Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006: Second Stage
Paddy Burke (Fine Gael)
I welcome the Minister to the House. I did not think we would be welcoming him back so quickly with this legislation.
It is disappointing that we are faced with having to rectify this important legislation, the Road Traffic Act 2006, so soon after its introduction. The ink has barely dried on the Bill and we are now faced with having to correct an error. I accept that mistakes can be made and at least this mistake has been recognised relatively quickly, which is something to be grateful for.
The drafting error in this Act means, as I understand it, any persons that have refused to give a breath sample at a checkpoint and from whom a breath, blood or urine sample is later taken at a Garda station, are unlikely to be successfully prosecuted for drink driving. This is extremely worrying for all legislators who desperately want to see an improvement in road safety standards throughout the country. We waited for almost ten years for the introduction of random breath testing and to have the system called into question so soon into its operation is a matter of huge concern. There have been 282 deaths on our roads in the year to date and hundreds of horrific injuries and casualties.
The Government's record on road safety is appalling. At a time when most European countries are significantly improving their road safety measures and succeeding in reducing the level of death and fatalities on their roads, Ireland's level of road deaths is worsening. In 2005, 399 people were killed on our roads; in 2002 this figure was 23 less at 376. With 282 people dead on our roads already, this year's figure is not likely to show any decrease; at the moment it is similar to last year's unacceptably high figure.
The picture of road safety in Ireland is an extremely poor one. This month an EU survey placed Ireland's level of enforcement of road safety measures quite low down the scale of European states. We sit in the bottom half of the table and this has been a consistent feature during the lifetime of the Government. EU surveys have persistently highlighted our problem in dealing with drink-driving and speeding. We desperately need to tackle these two key issues and I am worried that the most recent glitch in road safety legislation specifically threatens to undermine random breath testing and, more generally, all road safety measures.
While personal responsibility in terms of safer driving is crucial, the level of road deaths and general poor driving standards cannot be solely attributed to driver behaviour. Two central reasons lie with the Government's paralysed approach to this issue and also the appalling condition of our roads. Indeed, a survey published last week by the Insurance Industry Federation found that 90% of motorists felt that the Government needed to do more to reduce road deaths.
The Government is not unaware of the fact that we have a bad road safety record. It has had more than nine years in office when it could have taken decisive actions to reduce deaths and fatalities. Instead, this jaded Government has produced two glossy road safety strategies and failed to implement the key recommendations contained within them.
The Minister owes this House and the wider public a full explanation as to the reason it has taken so long for key lifesaving measures such as the roll-out of speed cameras, random breath testing, stiffer drink driving penalties and the ban on mobile phones to finally make their way into legislation. The Government has been in office for almost ten years and in that time these measures could easily have been debated and enacted by the Oireachtas. Instead, we got stalemate, inaction, U-turns and procrastination from a paralysed Government. The result was that while the public waited for action from this Government, hundreds of people have died in the interim on our roads and thousands more have been injured.
Not once but twice the Government has failed to reach the targets it set in its own road safety strategy. First from 1998 to 2004 and now in its second strategy, which will end this year, the Government has failed to reach the target of reducing road deaths by 25%. We are nowhere near tackling our appalling road safety record. In France, the Government succeeded in reducing road deaths by one third in three years. In Ireland, we have had ten years during which the situation was allowed to get increasingly worse before any decisive action was taken. The difference between France and Ireland was that the political will existed in France to tackle the issue head on. In Ireland, the unacceptably high level of road deaths has been pushed under the carpet by the Government. The Government cannot be proud of its record of inaction and paralysis on this crucial issue. Neither does its response offer any comfort to the families, friends and communities of those who have been killed or seriously injured on our roads.
The problem with the flaw in the current legislation is not so much the specifics of the error itself but rather its wider damaging impact in terms of the public's perception of road safety laws. There is a common perception among the motoring public that if they break road safety laws by speeding or drink driving, there is a good chance they will get off if the matter proceeds to the courts. The public's perception of being able to get away with it is not that far off the mark, given that the road safety legislation is often aggressively challenged before the courts. Even the case of a motorist having his conviction quashed creates a negative picture.
Regarding the drafting mistake we are dealing with today, I am not sure how many motorists could have had their convictions thrown out as a result of that. The Minister might inform us of the number in question. The only response is for gardaí to increase their level of enforcement to get out the message that drink driving will not be tolerated and that offenders will be caught if they take the risk.
I was delighted to hear the Minister say earlier that the higher levels of enforcement in July and August have resulted in a decrease in the number of deaths in those months over previous months. I welcome that because everybody has said it is all about enforcement. The greater the level of enforcement, the greater reduction we would see in fatalities and serious accidents. In that regard I welcome the figures the Minister gave the House earlier.
I recognise that when random breath testing was initially introduced it had a positive impact in reducing road deaths and discouraging motorists from drinking and driving. I urge the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister and the Road Safety Authority to ensure that the level of enforcement is sustained throughout the year and not just at certain times such as bank holiday weekends and at Christmas.
Members of the Joint Committee on Transport travelled to Australia where the police are very much in people's faces, so to speak, in this regard. They advertise the locations where they do random breath testing. That is to highlight their presence to the public and ensure that the public can see they are taking action. They want to make the public aware of the consequences if they are caught drink driving. That is the way we should proceed here. The gardaí should be in people's faces and promoting road safety all year round, not just at Christmas or bank holiday weekends.
l would also encourage the respective Ministers to prioritise the introduction of the remaining measures contained in the road safety strategy, particularly the roll-out of speed cameras nationwide and the implementation of the remaining penalty point offences. We have waited long enough for these initiatives and it now appears unlikely that either will happen before the next election. Of critical importance also is the need to reform the driving test and to reduce the waiting times of those waiting to sit a full driving test. Until we do both, we will continue to have a poor standard of driving on our roads.
The Minister has introduced private outsourcing but this will only bring about 40,000 extra driving tests. That is insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem. Can the Minister give us a set deadline as to when he expects the backlog will be reduced to a maximum of four weeks' waiting time?
The Ministers and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have much work to do if they are serious about addressing the huge problem which exists in road safety legislation enforcement and compliance. They need to remain focused and not lose interest once the gloss has faded from the latest initiative, as happened so often in the past. Reducing road deaths and casualties requires a sustained commitment over the long term and it cannot be achieved with quick fixes. Our current road safety strategy will come to an end in December. I urge the Minister to put the structures, manpower and resources in place to ensure that we are capable of meeting the targets we have failed to meet in the past.
The Cathaoirleach ruled out my amendment No. 3, which concerned the consolidation of all the Acts in regard to this area. If we had consolidation of the Acts regarding transport, this error would have been spotted and we would not be dealing with this legislation today. As the amendment has been disallowed, I urge the Minister that a consolidation of the Acts should be considered and perhaps introduced in the not too distant future. I support the legislation.