Wednesday, 10 November 2021
Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is satisfying to be able to bring the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021 before the House. This Bill began life under the previous Government, with a number of important and necessary issues addressed, but we have added significantly to it in light of the programme for Government and emerging issues since the Government was formed. It is a large Bill and an important one. It will mark a positive advance across a wide range of areas and will be an important contribution to making our roads safer and more environmentally friendly for the benefit of all road users.
In this Bill we will be legislating to meet our commitments to provide in law for e-scooters and e-bikes, as well as to deal with the menace of antisocial use of scramblers, quads, and other similar machines. The Bill will provide the necessary legislation to underpin delivery of the BusConnects project and dynamic traffic management on the M50. It will make important advances in the area of motor insurance to tackle uninsured driving. It will also modernise legislation in a number of areas such as: medical fitness to drive; regulation of driving instruction; and the system of fixed charge notices issued by traffic wardens.
We have also committed in the programme for Government to the consolidation of road traffic law. This is a major project, which will involve not just consolidation but also identifying and correcting any anomalies which may be identified during the process. This Bill is our first priority in road traffic legislation, and we will turn to examining consolidation in more detail after this Bill is passed. I would like to thank all of the various people and organisations, too numerous to list individually, that have contributed to the development of the proposals in this Bill. It can be all too easy to say that we need to legislate for this or that, but getting it right is never easy, and always takes time.
I would like to mention, though, the valuable input of the joint Oireachtas committee through the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The joint Oireachtas committee made a number of important comments, and we have taken those on board. In particular, the measures in the Bill which relate to databases have been discussed in detail with the Data Protection Commission to ensure they comply with all data protection requirements.
The fundamental reason we have road traffic law is to ensure public safety. We all need to travel, for work, for shopping, for socialising and to access many services, whether they are educational, medical or anything else. We can and should reduce unnecessary travel, particularly unnecessary car journeys which add to our emissions, but we will always need travel and, therefore, safety for all road users will always be an issue.
Ireland has made great progress on road safety since the turn of the millennium. In 1999, there were 413 deaths on Irish roads. In 2020, there were 149. The story is not entirely a straightforward one. If the general trend is down, the figures have fluctuated. The lowest year on record was, in fact, 2018, when there were 139 deaths on our roads. As of today, the figure for 2021 is 118 deaths, which is down 12 on this date last year.
Everyone working in this area agrees that we are at a point where it is getting more difficult to bring the figures for deaths - and for serious injuries - down further. The big items which needed to be addressed - getting dangerous vehicles off our roads through the NCT, improving roads and driver training - have been done. They need to be maintained, of course, and enhanced where possible, but we are at a point where it has become harder to make an impact on the remaining annual tragedy of avoidable deaths on our roads. This Bill will provide a number of measures which will contribute to this goal, and I will explain those in a few moments.
We also need to promote more active modes of travel, particularly walking and cycling. These are not only better for our environment as we take on the enormous challenge of climate change, but also healthier for individuals. As a culture, we are attached to private cars, and we have come to use them when other, better options are available, particularly for shorter local trips. One of the key deterrents to people walking and cycling more is a concern many people have about their safety and this is a direct result of the relative lack of proper infrasfructure for active travel. We are currently reviewing the processes associated with the provision of active travel infrastructure and we hope to bring forward amendments to improve the legislative basis for doing this during the passage of this Bill.
Deputies will be aware that there is a very large body of road traffic legislation, covering a wide range of issues. This makes it all too easy to say that any given road traffic Bill, which will inevitably deal with only some of these issue, should be dealing with particular topics. I am well aware that these arguments can be made but I believe that we are putting as much into this Bill as we reasonably can, and that all of the policy proposals which are being put forward are valuable and will have real benefits to the public at large.
The main challenge before me, as Minister of State at the Department of Transport, is to ensure the establishment of a sustainable transport system, with an optimal modal mix to meet both the travel needs of a changing Ireland and our responsibilities to our shared climate future.
Micro-mobility options such as e-scooters and e-bikes have an important role to play in this sustainable transport mix. They provide new alternatives to commuting by car, new last-mile delivery options and new ways to explore our towns and cities while alleviating congestion and helping to improve our urban air quality. The programme for Government has committed us to legislating for their use and we are firmly setting that process in motion through this Bill.
E-scooters have become very popular in recent years, both in Ireland and abroad. At the same time they have raised legal questions, such as what kind of vehicles are they and how do they fit into the framework of road traffic law. In Ireland, the answer is that they were automatically captured under the definition of "mechanically propelled vehicles." This means that you would need tax and insurance, as well as an appropriate driver licence, in order to use them in public. Since it is not possible to tax vehicles when they are not type-approved, and since there is no category of driver licence for e-scooters, this makes them effectively illegal for use in public.
We want to change that. To reflect the rapid pace of technological development, the Bill proposes the establishment of a new vehicle category, called powered personal transporters, PPTs. This new vehicle category encompasses not only e-scooters, but other new and innovative micro-mobility vehicles that may need regulations in years to come, such as hoverboards, electric skateboards or segways. PPTs will be intended for use by one person only and will not be permitted to transport goods. This is a matter of safety for the people using them and for others in their vicinity. I would like to take the opportunity to clarify that these provisions will not apply to mobility scooters. The existing legislative framework for those vehicles will not be affected.
The proposed approach will allow us to apply the range of powers and offences that already exist in road traffic legislation to powered personal transporters, and by extension, to e-scooters. Many of the amendments detailed in the Bill extend the powers of the Minister to make regulations for the use of e-scooters and for the minimum safety and environmental standards they should meet. Other amendments extend the road traffic offences and the powers of An Garda Síochána to allow them to enforce road traffic law in respect of these vehicles.
Once the Bill has been approved by Government, the regulations specifically governing e-scooters will be made. The provisions in the Bill relating to e-scooters will be commenced in tandem with the completion of those regulations. This will ensure that a full legislative framework governing e-scooters can be implemented from the day that the regulations are signed into law. Until that time, use of e-scooters in public places will continue to be prohibited.
Some of the provisions of these regulations are already clear. As with bicycles, registration, licensing, taxation and insurance will not be mandatory, nor will the use of helmets and other personal protection equipment, PPE, although this will be strongly recommended for user safety and the safety of other road users.
We intend to set out minimum vehicle standards for e-scooters to ensure that they are safe to use and environmentally friendly. We will consider, among other items, their steering mechanisms, suitable weights and dimensions, braking, tyres and lighting.
When technical standards are introduced in EU member states, a minimum 12-week standstill period is triggered to allow the European Commission and the other countries time to assess the national draft rules in light of EU rules. This process prevents regulatory barriers to the free movement of goods and information society services in the Union.
This necessary and binding delay allows Ireland to meet our EU obligations under the Single Market Transparency Directive, but also means that regulations will not be introduced at the time of publication of the Bill. My Department is committed to progressing the regulations to publication as quickly as possible.
I am, of course, very aware that this is an issue of great public interest and, indeed, an area in which many of my colleagues have taken an interest. In particular, I thank Deputies Farrell and Lahart for the considered and informative Private Members' Bills they introduced, both of which I have taken into account.
While we have given due consideration to each proposal, it is our role in government to legislate for the safe use of e-scooters on public roads and in public places in all contexts, not solely in the context suggested in Deputy Lahart's proposal of a pilot or rental scheme. Furthermore, the Road Traffic Acts do not provide for powers to establish public or private vehicle rental schemes, and the Department of Transport has no function in this regard in such commercial enterprises. The governance of such schemes would be a matter for the local authority in question. However, each of the other issues raised by the Deputies in respect of both the vehicle standards and regulations for use and misuse will be addressed in full in either this Bill or in the subsequent regulations.
In addition, the Bill will provide much-needed clarity to the growing cohort of e-bike users in Ireland by defining the requirements for low-powered e-bikes and high-powered e-bikes. Low-powered e-bikes, also known as pedelecs, are assisted by pedalling and can reach speeds of up to 25 km/h. We will continue to treat this kind of e-bike in the same way as an ordinary pedal bicycle, and the rules of the road for bicycles will apply accordingly. This type of e-bike will not require registration, taxation or licensing.
High-powered e-bikes, which are those that can be used without pedalling or those that can reach speeds in excess of 25 km/h, will be treated in the same way as high-speed mopeds and, therefore, will need to be registered, taxed and insured, and used only by an appropriately licensed driver. This is because these e-bikes are capable of very high speeds - some up to 100 km/h - and present much greater danger to the user and to other vulnerable road users.
This approach allows us to take advantage of the existing legislative framework for mopeds and motorbikes in the Road Traffic Acts and in other legislation, in respect of registration, driver training and licensing and so avoids the need to establish new bodies to carry out these vital functions. This also aligns our national rules for e-bikes with the approach taken in other jurisdictions and with the European vehicle type-approval framework, Regulation 168/2013, which sets out the rules for two- and three-wheeled vehicles. As we already have a legislative framework in place for bicycles, and for light mopeds, the provisions governing e-bikes will come into effect soon as the Bill is signed into law and subsequent regulations will not be needed.
The programme for Government also committed to address the antisocial use of scramblers, quads, and other similar vehicles. This is a long-standing problem, which can range from a nuisance to a serious danger to health and to life. People who take these vehicles to public amenities can ruin the use of those amenities for the communities the amenities are meant to serve. We can all agree that we want to put a stop to this. I know that a number of Deputies have put down Private Members' Bills over the years on this topic. Getting the legislation right has not been easy, and I would like to thank the Attorney General for his personal input in getting this right. What we will do operates on three levels. First, there will be a new power to specify in regulations that certain types of vehicle are banned from certain areas. This will allow the flexibility needed to deal with this problem on an evolving basis. For example, it would mean that if regulations were made which resolved the problem in some areas, only for the problem to move to different areas, new regulations could be made quickly to address that. Second, there will be a new Garda power to seize and dispose of vehicles, whether at the scene of the offence or at the location where the vehicle kept. The second part is important because it is often the case that the gardaí cannot intercept a scrambler or quad when it is being misused without risking the safety of bystanders, or indeed of the rider. Finally, we will be amending the offence of dangerous driving, so that it will apply in all locations and not just in a public place. Taken together, these will allow for flexible regulations to address the problem, appropriate offences, and appropriate Garda powers to deal with it on the ground.
I would like to add that the problem of antisocial use of quads, scramblers and so on, is not something we can address just by legislation. I know that the Garda and the Department of Justice have worked on community outreach programmes to address the roots of this problem. There have also been suggestions of a register for these vehicles. There are, however, many difficulties with this. My officials are looking into possible solutions, but one of the many difficulties is that these vehicles often change hands for cash quite a number of times, and it would be very difficult if not impossible to keep track of them.
Deputies will be familiar with the BusConnects project. BusConnects is a programme under the NTA which is aimed at providing major improvements to bus services in our urban areas. The programme will deliver great improvements in bus priority and the reliability of urban bus networks, and will enable us to attract more people onto public transport, reduce congestion and emissions, and enhance the quality of life for all. At the same time, BusConnects will provide an additional 200 km of cycle lanes. BusConnects will require significant development work which will need planning approval. The proposed amendments are deemed essential in order to clarify and strengthen existing legislative provisions and in doing so deliver vital support to the NTA's planning application for the delivery of BusConnects. It is important to ensure that the programme's progress through the planning system is not unnecessarily impeded due to potential deficiencies which may exist with current legislative provisions, and the amendments proposed will ensure Government's ambition off the area of megaproject delivery is complemented by a robust and appropriate legislative framework.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, is currently in the process of introducing a system for enhancing Motorway Operating Services, eMOS. The system involves dynamic management of traffic through gantry display of signs which can include temporary lane closures and also temporary speed limits. This system is designed to improve traffic management so that there will be smoother traffic flow, and also to enhance safety. For example, if traffic started to build up on the northbound carriage at a particular junction, eMOS would allow TII to slow the traffic heading towards that junction to give time for the build-up to disperse. Equally, if there were to be severe weather conditions, eMOS would allow lower temporary speed limits to be put in place. Enforcement will be though cameras only. The camera system will take simultaneous photos of a vehicles and the displayed speed limit, so that it can be shown that a vehicle was breaking the limit displayed at the time.
This system is already being tested and Deputies may have seen the gantries for display. However, we need to amend the legislation to allow it to operate fully. This will involve two aspects in legal terms: the power to set the speed limits or close lanes temporarily and the power to display the signage. Proposals in the Bill are intended to cover this. However, it is a complex area and setting speed limits on this temporary basis such as, say, lowering them on a stretch of the M50 at 5.46 p.m. and then raised again at 6.03 p.m. is something entirely new in Irish law. It may be that further amendments will be necessary over and above what it is in the published Bill, and if so I will introduce them during the passage of the Bill.
The Bill will also allow the possibility of applying eMOS on other motorways or national roads, or on parts of them. There are no specific plans to do this, and any consideration of future application of eMOS to other roads will of course take into account the lessons learned from the M50 project, as the joint committee suggested in its pre-legislative scrutiny report. In addition, any future proposals would of course have to be accompanied by a business case which justified the proposed measures in the proposed location.
I mentioned database issues earlier. Two separate matters are addressed in the Bill which relate to data storage and usage. First, my Department already holds the legal records of driver licences and vehicle ownership in Ireland as part of the national vehicle and driver file, NVDF. In spite of the name, there is at present no link between the vehicle ownership files and the driver licence files. The effect is that, for example, if the Garda checks a number plate, it can find out who the vehicle owner is but cannot get any information on the owner's driver licence record. This can create problems for enforcement, not only at the roadside but also afterwards.
There are sometimes problems linking the details of a road traffic offender to licence record. This can mean that person who gets penalty points or who is disqualified by a court may not have their points or their disqualification noted on their NVDF record because the person cannot be linked to a specific driver licence record. We will address this by ensuring that unique identifiers - a driver number if possible or a PPSN if necessary - will be captured when people register ownership of a vehicle. This will then be used to ensure that the record can be linked with a vehicle ownership record relating to the same person. We are also bringing in amendments which will finally allow the completion of a national database of motor insurance policies. Legislation for this project was first passed in 2010.
I think I have run out of time.
This is wide-ranging legislation. The transport committee undertook pre-legislative scrutiny over the past few months. Many aspects of the Bill seek to make our roads safer from variable speed limits to regulating e-scooters to giving gardaí more powers to check for uninsured vehicles on our roads. Sinn Féin welcomes these provisions. We support making our roads safer and trying to reduce the number of serious collisions and fatalities on our roads each year. The Bill also contains a number of miscellaneous provisions, including tackling the dangerous use of scramblers, providing for the testing of autonomous vehicles on our roads, amending how fixed-charge notices issued by traffic wardens are dealt with and linking driver licence records with vehicle registration records. There is a huge amount in the Bill. Sinn Féin will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage which we think will improve the Bill and add positively to our road traffic legislation. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on that.
The popularity of e-scooters has accelerated in recent years, with a significant number of people now using them to commute to and from work and school. The rapid growth has bypassed current road traffic legislation and has left significant gaps in the law that need to be addressed. E-scooters are a cleaner, cheaper form of transport compared with cars and their use is only expected to grow.
I welcome the efforts in this Bill to address their use on our roads. There is considerable detail on this and we will have an opportunity on Committee Stage to unpack some of that. Introducing laws is not about punishing e-scooter users but, rather, putting protections in place for their safety and that of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.
A number of issues will need further discussion and interrogation when this Bill comes to Committee Stage, namely, the wearing of helmets and high-visibility clothing; the use of lights; areas where e-scooters can be used, including geofencing; liability; maximum speeds and power; and age limits. On Committee Stage, it will also be important to examine proposed e-scooter sharing schemes. These are commonplace across Europe and are hugely popular with tourists and residents alike. However, there is also concern over some of the negative aspects that can arise if a shared scheme is not introduced correctly. We do not want to see e-scooters used on footpaths or strewn all over sidewalks and public spaces, like we see in some cases elsewhere. This causes huge issues for people, particularly those with visual impairments, elderly people and people with a disability, as e-scooters can constitute serious hazards if they are not appropriately used or stored. It is, therefore, vital we develop appropriate pick-up and drop-off points for shared schemes. This will be an important issue to address on Committee Stage and I encourage the Minister of State to engage with groups such as the Irish Wheelchair Association, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland to hear their suggestions and to work with them to address their legitimate concerns and on the shape of the regulations that will follow.
E-bikes are another aspect of modern transport this Bill seeks to regulate for the first time. This is a positive initiative as it will help encourage this alternative form of mobility, reduce reliance on private cars and open opportunities for active and healthy travel for more people. I ask the Minister of State to advise the House whether she is considering expanding or reforming the bike-to-work scheme to take account of the growth of e-bikes and e-cargo bikes. As far as I am aware, €1,500 is the maximum cost that can be applied for the scheme, but some e-bikes and e-cargo bikes cost in excess of that. E-bikes cost a fraction of what an electric vehicle costs and take up much less room on our roads. While their regulation in this Bill is welcome, I hope the Government is planning to bring forward updated incentives to increase their use. The Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action heard about the potential of e-bikes to make medium-distance travel more manageable for people.
On scramblers and quad bikes, Sinn Féin has consistently called for action and legislative reform to tackle the dangerous and illegal use of these bikes. My colleagues, Deputies Ellis, Munster and Paul Donnelly, brought forward legislation in this Dáil and the previous Dáil to regulate this area. Unfortunately, successive Governments have sat on their hands while communities continue to be tormented by their use. The misuse of scramblers and quad bikes in parks and public spaces, particularly in urban communities, is a significant problem. Many people feel frightened, unsafe and intimidated by the rogue use of these scrambler bikes in public areas, which should be shared spaces for everyone to enjoy safely. In addition, there have been very serious incidents, including relatively recently.
The Minister of State indicated the aim of these amendments is to ensure prosecutions for dangerous driving may be taken against those who use scramblers or other similar vehicles in a dangerous way in any location, altering the public space definition. We are also told the Bill seeks to strengthen the powers of An Garda Síochána when dealing with the illegal use of scramblers and quad bikes, including the explicit seizing of these bikes. It is imperative the provisions in this Bill are fit for purpose to finally address this problem. This is as much an issue for the Department of Justice as it is for the Department of Transport. The Minister for Justice and the Garda need to be involved in this. The most important step that must take place following the passing of this legislation is the implementation of these new laws by the Garda. We will seek a meeting with senior Garda management to ensure a strategy is put in place to enforce the laws and the Garda has the resources to do so.
Section 5(l) of this Bill amends section 95 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 which deals with traffic signs. We welcome this initiative, which will allow Transport Infrastructure Ireland to proceed with dynamic traffic management on the M50 in the first instance, giving it the power to change speed limits on sections of the network. Drivers will be notified of such changes via lane control signals along the road and on overhead gantries. The aim of this is to allow TII to close lanes temporarily and slow traffic approaching an area where there has been an accident or traffic build-up, in order to improve the dispersion of congestion and avoid further collisions.
Members of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications visited TII’s operations centre in East Wall this week and saw at first hand the impressive work it does there monitoring the motorway network and keeping motorists safe. I echo the recommendation of the committee that Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Road Safety Authority run a public information campaign before the launch of the eMOS system on the M50 to ensure motorists are aware of the introduction and enforcement of variable speed limits and dynamic lane control. I note TII did that before it launched its early pilots. It is also important that the Department of Transport, TII and the RSA should monitor and analyse the report on the progress of the eMOS system on the M50 before proceeding with any further projects for other Irish motorways and I note the Minister of State's comments on that.
I briefly raise the High Court judgment from last week relating to driving licences. The judgment quashed a decision by the RSA which refused to exchange South African driving licences, citing residency issues as the applicants were in the direct provision system. The programme for Government contains a commitment to improve conditions for asylum seekers and specifically cites the ability to obtain a driving licence but this has still not been acted on. It is disappointing the applicants in this case were forced to take legal action in the first place but the successful outcome of their case is very welcome. I noted in a newspaper article at the weekend that a spokesperson for the Minister or the Department indicated an amendment to this legislation might be the place to address this matter. When does the Minister intend to address this judgment and what impact will that have on the wider driving licence system?
I am conscious that while the Minister for Transport was in Glasgow this week, hammering home the need to reduce emissions and get people on public transport, the NTA and the Government were announcing the draft transport strategy for the greater Dublin area which seemed to be on a completely different page. The provisions in the Bill set out a number of measures covering automatic vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters. There are significant proposals and this Bill legislates for many aspects which align well with the direction of travel, for want of a better term, towards the type transport infrastructure and model we will have in the future. However, much of what we saw yesterday in the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, many of the provisions in the national development plan and the level of funding for Connecting Ireland, for example, do the opposite. I note the plan moves away from the Navan rail line and MetroLink projects and puts light rail on the long finger and heavy rail on a longer finger. There is a mismatch between the rhetoric and the policy and, certainly, the delivery. That needs to be addressed in the time ahead.
We have done a considerable amount of work on the Road Traffic and Roads Bill and there were many conversations during pre-legislative scrutiny as well as outside in the real world. What we are looking for is a system that is fit for purpose and allows us to travel as safely as possible, while taking into account the changed world in which we live. We are doing all of this in the context of COP26 and we must focus on the idea of active living and active travel.
That is why we would start with the idea of using e-scooters. I am sure all Deputies have got it from both ends at times. In my case, people in my family went out and bought an e-scooter, notwithstanding that they were prohibited. I was only too delighted when there was a problem with the battery because I would no longer have to answer for anything that may have happened after that. It just shows the necessity for this legislation and ensuring we do the due diligence that needs to be done regarding all those pieces of work. Everybody can see that the numbers have gone up in the past months and weeks, which also means people in the House will have got more calls along the lines of "I nearly got run over by an e-scooter and you need to do something about this."
We just need a system that works and, in fairness, there has been mention of what needs to be done at a later stage. Deputy O'Rourke spoke about the questions we have on helmets, high-visibility clothing, liability insurance and maximum speeds and power. We will talk about the shared schemes that have to be a major part of a workable system but, if we compare the proposed system to bicycles, my understanding of the way DublinBikes works is that users do not have to wear a helmet. That facilitates somebody to use the system, makes it a little easier and allows more people to engage in what is absolutely necessary. It is about getting to that perfect point where, as I said, safety meets a fit-for-purpose system that allows us some room regarding active travelling.
We all accept what the Minister of State said about the lacunae or anomalies that exist regarding necessary information in databases. These are all anomalies that do not make sense so we just need to sort them out. If people have committed road traffic offences, that information should be connected to licences and vehicles so it can be best used by An Garda Síochána or whoever else. It goes without saying that all those pieces of work need to be done.
We are dealing with a changed world. No more than e-scooters, e-bikes are something we are seeing a hell of a lot more of and, therefore, as Deputy O'Rourke said, we need to look into the bike-to-work scheme. Bikes have changed so the scheme has to change. I have no doubt that most Deputies have been inundated with major issues relating to antisocial behaviour associated with scramblers and quads, sometimes carried out by very young children. Again, I would not like to think what I would have done if I had access to a scrambler when I was very young, or a quad bike for that matter. It is likely I would have done more harm to myself than anyone else, but I have also seen people on quad bikes who should know better. That is why we legislate; we cannot necessarily rely on good manners. We finally have to make sure we do the work on ensuring we deal with the leverage and law enforcement part of this and the fact that we cannot allow communities to be sometimes held to ransom by people who act in a thuggish way. We need a set of procedures and we need to do all the due diligence on that. There is general agreement with that.
On the eMOS system, as Deputy O'Rourke said, we had a day out to the TII control centre. The legislation needs to facilitate the variable speed limits in this system. The only difficulty I have with this was that when I was heading home from Leinster House last Thursday that sort of facility was not in or around the Balbriggan turn-off. If it had been, I could have more speedily made my journey to a meeting in Drogheda and then home to Dundalk. These are solutions that work and we just need to work them out.
Most of the other issues have been dealt with adequately by the Deputy on my left.
I welcome aspects of the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021. I have spoken a number of times in this House about the need for tougher rules on the use of scrambler and quad bikes. I am glad we finally have some movement on this issue. It is long overdue. While the majority of users are responsible and use these vehicles on private property, a significant minority have made themselves a serious nuisance. I urge all local authorities to consider the initiative in Moyross, Limerick, where the council provided dedicated tracks for teens to use off-road vehicles safely. This approach has been used with horses and ponies in the past, with great success. Not all children enjoy physical sports and we must ensure there is a good mix of facilities for all. Many of these teens have a genuine interest in mechanics, which can be nurtured for positive purposes.
Some rules around the use of e-scooters and e-bikes on Irish roads are also long overdue. These vehicles are very useful for commuter transport but we need clarity for users and An Garda alike. I acknowledge the Minister of State has spoken about this. However, I would not like to see these users become a cash cow for extra insurance and taxation revenue. E-scooters and e-bikes are contributing to our action on climate and must be encouraged and supported as much as possible.
One matter I would like clarified is that it appears to be an offence to supply an e-scooter to a child under 16 years of age, but not for the child to use it. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify if it is intended that it will be an offence for children to use an e-scooter and if it will be an offence for a parent, or other relative or friend, to gift an e-scooter to a child under 16. The 2004 Act defines supply as supply by way of sale, hire, loan, gift or other means of making the vehicle available to a person. I ask that these two issues are clarified.
I would like to see local authorities given the power to regulate e-scooters that are made available for public hire, having been to Brussels where several companies hire out e-scooters via an app and e-scooters are available all over the city. I would like to see councils licensing a limited number of operators, similar to how our bin collection is supposed to operate since it was privatised. This licence agreement could ensure that standards are met and there are consequences for operators who do not comply with the rules. We cannot just have a free-for-all.
The legislation also includes provisions for variable speed limits on the M50 in Dublin. I ask the Minister of State to ensure sufficient notice is given for the introduction of these measures and they are suitably advertised in regional publications, in particular, to educate those rural dwellers who rarely use the M50. The M50 is the busiest road in the country and the system of digital signals displaying changeable speed limits, allowing operators to reduce speed on a section of the motorway, is very welcome.
The completion of the motor insurance database will assist in stopping uninsured drivers. It will also help to bring down the cost of insurance for law-abiding drivers because the Government is not making much headway in this regard. I would very much appreciate it if the Minister would come back to me on the questions I asked.
The Labour Party will also support the Bill, while reserving the right to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage. On the issue of scramblers, specifically, it is most welcome to see some overdue action on their use, and that of quad bikes and other vehicles, when they are associated with antisocial behaviour. We know there have a number of Private Members' Bills on this matter over the years and action to tackle it cannot come soon enough. In particular, we pay tribute to the former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Andrew Montague, who has been critical of the scourge of these vehicles for many years now.
Despite the Road Traffic Act and other relevant legislation available in this area, Garda authorities have indicated that the use of quad bikes and scramblers by minors and youths in public parks has proven difficult to deal with from an enforcement perspective. Members of An Garda Síochána are instructed not to pursue youths on quad bikes, scramblers and so on, owing to the inherent safety risk in pursuing these vehicles. If such pursuits were to take place, there would be a high risk of them ending in collisions at speed, resulting in serious injury or death. As a result, bringing these vehicles to a stop is challenging. We welcome any attempts to stamp out that scourge via legislation. That is to be welcomed in the Bill.
We hope the Minister of State will offer some clarity, however, in respect of the practicality of stopping young offenders on dangerous vehicles.
The problem surrounding the misuse of quad bikes and scramblers has become more and more prevalent in the past five years and in the past few years there have been some particularly tragic ends for individuals using these vehicles. A number of accidents, some fatal, have been caused by individuals on scrambler motorcycles colliding with or driving into parked cars. By restricting where such vehicles can lawfully drive, we would hold them accountable to safe driving practices, not just for the safety of the public but also their own, as we need to protect them as well. The sad fact is that many owners of such vehicles who engage in antisocial behaviour are young and inexperienced drivers who seek the thrill of driving recklessly and think it is above the odds that they will be involved in an accident. We welcome the provisions within the legislation. However, we will be seeking further clarity on how they will be policed thereafter.
There is another provision within the Bill on which I seek clarity. It relates to the powers of An Bord Pleanála. As I understand it, new powers will be vested in An Bord Pleanála to permit new roads, which could theoretically supersede any local development plans or county development plans. I seek clarity on this because my thinking on it may not be absolutely correct. As I understand it, a new power is to be vested in An Bord Pleanála to approve schemes or proposed road developments that could materially contravene any county development plan. Section 45 of the Bill states:
The Act of 1993 is amended by the insertion of the following section after section 51A: “51AA.An Bord Pleanála shall approve a scheme, or a proposed road development, that contravenes materially any development plan or any local area plan (within the meaning of the Act of 2000) only if it considers that one of the following is the case:(a) the scheme or proposed road development is of strategic, regional or national importance;
(b) there are conflicting objectives in the development plan or the objectives are not clearly stated, insofar as the scheme or proposed road development is concerned;
(c) the scheme or proposed road development should be approved having regard to the transport strategy made under section 12 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the regional spatial and economic strategy for the area, guidelines under section 28 of the Act of 2000, policy directives under section 29 of the Act of 2000, the statutory obligations of any local authority in the area, and any relevant policy of the Government, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage or any Minister of the Government.
There are other areas but I do not need to quote them. Where do local area plans and county development plans stand in light of this new provision? Is it the case that An Bord Pleanála will supersede by its actions any plan that has been made by the members via the reserved function they have on local authorities? If that is the case, my initial reaction is that that would be a worrying trend. It could be argued that there is regulatory overreach inherent in that provision. However, I remain open-minded and I await the Minister of State's response to that fear. I am sure she will allay my fears. I have no doubt about that. However, I feel it is important to raise this as an issue, particularly as local authority members guard preciously their right to make their plan in the best interests of the people they represent in the areas they represent. I seek further clarity on that issue.
There is another issue that is not pertinent to this Bill, but given that the Bill speaks to road safety and ensuring that there is a regime and a system in this country whereby road users have the benefits of robust legislation to ensure they can go about their business in the best way possible, I will raise it. As we know, driver testing is now controlled by the Road Safety Authority, RSA. I have been informed that 32 testers are about to have their contracts terminated between December of this year and April of next year, across three cohorts. I worry greatly about that because during the lockdown, each and every one of us was inundated with requests from our constituents about driver testing, whether that was the theory test, the practical test or people not getting timely dates for testing and being sent all over the country in order to pursue their tests as candidates. That was particularly true in respect of the theory test. If it is the case that driver testers employed through the RSA are to be let go, and I understand there are 32 in this cohort who are on temporary contracts at present, then I worry greatly about the throughput of applicants who might get caught in the cross hairs of those job losses if they are to occur. I seek some latitude from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on this as I know it is not germane to the Bill. I fully appreciate that but it does speak to the issue of road safety. If 32 driver testers are to be let go by the RSA, that would dent any confidence there is within the system. Some clarity on that would be very welcome.
There is also the issue of the role of Transport Infrastructure Ireland in planning applications. It goes back to the point I made specifically about the new role to be defined for An Bord Pleanála. We all know that on national secondary routes in particular, when planning applications come in from genuine applicants who are seeking to build houses, sometimes on family-owned land and very often on a site they would have acquired or are acquiring subject to planning permission, when they make the application to the local authority, correspondence is put on the file by Transport Infrastructure Ireland as regards its perceived opposition to any planning applications made to a local authority where they are contiguous to, adjacent to or in close proximity to a national secondary route. At face value, that would appear, theoretically, to be laudable as it would ensure there are not more vehicles coming out onto a national primary or secondary route. However, it seems to have become practice regardless of taking into account the particular mitigating circumstances of individual planning applications. Where there are genuine applications made for housing on the basis of a genuine need and fulfilling all the conditions as laid down in rural planning guidelines, there seems to be a root-and-branch rule by TII to write submissions on planning applications. It does not quite oppose them but it expresses reservations. This seems to be a uniform approach and it is having a detrimental impact on the ability of people to build houses in rural areas. Is this something that could be looked at in the context of either planning or road safety? We all accept TII's bona fides. However, from time to time there are mitigating circumstances and it is perceived to be overly strident in its attitude towards individual planning applications where there are mitigating circumstances. That is an issue that affects thousands of people right across the State who seek to make a planning application.
It would be remiss of me, as I have done so previously privately, not to mention the N73 Mallow to Mitchelstown Road. It is a national secondary route and arguably one of the worst such routes in the country.
-----such that I could get the N73 route stitched into that Bill and secure the allocation of €8 million to €10 million to complete that 3 km stretch of road, I would do that. Unfortunately, I am an Opposition politician-----
-----and I am seeking to do my best for my constituents in Cork East. If there is anything the Minister of State can do, through her good offices, to influence TII to get that 3 km stretch of the N73 completed, that would be great. It is a national secondary route that serves those travelling between Kerry and Dublin. It is a vital arterial route for trade, commerce and residents' daily journeys. Cork County Council has prepared the tender documents for it. If there was a way in which we could get it to the next stage where that money could be allocated, it would be a great day's work for everybody involved. It would be remiss of me not to speak on a road traffic Bill without being parochial. I am unashamedly parochial in this instance. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her forbearance.
We welcome the Bill. We welcome the attempts by the Government and by the Minister of State to address a wide array of issues. We acknowledge that the transport committee did much good work on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. On that basis, we will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage.
I wish to speak in support of this legislation. It is very positive. I was someone who up to ten months ago took off every day from Clare in my diesel Honda car and drove to the gates of Dáil Éireann but in recent months I have embraced multimodal transport. This morning I took the car to the train station, from which I took the train to Heuston Station and then I took a bike. I have seen some unusual behaviour as I have pedalled along the quays. On one occasion I met our colleague, Deputy Jim O’Callaghan, who was pranking me as I cycled along. I was trying to ignore this person who was shouting me down as I pedalled but it turned out to be a Dáil colleague. Another day I saw a guy pass me out on an e-scooter. They have a speed advantage on the cyclist. As he got close to Bachelors Walk and was stopped by a red light he took out his Lynx deodorant and started to spray himself. He was obviously going to work. We have seen women apply make-up with the aid of the car mirror in the car as they are held up at traffic lights but this was a new one for me.
E-scooters have become very much part of life. The first time we saw them in recent years we craned our necks to check them out but now they can be seen everywhere. A fabulous aspect of them is that they have given youngsters a degree of independence from the parents, be it to go to hurling training, meet their friends at the cinema or do what they whatever they do when they hang out with their own age cohort. It gives them some independence. It gives the taxi service provided by mum and dad a little break. This trend took off overnight. They can be seen not only along Bachelors Walk but throughout the countryside but there is a need for regulation.
We have been doing considerable work on this at the Oireachtas transport committee and Minister of State has engaged in that. There is much in the legislation that is very positive but other elements still need to be stitched into it. Earlier today I met representatives of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and they advised there are a few omissions they would love to see included in the Bill. They consider it is generally very positive but believe footpaths must be a no-go area for e-scooters. If a person is walking on a footpath, regardless of their age, mobility or disability, it should be free for them to walk on it without having to dodge scooters coming left, right and centre. Another suggestion they made, which was new to me, is that in other EU countries a noise-emitting device is attached to scooters. It is a low-level beeping sound such that a pedestrian would know when one is passing them. Perhaps something similar could be considered for electric vehicles. They are upon pedestrians before they know they are there. In one sense that is great as they have reduced noise levels on many of our roads but there is no forewarning as the vehicle approaches the pedestrian.
Another issue is the designation of parking spaces for e-scooters. I was in London two weeks ago where e-scooters are very much part of the public domain. I came out a tube station and saw eight or ten public e-scooters – they are like DublinBikes where they can be hired for a few minutes to complete a journey – were parked willy-nilly and people would trip over them as they come out of a Tube station. We certainly do not want that replicated in Ireland when we get to legislate for e-scooters. We need to have designated areas where they can be safely deposited.
There also needs to be a degree of future-proofing. I am a child of the 1980s. I do not want to guess what decade some of the other Members present are from. I grew up watching “Back to the Future” and Marty McFly and his hoverboard, never believing anything like that would be possible. Now we have e-scooters, takeaways being delivered by drones in some countries and children going around on hoverboards, although I am not sure how they work. We need to future-proof this legislation to ensure it caters for the next fad that comes along and that we will not be back here in two or three years’ time legislating for the next such item that comes down the line.
I acknowledge the presence of my colleague, Deputy McAuliffe. He has led the campaign to fight back against the improper use of scrambler and quad bikes. I come from a rural constituency. Quad bikes belong on farms. They would used by farmers, for example, when they are putting down electric fences to keep their sheep penned in. They do not belong in the green areas of housing estates where people use them as if they were in the wild west and do all sorts of stunts on them. They are dangerous. Many farmers have opted not to use them. Suddenly 14-year-olds are thinking this is the Wild West and that quad bikes are their horse and they can take them wherever they want. It is welcome that we are moving along towards the legislative route to regulate those also.
E-bikes are referenced in the legislation. I use DublinBikes every day. I love that mode of transport. It is fantastic that I do not have to carry a bike from County Clare around Dublin all day. It is a great facility to be able to take a bike journey, park the bike in a designated zone and then be free to walk to where one needs to go. The little e-battery that is on them has not worked for many months. It has been recalled for the whole fleet of bikes. I do not expect the Minister of State to have her hand in every area of the transport brief but it would be no harm if her officials prompted DublinBikes to move that on. It is a key component of multimodal transport in Dublin.
Road legislation also encompasses many other forms of transport. One of them is sulky cart racing, which drives me bonkers. I am sure it happens in every constituency. It is regulated under section 74 of the Roads Act 1993. It allows for people to seek a permit from the Garda Síochána to stage a road race of sulky carts. I have spoken to members of the Garda about this. I do not know when anyone ever sought a permit to stage a road race of sulk carts. People can stand up and the politically correct brigade can tell us it is part of someone's culture to have a horse. It was part of everyone's culture to have a horse at one time. My great-grandparents had horses and they fed them oats and grazed them in the field. We do not have horses, land or long acre grazing. There are horses in many housing estates tethered to a rope and allowed to graze. People think they can ride them bareback or use them to draw a sulky cart. That culture does not exist. Anyone who says it does is telling lies. We need to clamp down on that. There is no God-given right to ride a horse through a housing estate or on a dual carriageway. That is happening every week. Legislation allows it happen currently without any great oversight.
The squaring of traffic fines comes under the Road Traffic Act and legislation. This has been an element of road policing for time immemorial. Gardaí leaving Templemore training college are told they are empowered by the Road Traffic Act to have a degree of discretion when they meet somebody on the road. It could be a person going to a maternity hospital or a person on their way to a hospice to meet someone who is in their final hours of living. They might be driving a little over the speed limit. We have all been there. We have all driven faster than we should have at times. The moment a garda turns on the blue beacon on the Garda car and pulls a motorist over, he or she has the power of discretion but recently there has been something of a witch hunt in the Limerick Garda division. If a garda squares off a fine he or she is under a net investigation. The Government needs to examine that and say that enough is enough in that regard.
I thank the Minister of State for all her interventions this week regarding Doolin Coast Guard and everything she has done for County Clare. That mediation process, to which she is committed, needs to begin in earnest. Much of what we do in the Dáil or in committee can be inconsequential to people's lives. The closure of a Coast Guard base, however, is fully consequential. Lives will be lost if we do not have a Coast Guard presence on the west coast of Clare. I am glad the Minister of State is intervening. Expediency is the name of the game here over the next few days.
At the outset and to be parochial, I would mention the N24 bypass of Tipperary town. The Minister of State might be able to put in a good word for it.
I would like to speak about the creation of a new classification of a vehicle to facilitate the use of e-scooters and similar devices. Of course, we need to give them a classification of their own to provide legal clarity on the conditions of their use but there are still some issues that may remain unresolved. For example, the Minister has previously told the transport committee that it was his intention to propose that these vehicles, which will be defined from here on, as powered personal transporters, may be used in cycle tracks and bus lanes but would not be allowed in pedestrianised areas, national roads or motorways. Apart from larger urban areas, there are many towns and villages across the country that do not have infrastructure that includes cycle tracks and bus lanes.
The choice of locations for using these vehicles is already limited in many areas of the country, which is surely a contributing factor to their use on footpaths. This is of particular concern to many people, especially older people, disabled pedestrians and those with limited mobility. We hear reports all the time of people having near misses when these devices are used on footpaths, with pedestrians having to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. There has been much discussion on this matter in local media in my constituency this week, with real concern being expressed about the safe use of such powered personal transporters, PPTs. I would appreciate any comments the Minister of State might make in this regard and on the safety of pedestrians in general, particularly those with limited mobility. Her views on the provision of the infrastructure she referred to in areas where it is sadly absent would also be welcome.
While I understand e-bikes and e-scooters will be subject to legislation that prohibits drink-driving or speeding, policing their safe use will add to the work of traffic wardens and members of the Garda. Has the Minister of State made provision for that added workload and has she examined how PPTs can be used safely in rural areas?
Regarding insurance, the Bill gives legal clarity that PPTs such as e-scooters and e-bikes may be used without the need for registration, tax, licensing and insurance conditions, as are necessary for the use of multipurpose vehicles, MPVs. In the event of a collision, how does the Minister propose that the issue of compensation be managed if the user of such a vehicle is not in a financial position to pay for the damage or injury done? Is this going to add to the work of the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland? In its submission, TII recommended that e-scooters should be licensed and insured under a similar system to those operating in Germany and Belgium. What is the Minister of State's view on that recommendation?
The Bill includes a provision that will make it an offence to give a false declaration when applying for certain kinds of permits under the Road Traffic Act 1994. This aims to stop fraudulent applications, particularly for disabled parking permits. This provision is welcome. As we are all aware, permits of that nature are for an express purpose and are not meant to be a way for opportunists to secure easier parking. I welcome action in this regard. Will the Minister of State give consideration to how legally obtained permits are being used by people to whom they are not issued when the named person is not present?