Wednesday, 1 February 2006
Road Traffic Offences.
Question 106: To ask the Minister for Transport if, in view of the Attorney General's advice to the Garda Commissioner that under existing legislation the Garda Síochána has the power to set up random road checks for the purpose of detecting drink-driving, he will launch an immediate campaign to tackle drink-driving in order to reduce the number of road deaths. [3475/06]
The Attorney General has provided advice on the exercise of the powers currently available to the Garda to stop vehicles both on a general basis and in particular in connection with the enforcement of drink driving laws. Members of the Garda Síochána may stop any vehicle using a public road for the purpose of detecting offences under the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2004. Those Acts provide for a legislative basis for the operation by the Garda of preliminary roadside breath testing for the purpose of detecting drink-driving offences. The legislative provisions establish that a driver may be required to submit to such a test where a vehicle has been involved in a traffic collision, where a traffic offence is committed, or where a member of the Garda is of the opinion that the driver has consumed intoxicating liquor. The requirement that a driver must submit to a preliminary roadside breath test, following the formation of the opinion of a member of the Garda that he or she has consumed alcohol, may be applied through the stopping of vehicles on an individual basis or through the establishment of dedicated checkpoints.
During his contribution to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport on 25 January, the Garda Commissioner indicated that he welcomed the clarity of the advice from the Attorney General and gave a commitment to the pursuit of enhanced levels of enforcement of drink driving offences as a result. I welcome this commitment and look forward to a significant and immediate increase in the levels of enforcement of drink driving laws. The extent of such enforcement campaigns is an operational matter for the senior Garda management. The Attorney General has also given advice that will allow for the development of a scheme for the operation of extended preliminary roadside breath testing, or "random" breath testing. Such a scheme, in which the Garda will not be required to form an opinion on alcohol consumption, will operate in a targeted manner.
I will now bring forward legislative proposals to allow the Garda to establish road checkpoints for "random" breath testing at which drivers will be required to submit to a preliminary test. The legislation will provide the basis for the production of clear guidelines that will establish definitive parameters for the application of these proposed checkpoints, in order to prevent any arbitrary use of these statutory provisions.
The advice received by the Garda Commissioner last week conveniently seemed to get lost in the announcement by the Taoiseach about legislating on this issue. The Commissioner was very clear last week. The Attorney General told him that members of the Garda could set up random road checks for the purpose of detecting drink driving and that they could test people if they have reasonable suspicion that they have been drinking. If the person failed that test, it could provide the grounds on which they could pursue the issue by having a further test in the station. It seems to be the case that the Garda has all the powers it requires under existing legislation to dramatically change the approach to drink driving. This is welcome news and I cannot understand why the Minister for Transport and the Taoiseach are continuing to obfuscate and talk about legislating for it in the long term. There are substantial powers available to the Garda right now, as has been clarified by the Attorney General. If the Minister was serious about tackling the problem of drink driving, he would give a very political instruction to the Garda to launch an immediate campaign to clamp down on drink driving.
The Minister received that advice from the Attorney General some time ago and the Commissioner clarified that the advice had come from the Attorney General through the Minister. It is now several months since he got that advice and I wonder why he remained silent about that. Why has he not welcomed the fact that the Garda now has much stronger powers than presumed heretofore? Why is he not acting on that? Why does he continue with these delaying tactics, talking about legislating at some point in the future? All of the powers already exist for the Garda to tackle the scourge of drink driving.
I agree with most of what the Deputy said. I am interested in why she has criticised me so heavily for amplifying the powers that the Garda had for random breath testing before the Commissioner spoke last week. I said all of that before the committee, yet the Deputy laughed at me, claiming it was nonsense. The Attorney General has amplified the Garda powers and has made that perfectly clear. The missing piece was that members of the Garda do not have an ability to stop a line of traffic and without forming any opinion on whether someone has consumed alcohol or not, can request every driver to submit to a random breath test. Heretofore, I set out the conditions on how gardaí can administer a random breath test. The key condition that has caused a problem and had been challenged consistently in the courts is the opinion formed by the garda whether the person has consumed drink, which is either based on smelling alcohol off the person's breath——
The Deputy is asking why we need legislation when she rightly identifies that the Garda has substantial powers to set up random checkpoints and has a range of options in how to breath-test someone.
I am not responsible for the operational matters of the Garda and the Deputy knows that. There are cases where we have had to increase the number of gardaí.
It has been pointed out that there are many forms of alcohol that do not emit a smell of alcohol, while some forms of alcohol consumed are more obvious than others. A garda can immediately form an opinion because he or she can smell the alcohol off the driver, but that is not always the case. I want to eliminate that doubt so that any driver stopped under the new legislation, whether he or she has had a drink or not, will be subjected to a breath test. That is the form of random breath testing that everyone in this country wants, including the Deputy. I agree with that and I have told her three or four time previously that I wanted to get to that situation. There were questions on the constitutional issues surrounding it. The Attorney General has worked out a way of going forward with this so that it is not seen to be arbitrary.
Has he met the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, to see how it may be ensured that the Garda operates the law as it currently exists? I have never seen a checkpoint outside a licensed premises. Gardaí have the power to set up checkpoints anywhere they like tonight if they so wish. However, the Minister knows perfectly well there have been complaints from vintners and his publican friends. For that reason no clear direction has gone out from the Garda to enforce the law that exists. That is the nub of the problem. When is the Minister going to take action and stop making excuses, which leads to considerable numbers of people being killed on the roads as a result of drink driving?
I thank the Deputy for the question because it was I who called a meeting with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and all of the senior members of the Garda. I spent hours discussing this issue with the Garda on precisely the points the Deputy has raised. I wanted to establish from the Garda the actual training and methodology it uses in doing this. Much of the discussion before Christmas led to the conclusion, expansion and greater amplification from the Garda of the powers it already has and that——
I am not the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am the Minister for Transport. The Deputy asked me whether I had done anything about it. I have confirmed to her in a very open manner that I called a meeting and met not just the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform but all of the senior gardaí from the Commissioner to the deputy and assistant commissioners. It was the correct thing to do and clarified a great many issues. I expect, as does the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that there will be a clearly enhanced number of road checks in evidence to every commuter and motorist throughout the country as a result of the current situation. We will introduce legislation in the House, which the Fine Gael leader said they will be quite happy to facilitate, as I am sure the Labour Party will be, so as to ensure everybody, regardless of whether they have had a drink, will be subject to randomised breath tests.
Of all the people accused of doing nothing, I find myself in a bizarre position. My problem is that I am always being accused of doing something. Most of the time the Deputy does not like what I do, but she does not accuse me of doing nothing. What kills her is that I will make decisions. She does not like them when they are made and——