Thursday, 3 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue on UN World Bicycle Day. In February last year, the European Transport Safety Council published a report on cyclist deaths across the European Union. It revealed that Ireland had recorded the highest annual increase in cyclist fatality rates among all EU member states in the past decade. In fact, our rate had risen by an average of 8% per annum over that period, which was four times the rate of the next worst country. All of those deaths were avoidable.
I want to acknowledge the great work of the Garda and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in making our roads much safer in general. When I was growing up, we regularly saw more than 500 fatalities on our roads every year. Fortunately, that figure is now well below 200 and trending downwards all the time. However, there is no reason to become complacent. We should be striving for zero unnecessary loss of life on our roads. We certainly should not be content with having some of the most dangerous roads in the European Union for our vulnerable road users.
A number of countries, including Ireland, have already committed to Vision Zero, which is a project that aims to reach zero road fatalities by 2050. The core principle of Vision Zero is that life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within society. How do we achieve that? First, we need to develop a culture of mutual respect on our roads, setting out very clearly that there is no hierarchy of road users in this country. There is no category of road users with rights superior to others. I am going to say that again for absolute clarity: there is no hierarchy of road users. For cyclists on Irish roads and streets, however, a feeling of inferiority is something they have to contend with every day. They are deemed to be inferior road users simply because they happen to be on a bike, even though, rather ironically, they are using the most efficient, most sustainable and healthiest form of transport known to mankind. There is a reason the most sustainable cities in the world are giving more street space to cyclists every day. A child cycling to school, a nurse cycling to work or somebody simply out for a bike ride to get healthy all need and deserve that safe space on our roads.
I am deeply grateful to Mr. Phil Skelton who has campaigned tirelessly for the creation of that safe space. I am also grateful to the former Minister, Shane Ross, who in 2019 signed into law a new traffic offence, namely, the dangerous overtaking of a cyclist, which carries a fine of €120 and three penalty points. In announcing that offence the then Minister said: "Too many cyclists have frankly terrifying tales to tell of intimidatingly close passes and near misses."
This brings me to this evening's proposal. Right now, we have the opportunity to add hugely to the capacity of An Garda Síochána in policing our roads and streets in ensuring that those roads and streets become safe spaces for all road users, so that those terrifying close passes, those near misses and those tragic losses become a thing of the past. An increasing number of cyclists and indeed motorists are now using cameras on their vehicles which automatically record footage of every journey. Those cameras can become a valuable aid in enforcing all of our road safety legislation. They can become additional eyes on our roads and streets for the Garda and they can provide evidence that can be used in prosecuting road safety offenders. As such, I am simply asking that An Garda Síochána sets up a dedicated portal for the submission of video evidence by all road users and that officers would assess that evidence and bring forward prosecutions if necessary. It has been done successfully and there is no reason why it cannot be done here. Such a portal would set us on that road to Vision Zero, to a safer and indeed healthier Ireland.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter and indeed for all the work he has done as he outlined on cyclists being passed in close proximity and the offence that was put into legislation. Like Deputy Cannon, I have a keen interest in cycling but I would not pretend to be in the same league as him. The Deputy will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is responsible by law for the management of An Garda Síochána, including personnel matters and deployment of resources. Neither the Minister for Justice nor I have any responsibility for these operational matters. As the Deputy will be aware, the development and implementation of road traffic legislation and policy and the promotion and advancement of road safety falls within the remit of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. An Garda Síochána plays a vital role in enforcing road traffic law and in making our roads safer for all road users, including vulnerable ones such as cyclists. Deputy Cannon outlined how they belong in this category.
I am advised by the Minister that the protection of vulnerable road users is being prioritized in the development of the new road safety strategy, which will run from 2021 to 2030. Protecting vulnerable road users involves an array of measures, of which legislation and law enforcement are only a part. Improvements in infrastructure, such as dedicated cycle lanes, will reduce the danger by keeping vulnerable road users separate from motorized traffic and the Deputy alluded to cities which were taking the lead in that. The Government has committed to investing up to €1.8 billion in cycling and walking infrastructure during its lifetime. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, also engages in public information and education to raise driver awareness of the specific risks to vulnerable road users.
As regards the establishment of a dedicated online portal for the submission of video evidence of potential violations of road traffic legislation, the Deputy may be aware that the current Traffic Watch facility allows for members of the public to report driver behaviour to An Garda Síochána. Matters reported via this facility are forwarded to the relevant district office for investigation. Similarly, citizens may make complaints to any member of An Garda Síochána or through the Garda website. I am advised by the Minister that there are strict standards in legislation relating to photographic evidence obtained by An Garda Síochána. While An Garda Síochána has confirmed that private dashcam footage may be used during a prosecution, its use must be in accordance with best evidential practices and entails ensuring structures exist around continuity of evidence. The Minister has further advised that any decision to allow film by members of the public to be used in evidence in road traffic cases would raise questions of reliability of and possible tampering with the apparatus used, and potential privacy issues. It might also raise questions about why Garda apparatus was held to a standard not required of private individuals, if both were ultimately to be treated as reliable evidence.
I again thank Deputy Cannon for highlighting this issue. I will raise the issues he mentioned in connection with Vision Zero and obviously the alarming increase in fatalities among cyclists with the Minister. These can be prevented because they are vulnerable road users. Deputy Cannon also mentioned a number of jurisdictions which have brought in a portal like this. If he wants to forward details of them to me I will pass them onto the Minister as well.
I thank the Minister of State for that very helpful response. All the good things that happen in this country, the ones which make it a better place to live in with a better quality of life, happen when we see Government Departments collaborating. This happens when a good idea is grabbed with enthusiasm by those leading in the Departments, when it is brought to fruition and made happen. There is no reason why the Departments of Justice and Transport could not collaborate to create the portal I am referring to. I mentioned in my earlier contribution that other countries have already set up a dedicated portal for the submission of video evidence. In the UK, the national dashcam safety portal was established three years ago in response to the ever increasing submission of video and photographic evidence from members of the public. It was set up with the simple aim of reducing road accidents and making the UK's roads safer.
In his response, the Minister of State referred to the Minister having concerns about the quality of the evidence being submitted and the quality of the evidence being submitted using dashcams, be they on bicycles or in cars. That evidence has already been accepted by numerous Garda stations around the country and successful prosecutions have already been brought. The issue here is the inconsistency of the approach when it comes to bringing forward these prosecutions. That again could be resolved by a portal manned by specially-trained officers in An Garda Síochána who have the skills and knowledge to determine whether or not an offence has occurred. When video evidence of unsafe driving is submitted to the UK portal, which is being used by virtually every police force across that country, it is reviewed by a police officer and depending on the seriousness of the offence, a number of options are available to the officer. These options do not always include prosecution; sometimes it a warning letter and sometimes driver retraining.
A competent computer science student could establish this portal over a weekend. Not doing this can only lead us to one conclusion: that we do not really care about the safety of our vulnerable road users. I would really like to think we are not that kind of country. This can be done and it should be done, with the greatest possible urgency.
I absolutely assure Deputy Cannon that we do care. Indeed the commitment in the programme for Government to walking and cycling infrastructure is very significant. I will raise the issues he put forward, especially the other jurisdictions he referenced, with the Minister and obviously with the Minister for Justice also. It is very important to educate people about this as well. I am a cyclist myself and have a huge interest in cycling. I have heard stories and seen anecdotal evidence about the problem. I think "Liveline" actually ran through one sequence of events that happened to a cyclist, in which he was pushed off his bike by a person in a car driving by. It was a completely criminal act that really endangered that person's life. We therefore have a huge amount of work to do in this area but the Government is committed to it. Cycling is sustainable and it improves one's quality of life, health and mental health. Obviously making the roads safer is key and the statistic the Deputy referenced about the increase in fatalities is alarming. I absolutely assure him we are committed. That can be seen in the commitment in the programme for Government. I will absolutely raise this with the Minister and with the Minister for Justice and do my best to get back to Deputy Cannon because he is a keen cyclist and he has done a lot for the area. We can see that in the work done by the former Minister, Mr. Ross, which Deputy Cannon was so instrumental in.