Wednesday, 14 May 2003
Road Safety: Motion.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan. Of all the occasions he has come before the House, this is by far the most important motion he has had the opportunity to discuss with Members. Since taking office, he has been responsible for many initiatives in his Department, including rail, aviation, bus and infrastructural projects around the country. Road safety is undoubtedly the most important issue for a number of reasons, primarily because the strategies which have been put in place are concerned with saving lives. That is certainly the most important aspect of the entire initiative.
I had expected a balanced debate on this motion. However, in light of the amendment that has been tabled, it is obvious that the Opposition will not engage in what I would have anticipated as some sort of consensus and recognise the huge volume of work the Minister and the Government have undertaken. The Opposition appears to be quite critical and has failed to recognise the success achieved in such a short period. Its amendment highlights what has not been done, including elements about which the Minister has spoken and which, no doubt, he will bring forward in the near future. I expect he will outline his plans in this regard later. The Opposition's attitude reflects the "half empty glass" approach and I have no doubt we will see more of that. It seems that the Opposition is trying to give the Minister penalty points for the haste with which he is making changes and the speed with which lives are being saved.
The introduction of the penalty points system has been a hugely successful initiative from which some figures are worth noting. Over the first six months after the introduction of the system, there were 143 deaths on the roads – a reduction of 32% on the same period in the preceding year. That represents 68 lives saved. Up to 30 April 2003, there were 98 deaths on the roads, a reduction of 36. At 98, the number is still too high, but it is most important that so many lives have been saved.
Up to the end of last April, some 17,000 drivers had received penalty points. The system is clearly working, despite suggestions by some critics that levels of detection are down and that offenders are not being caught. The remarkable number of drivers affected by penalty points over such a short period gives testament to the work of the Garda, which has shown great enthusiasm for this initiative despite the difficulties associated with starting up the programme so quickly.
However, the programme is not only about saving lives. There has also been a huge reduction in the number of accidents. In reducing the incidence of fatal accidents, one also reduces the incidence of non-fatal accidents which can result in serious injuries. Road accidents increase the pressure on accident and emergency units at hospitals. The situation in A&E areas at any weekend demonstrates the difficulties which are being imposed on our health services in that regard.
Another immense benefit from the introduction of penalty points will be, it is hoped, a reduction in the cost to insurance companies, which should ultimately lead to a reduction in premia. The latter will come about as a result of insurance companies not having to pay out large amounts of money associated with serious injury or death.
The programme introduced by the Minister is not just about penalty points or penalising drivers, it is about changing an attitude of careless disregard by certain drivers, both for other road users and for the privilege of holding a driving licence. Fines have not worked in the past, but the fact that people can now lose their driving licences through the penalty points system has helped to focus their attention on showing due care on the roads. This change in culture among drivers will be further enhanced by the expansion of the programme the Minister intends to introduce. From 1 June, uninsured drivers will attract a high number of penalty points. When that aspect is taken in conjunction with driving dangerous vehicles and a failure to use seat belts, drivers could find themselves being put off the road after just two offences. That is the way to indicate that driving in a manner that puts lives at risk will no longer be tolerated.
While enforcement is necessary at this stage because it is a way of assisting the introduction of this attitudinal change, I have no doubt that the new culture will diminish the need for such rigorous enforcement. Over time, therefore, there will be less of a burden on the Garda Síochána because, given a change of mind-set, one would hope that drivers will begin automatically to respect the rules of the road.
The Opposition has identified some valid issues in its amendment, but these were also identified by the Minister in the past. I have no doubt that he is working on these issues and that he may refer to them in his contribution. For example, the Minister has taken steps on testing, particularly for learner drivers, and he intends to introduce further changes in that regard. Such moves will help to bring about a change of culture on the roads.
While certain measures are aimed at experienced drivers, we also need to cater for young people by ensuring that those who are just beginning to drive have the necessary skills and training, as well as having respect for other road users. We also need to examine the legislation governing the regulation of driving instructors and I am sure the Minister has some ideas on that matter. Driving licences should not be based merely on passing a test, but also on demonstrating due respect for others using the roads.
Insurance companies have said that they would like to establish a database of all those who have accumulated penalty points and the Minister has outlined, in the strongest terms, how he intends to deal with that issue. I am sure he will allude to this matter later. We need to see genuine premia reductions for those with clean driving licences. The idea of weighting premia levels for offenders and repeat offenders is good because it will reward good and responsible drivers. We need to be careful about this process in the early stages, however, because the Minister is still reviewing speed limits in certain areas. We should not consider penalising drivers with increased insurance premia until that review has taken place because there are anomalies in certain parts of the country. We should also examine the possibility of introducing a sliding scale under which those with more penalty points will attract higher insurance premia.
A threshold will also be required so that someone with, for example, only two penalty points would not be unduly penalised. The Minister has already stated that he does not wish to see insurance penalties brought to bear on such people in the early stages of the scheme. The idea of having a year free of penalties has been proposed, which would allow drivers to enjoy the benefits of the no claims bonus system.
The Minister should consider a practice used in the United States whereby a driver who is about to reach the disqualification stage – whether it is at 12 or 14 points – must undertake an advanced driving test programme. Offenders who sit such a two-day test successfully can be credited with two points. Although there is a high charge associated with the test, it leads to improved driving techniques as well as giving people a second chance. That American model might be worth examining.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
–condemns the Minister for Transport for his failure to adequately fund the penalty points system and his inability to address the huge driving test failure rate;
I hope the Minister can come before the House more often in this session because transport is an area that affects everybody from those who use cars for private use to those involved in the heavy goods transportation sector. In addition, transport impacts hugely on our quality of life and that is why we care so much about its development.
When I saw the wording of the Fianna Fáil motion, I wondered where I could begin to reply to it because it is so open-ended. As an Opposition spokesperson, there is no way I can agree with the motion. However, the Minister should be commended for some of his initiatives. To use a golfing analogy, he may look well teeing off and may have a beautiful set of golf clubs but we must also analyse his follow through. Unfortunately, the Minister and his Government colleagues have been found wanting in the area of transport. The penalty points system has been a success, but it was only introduced in the tenth month of the final year of a five-year road safety programme. I cannot blame the Minister personally for that because he has only recently been appointed to the job, but it is an indictment of the previous Government. Senator Dooley mentioned the good qualities of the Government, but he has missed that point completely.
Serious issues concerning the penalty points system remain to be teased out. The Minister is planning to introduce extra penalty points for driving uninsured vehicles and failing to wear seat belts. However, we have not seen any additional resources being made available for this despite the fact that, as we have heard, the administration of the current system is under severe pressure. I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how he intends to provide the back-up resources required to ensure the full implementation and enforcement of the penalty points system.
We have to learn from other EU countries where the penalty points system is in place. The novelty will wear off after four or five months if the public is not constantly reminded of the need to be vigilant in terms of penalty points. We must learn from the experiences of others.
I regret the Government's apparent decision to abandon the idea of a traffic corps. This suggestion seems to have died a death, just like the promise at the last general election to recruit 2,000 extra gardaí. A dedicated traffic corps is needed. I put it to the Minister that those involved in such a unit do not necessarily need to be members of the Garda. I am aware that traffic wardens have the power to issue summonses to those who do not have tax or insurance for their cars. Perhaps there is scope to negotiate with the relevant Departments about giving them powers to stop traffic on the road. This idea needs to be teased out as it might free up Garda resources. I ask the Minister or others with the relevant qualifications to consider it.
I would like to discuss briefly the issue of penalty points being imposed on those involved in transport businesses. Grave concerns have recently been expressed to me about the system. If one goes to court after being given penalty points, the award of double points by the judge is mandatory if one's appeal is unsuccessful. This seems a little harsh, as one is not given the opportunity to explain any mitigating circumstances. The Minister should examine this area once more, as it seems to fly in the face of the civil rights of those affected. There may be confusion about the identity of the driver of a car, for example. The person in whose name the car is registered may be given penalty points even though he or she can prove that somebody else was driving the car. The Garda is now judge and jury, in effect. If one goes to court to contest the award of penalty points by a garda or explain one's case, the judge will come down on the side of the garda. This is a dangerous precedent to set and we need to examine the issues involved. The issue of redress needs to be examined in the cases of those involved in the transport business.
We need to have sensible speed limits. It was pointed out to me today that trucks could overtake on single or dual carriageways but were not allowed to overtake on two-lane motorways. I will clarify this matter for the Minister and my Fianna Fáil colleagues and friends. If one is travelling from the west to Dublin, one can overtake in the section from Newbridge and the Curragh to Kildare. One cannot overtake between Kildare and Johnstown but one can overtake again between Johnstown and Dublin. This is a cause of confusion and needs to be rectified. People who genuinely think they are adhering to the speed limits may not be aware of the existence of the motorway section. We need sensible speed limits. I recently heard of a case of a woman who received penalty points for driving at 31 mph in a 30 mph zone. This would not have happened under the old system which provided for some latitude. There are dangers when the system is stringently applied.
Questions also need to be asked in relation to public services and those involved in public transport. A Bus Éireann employee may start to drive a bus in the morning when everything is working perfectly but the bulb in the front headlight may suddenly go during the day. Is the driver liable to be given penalty points on his or her own licence in such circumstances? Will the company be penalised? These are big issues.
The question of passing information to insurance companies is also a massive one. I am suspicious of insurance companies because of their past records. I have a terrible fear that they will punish drivers who receive penalty points with harsher and higher premiums. We need to ensure this does not happen and that good drivers are rewarded. Those with no or very few penalty points should have cheaper insurance premiums than those with many points.
The Government's policies in the insurance area have failed. We waited three years for the MIAB report, which was published over 18 months ago. The report's 69 recommendations have not yet been fully implemented. We have not seen a reduction in insurance costs. A 20 year old recently explained to me that he was quoted €3,000 to insure a car worth £1,000, which is crazy and defies logic. Good drivers should be rewarded by the insurance system. I have asked the Minister, in the last part of my amendment, to "publish the figures for those who are found guilty of having caused accidents on our roads". It is important that we are given the real figures, rather than the generalisations we often hear from insurance companies. We are often told that young people, especially males, are involved in car crashes but I would like figures to be published. Perhaps research could be conducted into the liability ascertained during court cases in which people have been found guilty or innocent. Such statistics, which would be very interesting for Senators, may be useful as backup when arguing that insurance companies should decrease premiums.
While the Minister's idea to enforce the law in relation to provisional licences from 1 January was laudable, it was not backed up by adequate resources. The enormity of the problem faced by him is demonstrated by the fact that 124,000 have a first provisional licence, 149,000 have a second provisional licence, 54,000 have a third provisional licence and 28,000 have a fourth provisional licence. We need to put more resources into this area. It seems fine to announce changes but there is no point in doing so if extra driving testers are not put in place to clear the backlog in this area, or if a new system is not put in place.
It is like golf – one needs to follow through on one's swing. I would like to see achievements and further progress. I have not spoken about all aspects of Fine Gael's detailed amendment to this motion but I am sure my colleagues, Senators Bannon and Brian Hayes, will do so. I ask the Minister to deal with some of the issues I have raised.
I second the Fine Gael amendment and welcome the Minister for Transport to the House once more.
Nobody disputes the fact that the penalty points system has saved lives. A grey area remains, however, as many lives will be lost if adequate resources are not provided by the Government. The penalty points system can be effective in its present form and extensions have been proposed. The Minister has failed to provide the resources and funding needed for the enforcement of the system. The reduction in Garda manpower since the beginning of the year has had an adverse affect on the Garda's ability to operate the system effectively and is eroding the life-saving potential of the scheme.
The Government must accept blame for its inefficient planning, especially in the area of road infrastructure. We have been told time and again that the national primary and secondary routes, the bypasses needed in the main towns and the bottlenecks will be taken care of under the national development plan within 20 years. There is no evidence that this will happen following recent Government cutbacks. The Government has failed miserably to address the situation in relation to carriageways and motorways. We have allowed the great years of the Celtic tiger to bypass us with regard to funding. The Government has allowed an opportunity to put a proper road structure in place to pass. There has also been a failure to provide sufficient resources for the effective operation of the penalty points system. The Garda should be given the manpower and resources to operate the system effectively.
An initiative aimed at improving driving standards should be introduced and the failure rate in the driving test tackled. Many have spoken about the driving test system. The Minister spoke about doing something about this, but there has been very little action. What plans has the Minister to reform the driver training system? The driving test failure rate currently stands at 52% to 53% nationally, whereas other EU countries have a much higher pass rate.
There has been a threefold increase in the number of people waiting for driving tests in recent months. In County Longford, people must wait almost four months for a test, which is unfair. In their current form, the tests seem to be failing the drivers who pass them and who are let loose on our roads and other road users who are at the mercy of these apparently inept individuals. The most dangerous drivers on our roads are those who have just passed their driving tests. This begs the question as to the flaws in driver training and whether the Minister is prepared to take the necessary steps to review and amend the system, particularly in light of the stranglehold the insurance industry exerts on motorists as it continues to charge exorbitant premiums in the absence of checks by the Government.
It is important that we have a choice of high-quality, safe and affordable public transport options available to serve businesses and leisure users alike. The national development plan refers to – I will be somewhat parochial – the Dublin-Sligo rail route which passes through County Longford. The plan indicates that substantial upgrading will take place during its lifetime. While I accept that some improvements have been made, I have received numerous complaints about the length of time it takes to get from Longford and Mullingar to Dublin. This subject is close to my heart. There have been several recent breakdowns on this route and rolling stock needs to be upgraded. Journey times seem excessive and this reflects the poor quality of the track, which operates as a barrier to people using the rail lines from various locations.
The national development plan refers to the objectives of the rail sub-programme which are: to improve the safety of the network; to increase the physical capacity of the railway; and to improve speed and reliability. This is moving forward at a very slow pace. The time for talk is over; people are crying out for action.
Another group of drivers unfairly affected by the penalty points system is the membership of the Irish Road Hauliers Association. The law on penalty points, as it currently stands, is unbalanced because the right to redress of road hauliers is reduced and, in some cases, eliminated. They cannot comply with certain aspects of the law. For example, large areas of the network do not allow for their vehicles to stay inside the white line. If, however, their vehicles cross the white line, drivers can be given penalty points. Infrastructure in terms of road markings is not in place and funding has not been given to local authorities to amend markings to accommodate such vehicles. There is no other profession where penalty points received in the course of their work would also affect people's private and social lives to the extent that is currently the case with professional drivers, particularly if the Minister hands over files to insurance companies. This will have serious repercussions.
I welcome the Minister. I congratulate him not only in regard to what he is doing for road safety but also in regard to all that he is doing in the Department of Transport. He is a credit to the Government and the people who elected him. I would prefer to be playing golf with the Minister than with Senators Browne or Bannon.
I welcome the new initiatives brought forward by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan. The introduction of the penalty points system has brought about a revolution in the thought process of all motorists in this country. Surveys carried out since the introduction of penalty points for speeding show that there has been a 72% decrease in the numbers exceeding the speed limits. When one considers that almost 350,000 on-the-spot fines were issued by gardaí for excessive speeding last year, this reduction is hugely significant. It shows that fear of being caught is one of the major influences on motorist behaviour.
The programme of installing speed cameras should be extended, particularly in urban areas where there are problems with speeding vehicles. It would be more beneficial to reallocate money from some of the traffic calming schemes, particularly where they are installed at locations where there are already bottlenecks due to traffic volumes and speeds rarely exceed 10 mph, as in one town I pass through on my way to and from Dublin.
The penalty points system cannot be taken in isolation because there are other Government initiatives which have led to safer roads. The Government's five year strategy on road safety saw the number of serious injuries reduced in 2001 to a figure over 40% lower than that which prevailed prior to the launch of the strategy. The low cost accident reduction schemes, funded by the Government, have been very successful since their introduction some years ago and I am delighted they are to continue.
The signing, lighting and cats eyes programme recently announced by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government will also play a major role in the safety of our roads. As we all know, there are not enough road signs. One of the major difficulties facing drivers is not being sure whether the speed limit is 40 mph or 30 mph when entering and exiting towns. In many cases, there are no signs to indicate the speed limit while, if there are signs, they are often too small to be seen.
I ask the Minister to speed up consultation with the authorities in the Northern Ireland so that drivers from that jurisdiction can be included in the penalty points system. It is a disgrace that while cars registered in the South do their best to obey the speed limit, they are being overtaken on our roads by cars registered in Northern Ireland, driven by those who know that the most that will happen is that they will be given a fine of €80 and sent on their way. The sooner this scheme is extended to include drivers from Northern Ireland, and vice versa in that jurisdiction, the better for road safety.
The operation of the penalty points system has reduced the number of speeding offences but an individual I know very well received a letter in the post on 7 May stating that on 18 February he was doing 37 miles per hour in Cabra. It is not acceptable that it took from 18 February to 7 May for that person to be informed of this. I realise there are difficulties with the computer system but they should be sorted out as a matter of urgency. A person should not have to wait any longer than ten days to be informed that he or she has incurred penalty points. He or she may already have lost his or her licence. This is not acceptable.
On a positive note, I commend the Minister on the national car test which is now in its fourth year. There is widespread acceptance that it has real benefits in terms of better maintained cars which are safer and contribute to better air quality. I welcome the public consultation paper on school bus safety, and the recommendation on the use of daytime running lights should be implemented immediately. Perhaps the Minister will include this in his next list for penalty points.
I congratulate the Minister on his provisional licence initiative and commend him on his announcement that there will not be an amnesty for those who have not sat and passed their test. While I welcome the fact that it is intended to introduce credit card size licences during the course of this year, I ask the Minister to bear in mind the difficulties this will cause for the farming community. Perhaps we could think of some way of helping them in that regard.
In my county of Cavan and the neighbouring county of Monaghan the Garda reported recently a significant reduction in the number of cars speeding on national primary and secondary routes which it attributed to the penalty points system. I congratulate the Minister on his work in the Department of Transport, particularly the work he is doing on the penalty points system. Whenever he feels like a game of golf, I will have no difficulty in going along with him.
I must confess to a certain degree of surprise at the way the motion has gone because when I spoke to Senator O'Toole in the corridors about it, I felt a certain indifference to it because I thought it would be, as is normal in the case of Government motions, a lap of honour for the Minister. Everybody in the House knows that when the Government takes this time, it congratulates the Minister on something fairly innocuous, an extremely dull debate follows, a vote does not take place and that is the end of the matter.
To my astonishment the motion is opposed by the Opposition but the penalty points system is the finest measure the Government has introduced since it came into power.
I am staggered that any Opposition Member can oppose it and condemn the Minister for what is possibly his greatest strength. I agree with Senator Wilson. As an Independent Senator, I suppose I am officially a member of the Opposition in this House—
That is not a point of order. There are no points of information in this House.
I agree with Senator Wilson that the Minister is a breath of fresh air in the Government in that he has introduced measures which others feared to introduce and did not introduce when they were in power. What is going on?
The penalty points system is a great success for the Government for one reason only – it saves lives and we cannot criticise any measures which save lives. The measure has succeeded. There are fewer people in our graveyards as a result of it. That is a success for which I congratulate the Minister. I wish his Cabinet colleagues would allow him to tackle some of the other problems he is facing with the same speed and decisiveness but I have no doubt that in time he will be able to make decisions which affect our lives beneficially in other areas of his stewardship.
It is no use coming into the House to condemn the Minister on certain aspects and then suggest various measures to fund this, that or the other, of which we are all in favour. It is very easy to be in opposition and not to acknowledge that there are cutbacks. I would fully respect the Opposition if it told us how it intended to fund these areas. It talks about funding in its amendment to the motion—
I will. If members of the Opposition wish to produce the funds and tell us from where they are coming, that is fine but to talk about funding this, that and the other in isolation is apple pie and ice cream because they made a dog's dinner of funding initiatives when they were in power. Let us be honest about it. They were put out of power because they were not so good at managing Ireland's finances as the Government. I say this as someone who was a member of the Fine Gael Party at the time. They let public spending get out of hand. The motion is a nonsense. The Opposition would have been better to say, for once, that this initiative is something of which it approves because it has saved lives.
Having heard that the penalty points system was to come into effect, I was appalled to hear that the internal Garda report had been leaked to RTE. It stated it could not be done. Nobody knows who leaked it but we can be sure that it did not benefit the Government. It benefited those who were calling for the delay of the system. We need more decisiveness from the Government from time to time. I do not know what happened behind closed doors but having said the system was too difficult and the computers did not work, the Garda came back and stated it would implement what the Minister wanted. We need more of this because it is very easy to obstruct, delay, object and obfuscate by saying something cannot be done. That is the way the Civil Service operates when it does not want something to happen. That is the way the Opposition operates when it finds the Government is on to a good thing. There are several Ministers who are decisive. The Minister for Finance does not take too much notice of his civil servants or the servants of the State when doing something they do not like. I applaud the Minister for Transport for coming out and saying the system was going ahead. I applaud him for not accepting the funding argument as presented. I also applaud him for ignoring the Garda objections at the time that the computers would not work because they have. All the other rhubarb in the motion is irrelevant because it has worked.
There is plenty wrong. Motor insurance is a problem. I do not know how the motion got through as it refers to motor insurance, which falls within the portfolio of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, not the Minister's. Penalty points should be used to increase or decrease the cost of motor insurance but, even though motor insurance is a problem, it is not relevant to the motion. I hope penalty points not only contribute to saving lives but also to reducing motor insurance costs.
I welcome the Minister. Road safety is an issue and the fact that, on average, more than one person a day dies needlessly on the country's roads is without doubt unacceptable. All of us have a moral obligation to seriously address this issue as a matter of utmost priority and the Minister has shown and is showing the leadership needed to effectively tackle the problem.
Without doubt, the application of penalty points for speeding by the Minister last October has had a dramatic and long lasting effect on driving standards. The penalty points system has assisted significantly in a change in driver behaviour and increased the level of safety on the road for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike. Most significantly, since its introduction, the number of fatalities on our roads has reduced by 32%. Provisional Garda figures show that 379 people lost their lives in road accidents in 2002, the lowest recorded since 1965. No one can deny this fact. The introduction of the system has been successful because it has saved lives.
Penalty points are a worry for drivers because they are personal. Fines alone are not that much of a deterrent but the fact that someone can lose his or her licence if he or she collects enough penalty points has had a serious and positive effect on driving standards. However, an overwhelming number of drivers are still being caught speeding. Recent figures show that 18,000 motorists have been issued with penalty points since the system was introduced six months ago and this figure is expected to increase to more than 20,000 by the end of the month.
Although the reduction in the number of deaths is a welcome development, comments on the reduced number must be tempered with regret and sadness as the number losing their lives on our roads remains unacceptably high. I encourage the Minster in his endeavour to introduce more offences under the new system for this reason. As speed is the major contributory factor in road traffic accidents, it made sense that it was targeted as the first bad driving habit to incur penalties. However, there is a danger that we could slip back into our old ways unless all those involved, including the Garda, the Government, insurance companies and motorists, keep up the same level of commitment. It must be ensured the momentum is not lost.
The Government, for its part, is to embark on a major road safety campaign in the coming weeks to warn motorists that they run the risk of losing their licence if they collect penalty points. I welcome this development. The Department of Transport is to replace 500 road signs across the State which list the number killed on the roads with more effective warnings about penalty points. This move has been prompted by evidence that shows penalty points have changed driver behaviour more than other road safety warnings. Is it not strange and sad that drivers are more fearful of incurring penalty points than of dying on the roads?
In addition to the new advertising campaign, nine more offences will be added to the penalty points system in the next 12 months, including driving without insurance and not wearing a seat belt. I wholeheartedly welcome all these initiatives and I am sure they will be equally effective in further reducing the number of road accidents.
Although there is a need for the other players in this equation to get into gear and act, the onus should be on insurance companies to take action to tackle this problem, preferably by rewarding motorists who do not incur penalty points with lower premiums. Earlier this year the Irish Insurance Federation stated it had received a commitment from all motor insurers that they would reward motorists who did not incur penalty points in this way. However, it is disappointing that this commitment has evaporated and, once again, insurance companies are refusing to co-operate with us in this regard.
I do not understand their logic in refusing such a concession. When it is considered that insurance policyholders have always been under an obligation to disclose road traffic convictions and penalised for such breaches in the form of higher premiums, it is logical that insurance companies could easily redistribute revenue saved under this system to drivers who incur no penalty points. This does not even take into account the €130 million that departmental officials estimate the reduction in the number of accidents has saved insurance firms. Without the concession to reward drivers, it would not be fair or worthwhile to provide insurance companies with access to a penalty points database.
Currently, offers from major insurance companies have fallen well short of the Minister's 15% target and centre largely on redistributing savings in general, without specifying a reward for individual policyholders. Once again, insurance companies are not playing ball. They need to show more vision and should make an investment in saving lives but, instead, they are focusing on profits. This is not good enough.
I urge the Minister to approach the issue of road safety in other ways. For example, there needs to be a major publicity campaign to inform the public that the speed limit on any minor road is the maximum safe speed at which a vehicle can travel on that road. At the same time, we need to take cognisance of the fact that many of our roads are governed by inappropriate speed limits. I encourage the Minister to tackle this issue by way of review without delay. It is not sensible that on narrow roads of poor quality such as that between Sligo and Drumshanbo, County Leitrim, in my constituency, one can drive at 60 miles per hour, while on roads such as the Galway ring road and the Lucan bypass, cars are restricted to limits of 30, 40 and 50 miles per hour, roads similar in standard to international airport runways.
I refer to the issue of infrastructural deficiencies in some areas of the State. It is important to take into account the fact that a considerable number of accidents occur on our secondary roads as well as on poor quality national routes. While there are proposals under the national development plan to upgrade many of these roads, the timeframes outlined in the national roads needs study are in many cases prohibitive. I am discouraged when I drive along the N5, one of the BMW region's main arteries. It is in a chronic state of disrepair and general inadequacy. According to the NRA's recommendations, it may not be upgraded in full for another 15 years. This route is hazardous to motorists and pedestrians alike. By improving it, the number of road accidents and deaths could be further reduced. The N56, N61 and N16 are equally hazardous but, again, improvements are well down the priority list for the NRA.
There have been positive developments in this area, aimed solely at improving the quality of roads nationwide. For example, the M4-M6 Kilcock-Kinnegad road project represents the NRA's first major inter-urban public private partnership scheme. The PPP mechanism has introduced significant private sector funding, ensuring earlier delivery of important national road schemes and increasing the scale of road construction activity above that which would be possible through reliance on Exchequer funding alone. Whether it is through this mechanism, the National Development Finance Agency or other means, I urge the Minister to find the necessary funds to improve the general quality of these roads, which will further reduce the number of road deaths.
All those involved in road safety and all responsible citizens have welcomed the introduction of the penalty points system for speeding. It is still early days and there are teething problems, which are being overcome, but the success of penalty points to date is evidenced by the number of lives saved and injuries averted. While this reduction is welcome, we must not lose sight of the families still being devastated by the loss of a loved one. I encourage all those involved to continue their good work in this area and not lose momentum for this reason.
I congratulate the Minister on the penalty points system and all his work in this area. At the same time, I encourage him to swiftly introduce further offences under the scheme to ensure we continue to further reduce the number of deaths and accidents on our roads. I ask him to take into account what I have said regarding appropriate speed limits and infrastructural improvements and appeal to him to ensure insurance companies are finally made to face their responsibilities in this area.
Before I address the motion, I refer to the nonsense uttered by my good friend, Senator Ross. He has a remarkably selective view of the Government and its predecessors. If Deputy Quinn, as Minister for Finance, had behaved with the same level of irresponsibility as the current Minister for Finance in the two years prior to the 1997 election, the Government parties would never have seen the inside of Government Buildings. If the rainbow coalition parties had let the public finances run for two years with the same abandon as the Government parties, they would have won the 1997 election and presided over a boom with considerably greater skill than the Government elected. They would also have been re-elected last year. However, the price paid by them was to lose an election.
Due to the fact that the rainbow coalition lost an election, the current Administration inherited the most remarkable set of figures at a stage when 50,000 to 60,000 jobs a year were being created. In a short period of five and a half years, it has managed to get rid of that. Senator Ross's belief that rectitude in public finances is a characteristic of the current Government is based more on romance than reality. His continuing romance with the Minister for Finance has more to do with his judgment on this than reality ever had.
I am glad the Minister introduced the penalty points system. Not a single Member of the Oireachtas would say otherwise. However, I will not congratulate a Minister for taking a decision. The reason Government Members are so keen to do this is because it is a rarity that someone in the Government should take a serious decision which might go wrong. It might not have worked. The Minister received advice from many alleged experts that we were not ready for the system. However, he took responsibility and did something. I thought Governments were supposed to accept responsibility and take action. Now we are being told it is a shining example because it is such an unusual event.
We can go through a list of Departments – starting with the Department of Health and Children – where people pass everything on to study groups. The Houses have a study group, the all-party committee on the Constitution, which is looking at an issue we have been debating for 20 years, namely, the Constitution and building land. If we cannot take a decision after umpteen studies, advice from umpteen Attorney Generals etc., I will not stand up and cheer someone who found another excuse to propose a decision. I expect Government Ministers to make decisions. I am glad that the Minister, unusually for a member of the Government, made a decision. It has worked.
If we had the same level of road safety here as in Britain, there would probably be approximately 200 to 220 deaths per annum. If we had Scandinavian levels of road safety, I do not have the exact figures but I believe our road deaths would total approximately 150. I have been driving for roughly 40 years and, if the level of road safety in Scandinavian countries had held sway here, there would be approximately 12,000 people alive who are now dead. That figure is equivalent to the population of a large provincial town. The countries to which I refer are not totalitarian states. They had a commitment, once they reached a moderate level of affluence, to develop a decent infrastructure. We do not have that and will not have it as long as the Government insists, for ideological reasons, that borrowing for infrastructural investment is something to be done reluctantly or incoherently and without a strategy. It will be the first to borrow to pay for bits of things, but it will not have a plan, a philosophy or a timescale and that is a matter of great regret.
It is a also matter of great regret that other priorities took over in the past five years and money which could have been used on infrastructural development was otherwise frittered away. We are paying the price now. I have driven on nominally national roads which are of the standard of a road on which I drove in Tanzania 15 years ago. That road had been built with international aid, but had not been maintained and was developing a magnificent collection of potholes.
I am glad the Government has one member capable of making a decision. Perhaps he should have a word with his colleagues. He made a decision, but he has been let down. I have had to drive the road from Cork to Dublin weekly for the past six or seven months. On perhaps 20 return journeys, I have seen one Garda car enforcing the speed limit. It is one of the busiest roads in the country, but I have seen only one Garda car. Perhaps they are doing a wonderful job elsewhere. The Garda Commissioner took exception to the statistic of one in—
I accept that Senator Dooley has a limited opinion of my abilities, but I know the difference between being on a train and driving a car.
I have begun to believe that statistic of one in 1,400 is a fact. My journeys have been speedier than I expected. I thought that once the penalty points system was introduced everybody who needed their driving licence to do their job would be particularly conscientious. I thought all the heavy goods vehicles would travel at 50 mph, the legal limit.
For some reason, however – perhaps they do not know, they do not care or they believe they will not be caught – there is not a truck on the Cork-Dublin road which drives at the legal speed limit on any day of the week. The limit is 50 mph, yet they cruise along between 58 and 65 mph. I am glad because it does not slow me down, but they are not observing the limit. I am astonished that people whose jobs would be on the line if they lost their licences are ignoring the law. Does somebody in the truck driving profession know something I do not know about the enforcement of the law?
I received some figures from the NRA a few years ago. Only 3% of all vehicles registered in Ireland are heavy goods vehicles but they are involved in 10% of fatal accidents. That is a serious issue. Will the Minister, instead of basking in the congratulations of his own party, consider asking the Garda Commissioner if the law on speed limits for trucks is being enforced with the same vigour the Garda Commissioner seems to believe the law on speeding in general is being enforced?
I congratulate the Minister for Transport on his performance in regard to road safety. His initiative in bringing in penalty points has been an outstanding success. It has saved lives and prevented injuries. It has made our roads safer for all those who use them. The introduction of penalty points is an excellent example of Government working for the people. Many people put forward various arguments as to why it could not be done, or why it could not be done yet, but the Minister persevered. He took a tough decision in the right direction.
Penalty points were initially introduced for speeding offences. They are now being extended to cover other offences such as not wearing seat belts. The sooner they are extended to cover the whole range of offences that cause accidents the better. It is particularly important to bring drink driving offences within the scope of the penalty points system. Together with excessive speed, drink driving is the major reason our road safety record is so bad. There has been some change in attitude to drink driving over the past ten years or so but we still have a long way to go. It is remarkable that we can get worked up about the health dangers, real or imagined, from things like mobile phone masts and incinerators, yet all over the country people are still driving around our roads with dangerous levels of alcohol in their system. A complete change of attitude is needed. I hope that penalty points can help to bring that about.
I recognise that there may be short-term problems in the administration and implementation of the system, but I am sure that we will get over those difficulties as gardaí become more familiar with the system. The purpose of penalty points, of course, is not to penalise people or to put them off the road; they are aimed at changing driver behaviour. The early indications are that we are seeing a change in driver behaviour. People are beginning to observe 30 mph and 40 mph speed limits. They are now less prone to speeding on the open road and generally driving more carefully, which shows the system is beginning to work. As well as helping to save lives and prevent injuries, the real objective of the initiative, the system is helping to bring down insurance costs for motorists. The Minster is working closely with the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Justice, Equality and Law Reform on an overall Government plan to reduce all insurance costs, including motor premiums. I wish him and his colleagues well in that endeavour and hope we begin to see their efforts pay dividends before the year is out.
The Minister has displayed commendable political courage in moving forward with the penalty points initiative. I ask him to apply a similar degree of political courage to another major problem confronting us, namely, traffic congestion in our capital city. Progress is being made, for example, the Dublin Port tunnel will open in 2005, the M50 will be completed in the same year, provided we can sort out the cock-up in Carrickmines, the network of quality bus corridors wilI be extended significantly, as the Minister announced earlier this week, and the Luas will open from the middle of next year.
Great claims have been made about what the Luas system will do for public transport in Dublin. It is the biggest single public transport project in the history of the State and will cost between €700 million and £800 million, depending on which report one reads, a massive investment by any standards. Public transport is all about capacity. However, I am not certain Luas represents good value for money in capacity terms. I understand the project secured Government approval on the basis that each line would be able to carry about 7,000 passengers per hour in each direction. However, recent statements by the Rail Procurement Agency indicate the capacity of each line will only be around 3,000 per hour and that increasing it to 7,000 could only be achieved if the trams were to be run at such a high frequency as to cause huge disruption to road traffic flows in the city. It is important to put in context a capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour. This is the same as can be achieved on one high frequency quality bus corridor, which costs about one twentieth of a Luas line. Clearly, therefore, Luas does not represent good value for money for the taxpayers of the country or the people of Dublin.
We must also be cognisant of the impact the Luas will have on traffic movements in the city generally. One does not have to be a transport engineer to see that the junction of the M50 and N7 is a mess – even the Minister has accepted this is the case. The Red Cow roundabout is now known as the "Mad Cow" roundabout. The junction was under-engineered from the outset and we are now paying a huge price in appalling traffic congestion. It is about to get even madder because – some may find this unbelievable – two level crossings will be placed across two slip lanes of one of the busiest roundabouts in the country. While I sincerely hope this piece of engineering does not cause massive traffic congestion in the whole west Dublin area, I find it hard to see how this will be avoided. Its impact on traffic movement could be chaotic.
Luas will not only affect cars. Dublin Bus estimates that the light rail system is already causing serious disruption to its services, even before it is formally commissioned. The company recently stated the running time on the number 51 route had doubled because of the Luas works, while journey times on routes 39, 68 and 69 had been seriously affected. Those who use these routes will not benefit from Luas because they live in Clondalkin, Rathcoole, Newcastle, Castleknock and Blanchardstown, parts of the city which will not be served by the system.
While I accept we must complete the two Luas lines currently under construction, I strongly disagree with the DTO's strategy document, Platform for Change, which envisages a network of Luas lines covering the city. Dublin's future transport needs will be best served by a metro delivered to Madrid standards, which is, I understand, an option the Minister is investigating. I hope this is the route we take. I wish the Minister well and hope he returns to the House to discuss other transport projects such as the metro before we embark on them.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. Late last year, on one of the previous occasions he was here, we had an excellent debate on the penalty points system. Like Senator Ryan, I will briefly address the rather intemperate outburst by Senator Ross and his astonishing attempt to rewrite history during the first part of his contribution. In his efforts to ingratiate himself with the Government, particularly the Minister for Finance, the Senator fails to draw the attention of the House to the fact that public spending between 2000 and 2002 went completely out of control. When compared to the expenditure of the Government in office between 1995 and 1997, the current level of public finances is abominable. Whereas two years ago we had a budget surplus of nearly €5 billion, in the first three months of this year an additional €1.7 billion had to be borrowed to pay for the various projects the Government is pursuing. From time to time, the Senator's pinpoint economics take a rather selective view of history. He should prepare more comprehensively for debates such as this, rather than making ingratiating statements, as he sometimes does, towards the other side of the House. He could be described as the "Continuity" Fianna Fáil Party sitting on this side of the House. I am sure the Minister is happy to see him in our midst.
The Minister has made a good start on a number of the proposals he has brought to bear. However, Senators on the other side of the House should note the penalty points system was not his initiative but was produced by the Government in 1998. The Government's response to Dr. Bacon's report on the issue, outlined by the then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, former Deputy Molloy, promised the penalty points system would be operational by 2000. It is a matter of fact that the system came into operation two years late.
When the penalty points system was introduced in the latter part of last year, a major effort was made by the Garda Síochána and all the relevant authorities to make it work. This had a dramatic effect on driving behaviour, particularly in the three or four months after October. Unfortunately, the position has since deteriorated as the old, pathetic driving habits, which caused carnage for many years, returned to the roads, precisely because we do not have the same level of high profile enforcement we had in the final three months of 2002. The Government must take direct responsibility for this – the issue at the heart of Senator Browne's amendment – and Senators on the Government side should address it in the course of their contributions.
During the six day period of the most recent public holiday some three weeks ago, 19 lives were lost, the worst figure for a long time. Other Ministers, notably the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, share responsibility for this issue. A co-ordinated effort at ministerial level is required. Widespread enforcement, not just by the Garda but also through the Minister's idea of a traffic corps, is the only way to make the system work. What has happened to this idea? It is only sensible to have a dedicated corps of officers directly responsible for constantly enforcing the penalty points system on the highways and byways. What are we doing to implement this proposal, which is one aspect of the amendment and an issue to which Senator Browne rightly referred? If we are serious about enforcement, we have to consider the fact, revealed in the other House last week, that just three speed cameras are operating at any one time in the country and a total of 20 boxes are in place in four counties around Dublin.
Instead of giving each other pats on the back for our handling of the issue, which is the direct responsibility of the Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, rather than the Minster, we should be enforcing the system. The evidence since January has been poor. We should take cognisance of this. Instead of tabling ritualistic motions congratulating the Minister, the issue should be taken more seriously than in this debate.
Enforcement is the issue, an area on which we are falling down. We are also falling down on the areas of the traffic corps, the number of speed cameras and the number of gardaí on the streets. We made a huge difference in the latter part of last year and need to redouble our efforts to ensure the penalty points system is fully operational.
Minister for Transport (Mr. S. Brennan): I thank Senators for their kind contributions. I have circulated a script which they can read. I wish to make a few comments about the matters raised which are at the heart of this debate. I thank Senator Dooley for taking the initiative and tabling the motion.
I agree with the Senators who warned against complacency. It will take the combined efforts of the Government, the Garda, the insurance industry and motorists to ensure the start of a good project does not fade away because of complacency. There is no doubt that the penalty points system has saved lives. It has resulted in a reduction of one third in the number of road deaths, substantially reduced injuries, lower health bills and hospital costs and a lot less personal tragedy. I would like to be here this time next year to say the second six months were as good as the first six. However, I share the concerns expressed by Senators. The system has delivered substantial results and can do so again provided there is full enforcement and 100% attention from everyone charged with making it work. While I appreciate the efforts of the rank and file gardaí who have worked hard on the project in recent months, I encourage and urge them to keep the pressure on and keep up the level of enforcement to which they have committed themselves. It would be a tragedy, not for me politically as I have overcome many such difficulties from time to time, but for the people in terms of the sadness they would feel if the system did not have a second six months as good as the first six.
The reason the penalty points system works is that it deals with the individual driver. If a truck driver gets a fine, it cannot be sent to head office in Cork any more. If a high-powered executive travelling on the road to Galway gets five speeding tickets, they cannot be sent to head office to be paid. That day is gone. The points go on the individual's licence, not the company's books. This means a person will lose his or her licence once he or she gets 12 points. If a person who has lost his or her licence is caught driving, he or she could go to prison. It means a truck driver will lose his or her job. People have realised that the system is personal. It is not just a fine of €80 with which head office can deal. This is different and that is the reason it is working. Everyone needs to know that the level of enforcement is such that a person will get caught and lose his or her licence. This means a person will be in trouble socially and perhaps from an employment and family point of view.
As regards insurance, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I have formed a Cabinet sub-committee to deal with a range of insurance issues relating to the Motor Insurance Advisory Board and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform are considering a range of initiatives.
As regards motor insurance, I am still unhappy with the level of response from the insurance companies. I received a letter dated 8 May from the Irish Insurance Federation in response to my request that, in return for loading motorists with penalty points, it would give a specific reduction to those without penalty points. It stated that whatever money it received as a result of loading motorists with penalty points would be passed on to those without penalty points. That is not what I asked it to do. One does not need to be a mathematician to figure out that the amount of money taken in on extra premiums as a result of loading a small number will not pay for the cuts which the large number without penalty points will get. I want the insurance companies to realise that the reduction in the number of road deaths and injuries has already saved them hundreds of millions of euros in six months. At the end of another six months, if we keep the pressure on, it will result in another few hundred million for them. I want them to pass this money on to those without penalty points because it rightly belongs to them. They should agree to do this.
In the absence of the industry doing that deal, I propose to proceed to make such an arrangement with individual companies. Insurance companies require data relating to the numbers and names of those with penalty points. I am prepared to make this data available but only on the strict understanding that if a person does not have penalty points, he or she will get a cut in his or her insurance premium. I am not trying to reduce insurance costs out of a wish to be populist but because one of the main deterrents to speeding and penalty points is the certainty that not only will people lose their licences but that their insurance premium will increase. I have a family in their twenties and they are paying €2,000, €2,500 or €3,000 for motor car insurance. A 10% reduction would be a fantastic attraction. They would slow down and be twice as careful if they got such a cut in their premium. By slowing down, they would save their lives and perhaps someone else's also.
The insurance companies are trying to have it both ways. I appeal to them to take a different view. They are saying it is a good scheme but want to see how it works and how much money they make before they will consider giving some of it back. That is not good enough. I want them to engage and invest in the scheme now in order that we can make it successful. If they do not do this, they will miss a great opportunity. If they stand back from this, as long as I am in political life, I do not want to hear them complaining again about their difficulties, the number of road deaths and the efforts to reduce them. This is an opportunity for them to get on board and help me to reduce the number of road deaths.
As Senators said, this is about changing driver behaviour, not penalising motorists. When the full system is rolled out, there will be 67 offences. Many are already offences but do not attract penalty points. I confirm to Senators that from 1 June it will be an offence not to have insurance. That offence will attract five penalty points, which is serious. On 1 July the offence of not wearing seat belts will be added. Only 20% in the rear seats of motor cars wear seat belts. That figure is disastrously low. Penalty points will help in that regard.
I propose in the next couple of weeks, if I can clear some legal issues, to bring forward random testing by the Garda for alcohol. This is another initiative in the legislation which I am required to introduce. At present a person can only be tested for drink driving if a garda forms an opinion that he or she is under the influence of drink. The phrase, "forms an opinion", is highly charged from a legal point of view. If a garda formed a wrong opinion or failed to form an opinion, he or she would be in difficulty with the judge. The requirement that a garda form an opinion is one of the reasons our drink driving laws are under pressure and challenged. I propose to sign this regulation which means the Garda can test at random for motor offences. That is what the law currently states. A motor offence is anything from double parking to parking on double yellow lines to a broken tail light or a wiper which does not work.
When the regulations are in place, a breach of any one of those laws will allow the Garda, without having to form an opinion, to randomly seek a breadth test from the individual concerned. I am informed by the road safety organisations that this will have a dramatic effect because current testing for alcohol is severely limited. I intend to move on that front fairly quickly.
Many Senators referred to the number of people caught speeding in areas where the 30 mph limit applies. The National Roads Authority will shortly publish a survey which illustrates that 99% of people in Ireland do not adhere to the 30 mph speed limit. This means that only 1% of drivers adhere to the speed limit. We need to take a real look at this and decide whether we want to have a 30 mph speed limit. Some people will say it is hard to adhere to such a limit because it is too low.
One third of fatal accidents on Irish roads occur in areas to which the 30 mph speed limit applies. Such fatalities usually involve pedestrians – such as children running out of gates on to the road and people walking late at night – and cyclists knocked down by cars. A different view of this is taken on the Continent, where 20 mph speed limits are in operation. I do not propose to introduce such a speed limit here, but we are going to reconsider this issue.
I agree that some of our speed limits are daft. I have driven on roads with 40 mph speed limits that could easily be upgraded to 50 mph zones and roads with 30 mph speed limits that could easily be upgraded to a 40 mph zones. I have also driven on roads in the middle of nowhere with 60 mph speed limits which should be reduced to 50 mph because the roads in question are very dangerous. People are becoming aware of speed limits. Somebody told me the other day he had only just realised that speed limits in particular areas were signposted. He had not noticed the signs before due to the fact that he was not affected by them because if caught, he only had to pay a fine. The person concerned felt road safety was something advertised on television and did not relate to him.
I propose, in the context of going metric over the next year or so, to revise all speed limits and make them realistic. We cannot expect people to adhere to unrealistic speed limits. The statistics in relation to areas were 30 mph speed limits apply are interesting and we must face up to them.
I also propose to tackle issues in respect of motorcyclists. Quite a high number of fatalities involve motorcycles. I recently came across statistics – I should have got them earlier, I am staggered by them – which illustrate that 70% of motorcyclists do not hold a full licence. This means that only 30% of all motorcyclists on the road have a full licence. Some 70% of them have no training, have not taken a test and have not received a single day's instruction. They simply buy a bike and obtain a provisional licence and off they go. Many deaths on our roads involve motorcyclists. We also need to tackle the issue of pillion passengers. I am informed by the insurance companies that pillion passengers account for 90% of fatalities on motorcycles. It is illegal for someone with a provisional licence to carry a pillion passenger on a motorcycle. Insurance companies are paying out in such circumstances. I am not suggesting that they should not do so. I plan to tackle that issue in the next couple of weeks. I am looking in particular at the introduction of a compulsory test or course for motorcyclists before provisional licences are granted. I intend to examine the age at which a person is allowed to drive a motorcycle. I consider 16 years of age to be too young. I am aware that the age limit rises to 18 years of age in respect of different sizes of motorcycles. We must take a serious look at this area. The statistics also state that more than 10% of those killed on motorcycles were not wearing helmets.
We cannot lecture or congratulate ourselves on road safety and not tackle some of these issues. Some 300,000 drivers hold only provisional licences. I received a call from a Member of the Dáil at the height of the debate on provisional licences stating that a constituent who, for 12 years, had an important job in the factory five or six miles down the road could not put up with my silly ideas in regard to limiting the number of provisional licences a person could obtain. I was told that such a provision would interfere with the man's job. On reviewing the case, I discovered the person concerned had held a provisional licence for 12 years, had only applied for one test and had duly failed it because he had not taken any instruction. That person held down a job which required a significant degree of intelligence and could easily have applied himself to obtaining instruction and passing the test. It begs the question that has been put to me many times, namely, "What if I fail the test five times, how do I get to work?" A person who fails the test five times should not be permitted to drive.
That is what we, as politicians, will have to tell our constituents when they come to see us on Saturday mornings. One cannot simply promise to have a word with the relevant Minister to see what can be done, that will not work anymore. We will have to tell our constituents the reality of the situation. I am increasingly annoyed by the fact that legislation is passed by the Dáil and Seanad and the President goes to the trouble of signing of it and yet, none us actually ensures the laws are enacted. Politicians are often the worst in the world because they encourage people in this way.
Road safety is not something I dreamed up. Some 42,000 people across the 15 states in the European Union die each year as a result of road accidents. There are those who talk about the number of people dying in Iraq, in world wars and from SARS. If that figure of 42,000 related to anything else, there would be an absolute revolution and some really serious action would be taken. We must not be soft on this issue.
Many Senators asked about speed cameras. I will shortly put a proposal to my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that the provision of speed cameras be put out to the private sector. If the infamous clampers we all love to hate could deal successfully with this issue we would have a great deal more action in that area. Senator Wilson asked whether penalty points are reciprocal in Northern Ireland. That is a good idea. I have spoken to my colleagues in the North and we are planning to do so as soon as we possibly can.
My script refers to many more issues such as our future in Europe, our advertising campaigns, the engineering of motorways, high-level task forces and strategies. They are important issues. I thank Senators for tabling the motion. I do not object to the amendment in that I know there is no one in this House or the Lower House who does not want it to work. Some of the criticisms are political, but they are the everyday words of politics. This is too important to be a political issue.
I appeal to colleagues – I have been guilty of this in the past – not to be soft on their constituents when it comes to road safety issues such as driving licences, driving tests, motorcycles, drink driving and so on. We will have to stand up to our constituents and tell them, loud and clear, that we will not tolerate it any more. That will be particularly important when I introduce the changes in regard to provisional licences. Long-term permanent reliance on provisional licences makes a joke of the law. People cannot assume that the driving test is for somebody else and not for them. More than 54% of Irish people pass their test, which is in line with countries internationally. There is no reason we cannot increase that figure.
I thank Senators for the debate and I will take on board and try to implement many of the suggestions that were made. In acknowledging the thanks from the House for what we have done to date, I want to make it clear that complacency is a major enemy to road safety. I appeal to everybody – the Garda, motorists, politicians, etc. – to keep the pressure on so that the second six months in which the system will be in operation will be as good as the first six-month period.
This is the third or fourth occasion on which we have dealt with the area of road safety in the past 12 months. This suggests that the matter is either a significant priority or else it is a sign of the political bankruptcy of the House in that we cannot come up with new ideas. I doubt it is the second because the motion was put down in the name of Senator Dooley, who is one of the brightest members of the Joint Committee on Transport. We are lucky to have people such as the Senator in the House.
Unlike Senator Ross, I do not consider myself to be a member of the Opposition and, as an Independent Member, I am capricious with my vote. I vote along the lines in which I believe – sometimes with the Government, sometimes against it. Looking at the terms of the motion and the amendment, it strikes me that there is an element of Tweedledum and Tweedledee at play here. For example, the motion commends while the amendment condemns. It appears that we are engaging in a game of political ping-pong. I am not sure this is absolutely necessary because, in my opinion, there is nothing offensive in the Government motion, which simply recognises the situation.
I wish to place on record, my admiration and delight at what the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, did in terms of taking his speech as read and then dealing with substantive points raised earlier in the debate. That is an excellent headline for other Ministers. We can all read the speeches prepared in advance. It is great when a Minister has the confidence to stand up and depart from the script to discuss issues from the debate. That is the essence of vital political life and I hope it is a trend that will be followed by other Ministers.
The Minister was very frank about speed limits. I raised this matter when last we debated this issue. Speed limits are chaotic. The problem is that we cannot get people to respect the law as there is no consistency or fairness in it. The Minister was honest enough to say that there are certain places where the limit is 30 mph when it should be 50 mph and some places where it is 60 mph when it should be 30 mph. When I raised this during the previous debate, I was told that the setting of speed limits was in the hands of the local authorities. I suggest that these authorities should be given a brief to ensure there is an overall traffic plan in terms of speed limits or, alternatively, the power should be taken away from the local authorities and given to a central traffic authority. People will not respect plainly insupportable alterations to speed limits. I have provided examples about various roads in the past with which Members will be familiar. It would add insult to injury to put speed cameras on these roads because it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. It is a stupid idea.
I am amused to learn there are only three speed cameras operating in the country. It is almost like Russian roulette where motorists are tempted to put the foot down to see if a speed camera is, in fact, in operation or if an old box has merely been put in place. Apparently, one has a damn good chance of its being just an old box.
Perhaps there is justification for transferring responsibility for speed cameras to a commercial authority. That would create considerable resentment, however, and, before it is done, realistic speed limits must be introduced.
With regard to accidents in urban areas, we have a duty to educate pedestrians and cyclists. We are all pedestrians and many of us are cyclists, as well as being motorists. I am horrified by people who sail around the roads – not just in the cities, where the streets are well lit, but also in rural areas – with no lights on their bicycles and wear dark clothing, which makes them difficult to see. No amount of tinkering with the speed limit is going to save the lives of such foolish people.
I will ignore the first half of the amendment because it is politically destructive and merely attacks the Government. However, the Minister was courageous to state that he agrees with some of the issues raised. It is a good idea, and a reasonable proposal, to establish the statutory registration for driving instructors. These people are charged with controlling the quality of driving which has a real impact on road fatalities. However, we do not register or test them and, as a result, anybody can set up operations as a driving instructor. That is not correct.
I accept that the issue of competition in the motor insurance sector falls slightly outside of the debate, or it was until Fine Gael included it in its amendment. The Minister, more power to him, took up the point. I am glad to hear about the way he has been speaking to the insurance companies, because that is what they need.
I am again being parochial and personal, but I represent many people who do not understand why they are expected to pay so much for their insurance. I have a no claims bonus which dates back centuries. I obtained my driving licence when I was 16.
As already stated, I have a no claims bonus. I have a beautiful car which cost me only €5,000. However, the insurance premium has risen to €1,800 and I do not know the reason for this. It could be justified if the size of the motor car I own had any effect on the equation or the spare parts for it – they are quite expensive – come into play. However, I am only insured for third party, fire and theft. If I was involved in an accident or if the car was stolen, the insurance company would only be obliged to pay out approximately €3,000. I do not understand how premia are calculated. I believe the insurance companies say that I have a swanky car and, even though it is ten years old, that they will whack him.
Member of Fine Gael are within their rights, and I support them, in seeking to have the Minister publish the figures for those found guilty of having caused accidents on the roads, with details of age, gender, type of vehicle driven and cause of accident being provided. This would help us to have a much more informed debate. I do not want these people to be named and shamed, but I believe that we are entitled to this information.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, and I congratulate him on his hands-on, proactive and realistic approach to the matter of improving how we use our roads. For many years, the introduction of penalty points was merely discussed and was the subject of much waffle. Some said it was unworkable and others simply did not want to change. The previous Minister laid the groundwork in this area, but the current Minister had the bottle to introduce it.
For a system which, according to some commentators, is not working or is unworkable, 18,000 point notifications and a 32% drop in six-month figures to date for road deaths is a very acceptable rate of return on what is a new innovation in our motoring culture. It is difficult to change people's attitudes but that process has begun.
The cost of insurance has always been an issue for motorists, particularly young motorists. For many years the insurance companies have profited greatly from high premiums, and the Minister is justified in seeking a quid pro quo for the expected reduction in the number of claims as a result of the introduction of the penalty points system.
In relation to driver attitudes and competence, there has been a cultural change. Changes in the driving test, including the introduction of a written theory test, have to some degree improved matters, although more needs to be done. I agree with the suggestion that the teaching of driving skills could at some stage form part of the school curriculum. As part of transition year, teenagers could possibly be introduced to the rules of the road. While they do not necessarily need to be driving, they could be made aware of the responsibilities they will face when they begin to drive.
I, too, thank the Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, for his address. All Members of the House seem to agree with the report. With regard to the speed limit review, while the Minister has said he has asked local authorities to carry out inspections of all by-laws governing speed limits, it is most important that they now carry out a speed limit review. In the past it has taken them three years from the start of a review to come back to the National Roads Authority for sanction. This is an important area now that penalty points are being added to drivers' licences. It is essential that such a review is carried out this year. I ask the Minister to consider this.
Regarding the revenue raised from the penalty points system, it is great to see the National Roads Authority's low-cost safety measures being extended. This programme contributes greatly to road safety and the money is well spent. With regard to level crossings and the many dangerous spots on our roads which need additional funding, many lives could be saved.
National roads have been mentioned. While Senators on the Government side of the House are very proud of the achievements in the national roads programme, Senator Bannon mentioned the need for more infrastructure. I am glad to see him express his support for the programme. I know that some of the roads in question require tolls to implement the full programme but I am delighted to see the Opposition coming round to our way of thinking on the issue. I wish the Minister well in the implementation of the report.
The Minister, whom I congratulate, has a great grasp of matters and there is no point in saying otherwise. He understands the problems and issues involved. He was appointed in May and by November had initiated the first phase of the road strategy campaign. That to my mind is fantastic. He knows where he is going. He stood here today without his script and was able to grasp and field the issues outlined by various Senators. That is what I call knowledge. He is very clear on his plans for the future. One area I hope he will tackle is that of motorcyclists, which I dread meeting on the road. It seems they can do what they like. I am delighted the Minister will grasp this nettle and make sure they will receive fundamental training.
Another area that requires attention is the review of speed limits. Speed signs should be colossal without any small letters because this, too, can be a deterrent to good driving. This is absolutely necessary. I am not convinced, however, that a speed limit reduction from 40 mph to 30 mph would work, as that is the limit at which motorists are getting caught. This might be a little unfair, as they can be caught for penalty points. I hope the Minister will review the decision in this light.
The report is a great success story, the best I have heard, and I want to go out and sell it. We are playing a blinder if we can reduce the number of fatalities on the roads. A 32% reduction cannot be beaten in such a short time. However, there is better to come with the proposals listed, which I know the Minister will be successful in implementing.
The Minister has displayed a lot of common sense and pragmatism in the way he has introduced these measures, and there has been good compliance.
I will touch on a couple of issues which may need tweaking or, in some instances, a reversal of policy. One of these, as the Minister has acknowledged, relates to speed limits in certain areas not being commensurate with requirements. This needs to be looked at. A prime example arises on my journey to this House each week. I pass through 30 mph zones about a mile or two from small villages. This brings the law into disrepute. On the Arklow bypass, as good as any motorway in the country, there is a 60 mph limit, yet if I travel a back road, with bends, I am still allowed to travel at the same speed. We need to apply common sense in this area, as I am glad the Minister has suggested.
There is a menu of 67 offences which will come under the penalty point regulations. When the Bill was being debated in this House on Second Stage, I raised some reservations. It is quite sensible, as the Minister noted, to apply points to the non-wearing of seat belts and the non-possession of insurance. I am not quite so convinced, however, that if someone parks illegally, for example, he or she should accumulate them. We should keep the focus on speeding and major offences because if we move into the realm of minor offences, we may dilute the effect we are trying to achieve.
There have been suggestions that because of the lack of computer and IT technology in the policing area there is a time lag with regard to motorists being notified of their offences and accumulating penalty points. In the interests of fairness, this should be looked at. There should perhaps be a requirement that notification be received by the offender within a given period. I would not like to see, for example, a situation where because of delays in notification motorists could have accumulated the maximum number of points.
With regard to traffic enforcement and the suggestion of a traffic corps, I suggest to the Minister that he might usefully look at the community warden scheme in operation within local government. This scheme attends to offences relating to parking, litter and planning, and could allow local authorities to deal very effectively with speeding arrangements on our roads. This is done in other countries where the police which has responsibility for criminal activities are not obliged to travel the roads measuring the speed at which motorists are travelling.
I have a very strong objection to the utilisation of motor insurance premiums as an instrument for enforcement. Detection, enforcement, penalties and sanctions are the ways to deal with offences against the law. I do not agree that we should give penalty point information to insurance companies, regardless of any agreement, because I have no doubt it would be abused. If motorists accumulate maximum points and are put off the road, this should have an impact but only at that stage should it impact on their insurance premium. Motorists have for years been paying exorbitant insurance premiums. We should not facilitate such a move.
The Government should not take greatly to heart any criticism about the greatly improved attitude towards driving. Criticism in this area is good because we keep on looking at the mortality figures, not at the morbidity figures, which, as the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid, knows, are dramatically decreasing. This is very important because while death represents a terrible tragedy for the families involved, the morbidity figures are shocking. I am a member of the board of Peamount Hospital where we have a special unit for what are described as people with long-term neurological disabilities, all as a result of car and motor-bike accidents. This is an appalling situation for the people concerned, most of whom will not be in a position to recover and are a huge burden on the finances of the State. We must do everything possible to avoid people finding themselves in such a position.
While I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward the penalty points system, the more we do the better because this is an area we have neglected for far too long.
Three minutes will be more than enough. I am somewhat reticent about pre-empting what somebody might say, but in this case the Opposition did not let me down. It was all about doom and gloom and failing to accept what the Government has succeeded in doing. As I said at the outset, and based on the content of the amendment to the motion, the glass will always be half empty.
Obviously, good news tends to hurt. However, there is no real good news because people are still dying on our roads. The Minister, and the speakers on this side of the House, all alluded to that fact. There is no doubt that there is a lot more to be done, to coin that other—
The Senator discussed the infrastructural needs of the State, a subject which we would be happy to debate. I am sure the Government Whip would be happy to arrange such a debate to allow Senator Bannon express his opinions on that matter. Tonight we are talking about penalty points.
I am sorry that the truth is continuing to irritate the Opposition. When these Members enter the real world, I am sure they will accept that the Minister has been doing a fantastic job. Indeed, he pointed out that there are elements of it which need to be completed. We must accept that what has been achieved is fundamentally sound. Lives have been saved. Obviously, we want to see more lives being saved and we are working on that.
Senator Ryan explained that he enthusiastically supports the Opposition's amendment while also accepting the Minister's achievements. He congratulated the Minister but did not feel that he deserves any better commendation because he is only doing his job. As he accepted that the job is being done well, I find it difficult to see how he is going to disagree with our motion and vote against it. However, that is for him to decide.
Senator Ryan also raised the issue of enforcement. He does not believe that the Garda Síochána is doing its job. I can assure him that it is doing it. I travel on a similar section of the road to that used by the Senator on a weekly basis. While I travel from Clare and he travels from Cork, the roads join near Portlaoise and, unfortunately, I see too many gardaí on the road between Portlaoise and Dublin. We will not get into the full details of that right now.
I accept that. It is worth pointing this out to those who have strayed from the motion in order to allow them to understand the efforts of the Government and those of previous Fianna Fáil Administrations. I am sure we will be in a position to have that debate. I could go on, but I will not do so. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the latitude he has provided.