Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister. He and I have had this discussion many times in various existences and I compliment him on all the work he has done on road safety, in particular, Jake's Legacy. The family campaigned outside Leinster House and I got Deputies and Senators to sign their petition. The parents, Roseann and Christopher, lost their six year old son, Jake, and I referred them to the Minister because I knew he would respond in a positive way. We could, however, go further. The 20 km/h speed limit is an excellent start but on a housing estate, all public areas belong to the residents and motorists should enter with their permission. This would mean property rights being reversed. People are not prosecuted for playing football on the road anymore but we could have a different view of the way motorists should conduct themselves in residential areas. I commend the Brennan family on pursuing their son's case through Parliament and I am delighted they are being rewarded today.
This problem can turn on one, as the Minister said. There had been 153 fatalities last year up to 21 December but there were 166 by the end of the year. This meant there were 13 fatalities in ten days or 1.3 a day. The roads for those ten days became three times more dangerous than they had been for the rest of the year. There had been 0.43 fatalities per day up to that date and then suddenly, there were 13 fatalities in ten days. That shows we can never relax about road safety. The non-use of seat belts is still a significant issue, for example. Could technology be used, in an extreme scenario, to prevent cars from starting unless seat belts are engaged? The Matthews bus company provides an extensive service between Dundalk and Drogheda and Dublin. Mr. Matthews has fitted alcohol locks on all his buses. He said that these cost a small percentage of the price of the bus but it gives a guarantee that if a person who has consumed alcohol tries to drive the bus, it will not start.
I welcome the Minister's move towards mandatory intoxicant testing. He explained it well in his contribution. However, there seems to be a loophole in the explanatory memorandum whereby lawyers could have their clients say, "Sorry, I was over such a limit but it was for medicinal purposes". They could plead their over-indulgence was for medicinal purposes. If that is the case, then one cannot drive, as the Minister said. Other tests will have to be introduced for drowsiness. There may be vehicle technology for drowsiness. I gather some technology can detect the eye movements of the driver and issue a warning. We are in a position to push to implement this technology because we do not have a vehicle manufacturing industry. The Minister can push road safety issues more strongly at international meetings than other Ministers. One has to deplore the interference with such technology by companies such as Volkswagen in the context of emissions. Technology is available which will recognise unforeseen obstacles and cut off the engine in order that drivers will not go off the road or hit people who have wandered on to the road.
I recently supervised a thesis on road safety in Ireland, which is in the process of completion, and I look forward to its publication. The author found a substantial difference between hospital injury statistics relating to road accidents and those gathered by the Garda. He estimated them at three times what is reported to the force. The problem may be more serious. As long we are both in Leinster House, I will keep the Minister apprised of this but I was disturbed that many road accidents are reported in hospitals but not to the Garda.
I, of course, welcome the closer links between the PSNI and the Garda on cross-Border road safety. There was a period when the road safety record of the Donegal and Cavan-Monaghan districts was much worse than the rest of the country. Something seems to have happened in the Border region. Other Senators referred to the consequences of that.
The Minister referred to how much he relied on the 2010 legislation but the explanatory memorandum states sections 34 to 37, inclusive, 42 and 50 were never commenced. The Oireachtas must inquire into this. A Minister introduces legislation on the advice of his or her officials and the Oireachtas passes it before the President signs it into law. Why is legislation not commenced? I asked some of my legal friends who said the worst case in this regard was the Child Care Act 1991. It was commenced piecemeal over a long period of years. Some of it was repealed in 2013 without ever being commenced. It is a fault of our parliamentary democracy that when we make a decision and the President agrees with us, it gets lost in the administrative system. The advice I received said that in Australia when a Bill has been assented to by the Governor General, it must come into operation by the 28th day after his or her assent. The legislation to which the Minister referred several times runs to 88 pages and I estimate ten of them have not been commenced even though it is six years since it was passed. The sense of urgency the Minister brings to this needs to be more widespread. I am advised it is difficult to find out what sections of all legislation have not been commenced. Whoever drafted the explanatory memorandum did the House a favour by drawing attention to the sections which had lain there without being implemented. This problem can blow up to the extent that it did in the final ten days of 2015 when 13 people died. Whatever prevented the commencement of the relevant sections of the 2010 legislation has to be tackled.
Having been a member of the banking inquiry, I worry about the insurance industry. There was dialogue between the industry and Ms Dorothea Dowling who was in charge of PIAB, which ensured lower claims costs than the industry. Now that the Central Bank is in charge of regulating of the industry, perhaps our mutual friend, Dr. Philip Lane, will address this. Should there be two types of insurance claim, one of which requires many lawyers? According to Ms Dowling, accidents claims pursued by lawyers cost between 40% and 50% more than those settled by the PIAB system. This is a massive cost. Whiplash claims in Ireland are much more expensive than on the adjacent island. We are trying to tackle of the loss of 166 people in a year but lawyers who frustrate the law and a bureaucratic system that prevents legislation from being commenced are not doing anybody in public life or among the citizenry many favours. The Taoiseach was asked about the review of the industry insurance in the context of floods.Although we installed flood protection, insurance premiums did not decrease. Although we have been making roads much safer, insurance premiums are rising rapidly. The insurance industry has a case to answer.
I wish the Minister every success in tackling the problem. If a jet went down and 166 people were killed, it would be a major event. This happens every year in Ireland and we have all probably been too slow to tackle it. This Minister has not been, and I commend him in that regard.