Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Road Traffic Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)


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

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy McGuinness was in possession. There are 12 minutes remaining in the slot.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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On the previous occasion I was referring to the provision of the appropriate level of education for those who have not, for whatever reason, been driving for a period. It is worth reflecting on the figures in this regard. According to the Road Safety Authority, a total of 18,851 people were arrested on suspicion of drink driving in 2007. A total of 18,053 people were arrested on suspicion of drink driving in 2008. Another interesting statistic relates to the number of people who are disqualified from driving. The number of such individuals in 2008 was 12,213. In excess of 11,000 of these people received disqualifications from driving on foot of alcohol-related offences.

The figures I have outlined highlights the need to have a mechanism in place whereby the people to whom I refer - among whose number are included those who may have spent time in prison - can become reacquainted with the skill of driving. The company to which I referred on the previous occasion, which is associated with Carlow Institute of Technology, the county enterprise board and UCC, is providing such a service.

It is extremely important that we should reflect on the impact of all legislation that passes through this House. In the context of this Bill, we must ensure that something positive and tangible is done in order to ensure that those who are prevented from driving for a period - including those who, for one reason or another, spend time in prison - should be able to refresh their driving skills. The RSA has been approached in respect of this matter and it should reflect on the proposition that has been put to it. In addition, it should make some effort to ensure that such a system of re-education should be put in place in order that it might operate alongside the provisions in this legislation. I am informed that the technology employed by the company to which I refer is the best in Europe and that it is actually only available in Ireland at present. The provision of a system such as that which I have outlined is important.

Another matter of concern in the context of the Bill is the lowering of the blood alcohol level from 80 mg to 50 mg. The debate in respect of this issue has given rise to a wider discussion on rural Ireland and how we look upon it. To some degree, the matter has been taken out of context. I must declare an interest in that I have an interest in a building in which a public house is located.

The issue of connectivity to and within rural areas has been brought into sharp focus as a result of the debate to which I refer. The Minister referred to a study relating to integrated rural transport services. I accept that a body of experts may have been appointed to examine the position in respect of such services. However, I am of the view that those we should consult on rural transport are those who provide it. Private bus operators provide rural transport services in every county. Such operators have expert knowledge on connectivity within the counties they service and they should be consulted. In my county, J. J. Kavanagh & Sons provides a national bus service and it should have an input in the context of indicating how best to achieve connectivity between counties and between rural locations within counties.

The operators to whom I refer are best placed to indicate how national bus services could be connected to local bus services. Some €11 million is set aside in the Bill in respect of this matter. I am of the view that using the model I have outlined would lead to better value for money being obtained. It would also result in the provision of better services. We should discuss this matter with these operators because they have first-hand experience of providing services.

School transport services are provided in every county. Ring a Link, which operates in my county, and similar operators provide services under the rural transport initiative. Why is it not possible for the taxpayers' money provided to each of these operators to be pooled and matched with funds from the private sector in order that people in rural areas might be given access to a comprehensive range of transport options? That is the kernel of this issue. The money is already being provided. Rather than considering the issue in a narrow way, we should adopt a broader approach. I accept that a reasonable school transport service is provided. However, serious questions arise in the context of the amount of money being spent on that service and also on the type of service that is being delivered.

We should consider every aspect of transport in our deliberations. In the context of the Bill, the issue of transport has been discussed in the context of transporting people to and from public houses or other locations. We should concentrate on the provision of transport services to members of the public, regardless of where they are going or what they are doing. It would then be up to the people to support the services provided. If a service is required and has been requested, people must understand that it must be paid for and that they must subscribe to it.

The other aspect of safety in urban areas in which I am interested and where much could be done is the money available to local authorities to spend in housing estates or in urban centres. I cannot understand why there cannot be a more integrated approach between the Road Safety Authority, local authorities and other interested community groups at that level to ensure there are appropriate ramps, chicanes or other measures to reduce traffic speed and to introduce safety aspects, including in estates. It would remove from debate at local level, and in the policing committees which now exist, the ongoing criticism of road safety measures in estates. This must be part of any measure we take. It is absolutely essential that we link the spend to get greater value for money and satisfy those in communities who demand this change.

I am delighted the introduction of speed cameras will be rolled out. It is essential throughout the country. Despite criticism, work is being carried out on national roads and motorways and the travel time between major urban centres is being reduced and the journeys made safer. In light of this, the roll-out of speed cameras will take the difficulties out of the present system and put it on a more professional level. It is disappointing that certain aspects of the Bill will not be introduced until 2011, when we must upgrade certain equipment. It is amazing how quickly the private sector can recalibrate equipment and make it operational. As administrators, we find it difficult to get immediate results from projects and they turn into never-ending sagas of finding time, finding the appropriate equipment and recalibrating it. Years pass and it is not done. I urge the Minister, not only with regard to this project but also with regard to any road safety measure, that measures are planned and delivered within budget and on time and that this becomes part of the planning of our road safety strategy.

I welcome the administrative penalties and I am interested to see how they will work. Overall, the Bill will be positive in what it sets out to achieve. However, it is essential that the aspects dealing with education and rural transport are rolled out. We must also ensure greater connectivity between and within counties. It should be easily achievable with the money available.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to make a contribution on the Bill, which I welcome on the whole. I certainly welcome the provision changing the legal blood alcohol limits. People might state that it is easy for me to support this measure as I live in a relatively urban constituency with easy access to taxis and public transport and where pubs and restaurants are in walking distance. There is a large contrast between urban and rural areas and I agree with the comments of the previous speaker on rural transport.

We need to develop a rural transport structure and not only to get people to and from the local pub; we also need to ensure connectivity for people living in rural communities who are isolated so they have access to some form of transport. It behoves all of us to support this because small communities in rural Ireland are an essential part of our make up and we need to ensure those living there are not disadvantaged in any way with regard to access to social services and educational facilities. Access to larger towns in the region is also very important.

My constituency has a large number of local transport operators whose services can be utilised. It is interesting to note the number of schools which have organised their own transport. This has been done either by parents or the school itself. It seems to work well as it is flexible and the operator is able to avail of other business opportunities. Unfortunately, Bus Éireann is reducing its services. A balance should be reached between making money on a commercial basis and providing a service to communities. Without public transport not alone rural communities but also communities with low car ownership will be disadvantaged. I am aware of a community which is very dependent on public transport for access to hospitals, third level institutions and further education institutions.

Transport is important in regions and rural areas, but nobody can argue with the figures on the effect of alcohol on drivers. Last year, a conference was held in Dublin at which the effect of alcohol on drivers on Irish roads was discussed. At the time, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, stated that alcohol may have been a contributing factor in more than 1,000 fatal collisions between 1999 and 2008. Behind that statistic are many grieving families and communities shattered by the consequences of those accidents. Many parents have been very brave in telling their story to try to influence other people and reduce the level of road deaths due to alcohol and to increase awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. I commend them on that.

The Bill reduces the alcohol limit to 50 mg and to 20 mg for novice drivers and professional drivers. This is to be welcomed and will bring us into line with other EU countries, apart from the UK. This side of the House welcomes the introduction of the Bill for which we have been calling for some time. Since the penalty point system was introduced it has had a very positive effect on reducing the number of deaths on our roads. In 2008, there were 279 road deaths, which was reduced from 458 road deaths in 1998. That is a significant reduction. Not all of those deaths were due to alcohol. I welcome the emphasis on road safety, alcohol, speed, safety belts and the upgrading of some interurban routes. The motorway from Cork to Dublin is almost complete. It is a much safer road and anyone who drives on it now feels more secure. There has been a much greater emphasis on road deaths and road safety. I continue to support the penalty points system, which is a positive development that has contributed enormously to road safety.

We need to get to grips with drug driving. The Bill addresses the fact that an increasing number of motorists are driving while under the influence of drink and drugs in some cases or just drugs in other cases. Currently, motorists are only tested for drugs following a Garda request if a person is suspected of being intoxicated but there is no evidence of him or her being over the limit for alcohol. The legislation will give the Garda the power to form an opinion that a driver is under the influence of drugs and to carry out a preliminary impairment test, which is based on co-ordination. That is a step in the right direction as CSO statistics have shown a rapid increase in the detection of people driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs. In 2006 there were 117 offences but by 2009 that had risen to 831 offences. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety has indicated that drivers driving under the influence of drugs are a significant problem. That is something we need to address.

Between 2000 and 2001 a total of 2,000 blood and urine samples were taken from drivers who appeared to drive erratically. The results show that of those, 331 who were under the blood alcohol limit had taken drugs and 142 who tested positive for alcohol were over the limit for drugs. Almost 50% of those who were over the limit were under the age of 25 and more than 90% of them were male. Ten years later we need to analyse the figures and categorise the 831 people who tested positive for drugs, to establish what age they were and what effect the drugs had on them. We need to address the issue through legislation and by giving the Garda the power to carry out the preliminary impairment test. Currently, we do not have any tests that can be carried out at the side of the road even though saliva tests are used in Australia. We have to be seen to be tough in this regard. I hope we can introduce a similar system in this country. It is only if people fear they will be caught and prosecuted that we will see a reduction in the incidence of those offending.

We cannot focus enough on road safety. We had a debate recently on the reduction of the speed limit in Dublin city centre to 30 km/h. That has been unpopular in many sectors. The safety of pedestrians, especially in large housing estates is vitally important. I represent an area that has many large housing estates with a lot of young children. People are concerned that roads are not safe, that priority is given to drivers who have easier access and much greater freedoms and that they are not curtailed sufficiently in large urban areas. There should be more of an emphasis on pedestrians. They should be king rather than, as is currently the case, cars being king in our urban areas.

It is difficult to get local authorities to provide pedestrian crossings due to a lack of funding. Reference is made to traffic manuals and the class of the road but pedestrians are not part of the equation in road traffic manuals. I have had this debate with many local authority engineers. We need to reverse our thinking and ensure that we have pedestrian crossings at bus stops and adjacent to shops and churches, not just for children but for elderly people as well who find crossing the road intimidating. Cork is known as a jaywalking city. I accept it is prevalent in Cork. I would welcome the provision of facilities such as pedestrian crossings, road ramps and chicanes wherever possible and the reduction of speed limits to 30 km/h in housing estates in large urban areas. That would alert drivers to the fact that they are entering an area with a large number of pedestrians, young and old. It is important that speed is reduced and that the safety of the pedestrian is uppermost.

I welcome the fact that penalty points incurred in the State can be applied to foreign driving licences. That is an important step that follows on from an EU directive. It was frustrating that those driving in this country with foreign licences could break the speed limit and drive with an excess of alcohol but no penalty points could be attached to their licence. I am pleased that anomaly is being addressed.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill, which are long overdue. I am disappointed that the facilities to detect the blood alcohol level will not be in place until 2011. That is a sad reflection on how slow we are to react. It is difficult to believe that the testing facility cannot be calibrated until 2011. We had a long saga too with the speed cameras, which were a long time coming. It was only at the end of last year that the roll-out started. It was well known that there were no speed cameras and that people would not be caught for speeding. We finally got them at the end of 2009. We must take whatever measures we can to highlight road safety. I commend the Road Safety Authority on its work in this area. Its television advertisements have been extremely effective. Many young people's lives have been saved. The statistics speak for themselves. Many people have benefited from the actions of that authority.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2009. The gestation of this legislation was controversial but the Bill presented to us today is worthy of a broad welcome. It is important that we have a wide-ranging and thorough Second Stage discussion on the important provisions in the Bill. This legislation is, above all, concerned with public safety and road safety, that is, protecting people from death and injury on the roads. Some speakers have acknowledged that priority before pushing it to one side and focusing on other issues. The reality, however, is that it is an issue that cannot be put to one side. We are either committed to improving road safety or we are a little blasé about it. Perhaps it is part of the Irish psyche to be a little blasé about certain issues. We like everything to work properly but we do not like to be pushed too hard in our exertions to ensure that it does. This legislation may push people a little further than they would like to be pushed.

In essence, however, the Bill contains a set of practical legislative proposals. When it was flagged by the Minister some time ago, those proposals were much more severe than what has been presented to the House. It is important when drafting legislation that one should seek, as far as possible, to ensure public support for it. There is nothing worse than the Oireachtas passing legislation with which the public is unwilling to co-operate. Such legislation may make it into the Statute Book but if its enforcement irks people, it will lead only to accusations that we in this House are out of touch with reality. This Bill represents a practical and sensible balancing of the requirements of public safety against the issues that have been raised since the legislation was flagged. It has been in the pipeline for some time but that has facilitated the sensible approach that has been taken.

Some people may not like me saying - which I have no hesitation in doing - that it is likely that we will have to revisit this legislation in due course to introduce stricter penalties. In that sense, the Bill is a step on the road to improving road safety. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, is to be commended on his work in this area. It is not easy to introduce measures that are unpopular in some areas or with particular sectors. As a rural representative, I understand all the concerns that have been raised. While account must be taken of those concerns, the priority must be road safety. Some 14 people have been killed in the past ten years within one mile of my home, which fronts on to the busy N7. Some of those accidents were drink-related while others happened as a consequence of driver fatigue or inattention. We must keep these realities in our mind when fashioning legislation. Any measure that helps to improve road safety represents a mission accomplished.

The main provision of the Bill is the reduction of the blood alcohol limit and the introduction of an associated administrative and fixed penalty regime. For ordinary motorists, the limit is reduced from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. For those found to have a blood alcohol level between 50 to 80 milligrams, three penalty points and a fine of €200 will apply. For motorists with a blood alcohol level between 80 and 100 milligrams, a six-month disqualification period and a fine of €400 will be imposed.

Recently qualified and professional drivers - which I assume refers to anybody who drives for a living - must adhere to a much lower blood alcohol limit of 20 milligrams. Any such drivers found to exceed that limit will be subject to a three-month disqualification and a €200 fine. Nothing frightens people more than coming face to face with a large heavy articulated truck the driver of which has his mobile telephone in hand. It is an inescapable sight on all our roads. Perhaps lorry and van drivers have to hold their mobile telephones in hand because their engines are so loud. When one sees a truck approaching with a 20-tonne load of grit, sand, cement or whatever, one would like to be confident that the driver has not taken any alcohol. We should all be entitled to that confidence that lorry drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, school bus drivers - all who earn a living from driving - do not have alcohol in their system.

In any event, there is an onus on such people to protect their job, that is, it is in their own interest for professional drivers to be more cautious than ordinary drivers about their driving habits. However, the provisions in the Bill will place a greater burden on such drivers in that they will have to monitor their alcohol consumption carefully even on a night out, if they are driving the following day. I have seen people being stopped by the Garda on their way to 10.30 a.m. mass on a Sunday morning even though there may not have been a garda to be seen the night before when mayhem was breaking out in the same town. We have all seen such anomalies. That issue is probably beyond the scope of the Minister for Transport under this legislation but it is a cause for concern. For example, mothers may be loth to go out for a drink on a Sunday night because of the Monday morning school run. While anything that restrains alcohol consumption may well be positive in itself, there is a concern that such measures may lead to an increased incidence of drinking at home.

Behind this legislation is the love affair of many Irish people with alcohol. I am pleased to note that included in an appendix to the explanatory memorandum is an outline of the regulatory impact assessment that was undertaken of the impact of the proposed changes in blood alcohol limits. This assessment included a consideration of whether the provisions would have a particular impact on socially excluded or vulnerable groups:

The proposals are not addressed to any particular group, and as their objective is to change driver behaviour in relation to driving having taken alcohol, they do not have an impact on socially excluded or vulnerable groups per se. The argument has been made as to the potential social impacts if social interactions dependent on driving are affected by a lower BAC level than currently applies, particularly in the case of rural areas. However, the extent to which social life revolves around drinking is a wider cultural issue but not one which changes the relationship between alcohol levels and driving impairment, or the fact that even a modest reduction in road injuries and fatalities is in itself a huge societal gain.

I agree that the social issues arising from the association between alcohol and socialising is a broader societal issue and cannot solely be tackled within the narrow confines of driving legislation. However, there has been some disagreement on this point and a call for more to be done to address it. There are measures that can be taken such as encouraging young people to go as a designated driver and encouraging a greater provision of taxi services in rural areas. I am lucky to live in an area where most of the towns have a taxi service, although there was no such service ten years ago in some cases. A complaint was made to me during the last election that because there are 194 taxis in operation in Portlaoise, drivers cannot make a living. While some rural towns have an abundance of taxis, for the customers of small rural pubs that are ten, 20 or 30 miles from a main town, it remains very difficult to get a taxi. These are issues to consider but, I am in general agreement with the Minister that this is a broader societal issue that cannot be dealt with solely in the context of this Bill.

That brings me on to the issue of rural transport. Laois TRIP is the name of the organisation that manages the Laois rural transport service. It is doing an excellent job, including providing some evening services such as taking people to mass or to bingo on a Saturday evening. Although some of those who use the service may get a drink along the way, it is not a drink link as was suggested when it was first mooted. Such schemes should be supported.

One aspect of this Bill I like is that section 8 deals specifically with mandatory preliminary breath testing for drivers involved in road traffic collisions at or near the scene of the collision where injury is caused or a person requires medical assistance. It is good that people will know that there will be breath tests in the event of an accident. People might believe that although they had a jar or two, the accident was not really their fault because the other fellow crossed the line. However, in the case of those who had a few jars in them when involved in an accident, it is correct that breath tests should be taken at that point in time. Most people cannot object to this measure, especially when a motor accident has taken place.

Having examined the Bill in detail, I ask the Minister to outline, some time before the completion of its passage through this House, what he means by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, which is referred to extensively in several sections following on from section 20. I have never heard of it. Perhaps I should have heard of it and am declaring my own ignorance but I am unsure whether it an offshoot of another body, is a stand-alone State agency or is one of the famous quangos. I cannot understand the reason such a body is not under the remit of the Road Safety Authority. While I have never heard of it, I note its functions are provided for in legislation going back several years. This Bill contains a provision for the ordering by a court of a person convicted of an offence under various sections to pay to the court, unless there are special reasons for not doing so, a contribution towards the costs and expenses incurred by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in the performance of its functions and section 20 restates the provisions of the Act of 1994. The Minister might outline whether the bureau is a stand-alone agency or whether it could work elsewhere within the Department of Transport or the Road Safety Authority. While it is new to me, it obviously has been in existence for decades and constitutes an example of the organisations in operation with which Members are not familiar.

I also am in favour of the Bill's intentions as expressed in section 31, on which I seek clarification from the Minister. Members are aware of the behaviour of a large minority of those who receive in the post a fixed charge notice for speeding past the camera on the Naas Road or wherever while travelling to Dublin. However, they then appear in court and declare they never received the notice because the current regime requires it to be posted out. District Courts around the country have spent hours on end listening to a succession of people taking to the witness box, giving their names, swearing to tell the whole truth, declaring to the judge they never received the notice and consequently having the charges dismissed. This constitutes a great waste of time for the court, the Garda, the prosecution and it defeats the entire purpose. Consequently, I hope that details of section 31 will clarify this matter with a view to ensuring that the weakness within the existing legislation will be thrashed out. At present, it makes something of a mockery of the process when people simply declare they never received the notice in the post. The first they have heard about it is when they receive a summons because they have not paid the fixed penalty. They then appear in court and tell the judge they never received the fixed penalty notice in the first place and should not have been summonsed because they were not aware a notice had been issued. I hope this issue will be clarified because a coach and four is being driven through the current regime at present.

Section 47 is another very good section with which many people in Ireland will agree. It pertains to providing for a new definition of driving licence to include foreign driving licences. This will bring such licence holders into the scope of the application of sanction for road traffic offences, including disqualification from holding a driving licence. It is proposed the foreign people who are driving in Ireland on what heretofore would have been called international driving licences but now are being called foreign driving licences and who are in breach of the law can have their licenses revoked with regard to driving in Ireland, which is a good thing.

Moreover, I would like to see this extended so that when such people fail to pay tolls, either by simply driving through or by finding a mechanism to not pay them, they also can be chased for these fines as well. I acknowledge this probably would be a little more difficult but all drivers on the roads should be treated equally, regardless of whether they are from Ireland or from elsewhere. Many cars from eastern European countries have appeared on the roads here in recent years and it is important that their drivers be subject to the same rules.

Another point I make in this respect is that I was greatly impressed to see the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, appearing on television today to talk about how fines in respect of motor traffic offences that are issued in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland can be chased in the other jurisdiction. I welcome the introduction of this measure because a coach and four was being driven through the law in this regard. This is not simply a money issue because it also pertains to equity and fairness, in that people in the Republic objected to seeing people coming from the North and putting their foot down once they crossed the Border in the knowledge they could not be caught. The Ceann Comhairle and the Tánaiste, who is present in the Chamber, represent Border counties and will understand this point. While the same behaviour probably happens in reverse, people here do not talk about that as much. Moreover, a town like Buncrana or somewhere similar was mentioned today, which has lost a fortune in uncollected parking fines because they were issued to cars with number plates from Northern Ireland. It is good to learn that such fines now can be collected and the Minister confirmed all the details a few hours ago and I am pleased in this regard.

I wish to raise one item that may not pertain to the legislation but which relates to the Road Safety Authority. I have engaged in detailed correspondence and have tabled detailed parliamentary questions in respect of NCT certificates. A number of constituents have asked questions about this matter and while I am not pressing the case, I simply seek clarification. I have asked the Minister to clarify the reason NCT certificates are issued on the anniversary of a car's first registration, rather than two years after the conduct of the previous test. I refer to an example in which one might go abroad for a year, having received certification from the Garda and the garage that one's car was off the road. In such cases, one is not obliged to pay tax or insurance. However, one is obliged to have an NCT certificate covering the car for that period. Consequently, this means, for example, that if one's NCT certificate is 18 months overdue on one's return, one does the NCT test, pays the fee and gets one's certificate. However, the next test will be due six months later, that is, two years after the previous anniversary because these tests are conducted on a two-year cycle. The certificates are issued on an anniversary basis and not on whether the car was on the road. The answer I have received in correspondence is that this practice arises from an EU directive. However, I doubt whether this has been transposed into Irish legislation in exactly the same manner as is the case in other countries because I am informed that the position differs in respect of such issues in Northern Ireland and in England. Essentially, if having a car certified by the Garda as being off the road is applicable in respect of tax and insurance, the same facility should apply in respect of the NCT test certificate.

I also welcome section 61, which I understand relates to a European Union directive. It provides that third party motor insurance data must be made available through the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland to a person who wishes to make a claim regarding the insurance and ownership details of motor vehicles. Consequently, if an accident takes place, a person will have the relevant registration number. It often might be difficult to get it on the site of an accident or a person may not in a position to acquire it due to injuries sustained. However, if one wishes to contact the other person subsequently, there will now be an onus on the information centre operated by the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland to provide such information regarding the details of third party insurance to people within a few days.

Another item of information that should emerge in respect of insurance is that I understand there are many cancelled insurance policies on the road. People take out insurance policies and pay one or two monthly premiums but then stop paying thereafter. Consequently, such people can drive around for an extensive period with what appears to be a valid insurance disc on the windscreen, although no insurance policy exists to back it up. Historically, there is meant to be a mechanism for the Department of Transport to notify the local Garda station and the local garda is meant to chase up such cases. However, this issue should be dealt with by the insurance companies to ensure their certificates are not being abused in such a manner.

I concur with the previous speaker who raised the issue of speeding in urban areas. In urban areas or some of the very large new housing estates that can have 400, 500 or 600 houses, the issue of speed ramps and speeding within the estate is very important. It would be useful were local authorities, perhaps in conjunction with the Department of Transport, to take a consistent approach in respect of by-laws on road width in estates. Some of them can be extremely narrow, which makes it difficult for vehicles to pass in some of the very large estates, in which there are large volumes of cars on the roads and emergency vehicles may not be able to get in or out. It is important that there be consistency in this regard.

Many new motorways are opening. They are safer than current roads because, by definition, cars do not drive in opposite directions on the same stretches. However, I must raise a concern regarding the new phenomenon of large concrete barriers along the middle of motorways. One could be driving at 120 km/h with a concrete barrier only 1 m or so away. If one hit it, one would fly all over the place and cause a major accident involving everything following. Building concrete barriers has been a recent fashion, but the matter should be considered. If they are causing serious accidents or worsening the situation, they should be removed.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the thrust of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 introduced by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey. The cornerstone principle of reducing road fatalities must be supported by everyone in society, not least Members of the Oireachtas. That the fatality rate in road traffic accidents was 63 per million of population in 2008, which represents a decrease of 19% from the 2007 rate of 78 fatalities per million of population, is a significant move in the right direction. When one takes account of the facts that, since 1998, our population has increased by 19%, the number of registered motor vehicles has increased by 65%, the number of full and provisional driver licences has increased by 35% and the number of road fatalities has decreased by 39%, one can say that something is working. However, this progress is little comfort to the 279 families that lost loved ones in 2008 through road traffic accidents.

The conventional wisdom, as published by the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is that one in three road fatalities involves alcohol. The proposed reduction in the allowable blood alcohol level is an effort to address this matter. International research, as presented by the RSA, shows a reduction of up to 18% in fatalities when going from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg per 100 ml. This could mean the saving of 20 lives on Irish roads every year.

Will the Minister examine the reasons for the other 200 deaths? If the RSA could produce the same types of data and awareness campaign and alter public opinion on what is acceptable in society in respect of the factors that cause the remaining two thirds of road fatalities, we could dramatically reduce the numbers dying on our roads every year. One death is one too many. The Minister must consider this angle.

The debate on the reduction of blood alcohol levels from 80 mg to 50 mg has been held in the House and everywhere else, but this debate and the pursuit of reduced road fatalities should not centre on the contentious and emotive drink driving aspect. It seems that two out of every three road fatalities are not alcohol-related. I hope that the Minister does not forget this and I await with interest his proposals to deal with the other factors that result in 66% of road fatalities.

I have no doubt that, given the nature of modern life, fatigue is and will become an even greater contributory factor in road fatalities. We travel long distances to work, work longer hours because of our economic situation and cannot avail of an adequate public transport system. We have a new motorway network with no rest facilities. It is of deep concern that one will soon be able to travel from Dublin to Limerick on the M7 without being able to stop. As there will be nowhere to stop along the road, one will need to veer off to avail of services in towns. This is nonsensical. This week, it was disappointing to learn about the suspension of the provision of motorway stops.

The UK at 80 mg and Malta at 90 mg are the only other European countries with the same or higher drink driving levels compared with Ireland. This fact has often been quoted in the debate for moving our rate to the European average of 50 mg. However, the road fatalities per million figure throws up some interesting facts. Ireland's figure is 63, the UK's is 43 and Malta's is 37. I use these figures to underline my point that the Minister, if serious about reducing road fatalities, must examine the other 66% of road fatalities.

In 2008, the percentage of fatal collisions occurring on rural roads was 72%. This is definitely disproportionate and is another prime example of the urban-rural divide. The weather we have experienced since last November, with rain and severe frost and snow, has had a serious impact on the quality of our road network, particularly rural roads. Some of our tertiary, local and regional roads, along with our national, secondary and even some national primary roads, are in an appalling state. It is disappointing that the Minister for Transport has not chosen to address the fundamental problem. His recent roadworks allocations have made no effort to deal with the destruction of part of our national infrastructure in a meaningful manner. It is fine for him to state that he is allowing county councils complete discretion in how they spend their allocations, but there is a touch of Henry Ford selling his Model T car in the Minister's allocations, that is, "You can have any colour as long as it is black". Our local authorities have no choice where their 2010 funding is concerned.

Clare County Council recently completed an audit of the damage caused to that county's roads. On completion of this audit, Mr. Tom Tiernan, the senior engineer, submitted a claim for damages to County Clare's roads totalling €11 million. This year, the Minister's total allocation for Clare's roads is €15.6 million. This allocation represents a decrease of approximately 3% on last year's figure. In a two-year period, Clare has suffered a cut of 33% in road funding allocations.

This problem will not go away if the Minister does not provide funding. Our road network will continue to fall into disrepair. Roads that required attention long before the extreme weather struck have been left in dangerous conditions. For example, the main road through Clarecastle, the former N18 and now known as the R485, and the R473 Kildysart Road in Clarecastle are in a particularly bad condition and need immediate attention. I refer to roads throughout east County Clare, particularly in Tulla, Feakle, Whitegate and Mountshannon. In south-east Clare, I refer to roads like the R465 Broadford-Limerick route and roads around Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus. In north Clare the N67 Ennistymon to Lahinch road, the R481 Ennistymon to Kilfenora road and roads in Connolly and Kilmaley and right across to west Clare around Kilrush and Kilkee are screaming out for urgent attention. They need attention. County Clare's roads desperately require investment. Filling potholes simply will not suffice. In many instances it is a waste of money and resources as whole sections of road surfaces need to be rebuilt, surface-dressed and re-laid.

The blatant under-funding of County Clare's road network will undermine Clare County Council's five year roads programme. Roads which were scheduled to receive attention this year, will now be ignored and placed on the long finger. The Claremont road in Clarecastle, which is near to my home, was due to be upgraded this year. The road was upgraded to a very high standard five years ago but within months it was torn up for the installation of a gas mains. It was then torn up to install telecom lines. There was no liaison between the various utility suppliers and the local authority. Five years later, the road is in a treacherous condition. It is now thought that because of cuts in funding, the five year rolling maintenance programme has been shelved and the upgrading will not be completed. The road will fall apart if it does not receive the attention it requires.

If roads are not maintained at a safe standard and potholes are allowed to develop accidents will occur. We know that poor road surfaces are linked to increases in accidents and fatalities. I urge the Minister for Transport to revisit this issue and allocate additional funding to repair and improve County Clare's roads.

The Bill presents an opportunity to deal with rural isolation. There is a link between rural isolation and the reduction in the legal alcohol driving limit along with the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing. This is something the Minister must acknowledge and do something about. The Minister must ensure that schemes such as the rural transport initiative are maintained and not scrapped as proposed in the McCarthy report.

I pay tribute to Clare Accessible Transport for the wonderful work it does in providing a valuable transport system to the many people who use its service in County Clare. The company provides a service on a daily basis, enabling people to shop, go to mass and meet neighbours. The service is part of these people's daily lives and it should be supported. It allows people to access transport and prevents them falling into the trap of rural isolation.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for drugs testing. I recently met a group of teachers in County Clare to discuss the issue of head shops and of people driving under the influence of the products sold in them. I heard of a young man who was involved in an accident and admitted to having taken a product sold in a head shop. Because the product was not illegal, he could not be prosecuted. I ask the Minister to consider this issue. The question of illegal drugs is mentioned in the Bill. The Garda no longer need to suspect a driver of being over the alcohol limit or of using illegal drugs to carry out a preliminary impairment test. This should be extended to products currently sold in head shops.

I welcome the Bill and urge the Minister to apply the same rigour shown here to all elements of causes of road fatalities.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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With the permission of the House I will share my time with Deputy Christy O'Sullivan.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I compliment the Minister on introducing the legislation and compliment him and the Government on the progress made to date. The number of deaths on Irish roads has been reduced from 472 to 239 over a ten year period. Ireland, from being the 16th safest country in 2005 was, last year, the 6th safest country in which to drive. The Minister tells us we will even improve on that figure. While it is good news that the numbers are reducing, the number of deaths is still unacceptable. It is also interesting to note that while 3,000 people died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, during the same 30 year period 10,000 people were killed on the roads in this State.

One third of all accidents are linked to alcohol. This creates a major and unavoidable public health problem, the devastation of families, the suffering of victims and an estimated cost to our health services of €500 million. The proposal to reduce the legal blood alcohol level from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml led to much debate when it was announced last autumn. I had no difficulty supporting the decision when it was announced, mainly because of the scientific evidence in its favour. This concludes that a reduction to 50 mg per 100 ml reduced the number of accidents. In Queensland, Australia, the number of accidents was reduced by a similar reduction from 80 mg to 50 mg by 20%. In 2008, a British Medical Association report entitled, Alcohol Misuse: Tackling the UK Epidemic, called for such a reduction to 50 mg. The United Kingdom and Malta are now the only two countries in the EU where the legal limit remains at 80 mg. The Journal of Safety Research, Volume 36 (2006) pp 233 - 243, studied the effects of lowering the level to 50 mg in Australia, France, Austria, Sweden and Netherlands. For all countries, it came to the conclusion that reducing the blood alcohol level reduced the number of accidents.

The relative risk of being involved in a fatal crash as a driver is four to ten times greater for drivers with a blood alcohol limit between 50 mg and 70 mg per 100 ml. The World Medical Association, at its world assembly in South Africa in 2006 called for the limit to be less than 50 mg. It suggested between one and 50.

There is also ample scientific evidence of the effects of blood alcohol levels on the body and on performance. Between 60 and 100 mg there is psychological sedation of all systems in the body, decreased attention and alertness, slowed reactions, impaired co-ordination, reduced muscle strength, reduced ability to make rational decisions or exercise good judgment, an increase in anxiety and depression and a decrease in patience. In the light of such evidence, it leaves the Government with no choice but to introduce a level of 15.

Northern Ireland has a proposal to reduce the level to 15 mg which brings me to the issue of co-ordination and co-operation between North and South in the implementation of road safety measures and penalties. I welcome this morning's announcement of an initiative by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and Minister Conor Murphy, MLA, on parking and tolling fines. While it is a step in the right direction, it does not make much contribution to road safety measures. There are proposals to go further and a proposal has been debated many times at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body to introduce an integrated penalty points system. Interestingly, one of the reasons for the slow movement is that there is not an integrated system between Britain and Northern Ireland, so I understand they must get that right first. I welcome the decisions on the new arrangements for penalties. The penalty is not as harsh for people with lower levels of alcohol.

Driving under the influence of drugs is a matter of serious concern. There is no breath test available currently, so it is necessary to bring people in for a blood or a urine sample. No legal limits are set for the level of drugs in the system and more research is needed. Again, I welcome the decision of the Road Safety Authority to review the regulations in place but we should support more research.

Mandatory alcohol testing has been successful and I welcome its extension to drivers involved in accidents where another person has been injured. Unfortunately, we need penalties and to avoid breaches of the road safety code. I would like to think the day will come, sooner rather than later, when we will have a generation of people for whom road accidents will be eradicated or reduced to a minimum. It is necessary to start with education and information and to develop a healthy attitude to the use of alcohol and the misuse of drugs. We need to restrict advertising.

Rural pubs have made a good contribution, and continue to do so, in alleviating rural isolation, in particular for elderly people. Last autumn when the legislation was announced, I met vintners in County Monaghan. I explained to them why I would support the legislation but asked if they could spend some time with me discussing the decline in the number of customers, because they have problems. We discussed excise duty, cross-Border trading, the change in people's drinking habits and the availability of transport, which is a major issue in rural Ireland. I have long advocated that all transport in rural Ireland funded by the State should be integrated to deliver a comprehensive service. I mention schools and the health service, except the ambulance service, Bus Éireann and voluntary rural transport. This service could help to ensure a rural scheme at night for people who wish to use it and assist in ensuring safe transport home in situations where alcohol is an issue. I support the Bill.

Photo of Christy O'SullivanChristy O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation but it is important we get it right from the beginning and that it is seen to be fair and balanced. By and large, I agree with most of what is in this Bill. I appreciate the hard work that has gone into getting it to this point but there are aspects I would like teased out more before it is passed into law.

I have been struck by the contributions of many speakers which bear personal testimony to the devastation brought about by road traffic accidents. I am not immune to this. My brother, who may well have been destined to be a Member of this House, was killed in a road accident in 1993 and I know first-hand how this affected family and friends.

I wish to make a few points, which are important to this debate. There are equally valid viewpoints that must be taken into consideration. Rural isolation cannot be ignored. There are people in my constituency who may have to walk for a half an hour before they reach a public road and walk for well over an hour before they get to the nearest village or town. There are no street lights, no buses and no taxis for them. These are the people about whom I am concerned.

The people most affected are usually the older generation who have spent the week on their own perhaps working the farm and getting on with life. We cannot say to them not to drink and drive and leave it at that. We must consider ways in which we can alleviate the isolation they feel on a daily basis.

There are no statistics to show that the person in rural Ireland who goes to his or her local and has one or two drinks is the cause of accidents. The Bill we pass should not have the side effect of further damaging rural Ireland. God knows, it is damaged enough already. Ways must be found to enhance and protect this rapidly diminishing way of life.

I do not condone drink driving but there are other factors which must be taken into account when considering this Bill. For instance, it is impossible to ignore the bad condition of our roads in recent months which is due, by and large, to unprecedented weather conditions. This legislation must reflect that because the condition of our national, secondary, regional and county roads are a major factor in, and the cause of, road accidents. People now have the added difficulty of trying to avoid large potholes which, in itself, is an extra hazard.

The main artery from Cork city to west Cork is the N71 which has been neglected through the years and is in desperate need of upgrading. Anybody who has travelled this road will know what I am talking about. Now that the Cork Swansea ferry service is about to recommence, there will be more pressure on this very important road.

We talk a lot about statistics which show speeding is a major cause of accidents on our roads. Speed is the main factor contributing to road deaths in Ireland. More than 40% of fatal accidents are caused by inappropriate and excessive speed. Young males under 25 years of age driving late at night or early in the morning are involved in a large number of fatal accidents and this is an area to which we must pay more attention.

Car crashes are the number one killer of young men aged 16 to 25 in Ireland and driving at excessive speed is the primary cause of these crashes. I am not here to place all the blame on young Irish males. Any Bill we introduce, which affects our youth, should also endeavour to enhance and protect them. In this regard, we should actively provide facilities and events to enable young people to enjoy driving in a safe and proper environment. Facilities should be also provided for them to learn to drive and practise driving before taking to the roads. This could be done in transition year or final years. Similar practices have proven successful internationally.

All of us have witnessed careless and reckless driving behaviour, including drivers who are unable to concentrate because they are using mobile telephones, people overtaking five or six cars at once and drivers overtaking on double white lines. We must target such persons because they present a serious threat to road safety.

Before we adopt this legislation, we must be confident we are doing everything in our power to eradicate bad driving habits. We also must be sure we are not placing greater stress on those who live in isolation in country areas where public transport is not available. We must discourage people from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or at excess speed. In doing this, we must ensure we act in a fair and balanced manner.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I support this Bill which should have the effect of fundamentally changing our culture by ensuring that everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car does so in the full knowledge that new penalties will be imposed for certain driving behaviours. As a result of this legislation, those who drink will have to significantly change their behaviour. We need to modify how we, as a society, deal with the issue of alcohol and the only way to achieve this objective is to ensure there is no ambiguity about the blood alcohol limits that apply while driving.

Having served on Cork County Council with him, I have the greatest respect for the previous speaker, Deputy Christy O'Sullivan. I, too, am only too well aware of the conditions experienced by rural dwellers who are frequently disadvantaged by virtue of their rural isolation and experience a lack of access to services. I find it difficult to listen to Government Deputies deplore the state of rural roads and the problem of rural isolation.

If people are to have access to the services they will require as a result of the measures provided for in the Bill, we must ensure ancillary services are in place to meet their demands and needs. For instance, in my area Bus Éireann has decided to withdraw the No. 66 route which serves a rural area and individuals living in rural isolation. They include older people who travel to towns such as Fermoy, Ballyhooly and Castletownroche to enjoy a drop before taking a bus home later in the evening. Many of these people do not drive and will no longer have access to the service as a result of the decision to close the route. This problem is a function of Government policy because an ancillary rural transport programme is not in place to pick up the slack arising from the loss of the service. In particular, a night time bus service is not in place to facilitate those who want to act responsibility but are unable to avail of a bus service. Government policy militates against the very people who experience rural isolation.

We need to be clear about the implications of the legislation. If we support the Bill on the basis that driver behaviour must change significantly, we must also take into account that some people, by virtue of residing in rural areas and deciding to behave responsibly as required under the legislation, will no longer have access to the local pub. Current policy does not meet their needs. If Bus Éireann drops routes at a rate of knots and the rural transport programme is not rolled out quickly enough to pick up the slack, particularly with regard to night time services, those who live in the rural areas obviously will be affected. This issue needs to be teased out in greater detail.

On the commencement of the sections which will become operational before mid-2011, I refer to the Bills digest produced by the Oireachtas Library and Research Unit. It states:

...different sections may become operational before others. Some of the provisions of the Bill will not come into force until mid 2011. This is because evidential breath-testing (EBT) machines used in Garda stations to measure the alcohol in a driver's breath cannot be recalibrated to the 20mg/100mL limit as yet.

What is the current state of play with regard to the Garda's capacity to recalibrate the EBT machines as required?

I understand the legislation reduces blood alcohol limits and introduces mandatory alcohol testing for drivers who are involved in traffic collisions as well as roadside preliminary impairment testing to detect drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One would expect the Government to have ensured all necessary technology was available prior to or in parallel with the implementation of the legislation. Will the Minister provide an update on the Garda's capacity to use the required technology?

On road collision statistics, while I do not doubt the bona fides of the Road Safety Authority, I have a healthy scepticism about some of the statistics produced on road traffic accidents. The Government has stated its commitment to improving road safety and the number of deaths on Irish roads declined to 240 in 2009. It is estimated that 25% of road accidents and 33% of fatal road accidents are attributable to alcohol. I often wonder how such statistics are measured and what process is used by the Road Safety Authority or Garda Síochána to produce their statistics, particularly those relating to road fatalities. I am not sceptical about the figures but I question the qualitative methods used to compile the statistics used for making an argument for a particular proposal. I ask for a response in that regard.

I welcome the provisions on new drivers. We cannot disregard the link between driver impairment and alcohol consumption. It has been proven scientifically and is supported by anecdotal evidence. Common sense says that if a person imbibes, their ability to operate a machine or vehicle will be impaired.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland opposed the reduction in the limit and I can see its point. Anecdotal evidence suggests that their regular rural customers might drink a pint and a drop before ambling home. They never go beyond their usual level of imbibing, which is a social outlet for them. We must be able to provide for those who use the pub as a social outlet. If they are not able to drive, how will we facilitate them? Some of them will be able to get taxis while others will travel with neighbours. However, do we now have to tell them that there is no other alternative? In implementing the legislation, we need to strike a balance and speak for those people as well.

The section creates a distinction between newly qualified and other full licence holders. Novice drivers are subject to a lower BAC and will be automatically disqualified for three months if an administrative fixed penalty is accepted, or disqualified for six months if found guilty after a court hearing. Other licence holders do not face automatic disqualification following a first conviction. Can the Minister of State clarify if this is an age-related distinction, or does it merely distinguish between novices and experienced drivers? Is any qualification brought into play concerning an older person who may have transgressed? It is not that I am advocating a particular position on that, but I am seeking clarification in the Minister of State's response.

On balance we are experiencing a serious erosion of services in rural areas. Some argue that the decline of the rural pub reflects a decline in overall infrastructure, particularly roads. As someone who meets members of the public every day, I hold that view myself, because they are finding it increasingly difficult to access services. That is particularly the case for older people. I would distinguish between older and elderly people, because the use of the word "elderly" sometimes implies a certain infirmity. Many older people are mobile, although they may not drive. We always had a sense of inter-generational solidarity in this country, but it is being undermined by stealth. When drafting legislation we must, therefore, ensure that if it impacts on one service we should try to replace it with another service if possible.

The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that lives are saved and one cannot qualify that. While it is a black and white issue, there are grey areas where some public services will be diminished. Government policy on rural transport should be structured in such a way that people can access community centres or pubs outside normal office hours if they wish to do so. We must facilitate them in this respect.

Photo of Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy (Dublin North, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle as ucht deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar an Bille tábhachtach seo. Ta mé an-sásta go bhfuil an Bille seo á thabhairt isteach. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire, an Teachta Dempsey, as ucht an reachtaíocht á thabhairt os comhair na Dála. Os rud é gurb í seo seachtain na Gaeilge, ba mhaith liom labhairt ar feadh tamaill in ár teanga dúchais.

Is ball den Chomhchoiste um Iompar mé agus dá bhrí sin, tá an-suim go deo agam san ábhar seo. Tá mé i mo chónaí i gceann de na dáilcheantracha is mó fáis sa tír. Ar nós gach éinne eile, feicim sna nuachtáin agus ar na fógraí teilifíse an méid daoine a fhaigheann bás ar na bóithre gach lá. Tá eolas agam ar an dochar a dhéanann sé dos na teaghlaigh atá fágtha ina dhiaidh.

Tá aidhm an Bille seo an-simplí - chun na básannna ar na bóithre a laghdú agus chun reachtaíocht buan a chur i bhfeidhm do na húdaráis fhorfheidhmithe dlí agus na úsáideoirí bóithre araon.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It is a relief that it is being introduced and I congratulate the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for bringing it before the House. As a member of the Committee on Transport I have a particular interest in the legislation. As I just said, as Gaeilge, I live in North Dublin, which is one of the largest and fastest growing constituencies in the country. As with other areas, I am aware of the number of road accidents that occur daily, some of them fatal and others causing serious injury. Such road accidents cause grief and suffering to the families concerned.

The purpose of the Bill is to lessen the tragic loss of life on our roads and, in so doing, provide concrete legislation for law enforcement authorities and all road users alike. Consolidation and consensus in support of the Government's commitment in the road safety strategy and the programme for Government is a vital cog in the wheel of this legislation. I fully support the Government's efforts in this regard.

Last year, we considered the issues for a reduction in the blood alcohol content, BAC, level for drivers raised in this debate and agreed that the evidence in favour of reducing the BAC levels was conclusive and indisputable. Reducing the BAC levels from the current limit of 80 mg/ml is one of the most necessary components of this legislation. The Bill gives effect to reducing the blood alcohol limit from 80 mg to 50 mg for experienced drivers, and 20 mg for inexperienced and professional drivers. I sincerely welcome this measure.

It is estimated that in Ireland 25% of road accidents, and 33% of fatal road accidents, are attributable to alcohol. I am sure we would all agree that these figures are particularly frightening. Put another way, each of those one-in-three fatal road accidents involves the loss of one or more people because of alcohol usage. Road fatalities and injuries also have significant financial implications and while this has far less consequence than loss of life, nonetheless it is significant.

Goodbody Economic Consultants have estimated that the cost of each road death is €3 million, while serious injuries cost €386,000 each. They also found that if a reduction in the blood alcohol limit to 50 mg resulted in a 2% reduction in road deaths, it would lead to a saving of several lives and €16 million per year. How can these figures possibly be argued against?

Studies have found that reducing BAC limits from 80 mg/ml to 50 mg/ml has resulted in a reduction in road deaths. A case in point is Australia, where an 18% reduction in fatal crashes and a 14% reduction in serious crashes was recorded in 1983, when the limit was lowered from 80 mg/ml to 50 mg/ml. Further evidence of ever-decreasing road deaths in Australia since the lowering of the BAC limit has been recorded in Queensland from 1984 to 2008, which experienced a reduction of 35% in fatal crashes during almost quarter of a century.

What more evidence of the benefits of reducing our BAC limits to 50 mg/ml could we possibly need? The facts speak for themselves. My strongly held belief is that a zero tolerance policy needs to be enforced for drink driving. There will always be some who will take the chance, who will take more alcohol than they should and believe they still have the mental capacity to get behind the steering wheel of a vehicle and drive on our roads. This happens frequently. The policy should be zero tolerance. This would communicate strongly that drinking and driving costs dearly and is a risk that should not be considered.

The proposed legislation contributes significantly towards sending this message to all drivers. If qualified drivers are found to be above the new limit, between 50 mg and 80 mg, they will incur three penalty points for a first offence. A €200 fine and driver disqualification penalties are also possible. We cannot ignore the fact that some people will take a risk. If they do so, they will have to pay the price. The Bill also introduces a limit of 20 mg for specified drivers, namely learners or professional drivers. However, I believe professional drivers such as bus or taxi drivers should not be allowed have any alcohol in their system while driving.

I am well aware that not all road collisions are the result of drinking and driving. I have a background in insurance and have some reasonable knowledge of the causes of accidents. A full ban on drink driving should be the optimum outcome of legislation. Total prevention is better than cure. We are all aware that current mandatory alcohol testing only occurs at Garda checkpoints, or where gardaí have formed the opinion that the driver may be over the alcohol limit. This needs to be addressed.

Section 8 also provides for the mandatory alcohol testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions. This is necessary, never more than now. If we can verify at the scene of an accident, when possible, whether any or all individuals involved in accidents have alcohol in their system, the test results cannot be disputed later. Carrying out these tests at the scene can also serve to clear innocent drivers involved of any suspicion that they may have been under the influence of an intoxicant. It is only right and fair that all doubt be removed with regard to the innocent who are involved in serious or fatal crashes.

With regard to road safety here, positive and substantial progress and improvements in general road safety have been chronicled in a recent report by the OECD. This new global report found that Ireland is now ranked the tenth safest country out of 27 countries world wide in the study. The report looked at the road safety performance of 27 countries around the world which participate in its international safety data and analysis group in 2008. It also examined the long-term trends in each country. In its country report for Ireland, it reported that substantial reductions in road fatalities had been recorded. Specifically, Ireland was the fifth most improved country out of 27 participating OECD countries in the report. As a result, Ireland is now ranked the tenth safest country out of these 27 countries world wide, with 6.3 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008.

The report stated there was a 17% decrease in road fatalities in 2008 compared to 2007. Furthermore, fatalities decreased by 30% between 2005 and 2008. Between 1970 and 2008 the number of road fatalities decreased by 48%. In the same period, the number of vehicles on the roads quadrupled, but since 2000, the risk of being involved in a fatal collision had almost halved. However the report also highlighted the fact that young people, especially 18 to 20 year olds, are still a high risk group in Ireland, with a fatality risk three times higher than that of the rest of the general population. While television campaigns, driver testing and licensing, vehicle standards and promotion of road safety all go a long way towards dealing with this problem, only enforced legislation will continue to appropriately redress the current driving culture.

The OECD global report follows an earlier EU report published in mid 2009 by the European Transport Safety Council which has ranked Ireland the sixth safest country in the European Union. In January of this year, the Road Safety Authority further reported that 2009 was the safest year on Ireland's roads since road deaths were first recorded in 1959. A total of 240 people tragically lost their lives on Irish roads last year. This is 39 fewer fatalities compared to 279 deaths in 2008 and represents an overall welcome reduction of 14%. Furthermore, in 2009 the Government's road safety target of achieving no more than 252 deaths per annum by the end of 2012 was also achieved, three years ahead of schedule. I agree this is considerable improvement, but the loss of even one life on our roads is one too many and no doubt we all agree on that. It is imperative we concentrate on establishing a road safety culture that will prevent future loss of life on our nation's roads.

On the issue of driving under the influence of drugs, this has been a statutory offence in Ireland since the Road Traffic Act 1961. At present, there is no legislation or mechanism in place to allow for roadside testing of drivers for the consumption of drugs. This is a particular challenge for gardaí in apprehending those who are guilty of being under the influence of drugs while driving. According to the Road Safety Authority, the absence of a roadside test for drugs means that many drug-drivers will not be caught; further evidence that current legislation relating to drug-driving must change. Up to now, gardaí have had to rely on forming an opinion that a person is under the influence of a drug before taking them to a Garda station for a blood and urine sample and unlike penalties for drink driving, there are no graded penalties based on the concentration of drugs in that person's system. Furthermore, gardaí have had to rely on observing whether the person's driving has been impaired by the presence of a drug.

I am very pleased that the Bill will provide gardaí with more definite means to form an opinion that a driver is or is not under the influence of an intoxicant - whether drugs, alcohol or both. Unfortunately, as we all know, many young people seem to drink and take drugs at the same time. There is a necessity for a preliminary impairment test, or field impairment test, for such drivers. This test has proven successful in its effectiveness for predicting positive drug tests for drivers, with a 64% recorded success rate. It is another vital element of the Road Traffic Bill. I strongly welcome this move, as it strengthens the arm of the law and enables gardaí identify and then prosecute dangerous and irresponsible drivers on our roads. It will also go some way towards preventing drug drivers from re-offending.

Despite all the benefits contained in the Bill, many people consider that it will have negative repercussions on their businesses and lifestyles. The Vintners' Federation of Ireland has lobbied against a plan to reduce the alcohol limit, saying it would bring about a significant number of job losses in the industry. It would also argue that rural areas do not have an adequate level of public transport infrastructure for people who wish to visit their local pubs. I would argue that significant funding has been provided by the Government to improve public transport in rural areas. Some €90 million will be spent on the rural transport programme over the next four to five years. This is welcome and we should continue to develop that programme. Funding of €11 million was provided by the Department of Transport for the programme in 2009.

Notwithstanding this, I realise there are elderly and disabled people in rural areas who suffer from isolation and who would like but may not be able to avail of public transport to visit their local pub. For that reason, we need to look into alternative ways of providing evening transport for them. This could possibly be done through the lease of school buses by local groups or perhaps local vintners could come up with a plan to provide transport for their customers. In these economically challenging times, adapting to changing trends in Government policy as well as in the marketplace is crucial in every business. Continuing community involvement in this regard is extremely important and should be encouraged in every way.

On a separate but also transport-related issue, I must take the opportunity to comment on the recent decision of Dublin City Council regarding the 30 km/h speed limit in the city centre. That step was unnecessary and the previous limit should be restored. From the representations and comments I am receiving, many people consider it is much more dangerous to be continually looking at the speedometer rather than watching where one is going. I sincerely hope Dublin city councillors will have the good sense to bring about change when they review the system in July.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps because they are going so slow they have time to look around, which could be a further distraction.

Photo of Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy (Dublin North, Fianna Fail)
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It may well be. We agree that the 30 km/h speed limit is unnecessary and is doing nothing for road safety. Analysis of the accidents occurring within the Dublin city area shows that they are limited in number. If we are serious about increasing safety from speeding, there are other roads we should be looking at.

I offer my support for the Road Traffic Bill. It provides for a reduction in the blood alcohol limit for drivers and revises associated penalties, including driver disqualification, while providing for mandatory alcohol testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions. It clarifies the minimum disqualification period that must be served before a driver may apply to the courts for the restoration of his or her licence following the imposition of a disqualification order, and it provides powers to assist the Garda in forming an opinion of whether the driver is under the influence of an intoxicant - that is, alcohol or drugs - and to carry out preliminary impairment tests. It consolidates and restates the provisions of the Road Traffic Acts on driving while intoxicated and provides for amendments to certain fixed charge and penalty point matters. It will improve certain provisions with regard to driving licences and provide for a number of minor amendments to the Road Traffic Acts. These measures will have an impact on all drivers, which includes nearly every one of us.

I mo thuairimse tá na hathraithe seo riachtanach. Má tá muid chun méid áirithe teorannacha a chur leis an mBille seo ar mhaithe le sabháilteacht ar ár mbóithre, tá mé go huile agus go hiomlán ag tacú leis an Bhille seo agus tá súil agam go ndéanfaidh an Teach seo mar an gcéanna. These changes are absolutely necessary. If we are to impose limitations while strengthening the rule of law on our roads in order to minimise the pointless, tragic and continuing loss of life around the country, then I am overwhelmingly in favour of this Bill and I trust this House will be also.