Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006: Second Stage
Timmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
I welcome the Minister to the House and the provision he brings before us today. It is worth noting that the legislation that has been in place for a number of months has been very effective in dealing with the scourge of road deaths we discussed on many occasions in the House last year. It was one of the most hotly debated issues not just in this House but in the media and among the general public. So many people had lost their lives it was incumbent on the Government and all of us as legislators to try to do something about it.
In my view and in the view of most of the people I meet on an ongoing basis, the legislation that has been brought in has provided a tremendous benefit to the country, not just in terms of the people who are alive today and whose families are not affected by the scourge of death on our roads but also to those who would have been affected through injury in accidents. It is worth noting that when one considers the number of people killed on our roads, it is only a small percentage of the number of those who are injured through serious accidents in a way that affects them and their families for the rest of their lives and also affects the state of our health service in providing services to deal with that. There has been a much greater benefit than the ten or 20 lives saved as a result of this legislation in terms of the number of people saved from serious injury. In that regard it is a little disingenuous of Senator Paddy Burke, for whom I have great respect and who generally makes some very good contributions, to make the type of statement he made today on the ineffectiveness of the Government in dealing with road deaths and road safety. That is a charge that might have been made earlier last year to some extent, not taking into account the work the Government had done in developing two road strategies.
Senator Burke made reference to the fact that we had only produced two road strategies but that is two more than the Opposition produced when they were in Government. He talked about the ban on the use of mobile phones. I understand such a ban is in place and perhaps the Minister will confirm this.
Senator Paddy Burke referred to random breath testing. While mandatory breath testing might be a different name, it is effectively the same thing. The Government and the officers of State, particularly the Garda, should be commended on their success in the past two and a half months. The figures clearly speak for themselves and we have turned a corner. While this may have taken longer than anyone, the Minister included, would have wished, it has been successful and must be built on.
It is unfair to try to be negative about the legislation because of a minor technical difficulty or error found therein. This reflects as much on Members for not spotting it during the legislation's passage as does the suggestion that someone within the Department failed to identify it or that the Minister or the Government is at fault. All Members had access to the legislation and their role in parsing that legislation should be to identify such errors. I am thankful the Minister has identified the issue so early. Legislation has been brought before the House and will become law quickly to ensure no one will avoid the penalties or the rigours of the law in this regard, which would have a damaging overall effect on the legislation's credibility. Given the background work undertaken by the Minister, this will not take place.
Enforcement is working and it is clear people now take a realistic approach, in terms of their behaviour and attitude, to driving after consuming alcohol. I always believed that mandatory breath testing would not be required to induce people to change their behaviour and attitude, had the requisite level of enforcement been present. Consequently, I am uncertain whether the present level of enforcement was brought about as a result of redeployment within the Garda or the provision of additional resources. Nevertheless, regardless of one's point of view, this is welcome.
I wish to raise an enforcement issue that is worth noting within the context of this debate although it does not fall within the Minister's remit. I refer to mandatory breath testing early in the morning. While this issue is difficult, it should be addressed, or at least discussed. In some cases, it has probably created a negative effect on the overall aspect of what is otherwise good legislation. This matter pertains to the operation of enforcement and probably falls within the remit of the Garda Commissioner. People who have consumed a certain amount of alcohol late at night or during the previous evening are now concerned while driving to work at 8 a.m. While such concern may be unnecessary, it has had an effect on people's approach to what is otherwise good legislation and may be causing some negative sentiment towards it.
This matter must be resolved through enforcement rather than through legislation. It should have been addressed by the issue raised in respect of the Bill's constitutionality, when there was much talk regarding a proportional response to its implementation in respect of times, locations etc. and as to the location of such mandatory alcohol testing points. I understood the enforcement response was obliged to be proportional to the risk, which is greatly diminished from 6 a.m., 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. The Minister may wish to discuss his views in this respect with Members or his other colleagues. The great majority of accidents involving the over-consumption of alcohol usually take place before 5 a.m. While I recognise this matter cannot be prescribed in legislation in a manner that would set down definitive guidelines, it can be addressed through guidelines in respect of enforcement. Although such guidelines will probably never be published, this should be taken into account by the enforcement authorities.
The Minister spoke about the approach taken by the Government to road safety. Everything he has done since taking up office in this Department has increased the capacity to deliver a safer environment for road users, including his road improvement policies. I welcome the Department of Transport's recent announcement that the Ennis bypass will be opened in or around next December. The opening and continued development of such dual carriageways will bring about a safer environment for all who go about their daily lives. In addition to complimenting the Minister in this regard, I encourage him to push ahead with the Gort to Crusheen and Gort to Galway sections of the western road corridor. The removal of such bottlenecks, as well as inferior sections of roads that carry heavy traffic, from the daily commute of many people will definitely reduce death, injury and accidents.
As for changing behaviour and attitudes, it is critical that, as part of its overall curriculum, the Department of Education and Science should become involved in developing an approach or at least some capacity to teach young people safer methods of driving. It should introduce them at an early stage to the kind of approach that is necessary to ensure children grow up with respect for the road, rather than a belief they have a right to its use. Respect for the road is far more important than a belief that one has a right to be a road user. The only way in which one will change a culture over a generation is to start at the beginning and hopefully this can be done as a matter of urgency.
In the course of several debates, Members have recognised that the majority of deaths on the road occur among those who are under 30. In many cases this befalls young people with cars that have greater power than they are capable of handling, in addition to the alcohol issue. However, there is a great lack of understanding as to their responsibilities regarding the use of the road. It is the old story of trying to put an old head on young shoulders, which has never worked. Hence, it is important to educate our youngsters before they get an opportunity to go behind the wheel in the first place. Perhaps the school curriculum is the best place to so do. I ask the Minister to inform Members of any discussions he may have had with the Department of Education and Science in this respect.
Road safety is under discussion and the national car test, NCT, on which a consultation report was prepared regarding a potential review, is part of this issue. The Minister may wish to comment on its present status and whether any changes are imminent in this regard. From time to time, one hears about some of the more pernickety elements of the NCT that should be addressed. I am familiar with a number of incidents in which people have been failed on the basis of emissions one day and, without making any adjustments to their vehicles, have returned a number of weeks later and have passed the emissions test with flying colours. While I do not know whether this constitutes a quirk in the system, it is an unnecessary source of annoyance to road users and vehicle operators.