Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Road Traffic Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

4:00 pm

Dan Wallace (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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If we are to continue our efforts to improve road safety and reduce the number of deaths on our roads, we need to approach the problem from a number of key areas. We must encourage responsibility among road users through an effective and co-ordinated education plan, continually review legislation to ensure that appropriate sanctions are in place for offences and continue our commitment to improving the roads infrastructure across the country.

Consistent studies have shown that the single biggest cause of accidents on our roads is the behaviour of road users and very often this behaviour is affected by the fact that drivers have consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel. It is significant that the rate of deaths on our roads increases around festival times like Christmas, bank holiday weekends and especially summertime. This is one of the most dangerous periods on our roads, with an average of more than 100 people losing their lives during the three months of June, July and August. The Garda is working hard, with increased levels of enforcement in an attempt to address this problem. However, it is ultimately a matter for individual road users to make responsible decisions and to act responsibly on our roads when driving. There is now a greater awareness among people of the lethal potential of drinking and driving, but we need to continue our appeal to all drivers not to drive after they have consumed alcohol, as even one drink is likely to impair driving ability and judgment.

Drivers also need to take more responsibility for their actions in the area of speeding. Many drivers, particularly young drivers, do not accept that their behaviour behind the wheel can cause injury and death and we need a concerted campaign to encourage motorists to slow down. I am constantly alarmed that some motorists are regularly behaving recklessly and are gambling with their own lives, and in many cases the lives of their children, by not obeying the seat belt laws. The penalty point statistics show that a vast number of penalty point notices were issued to drivers who were not wearing seat belts. Every day we see parents driving with children in the rear seat without a proper child restraint system or a seat belt. This is crazy behaviour and it seems incredible that any parent would gamble with the life of his or her child in this manner. The message needs to get out that it is as unacceptable as speeding or drink driving.

The Road Safety Authority has a very important role to play in educating drivers at all levels of the importance of personal responsibility and of exercising caution when driving on our roads. In the past, we saw two different approaches to this education. On the one hand we are familiar with the hard-hitting, often graphic campaigns which highlight the consequences of collisions resulting from a range of issues. Those campaigns have an important role to play in seeking to change driver behaviour and highlighting the tragic results of dangerous and irresponsible driving. In the recent past we have also seen an advertising campaign where a different approach was adopted. It seeks to educate the road user on specific manoeuvres which are considered dangerous. This approach is beneficial to drivers at all levels, even those who consider themselves to be competent and responsible. Novice and experienced drivers should be aware of the importance of lifelong learning when it comes to road safety as none of us is too experienced to benefit from the "how to" approach which is adopted in these advertisement campaigns. The importance of the advertisement campaigns cannot be emphasised enough as a safety tool.

The second key aspect of the battle to deal with this problem revolves around appropriate sanctions for people found guilty of offences. In this regard, the Government has an impressive record in introducing new measures to tackle this problem. The penalty points system was introduced, as was a new structure of speed limits and, most recently, the Road Safety Authority was established. This Bill will allow for the adoption of a system of mandatory roadside breath-testing for drink driving with the introduction of a new legislative basis for a prohibition on the use of mobile phones while driving. I welcome the ban on the holding of a mobile phone by a person driving a motor vehicle. I am sure all Members will have seen, as I have, motorists use mobile phones while driving a car, truck or bus. It is difficult to believe that drivers take chances, sometimes in the most unsuitable places — I have even seen drivers using their mobile phones while reversing their vehicles.

I agree provision should be made to allow the Minister regulate other uses of mobile phones or other communication devices by occupants of vehicles. The legislation needs to retain flexibility so that it can respond to developments in the rapidly changing area of communications. The penalties that apply must ensure that persons realise that the use of mobile phones while driving is a very serious offence and that if they commit that offence, they will be penalised accordingly. The introduction of both of these measures, allied to the other key features of the Bill, will enhance the powers of gardaí in dealing with unacceptable behaviour by motorists while driving and will send out a further message to motorists that they are required to act responsibly at all times.

The Road Safety Strategy 2004-2006 promoted the introduction of a legislative basis for a form of random roadside breath-testing. In addition, the strategy recommended that private sector interests should be engaged in the provision and operation of equipment used in the detection of speeding offences. While I recognise the need to involve the private sector, I am concerned that the soft option may be used in detecting offenders — it is important that the Garda is involved to ensure proper use of the equipment, and at the correct locations. As an Opposition Member said yesterday, the main places accidents occur are not on motorways or bypasses, where far too often checkpoints are concentrated, but on secondary roads where the Garda needs to concentrate such operations. If the private sector is involved in these operations, I hope the Minister will ensure it will bear in mind that reality.

This is a tough Bill but, equally, it is sensible and necessary. It can be described as tough because reckless drivers who put lives at risk will face stiffer penalties. It is sensible because it frees up court and Garda time as well as paving the way for reform of the licensing regime but, most importantly, it is necessary because of the tragic loss of lives on our roads.

The third aspect of our approach to improving road safety has been the widespread improvement of the national road network and this is a critically important part of our national transport plan. It is a proven fact that accidents are less likely to happen on national primary roads, motorways and dual carriageways than on country roads. The Government's roll-out of Transport 21 will ensure we will see ongoing improvement in the overall road network throughout the country during the next few years. A sum of €1.5 billion will be invested in national roads this year, which will allow for work to start on 15 new projects, while funding has been allocated to local authorities for improvement in national roads in every county.

Another key factor in improving safety on our roads is the provision of an adequate line and sign programme. I welcome the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, to a four-year programme of upgrading road signage and clearer road markings on the country's national road network at a cost of €60 million. The programme will allow for new and improved directional signage, new tourism signage and updating of existing signage. Consistency in road signage is crucial, together with standardised road signs positioned in the right place, a key factor in making journeys safer and easier. I also welcome the allocation of €20 million for the fitting of safety barriers on all motorways and dual carriageways as these measures have proven to be crucial in reducing road deaths in circumstances where accidents occur.

Some other areas also need to be addressed if we are to seriously impact on reducing the number of deaths on our roads. We must accept that with the changing population trends here, more foreign people are living here and, consequently, driving on our roads. This is a reflection of a changing Ireland but it also presents new challenges for road safety authorities. It has not gone unnoticed that a number of tragic collisions in recent weeks in Donegal, Cork and the midlands involved migrant workers who lost their lives in particularly tragic circumstances. I am aware that the Minister recently launched a foreign language project targeting minority ethnic groups in the community, and this is a welcome start. However, we need to do much more to educate foreign nationals to ensure that they are fully aware of the type of behaviour that is expected when driving on Irish roads and to alert them to the potential dangers and the areas to watch out for when driving in Ireland.

Another area that needs attention is drug driving. We hear a great deal about the impact and consequences of drink driving, however, not enough attention is given to the impact and consequences of people driving while under the influence of drugs, sometimes illegal drugs but often prescribed drugs. We are all aware of the manner in which prescribed medication can impair one's ability to react to circumstances. The time has come for a proper appraisal of the level of fatalities caused by people driving under the influence of drugs as opposed to alcohol. This will not be an easy task but if we are serious about tackling all the causes of carnage on our roads this issue needs to be considered and addressed.

One further issue that the Minister has attempted to address, but which will certainly require further attention, is the large number of provisional drivers on the roads. I am aware the Minister recently brought forward an initiative to deal with the backlog of driving tests and the training of driving instructors. However, this is an issue that needs to remain very much on the agenda. It is unacceptable that we should tolerate a position whereby an individual can fail his or her test and then drive away from the test centre alone. A more integrated structure is called for where greater emphasis is placed on pre-test lessons with qualified instructors, with the aim of increasing the test pass rate. This will not be easy to achieve, nonetheless, we must endeavour to arrive at a position whereby there is a reduction in the number of provisional drivers on our roads and introduce a system whereby there is proper supervision of drivers until they have passed their test.

This is the sixth major legislative initiative taken in the area of road traffic in recent years. The penalty points system was introduced, as was a new system for the independent licensing of taxis, hackneys and limousines and a new structure of speed limits and, most recently, the Road Safety Authority was established. This clearly shows the commitment of the Government to deal with the unacceptable level of road deaths in the State. Sadly, many road deaths are preventable. It is the responsibility of all of us who use the roads to act responsibly. Road safety is a subject that needs to be tackled on several fronts. It is an acknowledged fact that one of the biggest challenges we face in Ireland is that road collisions are inevitable and that road deaths and injuries are part of daily life, albeit a deeply regrettable one. That need not be the case. We are all aware of the statistics, that nine out of ten road deaths in Ireland are as a result of bad driver behaviour, with speeding, drink-driving and non-wearing of seat belts the main causes of death. The Government's commitment to allocate unprecedented resources to this area means we can change the situation and leave nobody in doubt about the Government's serious attitude to road safety. The provisions of this Bill and the severity of the penalties for those found guilty of serious driving offences underline its seriousness. If we can combine the Government's commitment with increased Garda enforcement and a greater acceptance of personal responsibility on the part of drivers, these new measures will help to stamp out irresponsible and dangerous driving and so save lives. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Costello.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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I am glad of the opportunity to contribute on this important legislation and wonder whether we can ever legislate for human behaviour. Driving is as important to people as the three Rs that were such an essential part of our education, yet this has never been recognised. Nowadays, people as young as 14 or 15 get the opportunity to drive, particularly on farms where they have quad bikes etc. and we must recognise the reality of the developments that have taken place.

In this context, there is no reason, other than failure to engage with the teaching profession, boards of management and school managers, why driver education has not become an integral part of the school curriculum from junior certificate to leaving certificate level. Pupils are as entitled to earn marks for being good, competent drivers as they are for being good at maths or Latin. I learned Latin, which was a help to me when studying law, but driving skills were as important to me.

We must face up to the reality that young driver education will cost money. We use all sorts of excuses to avoid committing to this. I have no doubt that if we engaged with school managers, the teaching profession, representatives of the TUI, the ASTI and anybody else, they would be positive towards it as many of them have sons and daughters in school. It is important we recognise that we must introduce this education, train people and inculcate good habits at an early age. This learning process should be an integral part of the curriculum, be examined and count for examination points.

The first five lessons should be provided free to pupils. We must support that idea to ensure we provide the best to our children. If pupils start right, they will finish right and will not learn bad habits. They will learn good habits early. Driver education should be an educational process. Ireland has become paternalistic and everything is now regulated. I am a lawyer, but I realise that people sometimes rebel against regulations. We must remember there are individual freedoms and try to get the driver education process right at the beginning.

The number of learner drivers driving unaccompanied is a major issue, but we can get over that problem through proper driver education. However, we must give consideration to the issue of allowing young people out on the road in 3.3 litre cars. There are no restrictions here on the type of car young people can drive. In other European countries, people under 21 or 22 years of age cannot drive powerful cars. I know young people in less powerful cars might still have accidents, but we should take into consideration the power of a 3.3 litre or 2.5 litre car compared to a 1 litre car. While the smaller car can still travel at a fast speed, it cannot attain the speeds of the more powerful cars.

We must try and tie in restrictions on the size of a car young people can drive with insurance. We must ensure that insurance companies will not insure powerful cars for people under 20 or whatever is the appropriate age. They have a role to play in this regard. Insurance companies have been doing well, particularly as a result of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. Their profits have gone through the roof, but this is not reflected in ordinary motorists' insurance at the same level. Insurance companies are slow to publish their profits these days because they are so significant.

The public perception of legislation is that the authorities often take the soft options with regard to enforcement. For example, people often note that gardaí lie in wait with their hand-held speed detectors at 11 p.m. on good straight stretches of motorways. Why is this and who sends them out at this time? The public feel that much of the legislation we pass is a money-gathering exercise. If that is the general perception, the situation is serious. The result is that legislation does not get the respect it should.

Very few of the major accidents occur on motorways or the high grade dual carriageways throughout the country. Speed is a dangerous factor in most serious accidents, particularly on poor or minor roads. Many of these roads do not have adequate signage and markings because local authorities are not provided with adequate funding for this work. They need resources to ensure dangerous bends are brought to people's attention, proper grading is done and speed limits are implemented. In order to get people to respect the legislation we must ensure they understand we are not just taking the soft option. They must realise the regulations are for their benefit and the common good.

Detection of speed offences must, obviously, be a priority. The Garda Síochána, not the private sector, are the proper people to operate speed traps. This is a public issue and should not be delegated to private agencies such as happened with clamping. I know country people who have come to Croke Park on a Sunday, parked near The Big Tree pub and found their cars clamped on their return. These are people who only get to Dublin once in a blue moon for an all-Ireland final. People who park all around the Croke Park area find their cars clamped on these occasions. This happens because clamping has been delegated to private interests and I have received complaints from rural people about this.

Will the same happen with regard to speed detection? How can we ensure profit will not be the motive? We have much to consider with regard to this legislation. The regulations to be introduced must be circumscribed and streamlined. I favour Garda operation of speed cameras and am very concerned that detection may be put in the hands of the private sector.

We can never beat the old phrase, "Care, courtesy and consideration on the roads". This is what we were told in primary school and we were given the old blue book that contained such advice. We might be as well off doing the same and publishing a card that would explain people's role to them.

On another issue, can the Minister tell me why I can travel from Dublin to Kinnegad by motorway at 120 km/h, yet the limit is reduced to 100 km/h on the stretch of the road from Kinnegad to Mullingar? This makes no sense. The limit should be 120 km/h the whole way. People travelling on that road see no difference between one stretch of the road and the other, apart from the sign to say the speed limit is 100 km/h. A driver driving at 115 km/h in an area with a speed limit of 120 km/h who suddenly comes to an area with a limit of 100 km/h might be caught by a hand-held speed camera despite doing nothing wrong.

The regulations will provide for many things. I welcome the introduction of the Bill.

However, in many areas it could become a lawyer's paradise. I do not say that for self-gain.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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The last thing we need is legislation that might become a lawyer's paradise. I welcome the legislation, the thrust of which is to provide for greater care and security on the roads. We cannot have too much of that. Deputy Penrose spoke about the many motorists travelling to Croke Park who find after the match that their cars have been clamped. That is a problem. However, the other side of that coin is that Croke Park has a capacity of 80,000. Up to this point, the Gaelic Athletic Association has not taken any steps to provide a cordon sanitaire of approximately one mile in radius within which motorists would not be allowed to park, as had been proposed ten or 12 years ago. It was proposed to the local authority that park and ride facilities would be provided once the project was complete.

The Iona and District Residents' Association and the Croke Park Area Residents' Association presented a set of proposals to the Minister for residents' permit parking as part of an overall programme to deal with parking on match and concert days. This would apply to Croke Park and Dalymount Park. I understand the Minister has reviewed the proposal but has yet to give his response. I would like to see an amendment to this legislation to include the care and safety of residents and spectators coming to Croke Park and other stadia.

Most of the provisions in the Bill are practical and useful. Random breath testing should have been introduced long ago so that a garda did not need to have a suspicion that a driver was drunk before carrying out a test. Apparently this is the norm in Europe and I welcome its introduction here. The obvious place for a checkpoint is at the gateway of a pub's car park. Gardaí occasionally turning up at public houses at closing time would deter drivers getting into their cars.

I am somewhat concerned about the failure to reduce the blood-alcohol limit. The current limit of 80 mg per 100 ml is retained, whereas the European norm is 50 mg per 100 ml. I expected this legislation to introduce the European norm rather than sticking to our own standard. It would have been useful to introduce a 0 mg per 100 ml requirement for learner drivers. As they are on probation, drivers with a provisional licence should not be expected to have alcohol content in their blood in any circumstances. That issue has not been addressed and leaves us out of sync with the European norm.

The proposals on drink driving offences will probably represent the most useful amendment to the legislation. Today a drink driving offence carries a sentence of one year's imprisonment. The offence of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury carries a minimum sentence of two years. I presume these cases will no longer be taken in the District Court but in the Circuit Court. At present, the majority of cases of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury are dealt with in the District Court. Why has this been allowed to continue? Now that the offence of dangerous driving causing death or serious injury carries a minimum sentence of two years, it means that the jurisdiction of the District Court cannot apply and such cases will automatically need to be taken in the higher court, which is a welcome development and will represent a major deterrent.

I do not know why it was necessary to introduce a new offence of striking a bridge. I would have thought that all infrastructure would be similarly affected and it should not have been necessary to name a specific piece of infrastructure such as a bridge. Others could also have been mentioned. No doubt the Minister has some arcane explanation.

Only in recent years have we seen the consumption of alcohol increase dramatically here. We have moved from a nation of moderate drinkers 20 years ago to one of the highest consumers of alcohol in Europe today with a 49% per capita increase in ten years. We are top of the European league for binge drinking with more than 40% of men and 60% of women having more than six drinks when they go out drinking on any occasion. Alcohol consumption per adult in Ireland is 56% higher than the European Union average. There are reasonably high consumption amounts among some of the migrant workers who have come to our country just as there is a high proportion among them of accidents on the roads. The cost to the Exchequer attributable to alcohol abuse is approximately €3 billion. Some 40% of traffic deaths and 30% of roadside deaths relate to drink driving.

What Deputy Penrose said about education is very important. The way forward is by taking preventive measures at the earliest possible stage. The penalties prescribed in the legislation are necessary and must be effective, which is another day's work. However, young people coming through school should have a proper knowledge of the rules of the road. They need to be taught how and when to drive. It needs to be made quite clear to them that alcohol should not be consumed prior to taking a car, bicycle or motorcycle onto the roads. This can best be done in schools.

The least said about the equipment available to the Garda, including speed cameras and intoxilyzers, the better. Today the Committee of Public Accounts revealed that 50% of speed cameras are defective. Some 100,000 photographs were defective and could not be used, resulting in people getting off scot free. Intoxilyzers are being challenged in court all the time. Scarcely a week goes by without more cases being thrown out of court because of defective equipment or legislation which did not allow a case to be mounted successfully. This legislation is needed but so too is a culture of responsibility in the manner in which we drive and use the roads. This must begin in homes and schools.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to the Road Traffic Bill 2006. I was about to offer my good friend, Deputy Costello, an opportunity to use some of my time because I was enjoying his speech so much. Without being flippant, with regard to his reference to country people being clamped in the area around Croke Park during games, perhaps he should ask his party colleagues on Dublin Corporation to cease this disgraceful activity. Perhaps if the Dublin team does well on Sunday and the weeks thereafter, fewer country people will come to Croke Park this year. I am sorry if those comments upset Deputies.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I thought Deputies were supposed to uphold the law.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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My point was that Dublin people should go to Croke Park more often.

I welcome my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera. I am always comfortable speaking in her presence because she is a former Deputy for a constituency which included Tallaght.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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Tallaght again.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy may be too young to remember the Minister of State in that role but I do. She did great work as a representative for the area. It always cheers me up when great colleagues——

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I wondered how Tallaght could be brought into the debate. The Deputy mentions it torturously.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The reason it can be brought into the debate is that every day I start my work in Tallaght where people talk to me about issues, including road traffic accidents, as I go about my business. In addition, the constituency I represent, Dublin South-West, includes Tallaght, the third largest population centre in the country. It is good that all Deputies bring to their work in the House their own experiences.

In supporting this important Government Bill I express my support for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, in his endeavours which have, in the past three months, delivered the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 and the Road Traffic Bill 2006, both of which promote road safety. I ask the Minister of State to convey my good wishes to the Minister whose work is welcomed by members of the public.

Without wishing to upset Deputy Olivia Mitchell again, on my walkabouts in my constituency and during my weekly clinics in Tallaght, Templeogue, Greenhills and Firhouse, an area she represented until recently, I note people have a strong interest in road safety. I share the widespread concern about the unacceptably high level of deaths and injuries on our roads.

All Deputies can bring their personal experiences to this debate. I have been lucky while driving, apart from being involved in a crash in 1981 in Clara, the home village of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen. Although not a serious accident, the memory of it has stuck with me for 25 years. Like other colleagues, I have considerable experience of friends, neighbours and family members being killed in road traffic accidents. A couple of weeks ago my family celebrated the life of an aunt of mine who was killed by a car outside RTE in Donnybrook 30 years ago. I mention this because it highlights the fact that people remember and talk about road traffic accidents regardless of how long ago they occurred.

Many tragedies have occurred in all our communities and Deputies will be able to relate personal stories of people being killed or injured on the roads. They may remember a particularly sad accident involving a mother and child, Pamela and Thomas Boylan, from my parish of Fettercairn who were killed in a crash in Blessington. Such incidents bring home to us all the importance of vigilance on the roads. Members will also note from visiting homes to sympathise with families bereaved by road traffic accidents that such deaths affect the wider community. It is good that the House records this.

I welcome the statement by the Minister for Transport that the key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Positively influencing such behaviour should form the primary focus of our road safety strategies. To this end, the Minister's proposals to clear the unacceptable backlog in driver tests, regulate the driving instruction sector and driving tests for motorcyclists and the subsequent reform of the driving licence system are necessary and urgent.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable the delivery of the remaining outstanding initiatives identified in the road safety strategy approach. It seeks to adopt a system of mandatory roadside breath-testing for drink-driving, introduces an administrative alternative to a court hearing for certain drink-driving offences and a new basis for a prohibition on the use of mobile telephones, allows for the engagement of private sector interests in the provision and operation of safety equipment and promotes a range of initiatives relating to driver formation. I welcome the fact that all these issues stem directly from commitments given in the road safety strategy.

Before I was interrupted, I had intended to compliment Deputies on the Opposition benches, particularly Deputy Olivia Mitchell, on their work, and I do so now. Speakers referred to the role of education in dealing with the issue of road safety. It is easy to argue that a great deal of this work should be done in schools. We should encourage schools to transmit to pupils a positive road safety message. I still remember a bygone era in Dublin when horses and trams were used for transport and I travelled from Crumlin to my school in Clarendon Street. Although I cannot recall some events which occurred yesterday, I remember, even then, that teachers told students to be careful going home. In those days, one travelled on one's own or was brought to school by an older child who lived on the same road. I still remember the lessons we were given on being careful, even though Dublin was completely different then. It is important to promote a positive road safety message among young people.

I will not dwell on the issue of alcohol abuse because it was discussed in detail by other speakers. People out enjoying themselves are not always happy about the vigilance shown by the Garda in this regard but it is important that gardaí continue to make a major effort to ensure people are safe on our roads. This not only relates to those who get behind the wheel or mount a bike while under the influence of alcohol but the danger they will cause to other people.

With regard to mandatory testing, like all Members, I am fully aware that drinking and driving is recognised as one of the most serious contributory factors in road collisions. Evidence shows that the problem is worsening in younger age groups. Despite much publicity and targeted campaigns, some drivers are not willing to change their behaviour. The number of deaths on our roads will not decrease unless strong measures are introduced and enforced to bring about the necessary change in attitudes.

I note the Minister confirmed that mandatory alcohol testing has been the subject of lengthy consideration and consultation, including significant engagement by the Office of the Attorney General, supported by independent legal advice. I hope this section will discourage the rampant attempts by drivers found to have excess alcohol in their systems to take advantage of legal loopholes to avoid the consequences of their actions.

All sides in this House agree on the need to introduce an immediate ban on the use of hand held mobile telephones while driving. This Bill provides specific responses to the concerns of the Oireachtas about mobile telephones and other equipment by providing for a ban on the holding of a mobile telephone by a person while driving a motor vehicle. It also provides that the Minister may regulate for mobile telephone use generally, as well as other in-vehicle technologies of an information, communication or entertainment nature, for the purpose of preventing driver distraction arising from the inappropriate use of such technologies. Given the pace and scale of innovation in these technologies, it is sensible and necessary to confer such enabling powers on the Minister. In addition to a maximum fine of €2,000, the commission of an offence of holding a mobile telephone while driving will attract the endorsement of four penalty points on conviction, which will serve to demonstrate the Government means business on this vital aspect of driver behaviour. I urge the Minister to engage with mobile network operators on a publicity campaign to encourage all car users to fit car kits in advance of the introduction of the regulations. God knows what people will be using in 50 years. As Members can attest, mobile telephones can be a nuisance but they are a fact of life.

I support the provisions on driver licensing, which include the introduction of a learner permit to replace the provisional licence and a requirement that learner drivers undergo a formal course of instruction. The lessons given by parents and siblings have a role to play in learning to drive but it is essential that learner drivers take a set minimum number of formal lessons before taking the test. I encourage the Minister to consider a system involving the private sector along with the existing public testing system so all current provisional licence holders can be tested as soon as possible.

I failed the driving test when I first took it and am not sure whether I passed it on my second attempt. That failure caused me a lot of bother and grief. I eventually passed my test on the north side of the city, which is probably why it took me so long to do so.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
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I did not think the Deputy would be allowed to cross the river.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I crossed the river and passed my test on a Christmas Eve and was very happy about it.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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The Deputy should treat himself to a lollipop.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Speeding continues to be a major contributory factor in the deaths and injuries on our roads. The best way to ensure greater compliance with speed limits is a wider deployment of speed cameras. The purpose of these cameras is to encourage road users to remain within the speed limit, particularly in locations where dangers of speed related crashes are known to arise. I welcome the Minister's assurance that there will be no direct link between the fees paid to the private operators of these cameras and the number of detections.

I served on Dublin County Council from 1991 and South Dublin County Council from 1994. During my tenure as mayor, between 1999 and 2000, the council twinned with Bad Segeberg in Germany, for reasons which I could never figure out. On one of the few visits I paid to that northern German town, I observed the effective use it made of speed cameras. People became aware when they passed cameras and the town made significant amounts of money from the fines it imposed.

Speed cameras could be effective in changing people's attitudes. I do not want to criticise the gardaí but I have often been asked why they hide in bushes or behind walls along the Belgard Road. Somebody else may be able to defend these tactics but if they prevent speeding, that is welcome. I support the target of checking 11.1 million vehicles for speeding annually. While there will be many loud complaints during the early days of speed cameras, they are a necessary part of the strategic approach to road safety.

Other colleagues remarked on the importance of maintaining roads in good repair. There is a fine network of roads around Tallaght but a number of gaps remain in that regard. The people in south-west Dublin realise the need for an extension to the Tallaght bypass, as do drivers taking the shortcut to County Wicklow. Where the need for extensions to the road network is identified, we have to make sure the NRA responds. I do not wish to be parochial but the Tallaght bypass is a dangerous road on which people have been hurt and killed. I will continue to raise that important issue.

I am a strong supporter of the Garda Síochána and have been since I first moved to Tallaght in 1969. I come from an era in which the only contact I had with gardaí was when they tried to take the ball I played with on the roads of Crumlin but we should not underestimate the contribution they make to road safety. The establishment of a dedicated Garda traffic corps with an allocation of 60 officers per quarter represents a significant delivery on the Government's commitment to meeting the immediate challenges presented by those who continue to perpetrate traffic offences.

It is important that we are having this debate. I have listened carefully to the contributions of my colleagues and realise the problems encountered by Deputies are duplicated throughout the country. I commend this Bill to the House and look forward to supporting it.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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I propose to share time with Deputies McHugh, Gregory and Catherine Murphy.

The Green Party supports the broad measures outlined in this Bill. It is receiving widespread support because of the outrage at the ongoing carnage on our roads and the requirement for legislators to do whatever possible to halt the tale of tragedy.

I was in a pub in Leitrim at 1 a.m. recently and I do not know what the licensing arrangements were but I am sure what happened was not legal. A Garda drew up outside the pub, where music was being played. It sounded its siren and we left the pub. I remarked that this was a nice Irish way of accomplishing this without creating hassle. As I was standing outside the pub, two men emerged who had consumed many drinks. The publican told them the direction the Garda car had taken. The implication was that it would be safe for the two men to drive in the other direction.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
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Or cycle.

Tony Gregory (Dublin Central, Independent)
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What did Deputy Ryan do?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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I advised them to walk. This is typical of what happens in every pub in every town, and we must change. The attitude of a nod and a wink and accepting avoidance of enforcement is a culture that does not help us.

A "Prime Time" programme shortly before that had shown a young man who was crippled for life in a road accident. He would spend up to 50 years in a wheelchair and his family would have to support him for this period. It was a heartbreaking scene but one that could have been avoided. The excessive level of accidents on our roads should not be tolerated. To reduce it we must change the attitude that we turn a blind eye by telling people coming out of a pub which way gardaí have gone. We must enforce our traffic regulations or we will continue to have young men and women in wheelchairs for life or killed. For this reason I support the Bill.

On an average three mile trip one makes approximately 450 decisions, many of which are made subconsciously. One makes decisions when one sees another driver considering overtaking and moving out. Out of 450 decisions, each of us will make one mistake. The vast majority of mistakes do not lead to collisions but on average, of every 50,000 km we drive, we will make a mistake that causes a serious collision. Anything we can do to reduce the number of mistakes is a positive development. Drinking alcohol drastically changes the number of mistakes made at the lowest level. Driving with a mobile telephone in one's hand alters the number of mistakes we make and will lead to increased carnage if we allow this to continue.

While enforcement and education are needed, good engineering is also required. Outside the gates of this House, there is no safe way to cross from Buswell's Hotel to Leinster House. The pedestrian crossing arrangements are unacceptable. We must concentrate on that if we are to take road safety seriously.

Tony Gregory (Dublin Central, Independent)
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While I support most of the provisions in the Road Traffic Bill, I am uneasy at the proposal for the engagement of private sector interests in the operation of cameras and other technology for the detection of speeding offences. Speed cameras should be strictly in the hands of the Garda Síochána and local authorities. As an essential part of the administration of justice, it should be under the control of the Garda Síochána. However, the other provisions of this Bill are necessary and long overdue.

The dreadful daily loss of life on the roads and the injuries suffered require that severe measures are taken to reverse the trend. Everyone is aware of the widespread practice of using hand-held mobile telephones while driving. There is no excuse for this because it is hazardous and hands-free kits are readily available.

This is particularly reprehensible in the case of drivers of HGVs who speed along narrow roads with one hand holding a mobile telephone. They know that in the event of a collision with a car, the occupants of the car will suffer. Drivers of HGVs who breach the law should be severely dealt with and specific attention should be given to this issue in the Bill. The speed limit for HGVs is 80 km/h. Has anyone seen a HGV remain below the limit on the open road? I have not but I have never seen the issue highlighted by anyone except the relatives of victims of accidents involving HGVs.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of enforcement and the lack of gardaí to carry out enforcement. This Bill will be ineffective if enforcement does not receive high priority. While the Bill can progress key initiatives to assist in tackling the current unacceptable level of road deaths and injuries, that progress will be almost entirely dependent on the ability of the Garda to enforce these and other existing measures.

A serious and inexplicable omission from the Bill is a reference to drug testing. There is little doubt that the widespread use of cocaine and other drugs is a contributory factor to road accidents. This has been taken seriously in Britain and other countries. It will be interesting to hear the explanation for this omission from the Minister. Perhaps some measure will be considered by him on Committee Stage. I take this opportunity to wish Mr. Gay Byrne well in his new role and hope that he meets with success in his objective. Apparently, he does not want this Bill to be delayed by the Opposition.

As I represent constituents who live in the environs of Croke Park, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to the problems traffic poses for residents on the occasion of major matches or concerts. I ask the Minister to initiate measures to address the matter. When 80,000 people descend on Croke Park or other major event centres, the residents who live nearby become virtual prisoners in their homes. They desperately need the introduction of resident-only parking schemes in specified residential streets on match days. In a recent parliamentary reply, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, stated that the Department is examining current legislation on this issue. When the matter was raised at the city council, the executive manager stated that there is no provision under road traffic legislation to provide resident-only parking on residential public roads.

If this is to be achieved for one day events at specific locations, the Department of Transport must change the existing legislation. The Minister recently met a delegation of residents on this issue and was supportive of its proposals. A permit-based system, similar to that of Britain, could be enforced within a one mile radius of major stadia, allowing only residents to park on local residential streets. Will a measure be introduced to permit local authorities to introduce such schemes when and where required? I understand the Minister will not do this in the context of this Bill but will he state how and when this issue might be considered because it will not go away? I hope the Minister indicates he will address it soon.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill 2006. I am not convinced that the provisions of the Bill will make a meaningful contribution to driver behaviour on our roads or will have any effect on the reduction of road deaths. I say that because I am convinced that the legislation currently in place, if implemented, would make a major contribution to improving road safety but is not being implemented simply because the Garda manpower is not in place to ensure enforcement. There is no point in introducing legislation here when there is no possibility of it being implemented due to shortage of Garda manpower.

Road safety is being managed on a public relations rather than a practical, effective basis. The public relations philosophy is evident every year at Christmas time and at other festive times of the year. There are television and radio interviews with high-ranking gardaí, backed up by television footage of Charlie Bird, or some other Charlie, getting excited while speaking above pictures of traffic on a dual-carriageway somewhere near Dublin. It would be too expensive to move out to the country to narrow roads, where late at night the accidents generally occur. The subliminal message being received by the public is that the only times the law is enforced are when we are advised by a big public relations spree on national television, and at other times — the other 11 and a half months of the year — we need not worry because there is no enforcement. That is an irresponsible message to give out.

This public relations circus was further highlighted by the appointment of Gay Byrne as chairman of the National Safety Authority. We had just got rid of Gay Byrne from the national airwaves and after suffering the trauma of being exposed to him for so many years, now the Minister for Transport foisted him on us again. Have we not been exposed to Gay Byrne too much over the years without having to suffer him for longer?

Tony Gregory (Dublin Central, Independent)
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That is unfair.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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In any event, it has not worked because Gay Byrne is the news and the road safety message he is supposed to be imparting to the public is consequently lost. As usual, he cannot confine himself to his brief. He must stick his nose into other people's business, like giving a commentary on the Opposition in this House or calling us "the other shower". Will the Minister tell Gay Byrne to mind his own business, do his job and let us do ours?

More public relations stunts are performed by the Garda on dual-carriageways and national routes, where up to six gardaí may be congregated to carry out speed checks. That can be most annoying and is a waste of scarce Garda resources. First, that number of gardaí is not required to carry out speed checks and, second, the deaths are occurring not on dual-carriageways or motorways, but mainly on county and regional roads. It is time to ease up on the public relations, get practical and deploy the scarce Garda resources to the areas with the problems and at hours when accidents are generally known to occur.

The lack of personnel to enforce the law is glaringly obvious in the enforcement of penalty points. The penalty points regime was launched in a blaze of publicity. The general reduction in the speed of motorists was obvious and remained so for some time, but then the penny dropped with motorists. The system was not being enforced, with the result that the speed limits are being ignored again.

The extension of the penalty points system, from an initial four offences to 35, has further diluted the effectiveness of that system. If the manpower was not there to enforce the original four offences, there is no hope of enforcing 35 offences. Offences now subject to penalty points include failure to leave appropriate distance between one's vehicle and the vehicle in front, which is totally unenforceable. Consequently, that dilutes the effect of penalty points.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I am generally supportive of the objectives of the Bill. While there is no doubt that legislation is needed, for example, to make illegal the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving, it is enforcement, not legislation, that brings about results, as we saw clearly with the introduction of the penalty points. While one might ask what if the deployment of resources continued, the Irish Presidency of the European Union then kicked in and certainly broke the momentum. When the levels of enforcement fell, the levels of compliance fell. Legislation, of itself, will not make an impact, no matter how good it is. That sent out a clear signal which people understand.

Many of the measures that will assist in reaching the targets set out by the European Union are already in existence. There are mountains of data at local authority level, where the Garda and the members of the roads departments in local authorities go out and map locations where there have been serious injuries or where there has been a fatality. One can clearly see the cluster areas where, for example, the roads are a contributory factor. Where there is a profile of accidents, rather than merely collecting data, the authorities should respond. Instead they wait for the provision of a dual-carriageway to bypass a town.

Often it is a matter of road maintenance. Local authorities not cutting grass verges and developers leaving debris on the road, for example, lead to climbing accident rates. These might seem like small matters but they can be dealt with immediately. My point is that this is not about legislation.

Driver behaviour in terms of speed, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and the use of hand-held devices contribute to accident rates. One trend that has become a real scourge is that of the night-time boy racers. I refer not to the lads in cars with flashy hub-caps, in which the radio volume is raised to the point where the car almost has a rhythm of its own, but to organised racing at night-time, which is evident in most communities. That is becoming a serious problem.

It is very annoying that available resources like the GATSO van and hand-held devices for speed checks are deployed, for example, at 9 a.m. outside Liffey Valley almost every Sunday morning when there is little traffic or outside Heuston Station on the way out of town where there is not a single pedestrian in a segregated situation. This results in the Minister losing the goodwill among motorists for enforcement and compliance. They see that it is a matter of shooting fish in a barrel and of income generation rather than a road safety issue.

Another important issue relating to road safety, which one will not see in a Bill like this, is the need to increase public transport. If one gives people an affordable means to get to and from work, one will reduce the number of people at risk. That can be done by use of the small public service vehicles and the taxi system, which is becoming a nationwide entity due to the designation of taxi-meter areas. The dispute with the taxi interests in this regard must be tackled head on because such designation will make a meaningful contribution.

Last night I attended a meeting of an organisation, the Kildare Road Users Association, that has just been set up by various interests to see what can be done by people generally to improve safety on the roads. At the meeting a young man in a wheelchair as a result of an accident relayed his experience and what he wants done about ensuring road safety is prioritised. There have been several meetings of that association in Kildare. There is no doubt that there is goodwill among the public for proper enforcement. Unless this Bill and other measures are matched by adequate resources, people will feel badly let down and the carnage on the roads will continue.

5:00 pm

Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Johnny Brady.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. A total of 399 people died on our roads in 2005 while 185 have died so far this year, an increase of 5% on the same period last year. There has been a major outcry in the media and among the public about the behaviour of road users. The sad reality is that many of the victims did not behave badly on the road but they were caught up in tragic accidents caused by the negligence of other drivers. Every town and county has been affected by the carnage on our roads and something desperately needs to be done, particularly in regard to driver behaviour. While young drivers are often blamed, older drivers are worse offenders in a number of categories.

The Bill is a welcome development, although I am concerned about a number of sections, which I will address later. However, it is only part of the solution to the problem. Many other issues must be addressed such as road engineering and the quality of road surfaces. Repairs to roads should be carried out so that there is minimum danger to road users.

Section 4 provides for mandatory breath testing. I welcome the introduction of this provision. This system has been operated in Spain for several years and I met people who had been randomly breath tested there. When a person can be randomly breath tested at any time, it acts as a significant deterrent, even for those who might want to take a chance and have one or two drinks. Our attitude is that it is fine to drive if one has had two drinks but it is important that young people should be educated that they should not drink at all if they intend to drive. Ireland has a relaxed attitude to drink driving. I welcome the provision whereby the place where the random breath testing takes place and the date and the time is included in the written authorisation of a Garda inspector or someone of a higher rank. That is an important regulation. I am surprised the regulation on involving the private sector, for example, in speed detection does not seem to be quite as strict. Random breath testing will result in greater detection and, ultimately, in a change in behaviour. Many young people are conscious of the dangers of drink driving and they do not drink and drive while drivers aged 35 and over are more inclined to take a chance. Driver education is important and random breath testing is a welcome development.

Section 5 introduces a new system of fixed charges. Given that such breath testing may result in a significant increase in the number of people breathalysed who are marginally above the legal limit, the introduction of fixed charges is a good idea. Offenders can pay a €300 fine and be disqualified from driving for six months. That provision will address marginal cases and it will result in a change in attitude to drink driving. I also welcome the extension of the disqualification period for certain offences.

Section 3 provides for a ban on the use of hand held mobile telephones, a maximum fine of €2,000 and four penalty points. Provisional licences will be replaced by a learner permit. It is positive that people who seek a learner permit will be obliged to take a driving course. However, I refer to the regulations covering driving schools. How will learner drivers know who is accredited? How will they know where to go to take the course and how will they be confident the relevant standards are being met?

Under section 9, when a person passes the theory test to obtain a learner permit, he or she will not have to undertake another theory test when taking the driving test. That will free up driver testers. Applicants must correctly answer 35 out of 40 questions in the theory test, which is onerous and thorough. Many provisional licence holders probably have a greater knowledge of the Rules of the Road than many full licence holders, which is a positive development.

Under sections 12 and 19, gardaí can detain uninsured vehicles registered outside the State. Many foreigners who travel around the country speed on our roads. A highly publicised case reached the courts recently in the Minister of State's constituency. The driver was travelling at 200 mph and while he was prosecuted and fined, his licence could not be endorsed. Can anything be done to address this issue? Drivers from other jurisdictions have a relaxed attitude to the State's road traffic laws. Can significant deterrents other than fines be introduced in co-ordination with other states?

The privatisation of the enforcement equipment for speeding has attracted most comment. Like many drivers, I am critical of the way speed limits have been enforced in the past. I do not know how many times I have come across gardaí on the side of the road in a 30 km/h zone in both urban and rural areas. I regularly drive through a 30 km/h zone on a bad bend outside one rural town, which is immediately preceded by a 100 km/h zone. That is fine if one knows the road and is aware of the location of the sign but I do not know how many times I have passed a Garda car on the other side of the bend waiting to nab drivers as they reduce speed. Such detection is the cause of much cynicism among road users. We all want boy racers and others who speed outrageously on our roads prosecuted because it is unacceptable behaviour. Do 30 km/h zones carry so much danger? If all other speed limit zones were as well policed, it would be reasonable to focus on the 30 km/h zone. While if one is travelling at 35 km/h in such a zone, it is an offence and it should be stopped, resources should be deployed in areas where the greatest number of accidents and offences occur.

The Minister stated the central focus of the initiative is on saving lives rather than earning revenue. While I do not doubt him, when the private sector took over clamping operations in Dublin, it turned out to be a revenue generating exercise. The Minister further stated there will be no direct link between the fee paid to the private operator and the number of detections but when the legislation is passed, how will we know how this provision will be implemented? We will have to wait to judge whether the Minister's sentiment is reflected in practice.

I referred to the written authorisation for random breath testing. However, the location of speed cameras will reflect both the experience of speed-related collisions and the evidence of a history of speeding. The Minister stated this project will be under the control of the Garda both at the strategic and operational levels but the Bill does not provide that a written authorisation is required to carry out speed checks at various locations. Unfortunately, the same degree of strictness does not apply to this measure. Hence, one can only assume this will be much looser. Consequently, can Members be assured that the Minister's sentiments, as outlined in the Bill, will be carried out in four or five years' time?

The target of checking 11.1 million vehicles annually for speeding is ambitious and will make a significant change to matters. Although I am familiar with the Minister's point that the Garda cannot operate this system without the private sector, I wish to sound a note of caution regarding this measure. While, overall, I welcome the points made in this Bill, Members must wait and see whether it turns out to be a genuine success.

I agree with a point which has already been made, namely, that the enforcement of this Bill after its enactment will be critical. Most people would agree that, over the years, many measures have become law but have not been fully implemented. Such measures are not fully enforced on the roads. Had they been fully enforced, they might have made a significant impact in this regard. Hence, I commend this Bill to the House and hope it will be passed quickly. More importantly, I hope it will be enforced when it becomes law.

Photo of Johnny BradyJohnny Brady (Meath, Fianna Fail)
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This Bill clearly shows the commitment of the Government to dealing with the scourge of road deaths. Dealing with road accidents cannot be seen purely as the remit of the Government. It is up to all of us to address this scourge as quickly as possible. The Bill outlines the statutory background to a range of specific measures set out in the road safety strategy 2004-06 and it is very welcome.

The best experts have been available to us to try to devise strategies that will reduce road deaths. Some commentators have tried to corral the Government into making quick decisions on the enactment of legislation. However, if Members have learned anything from the past, it is that rushed legislation never provides the best framework for a comprehensive approach to dealing with any matter, including road deaths. This is why I believe the background work that has been carried out and the comparisons with other jurisdictions in terms of how they have handled this problem will provide a meaningful and comprehensive set of measures that will address the problem of road deaths.

While it is the remit of Government to enact legislation to set out proper guidelines for behaviour on the roads, it is up to all road users to play their part. All citizens have a responsibility to look upon road travel as a privilege rather than a right. In this way, they will be obliged to utilise the road in a way that is safe not just for themselves but for others. The legislation is of the utmost importance. It has been claimed that it has taken a year to get to this stage, which is due to the reasons outlined. One must put in place a comprehensive package of measures.

In my short time in the House, the issue of road safety has been a topic which has been discussed more frequently than many others. There is a good reason Members have debated this matter so often. This is a critical national issue which is being discussed in every parish and community. The matter is of concern to everyone because all either know or are related to someone who has been involved in a serious accident in recent years. From the outset, the Minister has shown a willingness and desire to tackle the scourge of road deaths. He has outlined his approach to the House on many occasions.

While much of the publicity tends to focus on road deaths, the serious injuries that occur in road accidents are also a major cause of concern. Many people have been maimed for life as a result of road accidents and some are confined to wheelchairs in hospitals or other institutions. Their lives have been destroyed.

It is of critical importance to adopt a united approach to putting in place a culture that does not accept the present level of death and destruction on the roads. The legislation will be helpful in contributing to this in terms of its carrot and stick approach. People must be encouraged to be more responsible on the road while putting in place measures which will penalise those who show scant regard for their lives and those of others.

It is important to view the issue of road deaths in the context of the greater number of cars on the road. If one examines the period in which the Government has addressed this matter, the number of road deaths has decreased. In the past year, there has been a blip in the pattern which some have suggested was due to a lack of conviction or work on the part of the Garda in terms of finding law breakers.

Any attempt to change society must address attitudes and culture. Some people have little regard for road usage. An interdepartmental task force was mentioned. Perhaps the Minister will refer to it and its level of development when he concludes. The task force would bring together the Department of Transport and the Department of Education and Science, which has made initial comments on what it proposes to do in respect of educating young people on road usage as part of the curriculum at secondary cycle.

The leaving certificate examination season is drawing to a close and, while many young people have focused on it as a major element in their lives, it will become secondary for those who go to college during the coming years. A significant decision in their lives will be to find jobs, a by-product of which will be the requirement to have cars. In this day and age, there is nothing more important than educating young people in such a way that they have respect for the privilege of road usage.

In this Bill and other legislation, the Minister has outlined the updating of the penalty points system, to which I have given a cautious welcome. From the outset, I signalled my opposition to the overuse of penalty points as a deterrent. In their early stages, they were effective in identifying a number of key road safety factors and ensuring the stick element of the carrot and stick approach worked. However, the system loses its impact if there are penalty points for too many offences.

People have spoken about getting penalty points for turning right on a main road, driving in the wrong lane or crossing a lane. These provisions take the matter too far and have the potential to lose the public's enthusiasm. If the system is restricted to the main problems of speeding, drink driving — which is covered in terms of disqualification — seat belt wearing and general disregard for the lives of others through dangerous driving, it will keep the focus on penalty points and, through their use and punishments, derive the anticipated benefits.

I recognise the difficulties experienced by the Minister and his officials in trying to draft legislation that takes account of the changes in the communications infrastructure, that is, the penalty points associated with the use of mobile telephones. Like other Members, I am on the road regularly. Members travel continually, by day and by night, and have all encountered or experienced dangerous driving. All have experienced the misuse of mobile telephones.

One morning, on my way to the House, as I passed through the M50 roundabout at Blanchardstown, I saw a woman with four or five children in her car. She held her telephone to her ear with one hand and had a cigarette in her mouth, while her other hand was on the steering wheel. This was dangerous to the woman, her children and other travellers. I walked to here from the Department of Foreign Affairs one morning and saw a chap on a bicycle with a child aged four or five on the crossbar. He had one hand on the bike and held a mobile phone in the other. We see lorry and bus drivers driving through our towns and villages. One day I met a cattle lorry with a trailer, the driver of which had one hand on the steering wheel and held a mobile phone in the other. I am sure my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, will convey to the Minister that the use of mobile phones while driving is causing a serious threat to road users. I am glad this issue has been tackled at last.

We also know the problems with which Northern Irish drivers on our roads confront us. The Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, Deputy English and I all travel the M3 at our normal speed and see these people overtaking at great speed. I hope Ministers here and in Northern Ireland can come together and ensure Northern Irish drivers and drivers from the Republic are penalised on the same terms.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
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With the agreement of the House I wish to share time with Deputies English and Deenihan.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Longford-Roscommon, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill. It gives us the opportunity to examine the entire area of road safety. I wish to raise a number of issues, some of which are covered in the legislation and others which should be.

I will put this debate in context. Every 23 minutes an accident occurs on Irish roads. Some are fatal, some cause serious injuries, ambulances must be called to some and others are only material damage accidents. Every 22 hours at least one fatality occurs on Irish roads. That is someone's mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. That is what we are discussing, not statistics.

I was disappointed that every Member of the Government parties who spoke on this issue put the blame solely on drivers. They never mentioned road conditions, engineering, enforcement or resources. The key elements of road safety seem to be gone out the window. It all seems to be the fault of drivers, which is not the case.

The Minister proposes to privatise speed cameras. Last night during his Second Stage speech, the Minister tried to give reassurance that these cameras will not be a cash cow for the private sector. It is extremely difficult for us to believe that when we see the situation regarding the national car test. People believe it is a cash cow for the company involved.

It is also difficult for us to believe it when we see the instructions given to members of the Garda Síochána to hit the quota every month by catching people just inside the speed limit zone. It is like shooting fish in a barrel. No matter what the Garda Commissioner or assistant commissioners state, quotas regarding the enforcement of road traffic legislation and speeding fines do exist.

Unless checks and balances are put in place, privatised speed cameras will become the rural equivalent of the clampers in Dublin and other cities. The objective itself, to reduce traffic speed on many of our busiest roads, is commendable. The number of road traffic fatalities has enormously increased during the past 12 months and urgent action is needed. However, we do not want to see the public funding another element of private industry. Sadly, to date this Government's record in the privatisation of various operations has ended up with the consumer paying more without an improvement of service.

The type of contract that will be put in place is critical. I urge the Minister to ensure the contract is based on the reduction of the average speed along particular sections of road. Before any speed camera is put in place, it should be discussed with local communities and they, in conjunction with the Garda Síochána, should decide where speed cameras are to be placed. They deal with the problem of people coming into their communities, breaking speed limits and having blatant disregard for road traffic legislation on a day to day basis. I hope the Minister will amend the Bill when he has the opportunity to do so on Committee Stage.

One fifth of road deaths so far this year have been of non-nationals. Before we had an increase in the non-national population, the statistics showed that up to 15% of accidents involved foreign drivers, many of whom had driven on the wrong side of the road. In 2004, 40% of two-vehicle collisions involved vehicles that went to the wrong side of the road. I am sure the statistics for 2005 is an increase on that and that the statistics for 2006 is an increase on that again. No recognition has been given to that growing statistic.

Every local authority must erect multilingual signs to make non-national drivers aware that they must drive on the left-hand side of the road. They are used to driving on the opposite side of the road and it is extremely disorienting for them when they come here. When PPS numbers are given to non-nationals, copies of the rules of the road should be distributed with them in the person's language of choice so he or she can understand them. Proposals were put to various Ministers with responsibility for the environment and transport in the past on the installation of electronic devices in vehicles which could remind non-national drivers they must drive on the left-hand side of the road. It is a significant issue which is being ignored. It cannot be brushed under the carpet.

I want to raise other points in my limited time. This Bill deals with the issue of drink-driving, but the issue of people driving on prescribed medication is being ignored. Most speakers discussed drink and illegal drugs. However, prescribed medication which impedes driving is just as dangerous and that is not made clear to people. GPs have an onus to ensure they warn patients of the implications of taking medication and clear and concise information should be available on it.

More than one fifth of accidents here happen in poor visibility conditions on wet roads, in snow, fog or mist. In Florida in the United States, legislation is in place which makes it compulsory to turn on dipped lights when the wipers are turned on. When we travel here, we all see people in poor driving conditions with no lights on or with just parking lights on. They are virtually invisible to other drivers. The legislation needs to be changed to address this. I proposed a change in the Act of 2001 but it was ignored by the then Minister of State, Bobby Molloy. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, now has an opportunity to amend the legislation. If people have cause to use their wipers, they should also turn on their dipped lights. Research has shown this will reduce road fatalities by ensuring vehicles are highly visible.

Pedestrians and cyclists who are not lit up and wearing reflective armbands or other reflective gear should be liable to prosecution, or at least to a fine. They are criminally negligent if they do not have such gear. One cannot ignore the number of pedestrians being killed. A significant contributory factor is their invisibility on our roads. Every single motorist I have spoken to on this issue in recent years has stated he or she has had narrow escapes because of the invisibility of pedestrians. There is an onus on the latter to be visible.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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I am glad of the chance to say a few words on this Bill. I do not have much time and will just address a few aspects of it. My colleague mentioned the condition of our roads and the weather but there is a more significant issue at stake, which is not mentioned in the Bill and which was not mentioned by the Minister in his contribution. The Minister referred to the increased number of cars but did not state that the condition of the roads, especially back-roads, is absolutely brutal. In congested counties and in the greater Dublin region, the sides of roads are falling apart and there are massive potholes. Many of these are being created on foot of the increased number of motorists avoiding congested towns. We call the routes on which they drive "rat runs".

This is a serious problem but we are not addressing it. It will contribute and has contributed to deaths. Last night in my parish, a 19 year old lost his life in the early evening on one of these famous rat runs. He would not have been on that road only for serious traffic problems in the town. These problems take time to fix but if motorists are to use rat runs, let us repair them and have them in good condition. Let us fix the roads that are falling apart.

My county is under serious pressure because of the volume of traffic and the roads are a mess, thus contributing to people dying — it is as simple as that. We can enact all the legislation we want but if we do not provide good roads, more people will die. I ask that the Departments work together to solve this problem. Money should be invested in the roads.

Reference was made to having better training for motorcyclists. If a motorbike going at a normal speed hits a pothole, it will go over the hedge or into a tree or pole. A massive pothole in a road is a deathtrap. Surely to God red flags should be erected where there is a hole in a road and the bloody thing should be fixed. It is not that hard or costly to do. What price is a life?

The Bill is a step in the right direction but, as the Minister knows, it will not solve the problem. He hopes to introduce another road traffic Bill before the end of the year. One must ask what we have been doing for the past five or six years as road carnage has become increasingly worse. We have all spoken about road traffic problems over the past few years during Private Members' time and Question Time, yet a half Bill is being introduced and another is to follow in a couple of months. This is not a new topic and I wonder why there is not greater urgency.

The Minister stated the annual number of deaths could have reached 550 or 600 under certain circumstances. There were 399 last year and nearly 200 to date this year. This is far too many because any road death is one too many. Most road deaths are not the result of accidents but the result of incidents caused by error, bad driving, including speeding, or bad conditions. A small number of accidents will always occur but most deaths are not due to them. It must be said the Government is to blame for many of the deaths. Although driver error is part of the equation, the Government is to blame for its total lack of urgency in dealing with the problem.

When certain individuals were appointed to office, they announced their aim was to reduce the annual number of deaths by 150, as if to say 250 is an acceptable number of deaths on our roads. It is far from it. We should be aiming much higher to try to effect great changes.

On the specifics of the Bill, I welcome the privatisation of responsibility for speed cameras. I mentioned this four years ago in the House and many others spoke about it also, yet it is not happening to a sufficient degree. This Bill does not go far enough in this regard. I want to ensure the locations of speed cameras will not be advertised so motorists will not know where they are. We should go a step further and try to have speed cameras in various vehicles, even tractors. Until such time as drivers do not know the location of speed cameras and fear that there might be one around any bend or in any hedge or tree, they will not slow down and drive properly. The fear of being caught is the greatest deterrent to any crime. Speed cameras, therefore, should be in as many places as possible and hidden such that they might have an effect.

We debated the use of mobile phones in vehicles some months ago and I will not do so again. Suffice it to say that I am delighted there are relevant provisions in the Bill. They are needed badly and must be enforced. The Bill will scare people in this regard because the penalty points for using a mobile phone while driving are sufficiently high.

Consider the provisions in respect of learner permits to allow one to do driving courses. We must really improve driver education. The current test is not good enough. It is a joke and does not assess one's driving. We need to demand a higher driving standard and I ask the Minister for Transport to provide for the possibility to apply for advanced driver permits and encourage greater driving ability among all ages. I ask that he talk seriously to the Minister for Education and Science with a view to including driver education on the curriculum.

To drive in this country is perceived as a right. It is not a right but a privilege and it should be earned. We should demand that it be earned through doing a proper test. I would introduce an assessment for those who are currently fully licensed. Motorists should be assessed every ten or 15 years and should be advised and reminded how to drive properly. I say this because it is not only young people who drive badly on our roads.

I am delighted with the provision for random breath testing to counter drink driving. It should have been introduced years ago. It is not only young people who are drink driving — it is mostly middle aged and older people who are doing so through force of habit and they are the ones to whom we must send a very strong message.

I accept there has been a greater garda presence on the roads in the past month or two. I have encountered six checkpoints and have seen seven or eight gardaí checking for speed in the past month alone. I am impressed with this and it should continue. If it continues and is not just for show every so often, it will improve driver behaviour. This Bill is only a step in the right direction and we need many more provisions and a bit of imagination. We need to train people to drive properly and demand that they do so correctly.

I am fed up going to the funerals of people, who should still be alive, because of an incident involving a car on the road. A car is a lethal weapon. If driven dangerously, too fast or under the influence of alcohol, one should be prosecuted for attempted murder, and nothing short of this.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Bill. The Minister should note that it amends six major Acts dating back approximately 45 years. Approximately 400 regulations are in some way governed by all these Acts. I recently spoke to a solicitor who deals with many road offences and is an expert on this area, on which he has written a book. He told me the regulations are virtually unreadable and legally incomprehensible at this stage. It may be time to consolidate all the Acts into one major road traffic Act. This would obviously involve a large amount of work. The Minister may refer in his response to the fact that the 400 regulations governed by the Acts are virtually unreadable. How could the ordinary person be expected to cope if the legal people are expressing concern about the accessibility of those regulations?

I was asked some weeks ago about the new version of the Rules of the Road, which had not been published at that time. The original Rules of the Road are approximately ten years old. Will the Minister of State confirm whether the updated version has been published?

As regards education, the rules of the road should be taught to every primary and post-primary student. Previous speakers said schools should provide modules on driving. They could be started when the students are at a young age by teaching them the rules of the road, how to drive a car and be aware of the mechanics of a car. That is not happening. It is being done in some schools as part of transition year but there is not a set national programme to put that into effect.

I agree with the provision on mobile phones but legal people tell me there may be a difficulty in enforcing that measure. The Minister of State might refer to that. If somebody is seen using a mobile phone they can drop it or put it in their pocket. This measure may be difficult to enforce unless a person stopped at a roundabout, traffic lights or elsewhere is observed using a mobile phone.

I regret I do not have more time to debate the Bill because it is an area in which I am interested. The question of valid authorisation appears cumbersome and random testing will be difficult to enforce. Who will decide whether to test somebody who shows no signs of having taken a drink? That is subjective and I foresee problems in that regard. Overall, the Bill is welcome and if it saves the life of one person it will be worth its passage through the House.

6:00 pm

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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Like other speakers I welcome the Bill, which is a useful provision. There is broad agreement among Members of the House on its provisions.

I am not suggesting anybody has done so but we should resist adopting a preacher tone in the House of "do what I say" rather than "do what I do" because if we start telling people they should be doing this, that and the other, some of our comments will come back to haunt us.

We should resist blaming young drivers or women drivers, who are the easy targets, for everything that is wrong in road traffic. The reality is that we have some difficulties that must be resolved and this legislation will go some way towards doing that. I commend the Minister for introducing this legislation.

It is obvious to anybody who travels the country that the road network is constantly improving. The main roads are particularly good. Reference was made to the need for well-engineered roads. I could not agree more. The more recent ones are examples of high quality engineering but there is no doubt that our secondary and lesser used roads are still not up to the standards all of us would wish. Quite a number of roads still have badly maintained surfaces, potholes and so on and as Deputy English said, if a motorcyclist hits a pothole, regardless of whether it is big or small, the chances of that person surviving are not great.

To this day I have a memory of a Sunday afternoon many years ago when I was no more than seven or eight years of age. I was sitting on a wall in front of a neighbour's house when a motorcyclist hit one of those potholes and a fatal injury was suffered by one of my friends sitting on the wall beside me. The carnage continues.

On the other hand, with such a volume of car ownership and traffic levels generally it is surprising there has not been an even greater level of carnage on our roads. I do not in any way condone the numbers killed, which are horrific. On a Friday, Saturday or Sunday morning one is guaranteed to hear that on a well-maintained or new road somebody or a number of people have been killed, very often in single driver accidents.

The mentality of the population concerning drink driving is changing dramatically. That is particularly true in the case of younger people. It is somewhat unfair to say young drivers drink and drive. They do not. Many of them do not drink and drive because they have paid a small fortune not just for the car but for the sound system that thumps out music as they drive along. Drink is not an issue with many young drivers but it is an issue with many mature drivers who take a long time to give up old habits. New ways of getting the message across are required. I am impressed by some of the recent advertisements on television. They are dreadful to watch but the message sinks home.

I spent a few days in the south west over the bank holiday weekend and saw many public houses using a local taxi service, and paying for it, to ferry home some of their customers. That is a welcome trend. If somebody wants to have a few drinks they can do so and then travel home by public transport or transport provided by somebody else.

How far away are we from being prepared to tolerate a zero alcohol limit when driving? I was not a Member of this House when an attempt was made by a previous Minister to lower the blood alcohol limits. I believe, and I will not be popular for saying it, that we should work towards the European levels because it is no longer tolerable for somebody to drive with any level of alcohol in their blood.

The Bill provides for mandatory alcohol testing, which I support. Like other speakers, I saw an increased presence of Garda checkpoints and other checks over the past few weekends. I do not mind if I see five or six gardaí manning a traffic checkpoint and pulling in seven, eight or nine cars at a time. It frightens the daylights out of most drivers but the message goes out quickly that gardaí are out in force and we must be much more careful. We must leave the car at home and use the designated driver.

On the issue of blood alcohol levels, it is unsatisfactory for anybody to say there is not a mechanism to monitor the level of drugs in one's system. Anybody who sees the prevalence of cocaine and other drugs being mixed with alcohol knows well that a huge number of people are driving around with a high level of drugs in their system. I read some research mainly done by UCD and in 2000 and 2001 — this goes back to a piece from 2004 — 1,000 samples revealed legal limits of alcohol or no alcohol level at all. Out of those 1,000 samples, however, 679 tested positive for drugs. Those positives may have resulted from prescription drugs or insulin that might have been in people's systems. Nonetheless, the individuals' driving would have been impaired.

I encourage the Minister of State to work towards enabling the carrying out of research. I am aware that even in Scandinavia, which has a highly developed system for monitoring substances in the blood, the authorities have not yet managed to devise a tamper-proof system as regards the presence of drugs. It is not good enough to merely state, as one Minister did in 2002, that matters need to be taken more seriously. Professor Denis Cusack of UCD said in recent days that the most dramatic element of his team's research in the past two years has been the number of driver blood samples testing positive for cocaine. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, said that it does not appear that anyone has yet cracked the issue. However, we are anxious to move ahead because it is a matter of growing concern. Perhaps some PhD research student might provide valuable insights into how to overcome that particular problem.

Reference was made to knowledge of the rules of the road. I totally agree. When I first started teaching, it was expected that students in fifth and sixth class should, as the Minister of State will recall, be taught the rules of the road. People knew them in English and in Irish. I do not know what has happened to all of that but the practice should be reintroduced.

We carried out a very valuable exercise in Dublin and I believe it is still being done. There was a fine traffic school in Clontarf to which children at primary and early post-primary school level could go. There was a track there for them to travel around, mostly on bicycles. Obviously, they did not have access to cars. They were tutored on how to negotiate roundabouts, what to do when coming to a yield or stop sign, etc. Some Members might recall participating in such exercises when they were still at school. I support those who argued it would be a worthwhile exercise for a module to be introduced in transition year where students would have access to motor vehicles of one type or another.

There is a tendency for parents, particularly those in Dublin, at Christmas and also when their children make their communion or confirmation to buy small quad bikes, micro motorbikes or scooters for them. On Christmas morning last year, I was driving in Glasnevin towards the N2 when I met three small quad bike users coming in the opposite direction, on the wrong side of the road. They were aged 12 to 14 years. Luckily, it was Christmas morning and there was virtually no traffic on the road. Increasingly, however, we see these bikes being used in neighbourhoods in Dublin. I ask that those who advertise in newspapers to the effect that these can be bought and are safe to reconsider their actions. They may well be safe, but they are illegal. The Garda has repeatedly said that it is illegal for those under 16, without a licence tax or insurance, to use them. The Garda in the Finglas-Ballymun area is impounding them, but I have seen them being fairly widely used elsewhere.

I suspect that the following is an example of what goes on at night when the roads are pretty clear. Over the bank holiday weekend, owners of quad bikes in County Kerry raced each other along a very busy beach. Indeed, motor cars were being used to do wheelies, hand-brake turns etc. Driving along some of our newly opened roads, such as, for example, the N2, one sees tyre marks which indicate that much reckless driving has taken place in recent weeks.

The issue of speed limits has been mentioned. It baffles me that there can be such incoherence regarding the way that the speed limit system is operated by local authorities. Everybody talks about the area from the Red Cow roundabout to Newlands Cross and beyond. I talk more about those urban or almost inner city areas where there are traffic limits which clearly are too high and ought to be reduced. I strongly support the idea of having a 20 km/h speed limit in residential areas. Many people would welcome that and it ought to be enforced. In my view, it could be enforced.

A number of speakers referred to cars from other jurisdictions being used by people from other parts of the European Union and outside it, as well as those from Northern Ireland, and driven at very high speeds and carelessly on our roads. The Bill provides that penalties can be enforced against such drivers in the same way that they can be used against anyone from this jurisdiction.

Anyone who has had cause to use some of the arterial routes where heavy vehicles drive will know that few if any of them adhere to the 50 km/h limit. I wonder whether there is merit in trying to enforce the speed limiter issue on trucks and indeed on cars. I am quite impressed by what I have heard from people even older than myself who suggested that earlier in the life of this State there were speed limiters on cars for drivers who had recently passed the driving test. I am not sure whether that is the case but if it is, it would be worthwhile reintroducing.

Deputy Johnny Brady mentioned the difficulty relating to the enforcement of penalty points. The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which I have the honour to chair, is working towards trying to persuade the British and Irish Governments to introduce a mutual enforcement of penalty points, North and South. That would be a significant measure if it were introduced.

The Garda traffic corps is an important new development in enforcement. Deputy Naughten referred to the issue of resources. It is clear that the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Government are providing resources to the Garda traffic corps. Rather than its members driving up and down relatively empty bus lanes or swanning around on high-quality bikes, however, there should be greater levels of enforcement by the Garda traffic corps. I have yet to see a member of the Garda traffic corps get off his or her bike and relieve a traffic jam at a junction, for example, or take a proactive measure that would make a difference to the use of the road. However, I look forward to the greater use of the traffic corps.

I wish to reiterate something I have stated previously, although I presume it will again fall on deaf ears. Dublin is twinned with San Jose. I visited the latter city in 1998 and I was impressed then by the level of on-board computers that are available to the police there. I cannot understand why the Garda does not have such technology, which provides ready access at a checkpoint to drivers' details. These details should include whether the person has a valid licence, whether the car being driven belongs to that person, the level of insurance relating to the vehicle and so on. This would be better than waiting ten days before a driver decides whether to provide the relevant information at a Garda station. It is a question of tightening enforcement and regarding this issue as important.

The matter of mobile phones has been debated to death. It is clear that anybody using a mobile phone in a car should have a hands-free kit. I have not gone into the minutiae of how to enforce what is proposed. On balance, we should wait to see if it is enforceable. I have no doubt that some lawyer is probably waiting for an opportunity to test whether this provision is valid. We have all seen drivers — we may be obliged to include ourselves in this regard — talking on their phones while trying to reverse up laneways. That is irresponsible and criminal and it endangers other road users.

I do not have a great difficulty with the issue of privatising the service relating to the provision of speed cameras. As long as the service is effective, plenty of cameras are provided and used and there is no abuse of the data compiled, I do not have a problem. The so-called "hair dryers" are a deterrent and the more of them that are brought into use the better. I would prefer to see these instruments used on minor and secondary roads. Even though I have no difficulty with them being used on motorways, the fish in the barrel syndrome has been mentioned. It is more likely that they would be more effective on lesser roads.

I welcome section 19, which deals with the detention of uninsured, untaxed and unlicensed vehicles. We have come through a period in which there were many such cars on our roads. There is an ambiguity regarding the entitlement of the Garda to seize such vehicles. I am pleased that this is being dealt with in the Bill, which I welcome.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Lynch.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I welcome the measures proposed in it. However, it indicates the slowness of the Government to respond to what has been a frightening increase in fatalities and road accidents. We are all conscious of the tragedies associated with the statistics. When we say that 374 people were killed in 2004 and 395 in 2005, it can sound cold and barren. If we think of each individual that was killed having a family that grieves to this day, it sets the figures in a different context. The Government response has been disappointing. Questions must be raised about the Government when such a serious issue is well known, well publicised and well debated and when its response has been very slow. At times, its response has simply been incompetent.

The Bill contains provisions in respect of random breath testing and dealing with the loophole on uninsured foreign drivers, as well a ban on holding mobile phones while driving. I must confess that I, like everyone else in the House, am a sinner on the latter score. It is an important measure and I welcome that the ban will be put in place.

As spokesperson on health, I am conscious of the impact that the extraordinary level of alcohol consumption is having on our society. Anybody who has had occasion to visit an accident and emergency department at the weekend can see the direct effects of alcohol abuse. Some people can become extremely sick from the amount of alcohol consumed, while others can be injured by a fall or by violence caused by the consumption of alcohol. It was startling to read a report to the effect that Irish people spend a greater proportion of their incomes on alcohol than their counterparts in other European countries. The report in question stated that alcohol kills 115,000 people in Europe. However, Irish people spend three times more on alcohol than those in other countries and ten times more than the Greeks. One can say that the cost of alcohol is higher in Ireland but we should be mindful of this warning sign. We cannot continue to be the binge drinkers of Europe. We cannot continue to have such a high level of alcohol consumption without paying the price. We are paying the price in terms of road accidents and ill health.

We were told that it was impossible to introduce random breath testing due to constitutional issues. Suddenly and inexplicably, the Government changed its line. To have a system in which people have confidence, there must be evidence that it works. If random breath testing is to work — I hope it does — it will be tested in the courts. We have quite a tradition in that regard. The Government's penalty points scheme was welcomed warmly by the Opposition but public confidence in that system has been dramatically eroded by a level of incompetence that is hard to fathom. The Committee of Public Accounts produced information showing that 50% of speed cameras do not work, which is inexcusable. In commenting on this, Deputy Shortall stated that in the absence of extra gardaí to intercept offending motorists and with a dedicated traffic corps only being established, speed cameras are vital in doing the work for which there is simply not the manpower to carry out. She indicated that this is merely the latest flaw in a penalty points system which promised so much when it was first announced but which, sadly, has failed abysmally to live up to the hype. She pointed out that it took three years for the number of offences covered to move beyond three, while the entire system has been dogged by various legal challenges and loopholes that have allowed offending motorists to get off scot free.

In my constituency of County Wicklow, a judge recently threw out 152 speeding summonses. A total of 238 cases relating to offences of speeding along a particular section of road have been dismissed. The judge was clearly exasperated by the lack of information coming form Wicklow County Council. A basic task for a Minister introducing such a new scheme is that he or she would make sure it is implemented properly. Nobody expects a Minister to operate a speed camera or impose a fine but we expect local authorities to be formally advised as to how they can carry out the task they were set. That did not happen in this case and it has not happened in the case of other counties — County Wicklow is not unique in that respect. Many people are understandably cross about this. The people with a grievance are those who paid their fines when they were informed they had incurred penalty points for a speeding offence when driving through Kilmacanogue village, for which a fine applied. I have discovered there is not a procedure in place for those people to get a refund or to have those penalty points removed from their licences even though, according to the law and the judgment of Judge Murrough Connellan, they were not guilty of an offence. That seems harsh, and it undermines people's confidence and commitment to road safety if we have this kind of fiasco.

A low speed limit applies to that stretch of road in County Wicklow as that national primary route goes through a village, which is unusual, and that has been a cause of some concern. There is a pedestrian bridge over the road but it is not properly lit at night, youths gather there and some people are frightened to cross the bridge at certain times and they take a risk when crossing that busy road. There are a number of existing dangers of which we must be conscious. The fact that a local authority and a Department are not able to ensure there is sufficient joined-up Government to make sure any Government proposal is implemented speaks volumes on how this Government is operating.

Other speakers have made a point regarding education which I wish to raise. I hope the Minister for Education and Science will take on board the need to encourage and develop the skill of driving and respect for the rules of the road among young people. In transition year some students take driving lessons, for which they usually have to pay. That cost discriminates against young people from low income families who need to acquire the skill of driving. If a module on driving was made part of the school curriculum, respect for the rules of the road was developed from an early age and the provisions of legislation were properly implemented, we would have a much better chance of ensuring people would not end up dead or seriously injured in car wrecks. When one reflects on the number of young people who are grossly disabled and whose lives are impaired having survived serious car accidents, it brings home to us the level of carnage on our roads.

A point was made that some road fatalities are attempted suicides or suicides, an aspect of which we must be conscious. The introduction of an anti-suicide strategy may also help in reducing at least some road deaths.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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A point that needs to be made is that while this legislation is welcome it is long overdue. This debate is about taking responsibility for a problem that has robbed us of almost 2,500 lives in the past six years. The Government is not solely to blame for these deaths. There are a number of causes, including individual driver behaviour, driver error, vehicle standards and driving conditions, but the Government is charged with addressing these causes. This Bill should have been introduced a long time ago.

As road safety has improved significantly throughout western Europe on a percentage basis, Ireland is the only exception to that trend. Last year road accidents accounted for almost 400 deaths, and the trend this year indicates that figure will be matched. It should make for morbid reading for the Government and for Garda management because these figures prove measures being taken to encourage greater road safety are not adequate.

It is primarily up to the Government to make sufficient resources available to the Garda and for it to use the Garda effectively to reduce the carnage on our roads. That is the central point of this debate. Will the necessary resources be put in place to ensure this Bill will be effective? In the run up to the previous election, the now Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform promised that a 600 strong Garda traffic corps would be put in place but that is predicated on the recruitment of an additional 2,000 gardaí. The people were told in 2002 that this would happen if the then Government was re-elected. We have now been told that will not happen until early 2007 or perhaps later because the figures and the dates change and they will continue to change.

It is a matter of record that at least 80% of accidents are caused by human error. Despite campaigns to promote a greater safety consciousness, the causes of accidents remain speeding, drink driving and a cause of major injury is and will continue to be the non-wearing of seat belts.

When driving home the other night and I saw two gardaí checking cars on the road and while one might say that is welcome, they were on duty on a major road and not on a byroad, backlane or ditch where most accidents occur. They stopped every motorist ahead of me to check if motorists and passengers were wearing seat belts and as I did not see any motorist being asked to pull over to the side of the road, I gather all the motorists and passengers were wearing a seat belt. The majority of road deaths do not occur on the main roads of Cork, rather they occur on roads leading to seaside resorts, backroads and country roads and while driving on those roads I have never been stopped a garda. The speed traps in Cork are located mid-way down a section or at the end of a motorway where accidents, in the main, do not occur. Deputy Carey said he felt the equation of speed traps with fish in a barrel was unfair. The scarce resources that are available should be deployed on roads where accidents occur, namely, late at night on country roads on which one will never see a garda checkpoint.

Undoubtedly, the realisation that there will be a Garda presence on roads has a salutary effect on the behaviour of people, with last week being a case in point, but in the absence of the promised traffic corps, this response is often sporadic and seasonal in its application. There is a responsibility on road users to exercise care and safety, and the majority of them do so, but the number of cars on the road is increasing all the time, largely because of the socio-economic demands faced by families and lack of public transport.

However, despite such gruesome television advertisements, an average of 250 drivers are arrested for drink driving every week, and those are the ones who are caught. Research by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety for 2002 indicated that 90% of those arrested were over the alcohol limit. Apart from the fatalities, approximately 12,000 people are injured in road crashes every year and, of those, 1,500 are seriously injured. We should seriously examine those findings. In terms of those who are seriously injured, we have all met individuals who have been seriously injured and their families whose focus in life has had to shift as a result of a family member suffering a long-term injury. That is what we are talking about in this Bill.

Responsibility for road safety and implementing the road safety strategy stretches across four Departments, namely the Departments of Transport; Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Environment, Heritage and Local Government; and Health and Children. Yet there is little evidence that the issue is being taken seriously by the Ministers in those Departments. The truth is that for a long time there was a lethargy at the heart of Government where road safety was quite often perceived to be someone else's responsibility. Who would blame them? If I was the Minister for Transport and I had three other Ministers whom I could blame for inaction, why would I not do that? That is the difficulty.

I welcome Gay Byrne as our road safety supremo and the no nonsense approach he has adopted to date. I hope he continues in this manner and is successful. Hopefully, this new measure will bring a decrease in road carnage and put an end to our being the only state in Europe where road deaths are on the increase.

The Government's handling of this grave issue is so inept that it has been accused of criminal negligence, a damning charge levelled by Eddie Shaw, former chairman of the National Safety Council. Disillusioned, he resigned his post in protest over the coalition's lack of action in tackling road carnage. Sadly, almost 400 people died on our roads last year, a depressing increase on previous years and the worst death toll since 2001 when 411 people were killed. By May of this year, 168 people had already died on our roads. It is sometimes difficult to get the concept of these numbers into our heads. This Chamber has seats for 166 Deputies. If we add just two more, that is the number that died by May this year. This is deplorable.

Given the North's reduction in road deaths, the lowest since 1952, serious questions must be asked about the situation in the Republic. Despite their milestone achievement, authorities in the North are emphatic that the relatively low toll of 136 fatalities is still far too high. Improving road safety north of the Border is regarded as a major policing priority. In 2006, this priority will benefit from a two-track approach, education backed by robust enforcement. No stretch of the imagination could describe road safety enforcement here as robust. It is patchy, uneven and lacks resources.

According to Garda estimates, one third of all fatal road accidents are drink related. This puts a heavy onus on Government to provide the resources necessary for robust policing and enforcement of drink driving legislation. It goes without saying that many deaths are attributable to driver behaviour, but it is equally true that the behaviour of motorists is influenced by how Government policies are enforced.

The use of mobile phones in cars should be addressed. While it is good that fire officers and gardaí can use mobile phones while on duty, it is wrong for them to be allowed to use hand-held phones while driving vehicles. It smacks of penny-pinching that a hands-free unit is not supplied to these vehicles to allow them be used safely.

When I first suggested the use of random breath testing on a radio programme, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport, a Fianna Fáil Deputy, recriminated me and said it would be unworkable because of constitutional issues. Now, I wonder how minds were changed so quickly.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I offer my sympathy to the families of those who have died on our roads over recent years, particularly the families of the 399 people who lost their lives in 2005 and the 185 killed up to mid-June this year. These figures show we need continued action on the issue.

Despite what previous speakers have said, the tackling of this issue is not down to the Government alone. There are so many stakeholders with regard to the problem of road carnage that the legislation must be taken in the context of a stiff conversation with all of us. When the legislation is passed, it must be seen as an action taken to deal with the matter. It must be seen as having arisen from the concerns expressed by the public, the Garda and all involved. If we accept it in that context, perhaps more people will pay heed to penalty points, to the rules, regulations and laws in place and the efforts made by legislators to ensure we deal with the issue once and for all. If the appropriate funding is put in place with the legislation, it will improve our credibility as legislators and stakeholders.

The public also has a role to play. People must acknowledge that this legislation and the funding provided are our best effort to ensure deaths on our roads are reduced and people are better informed on road use. Drivers have a direct responsibility and we have a role to play in that context. Previous speakers referred to the need for the provision of driver education in second level schools to ensure the basic rules of the road are taught to pupils going through our educational system. That used to be the case. This need is so important that we need to restore driver education to a prominent position at second level. We must ensure young drivers moving on from there are provided with the best possible instruction from professionals and off-road experience. Instruction tracks should be provided for this throughout the country.

All these measures are necessary because of the increased volume of traffic on our roads. Our economy has improved significantly and most families now have two, three or four cars, depending on the number of family members who must travel to work. How we deal with the increased volume is an issue that concerns local authorities.

I have great regard for the road designs implemented by the NRA. Magnificent national road projects that have come to fruition make an enormous difference to moving the volume of traffic on our roads from A to B safely. However, there are issues with regard to the NRA's engagement with local authorities and the delivery of projects of national importance that may have a local nature. For example, I have raised the matter of the newly constructed Piltown-Fiddown bypass several times in the House. There have been seven deaths on that new road, yet the suggestions made to address the issues by the local community through the local authority were largely ignored. Now, after just a few years of use, more millions of taxpayers' money will be spent to provide a different system to deal with the 13 right-hand junctions on the road. More attention should be paid to local communities that raise such issues.

Where the provision of this type of road project has an impact on local communities and roads, we should provide speed ramps, traffic calming measures and all of the modern concepts that lead to greater road safety. Local authorities should receive more funding to ensure urban road networks and housing estates, particularly older estates, can install ramps and traffic calming measures where necessary. We should be mindful of this when building new housing estates, like that in Kilkenny city where a whole new area is being constructed to accommodate up to 15,000 people. In building those new residential areas, the roads into and the road network within the estates should be built with ramps and other traffic control measures in mind so they do not need to be retrofitted. This would represent sound planning and good management by local authorities. Where it falls to Government to fund, we need a proactive method of funding over a number of years. At our clinics we have all received the same complaints of anti-social behaviour and the speed of traffic through estates and cities. Urban management represents a huge problem and yet these matters are not being funded adequately to allow us to remove them from the agenda. They represent serious safety issues. In some constituencies complaints have been made about roads between villages being used as speed tracks. Late at night vehicles are speeding in races with bets wagered as to who will drive fastest between two points on a county road. This activity is absolute madness and needs to be controlled. The Garda needs funding to allow far greater monitoring of the problem and to address it.

Likewise when managing urban development, inner relief roads and connections to outer roads are extremely important and we need a method of fast-tracking funding and planning in that regard. More often than not it is not the funding but the planning that represents the problem. The planning process is so slow that it fails to deliver the project on time, resulting in years wasted in dealing with the problem. We need to deal with this as an issue relative to road safety. We need to make existing roads safe and ensure safety on roads being constructed.

Employers are also stakeholders in this matter. My background is in the transport industry, where I employed almost 25 truck drivers. I know the importance of speed control on those trucks. However, I also know how easy it is to defuse the system to allow a driver to drive at whatever speed he or she likes. I have seen too many accidents arise from that process. Employers should be helped to vet their drivers as they come along, to continue to educate them on road networks, new laws, penalty points etc. As we introduce regulations, we need those with a large number of drivers in their employment to pass on the information to them. As was said earlier, part of the problem relates to communication and ensuring the message is implemented as law for the individuals and employers concerned.

Many transport companies are employing non-Irish nationals. We need to go an extra mile with those non-Irish employees, as they need to understand the road network, the different speed limits and the rules of the road here. It is simple for employers to communicate to those drivers and that should be encouraged. Years ago FÁS used to give a grant for such courses. While that is no longer the case, it should be encouraged at least. The Bill makes provision to deal with non-Irish drivers who bring their own cars here. On a number of occasions on one roundabout in Kilkenny I have seen cars going around in the wrong direction. We need to continue to make people aware of this problem.

By comparison with other European countries, we are not up to speed on speed limit and road signage. While the signage is improving we need to increase the pace at which this is happening. Directional and speed limit signs away from the main motorways need major improvement. Local authorities have responsibility to deliver this information to drivers as they go along. Without having a proliferation of signs along such roads, there is a need to improve signage, which would help motorists, particularly those who do not know the roads or elderly people who find it difficult to make their way along the roads at some speed. Addressing this matter requires funding. Funding will drive the Bill and will ultimately deliver results.

The Garda also has a role to play. The Committee of Public Accounts in its seventh interim report highlighted the issue of speed cameras. The committee's investigation in 2003, 2004 and 2005 found that more than half the images generated could not be used. I am completely in favour of the privatisation of the camera system. However, we need to consider what is best practice and to benchmark that best practice against what is achieved in other countries. When the private operator is appointed — as quickly as possible, I hope — we should be able to see real results and to compare those results with what is being achieved in other countries. We should move from that benchmark to continue to improve the standard.

It is only by doing so and with other concepts to be introduced by the Garda that we will restore credibility to that system and to the Garda itself. I am sure members of the Garda are affected by the failure of that system to work. The Garda is also affected by the fact that nominated drivers are particularly hard to pursue. We have had a poor success rate in identifying the driver of a vehicle within a company. It is a major challenge in the system to chase down those nominated drivers and successfully deliver summonses. Regardless of the system in place people will always find a loophole. We need flexible legislation to ensure we can adapt to the new problems on the road and deal with those who will try to get around the law.

I agree with the points made by Deputy Carey on drink driving. Irish society is willing to move towards zero tolerance of drink driving. Anyone who takes a drink and drives on the road represents a serious problem. The only way to deal with the problem is for society to begin to accept that the Government will move along the European line towards zero tolerance so drinking and driving is not acceptable at any level.

I encourage the Government to investigate how it might implement prosecutions against those who use drugs and drive. Some people drive having taken prescribed drugs, which is perfectly legal. I am talking about finding a way to deal with those who use all sorts of illegal drugs, from cocaine downwards and then get into a car and drive, which is happening on our roads. I recall tabling a parliamentary question on the matter and I understand there are some complications in this regard. The use of drugs is a serious and growing problem throughout the country. I have no doubt that a growing number of people will chance driving a vehicle under the influence of some form of drug.

I refer to a number of accidents involving school buses. I recently spoke to a school bus operator and to a private bus operator. The Government needs to take steps to improve standards on the school transport fleet, which is much too old. It has been suggested that recognised dealers rather than the operators of vehicles should be responsible for ensuring a proper maintenance programme is applied to school buses, either when they are brought in for an MOT or examined on other occasions. Independent verification of the maintenance programme operated by large bus operators is also necessary, particularly with regard to the school bus system.

If we are to require in law that young children wear seat belts on school buses, we must introduce a means of enforcement, for example, the appointment of conductors to travel on school buses. While I am aware this proposal would generate additional costs, I have seen seat belts on school buses which were tied in knots or used to obstruct other children. MOT certificates and buses should also be subject to random checks.

Bus owners have requested that motorway speed limits for buses be increased to 100 km/h to enhance safety. We should examine any proposals to improve safety made by bus operators. I reiterate that legislation should be sufficiently flexible to allow the Legislature to amend and adapt it if necessary.

I agree with the points Deputies made regarding the use of mobile telephones. All of us stand accused of taking calls on our mobile telephones while driving. Due to the pressure of modern life, far too often we instinctively answer calls while driving. This practice is common among businessmen and those who do not have hands-free car phone kits installed. I welcome the ban on the use of mobile telephones while driving and believe the introduction of a €2,000 fine for those who break the law will give drivers pause for thought.

On mandatory breath testing and drink driving, we should consider how we can encourage good behaviour. For example, pubs and hotels should be encouraged to provide a courtesy service for patrons. Members of the Government may not wish to hear my proposal but it should consider waiving VAT or VRT on vehicles specifically used for this purpose because courtesy services contribute to greater road safety. This option should be encouraged in the trade as it would force it to deliver a significant and tangible contribution to road safety. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Connolly has less than one minute to make a brief comment.

Paudge Connolly (Cavan-Monaghan, Independent)
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I appreciate the time given to me. This is important legislation. Every week we learn from radio, television and newspapers the new death toll on our roads. We are almost hardened to the fact that road traffic deaths will occur. Road traffic fatalities occur on average more than once per day, an unacceptable rate. The only time the problem impacts on the public is when we hear the new monthly toll. Unfortunately, however, statistics do not impact on the group we seek to target, namely, young people. We want to scare young people if necessary and at least make them think twice before they go out at the weekend about the danger that they may not come back or will be involved in a serious road traffic accident. Information on the death toll from road accidents affects only one group, namely, parents such as me.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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As it is 6.45 p.m., I am obliged to call on the Minister to reply.

7:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, who, unfortunately, could not be present this evening. I thank Deputies from all sides for an informed debate on an important legislative change to traffic law and road safety. It is evident from the number of debates the House has had on road safety and the series of road traffic Bills it has passed that this issue unites all sides.

The debate raised many issues and I will endeavour on the Minister's behalf to respond as positively and constructively as possible. The Minister looks forward to working with Opposition Deputies on Committee Stage to consider in detail some of the issues they raised. He has indicated his intention to take an open and constructive approach to amendments Opposition parties may table or issues they may raise.

I reiterate the importance and urgency associated with this Bill, particularly as regards mandatory alcohol testing and the privatisation of speed cameras. It is important that the Bill is passed and in this context I acknowledge the co-operation of Opposition Deputies.

The Government welcomes the overwhelming view of the House that hand held mobile telephone use while driving must be prohibited. I appreciate the recognition by Deputies of the need to establish a flexible legislative framework to enable in-vehicle communication technologies posing particular road safety risks to be regulated in a speedy manner without the need for primary legislation on each occasion. As Minister for the Environment and Local Government on a previous occasion when this issue was discussed, I am delighted the matter is finally being regulated in law.

Deputies Olivia Mitchell and Shortall expressed reservations concerning the robustness of the provision prohibiting hand held mobile telephone use. They cited the absence in the Bill of a definition of the term "driving a vehicle" and indicated this omission would likely give rise to motorists challenging prosecutions for this offence. It is important to point out that section 23 provides that, if enacted, the Bill will be construed together with other Road Traffic Acts, all of which should be read together. The words "driving" and "driver" are widely used in traffic law and it would be impossible to have road traffic legislation without a reference to "driving" or to a "driver". The word "driving" is defined in section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1961. This longstanding definition has passed the test of time with regard to the implementation and enforcement of road traffic law.

It was suggested the defence concessions provided for in section 3(7) on the use of a hand held mobile telephone are wide open to abuse. The subsection has been drafted so that the use of a hand held telephone would be considered permissible in two circumstances only. The first of these would be to make a call to the Garda or emergency services on numbers prescribed by the Minister. It is intended to prescribe 999 and 112 as these numbers. Calls to these numbers can be traced, including, I understand, calls from "pay as you go" mobile telephones. If section 3(7) is invoked as a defence by a person caught by a garda using a hand held mobile telephone, it would be relativity straightforward to establish whether the call was to a prescribed emergency service telephone number.

The other permitted use of a hand held mobile telephone relates to a genuine emergency. It is recognised that there may be other emergency circumstances in which a driver may need to use a hand held mobile telephone while driving his or her vehicle. However, it will be up to the driver to convince the Garda or the court that the use related to a genuine emergency. These defence provisions are reasonable and are not easily open to abuse. We all had the experience in recent weeks of ensuring that reasonable defences were available to us. Hands free mobile telephone use involving bluetooth telephones will not come within the scope of the prohibition provided for in subsection (1) of section 3 of the Bill.

An exemption will be provided to drivers of Garda vehicles, ambulances and fire tenders under strictly controlled circumstances. The exemption will only be available where the driver is acting in the course of his or her duties. While use of a hand held telephone would not generally arise, it is prudent to provide an exemption to providers of these independent and important services.

I note the proposal to privatise the operation of speed cameras has been welcomed overall, although a number of Deputies have expressed concerns about various aspects of this initiative. The purpose of the privatisation initiative is to enhance overall road safety and help reduce the numbers of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. The purpose of deploying cameras is to encourage road users to drive within the speed limit, specifically at locations where there is a known speed related danger of crashes. It has been accepted that the Garda cannot operate a system of fixed and mobile cameras without a significant private sector engagement and the target of 11.1 million vehicles to be checked for speeding annually as outlined in the road safety strategy cannot be achieved without privatisation. I assure the House the central focus of this initiative is on saving lives rather than earning revenue. There will be no link between the fees paid to the private operator and the number of detections. Decisions on the locations of cameras will reflect experience of speed related collisions and evidence of a history of speeding. A combination of fixed and mobile cameras will operate in target areas. The private operator will have no role in the selection of the camera sites. The Bill addresses the specific parameters required to facilitate the engagement of a private sector operator. The Government is fully committed to the establishment of strict criteria which will be applied in respect of the determination of the locations and the operational parameters for the engagement of the private sector in this area. I assure the House this project will be under the control of the Garda at both strategic and operational levels.

Deputy Shortall raised an issue in regard to the blood alcohol limits in this and other states. In Ireland, an 80 milligram limit is strictly applied. The lower blood limits applied in some countries do not always attract equally strict penalties. Statistics indicate that those being detected for drink driving have a blood alcohol level well in excess of the legal limit. Some 85% of blood and urine specimens and 80% of breath specimens analysed in 2004 by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety were above the alcohol limit for driving. It is even more worrying that more than half of those who failed blood or urine tests and almost one third of those who failed breath tests had alcohol contents of at least twice the legal limit. The limit, therefore, is being ignored by a core number of drivers who simply refuse to obey the law. I assure the House that the question of reviewing the limit will be kept under review. However, the priority at present is to increase the chances of being breathalysed through the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, has asked officials to examine the concept of introducing lower blood alcohol limits for learner drivers, as is the practice in some other jurisdictions. The introduction of such a measure would require an in-depth examination of legal issues and widespread consultation. It is not possible to introduce such a measure in this Bill within the given timeframe.

Deputy Cowley and others proposed that the Bill be amended so that a driver involved in a road traffic accident shall be required to undergo a mandatory test for alcohol or drugs. The Road Traffic Acts already provide that a member of the Garda Síochána may require a person in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle to provide a preliminary breath specimen where the vehicle is involved in a road collision or where a garda considers that a road traffic offence has been committed or forms the opinion that the person has consumed alcohol. The purpose of preliminary roadside breath testing is to provide the gardaí with a facility to assist them in determining whether a person in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle has consumed alcohol. The Road Traffic Acts provide that a person may be arrested for a drink driving offence without recourse to a preliminary breath test.

There may be circumstances, especially in the context of a road collision, where it may not be possible for a member of the Garda to require a person who is unconscious or injured to submit to a preliminary breath test. Under the Road Traffic Acts, gardaí may place an obligation on a person to provide a blood or urine sample in a hospital. This applies where an event occurs involving a vehicle which results in a person being injured or a person claiming or appearing to have been injured, where the person is admitted to or attends a hospital and where a garda is of the opinion that at the time of the event the person had consumed an intoxicant. An intoxicant includes alcohol and drugs or any combination of alcohol and drugs. Garda discretion in the use of preliminary roadside tests is an integral element of the enforcement provisions in legislation applying to drink driving.

Deputies Mitchell and Shortall have asked for clarification on the operation of mandatory alcohol testing. Drinking and driving in Ireland is recognised as one of the most serious contributory factors in road collisions and evidence shows that drink driving is increasing. There is widespread acceptance among responsible motorists and society as a whole that driving under the influence of alcohol is potentially dangerous. Despite extensive publicity and targeted campaigns, some drivers are not willing to change their behaviour. The numbers of deaths on our roads will not decrease unless strong legislative measures are taken and enforced to bring about attitude change. The primary target of the road safety strategy commits the Government to the introduction of a form of roadside breath testing which would address in a positive way the problem of drinking and driving. The introduction of a scheme has been the subject of extensive consultation and legal advice.

Section 4 outlines the scheme for roadside alcohol testing, known as mandatory alcohol testing, and the legal basis for the establishment and operation of Garda checkpoints. Mandatory alcohol tests can only be pursued on the specific written authorisation of a garda officer not below the rank of inspector. That authorisation must be in writing and must clearly establish the place, date and the hours between which it may be operated. When setting up a checkpoint, there is a need for absolute transparency in procedures and the wording of this section was drafted very carefully with that in mind after widespread consultation with the Garda Commissioner and the Attorney General to find the correct balance and proportionality. There is a need for flexibility with regard to the timing and locations of checkpoints. The current wording allows necessary operational flexibility for the Garda to stop and start checkpoint activities according to traffic volume and other considerations. The Garda Commissioner will establish guidelines to assist and inform all members of the force in carrying out their roles in respect of the operation of tests.

Mandatory alcohol testing in countries where it is not necessary to form an opinion as to whether alcohol has been consumed has proved to be an enforcement tool capable of changing attitudes towards drinking and driving. The provision on testing aims to give a clear and consistent message to drivers that drink driving is a dangerous and unacceptable activity. Random checks of vehicles are highly effective when combined with the right to breathalyse and high visibility and can reduce drink driving fatalities by between one third and one half. The introduction of a new system, combined with publicity and rigorous enforcement, will enhance the deterrents to drink driving and bring about the changes in attitude and behaviour needed to reduce the number of fatalities on our roads.

I thank the Deputies for this constructive debate. The Minister for Transport sends his apologies and looks forward to engaging with Members on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.