development. The skill of driving is probably the most important skill that any of us will acquire in our lifetimes as it carries with it considerable responsibilities. In this country we have been inclined to take that skill for granted. We have not given enough consideration to improving driving standards and the standards of our vehicles. We also need to examine the issue of education for young people in particular as regards driving.
The skill of driving and the mechanics of motor vehicles, which many young people use, should be part of our education system in some way. There is no reason we should not have a module as part of post-primary or secondary school education based on driving and handling cars, road safety and so on. That should be an integral part of our education system. The leaving certificate ought to provide some opportunity in that regard.
Statistics show that the standard of road safety is getting worse. In 2003, there were 335 fatalities on our roads. In 2004, that number increased to 379. This year so far, there have been 118 fatalities if not more, which is probably a higher amount for the same period compared with previous years. The 2004 figures showed the worst level of road deaths since 2001 and represented a 13% increase on the 2003 figures. It is accepted that driver error is the main cause of most fatal accidents. It is estimated to be the cause of about 85% to 90% of accidents. This highlights the urgent need for better drivers, improved driver education and training and an enhanced and modernised driving test regime. The most recent figures available show there is only one driving tester per 1,000 applicants waiting to sit the test. More than 119,00 people are on the waiting list, which is 10,000 more than two years ago. There are 116 testers at centres around the country, which is down from last years' figure of 130. People are getting frustrated because they cannot get a test and they are driving on provisional licenses. Lack of action and resources have resulted in inferior Irish drivers.
According to figures published on 24 January 2005, 300,000 people are driving on provisional licenses and over 117,000 applicants are waiting to sit their full test. The longest average national waiting time is 40 weeks, but there is a variation between test centres. The current longest waiting time is 56 weeks in Raheny, 55 in Dungarvan and 53 in Carlow.
Kerry has two test centres, in Killarney and Tralee. The Killarney centre has a waiting time of 47 weeks, which is unacceptable and the longest waiting time in the south west, and the Tralee centre has a waiting time of 34 weeks. Can the Minister respond to any efforts being made or is it up to the new authority to ensure this disparity will not exist throughout the country? Killarney has a large tourist industry and therefore more people are involved in ancillary services which include driving. It is important to have a high standard of driving skill in that area, which extends all the way to Cahirciveen.
The pass-fail variations around the country have been mentioned by a number of speakers. The pass rate varies from centre to centre which suggests different standards are being applied. The new agency will hopefully ensure standardisation and consistency across the country. It should not depend on the humour of the tester on the day or how he or she might interact with the driver in the event of a personality clash. There is much work to be done in the area of testing. In Carlow, the pass rate is approximately 50% while in Shannon it is 65%. That is a significant variation.
A recent article in The Irish Times clearly showed that we have the longest waiting times in Europe for the full driving test. Most other European countries have target times which must be met. The Minister will agree that it is extremely important to improve the standard of driving and to ensure people can sit tests as early as possible when they want them. We should set a target time of perhaps ten weeks.
The existing testing service gets through some 200,000 tests each year. However, the average failure rate of 48% means 100,000 people come back into the system. People go for tests without sufficient conditioning or preparation. It should be emphasised that they must be properly prepared. We speak of pre-planning with regard to other issues, but it should also apply to driver education. People should be encouraged to be better prepared when going for a test. Sometimes people request us to hurry their test applications but they have had no lessons or instruction. A family member might have taken them for a few drives, but they have had no professional instruction. There should be an obligation on these people to do so. It would reduce the number of failures and result in better drivers.
This is important legislation. The new authority will have a big responsibility in ensuring we have a better and more efficient system of driver testing. Our ambition should be to have the best drivers in Europe. The authority should also examine the broader issue of driving and education in particular. There is also a role for the Department of Education and Science in that this should form part of the transition year curriculum. The authority could perhaps prepare a module for use in all schools. This would have a significant impact on every child in transition year.
I am delighted for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. In taking the helm at the Department of Transport the Minister has put the issue of road safety at the top of his agenda and I will give him every support in this regard. I might differ with him in terms of aviation issues, particularly with regard to Shannon Airport, but road safety is top of his agenda. This should be true for all politicians given the increased number of vehicles on our roads.
The Celtic tiger has resulted in an average of two to three cars per household, so there is much more traffic. The roads have not been upgraded as quickly as they should have been and have to cope with this increase.
As somebody who travels up and down the country on a weekly basis, I see at first hand the volume of traffic, particularly with regard to heavy vehicles and the amount of cargo and goods being transported. One mistake while driving a lorry can cause much carnage. I was travelling to Dublin via Limerick last week and a truck overturned on the new bridge. This caused terrible consternation in Limerick city and traffic was delayed for almost half the day. It took two hours to cross the city, a trip which normally takes ten to 15 minutes. Fortunately, nobody was injured in that incident.
Our attitude must change with regard to road safety. We should no longer accept that events just happen and are unavoidable. Accidents can be prevented and a reduction of road deaths can be achieved if the proper strategies are in place. While some advances have been made in recent times to reduce the number of road fatalities, these efforts are not working and it is time for us to seriously consider road safety.
Deputy Deenihan referred to the number of road deaths in the past three years and stated that 2004 was the worst year since 2001 representing an increase of 13% on 2003, which is of concern. As many previous speakers have mentioned, to help tackle the carnage we need better driving education, an improved, reformed and modern driving test and an environment that encourages good driving and punishes those who endanger the safety of others. In the past ten years approximately 5,000 people have lost their lives on Irish roads. In addition to the misery and suffering of the families, the cost to the community runs into billions of euro. We do not realise the astonishing scale of the problem. In 2001, one person was killed on the roads every 21 hours and one person injured every 52 minutes. Young people are at most risk as they drive faster than more mature drivers. One young person is killed on the roads every two days.
While the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 tries to address these problems, it has some flaws. The Bill proposes to establish an authority, which will be responsible for the delivery of the driving testing service. The new authority will have responsibility for testing and control of driving instructors and vehicles. The legislation also gives the authority the power to outsource these functions. While this may be fine in theory, I do not know how it will operate in practice, given how central government works. I note that the Minister said last night in the Seanad that he was prepared to make amendments to the Bill, given that his Department recently commissioned a survey by Farrell Grant Sparks, which was published in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times. I question whether the Minister will go far enough with his amendments.
I understand the consulting company stated that the scope of the new authority, charged with reducing the long waiting time for learner drivers to be tested and improving motoring skills, is too limited to bring about significant changes. It recommended centralising all aspects of road safety. The Minister should reconsider his proposals for the Driver Testing and Standards Authority to see how road safety can be improved. Deputy Ring referred to the self-financing of the authority and the costs for those involved in tests. Driving tests will increase in price from €38. We all know that learning to drive is a costly business. Driving lessons are quite expensive. A learner may need to sit the driving theory test on many occasions and those who repeatedly fail will need to take more lessons. This is in addition to road tax and insurance.
On cost grounds the Minister is proposing to reduce the number of test centres from 54 to 35. Under this plan each county will have a testing centre with the larger towns and cities having additional sites. Today County Clare has three centres, the main centre in Ennis and other centres in Shannon and Kilrush. I hope these centres will be retained. While the Shannon centre is very important, as a Deputy coming from and representing west Clare, I know the Kilrush centre is important for the people of west Clare and I hope it will remain regardless of any changes the Minister might propose.
I know the report the Minister commissioned found that the computer systems in the Department and the test centres are outdated with a high risk of system failure. They need to be updated and replaced as soon as possible. I know the Minister had a difficult experience with computers for electronic voting in his previous job at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
I understand that only 16 of the centres will be able to cater for tests involving motorcycles and heavy goods vehicles and I hope this can be increased. Previous speakers referred to driver error as the main cause of fatal road accidents, which is linked to the question of education, leading to better drivers. I could speak about the traffic corps and other matters. However, other speakers wish to contribute. I hope that when making amendments the Minister will listen to the Opposition spokespersons and incorporate some of their proposals.
This subject is of particular interest to me as I was spokesman on this area many years ago, possibly before the Minister was first elected to the House. As most people know, I am somewhat cynical by nature. I cannot understand why it has taken so long to introduce a Bill, which concentrates on the need to ensure a high level of driver knowledge not only in respect of the rules of the road but in the theory of driving a vehicle, including the marriage between the vehicle, its speed and the road conditions. Nothing should be taken in isolation. The quality of the vehicle, its speed, the knowledge and judgment of the driver and the road conditions, some of which are appalling, need to be taken into account.
As I recently said in this House, in some locations up to 25 and 30 people have been killed, theoretically because they were wrong as a result of speeding, faults in the car or errors of judgment. Has it ever occurred to anyone that something might have also been wrong with the road? I do not wish to comment too lightly on this topic. A particular accident took place on a very prominent roadway not a million miles from the centre of this city in recent weeks. This was not the first such accident to take place there. Driver error is being blamed for that accident. I do not believe driver error was the only contributory factor. The design, camber and condition of the road as well as the volume of traffic on it at the time all contribute.
Many years ago I made a suggestion regarding the theory on driving.