Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage
As spokesperson on transport for the past five years, I have found the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to be very progressive. Under the previous Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the current incumbent, a great deal of legislation has been passed by the House during that period. The Road Traffic Bill 2016 will further improve the position regarding safety of our roads. I thank the Minister for bringing it before the House before the Dáil is dissolved for the general election. It is important that the legislation will come into effect.
Road safety has been a priority of the Government in the past five years. The Minister provided some statistics on fatalities. December 2015 was a bad month for Ireland but there has been a steady decrease in the number of deaths on our roads in the past ten years. One death is one too many and any legislation that can help is important.
I have a few points to make in respect of the Bill. As the Minister said, it deals with drug driving, the mutual agreement with the UK and special speed limits. The explanatory memorandum refers to section 22 and states that the amendment of section 7 of the principal Act will include an obligation on cyclists to provide, on demand, a name and address, etc., to a member of An Garda Síochána. Was it already the case that in law a cyclist did not have to give his or her name to a member of An Garda Síochána? I was amazed to read that amendment to the existing legislation.
In the context of the mutual agreement with the UK, I agree with Senator Wilson's comments on penalty points. We should try to enforce penalty points in the North and the Republic. When people cross the Border they think they have a licence to break whatever laws they want. If the Minister can, in conjunction with our colleagues in the North and the UK, introduce such a measure in the next Dáil or Seanad, he should do so.
The Minister referred to disqualification for a serious offence. What constitutes a serious offence? Does it involve being involved in a road traffic accident? If, as the Minister indicated, one is disqualified from driving in the country in which one lives, then that disqualification also applies to the UK. I am amazed by the fact that it is not possible to introduce legislation in this regard across the European Union. If one is disqualified from driving in the UK, that disqualification may not apply in Ireland. If one receives 12 penalty points here, then disqualification would technically apply in the UK because it has been applied here.
I welcome the provisions on special speed limits. It is a testament to young Jake Brennan, the Jake's Legacy campaign, his mother, Roseann, and his family and friends. The Minister proved he was caring by meeting Mrs. Brennan and her supporters. The Taoiseach met the family and discussed the matter. This is an important aspect and it shows that the Minister is now putting in place the ability for local authorities to act. Special funding was provided for special signs in Kilkenny, which refer to slow zones instead of ramps. The provision in this regard is very important provision and it is to be hoped that it will involve a great deal of self-regulation because we do not have the number of gardaí required to go into housing estates. The location of housing estates is a problem because those a 20 km/h speed limit cannot be imposed in those adjacent to main roads. It is important that the system is self-regulatory. If ramps and proper signage are in place, it is important that people observe the speed limit. What has happened in this instance is a testament to what people can do when they get a campaign going. The Jake's Legacy campaign proves this can be done.
The Bill lists five drugs which will be dealt with under the legislation. England, which has had similar legislation in place since 2014, lists eight drugs, including illicit and prescribed drugs. I hope the five drugs we have listed will cover what can be classed as drugs that can impair a person's ability to drive. Questions have been asked about prescribed and non-prescribed medicines. The information provided in some leaflets states that the medicine can make a person drowsy. There are blood alcohol limits. I note the Bill refers to drug limits, whether in respect of illicit or prescribed substances. I do not know enough about the matter. Is it safe to have any type of illicit drug in one's system? Why should there be a safe level? Should it not be the case that if a person has an illicit drug in his or her system, he or she should not be allowed to drive? The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, sampled and tested 7,776 specimens of blood and urine taken from people involved in accidents over a five-year period from 2007 to 2011. It found that 70% of people involved in accidents had cannabis in their system and 50% had benzodiazepines in their systems. These statistics are alarming, as is the fact that such people were out driving on the roads. Almost 1,500 people a year were involved. This shows that we can make our roads safer if the proper resources are provided.
The Minister mentioned that he may make provision for the medicinal use of drugs. This has implications for non-prescribed medicines, such as cough medicine, antihistamines, etc. The information provided on the leaflets which accompany such products indicates that they make people drowsy. If a person is suspected of being under the influence of a drug, a sample will be taken by means of a saliva swab. If this test reveals the presence of drugs in a person's system, will he or she face the possibility of being disqualified from driving? I presume - the Bill does not state this - that all of the penalties would be the same as those relating to alcohol. The Minister should ease people's concerns about certain drugs. Does the Bill, which lists illicit or prescribed drugs, deal with other substances such as cough medicines?
The Minister has made provision for €800,000 to be spent on this issue and has allocated €500,000 to establish a toxicology programme. A further €200,000 will be allocated this year and €100,000 next year to purchase 150 devices at a cost of €700 each. I am alarmed to hear that one test will cost €15, whereas the cost of a breathalyser test for alcohol is only 16 cent. Lives may be saved, but the cost of taking a sample is significant.There are then further costs for lab testing and so on. I commend this great Bill and I also commend the Minister on being proactive in bringing the legislation before the House prior to the election. It is important that it be passed and I acknowledge the support of every Member in this regard. Jake's Legacy will be the Minister's legacy. He is a caring Minister who listened to the campaigners.