Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
As Minister, it is a pleasure to be able to bring before the House the Road Traffic Bill 2016. There has been much talk over this year about new politics and new and more co-operative ways of doing Dáil business. Road traffic legislation is an area which can point the way. This has always been a remarkably non-partisan aspect of legislation, which attracts constructive engagement from all sides. I will be happy to consider all sensible amendments proposed.
We all agree on the fundamental reason for road traffic legislation, which is the safety of road users. This is paramount to the public and to all of us. We may at times have disagreements about the best ways to promote road safety but they are reasonable and practical disagreements about what will work best and they generally give rise to very constructive discussions. This is an area of policy happily free from ideology. There are ideas which work and ideas which do not work and the history of the House when it comes to debating road traffic legislation shows that we are all interested in arriving at better laws which work better and which, ultimately, make us all safer. The fact the Bill was the subject of detailed pre-legislative scrutiny and was changed quite substantially as a result is a testament to the kind of non-partisan approach which has always attended the discussion of road safety matters. The subsequent passage of the Bill by the Seanad was facilitated by constructive engagement from all sides.
If we look back 20 or so years, we can see there has been a remarkable improvement in safety on our roads. Although the number of vehicles has increased greatly, the trend in deaths on the roads has overall been downward. In 1997, deaths on our roads peaked at the astonishingly high figure of 472. After 1997, a steady trend brought deaths down to the historic low of 162 in 2012. It is a source of concern that the numbers then went up to 188 in 2013 and 194 in 2014. Last year, 2015, which was the joint safest year on record, saw a reduction in fatalities to 162, just 35% of the peak in 1997. While this is welcome, we should not forget that behind each and every one of these fatalities is a grieving family, friends and community.
Looking to the more immediate past and the present, however, the trends we are seeing are very worrying. The fact we had two years of increased numbers of deaths after the record low of 2012 should worry us all and I know it does. Moreover, the figures to date in 2016 show a disturbing increase on 2015. As of today, the number of deaths for our roads this year is 138, as against 115 on the same day last year. This is an increase of approximately 20%. Why is this? There is no one factor which can be blamed. We have to be aware that, as the figures get lower, relatively few incidents and relatively small factors can lead to a noticeable change. The experience of 2015 illustrates this well. Up to November of last year, 2015 was on course to being the safest year on record with even lower road fatalities than 2012. Sadly, this was changed by a sequence of fatal collisions, which made December 2015 the worst December for road fatalities since 2007.
The truth is that many factors affect road safety. There are physical factors, such as the quality and maintenance of our roads and the vehicles on them. Traffic planning and management which makes sense too have a role. Then there are the human factors, including driver training and experience, drivers' health, the danger of driver impairment from intoxicants, the risk of driver distraction and the enforcement of the law. There is also the sense of responsibility which everyone should have when they get behind a steering wheel.
The great improvement in road safety, which we have seen in the past two decades may be the result of initiatives in all of these areas. The quality of our roads has improved. Testing of private cars and commercial vehicles through the NCT has led to a higher standard of vehicles on our roads. We no longer see the kinds of rusty old cars which used to be ubiquitous on Irish roads. Improvements to the legislation on driver licensing have strengthened the driver learning process. Learners now have to undergo a mandatory programme of lessons before taking the driving test and the old culture of being a learner for life and not bothering with the test has been and is being tackled. The law has also been strengthened significantly in the area of drink driving.
While it is hard to measure attitudes and culture changes, many were beginning to believe that the culture of tolerance towards drink driving which we once had was waning. However, the pre-crash report on alcohol published earlier this year by the RSA revealed that alcohol was a factor in 38% of all fatal collisions between 2008 and 2012, with the loss of 286 lives. This made for shocking reading, particularly with regard to the number of younger people drinking and driving. The report stated that almost half, 43%, of the drivers in the report who had consumed alcohol were aged between 16 and 24 years. Some Members may have seen the finding last week from the Irish Examiner-ICMSA opinion survey, which showed close to 23% of those polled admitting to driving after three or more pints. This is a deeply disappointing and, indeed, disturbing figure, particularly after so many years of campaigning to raise awareness of the dangers of drink driving. We must ask the hard question on whether the long running campaign to eliminate drink-driving failed.
Many positive initiatives have been set out and driven through Ireland's successive road safety strategies, of which we are now on our fourth. The current road safety strategy, which runs from 2013 to 2020, sets out 144 actions to be carried out by my Department and other bodies. These actions cover the whole range of areas which can impact on road safety and we will not let up on implementing them so as to make people safer on our roads.
While my Department has led the way in policy and legislation, many groups and individuals have in the past played their part in improving road safety. These include the Road Safety Authority, which has made a contribution across a wide range of areas, including operating the NCT and commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing, regulating driving instructors, overseeing the driving test and running the National Driver Licensing Service. In addition, the RSA is responsible for education on road safety through schools, problematic public information campaigns, including drink-driving and engagement with other stakeholders such as cycling groups.
I particularly acknowledge the work of An Garda Síochána and its dedicated traffic corps. An Garda Síochána has taken the tools provided in law and used them to enhance road safety, enforcing the law with the aid of the fixed charge and penalty points system, mandatory breath testing for alcohol and the introduction of safety cameras. Nor should we forget the crucial role played by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. The bureau may attract little publicity but each year it tests for intoxicants thousands of specimens taken from drivers. The bureau also supplies and tests the equipment used by the Garda for detecting alcohol and offers invaluable scientific expertise to my Department. Indeed, the bureau has had an indispensable role in developing the proposals for intoxicated driving contained in the Bill which I present to the House today.
I do not wish to pass over the work of the many dedicated voluntary and advocacy groups which in so many ways promote road safety and public awareness of safety issues. I know that many involved in this work have suffered losses themselves due to tragedies on our roads and I am very impressed at the way they have turned personal tragedy to such good purpose.
There is one point that I would like to re-emphasise. Safe driving is also a matter of individual responsibility.
Whatever laws we make, whatever work An Garda Síochána does to enforce those laws, however many good people strive to enhance road safety in so many ways, each driver is responsible for how he or she drives once he or she gets behind the wheel. All of the main causes of collisions on the roads have at least a large element of driver responsibility - speeding, driver intoxication, driver fatigue and distraction. Everyone who drives has a responsibility to obey the law, to keep within the speed limit, to remain observant and, above all, to know when he or she should not drive, especially if he or she is too tired or if there is the slightest risk he or she might be impaired owing to intoxicants. We have low permissible alcohol limits for a reason. Even a second’s delay in reacting because a driver is, however mildly, affected by alcohol can have disastrous consequences.
In recent years there have been several Road Traffic Acts, each of which has focused on particular aspects of road safety. The Bill has as its principal focus a set of new measures to combat intoxicated driving. When we passed the Road Traffic Act 2010, the Oireachtas provided a sound new basis for the law on driving under the influence of alcohol. It is time to do the same for the law on driving under the influence of drugs and the Bill will do so, taking advantage of advances in technology, as well as international experience in this area. The Bill also provides for a new special speed limit of 20 km/h in built-up areas. Currently, the default speed limit in such areas is 50km/h, with local authorities being empowered to reduce the limit to 40km/h or 30km/h on roads in their areas, as they see fit. They will also have an option of bringing it down to 20km/h.
The third major part of the Bill is intended to give legislative effect to a new agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom on the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications.
I would like to explain, in turn, what I am proposing in each of these areas and why. We all know the dangers of driving under the influence of intoxicants. The effect of even a small volume of alcohol or drugs may be a critical reduction in a person's ability to react in time to what is happening on the road. People must appreciate that they should not drive if there is a risk that their driving could be affected by intoxicants. Unfortunately, many do not act as responsibly as we might hope. That is why we need robust laws to deal with offenders who are risking their own safety and that of others. There was a major update of drink driving legislation in the Road Traffic Act 2010. This legislation is in itself very comprehensive and, with some amendments, continues to provide us with a sound basis for dealing with the problem of alcohol and driving. Clear and rigorous laws on their own are, unfortunately, not enough to change the way people behave. The 2010 Act makes it an offence to drive or be in control of a mechanically propelled vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be able to control the vehicle. "Intoxicant" in this sense includes both alcohol and drugs. In the case of alcohol, the Act goes further, making it an offence for drivers to have alcohol in their system above a minimum limit. In the case of the former offence, the prosecution needs to prove both the presence of the intoxicant and that the driver’s ability to control the vehicle was impaired. In the latter case, only the presence of alcohol needs to be proved. In 2010 the technology to deal with drug driving was still being developed and international experience was limited, especially by contrast to the vast body of evidence on and experience of drink driving. There have been great advances since. The technology is now available to enable gardaí to test for drugs at the roadside, analogous to the way in which they conduct roadside tests for alcohol.
The Bill will strengthen the law on drug driving in a manner similar to the existing law on drink driving. It will create a new offence of driving or being in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle with the presence in the blood of any of three drugs - cannabis, cocaine and heroin - above a specified minimum level. The Bill also provides the necessary legal authority for An Garda Síochána to conduct roadside tests for the presence of drugs and the essential underpinnings for these new measures by empowering the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, to test for concentrations of the specified drugs and also to test and provide for An Garda Síochána the devices for roadside drug testing.
If anyone doubts the need to take action in this area, I advise him or her to read the bureau's 2014 annual report, the latest such report available. It showed that 58% of the 1,158 specimens tested for drugs were positive for at least one drug. Even worse, it also revealed that 53% of the specimens that had tested positive for drugs had tested positive for two or more drugs. What effect would this have on a driver? What kind of person gets behind the wheel in that state? As we cannot trust such persons to act responsibly, we must act to give An Garda Síochána the tools to protect us from them and them from themselves. Drug driving is a much more complex matter than driving under the influence of alcohol. It involves a multitude of substances, with a variety of implications for driving and also for testing. The Bill focuses on cannabis, cocaine and heroin, the most prevalent illicit drugs found by the MBRS when analysing specimens and the levels proposed for each of these drugs have been chosen based on scientific advice and the experience in other jurisdictions.
Some may argue that these new offences are excessive; they are not. These drugs can have a serious impact on ability to drive and making their presence in drivers an offence is no more excessive than the law on the presence of alcohol. Some might also argue that cannabis should not be included because some day it might be legalised, which would mean that we would have to amend the Bill, but they are wrong. Road traffic legislation has nothing to do with the legality of intoxicants. After all, alcohol is legal. Instead, road traffic legislation is interested in the risk intoxicants pose while driving. The impact of cannabis on the ability to drive safely will not change if it is legalised. The Bill does, however, take into account the fact that there is a legally licensed form of cannabis, a medication called Sativex. It is only recently available and likely to be prescribed to very few, as it will be used only in the treatment of a small proportion of multiple sclerosis patients. Under the Bill, anyone prescribed it will receive an exemption certificate from the new offence.
I stress that this exemption will apply only to the new offence of the presence of cannabis, not to the existing offence of being under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be incapable of controlling a vehicle. If people taking Sativex finds that their reactions are impaired, they should not drive until the effects have passed. That is reasonable and proportionate. On the one hand, we do not wish to discourage people from taking medication when they need to do so. On the other, we need to ensure the roads are safe. People should take their medication as and when required, but if they are affected in a way which would make driving risky, they should wait until it is safe to do so. That is in line with what happens under the 2010 Act. If a person were to drive while impaired, for example, while drowsy, due to a medication, he or she would be liable to prosecution under the existing 2010 provisions for driving under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be unable to control a vehicle. In those circumstances we would expect the person to act responsibly and not drive until it was safe to do so.
On a more technical point, I would like to explain why, although the new offence relates to cannabis, cocaine and heroin, the Bill refers to five substances. This is because, in some cases, the drug will metabolise quickly but can be detected by the metabolite, that is, the chemical into which it breaks down. The Bill, therefore, lists metabolites, as well as the drugs.
The Bill provides the necessary basis for An Garda Síochána to conduct roadside tests for drugs. We are all familiar with the idea that gardaí can conduct breath tests for alcohol at the roadside. Roadside alcohol tests have been occurring for some time. Devices are also available that can test oral fluid for the presence of drugs. A swab is used to take a specimen and the device will process a result indicating the presence of particular drugs. The Bill will empower An Garda Síochána to use these devices and the MBRS to approve and supply them. Gardaí will be enabled to use them in the same circumstances as they carry out the current roadside breath tests, that is, where they observe suspicious driving, following a serious collision, or at an authorised checkpoint. None of this will take from the existing powers to test for alcohol. In the future gardaí will be able to test at the roadside for alcohol, drugs, or both. We should remember that the new roadside tests of oral fluid, like the roadside breath tests, will be preliminary in nature.
This means that the results will not be used in evidence in court. The purpose of the new drug tests, like that of the roadside alcohol tests, will be to assist the Garda in forming an opinion that a person has taken an intoxicant. Where a person is arrested on suspicion of intoxicated driving, a further specimen will be taken at a Garda station for evidential purposes. These new measures are supported by further elements of the Bill. It will be an offence to refuse to provide an oral fluid specimen when required, just as it is an offence to refuse to provide a specimen of breath. Given that the best indicator of the concentration of drugs based on recent use is to be found in blood, gardaí who arrest a person on suspicion of the new offence of presence of one of the specified drugs will be empowered to require a specimen of blood at a Garda station. This contrasts with the current law on alcohol, where a person asked to provide blood may opt to provide urine instead.
In Part 3 I am proposing a new special speed limit of 20 km/h. As matters stand, the law prescribes a default speed limit of 50 km/h in built-up areas. Local authorities may reduce this to 40 km/h or 30 km/h on roads in their areas as they deem appropriate.
The system of allowing local authorities to decide the right speed limits for roads in their areas is the correct one, because built-up areas contain a multitude of different kinds of road. It would not be appropriate to set one limit for all of them, and local authorities are best placed to decide what is appropriate to a given road.
Beginning in 2014, the Jake's Legacy campaign has been advocating a mandatory 20 km/h speed limit in housing estates. We all sympathise profoundly with the family of young Jake Brennan, who was only six when he was killed in a road traffic incident in the housing estate where he lived. However, I believe that a mandatory 20 km/h speed limit would raise problems. First, it would not necessarily be appropriate to all roads in housing estates, or indeed in built-up areas and, second, it would be difficult to enforce, particularly on busier or straighter roads. I agree, however, that it may be an appropriate limit in some areas, particularly in densely inhabited areas where there may be children playing. As a result, I am proposing to add a 20 km/h limit to the options available for local authorities to apply. Local government is the appropriate level to decide what speed limit works for which road in these areas, and it is right that the law should continue to allow the local authorities to have the final word, while ensuring that they have all the necessary options open to them, including a 20 km/h limit.
In Part 4 I am dealing with a number of miscellaneous matters. Some of these are technical amendments to enhance the clarity of current legislation. There will also be one new penalty point offence introduced, and a measure to bring summary offences under the RSA (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012 within the fixed charge regime.
In Part 5 the Bill will give legislative effect to an agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications. Allow me to explain exactly what this means. If a driver is disqualified in an EU member state which issued their licence, they are automatically barred from driving abroad as they do not have a valid licence. However, if a driver from one EU member state is disqualified from driving in another member state, the ban applies only to the country which imposed it. The person could still drive in their home state or anywhere else. In 1998 the EU agreed a convention on driver disqualification which was intended to deal with this anomaly, and which would mean that disqualification anywhere in the EU would mean disqualification everywhere in the EU.
However, this convention was always going to be difficult to implement, due to the many different legal systems, different definitions of offences and different penalties in the different member states. Recognising this difficulty at the time the convention was drawn up, the EU allowed for any two member states to proceed with bilateral agreements within the framework of the convention, pending the implementation of the convention as a whole. In the event, only one such agreement was ever made, and that was between Ireland and the UK. The EU subsequently decided that, as of December 2014, the operation of the convention on driver disqualification would come under the jurisdiction of the European Court. Our friends in the UK were not in favour of giving additional powers to the European Court and, as a result, they withdrew from the convention on driver disqualification, using the provisions of the Lisbon treaty which allowed them to opt out of certain measures. This meant that our agreement with them, as it was under the framework of the convention, came to an end. The convention itself was revoked by Europe in 2015 as being impossible to implement. I hope that the day may come when some similar initiative may be possible.
Neither we nor the UK wanted to end bilateral recognition of driver disqualification. Many Irish people drive in the UK and many UK citizens drive here. It is in the interests of both sides that we make sure that people who are convicted of serious and dangerous driving offences in one jurisdiction are not immediately free to drive in the other. We therefore negotiated a new bilateral agreement outside the framework of the EU convention. This was signed last October, but cannot take effect until legislation to underpin it is passed. That is what Part 5 of this Bill will do. Once the agreement comes into effect, Irish drivers who are disqualified in the UK for serious road traffic offences will also be disqualified here, and UK licence holders disqualified here will be disqualified in the UK. I am happy to say that this new agreement, being outside any EU framework, will not be affected by Brexit.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to a number of amendments which I shall be proposing on Committee Stage. There will be a small number of technical amendments to improve the existing provisions of the Bill. In addition, I have decided to address the vexed question of written-off vehicles in another amendment. We have in this country no formal, legally sanctioned system for classifying a mechanically propelled vehicle as written-off. This is a source of concern, as sometimes vehicles which have been written off for insurance purposes are repaired and find their way back onto our roads. This may be perfectly legitimate; an insurance write-off may not mean that a vehicle is irreparable, but merely that it would not make economic sense to do so - in other words the repair would cost more than the vehicle was worth. It does mean that there is a risk of vehicles being put back on our roads when they should not be. At present, the practice is that insurance companies notify my Department when they write off a vehicle, and this fact is entered on the national vehicle and driver file. However, the process has no statutory basis and there is no obligation for these notifications to be made. It is my intention to introduce an amendment to the Bill to put this arrangement on a statutory and mandatory footing. This will not answer all of the issues which have arisen and been debated about written-off vehicles but it will represent a significant step forward - the first proper legislative step - in a matter I intend to deal with comprehensively in future.
I have discussed with the Attorney General the best wording to address this matter, and will publish my amendment at the appropriate time in advance of Committee Stage. I have also discussed with the Attorney General the commencement of the so-called "third payment option" for fixed charge notices. This is an option included in the Road Traffic Act 2010, which will allow people who have failed to pay a fixed charge notice within 28 days, or to pay a higher charge within a further 28 days, a third chance to pay before having to appear in court. The third payment notice will accompany the summons to court and, if the person pays not more than seven days before the court hearing, court proceedings will be dropped. This provision has a number of benefits, not the least of which is that it will put an end to cases of people turning up in court and claiming that they never received a fixed charge notice. The implementation of the third payment option has been delayed for far too long. The Attorney General's office has made clear that certain amendments to the Road Traffic Act 2010 must now be made in order for the system to operate successfully. I shall bring these amendments forward for inclusion in this Bill on Committee Stage and I look forward to pressing ahead as quickly as possible with implementation of the third payment option.
Taken together, the measures in this Bill offer significant steps forward in a number of areas. The drug driving provisions will address a growing and disturbing threat to safety on our roads. My hope is that they will not only enable An Garda Síochána to tackle drug driving effectively but also help to build awareness of the dangers of drug driving and so encourage more responsible behaviour by drivers. The new option for a 20 km/h limit will be a valuable additional tool in the toolbox of the local authorities and will make the roads where it is applied a great deal safer for all. The provisions to back up the new agreement on mutual recognition of driver disqualification between ourselves and the UK will ensure that dangerous drivers who are a risk to the public are kept off the roads in both jurisdictions. Finally, the amendments which I have set out and which I will introduce in due course will enable us to begin to address the long-neglected question of written-off vehicles and, at last, to implement the third payment option.
I will conclude by returning to the point on which I began. Road safety has always been an area where this House has shown that it can be positive and constructive, and where we can all work together towards shared goals.
I am happy to consider seriously any suggested amendments from Members on Committee Stage in the spirit in which this Bill is introduced. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and to working with Deputies on each Stage to make the Bill as good as it can be.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Without question, our party fully supports the legislation. It is welcome that it is before the House today. It was promised to be introduced in the Dáil before the end of the last session, but it did not reach the agenda at the time so it is important that we are debating this issue on the first day of the new Dáil session.
Significant progress has been made in this area in the last number of years. In 1997 the Garda national roads policing bureau was established. It was the first real indication that we had to take drastic consideration of the number of deaths on our roads. The Road Safety Authority was established in 2006 and it has done fabulous work in the area of advocacy and in creating awareness of the devastation that road crashes cause. Over the last number of years we have seen the introduction of penalty points for motoring offences, including speeding, use of a mobile telephone while driving, driving without insurance, driving without due care and driving without ensuring that children of a certain age are in appropriate seats in the car. In fact, when I looked at the Road Safety Authority website earlier today I was surprised at the list of the offences that are covered by penalty points. It is quite comprehensive.
Consider the number of deaths on our roads in the early 2000s. In 2000, there were 417 deaths on our roads. In 2006, the year the Road Safety Authority was established, the number had decreased to 365 and last year was the best year to date with 165 road deaths. Unfortunately, this year the number appears to be on an upward trajectory. If one compares the number this year up to 27 September with the number for the relevant period last year, there is an increase of 23 fatalities. It is not only deaths that take place on the roads. People are also very seriously injured. While I have never had occasion to visit the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, I know many people who were there. They tell me that if one could organise a tour or excursion there for young males, because they account for the highest percentage of road crashes, where they could see at first hand the devastation caused by car crashes and the people who are paralysed, without limbs or confined to wheelchairs, it might be one of the best educational exercises that could take place.
We must never lose sight of the need to keep pace with the risks that materialise and to ensure that road safety remains the priority that it was in the past. Behind each of the statistics the Minister and I have mentioned are real stories of families that has been totally devastated by an accident, through the loss of a father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter. Many Members will have visited a home or a wake, as I have in the past, where somebody's life was taken unexpectedly by a tragic accident. We have a sense of hopelessness and helplessness on such occasions. There is nothing we can do to help the family that has been bereaved by an awful tragedy. However, what we can and must do is ensure that there is appropriate legislation, road improvements and significant policing and enforcement in place.
Over recent years, unfortunately, for some unknown reason the number of deaths on our roads has increased. Why is that? Undoubtedly, some it is due to the fact that there is less policing of our roads. The numbers in the Garda traffic corps have decreased, as has the number of checkpoints. As a result of that deterrent being removed, the number of fatalities has increased. We must address that. While I welcome this legislation, I ask the Minister, in his reply to the debate, to confirm the Government's commitment to road safety and to confirm that it is a priority for the Government and that not only will the necessary amendments be made to the legislation but also that it will ensure that the necessary resources will be put in place, so the arms of the State can implement and police the legislation.
Before turning to the Bill's provisions, I refer to the excellent advocacy work carried out by families who have been bereaved. The Minister alluded to this as well. A lady in Mullingar, Donna Price, lost her son a number of years ago in a road traffic accident. Her son was on his way back to college. He was an excellent sportsman who played with a local GAA club. Ms Price established the Irish Road Victims Association to support those bereaved or injured by road traffic collisions and to campaign for justice, rights and recognition for road crash victims. It comprises a group of people, many of whom have lost a loved one in a road traffic collision or have been injured themselves, and their colleagues, relatives and friends. At a practical level, the association has produced a guide for families of victims of road traffic collisions. It outlines the steps involved in the professional Garda investigation of serious injury and fatal collisions, subsequent post mortem, inquests and legal proceedings. As described on the association's website, a road death is not like a normal death. It is a violent death, as violent as murder, and, like murder, is totally unexpected.
What we are debating today is extremely significant and, undoubtedly, we will support the legislation. Part 2 of the Bill relates to the intoxicated driving offence and creates the new offence of driving with the presence of certain specified drugs, with a number of additional amendments to assist in tackling driving under the influence of drugs. I am concerned that the list of banned substances appears to be very limited. It includes cannabis, with the exception of cannabis that is medically prescribed. One would wonder whether those persons should be driving even though it is medically prescribed. It also includes heroin and another substance which I cannot remember at present.
I understand the study conducted by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, on which the Bill relies, is 16 years old. Without doubt, the most prevalent drugs are cannabis and the others outlined in the Bill, but the types of substance people are now taking have evolved significantly over time. The use of psychoactive drugs has become much more prevalent. Unfortunately, Ireland has the highest rate of psychoactive drug use, at 9%. Why are these drugs not included in the list of proscribed substances?
The Bill ignores the misuse of legally prescribed drugs. Unfortunately, there are many people misusing such drugs. The absence of a provision in this regard in the Bill is a weakness. Sedatives used for the treatment of anxiety disorder and insomnia have, unfortunately, become increasingly common as recreational drugs. Recent statistics show that bensedines were the main problem drug of 547 people who sought treatment for substance abuse in 2012.
While I do not doubt the bona fidesof the Minister or the Department, if the report on which they based their findings and recommendations on the list of drugs is 16 years old, it is out of date and archaic. It needs to be revisited in the light of how drug use has evolved.
Part 3 of the Bill refers to the creation of the new special speed limit of 20 km/h. This will mean that in the future local authorities will have the option of lowering speed limits in built-up areas from the default speed limit of 50 km/h. In this regard, we should acknowledge the work carried out by Roseann Brennan who tragically lost her six-year-old son Jake a number of metres from her home. While the creation of the new speed limit will give local authorities the option of lowering speed limits, it is important that a direction be issued to the local authorities. Westmeath County Council is in the process of reviewing speed limits, but all local authorities should commence a review of speed limits, particularly in built-up areas, now that they have the power to reduce them to 20 km/h in certain areas.
The agreement on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this state and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is long overdue and very welcome. I heard the Minister state his wish was that not only would there be an arrangement between Ireland and the United Kingdom but also an arrangement covering a much wider area. We have a very multicultural society which includes people who have moved here from Poland, Lithuania and other European countries. Some are driving in Ireland using their own country's driving licence. Many of them do not pay any attention to speed cameras or penalties for motoring offences because their licence does not attract penalty points. The Minister has told the House that he is prevented from addressing this issue under some EU regulation or because of the lack of progress by the Commission. We should seek its advancement. In 2015 one in seven motorists issued with a penalty points notice in the Republic claimed to hold an out-of-State driving licence. They were not exclusively from the United Kingdom; rather, they were from a wide range of states. This issue must be explored in greater detail. We will have to take the word of the Minister that his stance is based on the advice of the Attorney General, but I certainly ask him to revisit the legislation to ensure he can include what I propose.
It is welcome that the Minister said he would introduce an amendment to address the practice associated with end-of-life vehicles. Some moments ago my colleague and I were speaking about the potential for our party to introduce an amendment to deal this issue. It is incredible to believe a car that has been crashed and written off from an insurance perspective can - lo and behold - be driven around a couple of months later. Such a car cannot be fit for purpose. It is welcome that the Minister is to introduce an amendment in this regard.
Let me refer to a significant weakness in the legislation. The Minister has said there was cross-party support for the legislation during the pre-scrutiny stage. However, there were specific provisions included in the legislation to introduce new penalties for drivers who allowed themselves to be distracted by text messaging, the use of Twitter and Facebook and in scrolling down. While driving, one often sees people entering a destination in the Google Maps app to determine a route. While we must all take responsibility for our own actions and while I would have been guilty of the offence in the past, we must determine how we can bring forward an amendment to ensure there will be consequences for those caught engaging in the practice to which I refer. My understanding is the existing penalty points legislation governing having a mobile phone in one's hand does not cover circumstances where the phone is in a cradle by the gearstick or a device beside the steering wheel. Therefore, there are ways around the legislation. People may have the phone on their lap, googling or otherwise. This is certainly an area in which we will be bringing forward an amendment and I hope the Minister will consider it favourably.
Driver error is the main contributor to accidents, accounting for at least 80% of fatal collisions in recent years. The use of mobile phones, including texting, is possibly the main cause of driver error. We need to consider how we can bring forward an amendment that will support the introduction of penalty points in this regard.
Penalty points were introduced to ensure greater road safety and save lives. They were never meant to be introduced as a revenue generating exercise. I worry and fear greatly that they are being used for this purpose in certain instances. I worry that they are not being imposed for offences committed at black spots or in areas prone to accidents. I worry that easy pickings and low-hanging fruit are targeted and that it is a matter of shooting fish in a barrel in order that additional revenue may be generated.
That is something that needs to be examined. When private vans were introduced to carry out speed checks their listings were meant to be freely available and they were also meant to be highly visible. The vans were about reducing speed and saving lives, but more recently they have not been highly visible or easily recognised as speed vans. That is something we need to consider.
Before my colleagues make their contributions, I propose that we consider a tiered system for penalty points. In the current system, somebody who may be 3 km or 4 km over a speed limit tends to receive the same number of penalty points as someone driving 50 km, 20 km, 25 km or 30 km over a speed limit. I would be happy to work with the Minister's officials in his Department to see whether we could introduce a tiered system, whereby somebody who is only marginally over a speed limit, such as those driving in a 60 km, 70 km or 80 km zone at 84 km/h and trying his or her best to obey the speed limits receives the same penalty as somebody who is driving at 110 km/h. I do not think that is fair. We are talking about fairness and increasing road safety. I look forward to working with the Minister as the Bill passes the various Stages in the House.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2016. The Bill contains a series of progressive reforms dealing with drug driving, mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the UK and, as my colleague has said, a new optional 20 km/h speed limit in built-up areas. It will be an offence to drive a vehicle or to be in the charge of a vehicle with the presence of certain illicit drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. The Bill makes provision for preliminary testing of all fluid or drugs by An Garda Síochána at the roadside or in a Garda station.
The Bill, which strengthens the law on drug driving, will introduce penalties for driving after taking cocaine, cannabis or heroin. This law will rightly bring in penalties for drug driving that are similar to those already in place for drink-driving. A driver found to be impaired because of drug driving could face a €5,000 fine and-or six months in prison on conviction, and a one year disqualification for the first offence and two year disqualification for subsequent offences.
It is very important that a different or separate test will apply to drivers who may be impaired after taking prescription drugs. It is important that we provide reassurance to those taking prescription drugs and that we do not frighten people, in particular older people, by demonstrating that in some way were focusing on drugs. This Bill is about illicit drugs and ensuring that the taking of such drugs and driving is prohibited in the same way as drink-driving. People taking prescription drugs should have nothing to fear. We must highlight this when the Government rolls out its campaign to inform the general public of the implications of the Bill. The Medical Bureau for Road Safety found a disturbing connection between fatal road accidents and drug taking.
Our road safety record over the past 20 years has improved significantly. Last year, we saw the lowest number of road deaths since 2012, a total of 166. In 2012 there were 162 deaths. The number of people killed on our roads in 1997 was 472. We have seen the positive impact of policies pursued by previous Governments to reduce the number of people who die on the roads, and I want to note the work of former transport Ministers, including the late Séamus Brennan, Martin Cullen, Noel Dempsey, the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. Combined, these Ministers, supported by Governments, introduced a cohort of progressive policies including the introduction of penalty points, stricter driver and driving laws and a significantly improved road network, with over 1200 km of motorway connecting Dublin with all other cities in the country . They have contributed to the reduction in the number of road deaths.
We all know the importance of the three Es when it comes to road safety. Education informs drivers of the hazards associated with driving, including drink-driving campaigns and dangerous driving. The second E is enforcement. We have seen the impact of policies like the introduction of penalty points, speed cameras, hand-held mobile phones being prohibited while driving, stricter drink-driving laws and compulsory seatbelts, all of which have improved driver behaviour. The third E is engineering. On this front, our road network has significantly improved. We have better road signage, antiskid surfacing and better maintained cars with the introduction of the NCT. We must continue to introduce policies that support the three Es approach to improving road safety.
This Bill will also have a positive impact on road safety and reduce the number of collisions and fatalities on our roads. My understanding is that the new law mirrors one introduced in England and Wales recently. The Irish Medical Bureau for Road Safety conducted a survey over a 10-year period on the presence of drugs in the systems of people who lost their lives on our roads. The results indicate that across the 10-year period just under 10% of people who tragically lost their lives had drugs in their system. We know that drugs affect one's ability to drive in a number of ways. The new Bill will assist in changing the attitude towards drug driving and I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Bill. It is appropriate on the first day after the recess that we debate a Bill that enjoys such cross-party collegiate support. As the Minister has suggested, it is not a contentious Bill.
I propose to suggest a number of amendments or policy areas that may be considered on further readings of the Bill. The Minister and my colleague, Deputy Troy, have welcomed the end-of-life provisions in the Bill. I asked a parliamentary question about this matter on 8 June. Vehicles, not just in Ireland but also in the UK, can be taken off the road and classed as end-of-life vehicles by insurers, but can reappear in circulation because of paperwork, Internet sales and other issues. It is not a particularly difficult rule for dealers to circumvent. I sat in a dealer's yard while he showed me exactly how it can be done. Unfortunately, there is no science behind this but it is something that needs to be regulated and controlled. The Bill includes provisions for inter-jurisdictional transfer between the UK and Ireland. Based on certain data, I suggest that the end-of-life vehicle history also be included in that transfer. Perhaps when the Minister is preparing amendments that matter may be included.
I will deal with some miscellaneous provisions. I came to the House from a local authority. Parking by-laws are often an issue of contention, where local authorities struggle to make minor changes to by-laws without having to go through a rigmarole of consultation which can take months. The net effect is that an overly rigorous application of the law applies. There have been attempts to deal with this issue, but it requires legislative change. I ask the Minister to consider, under miscellaneous provisions, making it easier for local authorities to make minor changes to, for example, disability bays or changing space allocation.
In a similar vein, I welcome the availability of a lower speed limit for residential areas. It is very appropriate. We are all familiar with the tragic circumstances referred to as Jake's case and the family involved. I agree with the Minister that a 20 km/h speed limit seems extreme as a default, but I suggest that the possibility is there. Along the same lines as the parking by-laws, I suggest that the speed limit review is another area where local authorities appear to struggle and protest - they may not protest too much, but they do protest. It takes months and years for these kinds of things to go through the process. The system is far more difficult than it needs to be.
I understand that gardaí can identify a stolen vehicle quite readily. However, they cannot identify an end-of-life vehicle. It seems that could be done. If insurers were in a position to provide end-of-life facilities, that may stop unscrupulous dealers from emerging and playing a role in putting them back on the roads. A driver can find it difficult to ensure a perfectly roadworthy vehicle over 15 years old, something we heard during debates on the motor insurance industry. It seems particularly abhorrent that somebody in possession of an end-of-life vehicle that had been written off can drive it.
I refer to the penalty points database. We all welcome the fixed charge system and the improvements to road traffic and safety in recent years. We could go further. We saw how data could and should be available to insurers in a Stage-managed way.
This would address the issues we have with motor insurance and the cost of motor insurance. I am conscious of the time, but the issue of clamping is another one that may sit under miscellaneous provisions. I understand there was some legislation before the House in the previous Dáil but I am not sure it was enacted. Clamping can be a blight in many town centres and commercial environments and often on some private properties where unscrupulous and opportunist clamping operators can play havoc and destroy the commercial heart of many towns. Included in the legislation were proposals to cap the maximum fees that are charged and to apply conditions on such factors as signage, prior warning and caveats. I do not believe those provisions were enacted. I will have to look at it but it may be an area for a miscellaneous provision and I may put amendments forward on that on the next Stage.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Road Traffic Bill. It is very important legislation and I am glad to see that after a series of delays over recent months we are eventually getting to raise the matters that are included in the Bill. It is important to point out that legislation that provides for the safety of our roads is always welcome given Ireland's generally poor road safety record in the past, although in recent years the number of fatalities on our roads has fallen. The work of the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and the Garda, but especially the Garda traffic corps, has contributed to the decline in road deaths.
However, we cannot become complacent and consider that the battle has been won, far from it. At the start of September 2016 it was reported that 138 people had died on our roads so far this year. This represents a 20% increase on the same period in 2015. That figure is shocking. The loss of 138 people on our roads is equally shocking. In the past month alone we have seen too many tragic cases of lives lost, including in my own constituency. The Automobile Association, AA has voiced concerns that road safety had dropped down the list of priorities since the financial crash and we certainly cannot afford to become complacent. It is clear that the Garda traffic corps is not sufficiently resourced, leaving the good work in danger of becoming underdone. Both the current and the previous chairpersons of the Road Safety Authority and its CEO, Ms Moyagh Murdock, have called for increased resources for the Garda traffic corps and it is important that these calls are heeded. Personnel numbers at the traffic corps have been reduced over recent years from 1,200 to just over 700. The CEO of the RSA has said that she felt this reduction had led to complacency among the public when it comes to drink driving. Last month it was reported in the media that the number of gardaí posted to the Garda traffic corps dropped by 5% in the 18 months until May 2016. That represents 711 officers assigned to the traffic corps in May 2016, which is a decline of 38 gardaí since the end of 2014.
The legislation which we debate today cannot be a success if this is the current state of play because it calls for gardaí to test for the presence of drugs and to police speed limits. If An Garda Síochána is poorly resourced this legislation will not have the desired effect, particularly as a deterrent. The head of the Garda traffic corps has indicated that a number of gardaí have been, or are due to be, transferred to the traffic corps this year. I would be interested to know if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is aware of any targets that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald may have for the allocation of personnel to the traffic corps. If he does know then perhaps he could tell us. Any proposed increase must be substantial. The AA has cautioned that due to the huge drop in personnel it would take a very long time to bring the traffic corps back to where it should be. This needs to be prioritised by both the Ministers, Deputies Ross and Fitzgerald. While I welcome many of the measures contained in the Bill we need to prioritise the resourcing of the Garda traffic corps if these measures, and any other road safety measures, are to be successful in any shape or form.
I will now turn to the measures within the Bill which concern the speed limits in residential areas and which have come from campaigning work by the group "Jake's Legacy". Jake Brennan, as we know, was a six-year-old boy who was tragically killed when he was knocked down by a car as he played outside his home in 2014. Since then Jake's parents, Roseann and Christopher, along with their family and friends, have campaigned tirelessly for reduced speed limits in residential areas and they are to be commended for their excellent work. In February 2015 my colleague, Deputy Ellis, sponsored a Private Members' Bill calling for mandatory 20 km/h per hour limits in certain residential areas in line with the "Jake's Legacy" campaign. Critics of the measures, which were proposed in Sinn Féin's Private Members' motion had complained that the 20 km/h per hour limit is too slow.
The limit of 20 km/h was chosen because it is so slow. A pedestrian who is hit by a car at 20 km/h has a much better chance of survival than if he or she was hit by a car travelling at a higher speed. At the time the previous Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe supported the Bill in principle so I am disappointed to see that the measures proposed in this legislation are much weaker than many of us had hoped for. Giving local authorities the option to introduce speed limits of 20 km/h hour is progress but it is a fact that there already exists an option to impose a 30 km/h limit in residential areas. In many areas this option has not been enforced by local authorities. Sinn Féin feels that having legislation to back up these measures is vital because voluntary measures have not been taken up thus far or enforced by local councils in the past. We see no reason why the introduction of a lower speed limit would change that. We need to ensure that local authorities have sufficient resources to implement other measures for traffic calming in residential areas. Lowering the speed limit alone is not sufficient. We need to ensure that proper, practical and physical measures such as speed ramps, chicanes and other traffic calming measures are also installed as required to ensure the safety of all road users in residential areas, especially pedestrians.
I welcome the measures in part two of the Act which create the offence of drug driving for cannabis, cocaine and heroin regardless of whether or not the driver appears to be impaired. Such a measure can only improve safety on our roads. For too long we had a ludicrous situation where drug drivers could operate vehicles relatively undisturbed despite the obvious dangers. Again, we need to ensure that the gardaí are facilitated with sufficient resources. I would be interested to know what additional resources are to be made available to allow for this. Drugs, as we all know, have been a scourge in this State for so long and the effects of drug use can be devastating for users, their families and all our communities. Ensuring the presence of drugs, regardless of proof of impairment, will send a strong message to those who think it is acceptable to use drugs and drive. I hope this measure would bring about a change in attitude similar to the one that has been achieved in recent years with the introduction of stricter drink-driving laws.
I support the measures that propose to continue the practice, which has been in place for some time now, to ensure that drivers who have been disqualified from driving in the State are also disqualified in the North and across the water in Britain. I am in favour of the expansion of such measures across Europe. I would also like to see the same approach taken to penalty points between the State, the North and across the water in Britain. I live in a Border county and am well aware of the issues that can arise when driving penalties that have been imposed in the North are not recognised in the State and vice versa. This lack of accountability can lead to some drivers driving irresponsibly. When this legislation was debated in the Seanad the previous Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport rejected this proposal. He had said that the process of bringing about such a change was complicated.
However, I believe it is a matter that we should pursue in the interest of road safety and cross-Border co-operation.
I welcome the Bill and I believe the legislation is good but without proper funding and resources, it will not be as effective as we need it to be. It will end up not being worth the paper on which it is written if we do not back it up with proper funding for local authorities to implement the speed limit recommendations, traffic calming measures on roads, physical resources such as ramps, chicanes, signage, etc., and Garda resources. While I welcome the legislation, it could end up being a toothless tiger if we do not put the funding and resources behind it. I look forward to contributing to the debate again at a later stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is important legislation. Any Bill or legislation that addresses the issue of road safety is to be welcomed. Like Teachta Munster, I also wish to commend and pay tribute to all of those who work in the area of road safety, whether it is enforcement, planning or advocacy. That includes An Garda Síochána, the RSA, all of those who advocate for road safety and change as well as members of the traffic core and An Garda Síochána who do their jobs as well. There is also a role, as we know, for the local authorities that do a lot of work in planning in these areas of traffic management, traffic safety and so on. I also praise the work of the Minister in this area. It is not something he is getting much of at the moment, for justifiable reasons in some areas. This is, as I understand, the first Bill he has brought before the House. It is the first that I have seen at least. Fair play to the Minister for that. It is a important legislation.
I think we can all accept that the penalty points system changed people's attitudes and the culture around how we see road safety. As we know, people previously received a fine and paid the financial side of it - the €50, €60, €80 or whatever it was as it changed - and that was it. There was no other sanction. That was not good enough because it was not a strong deterrent. Once we introduced the penalty points system, it had a significant effect. It is always welcome that we keep that system under review to see if it is fair, robust and working and to see whether we are changing people's attitudes and cultural attitudes towards different issues. We have seen this happen with regard to drink-driving. It is not simply in regard to deterrents or sanctions, be they penalty points or anything else. Education, raising awareness and behavioural changes associated with it are equally as important as the deterrent measures. We should at all times keep under review the effectiveness of the penalty points system.
One of the issues that we need to do much more work on - those of us who travel by road a lot see it all the time - is the use of mobile telephones and people doing all sorts of acrobatic movements as they try to send texts or read what is on their telephones. It is a huge distraction. It is possibly even more dangerous than speeding because people are taking their eye off the road. Every millisecond that one is not looking at the road and looking at a device instead is very dangerous. The Minister, the RSA and the Department are always looking at this issue. I have seen advertisements on television in recent times in which the use of mobile telephones features more prominently. It is justifiable because it is a dangerous practice.
With regard to local authorities, I spent seven years on Waterford City Council. I remember when the allocation would come in for speed ramps. What used to happen was that the councillors would decide where the speed ramps would go. It was not based on need, on whether they were in the right or wrong place or on whether it was necessarily for a particular part of the city. There was no real or coherent policy. It differed across local authorities. My experience at the time was that it was done because a particular councillor might have been lobbied by a particular housing association chairperson, or whoever it was, and it was allocated on that basis. What we need to look at is not the volume of speed ramps that we have in estates but rather whether that is the best use of money in the first place and whether it works and acts as a deterrent. As the Minister knows, we have moved away from speed ramps to speed tables, chicanes and different types of approaches. Consistency in local authorities across the State and having an over-arching policy of best practice that guides them in how they spend money that is allocated for road safety measures would be a much better way to approach the issue.
I wish to deal with a number of other issues which may not be directly related to this Bill but are very important to road safety. We know from the Department's ministerial briefing that our roads network is suffering from chronic under-investment. The Government's own five-year investment plan that was launched to much fanfare last year will do little in the first four years to actively address capacity and safety issues.
Before I get into the need to upgrade our road system, another problem we have on our roads is fatigue. We have a number of pull-in areas where people can pull in and rest. However, there are some stretches of motorway on which we do not have service areas. One such example is the M9 from Waterford to Dublin. There was no service area at one point. One could not pull into a garage to have a cup of coffee or whatever. One had to pull off at Carlow or another exit and drive for ten minutes before one arrived at a petrol station. Of course, if that was at night time, the petrol station was closed. There is now one service area but it is not very visible and there is no proper signage. That is important as well because if people are tired and need to rest, the services have to be there, especially on long stretches of motorway.
There is a need to invest in the capital side of road infrastructure. It is stated in the Minister's own briefing which states:
The first 4 years of the plan offer very little additional funding for the Department's capital programme. The bulk of this funding is already committed to delivering existing projects (LUAS, PPPs, etc) and as such, there is no room for any new projects.
While those projects are all very welcome, that is an incredible statement for any Department make. The Minister's partners in Government, Fine Gael, made great play out of saying that we have turned a corner and need to "Keep the recovery going", as it was put. In fact, we are running to a standstill in terms of our crumbling regional and local road network.
In many areas across the country - I can give the Minister numerous examples in my own constituency of Waterford in county areas - roads were washed away because of floods and bad weather conditions, yet the local authorities do not have the money to upgrade and repair them. That has an impact on road safety. If one has a car that may not be familiar with an area, is travelling at 40 km/h, 50 km/h or 60 km/h and approaches a section of road that has essentially fallen away or subsided and on which there are craters - I would not even say potholes - in some areas, it is a road safety issue. The need to invest in these areas is obvious. I listened to the Minister many times when he was in Opposition calling for more capital investment. Now that he is sitting in the hot seat of the ministerial chair, he has a unique opportunity to be able to put into practice what he preached for a long time. He preached it very well, in fairness. We now need to see delivery and real investment in this area.
The impact of chronic under-investment has been increasingly evident in the degradation of the transport network. The 2015 capital ceiling for land transport represented 0.6% of GDP, which is half the level of our international peers and of the historic norms in Ireland. The ministerial briefing also goes on to say that "it provides for only 53% of necessary maintenance works on our regional and local roads". In other words, at a time when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, is saying that the crisis is over and it is time for tax cuts and so on, we are not investing in our road network, which has been starved of funding. We do not even have the funding to cover essential repairs on more than half of the road network. Those are not my words, they are the words of the ministerial briefing that was given to the Minister when he came into the job.
There is a lot more that we need to do to raise awareness of road safety. I believe that we are doing a lot of good work. There are many education programmes and good work being done by agencies, outside groups and advocates. All of that is very important. The introduction of the penalty point system has been very good and is very effective in acting as a deterrent. There is a lot of good work being done by all of those people I spoke about earlier. We have come a long way.
We have turned the corner in terms of doing our best on education and sanctions, although we could always do more in that regard.
I welcome the provisions of the Bill related to people who are driving under the influence of drugs and other measures that will increase the number of offences and give An Garda Síochána greater power to do what it needs to do. While all of this is necessary, the Minister will agree that we must also invest in the road network and ensure our roads are of good quality and the services road users require are provided. If we do not invest in the road network and wash its face, as the expression goes, decay will set in and we will pay a higher cost in the long run. As any chief executive of a local authority would tell the Minister, roads have been starved of capital investment for years. Failure to invest in maintaining and upgrading roads will generate greater costs in the long run, which would not make economic sense.
I appeal to the Minister to use his influence to try to win as much support as possible for increased capital investment in the road network in the upcoming budget and subsequent budgets. I commend him on the Bill.
I will probably take less than one third of the time available. I welcome the Bill as an attempt to improve road safety and reduce the toll of death and disability as a result of road traffic accidents involving motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. The moves to introduce lower speed limits and recognise driver disqualifications in other jurisdictions are welcome. However, I question the soundness of measures that would criminalise people who are not impaired for the purpose of driving and may have taken drugs more than 24 years before being tested as well as people who have taken a drug for medical reasons.
There is compelling evidence that cannabis use impairs cognitive function and driving skills and increases crash risk. However, while the relationship between being over the legal limit and impaired is straightforward in the case of alcohol, it is not straightforward with regard to other drugs, particularly cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, is one of the active ingredients in cannabis for which the Bill sets out legal limits for blood tests. The product can be detected in the blood of an individual for hours or days following cannabis use, depending on the frequency of use and other factors. For instance, long-term cannabis users have plasma THC concentrations ranging from 1 microgram per litre to 11 micrograms per litre. This means regular consumers of cannabis for medicinal use who test over the 1 milligram limit for THC may not necessarily be impaired or incapable of controlling their vehicle at the time of testing.
The introduction of a medical exemption certificate for cannabis based products for medicinal use is welcome. This is safeguarded from a road safety point of view by the clarification that such a certificate is considered null and void if the holder is thought to be under the influence of drugs to such an extent that he or she is incapable of controlling the vehicle. However, the Bill does not provide any detail on how such impairment would be determined. This matter needs to be further elaborated. In addition, the Bill specifies only cannabis based products that are prescription drugs, which would criminalise those who use cannabis based products for medicinal use that have been recommended by a doctor but are not consumed in a prescription drug formulation, for example, herbal cannabis products.
During the pre-legislative scrutiny process, stakeholders queried whether roadside drug testing could potentially be used to prosecute drivers who have illicit drugs in their bodies but who are not impaired. The joint committee questioned whether this was appropriate in the context of a road traffic Bill aimed at improving road safety. The Department noted that the proposed legal limits proposed had been considered in the context of other jurisdictions and the levels provided for were chosen on the basis that they are indicative of recent use. It is, therefore, of concern that the Bill legislates for setting up Garda checkpoints where routine drug testing could criminalise many people who are not impaired and do not pose any danger to road safety.
To address these issues, I propose that the Bill be amended to bring it into line with legislation adopted by several EU member states which have implemented a two tier system. This model involves a combination of an impairment based law and legal limit approaches under which drivers who are found to be above the legal limit but not to be impaired are penalised, if at all, by a small fine, while drivers who are impaired by any substance are penalised severely, including by means of a driving ban. Where a person is not over the legal limit or impaired, the results of drug testing under the Bill should not be used to prosecute him or her under any other Act. There is already too great a focus on criminalisation and insufficient focus on health and safety issues.
I welcome the elements of the Bill which focus on health and safety and are likely to reduce the levels of death and injury on the roads. However, those elements which increase criminalisation will serve only to distract from the benefits of the legislation. They are threat to civil liberties which will undermine the safety aspects of the Bill and should be removed by amendments on Committee Stage.
That is fine. I am sharing time with Deputy Thomas Pringle.
I warmly welcome this opportunity to speak on this long-awaited Bill. I acknowledge that the Minister made time, soon after being appointed, to meet a number of important civil society stakeholders who promote road safety, in particular, Ms Susan Gray and Ms Anne Fogarty and other representatives of Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on Our Roads, PARC, a great civil society group. I also acknowledge the recent decision of the Garda Commissioner to scrap fees for abstracts and statements for families who have been bereaved by road traffic collisions. A number of Deputies and the PARC organisation had campaigned for this change for a decade.
Many of us have been waiting for this Bill to be brought before the House. Finally, we will have legislation in place to address drug driving and close the loophole which arose when the mutual recognition of disqualified drivers agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom lapsed. During my time as an Opposition spokesperson on transport, I pleaded with a number of the Minister's predecessors, on perhaps 30 occasions at Question Time, to introduce a model of testing for drugs and follow the example of States such as Victoria in Australia which embarked on the invigilation of drivers in respect of drugs 15 or 20 years ago. The Minister referred to the three key drugs involved. The question is why it has taken so long to address this issue. The safety of people on roads is the key responsibility of the Minister and, as such, I welcome the fact that this Bill has finally been introduced to the House.
The Bill also provides for the reduction of speed limits to include 20 km/h zones. Deputies will remember the debate we had on Jake's law which arose from the tragedy of little Jake Brennan. We tried to introduce legislation to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable citizens, including older people, in housing estates. As a member of Dublin City Council for 12 years, I called for the introduction of home zones many times. This concept, which was piloted in the Netherlands, involves the designation of certain areas in cities where very low speed limits would apply. At that time, we sought a 25 km/h restriction in all housing estates.
The Bill includes a number of other amendments to the Road Traffic Acts dating from 1961 onwards.
It is important to note the purpose of the Bill is to improve road safety and reduce fatalities and serious injuries. While there has been a significant improvement in the number of fatalities on our roads, and 2012 had a low of 162, we have recently seen the worrying trend of numbers of deaths increasing, with all of the incredible tragedy that brings to families, the removal of citizens from society and the associated costs. Of course, one life lost on our roads is one too many. Distressingly, as of 27 September, the number of fatalities was 23 higher than last year, at 138 compared to 115 at the same point in 2015.
The Minister, Deputy Ross, is the person on the deck and he has the responsibility to see how that may be addressed, in conjunction with the RSA. I believe a major focus of RSA campaigns should be on speeding. What we are doing in this Bill is important, as is what we did in the past to discourage drink driving, the use of mobile phones and so on. However, speeding seems to be the essential issue that results in horrendous deaths and casualties. The RSA has mounted some very effective campaigns recently to protect motor cyclists and pedestrians, but the emphasis should be on speeding. The statistics for the west of the country, from Kerry to Donegal, have been shocking for many years, which is something we have to address.
Despite such high numbers, it is striking a judge recently gave a bachelor farmer from Kerry time to find a woman to drive him around before his ban for driving while intoxicated came into effect. Such jokey comments about drink driving and dangerous driving are totally inappropriate, and this culture has to be changed. As I said to the Minister at a previous Question Time, I believe the Courts Service has been deficient in regard to enabling us to collate the information we in the House need to know, and the Minister needs to know, in order to make our roads safer.
I note the stand the Minister took today on the judicial appointments Bill. I applaud this as I believe it is the direction the House needs to take in order that the best possible people are appointed to the bench in a transparent and independent manner. Some of the things we hear in the District Court are very disrespectful in regard to the ongoing litany of tragedy on our roads. Earlier in the summer, a man whose blood alcohol reading was 198 mg per 100 ml, which is almost four times over the limit, and who had previously pleaded guilty to drink driving in 2014, was granted an adjournment of his driving ban until 8 December. Earlier this month, there was a case where a driver who had nine life bans for driving without insurance was jailed for just five months and given a small fine for breaking the law repeatedly in a most profound way.
The Bill will provide for the changing of the name of the mandatory alcohol testing - the MAT checkpoints - to mandatory intoxicant testing - the MIT checkpoints. Figures I have received in response to previous parliamentary questions I raised on this issue with the Minister and his predecessor, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, show there were 78,000 MATs in 2014 and 59,000 up to the end of September 2015. However, there has been a concern among citizens that the number of checkpoints has been decreasing due to the fall in the number of gardaí and, in particular, the dramatic fall in the number in the Garda traffic corps and the fact the traffic corps is not given the specific, 24-7, role of protecting our citizens on the roads. It is important to ensure accurate reporting and the Bill reflects this. The new MITs indicate how many tests are conducted for alcohol only or for drugs only, or for both. Research carried out by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety showed that of 1,158 specimens, 58% tested positive for at least one type of drug and, of this figure, 70% was for cannabis.
Since January 2015 there has been no mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the UK. Up to December 2014 we had an agreement under the European convention on driver disqualifications but the UK then opted out of the convention when it was moved to the jurisdiction of the European Court. While a bilateral agreement was reached on 30 October 2015, it could not be placed on a statutory footing without legislation. Again, the Minister is to be commended that, at long last, we have reached this milestone. It is unfortunate that an impasse of over a year and a half arose, and I raised this with the Minister's predecessor many times. Given the Brexit result, the closing of this loophole is of even greater importance.
What is the impact of section 18, which amends section 38(1) of the 2010 Act? While section 38 has not yet been commenced, when will this important section be commenced and when will the third payment option be introduced? I note the legislative programme which we received today from the Chief Whip states that the courts (fixed charge notice, third payment option and summons printing) Bill, which was listed for pre-legislative scrutiny before the summer recess, is to be published before Christmas. The Minister might confirm that it will be published before the end of this session. What is its status and what is the timeframe for bringing it to the House? The Bill is listed on the priority list for publication and I hope this will happen.
I presume this minority Government has made a collective decision that it will finally, in the coming 12 weeks, start to legislate seriously. We have lived through a different era since the general election but there are so many important Bills on that programme, including Bills that have not reached the pre-legislative stage, that we need to see action from the Government to produce legislation.
That amendment concerning fixed charge notices was requested by the Director of Public Prosecutions due to the number of persons in court claiming they had not received their fixed charge notices. Some people say this charade is still going on, that people can still make this claim and very little can be done, and that offences are then struck out. If this Bill is not passed and enacted before the Road Traffic Bill, how will the Minister ensure there are not further delays in enacting section 44? Statistics have shown that many drivers before the courts on penalty points offences such as speeding and holding a mobile telephone while driving are avoiding conviction and application of penalty points in court by claiming non-receipt of the fixed charge notice.
With regard to section 44, on the third payment option, we know there was a disagreement between the Garda and the Courts Service in regard to the operation of this measure due to the inadequate IT systems of both bodies. The Minister might tell us whether those two critical IT systems are now upgraded, whether there has been financial support for this and whether we will begin to get the flow of statistics that governments and road safety organisations in other jurisdictions seem to have. It is notable the British Government has apparently decided to double penalty points from three to six points for drivers using a mobile telephone while driving. This initiative will mean the loss of a driving licence for learner drivers in the UK who infringe the law in this way. What is the Minister's view on this? There was an increase in that penalty point category fairly recently. It is striking the UK authorities, in making this decision, seem to have very detailed information on the role of mobile telephone use by drivers in causing serious crashes on British roads.