Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage


4:45 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank all the Senators for their contributions. Senator O'Donovan and others raised the status of the regime requiring a driver to have a valid NCT certificate. It was an offence before the Road Traffic Act 2014 and before this Bill. The 2014 Act changed the penalty point regime on the need to have a valid NCT certificate. A driver now has the option of not going to court, paying a lower fine and having a different number of penalty points imposed on the licence. It was not that a new offence was brought in but that the existing offence was changed to make the option of a fixed charge payment available. The more significant change, however, is the degree of advertising support and awareness that this change commanded.

It has been something that has been the focus of a significant amount of support and advertising from the Road Safety Authority and there has been a huge increase in awareness of this changed offence, which has led to an increased demand for NCT certificates.

On the points the Senator put to me, I will give a set of figures which have influenced how I view this issue and what I have done on it. These figures show that at the end of November the Road Safety Authority carried out approximately 25,000 NCT tests. Of those, 9,000 were either late or very late, and 1,450 of the tests refer to vehicles that should have had an NCT in 2013. A significant minority of vehicles which are being tested for an NCT should have had the certificate in place for a long period of time before the examination actually happened. This is directly relevant to an issue everyone has touched on, namely, the issue of road safety. The safety of a vehicle and how roadworthy it is can have a potential impact on safety on our roads. That is why this measure was introduced and why I support it.

There has been an increase in the amount of public comment on what the Road Safety Authority and I have done with regard to this. The average waiting time at the moment for NCT test centres is 11 days. On foot of getting that national average, I requested a regional breakdown. The Senator made this point in relation to his constituency. The average might look okay or good, but there could be particular distortions or unacceptable waiting times in particular centres. I have requested, and got, the waiting times per NCT centre across the country. This information showed me, when I last checked it, which was last week, that the waiting time for most centres was inside what is acceptable. The Road Safety Authority has since told me that it has now hired an additional 50 staff, approximately, to deal with this, and, in particular centres, it has made more services available to deal with the demand for NCT certificates. I will continue to request that information on a weekly basis to see where the situation stands.

Drivers who had valid NCT certificates are seeking to renew them and their perception is that it is more difficult to get an appointment because of the increased number of people who are coming in to test vehicles. This is causing concern. I have raised the issue with the Road Safety Authority and it tells me that people must call the centre. I have said this here and in the other House also. If they call the centre, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a test will be provided. Further, if a test cannot be provided within 28 days, there is a provision in place stating that it should be provided for free. I have also raised this issue with the Road Safety Authority. At the moment, the free test is only being provided in the case of 2% of NCT tests. I am happy to respond further to the Senator on this point later on in the debate, but I note for now that I will continue to get this information. I know it is an issue of concern at the moment. Further, I will specifically look at the waiting time per NCT centre and I will work with the Road Safety Authority to ensure that additional resources are deployed in the best way possible.

The Senator put some other points to me. I am going to conclude with the common theme of the retrospective nature of this legislation, because I think it is the major theme people have raised with me. On the issue of resourcing, a point also made by Senator Reilly, and making sure that we have an adequate number of gardaí and personnel available to support the law that has been supported, given the resources that are currently available, the Garda is doing a very good job on this issue. However, I have raised the matter directly with the Garda Commissioner myself. This might also answer the point put by Senator Reilly to me. I have argued that with an increase in the number of gardaí being recruited and active - this change is happening this year - we should see a similar increase in the number of people who are in the traffic corps and involved in running enforcement tests and checkpoints to make our roads safe. Ultimately, the body of law that we have in place will only be safely and properly implemented if there is an enforcement regime in place that people believe is credible. I have made this point to the Garda Commissioner. As the number of gardaí grows, as it will, this area is one that should be better resourced in the future.

Senator O'Neill put a number of points to me. One is a point that was also touched on by Senator Byrne. The law in this area is weighty and complex and this has led to an issue on the implementation of the commencement order. I would draw a parallel between this area of law and company law. Road safety legislation has been more highly prioritised in recent years, but there is a huge body of road safety law in place dating back to the main Act of 1961. There is a large degree of complexity in it with a large number of different Bills referring to different subsections in other Bills, some of which have now been in operation for a long period of time. To my mind, there are two necessary next steps that have emerged from this issue. We should begin the process of consolidation of road safety and road traffic law. That will take a long period to do, a period well beyond the lifetime of this Seanad or Dáil. In my Department, I have requested an audit of any other potential areas of non-commencement. We will look at all of the recent sections of road traffic law and ensure that this specific error does not happen again. Road safety law is very important and an area that is tested regularly.

Various Senators have touched on the effect of penalty points in improving safety on our roads. We have gone from a situation where life was being lost every day to a situation that is much improved but in which too many people are still losing their lives, as the last number of days have illustrated. I believe a very credible and strong penalty point regime has contributed significantly to this.

Senator Barrett touched on similar areas as well. He also acknowledged, and it is a point worth making again, the absolute misery, heartache and grief that is involved in all of the statistics to which we referred. Very early in my time as Minister, I met a family which lost a life. Their young boy was tragically killed outside their home. To sit down and hear a family talk about their grief and how this changed the course of their lives brings home, in a way no statistic can, the need to continue to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible.

The point was made that there is a need to look, in as comprehensive a way as possible, at all the different areas of road safety. I chair a group that meets twice a year to look at all of the different agencies that are involved in road safety legislation, the status of each of the actions under our current road safety strategy and what actions are not happening and how they need to be changed. The most recent meeting of that group happened within the last two weeks. This is a forum in which we look at the implementation of different points.

Senator Kelly put to me that I should have considered the raising of penalty points between 1 August and the point at which this issue was detected. I decided not to pursue that course of action because my own belief was that something like that would significantly undermine the credibility of our penalty point regime in the future.

I was also aware of the sheer number of actual offences that were committed. My view as Minister is that I should do what I can to ensure a system is in place that delivers the sanctions to the offences that have been committed. In the interests of transparency, because it is important that the Senator is aware of the figures, from 1 August until the point at which this issue was detected and action taken, 78,504 people were affected and the total number of penalty points affected by this is 206,030. This is a very significant number of offences and people, which was crucial in the decision I made to look at how we would put in a place a continuous regime since 1 August and not to go down the route of erasing penalty points, due to the figures that were there.

I have touched on the point in regard to regional NCT centres and I note the point made in respect of individuals who have had a large number of provisional licences built up over time and what can happen when they realise they cannot get another one. I accept that this is an issue, particularly for elderly people who have had many provisional licences. That being said, as the Senator will appreciate, the main issue I have to consider is what we need to do to make our roads as safe as possible and to ensure that the people who are on our roads have gone through the right level of testing, both theory and test. It is for that reason that a theory test was required, but I might get some more information for the Senator on that particular issue after this.


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