Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage
I thank the Acting Chairman and I thank all the Senators for the contributions they have offered this afternoon. I will go through each of them in turn.
Senator Wilson opened the debate. I thank him and his party for supporting this Bill because it is very important that we get the Bill enacted early in the year, particularly the provisions to test people who are intoxicated under the influence of drugs. The scrutiny and support of Members of the Oireachtas for this is very important.
On the first point Senator Wilson raised with me, which was also picked up by a number of colleagues in the debate, namely, penalty points being placed on an all-island basis, the technical and legal work to make something like this happen is very formidable, let alone political matters that might emerge from it. Work is under way between officials in my Department and those of the Northern Ireland Executive on some of the technical matters related to this. It is something that will take some considerable time to do. It is one of the reasons, in recognition of that, that I was eager to bring in as promptly as possible the legislation for the mutual disqualification of driving licences and the mutual recognition of disqualification of drivers in the circumstances that I referred to in my introductory speech. Bringing in such a measure will make a further contribution to dealing with the consequences of dangerous driving across the island.
On the comments made by the Senator on mobile devices, I have already acknowledged that this was something I decided not to progress within this Bill. To give a tangible example of some of the difficulties we encountered, an increasing number of cars that have been produced recently and are on the road have touchscreens built into the dashboard of the cars. The difficulty we had was how one would recognise the difference between the behaviour involved in using those touchscreens and that involved in using touchscreens for mobile devices. I have spent much time in this House and in the Dáil over the past 18 months having to deal with the consequences of legislation that was interpreted in ways that were different from how we thought at the time of drafting. When we identified difficulties in defining the use of mobile devices such that those difficulties were going to slow down the drafting of the legislation, I decided that the best thing to do was to continue with that work but incorporate it in a different and new Bill later on in the year while going ahead in the Bill before us with the work in the areas in which we believe the ambiguity is low and manageable. That is the approach I have taken.
The Senator made a point about resources for the Road Safety Authority and the traffic corps. My view has always been that I want to see the size of the traffic corps increased in line with the increase in the level of recruitment available to the Garda Síochána and the increase in total head count within the force. That said, we need to guard against the view that road safety work is purely the work of the traffic corps. We have made great progress in ensuring it is an area all members of Garda Síochána now take very seriously and see as part of their core policing work. Even as we increase the size of the traffic corps, which we will do over time, I do not want that to be at the expense of the focus that all other members of Garda Síochána place against road safety.
Senator O'Neill raised a very substantive issue about prescription drugs, the effect they can have on people driving safely and the need to recognise this in the Bill. It is a fundamental point because it leads on to the delineation we have made between different substances. We are saying in the case of a certain number of substances that their mere presence in the system of anybody who is tested for them by the Garda is so serious that it becomes a road traffic offence. For other drugs, impairment is the relevant test, which is the way we would deal with many prescription drugs. If a person uses prescription drugs in line with how they are prescribed to him or her, his or her driving should not be impaired. If he or she believes his or her driving is becoming impaired or that he or she is not safe on the road due to prescription drugs that have been consumed, the responsibility is with the driver. That is why we have a very clear demarcation between some drugs, the mere presence of which in a person's system is a road traffic offence, and other drugs which, if used below a certain level, should not lead to impairment. If they do not, a person is not committing a road traffic offence.
Senator O'Neill made other points about the recognition of penalty points on an all island basis, which I covered in response to Senator Wilson. Senator O'Neill also raised the issue of the lower 20 km/h speed limit and the role of the Jake's Legacy campaign group in this regard. I always acknowledge, as I do here again, the contribution made by the group. What the group seeks is different from what I am bringing in through this Bill. Part of the reason for that touches on Senator Mooney's contribution, which I will come on to, in that because 20 km/h is a low speed limit, it is important that it should only be introduced via local authorities, which is the way the vast majority of speed limits are set in the State.It is important that because 20 km/h is a low speed limit, it should only be introduced via local authorities, which is the way the vast majority of speed limits are set in the State. As it is introduced, particularly in residential communities, it is important that everybody be aware that this is happening and that this is a low speed limit. However, we have evidence that such a speed limit, particularly in residential settings, can play a role in making them even safer and secure than they are at present.
Senator Barrett broadly supported the Bill and raised a number of issues I have touched on in responding to other Senators. One issue I did not comment upon was property rights and the Senator's suggestion that everything on a housing estate be covered by the property rights of the home owners within the estate. One difficulty is that roads and, in many cases, pathways are public property. We would need to think carefully before relinquishing them to become part of the private property rights of residents but we can debate this issue as the Bill moves through the House. The Senator also mentioned the role technology can play in making cars safer and acknowledged that we are being clear that the mere presence of certain drugs above a particular level will be an offence. If specific drugs are used in the way they are prescribed, drivers should not be impaired.
Senator Kelly raised a number of issues regarding cycling. I differ with him in that I believe the vast majority of cycling routes in our city are safe for cyclists and other road users. There is, however, an ongoing need to invest in proper infrastructure to make cycling as safe as possible. I recognise the Senator's persistence because every time I have been in the House, he has raised one issue. If he is raising it on behalf of constituents, they can rest well assured that he has been an ongoing advocate on their behalf on this matter. I am afraid I am still not in a position to give him the answer he wants because it is important that people seeking a full driving licence should have passed the theory test.
I thank Senator Comiskey for welcoming the Bill and much that is in it.
Senator Mooney acknowledged the time involved in drafting the Bill. It is not simple legislation and significant work has gone into getting it to this point. That has taken time. The Senator raised the issue of penalty points being applied on an all-island basis. I covered that matter in response to Senator Wilson. Work on this matter would be formidable and it would take a great deal of time. It is important that we can move forward in those areas on which there is agreement and the recognition of disqualified drivers is one.
The Senator also raised the issue of using signage with distances outlined in both kilometres and miles. I am reluctant to go down that route because we have made such progress in explaining to the public what the speed limits are in different zones and we would exacerbate matters were we to put two different numbers on the same sign. We would only add to the confusion rather than reduce it because motorists might have to pause to understand the speed limit in both miles and kilometres. The Senator has previously raised with me, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, the need for speed limits to be coherent. He named a particular road in this regard. That is why we are reviewing speed limits across the country through local authorities and TII. One of the objectives I set in initiating the review is to ensure speed limits are as coherent as possible on a single road. However, if a road passes through an area that has no commercial or residential activity, a particular speed limit may be appropriate but when the same road passes through a town, city or community, that has to be taken into account when the local authority or TII set the speed limit for that area.