Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Road Traffic (Mobile Telephony) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).
I am pleased to have an opportunity to join in the debate on the Road Traffic (Mobile Telephony) Bill 2006 as introduced by Deputy Olivia Mitchell. I congratulate her and her party for this constructive use of Private Members' time. Clearly, in the light of the ongoing fatalities on our roads, it is incumbent on us, as public representatives, to avail of every possible occasion to highlight this serious problem, both here in the House and around the country in the communities we represent. The Bill is presented as yet another measure that can be adopted to help reduce the carnage on our roads and, as such, I am encouraged by the fact that, although the Minister, Deputy Cullen, may have reservations about some of its aspects or details, it is not being opposed on Second Stage by the Government which intends to bring forward its own legislative proposals in the very near future.
It is important to congratulate the Minister on the work he has undertaken in the area of road safety since moving to the Department of Transport. In particular, I welcome the intention to establish the Road Safety Authority which will have a broad remit in the area of transport and safety. There was widespread support in recent days for the Minister's decision to appoint Mr. Gay Byrne as chairman of the new authority. This high level of support derives not just from his public recognition, but also from the fact that Mr. Byrne enjoys a high level of public confidence and can be relied upon to progress the road safety agenda in an able, committed and fearless manner. He represents an excellent choice for what will, no doubt, be a most difficult job.
The scale of the problem on our roads has been referred to by all previous speakers, not least by Deputy McGinley who spoke poignantly of the horrific loss of life in his native Donegal where 30 people have lost their lives in each of the past two years. However, each county has to bear its own tragic losses. I note from the most recent statistics available that in my county of Kildare the death toll, thankfully, decreased from 31 in 2001 to 19 in 2004, with a corresponding decrease in the number of injuries incurred in road traffic accidents from 349 to 288 in the same period. I suspect this may have much to do with the major road construction programme in Kildare throughout the period. The European norm of 60 fatalities per 1 million of population has been referred to. I understand the context in which this allusion has been made but feel strongly that we must continue to assert the view that there is no acceptable level of road deaths and that one death is one too many.
In the debate so far there have been calls for more legislation and more effective enforcement of the legislation already in place. I congratulate the Government on the establishment of the new dedicated traffic corps which will have 800 members by the end of this year and comprise 1,200 officers by the end of 2008, if not sooner. I acknowledge the commitment of the Garda Síochána to tackling the road safety issue but suggest the Garda Commissioner and senior managers within the force need to adopt a far more focused approach to dealing with the problem of death on our roads.
An inordinate number of fatal accidents seem to involve young male drivers and occur in the early hours of the morning, at weekends or bank holidays. Garda deployment is a matter for the Garda authorities, but I urge them to prioritise the provision of high visibility checkpoints, along the departure routes from nightclubs and other late night hostelries in the post-midnight period. If such a campaign were mounted consistently across the country, it would achieve positive results within a short timeframe.
The number of provisional drivers on our roads has been referred to. The Minister has again set out his stall on how he intends to address the current unacceptable situation. Those many thousands of young people driving on provisional licences deserve to be able to take their test within a reasonable timeframe. In a recent media interview I heard the courageous mother of two young Kildare men who had lost their lives, with a friend, in a horrendous pre-Christmas crash, say that no matter how much legislation we had or what the level of enforcement was, we would not stop the carnage on the roads until we succeeded in bringing about a change in public attitude to the use of the car. While we must strive urgently to reduce the number of provisional drivers on our roads, we must ensure those who pass the test do not conclude that getting rid of the L plates confers invincibility upon them, as so often seems to be the case, especially with young male drivers. If the measures in place or those envisaged do not deliver the desired results, we may have to consider imposing curfews or speed regulators on very young and inexperienced drivers in order to save lives. This has been done to good effect in other countries.
I am happy to support the sentiments expressed on the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. Despite its widespread occurrence, it is clearly foolish and reckless. One of the worst examples of recklessness I have come across recently involves a good friend of mine who travelled from Kildare to Galway with her daughter who in the course of her journey withnessed her continually sending and receiving text messages while driving. Mobile phone use is not the only form of careless driving. Only this morning on my way to Leinster House I noticed one driver reading a newspaper, while another anxiously applied her make-up. Perhaps we could all do much better behind the steering wheel. The mobile phone is a wonderful piece of modern technology when used properly and responsibly. Let us hope drivers will rapidly get the message.
I remind the Leas-Cheann Comhairle that I am sharing time.
The issue of road safety is one that all too often dominates the news headlines. There is not a family in the country which has not been affected by such a tragedy at some stage. Too many of us have received the dreaded telephone call in the middle of the night. I experienced it myself and would not wish it on anybody to hear the news that a relative was injured or fatally injured. Even one death on the roads is one too many.
It is heartbreaking that so many of our young, energetic people, in particular, have been taken from us in such a cruel and painful way. The vast majority of young people take a mature and responsible approach to road safety. They are all too aware of the dangers of texting, talking on their mobiles while driving, as well as drinking and driving. Evidence from other countries suggests 60% to 70% of drivers use their mobile phones at least once a day. It has also been estimated that at any given moment 1% to 4% of drivers are using a mobile phone. I think I am correct in saying practically every young person in the country has a mobile phone, which obviously has major repercussions for road safety.
There are approximately 400,000 people with provisional driving licences. There is a considerable backlog in driving test waiting times. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, is all too aware of this and doing his utmost to speed up the system by providing more test instructors. I have great respect for Deputy Olivia Mitchell but I was astonished to hear that the Fine Gael spokesperson on transport had proposed last night that provisional drivers should be barred from driving after 5 p.m. during these short winter days.
Therefore, the Deputy did not say it. If she had said it, I was going to ask what should be done with the poor old lady with a provisional licence who wanted to go out at night to collect her shopping on a week night.
I acknowledge they are waiting for the test. Young people in rural Ireland must be able to get home from work each day. If Deputy Mitchell made such a proposal, it would suck the economic life blood out of rural Ireland. This is the blinkered Dublin-focused nonsense which is typical of Fine Gael.
The issue of drink driving continues to be a significant cause of concern despite promotional campaigns, enforcement efforts and severe legal repercussions. People continue to drink and drive and it is clear this cannot be allowed to continue. The road safety strategy provides that random breath testing should be in place before the end of 2006. Experience in Australia has shown that random breath testing has made a significant contribution to the reduction of road deaths.
Legislation is being prepared to overcome constitutional difficulties surrounding random breath testing. There must be regard for civil liberties and the rights of the individual but the protection of the community from individuals who abuse their rights must inform our examination of this issue. If we legislate to give the Garda Síochána greater powers to impose roadside breath tests, the purpose will be to change the climate and culture among the public towards the practice of drinking and driving. In the unfortunate event this is not possible, we should remind ourselves that as things stand, a Garda may request a breath sample where he or she forms the opinion that an intoxicant has been consumed, where a collision has taken place or where a road traffic offence has been committed. The Garda Síochána must continue to robustly pursue drink driving enforcement by means of the powers already available to it. The Garda Commissioner has recently highlighted that a problem lies in the way existing legislation is challenged regularly in the courts.
People must recognise their responsibility when they sit behind the wheel of a car. Even when it is proved they were over the limit, individuals will still persist in challenging the law. In a society where the car dominates as a transport of choice, collisions and fatalities have become an almost inevitable consequence. Some collisions are as a result of freak sets of circumstances where nothing could have been done to avoid such an outcome. Drinking alcohol and then driving a car is not a freak occurrence. The individual makes a choice which far too often leads to death. Road collisions are often caused by a mixture of different factors coming together and drivers need to be alert to be in a position to act quickly if necessary. It is known that even one drink will slow down a person's reaction time.
Many of the accidents involving young people take place between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. This tells its own story. People are out late and become tired. Many drivers fall asleep at the wheel of the car and are involved in serious and fatal accidents. The majority of young people are to be complimented because they are better than the older generation for arranging a designated driver who does not drink.
Deputy Mitchell's Bill is an opportunity to explain the current position and the cause of road accidents.
A total of 25% of accidents, not all fatal, are caused by driver distraction, either in the form of a mobile phone, a radio or CD player or a child in the car. All the causes of accidents must be examined. The action being taken to deal with the situation such as penalty points for not wearing seat belts and the use of mobile phones and other driving errors, will lead to an improvement.
Between 2000 and 2004, the death rate per 10,000 registered vehicles dropped from 2.5 to 1.8 people. This is a considerable decrease which has probably continued at that level because 120,000 extra vehicles a year are on the road. If predictions made last week are true, Ireland will have a major problem concerning traffic and traffic density within the next ten years. This will lead to more accidents. It must be acknowledged that the increase in the number of vehicles on the road will result in more fatalities. History has proved that a plateau level of accidents will be reached and it is then very difficult to achieve lower accident levels.
Some Members had the pleasure of travelling to Australia recently to investigate the system in use there. In 2000 the death rate in Victoria was 1.2 fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles. It has been decreased to a level of 0.96. This drop per 10,000 vehicles has been a greater decrease than what has been achieved in Ireland; our rate is still double their rate.
We must aim to improve driver responsibility. Those of us who regularly drive many miles per annum see some terrible things. We see trucks passing traffic in 50 km/h zones at a speed of 80 km/h and doing 100 km/h, which is 60 mph, when they are supposed to be governed at 55 mph.
I refer to an incident when an articulated truck passed me. I was driving behind two cars with a double white line on my right. The truck passed the four of us. If any traffic had been coming towards it, there would have been a major accident. Not alone would the truck and the oncoming vehicle have been involved, all four vehicles travelling behind at a reasonable speed would have been caught up if the truck had jack-knifed. In that case nothing could be done. Any of the other drivers could have reported the incident but in court it would have been his word against ours. People do not want to report dangerous driving but it may be necessary to do so in the future.
Speeding in dangerous situations is a problem. The number of accidents occurring on the motorways is fewer than on the regional roads because the traffic is all travelling in the same direction and it is easier to escape from an awkward situation. The alignment of roads needs to be improved.
Local authorities have the right to impose speed limits on sections of regional roads. In many cases and despite the number of accidents, they seem reluctant to take action or use their powers and they should be encouraged to do so. We all know the black spots in our own areas but it is nigh impossible to get local authorities to deal with the situation. I note that my own local authority will make an order for the first time with regard to a speed limit on a certain road.
Some national primary roads are inferior to regional roads yet there is a difference of 20 km/h in the speed limit. We are all aware that for every 10 km/h over 50 km/h, the chances of a fatal accident increases by 100%. The chances of a pedestrian surviving being hit at 50 km/h as opposed to being hit at 30 km/h are nil. We must be careful of our driving speeds.
There is a responsibility on everyone who gets behind the steering wheel of a car to ensure he or she is capable of driving. We talk about drink driving and driving under the influence of drugs but it is also imperative that gardaí set their rosters in order that they are on duty and highly visible from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., Thursday to Saturday, which appears to be the time when most fatal accidents occur. There is a need for major progress with regard to Garda surveillance during these hours. It is up to us as a community and anyone who takes a steering wheel in his or her hands to be responsible. We cannot hold a driver's hands all the time. We can try to legislate to improve the situation but that is impossible if the will of drivers is not evident.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to contribute on this important subject. It is hard to believe that in 2003 we had the lowest number of road deaths for almost 40 years but the figures are climbing again. While a target of 300 road deaths is set for this year, it is not a subject to discuss in terms of targets. The target should be nil. The numbers of deaths and injuries on our roads are horrendous. Almost ten years ago, in 1997, there were 472 deaths on the roads. Since then there has been an enormous increase in the number of vehicles, which undoubtedly is the cause of most accidents.
I am delighted with the increased number of gardaí attached to the traffic corps. By the end of this year the corps will have 600 members and 1,200 by 2008. There is no doubt that enforcement is badly needed, although when accidents are investigated, it is clear that it would be difficult to locate gardaí where accidents take place. Speed cameras are necessary. While there is a debate on privatisation, it should not enter into the matter when the objective is to save lives. Some 60 offences will carry penalty points, which is positive. When penalty points were introduced, there was an immediate cut in the number of road fatalities, although it did not last long.
I particularly welcome the decision to eliminate hand-held mobile phones while driving. There is no doubt that mobile phones are a great distraction, even hands-free phones. However, to begin by dealing with hand-held phones is positive. Those who drive long distances each week see countless examples of drivers using mobile phones while in traffic. It is almost impossible to concentrate on driving while using a mobile phone. The decision will be a major step forward in the prevention of fatalities.
Much reference is made to drink driving, and rightly so. We cannot make the public too aware of the dangers of drink driving. However, we should stop to reflect that a high percentage of fatalities on our roads are not drink related, which is shocking. Much time must be taken to find why this is the case.
Driver testing in schools is a further issue. When young people leave secondary school, their priority is to get a job. In most cases a job is little use to them without a car. Are they as well prepared to drive a car as they are to take a job? The Road Safety Authority must consider this issue. To have drivers trained at a young age is of the greatest importance.
I welcome the Minister's decision to establish the Road Safety Authority and welcome the appointment of Gay Byrne as its first head. However, I was disappointed with the initial interview with Mr. Byrne because he included an opt-out clause before we knew his real position. I ask him to join the real world. It is decision time, away from the cocoon of "The Late, Late Show" and showbusiness. The Minister was courageous in appointing a high profile figure. Gay Byrne has a big job to do, which entails much responsibility. I wish him well and the Minister well in his efforts to reduce the carnage on the roads.
I wish to be associated with the remarks of Deputy Wilkinson, including his closing comments on the appointment of Gay Byrne to the chairmanship of the new authority. I particularly wish to be associated with Deputy Wilkinson's reference to his disappointment at Mr. Byrne's opening contribution in his new job. It is important that Mr. Byrne realises that press conferences are secondary to the primary task of road safety and that the entertainment days are over. There is a serious job to be done and he should address it seriously.
It is unfortunate that Deputy McEntee is no longer in the Chamber. He said his son was three years on a waiting list for a driving test, which I find incredible. The maximum wait is approximately 13 months. There must be something unusual with that application. I ask Deputy Olivia Mitchell to convey my concern to her colleague that his son should be detained on a list for such a long time.
Perhaps if his son went to Deputy Johnny Brady, his local Fianna Fáil Deputy, he might receive a better service than he gets from his Fine Gael Deputy.
I congratulate Deputy Mitchell on her initiative. The Bill is a necessity. It is unfortunate that this is the case but that is the nature of legislation. My contribution will focus on the lack of responsibility in society in general and among motorists, in particular. Several statistics have been trotted out in this debate. My favourite in this regard is that in 1976 there were some 750,000 vehicles on the roads and 700 road deaths, whereas in 2006, 30 years on, the number of vehicles has trebled to 2.25 million and, luckily in one way but unfortunately in another, the number of projected road deaths will be approximately 400. It is too many but it is important that this debate should be kept in context.
I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs which dealt for three hours with delegations from the Licensed Vintners Association, the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.
One theme that ran through three extremely positive contributions was a lack of responsibility in certain sectors of society. In that context, I am not referring to publicans but to individuals. The position on our roads is the same in that the problem is caused by a lack of responsibility on the part of motorists. One need only think of the number of times one drives at just under the speed limit and observes a steady stream of traffic overtaking.
Several responsible members of the public have made suggestions to me in recent months as to how motorists can develop a sense of an esprit de corps and draw the attention of errant motorists to the errors of their ways. For example, if a motorist is driving in excess of the speed limit, the motorist in the car being overtaken could sound the horn or signal with lights to draw the attention of the errant driver to his or her irresponsible behaviour. In other words, it would be a name and shame campaign. I do not know whether it would be possible to operate such a campaign but I put it forward for what it is worth.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak on the Bill and commend Deputy Mitchell on her initiative.
Some 93 people have died on our roads so far this year. That is unacceptable. Our role, as public representatives, is to legislate and put in place measures that will discourage dangerous driving and eliminate fatalities on our roads.
The Bill proposed is welcome and I note that the Minister is supporting it on Second Stage. If he supports the proposal, it begs the question why he has not included the provisions of the Bill in the list of penalty point offences due to be introduced on 3 April. Nobody disputes the fact that using a mobile phone while driving impairs the driver's ability. It is distracting and downright dangerous. We have all witnessed this on many occasions, but the Minister has effectively ignored that bad practice. Those who use a mobile phone while driving are four times more likely to be involved in a serious collision.
To some degree penalty points were a deterrent, but they have lost their impact, the reason for which is that they were never properly enforced. The new package of extra penalty points is not viewed by many as a deterrent to bad drivers but as a new means of ripping off motorists and raising revenue. They are viewed by a large section of the motoring public as a cynical money-spinner. "Shooting fish in a barrel" is an accurate description of the bulk of Garda speed traps. Why do we never see them in areas where accidents have occurred, namely, on non-primary or secondary routes across the State? It appears there is no money to be gained in doing so.
What does the Minister propose to do about dangerous driving? Does he seek changes to this or other practices? He does not, rather privatisation is his answer. The vast majority of lives are lost on secondary routes. Some 40% of fatalities occur on 7% of the State's roads. If privatisation proceeds, private companies will inevitably follow the money and ignore non-primary roads, on which the bulk of fatalities occur. They will make their money on the M50 and dual carriageways, while no real measures will be applied or interest shown to deal with accident black spots.
On a related matter, the Minister has failed to reduce the numbers on driving test waiting lists, with people having to wait eight months on average to do their test. Does he have anything else up his sleeve now that his idea of outsourcing has been aborted or will his pigheaded attitude mean that more months, if not years, will be lost as he tries to reverse what is a binding agreement?
I hope the appointment of Mr. Gay Byrne to the Road Safety Authority on Monday last is not simply another public relations stunt by the Minister. Given the delay in implementing recommendations to improve road safety, I hope Mr. Byrne has not swapped one "Late Late Show" for another.
While penalty points serve a purpose, tackling road safety is a much bigger issue. Legislation is the only effective when it is enforced. Although announced in 2002, full implementation of the penalty points system has still not been achieved. To make our roads safer, the State should get young drivers on its side by using deterrents as deterrents, not as easy money makers, by reducing the extortionate insurance premia young drivers are forced to pay and, overall, by making our roads safer. Ensuring road safety is in everybody's interest.
I support the Bill and congratulate Deputy Olivia Mitchell on introducing it. Everybody agrees that it is unsafe to drive and use a hand-held mobile phone at the same time. I have heard many Deputies speak of their experiences in that regard. I know of two fatal accidents in which it is reputed that the use of a mobile phone in this way was the cause. Those of us who spend considerable time travelling on the road are well aware of the motorist in the car in front or behind that veers to the right or the left of us. I wonder if it is a little over the top to insist that it be an offence to attempt to supervise a holder of a provisional licence while holding or using a mobile phone. That will be unenforceable and I wonder is it necessary to do so.
On the issue of road safety, it is important to ensure the 130,000 provisional drivers on driving test waiting lists are taken off our roads by addressing the problem of waiting lists. I have heard that the waiting time is eight months but could be up to one year. Whichever period it is, it is a long time. The maximum waiting time of 18 months is far too long. In the United Kingdom the waiting time is six to eight weeks and in the USA, two hours. The waiting time here is very long.
I chaired a successful conference on road safety last week organised by Jim Connolly of the Safe Driving Pledge, in which I am also involved, which the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, opened. The factors considered most important in improving safety on our roads and reducing the number road deaths were great regard for visibility, which research has proven to reduce misbehaviour on our roads; more effective prosecution of motoring offences — some 40% of offenders get off scot-free in drink driving cases; random breath testing for alcohol and other drugs, as well as alcohol testing; the availability of proper resources for pre-hospital and inter-hospital transport services — this includes the provision of more ambulances, as well as helicopter, nursing and medical services; and driver education.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and commend Deputy Olivia Mitchell on introducing it. I understand the Government intends to accept it, which is unique. This will deny us that rare opportunity to vote and show what good citizens we are and how well we represent our local communities.
It is important to note that mobile phones form an integral part of society. They have revolutionised how we communicate with each other. No matter where one goes one sees somebody holding a phone to his or her ear as if it was an extension of his or her ear. That is the way life has gone. Regrettably, we see it far too often in the case of motorists. While mobile phones are convenient, when one drives a car while using a hand-held mobile phone, it is possible one can do much more harm than good. We should also not forget that mobile phones fitted to a car also pose a distraction. It is important that the convenience of mobile phones outweighs the hazards they can cause or pose.
There is the notion of inattentive driving, as in the case of a lady applying her make-up or using a hand-held mobile phone. However, there is another aspect, a concept whereby we are following the example of Americans, in respect of which we should introduce a Bill at a later stage. A recent statistic showed that Americans tended to eat 33% of their meals while driving in their cars. The development of drive-through outlets and takeaways without the provision of car parking spaces infers that people will pull into a drive-through outlet, order their meals and drive off while eating them. That is an equally, if not a more, dangerous practice. We should examine the introduction of some legislative measure to address it.
I recently saw advertisements for in-car technology, with the promotion of global positioning systems and navigational displays on a small mobile phone screen. One merely presses a few buttons to find the route for one's journey. The one aspect that baffles me is how people can see where they are going in using this mobile global positioning system. The only way one can do so adequately is by pulling over to the side of the road.
Eating in cars presents another danger, as does looking after children in the back seat, particularly where they are jumping about. The level of seat-belt compliance must also be increased. These are issues that must be addressed in conjunction with dealing with the use of mobile phones in cars.
The primary motivation behind this legislation is public safety. For that reason, I favour making the use of hand-held mobile devices illegal. However, the legislation could go further. When thinking of the dangers posed by mobile phone use, most will almost certainly consider the impact it may have on human health. The Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, for example, states: "Except for an increase in traffic accidents induced by the use of mobile telephones in cars the evidence for a health hazard is at most indirect, but cannot be entirely dismissed". A paper by the University of Michigan transport research institute entitled, Crashes Induced by Driver Information Systems and What Can Be Done to Reduce Them, states:
Looking towards the future . . . Nissan refer to the transition from automobiles to infomobiles. As systems such as adaptive cruise control (ACC), navigation, mobile phones, traffic information, web access, email, and automatic lane control (ALC) see expanded use in the vehicle fleet . . . The implications of these changes for vehicle safety and usability, and more generally, the driving process, have received insufficient attention in the research literature and in public discussions.
It goes on to refer to in-vehicle information systems overloading drivers and compromising driver safety.
From statistics gathered in other countries, it appears that receiving a telephone call poses the greatest threat, followed by dialing and then talking. Navigation systems carry a lower risk but in spite of the fact that there is a small number of vehicles with such systems, they should be factored in as it is clear they are showing up as a risk.
All such technologies — from the type of interface about which I have spoken on both mobile phones and navigation systems to designs that reduce task times and visual demands, together with specifying the optimum location, for example, for a hands-free kit as a means of reducing risks — merit consideration creating a safer driving environment. While I would be happy with an incremental approach banning the hand-held mobile phone to begin with, we need to start looking at the next generation of devices and interfaces to comprehensively deal with this matter.
I support this worthwhile Bill introduced by Fine Gael. I understand the Minister is accepting the proposal. If so, it makes one wonder why he has not introduced such a proposal before now.
That brings me to the wider question of road safety and why the Government has not tackled the problem effectively over a number of years. It is not rocket science. One need not reinvent the wheel to deal with it properly. Other countries have already done so. Britain, parts of Australia and some of the Nordic countries have good road safety legislation and measures. We could have learned from those countries before now.
It is widely accepted that the three Es — education, engineering and enforcement — if implemented, form the basis for good road safety measures and reducing the number of road traffic accidents. Education includes, for instance, the introduction of road safety to the curriculum of secondary schools, in particular, possibly in transition year. It also includes reducing the number of provisional licence holders, of which there are over 130,000, many of whom are waiting 12 months for a driving test. Obviously, that is a matter which must be tackled. Engineering includes road surfaces and also such matters as the mechanics of cars and mechanisms to over-ride and reduce the speed of cars to the maximum speed limits permitted. On enforcement, as many Deputies have stated, visual enforcement by gardaí is vitally important.
On behalf of the Green Party, I happily welcome this Bill and commend my constituency colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, for bringing it forward. I noted with interest last night that she referred to the comment made four years ago by the then Minister of State, former Deputy Molloy, reported in the newspapers, that "Mobile phones by drivers will be outlawed within 48 hours". Four years on nothing has happened. Slightly before that time the same Minister of State stated that within three years of liberalising the taxi market there would be 100% accessibility in this city for those in wheelchairs. I can tell the former Minister of State that there is 0.1% accessibility for people with a disability. The Government has not achieved his aim in the case of mobile phones either.
That brings me to my central point, that when it comes to transport or road issues, it seems, after campaigning for 15 years, that one cannot get away from the political arena. It is politicians who make so many of the fundemental decisions which determine the transport and road safety systems provided. I raise this as a word of warning to Mr. Gay Byrne as he sets out on his new task. I very much welcome his arrival as he is a man who was thorough when he worked in programming and the thoroughness and preparations he exhibited in that life will be very useful if applied in his new role. I read in one of the newspapers the other day that when he had started in his new role he was wary and said that if he saw political interference at any time, he would walk away. Unfortunately, he will have to get political. For the right decisions on necessary changes to be made, he must influence decision making on the far side of the House and in every local authority.
Let me set out some examples. While the new Road Safety Authority has a broad brief, I note it will very much be involved in what one might call soft areas — education, training, driving standards and even enforcement. That is both welcome and proper. While such an authority might have responsibility for the way tachographs are used or the rules and conditions applying to HGVs, for example, it is an inherently unsafe system if, at the same time, as is being proposed because of a political decision, there are HGVs thundering along the quays in the centre of this city juxtaposed with pedestrians and cyclists. While welcome, no amount of soft measures will address the fundamental problem. The difficult political problem is that there is not the political will to raise safety issues high enough on the political agenda to take the tough decision that we have spent €1 billion on the port tunnel and must now take the trucks out of the city. One would think at a time when people are shocked by the number of deaths on the roads that that would be an easy political decision to take but it is not. Part of the reason is that the Minister for Transport will have been lobbying the city council to look after the haulage industry because the economy, rather than human life, counts for more. That is the problem for Mr. Byrne. When he starts to investigate this issue, he will realise that such political thinking lies behind the terrible litany of deaths on the roads.
I can think of other examples. Road safety is about driver behaviour which we must regulate. This is a welcome step in the right direction but road safety is also about the detailed design of every junction and road crossing. It shocks me to see the quality of some of the designs being introduced today. It also shocks me to see the way in which we treat pedestrians. Mr. Byrne will know what it is like to be a cyclist, as well as a motorcyclist. Having talked about the need for better design for ten years, it shocks me that our engineers are still designing roads based on the needs of car and truck users rather than people. It requires Mr. Byrne and the Minister to tell every county council that the matter will be conducted differently and that some of the massive budget allocated every year for new roads will be diverted to improving safety on existing roads so as to permit every child to walk or cycle to school and reverse the remarkable statistics which indicate that increasing numbers of children are being driven. In some counties more girls drive rather than cycle to school. Until the roads in these counties are mended to make it easier for parents to decide to allow their children cycle to school, the other soft measures will not work. The legacy of political decision making is a transport system based on the idea that the more roads and cars we have, the better. Statistics carried in yesterday's edition of the Irish Independent revealed that Irish people were at the top of the table in the amount of driving they did. In those political circumstances and with that amount of driving, we will have accidents. It is a political decision to say that is not clever economically, socially and, in particular, with regard to road safety. The more people who switch from that form of transport to taking buses and trains, the more lives we will save. When Mr. Byrne starts investigating this issue, he should realise that the Ministers opposite do not think like this.
I welcome the initiative taken on this issue by my colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, which the Minister has accepted. There is no doubt that legislation on mobile phone use is long overdue. Fine Gael is attempting to address the issue with this Bill, the practical nature of which means that people will be more likely to obey the measures it sets out.
I share the concerns expressed by my colleagues at the rising numbers of deaths on our roads and, in particular, the numbers of young people who lose their lives. There is insufficient statistical information on the causes of accidents, although there is no doubt that mobile phone use and drink and drug abuse are factors. Bad manners can also cause difficulties in some instances. Unless we collect and test for this data and collate the material we gather, we will be working in the dark in bringing legislation before the House and deciding where best to invest our resources. It is amazing that in 2006 we are still not testing for drug use on our roads. It is vital that people are tested for alcohol and drug use and that the information collected is analysed.
Members of the House face a significant difficulty in that we cannot raise issues with the NRA. While the agency is willing to meet local authorities when it wants to build a motorway through a constituency, it is not as willing when Members want to meet it to discuss various issues. A number of fatalities have occurred in Seffin in Birr town, including two in the past year alone, yet the NRA has taken no action to deal with the problem. The danger does not arise from the road surface but the speed at which drivers approach the hill at that location. More fatalities will occur if this problem is not resolved. A number of months ago, while a friend of mine was putting her child in her car which was parked in the area in question, her car door was shorn off.
I want to refer to the NRA's programme of cleaning road signs. I frequently use the N7, as does the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern. While I accept that wet weather and dirt can affect road conditions, there have been nights when I was unable to see the reflection on the bollards along the side of the road. As one who has witnessed an accident, I am surprised that a greater number of serious accidents do not occur along that road. Deputy Mitchell has contacted the NRA on the issue and I ask the Minister of State to do likewise.
I urge the Government to find some way to address the issue of waiting lists. The backlog is 140,000 nationally and greater than 5,200 in my constituency. I do not know whether the issue of people with sight problems has been brought to the Minister of State's attention. They can be accompanied when sitting the test but if they are not able to read, how can they learn the relevant information in advance?
An opportunity was missed two years ago to bring forward legislation on a national speed limit outside schools. The Government should intercede with local authorities to reduce speed limits in these areas.
We need to address the issue of pedestrians who do not wear reflective clothing. It should be a legal requirement to wear such clothing because the driver of a car may otherwise have to live with the consequences of an accident because he or she could not see pedestrians walking along the side of the road.
I commend Deputy Olivia Mitchell on bringing forward this legislation. The Government has procrastinated on this issue for the past nine years. The former Minister of State, Mr. Bobby Molloy, tried to address it in legislation but did not properly resolve the problem. We have since been given commitments by the Government on the introduction of legislation, yet it has required Deputy Mitchell to bring forward a Private Members' Bill in order to do so. I hope it will not go to a committee to gather dust and that the Government is committed to addressing the problem.
Sadly, the Government is not committed to clearing the driving test backlog, caused purely by the irresponsibility of the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, who opened his mouth once to often on the issue. The backlog in my constituency currently stands at 28 weeks, which costs young people an additional €330,000 per annum in insurance fees.
It is not acceptable that there are nine failures for every 20 people who sit the driving test. If that happened in the leaving certificate, a public outcry would ensue, yet we are prepared to tolerate it in the driving test. The test is completely outdated. No concessions are made for nervous applicants who may be competent and capable drivers but panic when sitting behind the steering wheel with inspectors beside them. There should be a mechanism for continuous assessment.
It is important the numbers of tests administered by driving testers are increased. Other State testers such as driving instructors in the Defence Forces could be seconded to the driving test agency in order to address the backlog. However, the Government is not prepared to take action.
There are significant variations in the driving test pass rate, which stands at 35% in some parts of the country and 50% in others. Even though the Comptroller and Auditor General published a report seven years ago on this issue, the Government has done nothing about it and ignored the farcical situation in which people can pass in one region but fail in another.
It is crazy that the Minister of State, by putting a roof rack on his car, could call himself a qualified driving instructor. No other place in Europe allows any cowboy to become a driving instructor overnight, and allegedly impart skills to a young and impressionable driver. No wonder we have the number of accidents that we do on the roads. No wonder we have a high failure rate when we are not even ensuring that those who are meant to be teaching young people how to drive cars are trained to a certain level of competency.
This Government has talked about the issue of insurance and the impact it is having on drivers, but it has done very little to address the matter. We should encourage young people to become competent, capable and trained drivers. There should be acknowledgement for claims-free and safe driving when a young person is a named driver on parents' insurance, for example, or if an advanced driving course is completed. There is currently no mechanism to allow for this, and it is a big disappointment that the Government and the Department of Transport in particular has not reacted to the issue, or tried to help and encourage young drivers to become safer drivers.
Deputy Enright raised the significant number of unofficial blackspots around the country, where there has been a litany of minor accidents, but until there is a fatality, the location does not become a priority for the NRA. Even when the local authority looks for funding from the NRA to upgrade substandard sections of road, it can wait years for it. For example, Roscommon County Council applied this year for 21 separate low cost road action safety projects, but received funding for only three projects. These 21 extremely dangerous locations have been practically ignored by the NRA and the funding has not been provided to the local authority to address near-fatalities and possible future fatalities on the road network.
Can we expect this Government to do anything other than what it has done to date? Three years ago, the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, promised to bring in an automated system that would issue a reminder to people when their driving licences were up for renewal. Nothing has happened since. The issue of road safety is not a priority and has not been a priority. It is about time the Government started to deliver on some of its promises. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill, and I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, on bringing it forward.
I am fed up attending funerals of people who should still be with us. Last year was one of the worst years, and week after week we were going to funerals of neighbours, friends or relations who in many cases were far too young to have left this world. We have not treated this matter with enough urgency in this House. In the last week we have had announcements, but we have more announcements than action. It is a shame we have not treated such a serious matter with more urgency.
This Bill is a prime example of this. Everybody agrees it is a clear, concise and simple Bill which can be accepted and be enacted in a short time. Yet it is four years since the subject matter was first mentioned, and we were told it was going to happen in 48 hours. It has still not been done. It is a shame we do not act with more urgency on issues that matter in people's lives. It is not often we act in this House in a way that directly impacts on people and is felt quickly on the ground.
I listened to the speech by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, last night and he seems to know all about how dangerous it is to use mobile phones while driving. He has the advice of every expert in the world and advice from other countries. However, he has been Minister for several years and has not introduced this type of legislation. We should all wonder why we do not act if we know how important these issues are.
It is a miracle there are not twice as many deaths on the roads because of the way we drive and the conditions of the roads. One can park and watch what happens: people overtake on hills, corners and continuous white lines. There is madness on the roads as people have no fear of being caught. This is the most significant factor, and we should introduce legislation such as this to make the law clear. This Bill is clear and people will know they are not supposed to use mobile phones while driving if it is introduced. After clear legislation we require proper enforcement, which we do not currently have. What enforcement we have is needed in many more places. Cameras operated by private companies were promised two or three years ago. We need more of these, as they will catch offenders and deter people from breaking the law. If people are afraid of being caught, they will drive properly.
I have an example of the NRA acting on an area that needed to be improved for safety reasons. It took three and a half years to procure a set of traffic lights for a particular junction on the N3, which facilitated several thousand cars coming out from a side road every day. In order to get the lights, two councillors had to record the traffic coming from the road for a week on tape, and this showed the chaos. The junction was mentioned in The Irish Times list of ten worst accident blackspots in the country. However, councillors had to sit in the office of the NRA to get action. We need to act on parts of our road network to make it safer for people to drive.
It is clear that mobile phone usage while driving must be deterred. There should also be deterrents against other actions while driving, such as reading newspapers, shaving, switching radio channels etc. We are all tempted to do these things. People should clearly comprehend what we should not do while driving. Our education of drivers is not good enough. The driving test is not good enough as it does assess driving in different conditions.
I am disappointed the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, is not agreeing to put driver education on the curriculum. I ask the Minister with responsibility for road safety to bring the issue back to the Department of Education and Science. It is essential we learn to drive from the age of 12. It should be a privilege rather than a right to drive in this country. People believe it to be a right, but we should earn that right. We should encourage people to do advanced driving courses and go a step further to make our roads safer.
We know what can be done to prevent road deaths, and it is not rocket science that is needed, but action. I compliment Mr. Gay Byrne on his new position. However, his target of reducing road deaths by 150 is not good enough. We should be aiming for a greater reduction. Why was the figure of 150 picked, and why is it acceptable to say that 250 people can die on the roads every year? We should set a more ambitious target and attempt to eliminate incidents on the road. Most of these are not accidents but come about because of bad driving and bad road conditions. We should look to reduce the death toll by more than 150.
I thank Deputy Olivia Mitchell for bringing forward this important Bill. I thank the Minister for begrudgingly accepting it. It is a step forward and the media recognises that proper legislation is necessary and long overdue. The issue of mobile phone usage when driving cannot be over-emphasised. Even when a person is in a car and using a hands-free mobile phone, it can be somewhat distracting. I make no apology for stating that I have often gone wrong in travelling to a place as a result of using the hands-free mobile phone.
The worst case of all is seeing a driver of a 40 ft. lorry on a corner in some town with a phone to his or her ear. It sickens me to see this. A number of elderly people are killed by lorries in towns such as Castleblaney, and this may arise because of a person using a mobile phone instead of watching a mirror, where there is one. This is where we must bring about change. It costs very little to have a hands-free mobile phone kit and we must ensure everyone has one. I see no reason why penalty points cannot be applied to the licence of somebody found guilty of misusing a phone while driving.
I have a good relationship with the gardaí in my home county but I was annoyed this morning when I heard one of them on local radio discussing the implementation of the new penalty point offences. It was stated that gardaí would be more visible. Taking the example of Emyvale Garda station, which the Minister of State knows very well, and other stations which only have a couple of gardaí altogether, the possibility of the Garda Síochána being more visible is very slim unless manpower is increased or we bring about a scenario where civilians do the work that gardaí now do. Civilians are well capable of doing it. We can then discuss visibility.
The need for trained drivers has also been touched on. I pay tribute to my colleagues Deputies Naughten and Coveney who, many years ago, brought forward a proposal to train young drivers from transition year in school so that they would qualify for a discount from insurance companies. The delay before doing driving tests has been mentioned and cannot be over-emphasised. People are losing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of euro because of it.
There is also a need for genuine cross-Border structures to ensure motorists North and South receive equal treatment. I have travelled to DáiI Éireann on the M1 since it opened. Of every four cars that overtake me as I drive at the maximum speed limit I can guarantee that three will be Northern Irish, British or foreign-registered. We must deal with that situation proactively.
The quality of roads has already been mentioned. We rightly spend billions of euro on roads but the design, in some cases, absolutely stinks. On the approach to Monaghan town from Emyvale, a new roundabout has been built right on the doorstep of an existing company. That company must have been a considerable distance from the junction before it was built but now it is right on top of it. If one lorry stops at the door into the business the roundabout is jammed and the situation there will eventually result in a death. In Carrickmacross a similar roundabout allows no leeway for a driver to slip off into traffic; he must stop and, in doing so, stop all other traffic.
I congratulate Deputy Olivia Mitchell for introducing this Bill. She stated there was an absence of effective cross-departmental and interagency action on road safety. A high level group on road safety, comprising representatives from various Departments and agencies, has been working for some time to promote full co-operation on cross-cutting issues and an integrated approach to the development of road safety in the monitoring and implementation of the strategy.
To signal that road safety is now at the top of the political agenda the Government has replaced the high level group with a ministerial committee on road transport under the chairmanship of my colleague, the Minister for Transport and including the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Health and Children, the Minister for Education and Science and the Attorney General. The committee met on two occasions in recent weeks to pursue an integrated approach on all cross-cutting issues. Deputies referred to the penalty points system both last night and tonight and the system will be extended from next Monday to a total of 35 offences. The focus of the extension will be on offences relating to driver behaviour, which is the greatest cause of collisions. The response to earlier roll-out of the penalty points system resulted in a significant reduction in collisions and consequent injuries and fatalities.
The improvement in road safety reflected a more precautionary approach by drivers in the knowledge that repeated poor behaviour would result in the accumulation of penalty points. The reduction in road deaths experienced immediately after the launch of penalty points for speeding in October 2004 was exceptional but unfortunately was not sustained. A substantial increase in the number of penalty point offences will highlight the consequences of dangerous and irresponsible driving. This extension should have a positive impact on road safety but that impact will be given maximum potency when the new points are fully enforced.
My constituency colleague, Deputy McGinley, referred to the number of deaths arising from collisions in County Donegal. In view of the unacceptably high level of road fatalities in Donegal and, in particular, in the Inishowen peninsula I recently held urgent consultations with relevant officials in the county to discuss road safety. I also launched a seat belt campaign on behalf of Donegal County Council and a working group set up to increase awareness of the importance of seat belt wearing. The National Safety Council, in consultation with the Department of Transport, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the city and county managers association, is developing a template for road safety action plans which will be piloted in ten chosen local authority areas. The results of these pilots will inform the development of models that can subsequently be applied in all local authority areas throughout the country. Donegal County Council is participating in this pilot project and the development of a road safety plan for the county is under way.
Both the National Safety Council and the Garda have been active in pursuing road safety education initiatives at local level in Donegal. Furthermore, in response to the disturbing number of road fatalities in Inishowen a Garda traffic corps unit was established in the district on a pilot basis with effect from 20 October 2005. The unit was in addition to the traffic corps personnel already operating in the Donegal division. I am told it has been successful, notwithstanding the appalling tragedy some weeks ago when five non-nationals were killed. I believe that accident and many others have focused our attention on the important role all of us must play in road safety. A number of Deputies made points to which I would like to respond but do not have the time. Cameras will be introduced later this year and the selection of sites will be made in consultation with the Garda.
We can introduce the legislation, including cameras, random breath testing and penalty points, all of which I believe Members will support, but all road users have a responsibility to each other and should remember that our fate could be just around the next corner.
I will share time with Deputy Olivia Mitchell. I compliment her for bringing this motion before the Dáil and I am pleased the Government will accept it. Deputy Mitchell has talked about this subject for a long time.
We are all concerned about road safety. I do not want innocent, law-abiding citizens who drive up and down the country trying to make an honest day's living to pay the price for rogue drivers, especially those who, according to statistics, are most dangerous at night. The Garda Síochána states it has neither the resources nor manpower to police the roads late at night. That will have to be reviewed. I do not want a money-making racket for the Government, like the situation pertaining to car testing at the moment. I want to see the people who cause fatal accidents dealt with.
I would support anything that tackles people who drink and drive. Anybody who drinks and drives a car turns it into a lethal weapon. If a person takes out a gun and shoots somebody he or she will be charged with murder. If somebody drives a car while drunk and kills someone he too should be treated as a murderer. Because we have a drink culture, we tolerate drunks and sympathise with "the poor devil, the poor creature", but we do not sympathise with the cancer sufferer in the same way. It is time to stop being soft on our drink culture.
The Minister of State said there would be a pilot scheme involving local authorities. Many local authorities have been taken to court for the way they operate. When councils are doing roadworks they often do not put up proper signage to let people know that work is being done. Many people have been killed in road accidents due to the negligence of local authorities. They work on behalf of the State and they should be penalised when they do not do their job properly. Somebody in the local authority system should be held responsible for situations such as these. I refer to the Gallagher case, where a young girl was killed over Christmas two years ago. The family feels very upset and aggravated and has contacted the Department about this.
Local authorities are afraid to produce signage and the Minister of State must make an important decision on this. Thousands of visitors arrive in this country in the summertime and every year they cite signage as the greatest problem. Dublin provides an example of this as one sees almost no signage coming into the city although there is plenty in the centre of the city. Many complain that they cannot enter or exit the city because of poor signage. I managed to drive in Manchester and Liverpool, despite not being a great driver, because one could see clear signage. We have failed to implement such signage in this country and it is now time to examine this.
In the past fortnight I have referred four or five complaints to local authorities concerning tyres that have burst because of holes in the roads. If the local authorities have responsibility for the roads they should fill potholes within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Otherwise, someone in the local authority should be charged. Why should we penalise those with cars who break the law when the local authority is breaking the law when it does not fill potholes?
I refer to safety barriers without lighting that slow traffic and narrow the road. Many accidents occur because these are not lit by the National Roads Authority or the local authorities. We should also educate young people how to drive and this should be part of the curriculum in schools.
The last Government attempt to ban hand-held mobile phones was in March 2002. The Irish Independent stated:
The use of hand-held mobile phones by drivers will be outlawed within 48 hours. Road safety Minister Bobby Molloy is to sign regulations this week, effective immediately.
It was not 48 hours, nor 48 days, nor 48 months. Last night, just as Fine Gael had a Bill prepared, the Minister produced a Bill like a rabbit from a hat that overcame all the problems encountered for the past four years. According to the Minister he was motivated by nothing other than the public interest and his Bill not only matched Fine Gael's Bill but bettered it. Apparently it was coincidental that this occurred in the same week but I do not believe the Minister, nor do I believe his press officer.
The Minister heard the Fine Gael Bill was being prepared and was embarrassed into action. This was what we wanted and if Fine Gael forced the hand of the Government on this life or death issue, it has achieved something. If Fine Gael has moved the Minister from the torpidity that infects the Government's road safety policy, it has achieved something.
If the Minister is serious and intends to legislate, he must be proactive on the provision of service areas on motorways. I raised this some weeks ago in the context of staggering levels of non-compliance of HGVs with EU driving safety laws. This figure for non-compliance is 82% but in fairness to truck drivers, we must provide a place for them to pull over to make telephone calls, wash or get something to eat. They must also rest as they are obliged to stop after four hours driving. We know how unwelcome trucks are, particularly large HGVs, in towns and villages. It is difficult to find legal parking for a car in towns, never mind trucks.
In response to Deputy Shortall, the Minster stated that he had changed policy and that future motorways will have service areas. Existing motorways and dual carriageways must have the service areas retrofitted. We must facilitate people obeying the law by allowing them to make telephone calls safely and take rest periods required by law.
Next Monday a further 31 offences will be subject to penalty points. When the Bill governing mobile phones is enacted, it will also include provision for penalty points. I have raised the absence of effective procedures to alert the Garda Síochána of disqualification of a driver. There is no procedure in place to ensure disqualified drivers return their licences when requested. The Minister finally conceded that there was a problem but he has not fixed it.
A reply to a parliamentary question I submitted left me staggered. It stated the notification process has been strengthened and a copy of the disqualification letter is now sent by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Garda Commissioner. I thought this reply was a joke. What will the Garda Commissioner do with all these letters besides allowing them to pile up on his desk? How does such a letter assist a young garda stopping a car in Ballinteer or Ballintubber and requesting a driving licence? If the licence remains in the hands of a person who is disqualified he or she can continue driving with impunity and there is no value to the introduction of penalty points. As we do not know how many years it will be before we have roadside technology and smart card licences it is only the failure to produce a licence that will alert the garda to the fact that the driver has been disqualified.
The procedure of local authorities requiring drivers to relinquish licences when they reach 12 penalty points is not working. Although local authorities may request the licence, there is no procedure in place for them to enforce this law nor is there any way for local authorities to notify the Garda Síochána if the licence has not been returned. Nobody knows who has been disqualified.
The Minister is indulging in his favourite occupation tomorrow, holding a press conference to announce the expansion of the penalty points scheme. He would be better served instructing the Garda Síochána on how to administer the system and allocating resources to do so. From Monday we can expect even more disqualified drivers on the roads because they will accumulate the penalty points more quickly. They will thumb their noses at gardaí attempting to implement this system.
The penalty points system has failed because it has not been enforced and this is another fiasco in the making. This will be another failed road safety procedure unless action is taken. This is another example of failure to co-operate on a cross-departmental and ministerial level. The Minister told me he will accept the Bill tonight, and I am pleased, although he will have a better one soon. That is fair enough if he wants to play that game, and if I were in his position I would play the same game, but I expect this legislation to be published by the beginning of the summer session, that is 24 April. I warn the Minister that I want this legislation to be published by that date and enacted by 31 May. I am being precise because if that is not done, the Fine Gael Bill will be pressed relentlessly. Fine Gael is determined that if it does nothing else in this session, it will effect this life-saving measure and it will be brought into law. I warn the Minister that until it is brought into law, every time he turns around I will be a lemming on his shoulder. I am determined to keep at him until this Bill is brought into law.