Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage


2:30 pm

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

I thank the House for the opportunity to introduce the Road Traffic Bill 2016. Road safety is an area which concerns all of us, both as citizens and as public representatives.Happily, it is not a partisan issue. We might occasionally disagree about the best measures to improve road safety, but there is no disagreement on the overall goal or, for the most part, on how we wish to achieve it.

There has been a remarkable transformation of the situation on our roads since the start of the millennium. In 2000, 415 people died on our roads. Last year, 2015, saw 166 fatalities. This represents a decline of almost 60%. It is not a uniform decline, however. The number of fatalities dropped for the first few years of the millennium, only for the number to rise again in 2004 and 2005. From that point, there were several years in which the number of fatalities fell, reaching a record low of 162 in 2012. However, in 2013 and 2014 the numbers increased again. Last year, 2015, there was a significant improvement, with a 15% decline in the number of fatalities recorded, but the year ended on a very tragic note. Before December, 2015 appeared to be an even better year than 2012, which had the lowest number on record. Then there was a series of fatal collisions which made that month the worst December for road fatalities since 2007. That should be a reminder and a spur to all of us to ensure that the pressure to reduce the number of road fatalities is maintained by all means at our disposal. Too many people are still losing their lives on our roads.

Road safety depends on a wide range of factors. These include the quality of our roads and the quality of the vehicles driven on them; sensible traffic planning and management; keeping to the right speed; the health of the driver; factors which can cause driver impairment - above all, intoxicants and driver distraction; driver skills and training; and the enforcement of the law. The improvements of the past decade and a half have been the product of effort in all of these areas. Investment has improved the quality of our roads. The national car test, NCT, and improvements in commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing have contributed to improving and maintaining higher standards for vehicles on our roads. Legislative reform has led to a more robust driver learning process and tougher measures to combat driving while intoxicated, while driver informer programmes have been conducted to improve public awareness of the most important risk factors involved in driving.

This has been the work of many stakeholders. My Department has led the way with legislation but many other organisations have made, and continue to make, a vital contribution. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, was established in 2006. It has made an immeasurable improvement to road safety as the body responsible for the NCT, for regulating driving instructors, overseeing the driving test and, more recently, as the body responsible for national driver licensing services. The RSA is also responsible for public information and education on road safety through schools, through public information campaigns and through engagement with other stakeholders such as cycling groups. It has provided a wealth of expert advice and assistance to my Department and other stakeholders.

In the area of law enforcement, I acknowledge the essential and tremendous work of the Garda Síochána. The establishment of a dedicated traffic corps was a major step forward. New tools have been provided which have proven a great help in enforcing the law, including the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points system, random breath testing for alcohol and lower permissible limits, and the introduction of safety cameras. Last summer, I also extended the fixed charge system to cover road traffic offences by cyclists. I must also mention the essential work done by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. The bureau has responsibility for testing specimens for intoxicants and for the supply of testing equipment used by the Garda. In addition to its often heavy workload, the scientific expertise of the bureau has been an essential support to my Department and, in particular, has been crucial in developing proposals for intoxicated driving which are at the heart of the legislation before the House today. I acknowledge the dedication and hard work of all the road safety advocacy groups and campaigners who work tirelessly to raise awareness of road safety issues. However, none of this should distract us from one very important fact: that each person who gets behind the wheel of a car or any other mechanically propelled vehicle has a personal responsibility to drive safely. We can pass all the laws we want but only one person is behind the wheel of each vehicle. Drivers must think and act responsibly. This is the message we have to get across to the public. The main causes of road collisions are well known. They are: speeding; driver intoxication; fatigue; and distraction. In all these areas, there have been important initiatives over recent years. Work to reduce speed and raise awareness of intoxication, fatigue and distraction is ongoing.

The Bill I am introducing today will provide a number of important measures to make more progress on safety on our roads. Its main focus is on intoxicated driving. The Road Traffic Act 2010 provided a very sound new basis for the law on driving under the influence of alcohol. The Act of 2010 and the number of amendments made thereto in the interim have greatly assisted An Garda Síochána in addressing drink driving. However, the law now needs to be strengthened in the more complex area of driving under the influence of drugs. The Bill before the House will mark a major advance in that regard.

The Bill includes a proposal for a new special speed limit of 20 km/h. This will be an option available to local authorities in built-up areas where they believe there is a particularly high risk to public safety. Another major element will be the provision of the necessary legislative basis to give effect to a new agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom on the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications.

Before I explain the proposals contained in the Bill, I must acknowledge the extremely valuable contribution of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in their development. The joint committee made very pertinent and helpful contributions to the proposals of the general scheme of the Bill. In many cases, this led to important changes in the proposals. I informed the joint committee, in response to its report, of my intention to adjust the proposals in light of its comments. Due to constraints of time, and since we are coming to the end of the life of the current Oireachtas, I subsequently decided to remove some provisions from the proposals of the current Bill altogether. A key reason for doing this is my commitment to ensuring we have mandatory intoxicant tests in place later in the year. In order to do that, we need to have the provisions on the use of the drug testing devices enacted. It was my judgment, as Minister, that if we had delayed the introduction of those sections of the Bill for any period, our ability to deliver on the commitment to have mandatory intoxicant testing for drugs would have been compromised. It is for that reason that I decided to remove some sections from the Bill. However, we will continue with our work on examining how we can improve the law in this area.

Among the measures about which the committee expressed concern was the proposal that employers of professional drivers would have to conduct periodic tests for intoxicants. The committee raised specific concerns about the likely impact on small businesses in particular. Similarly, proposals for tighter regulation of the use of electronic devices while driving were included in the general scheme and were the subject of much constructive comment by the committee. Again, due to time factors, I have not included any proposals in this area in the current Bill but it is a matter we must address. The range of devices that can distract drivers has grown significantly. Driver distraction is a major area of concern. We must, in due course, bring the law up to date with reality. My Department continues to work closely with An Garda Síochána to examine how this might best be achieved. I now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. Driving under the influence of intoxicants is one of the greatest dangers on our roads. It is also, potentially, one of the easiest to eliminate. I repeat what I said before: every driver has personal responsibility for their own driving. If people act responsibly, and do not drive after drinking, or do not drink if they know they will have to drive, we will not have a problem. Tragically, many people have not got this message, and too many have suffered as a result. The Road Traffic Act 2010 introduced a comprehensive overhaul of our legislation on drink-driving. Under that Act, it is an offence to drive or be in control of a mechanically propelled vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be unable to control the vehicle. It is also an offence to have more than a specified limit of alcohol in your system. In the latter case, the offence depends on proving the presence of a specified level of alcohol only and not that the person was actually impaired, a principle which we are replicating for certain specified drugs. Over the years, concerns have grown about the level of driving under the influence not just of alcohol but also of drugs. A report on road traffic fatalities over a ten-year period showed that 10% of drivers had a positive toxicology for drugs. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, annual report for 2014 shows that 58% of the 1,158 specimens tested for drugs were positive for at least one drug. The report also gives another disturbing fact - 53%, or more than half, of the specimens that tested positive for drugs tested positive for two or more drugs. One does not need to be an expert to see the risks of taking not just one but a cocktail of drugs and then driving.

Addressing drug-driving is a more complex matter than addressing drink-driving. It involves multiple substances, and until recently the technology to test for drugs at the roadside, in the way we do for alcohol, did not exist. When my predecessor was introducing what became the Road Traffic Act 2014 in the Oireachtas, he noted these difficulties and promised that legislation would be introduced to deal with drugs and drug testing when the technology was available. That time is now. Part 2 of this Bill addresses the issue of drug driving. It is already an offence to drive under the influence of an intoxicant to the extent of being unable to control the vehicle, and this applies to any intoxicant. Today I am proposing a new offence of driving while the person has more than a specified level of any of three specified drugs - cannabis, cocaine or heroin - in their system. This means that the presence alone of these drugs in a person's system will be an offence, and there will be no need to prove that the person's driving is impaired.

The levels proposed for each drug in the Bill have been considered in the context of other jurisdictions. Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Greece have the same thresholds. The levels proposed also take into account MBRS experience and factors such as lag time between arrest and the collection of a specimen, and measurement uncertainty. Levels have been chosen on the basis that they are indicative of recent use. This is important given that we are not making a requirement to prove impairment. Since I published this proposal, some have called it draconian. It is not. It is, in fact, what the law already provides in relation to alcohol. Some have also questioned what might happen if cannabis were to be legalised, and suggested that this may mean my proposals should be rethought. This is not the point: cannabis impacts on people's ability to drive by dulling their reactions, and if it were to be made legal tomorrow it would still be a danger when driving. If cannabis were legal, it would be in exactly the same position in respect of road traffic law as alcohol, and we would be just as concerned about its presence in drivers.

I am allowing in the Bill for the fact that a form of medicinal cannabis is licenced for use in Ireland, although I understand it is not yet available. This is a medication called Sativex. It is likely to be prescribed only rarely, to treat a small proportion of multiple sclerosis patients. People who have been prescribed this drug will receive an exemption certificate from the new offence. However, this exemption would not apply if they were actually impaired due to the medication, in which case they would be liable to prosecution under the existing 2010 provisions. Once again, it is a matter of individual responsibility - we all encourage people to take necessary medications, but if a person's medication, for example, makes them drowsy, they should not drive until the effect has worn off. Any driver who has concerns about their medication and their ability to drive should discuss this with their doctor or pharmacist. Some Members may have noticed that while I am proposing the new offence in relation to three drugs, there are in fact five substances named in the Bill. The reason for this is that in some cases the drug itself will metabolise quickly but can be detected by the metabolite, that is, the chemical into which it breaks down, so the Bill is listing these also.

I referred earlier to testing. Advances in technology mean that there are now devices available which can be used to conduct roadside tests of oral fluid for the presence of drugs. I am proposing measures in this Bill which will give the necessary powers to the Garda to use these devices, and the necessary powers to the MBRS to approve and supply them. Gardaí will in future be able to conduct a breath test for alcohol and have the option of conducting an oral fluid test for drugs, in these circumstances. Both of these tests are preliminary rather than evidential, and will serve to assist gardaí in forming an opinion that a person has consumed an intoxicant. I am also proposing to amend section 10 of the 2010 Act, which is the basis for mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, checkpoints. These are the roadside checkpoints set up by gardaí where they have the power to conduct random breath tests. In future, these powers will be extended so that breath and-or oral fluid tests can be conducted. The checkpoints will henceforth be known as mandatory intoxicant testing, MIT, checkpoints. Other measures in Part 2 will underpin these proposals. For example, refusal to provide an oral fluid specimen when required will be an offence, as is the case now with refusal to provide a specimen of breath. Also, when taking a specimen at a Garda station in alcohol-related cases, a specimen of breath, blood or urine may be used. Scientific advice indicates that in order to establish recent drug use, a specimen of blood will be necessary. For this reason, in cases where there is a suspicion of breach of the new "presence only" offence for cannabis, cocaine and heroin, gardaí will be empowered to require a specimen of blood only.

The third part of the Bill contains only one section, which I consider to be very important. At present, the default speed limit in built-up areas is 50 km/h. However, a built-up area can mean a number of things. Some are long, straight roads which have houses on either side and which are significant arteries for traffic. Others may be small, winding roads in housing estates where there are children frequently playing near, or even on, the road. Of course, roads in built-up areas can be anything in between. The law recognises these distinctions by allowing local authorities to lower the limit on particular roads in built-up areas under their jurisdiction to 40 km/h or to 30 km/h, according to what is suitable to the circumstances. Members may be familiar with the Jake's Legacy campaign. This began in 2014, following the tragic death of six-year-old Jake Brennan, who was killed by a car outside his home in a housing estate in Kilkenny.The campaign has asked for a mandatory 20 km/h speed limit in built-up areas. While I fully sympathise with the Brennan family over their terrible loss, I believe local authorities are best placed to decide on a 20 km/h limit for all built-up areas and this is what I am introducing today.

Part 4 introduces a series of miscellaneous measures. These are largely technical changes which will improve the clarity of existing legislation in a number of respects. I am also introducing one new penalty point offence and providing that, in future, summary offences under the RSA (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012 will be brought within the fixed charge regime. Technical amendments are also made to some provisions in the 2010 Act.

In Part 5, I am providing the legislative underpinning for an agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications. Under EU law, drivers must receive their driving licences from the country in which they are ordinarily resident and can drive on that licence anywhere in the EU. If they are disqualified from driving in the country which issued their licence, they cannot drive anywhere else, given that they do not hold a valid driving licence. However, what happens if they are disqualified in another country that is not their country of residence? The question has particular relevance for us. For example, what if an Irish licence holder is disqualified from driving in the UK? There is an EU convention on driver disqualification which, if implemented, would ensure that disqualification anywhere in the EU would mean disqualification everywhere in the EU. However, the difference in legal systems throughout Europe has meant implementation has proven difficult. The convention allowed that any two member states could establish mutual agreements on disqualification ahead of the full implementation of the convention but within its framework. Ireland and the UK subsequently reached such an agreement, which was the only one of its kind in Europe. The EU decided that, as of December 2014, the operation of the convention on driver disqualification would come under the jurisdiction of the European Court. Given that the UK was unwilling to enhance the court's powers, it withdrew from the convention and, as a consequence, our agreement with it under the convention came to an end. Both the Irish and UK Governments were, however, keen to retain mutual recognition of driver disqualification. We therefore set about remaking our arrangements through a bilateral agreement outside the framework of the convention. This agreement was signed on 30 October 2015. In order for it to come into effect, we need legislation and that is what I have brought before the House today. The effect will be that Irish drivers who go to the UK and commit road traffic offences serious enough to lead to disqualification there will also be disqualified here. Likewise, UK licence holders disqualified here will be disqualified in the UK. This is to the benefit of both jurisdictions.

The measures I am proposing are a major step forward in combating driving under the influence of drugs. They also provide a significant new addition to the options available to local authorities in setting speed limits in built-up areas and the necessary legislative platform to give effect to a very valuable international agreement. These measures, and the other miscellaneous matters dealt with in the Bill, will make a contribution towards greater safety on our roads. I hope Senators will support these initiatives. As always, I look forward to hearing their views on them, seeing if there are opportunities to improve the Bill and to a positive and constructive discussion.


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