Thursday, 29 April 2004
Road Safety: Statements.
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Deputy Seamus Brennan. The Opposition is anxious you attend here often. Maybe if you did, you might be able to recognise the Cathaoirleach when acknowledging public representatives at functions in the mid-west. It was demeaning to this high office and disappointing, especially when you started off your parliamentary career in this House in 1977 when you were appointed by the then Taoiseach, the late Jack Lynch. It was also the first year I was elected to this House.
I offer you my sincere apologies. I overlooked doing the correct thing when I met you last time.
Today's debate gives me the opportunity to update the House on the developments in road safety policy. Over the past six years, there has been a distinct improvement in our road safety performance. Indeed, over the past 18 months, improvement has been dramatic. However, the need for constant vigilance and attention has been clearly shown since the beginning of the year. As of last Monday, 30 more people have died as a result of road collisions than was the case over the same period last year.
The collective goal of all those involved in the promotion and delivery of road safety policies is to ensure that the improvements achieved over the past six years are sustained and built on. The realisation of that goal is central to the new road safety strategy which will be published shortly. The strategy will cover the period 2004-06 and will focus on reducing road deaths to a level of not greater than 300 by 2006. That achievement will realise a reduction of 25% when compared to the average number of annual road deaths over the past six years.
The strategy will build on the success of its predecessor, the results of a review of that strategy carried out by an international expert in road safety and the further improvements realised in 2003. Achieving a reduction of 25% is an ambitious target. The degree of that ambition can be judged against the background of the overall EU target of realising a 50% reduction in road deaths over a ten year period and the target set in the United States, which provides for a reduction of approximately one third in fatalities per vehicle kilometre travelled over an eight year period.
In setting our goals for the period up to the end of 2006, we are supported by the knowledge that the strategic approach we have adopted has been shown to deliver the greatest benefits in the long term. The most successful countries in the European Union in delivering reductions in road casualty numbers on a sustained basis over long periods are those countries that have adopted this overall approach. In adopting our road safety strategy, we learned from the experience of states like the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom which are the leading states in the European Union in terms of road safety performance. We have also adopted an approach that has seen the engagement of all the organisations that contribute to the various elements of road safety policy in the identification and pursuit of the policies through which the overall targets can be achieved.
The primary target of a 20% reduction in deaths and serious injuries was achieved in the case of deaths and surpassed in the case of serious injuries. However, progress in particular key areas was mixed. We did not achieve the level of improvements targeted in the area of drink driving and speed limit compliance. Progress was made on seat belt wearing rates but even there, there is significant room for improvement.
One area where we made significant progress was in regard to the target to introduce specific accident reduction measures at 400 locations on the national road network. This was surpassed with 418 schemes completed by the end of 2002. In addition, good progress has been made in the implementation of the overall national roads upgrade programme provided for in the national development plan. To date, 37 projects, a total of 256 km, including 76 km. of motorway and 50 km. of dual carriageway standard, have been completed. Work is also underway on 17 projects totalling 148 km, including 120 km. to motorway-dual carriageway standard, and another 17 projects — a total of 160 km. — are at tender stage.
As regards the five major inter-urban routes, the position is that at the end of 2003, almost 30% of these routes had been upgraded to motorway-dual carriageway standard with work underway on approximately another 12%. This is ensuring that priority is given to addressing the need for urban by-passes and dealing with traffic congestion.
The recommendations of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board report are being pursued by the Government and we are now seeing significant reductions in insurance premiums. In addition to road safety measures, I have taken steps to improve the insurance position of motorists and other road users. I have concluded a revised agreement with the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland, the EU 4th insurance directive has been transposed into Irish law and I have promoted a beneficial dialogue with the insurance industry.
One of the most significant elements of the last road safety strategy was the development of a system of penalty points. There have been delays in regard to the development of the necessary IT network to support the full roll-out of this system. This is regretted and for this reason, I decided in October 2002 to apply the system to speeding offences. I have since added seat belt wearing offences and driving without insurance. So far, over 144,000 penalty point notices have issued. It is proposed to roll-out the full system of penalty points when the necessary IT systems are in place. A range of road safety offences will be subject to penalty points which should have a positive impact on driver behaviour. The consequences of losing one's driving licence exercises the minds of most road users who are changing their behaviour and will continue to do so. As the Taoiseach recently commented, "a licence is a privilege, not a right". I will add the offence of careless driving to the system with effect from 1 June and I am advised by my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that the IT support for the full operation of the system should be available by the end of the year.
Much attention has been paid to the number of road deaths experienced in the first quarter of this year. All road deaths are tragic and avoidable but the current position needs to be put in context. We have seen unprecedented growth in recent years in the number of vehicles and drivers on our roads. With this in mind, the reductions which have been experienced in the past six years are welcome. Indeed, 100 fewer people have lost their lives on the roads during the 17 month period since the introduction of penalty points compared to the preceding 17 months. That is 100 families which have not faced that trauma.
The forthcoming road safety strategy which I will publish shortly will set out a number of measures aimed at reducing the number of road deaths even further. Over the period of the new strategy, the following major road safety policy initiatives will be pursued, and some in the coming weeks. Random preliminary breath-testing for drink driving and a new speed limit structure to be expressed in metric values rather than miles per hour will be introduced. I also intend to introduce a network of speed cameras to be operated by the private sector which will be developed shortly. I will introduce a comprehensive package of measures to address issues surrounding driver licensing and testing. I will also roll-out the penalty points system fully.
I am committed to the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps. Further work needs to be done on that in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. There are difficult and complex legal issues but I am determined to resolve them. In recognition of the importance of enforcement, the Garda has established commitments to the achievement of specific levels of enforcement across the three key areas of seat belt wearing, speed limits and drink driving.
The strategy can only work through the adoption of an integrated approach along the lines about which I have talked, which targets the key areas of speeding, drink driving and seat belt wearing and which includes measures in the areas of education, engineering, legislation and enforcement. We need all these measures to make a difference. The high level group on road safety will oversee the implementation of the strategy. All the road safety agencies responsible for various measures set out in the strategy are represented on the group. My Department chairs the group and is responsible for developing the legislation set out in that document.
New legislation has been prepared in my Department which will provide support for the deployment of these key initiatives, particularly in the area of speed limits and drink driving, and will further enhance the enforcement capacity of the Garda Síochána. The Bill will feature a number of radical changes that will be focused on these key areas.
A new system of speed limits based on metric values will be introduced before the end of the year. I am taking the opportunity of this new legislation to assure the travelling public that the speed limits applied at specific locations are reasonable and fair and reflect the road safety needs and capacity of the road in question. I have already raised this issue with county and city managers. The new speed limit structure will, as was envisaged in the report of the working group I established to review speed limits, offer a far greater degree of flexibility to local authority members, who will retain primary responsibility for determining the application of speed limits at specific locations.
The gardaí will be empowered to engage in what is colloquially termed random breath testing. This is a radical and fundamental initiative which will greatly strengthen the enforcement capacity of the gardaí and is one of a number of initiatives to be included in the legislation which was approved by Cabinet in the past few days.
The introduction of speed cameras is not a money making business. The operational parameters for the provision of this service will be clearly established and decisions on the deployment of enforcement assets will remain within the gift of the gardaí. This is a significant initiative in that the introduction of a new source of speed enforcement capability will provide greater freedom for the gardaí and will free them to focus on other duties, including other areas of traffic law. The Bill will see the removal from the Garda of direct involvement in much of the day to day administrative work associated with the operation of the penalty points and fixed charge systems.
The early publication and passage of the Bill is essential if the delivery of the programme established in the new road safety strategy is to be delivered as quickly as possible. The passage of the Bill will be particularly critical to the achievement of the ambitious enforcement targets that have been set in the new strategy. Implementation of the new Bill will see a better use of Garda resources resulting from the privatisation of speed cameras and the outsourcing of the collection of payments, both of which measures are included in the forthcoming legislation. I look forward to the support of Senators for the provisions of the Road Traffic Bill 2003, which I hope to bring to the Houses before the summer recess.
Work is also at an advanced stage on the preparation of legislation for the new driver testing and standards agency. I expect to be in a position to publish the Bill without delay. The authority will be given responsibility for delivering the driver testing service and will have greater flexibility to respond to variations in demand. In addition, the authority will have overall responsibility for driving standards. The new authority will, for the first time, be responsible for the registration of all driving instructors. That a new authority will be responsible under legislation for increasing driving standards and for registering and maintaining the standard of driving instructors will give a substantial boost to driving standards.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps. I support the implementation of this proposal. A consultation process has made good progress and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I are fully determined that the traffic corps will come into being, although issues in that regard remain to be resolved.
I note with interest recent media coverage regarding the recruitment in the UK of highway agency officers who are civilians and have been given limited powers in traffic management and highway patrol duties. We will monitor progress with regard to the usefulness of that proposal to see whether we can learn something from it.
I have decided to take over chairmanship of the working group on the establishment of a traffic corps. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will also chair sessions of the group. We hope to bring our commitment to this measure to a conclusion as soon as possible.
I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, and Senators for scheduling this timely debate on road safety, a matter for which we all have a responsibility. One death on the road is one too many. With this package of measures I am trying to show the public that the Government and the Houses of the Oireachtas are serious about road safety. We are serious about putting legislation and enforcement procedures in place to enable us to reduce the number of road accidents. I thank the Seanad for giving me the opportunity to lay my proposals before it and I look forward to hearing Senators' views on the proposals.
I welcome the Minister. As an Opposition Senator I should be happy to be able to prove the Minister and the Government wrong. However, I take no pleasure in saying that the penalty points system is no longer as effective as it was initially. Thirty more lives have been lost in road accidents since the penalty points system was introduced and 30 more families have been devastated.
When the Minister addressed the House last year he said, "I would like to be here this time next year to say that the second six months were as good as the first six". Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Minister was warned of this danger by the National Safety Council. In a press release last September, while expressing satisfaction that the number of road deaths had decreased, Mr. Pat Costello of the council said, "It will be a struggle to sustain the road safety gains made in recent years and months. This is because the Department of Finance does not appear to have a public expenditure allocation process to support investment in road safety." Unfortunately, Mr. Costello has been proved right in that regard.
Deputy Enda Kenny issued a document at the beginning of this year in which he highlighted the fact that the cost of carnage on our roads, apart from the huge emotional trauma, is in the region of €500 million per year. This cost must be reduced.
The Joint Committee on Transport recently heard submissions from the Garda Síochána, the National Safety Council and the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Transport. Every member of the committee, from all political parties, made the point that the Department of Finance does not understand that the more money the Government spends on road safety, the greater the economic return. The Department of Finance appears to view road safety as being just like any other project. We must persuade the Department to alter that opinion because car crashes have a devastating effect, emotionally and economically. I wish the Minister for Transport well in his daily rows with the Department of Finance in this regard.
The Minister for Transport is not totally to blame for the difficulties we face in this area. The problem is wider than that. People now spend many hours every day travelling by road. Road traffic has grown by 73% since 1980 and nearly one quarter of all households have two or more cars. That 55% of people travel to work in their own cars is a symptom of a poor public transport service. House prices are so unaffordable that Dubliners are forced to move to Carlow, Cavan or Athlone and to spend hours travelling to and from work. The Irish Independent published a series of articles recently entitled "Generation Exodus". One of the articles stated that 34% of the working population take less than 30 minutes to travel to work every day; 39%, approximately 113,000 people, take between 30 and 60 minutes; 17% take between 60 and 90 minutes; 7% take more than two hours; and 3%, approximately 9,000 people, spend more than three hours travelling to work every day. The national spatial strategy has failed to deliver in this area and we are forcing people to live long distances from their place of work.
People are bundling their children into cars at 6 a.m., sometimes still in their night attire, to bring them to their grandparents' in Dublin, who get the children ready for school. While the parents work, the grandparents collect the children from school before the parents return to the grandparents' house at 5 p.m., and off the children go again. It is an horrific and unsustainable lifestyle. The Minister must use his influence at Cabinet to promote proper planning.
The Minister's speech was disappointing and contained nothing new. While he referred to the driver testing and standards agency Bill, this is no more than a plan. The Minister hopes to have the Bill complete by the end of this Oireachtas term whereas it was promised that it would take effect months ago. I am glad the Minister has taken on board the Fine Gael proposal on regulating driver testing agencies. The previous situation was daft and partly explains the huge variations in pass rate figures around the country. Athlone had the lowest first-time application passes at 43.5% while Shannon had a pass rate of 68%. Counties Cavan and Carlow did poorly despite County Carlow natives being, generally speaking, the cleverest in the country. Something is wrong with this.
They occasionally make mistakes. I previously raised with the Minister the issue of motorcycles. I was appalled to learn from him that 70% of motorcyclists do not hold a full licence and that a similar proportion have not taken a test or received a single day's training. To quote the Minister: "They simply buy a bike, obtain a provisional licence and off they go". The Minister pointed out that pillion passengers account for a significant proportion of fatalities in motorcycle accidents despite it being illegal for provisional licence holders to carry a pillion passenger. The Minister also stated he was considering the current age limit of 16 years for motorcyclists but I have heard nothing since then. Has the Minister any news on this?
The privatisation of speed cameras would be dangerous. I was amazed to learn that the British Labour Party has made a major U-turn in regard to speed cameras. Last year, in England alone, speed cameras brought in approximately £17 million. The minister responsible for transport, Mr. Tony McNulty MP, wrote to all councils and local police forces to ensure that cameras were used fairly, and an audit of all cameras is underway to ascertain which cameras reduce accidents, the benchmark by which success is measured. Surely the cameras which bring in most revenue are failing miserably. All speed cameras in Ireland should be audited to find whether accidents have reduced in particular areas and to quantify that reduction.
Motorists resent receiving anonymous speeding fines. It is hard to stomach a punishment when caught travelling at 61 miles per hour in a 60 miles per hour zone. The situation would be improved by having gardaí present to enforce the speed limit laws. While it is hard to accept a fine at the time, gardaí can at least allow some latitude if a driver is narrowly over a speed limit. On the other hand, cameras lead to public resentment. The Minister should consider the British experience and ensure we do not simply follow the example of that country, as we normally do, but learn from its mistakes. I reiterate that a complete U-turn has been taken in Britain, which now accepts that speed cameras are to change driver behaviour, not to produce revenue.
I am not sure what the Minister was like in school but feel he might have been weak in the area of science. One scientific principle which stands out is Newton's law that for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction.
Is that so? Nonetheless, the case in point is that of the provisional driving licence. While the Minister made the correct decision to clamp down on provisional drivers, nothing has happened since and chaos has resulted. On 7 May last year, the Minister admitted there were almost 300,000 provisional licence holders and, if those holding fourth provisional licences were included, the figure was even higher.
The system cannot cope with such numbers. In County Carlow there is now a waiting time of almost 13 months, which has a devastating effect on younger drivers who in total pay an extra €15 million in insurance. The Minister spoke of a significant reduction in insurance premia but this has not happened. It is a matter of urgency because, while drivers are waiting to be tested they are being loaded by the insurance companies.
A recent newspaper report highlighted the issue of driver fatigue, which is obviously a knock-on effect of urban sprawl and the necessity for drivers to travel for many hours. The report stated that 20% of all fatal crashes were due to driver fatigue. Has the Minister plans to introduce systems to prevent this? All drivers get tired. Despite opening car windows or turning up the music volume, it has been proven that such measures have no effect and also that one can fall asleep with one's eyes open. To lose consciousness for a short period while driving could be devastating.
Systems can be introduced to prevent this. For example, cars might be modified to make beeping noises if eye movement, as an indicator of fatigue, was detected. Perhaps the Minister, in his EU Presidency role as head of the European Council of Transport Ministers, could consider this area.
A fascinating recent American television programme, "Eye on America", showed that television monitors are now being inserted in cars there; one person interviewed on the programme had 17 monitors in his car. The monitors are usually inserted in the back of head rests and are now being blamed for causing numerous car crashes. Unfortunately, what happens in America today will soon happen here. I understand some companies are already advertising car television screens, which would be located primarily in back seats for children on long journeys. Is the Minister aware of this and has he plans to legislate for it before it becomes a serious problem?
There has been no advance in regard to drug testing. While we complain about drink driving, the fact that much of our population takes drugs is ignored. On his last visit to the House, the Minister indicated I had a valid point regarding this crucial area. However, he should clarify whether he plans to bring forward measures to deal with it. The Minister should put the onus on the National Safety Council to place advertisements to remind drivers that drugs affect their ability to drive.
The city of Melbourne in Australia halved its level of road deaths in a three year period. However, the level of road deaths in Ireland has reduced by just 20% and we should not congratulate ourselves too much on our achievements. The Government should impress on the National Safety Council the need to alter its current publicity strategy of spending significant resources on television advertisements. These have limited impact as we see similar scenes so often on television that we become immune. A high proportion of car crashes occur on certain nights and at certain times, with Sunday night to Monday morning being a particularly bad period, as is the 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. period on other nights. There should be constant radio advertisements between these key hours to remind people to slow down, put on their seat belts and, if they have been drinking, not to drive. Unfortunately, while television advertisements are helpful in some respects, they do not have the same impact when one is sitting at home. It would be more effective in reducing road deaths if one heard a reminder while driving one's car.
I join with Senator Browne in welcoming the Minister. He has been here on many occasions over the past year, including relatively recently to discuss the Government's attitude to road safety. I welcome his coming here today with news of two forthcoming Bills, which will be of immense benefit in the Government's stance in continuing to take a strategic approach to road safety and working towards the reduction of road accidents.
There has been a considerable amount of comment in recent weeks about road safety. Some critical comments have been made in the media and among the Opposition on the concept of penalty points. There appears to be a suggestion from some quarters that penalty points are not working. The introduction of the penalty points system was a significant measure by the Government in addressing the whole issue of road safety. At no time were penalty points put forward as the only element of the Government's strategy in terms of reducing the number of deaths or serious accidents on the roads. Some people tend to overreact and panic because of what has happened in recent months. There has been a distortion to some extent by virtue of the fact that a large number of people were fatally injured in some accidents, which is a distorting factor. This distortion should not be allowed to affect our view on penalty points. We must recognise the system has the capacity to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads.
We would like the Government to continue its strategic approach to road safety. The Road Traffic Bill and the driver testing and standards agency Bill will do this, together with the publication of the Government's strategy. The penalty points system has worked. The response was probably much better in the first months when there was a dramatic increase in the number of lives saved. Ultimately, when there is a greater basis on which to do the comparisons, it will become clear that they will continue to work well into the future.
Concerns have been raised in recent weeks about enforcement, which needs to be considered. The Road Traffic Bill will address this issue, particularly the freeing up of Garda time in respect of the outsourcing of the collection of fines and other elements in the legislation such as the capacity to monitor speed. There has been some criticism of the gardaí in the media and other areas, which is unfair. The gardaí, by and large, are trying to bring about a change in culture. It is not fair to say that just because one is caught exceeding slightly the speed limit in what is considered to be a relatively safe area indicates that the gardaí are taking the soft approach. The monitoring of speed has more to do with bringing about a culture of safety on the roads which ensures that people are mindful of their responsibilities in regard to their safety and that of others. Regardless of where the monitoring or enforcement is carried out, it will seek to bring about this culture.
There is an issue in regard to speed limits. The Minister referred to changes in this area and he made some announcements in the past. There are problems in respect of sections of road where the surface, width and quality of the road is of such a high standard that there is no need to have the lower speed limits enforced. This is a matter which needs further attention. There is also an issue regarding entering and leaving populated areas. While usually the road markings are the same entering and leaving these areas, the point where the limit kicks in and out are the same. This needs to be examined because when one is leaving a built up area there is no reason to keep within a 30 mile limit. This is more important on the way in.
Reducing the number of road deaths has a knock-on effect on the health system and the accident and emergency units of our hospitals. Many people think that all we are doing is saving lives on the roads. However, reducing the number of fatal road accidents also results in reducing the number of non-fatal road accidents, which has a huge knock-on effect on our accident and emergency rooms. There have been debates in this House on accident and emergency facilities. We all recognise that many of them are over-burdened to a large degree and anything that can be done in that regard will be of great benefit.
There is an ongoing battle to identify the cause of accidents, many of which Senator Browne has identified. An argument could probably be made to establish an accident investigation unit. Trying to understand why accidents occur will obviously lead to a better approach to the development of the strategy to prevent accidents. There are a number of well aired issues in terms of the causes of accidents. It would be worth setting up an accident investigation unit which would put the same effort into the investigation of road traffic accidents as is put into light aircraft accidents. If a light aircraft is involved in an accident, a plethora of individuals will visit the scene and carry out detailed investigations. I am not trying to demean air accidents but in many instances just one or two people are killed as a result, whereas many road accidents result in multiples of that number being killed.
Some people suggest that the penalty points system did not have an effect on drink driving. I do not think this was ever expected to be the case. People found to be drunk while in charge of a vehicle always faced immediate disqualification from driving, therefore the penalty points system was not about dealing with drunk driving. The measure in the forthcoming Bill of random testing will have a greater input into this.
There is probably also a greater role for community policing in targeting some of the young people involved in accidents late at night who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. A greater presence of gardaí on the streets of villages and towns on Friday and Saturday night, in particular, may prevent these journeys taking place. Young people who are intoxicated often travel through back roads and side roads throughout the length and breadth of the country, which sometimes leads to very serious accidents. The traffic corps, which will be a welcome development, would have to be on a very large scale to monitor the many back roads and by-roads throughout the country. It would probably be better served by focusing its attention in the villages and towns. One of the benefits would be dealing with the regular disturbances that occur in many of these areas over the weekends, which would have a knock-on effect in preventing some accidents. The speed of vehicles on poorer roads cannot be monitored effectively by the police because it is never possible to cover them all. Has any consideration been given to the introduction of tachographs, similar to those used in commercial vehicles? It has implications in the context of the EU and is an issue which the Minister may have considered as President of the Council of Ministers but it may be worth investigating further. Many different gadgets are available and Senator Browne referred to some of the technology. The tachograph is technology which is already used on trucks and provides for the ongoing monitoring of drivers' behaviour. The use of tachographs could lead to significant developments in respect of monitoring other drivers' behaviour.
The Minister has also referred to the wearing of seat belts on many occasions, which has great capacity for saving lives as is borne out by research. Senator Browne referred to the issue of fatigue and we were shocked to hear that up to 20% of fatal accidents are caused by driver fatigue. I am not so sure that the technology to which Senator Browne referred is the way forward. Due to the changing nature and development of our road infrastructure, something will have to be done in respect of the design and build of these roads to include road stops and rest areas, which have not been a feature to date from my vantage point.
These features may only come into play now as we see the completion of the stretch of M1 motorway and the other routes detailed as inter-urban priorities, particularly the Dublin to Portlaoise, Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick routes. All of these are particularly long stretches of road and certain considerations must be taken into account in that context. Many of us who travel these roads late at night on an ongoing basis realise that in many cases there are no safe structured areas for drivers to stop and park or get access to facilities which would help in terms of fatigue.
Another area which requires ongoing consideration in the context of the deliberations on the road strategy is the approach to young male drivers whom, based on some of the statistics, are a major cause of carnage on our roads. We will have to take a dramatic and serious approach to this and there may be a justification for setting limits on the size of engines certain groups of people are permitted to drive and modifying the engines of cars used by people under a certain age or with certain categories of licences. We have all seen the horrific crashes, particularly in County Clare and along the west coast, in which young drivers were involved, some of whom had full licences but were still only 22 or 23 years of age and had not yet built up the capacity or responsible nature to use the road as it should have been used. We must go beyond the standard approach and look to modifying the engines of cars that such people are permitted to drive.
The Minister's work is welcome and I want him to continue in this vein. His approach in terms of the strategic nature of responding to road safety is the correct way forward. It would not be responsible to react based on certain trends or accidents that take place, despite calls for that in many instances. I welcome the forthcoming publication of the strategy and the measures which the Minister has outlined give us an idea of what he and his Department are thinking in this regard. When the strategy is published, it will provide a blueprint for the future. The legislation will be most welcome and I understand the Minister is endeavouring to have it published before the summer. I am sure the House will assist him to that end and pass the Bill as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Minister to the House. If the Fianna Fáil election slogan "A lot done — more to do" applies to any Department or Minister, he will concede it applies to his own. A significant amount of work has been done and is in the preparatory stage but we have a long way to go until we have satisfactory statistics regarding road safety and deaths on our roads. Three or four weeks ago on a Monday night, I unfortunately attended the funerals of two people killed in separate accidents in my constituency. One was a middle aged man and the other was a young person. It struck me once again that we have not made sufficient progress in our battle against speed and road danger problems. In so far as the Minister has plans for the future, I want him to expedite them and bring about the necessary changes. The subject of road safety and driver testing is one which requires an ongoing debate.
No one can suggest that the penalty point system will not be a help in the long term. However, it has a distance to travel, if Senators will excuse the pun. I understand the Minister intends to introduce some of the other elements to the system and presumably they will be rolled out in the coming months. The complaints about the system which public representatives hear most frequently at present are made by people penalised for travelling at 31 mph in a 30 mph limit area or at 41 mph, 42 mph or 43 mph in a 40 mph limit area, often on the edge of a built up area. The imposition of points on such people who are marginally in excess of the limit is doing nothing to build a relationship between the Garda and citizens. Someone travelling at 31 mph, 32 mph or 33 mph, within 2% or 3% of the limit, is no greater a threat on the road than someone travelling at 30 mph. I suggest that a sizeable fine should apply to a person travelling within 3 mph or 4 mph in excess of the speed limit but that the penalty points would not be imposed in such circumstances.
We are told there is some degree of discretion — up to 5%. In other words, if a person is travelling at 33 mph or 34 mph in a 30 mph limit area or at 41 mph, 42 mph or 43 mph in a 40 mph limit area, the system may not trip in. I suggest that in those cases, people would pay a significant financial penalty but that the penalty points would not be applied, which would help achieve respect for the law. If one accepts the fact that the first 2 mph or 3 mph over the limit will result in a financial penalty rather than penalty points added to one's licence, it would ensure that one would not travel in excess of 2 mph or 3 mph over the limit. It would help resolve the bitterness which is creeping in. We have all met people who are very angry at having penalty points imposed for travelling at 31 mph, when they see people travelling on country roads at 60 mph, 70 mph and 80 mph, with no chance of penalty points being imposed on them.
I understand the Minister has proposals to examine the speed limit system, the main element of which is simply the metrification of it. When we examine the speed limits, which have been devolved to local authorities, we will have to take a serious look at the speed limits which do not apply on county roads. It is ironic that one can travel at the same legal speed limit on a county road — often a windy, twisty, badly surfaced county road — as one can on most of the Cork to Dublin road. It makes no common sense whatsoever and provides numerous opportunities for danger and disaster on the county roads, in particular where people are driving lorries and large vans and seem to have no respect for the fact that they are travelling on narrow dangerous roads. We must consider changing the speed limits on minor county roads. I appreciate that in theory one may be charged with the offence of dangerous driving on these roads. However, is it correct that one may legally travel at the same speed on the country road outside my house in a rural parish as on the Cork-Dublin road? That must be examined.
I support the point made by Senator Dooley to consider applying a maximum engine size to cars driven by young drivers and those with a provisional licence. Not every young driver or provisional licence holder is a dangerous or less safe driver than those driving for ten or 15 years but we have to address the issue in general terms. A provisional licence holder may drive a 2.5 litre turbo charged car on the highways and byways, and I do not think that is correct. We have to consider limiting inexperienced drivers to certain engine sizes. While it may not be appreciated, it might be the right course of action in the long run.
The National Roads Authority is establishing three or four pilot projects using a wire rope to divide a road into two carriageways. It is proposed to divide a ten to 12 mile stretch of the Cork to Mallow road with a wire rope. A company that supplies barrier as opposed to wire rope divisions provided figures on the cost variation between dividing a road with wire rope or the full protection barrier system. The wire rope system proposed by the National Roads Authority will cost 90% of the full barrier division protection system. I was also advised that the wire rope system should cost only 30% of the full barrier division system. I was told the National Roads Authority was being ripped off. Will the Minister check this? If the full barrier division system can be laid for an additional 10% of the cost of the wire rope system, this should be examined to get value for money.
I have raised the issue of road signage many times in both Houses and was assured the issue would be examined. We continue to use similar road signs to those of 40 to 50 years ago. People totally ignore these signs and fly through Stop and Yield signs as if they did not exist. There should be more marking on the road in addition to road signs. Will the Minister consider modern, hard hitting, dramatic and eye catching road signs?
My colleague, Deputy Kehoe, in answer to a question on the number of telephone calls to the traffic watch scheme that resulted in prosecutions, was informed that during the operation of a pilot scheme in the south eastern region from November 2001, of the 3,800 calls received, 1,000 drivers were formally cautioned, but only 30 prosecutions resulted, less than 1% of the cases. If we wish to encourage people to report dangerous driving, we will have to be more proactive. That only 30 prosecutions resulted from 3,800 calls shows the system is not working.
I join with other Members in welcoming the Minister for Transport and his officials. Since the National Roads Authority announced its road programme this is the first opportunity I have to thank the Minister publicly for using his good offices to ensure phase two of the Cavan by-pass will go ahead this year.
With the allocation of €5.5 million by the National Roads Authority, phase two of the Cavan by-pass will commence on or before 11 June this year. I thank the Minister for that.
Whereas the penalty points system has been a great success, I have some concerns about it. It would be a mistake to include too many offences in the penalty points schemes as I think it should focus on speeding offences. If we broaden it too much, it may not achieve what it set out to do. It should concentrate on speeding offences, wearing of safety belts and lights.
It is not appropriate to extend the penalty points system to deal with those driving without insurance. If somebody is caught driving without insurance, he or she should be put off the road for up to two years. Somebody willing to drive without insurance is endangering the lives of others.
A person convicted of careless or dangerous driving should not incur penalty points but be banned from driving for a period.
I agree with the points made by Senator Browne on those driving while under the influence of drugs. As well as random testing for drink-driving, there should be random testing to see if a person is driving under the influence of drugs and this provision should be included.
The fact that 144,000 drivers have received penalty points shows the system is working. However, how many have incurred penalty points when driving in areas with 30 or 40 mph speed limits? Somebody who is convicted of driving at 33 or 34 mph in a 30 mile zone should not incur penalty points but should be fined heavily. We should concentrate on speed checks on the main roads. The introduction of the penalty points system 17 months ago has resulted in saving 100 lives, which is to be welcomed.
The Minister together with his colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, will work to speed up — pardon the pun — the introduction of a dedicated traffic corps. The introduction of speed cameras throughout the country is welcome, but will the operation of the privatised speed cameras be based on commission? If so, that is a dangerous precedent because, if it is being done on a commission basis, it will be in their interest to issue as many speeding fines as possible. I would like the Minister to clarify that matter.
I agree with what Senator Dooley said about the tacograph system, which operates very successfully in trucks. I see no reason why it should not also be used in cars because it would be a bigger deterrent than any speed check.
The Minister should examine the sale of high-speed cars. What is the logic behind allowing people to purchase cars capable of doing 160 mph when the maximum speed limit is 70 mph? People should not be entitled to buy or sell such cars. It should be made compulsory to fit a device which bleeps to alert drivers when they exceed the speed limit. Such devices are fitted as standard in some cars, but not in most vehicles.
I am concerned by the delay between the commission of an alleged offence and the issuance of proceedings. It can take up to three or months before people are notified. While I appreciate there has been a problem in getting the computer system up and running, such notification should be treated as a matter of priority.
In recent court cases in Dublin, five people had alleged offences against them struck out because they claimed they had not received due notification. I can assure the Minister this does happen because I was a victim of such an occurrence. The first I knew about having incurred a speeding summons was when a garda called to my house. I understand that one must be notified by post of such an offence in the first instance, and one is then supposed to submit details to the relevant authority as to who was driving the car at the time of the offence. I did not get an opportunity to do that. Letters of notification should be sent by registered mail to the alleged offenders.
The penalty point system cannot be viewed in isolation because other Government initiatives have led to safer roads. The low-cost accident reduction schemes, funded by the Government, have been very successful since their introduction some years ago. I am glad they are to be continued.
The signage, lighting and cats' eyes programme, announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has also played a major role in road safety. As we all know, however, there are not enough road signs. One of the major difficulties facing drivers is whether a 30 mph or 40 mph limit applies when entering urban areas. In many cases, there are no signs to indicate the speed limit, and if there are any signs they are often too small to be noticeable. Speed limits should be painted on main roads into towns, instead of only having roadside signs which are hard to see.
I am aware that the Minister is considering the metrification of speed limit signs but he should provide additional warning signs in Border counties, stating clearly that they refer to kilometres and not miles per hour. The Minister should speed up consultation with the authorities in 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 Republic do their best to obey the speed limits, they can be overtaken by Northern-registered cars whose drivers do not bother to pay the ensuing fines. The sooner the penalty points scheme is extended to include drivers from Northern Ireland, the better for road safety. I urge the Minister to take up this matter with his counterparts in the North. I also intend to raise this question with my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, who is chairman of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. The BIIPB is an appropriate forum at which to raise the issue.
I congratulate the Minister on all the work his Department is undertaking. He is one of the most hard-working Ministers and the public appreciates that.
I welcome the Minister and, as Senator Wilson said, his heart is in the right place. Not only is he a hard-working Minister but he is also determined to achieve success in this respect. I sought this debate, as did a number of my colleagues. In a report yesterday, the National Safety Council stated: "Tragically, approximately 250 people will set off on a journey between now and the end of the year and never make it home to their families." That is a startling figure but we can do something about it and it has been on my agenda for some time. On 5 February 2003, I moved a Private Members' motion in the House congratulating the Minister for Transport on the initial success of the penalty points scheme. The first three months that followed the introduction of that scheme showed very impressive results. We were upbeat about it and full of congratulations for the Minister. In those three months, 67 people were killed compared to 112 in the corresponding period the previous year. That 40% reduction in road deaths was a great success. The change could only be described as massive and it followed the Minister's introduction of the penalty points system. Unfortunately, however, as we have seen, the improvement was short-lived. In the first quarter of this year, the death toll came to 96, compared to 74 in the same period last year. By comparison, during the first three months of 2002, in other words, before penalty points were introduced, the figure was 102 deaths. It is clear therefore that after an initial massive drop, the figures have now bounced back to more or less the same murderous level they were at before penalty points were brought in. That is the true picture to which we should be paying attention.
Comparing the overall period of 17 months since the introduction of penalty points with the preceding 17 months is misleading because the overall period masks rather than illustrates the true trend. I am not suggesting that penalty points have failed. At the very beginning they definitely had an effect, but they are no longer having the same deterrent effect. In seeking to find a way forward, we should examine closely why this has happened. The truth is that at the beginning people took seriously the risk of being caught speeding and the possibility of losing their driving licence. For the first time in many years, they formed the impression that the Government was at last becoming serious about tackling speed on our roads. As a result, drivers changed their attitudes and behaviour on the road. This altered behaviour was reflected in accident statistics, producing the happy result we were celebrating this time last year.
A document from the National Safety Council stated that "The primary choice of death and injury is our own behaviour". In fact, the council claims that 96% of all road deaths and injuries arise from the behaviour of drivers. I am involved with an awards scheme run by the National Safety Council. One of last year's awards went to a company called "How's my driving?", owned by Mr. Tom O'Sullivan. Members may have seen the slogan on the back of trucks, which reads "How's my driving?" and provides a telephone number for respondents. One of my colleagues was coming up from the country the other day and saw the slogan for the first time. She was impressed by it because the truck driver in front was pulling in to the hard shoulder to allow cars to pass. She telephoned the number to compliment the truck driver. This is a positive step, because drivers know if they have this sign on the back of their truck they will get rewards if people telephone to compliment their driving. If they are driving badly, they will be criticised. Those are little things we can do to change our behaviour.
What has happened since last year? People have reassessed the risk of being caught. The penalty points system worked very well at first but as time went on it became clear that the level of enforcement was very low. Some people were caught, and we have heard figures on that today. A few people were caught repeatedly and built up their number of points, but others very rapidly came to the conclusion that despite all the hype, the enforcement animal had not changed his spots. They decided, rightly or wrongly, that the risk of being caught was no higher than it ever had been and they adjusted their behaviour accordingly, as one would expect. It was back to the same old bad habits.
What this shows is that the principle I have often heard from criminologists applies just as much to bad traffic behaviour as it does to any other kind of crime. The principle is that what acts as a deterrent is not the severity of the sentence but the likelihood of getting caught. No matter how severe the sentence, the criminal will still base his behaviour on what he assesses as the risk of being caught. If that risk is high, he is deterred, but if that risk is low or if he thinks it is low, he will try to get away with it. I make no apology for comparing bad road traffic behaviour with that of common crime. It is not just because the consequences are so serious although often they are more often serious than those of ordinary crime. Road traffic misbehaviour is a matter of life and death and the Minister outlined some horrific figures. However, it is becoming clear that the task of changing attitudes and changing behaviour is a far more intractable one than in some other situations.
For instance, over the past few years we have passed legislation which has radically changed people's behaviour on two separate occasions. I refer to the law on plastic bags and the more recent regulations on smoking in the workplace. In both cases we succeeded in changing attitudes, and therefore behaviour, virtually overnight. My business was involved with the plastic bag levy and attitudes changed overnight. While my business does not involve smoking, attitudes on smoking seem to have changed overnight also. In both cases we did this far more smoothly and completely than anyone could have predicted.
I do not know exactly what mechanisms produced success with plastic bags and smoking in the workplace. Perhaps the change was driven in these cases by the basic wish of most people to respect the law. In these cases we can rely on people to enforce the law themselves. This is very fortunate from the Government's point of view, because enforcement in such situations is relatively cheap.
Whatever it was that produced those successes, we must face the fact that when it comes to changing road traffic behaviour, the real issue here, different mechanisms are at work. When it comes to driving, some people are prepared to flout the law day in and day out, as we have seen. I was delighted Senator Wilson mentioned the Northern Ireland penalty points system. I was in Belfast last week and it was clear north of the Border that cars were staying within the speed limit. However, as soon as they crossed into Louth they passed us out. I did not pay much attention but I presume the opposite was also happening, that those with penalty points down here suddenly started going faster because they felt free to do so, although I did not misbehave. There must be a way to tie these systems together. We have spoken about this before — Senator Brian Hayes made the point originally — but if we have North-South co-operation in areas like food safety and tourism, then there should be North-South co-operation on traffic. I gather that penalty points in the North do not apply in the rest of Britain, although the Minister may correct me. I understand they only apply in the North, so if one collects penalty points in Northern Ireland they do not apply in Britain or south of the Border, where one's chances of being caught are slim. We can do something about that.
When it comes to driving some people are prepared to flout the law day in, day out, and the law-abiding principle, which can be so powerful a means of self-enforcement, seems very weak in this case. Another issue, which is not directly related to penalty points, is the length of time it takes to get a driving test, 60 weeks in some parts of the country. There must be something we can do about this. One can continue to drive without a test; one member of my family drove for some years on a provisional licence having failed a test, although she has since passed her test.
The conclusion I am driven towards is that if we really want to change road traffic behaviour, we must be prepared to put resources into enforcement. Penalty points are part of the solution, but only if the system is properly enforced. Where road traffic behaviour is concerned, all the evidence points to the fact that there is no free enforcement. If we want these laws to be effective we must pay the price for enforcing them properly. Legislation of this kind carries an inevitable price tag. There is very little we can do with the stroke of a pen to change that.
However, the good news about the price that has to be paid is that it is a very good investment. I have astounding figures from the study carried out by the economist Peter Bacon in 1999. He calculated that money invested in road safety had a pay-off ratio of 8.3:1. For every euro we invest in road safety, the community benefits to the extent of €8.30. Anybody in business would jump at the opportunity to invest €1 to get €8.30 back. It makes business sense to spend money on enforcing the penalty points system.
Enforcing road safety properly is not a matter of adding to our public spending. It is a matter of reducing public spending by an amount that is far from insignificant. We are therefore presented with an offer that, as a community, we simply cannot refuse. It is a mafia offer if ever there was one, as we are making an offer that cannot be refused — invest €1 in road safety and get €8.30 back. On the one hand we can save money, while at the same time saving lives, preventing injuries, and reducing the utterly pointless and unnecessary human misery that is represented by the toll on our roads. Would any person, community or Government refuse an offer like that?
The Minister's heart is in the right place and it is interesting to see the work that is being done. When I talk to the National Safety Council it has concerns about the traffic corps and other issues mentioned today. However, I return to the point I made earlier, that 250 people will set off on a journey between now and the end of the year but they will not make it back to their families. That makes the investment worthwhile. For every €1 we invest, we get €8.30. Let us ensure we do not turn down that offer. The Minister's heart is in the right place but we must ensure we strengthen his backbone and resolve in enforcing this.
I join with others in welcoming the Minister and I am happy to speak on this issue, particularly with the increase in road tragedies.
The aim of the Government has been to reduce road deaths rather than taking the line that mortalities on our public roads are an inevitable feature of increased mobility in the country. The challenge of reducing the number of road deaths, despite an increase in the volume of traffic, has been met with determination and commitment from the Minister. Although targets are ambitious, road accidents and deaths must be decreased. I am pleased the penalty points system has impacted significantly in this regard.
Figures released by the Department show that more than 130,000 drivers have penalty points while almost 1,000 have accumulated six or more. There are now 20 drivers with ten penalty points on their record, just two short of disqualification. Road accident statistics indicate that in the 17 months since penalty points have been introduced there have been 479 road deaths, compared to 582 for the previous 17 month period. This demonstrates a significant reduction.
The counties which accounted for the largest proportion of road fatalities from the years 1995 to 2000 were Dublin and Cork which, when combined, accounted for 466 road deaths out of a total of 1,758 during the period. Rough calculations indicate this is 26% of the total. However, when we examine the proportion of penalty points designated to these two counties, it is clear the cities are over-represented. Some 44,093 drivers from Dublin and Cork have been given penalty points out of 117,387. This is approximately 37%, which means these counties account for 37% of penalty points but only 26% of the fatalities. That is a disparity of 11%. It is incredible that a county, such as County Donegal, which accounts for almost 6% of road fatalities accounts for less than 2% of the penalty points. This needs to be explained and addressed.
It appears that the Garda concentrates its efforts in urban areas where large volumes of traffic exist and drivers are being stopped on predominantly safe stretches of road where the speed limits are quite low. I am concerned that drivers are being stopped as the speed limit does not make sense and needs to be changed. I understand the Minister is actively engaging with the local authorities in addressing the speed limits around the country and I would encourage this initiative wholeheartedly so that the penalty points system maintains its credibility. We all agree that the penalty points system will work only if the nationwide speed limits are logical and reasonable. As it currently stands, three out of every four motorists hit by penalty points are being apprehended in low speed 30 to 40 mph zones. Although this speed is the largest contributory factor to road deaths in Ireland, it seems madness that speed limits are 40 mph on dual carriageways and 60 mph outside schools.
Figures released to the Joint Committee on Transport show that 41% of detections were within a 30 mph area, 20% were in a 60 mph area, 4% were in a 50 mph area and 1% within a 70 mph area. Not surprisingly, this has prompted claims that the Garda was not targeting the high accident, high speed roads where many fatal crashes were occurring. Most accidents occur on dangerous back roads where there are higher speed limits, yet 34% of detections are being made in 40 mph zones. I call on the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, to re-evaluate the speed limits as a matter of priority. I mentioned this in the earlier debate when the penalty points system was being introduced. While I am aware he has instructed the local authorities to address this matter, they will require direction from the Department.
The Galway ring road, a road with which we are all familiar, has a 30 mph zone. One could land a Concorde on it. The Lucan bypass is a 50 mph zone and has a camera on it. One could land a smaller aircraft on that route. The N4 approach to Carrick-on-Shannon is a wide two-lane road. Three miles from the main roundabout, as one approaches the town, there is a 40 mph zone. I declare an interest and apologise as I have four penalty points, which I deserve. On one occasion on the Carrick-on-Shannon bypass, a garda approached me at 1 a.m. as I returned from a busy week here, and handed me two penalty points as if they were two tickets to the All-Ireland final. I admit I broke the law but speed limits on such roads need to be examined.
Rather than just encouraging and directing local authorities to have another look at the speed limits, we should closely examine the system.
The enforcement of penalty points is one of the most important tasks the Garda Síochána has to perform. In terms of its effects on Irish people and the benefits to society, few Garda activities have as great an impact on Irish life as penalty points enforcement. The Garda deserves our full support in carrying out this task and if additional resources are required they should be provided.
The Irish motorist has fully accepted the penalty points system. Therefore, it was disheartening to learn the statistics indicate that thousands of motorists caught breaking the rules of the road in Ireland have escaped getting penalty points because they do not hold an Irish driver's licence. As Senator Wilson and others have said, reports indicate that 18,009 of the 128,966 drivers who have received points during the past 18 months hold a driving licence issued outside of the State. The Garda is unable to attach penalty points on these licences. Although fines can be issued, many are never paid as Senator Wilson pointed out. I appeal to the Minister to take the necessary steps to develop a scheme which will put an end to this disregard for the laws of our country.
The Government has always been fully committed to increasing road safety. I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Brennan, is heading a campaign to intensify a number of additional safety initiatives. These will include penalties for careless driving, dangerous overtaking and the use of hand-held mobile phones, all of which are worthwhile. Reform of the provisional licence system and measures to address the unacceptably high level of motor cycle deaths and injuries are also to be tackled. This proactive approach is manifested in the Minister's pledge to publish a new three-year road safety strategy that will set out specific targets for reducing road deaths.
I avail of this opportunity to congratulate the Minister and his ongoing excellent work in this area. I appeal to him to be cognisant of the good proposals that have been made by both sides today. Given that Ireland holds the EU President, perhaps this is an opportunity to look at an EU-wide scheme whereby an Irish person who breaks the law in the UK will get penalty points and vice versa in the other countries.
I welcome the Minister and compliment him on remaining for the duration of the debate on this important issue. Like Senator MacSharry I have to hold my hands up as I too have four penalty points. However, I do not drive a Concorde, rather a Renault.
Everyone who has contributed has expressed the view that the penalty points system has been largely successful. When the system was introduced there was a noticeable change in attitudes among drivers. Drivers slowed down and changed their patterns of driving. In the intervening months there has been a change because there is not the necessary level of enforcement. In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to the reduction in the number of fatalities on our roads. That is misleading in the sense that in the past three months there has been a considerable increase in fatalities. There has been a 25% increase in the first three months of the year as compared to the first three months of last year. That is disheartening.
Like Senator MacSharry I express reservations at the frequent use of resources by the Garda on straight stretches of road throughout the country while accident black spots are not manned as frequently as they should be. That is a matter that needs to be addressed. Last week the Joint Committee on Transport was informed that the Garda needs to meet quotas in this area. More emphasis should be put on black spots rather than on easy targets and safer stretches of roads.
A problem that has arisen in my area relates to the speed limit system.
There are currently 30 mph and 40 mph limits miles outside villages on national primary and other routes. In the review of the speed limits I urge the Minister and the Department to consider bringing the speed limits around villages and towns closer to those used in urban areas. At present perfectly safe stretches of road well away from villages and towns are subject to low speed limits and that is a matter that could be improved.
On a number of occasions the Government has promised the introduction of a Garda traffic corps but it has not happened yet. There seems to be a conflict between the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in this area. I urge that this be rectified as soon as possible. There is certainly a need for a dedicated traffic corps. Notification of penalty points incurred is not sent to the motorist for quite a period of time after the offence has occurred and that process should be expedited as a matter of priority.
The driving test system is a pet interest of mine. Senator Quinn and others have outlined the delays which exist in the system. The Minister is aware of the long delays for appointments, running to over a year in many parts of the country. This is unsatisfactory. It would not take a great deal of resources or manpower to significantly reduce the waiting lists for driving tests.
My opinion of driving instructors is based on personal experience. I passed my driving test four years ago. I took lessons from a person in Kilkenny who should not even be allowed drive in a field, never mind instructing people. I changed to a different instructor and passed the test. There needs to be a crackdown on people calling themselves driving instructors. That may not be the correct word to use but I suggest a register be established for those who call themselves driving instructors. It is my understanding that under the present system, a driving instructor does not need to have a full licence in order to be an instructor but I am not sure if that information is correct. If that is the case, it is not satisfactory. The Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, promised last June that a register of instructors would be set up in the near future but that has not yet happened. It has been mentioned by the Minister in his speech and I hope it will happen as soon as possible. The same standards of driving instruction should apply throughout the country.
The driving test has not been reformed for over 20 years and it is safe to say that many aspects of the test are not now as relevant as they were 20 years ago. Many aspects of driving are not tested and should be. It is beyond belief that the most dangerous manoeuvre in driving, overtaking, is not tested. The present driving test still includes the procedure for reversing around a junction which I understand may be an illegal manoeuvre. That should be rectified.
In a previous debate on motor issues and motor safety, Senator O'Toole spoke of the provision of facilities for people to learn to drive. It is easy for me to speak about learning to drive in south Kilkenny which has miles of open road. It is possible to drive many miles with low levels of traffic. I wonder where anyone living in an urban area such as the middle of Dublin learns to drive.
Local authorities have land banks which are held for different purposes such as housing. It would be a good idea if local authorities were encouraged in some way to make land available for the purpose of learner drivers getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time. The public road is not necessarily a safe place for learner drivers. The driving test does not test driving on motorways and dual carriageways in most parts of the country and that is an aspect that should be covered in any reform of the driving test system.
I fully endorse the remarks of Senator MacSharry and others who expressed the view that there should be North-South co-operation on the issue of penalty points. Anyone with a driving licence from the Republic who is caught breaking the speed limit in Northern Ireland should incur penalty points in the Republic and the reverse should also apply. I endorse also the views of Senator Bradford who spoke about road signage. Many roads throughout the country, particularly back roads, are badly signed. Many junctions have no markings to indicate the right of way. I ask the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to examine this matter.
In Australia at times of the year which are regarded as dangerous for driving, such as bank holiday weekends, the penalty points are increased and points are doubled for certain offences. I suggest the Department of Transport examine this when improving and upgrading the existing system.
I congratulate the Minister for Transport. This has been a very interesting debate on a particularly important subject. Since I came into this House there have been a number of calls for a debate on this matter. Despite the recent upsurge in road deaths, I congratulate the Minister and his Department on the marked improvement in road safety in general throughout the country. They have managed to change a culture. Since the introduction of the first national road safety strategy in 1997-98, there has been a change. Death and carnage on the roads was costing the country a significant amount of money and, more important, was taking a toll on families and individuals. Injuries and deaths were a common occurrence. Every morning there was news of at least two or three accidents and something needed to be done. The initiative was taken by the previous Administration in putting together the road safety strategy in 1997-98. The downward trend in the numbers of deaths and injuries over the past number of years is proof that a co-ordinated, strategic and properly funded approach to the education of road users, the design of roads and traffic-calming measures, strong enforcement of legislation and ongoing monitoring and research can make travel of all kinds safe for all road users. We are all road users, whether we have a car or not. We use the footpaths and roadways. It is in everybody's interest that measures are taken to prevent accidents.
This Government and the previous one led the way in the introduction of a dedicated Department of Transport. It was also the first to set up a committee on social inclusion.
Senator Quinn also mentioned the introduction of the smoking ban and the plastic bag levy. The Government has targeted areas which most affect people.
Getting public attention and raising awareness are essential in changing attitudes. As we have seen in the campaigns on drink driving, seat belt use and other issues, a well thought out advertising and education campaign, supported by good legislation and strong enforcement, alters the population's attitude and outlook.
Ultimately, as in many other areas of life, particularly as regards alcohol consumption and drug use, the questions of the speed at which one drives, whether one drinks and drives, the route one takes and one's destination, are a matter of choice and people must take personal responsibility for their actions. This message has got through over the years. An illustration of this cultural change has been the use of seat belts. For many years, taxi drivers, bus drivers and others in similar occupations, would not consider using a seat belt. The introduction of rules making it mandatory to wear a seat belt has worked, despite widespread objections by those who argued it could not work and would require too much monitoring.
Despite recent figures, the clear trend on our roads is one of a steady decline in the numbers of collisions and injuries. According to independent opinion, fatalities and serious injuries fell significantly in 1998, 1999 and 2002 following the introduction of new road traffic measures. The level of fatalities in 2003 was the lowest since 1964. These decreases coincided with a quadrupling of the number of drivers and vehicles.
When the economy started to recover, we had a noticeable upsurge in the number of people driving cars. In the past, on visits to areas such as Cabra and Glasnevin in my constituency, I used to see one car parked outside each house. Nowadays, I often see two, three or four cars parked in driveways. Given such an upsurge in road use, it is only logical that the number of accidents will increase. Recent measures take this trend into account and the strategy planned for 2004 to 2006 goes further in underpinning them.
We must maintain the progress made thus far. I congratulate the Government on the investment made in improving the roads system. This year, an additional €34 million is being invested in our non-national roads. When driving around the country, as most of us do in the course of our work, one cannot escape the noticeable improvement in the road network. Clearly, much work remains to be done on secondary, country roads but significant strides have been made. The Department of Transport, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities, has made significant progress and should be congratulated.
The Department's research has shown that traffic calming and other engineering solutions to address known black spots on roads contributes to making them safer. As the Minister pointed out, specific improvements have been made at more than 400 locations on national roads. As a result, the number of accident black spot signs is decreasing.
The strategy for the next three years will tackle areas, such as speeding and the use of seat belts, that are influenced by personal choice and responsibility. It will be successful if effective advertising and education programmes are introduced. During a previous debate, I called on the Department to consider liaising with the Department of Education and Science to provide lessons on road use for schoolchildren as part of the curriculum. In the United States, many young teenagers in college are given lessons on the rules of the road, road use and showing consideration for other drivers. Years ago, local primary school classes were brought out to a traffic school in Clontarf, which I believe is still in operation, which had a miniature road system and given an introduction to the rules of the road from the point of view of drivers and pedestrians. This was an excellent exercise and I urge the Minister to consider ways to use such programmes in future.
Ireland's record on road safety is above the European Union average. The Minister has undertaken to introduce further measures in the next phase of the strategy with the aim of bringing us close to matching the results of the best performing countries.
I welcome the fact that random preliminary breath testing for drink driving is being considered. On a previous occasion, I raised the issue of statistics on driving under the influence of drugs with the Minister. While one of the medical bureaux is undertaking a study, we do not have any hard and fast statistics on the number of accidents in which drugs are a factor. Given the upsurge in the use of drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, it is essential that research is undertaken in this area. I urge the Department to take steps to limit the incidence of offences in this category and to educate people, particularly young people, on the dangers of taking drugs or alcohol before taking charge of a car.
Speed limits and cameras have proven successful in other jurisdictions. Resourcing of the Garda Síochána and licensing and testing are being considered in the forthcoming strategy. The penalty points system is at a very early stage and will require several more years to settle. Enforcement is an issue, but as with all other laws, it will take time, perhaps years, to have effect. We all want drivers to stay within the speed limits and abide by the rules of the road but a cultural change is required. The Minister is, to use a pun, on the right road and I wish him every success.
Senator Brady made an interesting point on following the example of the United States where schools use the curriculum to give people an appreciation of, to use the Minister's words, the privilege of driving, but also the responsibilities, risks and dangers it entails. Extending the areas covered by civics and placing greater emphasis on the subject in the school curriculum could equip students to move into society on leaving school in a manner beneficial to them and society in general. It is interesting in that regard that the Minister for Education and Science is engaged in a debate on the educational system. I hope it will produce some innovative ideas to address some of the issues we have raised.
I agree with the Senators who commended the Minister on the introduction of the penalty points system. At the time of its introduction it was like the smoking ban and many reasons were given to defer it. However, it has turned out to be quite successful. Anybody driving around the country will have detected a noticeable improvement in driver behaviour, especially in complying with the speed limits. That is to be welcomed. However, this speed reduction has resulted in an increase in average driving times. The road network is like an artery through which the lifeblood of the economy flows. Vehicles travelling at 40 miles per hour and hogging the centre of the road are making it difficult for others to pass. This is a hidden cost to the economy. While the speed limit on national primary routes may be 60 miles per hour, transport costs are increased because of the poor infrastructure that exists. This is particularly the case in my own area in the south-east and the matter needs to be addressed.
We have seen a considerable investment made in roads such as the N11 from the Glen of the Downs to Kilmacanogue. Yet there is a 50 mph zone followed by a 40 mph zone on this road. The NRA feels that part of the road is not up to the standard for a dual carriageway. If the investment is being made in the road network to sustain transport for decades to come, why is it done on such a short sighted basis? Millions are spent on improving roads because of the cost benefit analysis yet traffic is then curtailed to 40 mph. This makes no sense. On roads such as the one I mentioned, which have two or sometimes three lane carriageways, the speed limit is ignored. This brings speed limits in general into disrepute. A much more commonsensical approach needs to be taken and I have questioned the NRA on this before.
Traffic bottlenecks in Gorey and New Ross can cause delays of up to 45 minutes at peak traffic times. People who work on busy schedules have to make up the time lost in these bottlenecks. That discourages compliance and has an adverse effect on driver behaviour. A more co-ordinated approach to this must be adopted.
Enforcement is a factor in encouraging people to comply with the laws. I recently travelled from Dublin to Galway and onto Ennis, which is a journey of approximately 160 miles. There was only one speed check, which was on the outskirts of Dublin on a three lane carriageway with a 40 mph speed limit. Why are the gardaí working in areas like this and not on the open road? There could be merit in having local authorities involved in speed detection. There are four electoral areas in my county. If there was one traffic warden devoted full time to speed detection in each area, that would make four, and this could apply countrywide. The Garda Commissioner recently mentioned that 500 gardaí were working in that area. Such an initiative would release gardaí to police other areas such as anti-social behaviour and serious crime. It would give a more focused approach to the operation of the gardaí.
I agree with the Senators who sounded a note of caution on extending the menu of offences into the broad range that was initially indicated. That may detract from the focus on speed and seat belts, which are the main causes of accidents and serious injury.
I thank the Senators for their contributions to the debate. The Seanad has shown a great understanding of this area with many different views. Road safety is a very high priority for this Government. Achieving a world-class performance in road safety requires a range of effective policies to ensure a safe interaction between the roads, vehicles, drivers and other road users. This Government is successfully addressing all of these issues.
Ultimately, of course, road safety is about the behaviour of road users, as Senator Brady stated. We have made substantial progress. Road deaths in the three years prior to the strategy from 1995-97 totalled 1,362 which was 112 higher than the previous three year period. In the absence of concerted action by Government, it was estimated that road deaths would grow to 550 per year by 2002. In fact, as a result of the Government's road safety strategy, road deaths fell to 339 in 2003 and over the most recent three years the total was 1,128. One death is one too many. However, this improvement has been achieved in a period when the number of vehicles, drivers and journeys is increasing rapidly.
Senator Browne spoke about the funding of road safety. Over the lifetime of the first strategy, the Government has overseen significant investment in Garda enforcement assets. It has provided the financial support necessary for the production and presentation of some of the most effective public awareness campaigns ever mounted on road safety, many of which have received international recognition for their quality and focus. It has provided for major investment in programmes to address road collision black spots and to deploy traffic calming measures. Exchequer funding in 2004 for road safety agencies under the aegis of the Department of Transport amounts to a total of €22,488,000.
Other funding is obtained from the insurance industry, local authorities and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Browne raised driving test waiting times. The Government is concerned at the increase in waiting times for driving tests which has resulted from the unprecedented volume of 234,000 applications received in 2003. This compares to 146,000 applications for a test in 1998. The increased demand for tests has arisen from the commitment to take steps to reduce long-term reliance on provisional licences. Currently there are 120,000 candidates awaiting a driving test. Since 1998 the testing corps of the Department of Transport has been increased from 66 to 118 to deal with the additional workload and had achieved an average waiting time of ten weeks by 2002. To deal with the increased demand in 2003, a bonus scheme was put in place to generate additional capacity. In addition, a number of retired testers have been engaged and are delivering tests for the Department. Testers continue to work overtime.
Senator Bradford raised the issue of the rigid application of speed limit legislation. The Garda is obviously responsible for this and we all agree it is doing a reasonably good job. We would not support the idea of not awarding penalty points for certain speed limit offences. Senators should note that under the new speed limit proposals, the limit applying to non-national roads will be reduced to 50 mph from the current limit of 60 mph.
On Senator Walsh's point on speed limits, I reiterate what the Minister stated, namely, that we seek to assure the travelling public that the speed limits applied at specific locations are reasonable and fair and reflect the road safety needs and capacity of the roads in question. The Minister has already raised this issue with county and city managers.
The Government Strategy on Road Safety, 1998-2002, recognised that the influence of drugs on driving behaviour is an issue of increasing concern. Identification of the presence of drugs is, however, more complex than it is for alcohol. Consequently, considerably more work is needed to develop a more detailed regulatory regime regarding drugs and driving. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of one's vehicle. Section 49 of the Road Traffic Act 1961, as inserted by section 10 of the Road Traffic Act 1994, prohibits the driving of a mechanically propelled vehicle by a person while under the influence of an intoxicant — an intoxicant includes alcohol and drugs and any combination of drugs and alcohol.
Enforcement of the law on drug driving is a matter for the Garda. When a member of the Garda suspects that a motorist is driving under the influence of any intoxicant, that garda may arrest the suspect under section 49 of the Road Traffic Act. Unlike alcohol, there is no legal limit for drugs.
The Medical Bureau of Road Safety's principal function has been to carry out analyses for their alcohol content and-or the presence of drugs of specimens of blood and urine provided for the Garda by those suspected of driving while intoxicated. The bureau issues certificates in respect of the results of these analyses, which may be used as evidence in prosecutions for such offences.
Since 1 January 2002 all samples found under the legal limit for alcohol are automatically being tested by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety for the presence of a drug or drugs, as well as cases where the Garda requests that a test for drugs take place. A total of 388 specimens were tested in 2002, of which 30% were confirmed as testing positive for drugs.
Senator Brady referred to the issue of road safety and research. Additional funding was provided to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in 2000 and 2001 for a two-year research programme of drug analysis of blood and urine samples. The complete confirmatory results of the survey will identify trends in the types of drugs being taken, their combination with alcohol and the incidence of poly-drug use. The analysis of specimens continued in 2002 and the report is scheduled for publication shortly.
On roadside testing, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety is aware that both urine and saliva screening devices have been developed for road traffic drug testing. Urine, however, is not considered to be suitable for roadside drug testing. Saliva testing devices are in prototype stages. None has been purchased for roadside use by the police force. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety is keeping abreast of developments in this area and the specimen of choice appears to be saliva. The Road Traffic Acts do not at present permit the taking of a saliva or oral fluid specimen for such analysis. However, this will be considered as the matter evolves.