Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister and his officials. I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, Senator O'Sullivan, who is unavoidably absent due to an obligation to attend a meeting. I apologise on his behalf.
My party supports the Bill and strongly welcomes the main provisions it contains, in particular those relating to the creation of new offence of driving with certain specified drugs in the blood and to allow for roadside drugs testing by the Garda Síochána. The Bill is particularly timely in light of the increase in the numbers of road deaths in the past two years, as the Minister outlined. We also welcome the two other main provisions in the Bill, namely, the giving of legislative effect to the agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications and the creation of a new special speed limit of 20 km/h for local authorities to implement in built-up residential areas.
We regret the fact that the original plan to introduce new penalties for drivers who allow themselves to be distracted by messaging services - including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp - has been dropped from the Bill. The legislation was also intended to address weaknesses in the 2014 regulations based on primary legislation in 2006 governing texting while driving. These regulations, introduced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, aimed to close a loophole that allowed drivers to escape fines and penalties if they were caught texting on a phone that was resting in a cradle or via a hands-free kit. In a bid to deter drivers from this activity, the new offence would have attracted severe penalties, including a mandatory court summons and a fine instead of penalty points. It subsequently became clear, however, that these regulations did not close any loopholes and are considered unenforceable by gardaí. The numbers bear this out, with no court convictions in respect of the commission of such offences. This is because drivers rarely text with a phone in clear view and most hands-free kits are situated low within a vehicle. This means that unless a driver is observed texting while stopped at a junction, it is difficult to obtain enough evidence for a successful prosecution.
Driver error represents the single biggest contributory factor in road accidents, accounting for at least 80% of fatal collisions in recent years. Texting while driving is a major source of driver error and, in the past, legislation has been shown to have a significant preventative effect on mobile phone usage. Although it is regrettable that the Minister was obliged to drop the relevant measure from the Bill, I understand the reasons he has outlined, particularly the fact that he does not have enough time in the lifetime of the current Dáil. We hope that those in government after the general election will make it a priority to implement legislation in this regard.
I welcome the fact that the agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications is contemplated in the Bill. Could it be extended to penalty points on an all-island basis? Although there are technical and legal difficulties, it would contribute greatly to road safety. As someone from a Border area, it is obvious to me that when people drive Northern registered cars across into the Republic, they generally have no regard for the rules of the road, particularly the speed limits. This also applies to drivers going from the Republic to Northern Ireland. I would like if some progress could be made on this so that people from the North who commit road traffic offences here would be given penalty points, and vice versa. There is increasingly close co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána, as well as other agencies of this State and the North, regarding cross-Border crime.I would like that to be extended to safety issues, particularly in Border areas. It is a difficulty.
Another issue on which the Minister might comment relates to the resources provided by his Department to the Road Safety Authority and the number of officers designated to serve with the Garda traffic corps. I understand that said number was previously in the region of 1,200 but that this has been reduced to fewer than 800. We all agree that not as many checkpoints are being operated by the corps as should be the case. Perhaps the Minister could indicate to us the Government's plans - in conjunction with his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald - to increase the membership of the traffic corps. In terms of resources for the Road Safety Authority, I understand it could do with more personnel.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a very effective road safety education programme in schools. However, I understand it is no longer in operation. Perhaps it is something we could consider. There is a programme in Youthreach training centres which has a major emphasis on driver education and the driver theory test. I would like this to be extended to mainstream schools because it would be of significant benefit.
I very much welcome the Bill and we will support it. I wish it a speedy passage through the House and I thank the Minister.