Thursday, 9 December 2004
Road Traffic Bill 2004: Second Stage.
This Bill represents a further significant step in the development of a code of road traffic law that underpins and promotes road safety. The Bill was initially published on 11 June 2004 with the immediate focus of supporting the introduction of a new system of speed limits based on metric values. In the interim period the Comptroller and Auditor General published a report relating to the operation of the fixed charge and penalty points systems. This report, which was discussed before the Committee of Public Accounts, highlighted a number of issues relating to the operation of these systems. My Department is also aware of issues raised with regard to prosecutions for speeding offences detected by gardaí using hand-held speed detection guns. Following the advice of the Attorney General, the Bill includes a range of provisions to address those issues. The Bill also contains an important provision regarding vehicle insurance, which has also been added to the scope of the original Bill.
In many instances sections of the Bill provide for relatively minor, though necessary, amendments to provisions in existing enactments. For the purpose of today's debate, I will focus on the main provisions. Part 1 contains the standard title, citation provisions and outlines definitions for key phrases and words that appear in the text. Part 2 provides for the introduction of a new system of speed limits based on metric values. The current system has its legislative base in the Road Traffic Act 1961 and was last reviewed in 1992 and 1994. Senators will appreciate our road network has seen major investment and improvement over the intervening years and this has been a significant contributing factor in our improved road safety performance.
It is important to ensure that speed limit structures are consistent with the road network, that they retain their central focus on safety and, in particular, that the system is relevant having regard to modern traffic and road conditions. In addition, there are grounds for suggesting a need for greater flexibility in policy regarding the manner in which speed limits are applied. These requirements prompted the decision to carry out a comprehensive review of current speed limit structures and policy last year. That review, allied to the determination to adopt metric as opposed to imperial speed limits, provides the background to the proposals in this part of the Bill.
The House will be aware that the target date for the introduction of the metric system for speed limits is 20 January 2005 and that determination is the main reason this Bill has a relatively tight focus. Section 4 empowers the Minister for Transport to determine the maximum speed limits that should be applied to vehicle classes through the making of regulations. Ordinary speed limits are currently applied in respect of a very small group of vehicles, in particular to buses and heavy goods vehicles. This provision remains essentially unaltered from that which has applied since 1961.
The Bill provides four default speed limits. Section 5 provides that the speed limit in built-up areas will be 50 km/h. This replaces the present 30 mph built-up area speed limit. Section 6 introduces a new speed limit of 80 km/h to apply to all regional and local roads outside of built-up areas. This is essentially equal to 50 mph and replaces the present general speed limit of 60 mph on these roads. A new speed limit of 100 km/h, which will apply to all national roads outside of built-up areas, is provided for in section 7. This speed limit will replace the present general speed limit of 60 mph on national roads outside urban areas. Section 8 establishes the speed limit for motorways will be 120 km/h, which replaces the current motorway speed limit of 70 mph.
The majority of the regional and local road network is of a lower infrastructural standard than that of national roads in terms of design, road engineering and maintenance. A default maximum speed limit of 80 km/h is considered the best road safety match for the majority of these routes. This new limit will result in a reduction of approximately 16 km/h, or just over 10 mph, in the speed limit applying in respect of over 90% of the rural road network. Local authorities will be in a position to apply the higher speed limit of 100 km/h on specified stretches of regional and local road where they deem such action to be appropriate.
The speed limits provided for under sections 5 to 8 will apply automatically to the roads in question, save where it is determined that there is a requirement for them to be replaced. The replacement of a default speed limit will continue to be facilitated by the making of special speed limit by-laws by county and city councils. This will be provided for in section 9.
The concept that decisions regarding the application of special speed limits should be taken by the major local authorities was introduced in the Road Traffic Act 1994. Such decisions are reserved to elected members. This devolution of power from the Minister to members of local authorities has served us well. Road users should be confident that each speed limit is applied in a reasonable manner and that in each case it reflects road safety considerations and the capacity of the road in question. For that reason section 9 incorporates a number of changes to the process relating to the making of special speed limit by-laws. For that reason section 9 incorporates a number of changes to the process relating to the making of special speed limit by-laws. Subsection (4) introduces a new public consultation process through which members of the public can submit objections to a council's proposals. The prior consent of the National Roads Authority to all proposals relating to national roads will continue to be required and the current arrangements relating to consultation with the gardaí and urban local authorities will also remain in place.
The section also provides that the Minister for Transport can issue guidelines to local authorities to which they must have regard in making their by-laws. This takes cognisance of the onerous task involved in the determination of the application of special speed limits and will ensure that the greatest possible level of support will be given to local authorities.
The range of speed limits that may be deployed as special speed limits include the values of 120, 100, 80, 60 and 50 km/h and local authorities can apply special speed limits of 30 km/h and 60 km/h. The availability of the use of the 30 km/h speed limit will allow councils to impose a legal requirement on traffic to adopt very low speeds at locations sensitive from a road safety perspective. For that reason, the use of that speed limit must be in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Minister. International experience has shown that the deployment of such low speed limits is only effective when accompanied by appropriate traffic calming measures. The House will note that the application of the motorway speed limit of 120 km/h on dual carriageways on national roads can only be pursued in accordance with the guidelines.
Another new initiative in this section will allow local authorities to make provision in by-laws to apply different speed limits on separate carriageways of a road and to apply special lower speed limits for specified periods of the day, for example in the vicinity of schools during the times children are entering and leaving school.
Section 10 introduces a new concept that provides that in the event of road works, a city or county manager may make an order determining that a speed limit other than that which normally applies at the road works site should be put in place for the duration of the work, up to a maximum period of one year. It is hoped we will not have too many of those. Section 11 provides for the substitution of section 47 of the Road Traffic Act 1961 which establishes that it is an offence to breach a speed limit.
Section 12 provides legislative support for the transition period that will apply in advance of the metrication date. The changeover to the metric system will entail the provision of over 58,000 metric speed limit signs to serve the 96,000 km of public road network. The 34 city and county councils will commence the changeover of signs at least three days prior to 20 January 2005 with the objective of having in place all metric signs to support the official changeover to metric values at midnight on 19 January. Each new sign will display the value of the maximum speed limit in figures together with the unit km/h to signal that metric units of measurement apply.
Special information signs notifying road users that speed limits are in km/h will also be provided. The initial focus for the deployment of these signs will be on cross-Border roads and on exit roads from ferry ports and airports. An intensive multi-media public information and awareness campaign will kick off in early January 2005 to herald the new speed limits system. A dedicated website will also be available.
Section 15 responds to an issue raised in recent court cases by providing clarity on the evidence from the operation of all forms of equipment used by the gardaí in the enforcement of speed limits. Part 3 introduces a number of adjustments to the administration of the fixed charge and penalty points systems introduced under the Road Traffic Act 2002.
Section 18, which introduces a number of changes to the fixed charge system, incorporates a provision through which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform can engage third parties in functions relating to that system. The functions that can be outsourced are of an administrative nature and have no direct relationship with the detection work of the gardaí and traffic wardens. Other amendments include recognition of the fact that the return of the actual fixed charge notice on payment of a fixed charge will only be required where specified. In practice, this will mean that it will apply in the case of a penalty point offence only and the introduction of an express statement to the effect that the payment of a fixed charge shall not be accepted after the expiration of 56 days.
As the House will recall, between the time of the publication of this Bill and the Second Stage debate, a report published by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the operation of the fixed charge system by the Garda was the subject of consideration by the Committee of Public Accounts. That report raised a number of issues that needed to be addressed as quickly as possible to confirm the deterrent effect of both the fixed charge and penalty points systems. One of the issues on which that report focused was that of corporate registered owners of vehicles.
The Road Traffic Act 2002, which introduced fixed charge and penalty points systems, establishes requirements with which a registered owner must comply. For example, a registered owner is required to furnish the name of the person driving the vehicle at the time of the commission of the alleged offence. However, having regard to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, new provisions needed to be introduced to provide for a greater degree of responsibility for registered owners, especially where the corporate ownership of the vehicle is concerned. Sections 19 and 20 respond to the potential that may exist for corporate owners of vehicles to escape their responsibilities. The House will agree that such potential threats, where identified, should be addressed on the basis that every attempt must be made to heighten the deterrent effect of the fixed charge and the associated penalty points system.
Section 21 provides for a restatement of the requirements on defendants in court proceedings relating to the majority of traffic offences to present their licences to the court. Section 22 provides for a number of amendments to the operation of the penalty points system. Of key significance is the addition of the offence of driving without reasonable consideration to the schedule of offences. This offence will attract four penalty points on conviction in court and two penalty points on payment of a fixed charge.
Part 4 presents a range of miscellaneous amendments and initiatives across a number of areas. Section 26 amends section 35 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 which relates to the control and regulation of traffic and parking. The purpose of the amendment is to allow for the issue of permits for a range of functions and for the imposition of charges for such permits. A power of inspection in respect of such permits is also being provided for the Garda and, where appropriate, for traffic wardens.
Section 27 provides a response to concerns expressed by representatives of the emergency services on the need for greater clarity as to the circumstances where emergency vehicles can be exempted from requirements, restrictions and prohibitions imposed under the Road Traffic Acts. However, it must be understood that the application of any exemption is subject to the overriding prerequisite that road users must not be endangered.
Section 30 introduces a new offence relating to the supply of mechanically propelled vehicles to minors. The new offence will apply to the supply of all mechanically propelled vehicles to persons aged under 16 generally. However, persons aged 16 but under 17 years are legally entitled to hold a licence to drive certain vehicles and this is reflected in the section.
Section 33 has been introduced to provide for a new power to enable gardaí to demand production of driving licence or provisional licence subsequent to the commission of a road traffic offence. This issue was also raised in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. The amendment is necessary to ensure the efficient operation of the penalty points system.
The primary provision of Part 5 is section 34 relating to the law on motor insurance. This is a sensitive issue. I cannot emphasise enough that this change is not for the ease of the insurance companies. Its only purpose is to protect all road users by ensuring that motorists can continue to have access to sufficient insurance cover in a changing insurance market internationally. The reason for the amendment is quite simple — a substantial risk exists that in the near future insurance companies will not be in a position to provide cover for motorists as required by law. Under Irish motor insurance law, motorists must have cover for unlimited liability for personal injuries to third parties. Up to now, the industry has been in a position to provide such cover by re-insuring the risk with specialist re-insurance companies. Reflecting re-insurance market conditions, Irish insurers now expect their re-insurers to refuse to cover them for unlimited liability motor cover in the future. The industry holds that if companies are refused re-insurance cover they will not be in a position to provide unlimited cover to motorists. The amendment to insurance law, proposed in section 34, will enable the Minister to replace the requirement for unlimited cover with a specified level of cover for motorists to obtain insurance and continue to use their vehicles. The amendment will not change the existing arrangements but will enable a change to be made in the future, if necessary. Any proposal to change the unlimited cover requirement and the specific limit would be subject to the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The provisions in section 34 specify the maximum fine for the offence for not having insurance and, consequently, section 35 provides for the deletion of the reference, as specified, in the Road Traffic Act 2002.
The key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. The primary focus of our strategic approach to road safety is to influence positively the behaviour of road users. This can be attained through initiatives, such as the enactment and enforcement of laws that promote good road user behaviour. This focused Bill contributes to the overall approach to road safety policy. It provides for changes to traffic laws that will have a direct impact on road safety and support for their enforcement.
Senators will appreciate the particular time considerations associated with the passage of the Bill and for that reason its scope is limited. In particular, it does not address random breath testing, a recommendation of the new road safety strategy. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, indicated this is an issue of ongoing deliberation between the Department and the Attorney General. While that deliberation is at an advanced stage, it would not have been appropriate to address that sensitive and important issue in the Bill. The new provisions in the Bill will add further value to the Government's pursuit of its overall strategic approach to road safety. I look forward to the co-operation and contribution of Members in facilitating the passage of the Bill. I commend it to the House
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, to the House. While I welcome the Bill, I will be opposing some sections, particularly those on insurance liability as the issue has not been properly addressed.
The Bill is an attempt by the Government to tie together myriad objectives, such as standardising speeding limits and converting them to the metric system, giving comprehensive powers to the local authorities, particularly in setting speed limits, and granting parking permits. The Bill also includes the outsourcing of penalty points and their notification to drivers, the sale of vehicles to minors, disqualification of public service drivers and exemptions for emergency drivers. This long list of objectives is well overdue, particularly the sale of vehicles to minors. Action to improve speed limits was long overdue for motorists who have been disadvantaged by the illogical state of national speed limits.
I welcome any attempt to improve the abysmal system of speed limits. This legislation converts speed limits from miles to kilometres. While we must follow our European counterparts in moving to kilometres, I am concerned that it will lead to even greater confusion. We must be conscious that Northern Ireland will not replicate our conversion to the metric system. Additional resources and vigilance will be required, especially at the entry and exit Border-crossing points. I urge the Minister of State and departmental officials to ensure the public is fully informed and aware of this changeover. I am anxious that the Minister will give sufficient funds to the National Roads Authority in this regard.
Difficulties will arise with changes to both signage and speedometers. The change in signage must be done in an efficient and motorist-friendly manner to ensure minimum disruption and maximum public information. The Minister of State alluded to an advertising campaign in the new year but I am concerned by the short lead-in time for the changeover. Today is 9 December and the changeover is expected to take place on 20 January 2005. With Christmas coming, the public will not pay sufficient attention to these significant changes which are scheduled to occur. This is not least because of the failure to introduce the legislation earlier in the year which has prevented media publicity campaigns from being undertaken.
Changes to speedometers in existing cars will cause problems. I ask the Minister of State to clarify if he has considered providing some conversion device to motorists to assist them in making the conversion in their minds. The currency converter for the euro changeover worked well for Irish consumers. Perhaps a similar system could be provided by the Department of Transport.
Speed limits are of critical importance to the promotion of road safety. Existing legislation relating to speed limits provides for the deployment of four different road speed limits, in addition to the application of speed limits to certain types of default speeds. For some time it has been perceived that the system of speed limits is not appropriate to the changed situation which now exists on the road system. Criticisms of existing speed limits centred on the imbalanced policy towards them. For example, rural and secondary roads are subject to the same general speed limits as national roads. This does not make any sense. It is unquestionable that the existing speed limit structure has not taken account of the significant upgrading and development of roads network, which have taken place nationwide over the last 20 years.
The Bill will change the speed limits and, no more than the conversion to metric, it has the potential to create confusion in the public minds. The requirement to reduce speed limits will cause more trouble than the increase in speed limits on certain roads. The need for extensive public information on these changes will again be crucial. Changes to the system will have a strong impact on the speed limits of rural roads where motorists will have to reduce their speed by more than 11 mph. Given that such roads are predominantly the site of many fatal road accidents, it is for the best they are reduced. However, it is going to mean a huge change in drivers' mindsets. I have serious concerns about the level of public awareness that these changes will come into being in less than two months.
I am also disappointed that the changes to the speed limits will do nothing to simplify what is already a complicated system. It was hoped that with metrification, a new structure of speed limits would be introduced, bringing some standardisation to the system. However, now there will be an increase in the number of default speed limits from three to four, thereby, increasing the ever confusing number and range of road signs. I support the Bill's provision giving local authorities power to set special speed limits, provided it is not abused. This must not lead to a situation where, in the space of a few kilometres, motorists are subjected to an array of rising and falling speed limits, not making any obvious sense in terms of road safety. Where higher or lower speed limits can be applied to make a significant difference in promoting road safety they must be utilised. Examples include any high-density residential area or the vicinity of a school in which there are significant numbers of pedestrians and cyclists. I state this with caution as the justified imposition of different limits in housing estates and outside schools should not mean such limits should apply on more significant routes. We cannot have an endless proliferation of speed limits. If we are to reduce speed limits, it is vital to back our initiatives with significant funding to allow local authorities to introduce them.
In this context, it is necessary to ask who will have the power to set speed limits. Will it be a reserved function or a power of the county manager?
I am pleased to hear it will be a reserve function of a council, though it will probably be a more drawn out process than the Minister of State has indicated. It has been the case that the manager exercises the function where road works were taking place.
While the Minister of State contends that the legislation seeks to implement change by setting out speed limits in built-up areas, on local and regional roads, national roads and motorways, which are the four general road categories, I fear it will have no effect. If local authorities fail to act and implement sensible speed limits, we will not move on. The guidelines the Minister intends to include in the legislation may end up gathering dust as there is no onus on the office holder to ensure momentum. As some local authorities may be slow to act, it is important to have a mechanism whereby they can be made to make haste in implementing standardised speed limits. We need action to ensure local authorities seize the initiative. If they do not, motorists will continue to disrespect our speed laws.
I call on the Minister of State to explain to the House how, apart from using the metric rather than the imperial system, he expects reasonable, rational and workable speed limits to take hold. The Bill must not be allowed to become one which reads with good intentions but fails to deliver improvements in our speed-limit system. The Minister has a duty to ensure that local authorities work with the NRA to effect changes on the ground.
Speeding by heavy goods vehicles is a significant issue and the cause of many accidents. The problem must be addressed by the relevant authorities. Surveys of speed limits undertaken from 1999 to 2003, including the most recent NRA survey conducted last year, reveal that a high percentage of goods vehicles exceed the speed limits which apply to them. It is vital that we examine measures to ensure that these vehicles abide by the speed limits we have established for them. The legislation does not appear to include any measure to force goods vehicles to keep within the law. It is a pressing concern which must be addressed. I urge the Minister to explain what he proposes to do to tackle the issue.
Inaction by the Government, especially in the key area of road safety, is resulting in an increasing number of road deaths. To date in 2004, there have been 40 more deaths than in 2003. The figure will rise further before the end of the year. The statistics indicate that the initial positive benefits of the penalty-points system have begun to wear off. It is a trend about which we should be extremely concerned. It appears our slipping record on road safety is due in no small part to the patchy implementation and enforcement of the penalty points system. There have been numerous inconsistencies in the system's implementation.
We need a road courtesy policy for which the Garda has responsibility. Section 28 provides that it will be an offence to drive with reasonable consideration. Much driving of this kind results from the frustration drivers experience when travelling behind a line of slow moving lorries or a motorist who is impeding traffic by driving at the white line and preventing people from passing. As a result people at the back of long lines of traffic may drive dangerously and overtake on continuous or double white lines. A courtesy policy should be introduced whereby gardaí can ask people who are driving slowly to pull in to the slow lane or the hard shoulder. Such a policy would help to reduce the frustration many drivers feel and reduce the number of road deaths.
Controversies on convictions obtained with the toxic meter used to measure drink driving and the recent dismissal of cases brought in respect of speeding offences observed by radar gun have undermined public confidence in the penalty points system. Many people have begun to believe they can evade road safety laws. The absence of absolute enforcement of all aspect of road safety laws is eroding the penalty points system. As motorists can see for themselves and are told by many media pundits that one can drive the length and breadth of Ireland without encountering a Garda inspection point, it is little wonder they believe they can persistently break speed limits and get away with it.
On Committee Stage, I will go through those aspects of the legislation I have not had time to discuss. An amendment was introduced on insurance in the Dáil, to which I will refer and to which I will not offer support on Committee Stage in this House. There was no consultation on the matter apart from the pressure insurance companies brought to bear on the Minister. He should have consulted with IBEC and other bodies before amending the Bill. He is reading the issue incorrectly. It is the subject of a great deal of concern. People will feel they are not properly covered when the legislation is enacted. In the current climate in which insurance companies are making vast amounts of money while awards and premiums are being reduced, the matter requires further consideration. The system the Minister intends to introduce is not in place in England.
I welcome the Minister to the House and the introduction of the Bill. Since first being elected to the Seanad and becoming transport spokesperson, the main issue that has dominated most of our debates is road safety. Through successive Ministers and Ministers of State we have had various debates and statements on all aspects of road safety and it is welcome that the culmination of that debate is the presentation of a Bill because our role here is to enact legislation relating to issues we regard as being of importance in society. There has been much discussion with people from all sides of the House who gave their views in terms of their personal experience and the experience in various constituencies throughout the country. The introduction of the legislation is therefore especially welcome at this time. The Bill is part of a package of measures and a series of transport Bills and strategy statement documents that will ultimately bring about the change in culture we all want and which we hope will result in a considerable reduction in loss of life on the roads.
The main theme of the Bill is road safety. We are all aware of the numbers of deaths on our roads. Few families have not been affected in some way by a road accident. When we consider road accidents we tend to concentrate on road deaths but it must be remembered that fewer people are being injured on our roads. We tend to concentrate on the number of deaths but the reduction in the number of people seriously injured or maimed for life is very welcome. That is an area on which we must concentrate. It is also important to ensure that with a reduction of accidents on our roads there is a corresponding reduction on the burden on accident and emergency units in our hospitals, something with which we are all familiar and which is discussed here regularly in terms of health Bills and health issues generally.
I am aware of the progress made in recent years in tracking road deaths. Success in this area has been underpinned by the launch of the national road safety strategy which sets out clearly the Government's agenda until 2006 in terms of the type of approach it intends to take and the results that are expected. I congratulate the Minister of State and the Department officials on the progress that has been made. I acknowledge also the progress made by the Minister's predecessor.
The downward trend in fatalities continued in 2003 when the lowest number of fatalities since 1963 was recorded — approximately 336. That is particularly welcome. I realise there has been a blip this year to some extent but we must examine the question of road deaths over a wider sample period. It is not necessary to look at it on a year by year basis. It must be examined on a three to five year cycle and the road strategy document reflects that.
The successor to the initial strategy was published recently and its primary target is to realise a 25% reduction in road collision fatalities by the end of 2006. That would mean there would be no more than 300 deaths per year by the end of 2006. It is probably wrong to say "no more than 300 deaths" because any death on our roads is tragic when one considers the consequences for the family involved and the knock-on effect on our health service and insurance sector.
The Bill provides for a number of initiatives covering fixed charges and penalty point systems introduced under the Road Traffic Act 2002, focusing in particular on the out-sourcing of certain functions relating to fixed charge payments from the Garda Síochána. I welcome that because for too long we talked about the difficulties associated with the gardaí in that many of them are involved in administrative duties. That is not good in terms of their career development or the delivery of the service, which is their primary function. They must be seen to be active in society. That initiative will be welcomed both by gardaí and the wider society.
The introduction of the new Garda traffic corps and the increased Garda numbers will do much to deter people from drink driving, which is without doubt one of the primary factors in the number of road fatalities. The introduction of the Bill before Christmas — Senator Burke also raised this issue — may be lost on people among the myriad other activities taking place at this time. I hope that the passing of the Bill in the run in to Christmas may focus people's attention on a safer approach to the use of their cars and that they will not use them while under the influence of alcohol, something that becomes particularly difficult in the Christmas period. I also hope the heightened awareness associated with the regular campaigns that take place at this time of the year and the fact that the Bill, having passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas, will be enacted will focus some attention on it.
The focus of the Government's policy is on the key areas of speeding, drink driving and seat belt wearing to reduce the number of deaths but we must also consider the injuries that occur as a result of road accidents. We should concentrate on reducing the number of accidents rather than focusing on the deaths, although I realise one follows from the other but people fail to realise the enormous damage associated with injuries, the cost to the families and people involved and the cost and burden on the health service.
Through the continued high level of direct Garda enforcement it is envisaged that by the end of the period of the road strategy in 2006, at least 50% of the overall vehicle fleet will pass through a speed check each month. As the national fleet of registered vehicles numbers over 1.85 million, this will require an annual number of checks of approximately 11.1 million. That is a huge move away from the current position and it is a target the Government has set itself. It will be difficult to reach it but I have no doubt it will be reached, and it is something that will be welcome in an overall context.
I wish to raise a number of issues regarding the presence of gardaí on our roads. While the operations of the Garda fall outside the remit of the Department of Transport, it is worth mentioning them. I have long held the view that many road fatalities tend to take place late at night in rural or semi-rural areas. They tend not to be on our highways where most of the concentration of detection has taken place. We would be well served by ensuring there is a greater level of Garda activity in our villages and county towns throughout the country in the late and early hours of weekends. The issue of young people coming out from discos, getting into high-powered cars and attempting to drive home while under the influence of alcohol, and even drugs, and the element of showing off that goes on has caused many deaths on the road. That must be addressed. Policing those areas in a concentrated and focused way would have a significant impact on changing behaviour. Similarly, the presence of highly visible gardaí patrolling villages and towns late at night would act as a deterrent to those people and could be the key to stopping them attempting to drive home. Many of the young people involved could get taxis home because the number of taxis in rural Ireland is far greater than was the case when I was growing up. That is something that should be focused on. It is about changing that culture and taking those young people out of harm's way.
There is also a necessity to examine the culture of driving among young males in particular who are often referred to in the tabloids as the boy racers. The Government will have to address that problem in some way, whether by dealing with the size of engine they can be licensed to drive or the State insisting that some type of governing mechanism is placed on the engines to ensure they cannot go above a certain speed. That is a topic that needs further discussion. Sufficient emphasis cannot be placed on the issue of policing in rural areas. Policing such areas would act as a deterrent and it would be a confidence building measure for people who are intimidated by congregations of young people in villages and towns late at night when discos and bars close. Good policing would lead to good behaviour in the community and it would prevent tragic accidents on our roads. I am too familiar with this having witnessed many young people's lives being taken in road accidents in my own county, Clare; alcohol and drugs have played a role in them. Many of these accidents occur late at night on rural, unimproved roads. No matter how many speed cameras are put in place, such roads will not be policed, and, therefore, the policing of these areas needs to be examined. That will help to change behaviour and it will be a vital element in the delivery of the targets set by the Minister.
We all need to drive more carefully and slowly during the forthcoming festive period. Senator Paddy Burke referred to people's annoyance when they are stuck behind other cars. However, none of us should tailgate and we should give ourselves and the car in front more space. We must be alert to more vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, the young and the elderly. I am no angel in this regard as I rush to and from meetings and to and from Dublin and I get caught up in my own little world. I have often overtaken a car on my way to Dublin but as I arrived in Dublin the same car was there almost as soon as I was.
We must find further ways to instil in our young people at an early age the importance of responsible driving. I am not sure whether that should be a feature of the school curriculum. While pupils who leave school and attend universities may be qualified to study, they are not educated about the basics in life. When they buy cars, they have not had training in this regard in school. Conveyancing is another issue for young people.
The Irish School of Motoring in conjunction with Mondello Park race track recently launched a new initiative to teach young people to drive responsibly and to promote education on the dangers of speeding. That is the way we should go and I hope the Minster of State will open discussions with the Minister for Education and Science in this regard. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been involved in the programme to which I refer but there should be a crossover between Departments.
Under the national safety strategy 2004-06 the enforcement of the drink driving laws will result in one in four vehicles being screened on an annual basis. Senator Paddy Burke and others referred to metrification, which is an important issue, as is the North-South divide. Penalty points were introduced in this State and there is a similar system in the UK but the unification of those systems is important. There is a great deal of concern because Northern drivers have little, if any, regard for speed limits and the Garda is unable to follow up on speeding charges, which should be addressed.
Senator Burke also referred to the insurance issue. I had discussions with the representatives of the Law Society who say it has no impact on solicitors. There is concern, however, about the balance between what a driver is legally required to be insured for and their potential ultimate liability. The Department has suggested that because such a small number of cases are involved, the issue is not relevant. If so, why are insurance companies pushing the case that it could ultimately prevent them from providing cover? They take an actuarial perspective and if the insurance shortfall is of such little significance to the person who is to be insured, why are insurance companies prevented from covering the shortfall? Hopefully, the Minister of State will allay our fears in this regard and perhaps we will discuss it further on Committee Stage.
I am concerned about people who use high occupancy vehicles and buses because they might have to pass on the cost of the increased insurance to the users of their services so that if they have an accident, they are covered. They will have to provide the cover from their own reserves. I seek the Minister of State's view on this.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the changeover to metrification. I went metric 15 years ago and I am not allowed to let the old imperial measurements pass my lips. I have become much taller and lighter than I was.
However, I will concentrate on the scandal of deaths on the road. While I agree with much of Senator Dooley's contribution, I disagree with his repetition of the Department's mantra that the recent increase in the number of road deaths, which followed the decrease caused by the introduction of penalty points, is a blip. We found the way to resolve this scandal but we have lost our way since. Drivers copped on that they would not be caught because the penalty points system was not being enforced. The number of road deaths has returned to previous levels and unless it is accepted that the answer is in our hands, we will have work to do.
It is vital to cut through the waffle and get to the truth. People will change their behaviour only if they think they stand a good chance of being caught. Unless the law is enforced consistently, the way people drive will not change. All our effort should be put into enforcing the law. The penalty points experience has demonstrated that the magic bullet is people's belief that they will get caught. Nothing else matters and that is why I welcome the Bill with considerable reservations.
Urgent legislation is needed to underpin the change to the metric system, which is due to take place at the end of January but I deplore the fact that the Bill contains nothing about random breath testing or the rollout of a nationwide network of speed networks and does not make it an offence to use a mobile telephone while driving.
The Minister of State would have us believe that all of these issues are in the works, that he has had urgent consultation with the Attorney General about the legal difficulties and that they will all be included in next year's promised Bill. The scorn poured on all these assurances in the other House is due to the fact that we have heard it all before. We have been listening to promises on imminent action for approximately six years, ever since the first road safety strategy was launched with great fanfare.
We have heard the same from the Minister's predecessors. The Minister of State is new to his job so he does not have to take the blame. He can make these assurances with a straight face and, I am sure, with great sincerity. He certainly has the intention to change the system. However, he does not seem to realise that the system with which he is dealing is highly resistant to change. He does not fully appreciate the enormous frustration created by these endless delays. Meanwhile, more people get injured and more die. More accidents happen because people believe that they can get away with behaviour that is highly destructive, both to themselves and others.
The Minister of State has got into the habit of repeating the mantra that the cure for road deaths lies in people's behaviour. This is true up to a point, but it cannot be used as a way of escaping responsibility. The truth is that the Government has in its hands the only lever that will get people to change their behaviour, namely, the rigorous implementation of the law. To have that lever and not use it is not only negligent, but criminal.
As we heard from Senators Paddy Burke and Dooley, we need to police the roads where most of the accidents happen, not the motorways or dual carriageways, but the narrow country roads that are real death traps. We need to police these blackspots at the times of most risk, late at night and in particular at weekends. The irony is that such implementation as we have is focused on the wrong places at the wrong times. It is this problem we need to consider.
For years we have been promised a dedicated Garda traffic corps and there are now signs of this happening. Even if we get it, will it be properly deployed or will we hear the same old argument about overtime over and over again?
I have become convinced that the answer to our implementation problem is a proper nationwide network of speed cameras. I called for this in an article in The Irish Times of 25 September. Speed cameras could be put in the right places to work all the time. They will not look for overtime either. When we get the network of cameras, if ever, they must be seen to work. We must remember that it is not enough to simply put them in place.
After publication of my article, I was shocked to learn that almost half of the cases recorded by existing cameras never made it to court because of technical problems that made the evidence useless. This illustrates the half-hearted way we approach implementation of road traffic law. Cameras are a solution and we have it in our hands to do something about this. It will cost us but the return on investment in cameras and ensuring they work is significant. Our half-hearted approach has gone on too long and caused too many deaths.
I urge the Minister of State to break the mould and become the first in this area to focus on getting things done. I feel so strongly about this because I believe we have the answer in our hands. We can make it work and reduce deaths on the road. Numbers of deaths were down immediately after the introduction of penalty points, but as soon as the public realised the system was not being enforced the number of deaths rose again. Let us seize the opportunity now to do something.
Senator Dooley also suggested that an all-Ireland penalty point system is essential. I travel quite a lot and it is clear that cars from Northern Ireland ignore the speed limit south of the Border.
It is also evident that we ignore the limit when we cross the Border. We have all-Ireland food safety and tourism schemes, so let us ensure we have one for speed limits also. We have the power in our hands and I urge the Minister to do it.
I thank Senator Quinn for sharing his time. He takes a serious view of the matter and has published an important article on it. I have heard him speak on the issue on many occasions and agree with much of what he says. It is easy for the Minister and the Minister for State to talk as they have drivers, but I speak as an ordinary motorist.
It is just friendly banter. I am sure the Cathaoirleach will agree that in the Christmas spirit we are entitled to a little lightness. The Minister of State is right, I did get out of my car. Perhaps I was wrong. A woman behind me complained and I had to jump back into the car.
I agree with much of what Senator Quinn and others said about changing behaviour. There has been a dramatic drop in penalty points pursuit, but when accident numbers increase this is described as a blip. Senator Quinn said it is more serious and that people do not take penalty points seriously. I do not agree. It is because nobody has the slightest respect for the speed limits. Why should they? They are daft, incoherent, inconsistent and do not deserve respect.
I can give examples from the Stillorgan Road, Ballyfermot, dual-carriageways and motorways where speed limits change from 70 mph to 60 mph to 50 mph to 30 mph arbitrarily wherever and where the little policeman stands under the bridge with the gun. I do not suggest he or the Garda is making money, but they are making convictions which is important from the point of view of promotion and advancement. They are making money not for themselves but for the county councils that have instituted these unfair and unjustifiable alterations in the speed limit.
I approve the direction this Bill is taking because the Minister of State is trying to get national coherence and consistency. Well done on that. However, to be honest, the need for this Bill is because nobody in his or her right mind would have any respect for the speed limits as they exist. Currently there are legal ways around the issue of speed limits and this undermines the penalty point system.
The motorist or customer also has entitlements. The Minister should introduce a system where there is a mandatory requirement where it is intended to prosecute for notice of such intent to be served within 60 days of the offence. It is unfair to send out such notices six months after an offence. That is wrong, bad practice and further undermines and erodes respect. Ultimately, we will only get a decrease in deaths and dangerous driving if we win the respect of people when imposing penalties. I agree with the penalty system and believe it will work and concur with Senator Quinn and others that an all-Ireland system is necessary.
I now wish as a grammarian to take issue with the Minister of State with regard to the plague of prepositions creeping into the English language. His speech states: "This essentially equals to 50 mph". It does not. It "equals 50 mph" or "is equal to 50 mph". This is as bad as another example from his speech which I would like to squash, namely, "comprises of". Things "are comprised of" or "comprise". Let us drive these prepositions back into their caves where they belong. I hope they will be deleted from the Minister of State's speech in future.
To return to the 70 mph or 120 km/h speed limit, what I like about this is that it will be standard. Before Cyprus joined the European Union that was the limit there. Not all cars are marked in kilometres as well as miles. Is there something we can do about this? Is there some kind of flexible Perspex that could be placed over speedometers?
That is excellent. It is good to have something so that people with older cars can apply it so that they know what speed they are travelling in kilometres per hour.
What a diplomat we have in the Minister of State, Deputy Callely. He says that the concept that decisions relating to the application of special speed limits should be taken by the major local authorities was introduced through the Road Traffic Act 1994. He states: "Such decisions are reserved to elected members. This devolution of power from the Minister to members of local authorities has served us well." No it has not, it has been a disaster. They have not served us well. If they had, the Minister would not be changing the regulations but he is too diplomatic to say it. He does not want to get the backs of councillors up. He is right to take this attitude. However, I want to put on record that they have not served us well at all. They have made a pig's ear of the entire thing.
The Minister of State went on to say that there is a provision in the section to the effect that the Minister can issue guidelines. This is excellent but it is too vague. Is it possible for the Minister to publish these guidelines or lay them before the House? In particular, the Oireachtas should have a look at the first issue of guidelines. It would be a good thing if they could be laid before both Houses.
Included among the reasons for reduced speed limits is a school in the vicinity. I have driven in situations where there was a school on the other side of a roadway with a concrete wall which a grown-up hairy adult like myself could not get over but it was used as an excuse to vary the speed limit. I agree with the principle but speed limits have to be justifiable and real. If they are real, people will observe them.
I have tried to observe the speed limit on what used to be called the Naas Road. I have driven in the slow lane at bang on the speed limit where I have been passed out in the fast lane by a lorry and, simultaneously, by a private vehicle on the hard shoulder. They blew their horns, drove right up behind and flashed their lights as if to say, "What are you doing, driving at the speed limit?" This is because sometimes there is inconsistency and incoherence. If the Minister of State produces good guidelines that are coherent and consistent and indicates to the Oireachtas what they are, then we will improve the situation. I urge him to do it, even in the diplomatic and occasionally slightly ungrammatical terms he has laid before the House today.
I rushed to the House but Members will be pleased to hear I was not driving. I welcome the Bill. It contains many issues about which I am concerned.
One issue of concern relates to fixed penalty charges and when, where and how they are imposed and recorded. When penalty points are imposed, there is no collation of the information relating to time, location or zone. We do not know how many thousands of penalty points have been amassed in certain areas. This matter must be examined. I have not had an opportunity to check the transcript of a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport earlier this year which addressed the issue, but I am fairly sure that a Garda representative stated — I am open to correction on this — that penalty points are not imposed after 2 a.m. That is also the time of night when the majority of single vehicle road fatalities occur. We are all too well aware of the number of such fatalities, especially at weekends involving young male drivers.
A brave step needs to be taken, similar to the one taken by the previous Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, in regard to the smoking ban. People said it would not be accepted and would not catch on but it has become very much accepted practice. It was a very daring step for a Minister to adopt and it has worked. We have to get to the stage that when people get behind the steering wheel of a car they realise the dangers they pose to others if they are not responsible. In that regard, the time has come for random drug and drink testing. It would generate considerable public debate if a Minister were to take that step. I believe such a move would find favour with the vast majority of people. I urge the Minister of State to consider such a forward-looking step. Other Ministers have implemented far-reaching measures which people thought would not happen. In his contribution, Senator Quinn said this is within our grasp.
The Government has been highly successful in the area of insurance reform. Insurance premiums are collapsing because of actions taken by the Government. We do not read about this in the national press because it is good news. The Government needs to take a serious look at how we are addressing the issue of road safety. There is an onus on Members to encourage the Minister to look seriously at this area, when one considers the number of people that are killed on our roads and the number of families that are affected.
Another concern which has been brought to my attention by many constituents is that of foreign nationals driving cars on our roads. I do not know if their cars are insured.
I do not know if they are even taxed. There are thousands of them on the roads. I personally know of foreign nationals who fly home to bring back cars across the Continent from Latvia or wherever else. They probably have some type of insurance but I very much doubt if it is adequate.
I welcome the introduction of metric standardisation on road traffic signs. I hope for an improvement in the situation now that county councils will be given the responsibility for reviewing road traffic signs. There is a ridiculous situation on the Navan Road where I live. On the Ashtown end of this perfectly good dual carriageway the speed limit varies from 30 mph to 40 mph to 50 mph and 60 mph. I have been driving on this road for two decades and have yet to witness a car crash. However, I see gardaí on point duty on the 40 mph zone and 50 mph zone. We must examine how penalty points are imposed. Given that there is major concern about how the system is being implemented, perhaps the Minister of State would commit to seriously examining the issue. For example, penalty points are issued in groups of two in respect of speeding and so on; they are not applied in uneven numbers. If uneven numbers of penalty points were applied in respect of certain locations such as accident black spots throughout the country, it would have a two-fold effect in that the motorist would be informed that he or she is entering a more dangerous area and, more importantly, it would inform us how many groups of three penalty points were being imposed. We would then know if these areas are being policed or not, without the use of fantastic technology or great expense.
I urge the Minister of State to relax the imposition of penalty points in cases where motorists are caught travelling at 5 mph in excess of the minimum 30 mph speed limit. For example, if a driver was caught travelling at 5 mph in excess of the limit, he or she would not have penalty points imposed, but might instead receive a fixed penalty fine. At present, people are behaving like clock-watchers; they are watching their speedometers as they drive to see what speed they are doing and are braking and accelerating as they pass through different speed limits. We cannot continue through the two or three years of the remaining term of the Government while the numbers of road fatalities rise to see what will happen in a year's time. The Department will quite rightly state that it has passed responsibility for speed limits to local authorities. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for root and branch reform and a stock take on where we are in this regard.
One could examine this issue another way in that, because of the increasing level of car ownership, the number of deaths should also increase correspondingly. In that context, our road safety strategy is working to some extent because the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically, while fatalities on the roads have not increased to the same extent. I urge the Minister of State to examine this issue. I am delighted to see that local authorities can now provide for new speed limits in the vicinity of schools and residential estates.
I listened to the Minister of State's speech and would like him to explain his remarks in regard to the unlimited liability in terms of car insurance. Where does that issue come from and how has it arisen? When I insure my car, will I be able to do a price check and request a certain level of unlimited liability?
I recognise that this Bill deals with many areas of activity. However, I have doubts and have made several public comments about the policing of penalty points and how they are imposed. At one point, I was told it would be too costly to correlate the time, zone and locations but that should not be the case. If we are to have confidence in the system, we need to be given that information. One of the reasons I am seeking to have introduced the imposition of odd numbers of penalty points is so that we can see that dangerous locations are being policed properly.
I apologise on behalf of my colleague, Senator McCarthy, who intended to take this Bill but unfortunately had to attend to a matter in Cork. I welcome my constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, to the House. I do not think I have had an opportunity to congratulate him on the record before, which I now do.
I am bothered by section 34 of the Bill which deals with the issue of unlimited liability and a proposed cap. The purpose of this section is not at all clear. I have read the Minister of State's contribution and I know what was said on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. However, it does not make sense. There are two ways in which the Minister of State could have sought to deal with the acknowledged problem of large or excessive awards putting pressure on the insurance industry. He could seek to prevent the courts from awarding damages in excess of a certain amount for property or injury to the person, in regard to which I have heard argument that to do so would have constitutional implications and could conceivably be ruled to be unconstitutional. However, it would at least make sense within a certain context. Although I appreciate it is an enabling provision, what is proposed in this section does not seem to make a great deal of sense.
It is proposed that the insurance companies will only cover a certain amount of an award. For the sake of argument, the Minister could make regulations, with the consent of the Oireachtas, to put a cap of €1 million on damages which would be awarded for personal injuries. However, nothing in the section prevents the courts from making an award considerably in excess of that, for example, the courts could award €2 million or €3 million. That liability attaches in the first instance to the insured person — the defendant. His or her insurance company will pay out the first €1 million in damages but he or she is still personally liable for the rest.
This seems to undermine the whole basis of our insurance system because we seek and receive insurance believing it gives us cover against any cases which could be taken against us if we are guilty of negligence. However, if the insurance company will only cover one for a certain amount and one must cover any amount in excess, it will give rise to considerable concern. It is not alarmist to suggest that it is perfectly possible for someone to force the sale of another person's house in order to fork over the additional damages. This seems unfair and goes to the heart of our insurance system. Moreover, it is not just the defendant who would be placed in difficulty; the plaintiff would also be in difficulty.
In regard to the most serious cases, I presume the cap is intended to be relatively high. These will involve, for example, people who have been be disabled, paralysed or rendered quadriplegic. It is generally acknowledged that while our awards for lesser injuries in this country tend to be relatively high, the awards the courts make for more serious injuries tend to be closer to the international norm. It is possible that someone who genuinely required extensive care and medical attention into the future would not be able to recover sufficient funds to cover his or her medical expenses and care requirements. In this situation, the defendant has an exposure because he or she has a liability which he or she may not be able to discharge without selling his or her house or other assets and the plaintiff, the more seriously injured, would be in a situation in which he or she could not guarantee being able to look after himself or herself into the future because the damages he or she is able to recover were not sufficient.
Before we legislate for something as fundamental as this and injure and do damage to the insurance system and the concept of insurance in the process, we need to be very satisfied as to why we are doing so. No cogent case has been made as to why we should. The Minister of State's contribution referred simply to the solvency of the insurance system and insurance companies and their requirements in terms of reinsurance and so on, while at the same time he stated that this provision did not come from the industry. I was interested to read a report in today's edition of The Irish Times which referred to a recent debate when prominent individuals in the insurance industry and others such as Ms Dorothea Dowling, whose views we respect on this matter, addressed this issue to a greater or lesser extent. They seem to indicate the problem is not serious, and in so far as there was a serious problem, this measure was not required to deal with it. What will be the effect of this measure? It seems a little strange that if it will deal only with the relatively small number of high awards, presumably it will not be of great benefit to the industry. The bulk of awards are relatively small, although we might consider them to be over-generous but will not be affected by the cap. In many cases the more serious accidents are most deserving of the damages that are awarded.
I am very open to the idea that we change the way in which awards are made. Rather than making lump sum awards, there is merit in giving an annual award to cover care and the actual costs incurred. I appreciate that the courts are not very keen on this idea because it would involve substantial administrative costs and they would like to draw a red line under such an exposure. However, in terms of justice and fairness, it has a great deal to recommend it. I get a sense from the language the Minister of State has used that he is not totally wed to this idea. Perhaps we could have a more detailed discussion on it on Committee Stage.
I welcome the introduction of a new system of speed limits, particularly the distinction being made between regional and national roads. While the Minister of State and I both live in the city, my good lady wife is from north Clare. Having driven the roads from Lisdoonvarna to Ennistymon and Doolin on more occasions than I care to count, the idea of a 60 mph speed limit on bad roads is foolish. Reducing the speed to the equivalent of 50 mph is welcome and the distinction between national and regional roads is sensible and is something we should have introduced some time ago. There is a cogent case for making such decisions at local level. I know there is a requirement to seek the consent of the National Roads Authority to changes of the speed limits, and I accept that, but we must acknowledge that local councillors and the local county or city manager knows best. It is good that this is underpinned in the Bill. We must address local circumstances with a measure of flexibility and I know that flexibility is in-built in the Bill.
From my experience of driving in France on holidays, the speed limit is lower when weather conditions are bad or it is raining. I am not sure if this has statutory effect, but I assume it does. In France the speed limits are 130 km/h in normal conditions and 110 km/h when the weather is not good. This common sense approach has a self-evident appeal. Will the Minister of State consider it and respond to it when he gets the opportunity?
I welcome the power given to city and county managers to set limits for road works, particularly for one-off events. I am glad that we are eventually tackling the metrification of the system. Although this has been flagged, there has been little publicity regarding it. I understand, and the Minister of State may correct me if I am wrong, that it is intended to implement it in a "big bang" approach in January. However, I am not sure it is correct to only give a few weeks' notice regarding the implementation of this measure so soon after Christmas when people's minds are elsewhere. I know that one may announce things as many times as one wants but until it happens people will not pay much attention. This is an important issue where a significant publicity campaign run by the Government and by the Department is clearly mandated and required. While there has been some publicity in the past few days, we must make considerably more effort in the next month or so if this is to happen smoothly. I know there is provision in the Bill for transitional arrangements but I am not totally clear as to how that will work.
I drive a very old Japanese imported car where the speedometer is calibrated in kilometres per hour. One gets used to it in a matter of weeks. I appreciate that some among us are more resistant to metrification and it may take them longer. We should not opt for a long transitional period. We should require as soon as possible, if not immediately, that new cars being imported into the country or being constructed here in part have only metric calibration.
People will become familiar with the metric measure very quickly, if needs must. It is not unusual to see road signs showing distances in imperial measures and others in metric measures. It is almost an Irish joke when one sees a sign for a destination with "5" and a small "km" written beside it and further down the road a sign shows "3" with no calibration on it. We can appreciate what it means, but visitors do not know that a white sign is an imperial measurement and a green sign is the metric measurement, and this causes confusion.
It is now 27 years since we first introduced metrification and we should put in place an accelerated programme of removing signs showing imperial measurements as soon as possible. It is holding us up to ridicule in a fashion that is avoidable and we should simply stop it.
My primary purpose in speaking today was to address the issue of insurance. I trust we will have an opportunity to have a detailed debate on it on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, and his officials to the House. This is my first opportunity to wish him well in his new position.
As the Minister of State outlined in his detailed speech on the introduction of the Road Traffic Bill 2004, its main purpose is to promote further improvements in road safety and to provide for the introduction of a new system of metric speed limits. The Bill provides for changes to the administration of the fixed charge system for traffic offences, including the introduction of a specific provision to facilitate the outsourcing of certain administrative functions currently undertaken by the Garda Síochána. It is a very welcome development that gardaí will be redeployed from desk and administrative duties as it frees them to pursue other areas of law enforcement. There are provisions in the Bill to address issues identified in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the administration of the fixed charge system.
The Bill introduces a number of other initiatives, including a ban on the sale of vehicles to minors. Measures will be introduced to stop a garage or private individual from selling a mechanically propelled vehicle to anyone under 16 years of age. However, a 16 year old is entitled to hold a licence for a motorcycle under a certain cc and perhaps this should be re-examined. It should be specified that cars should not be purchased by anybody under 17 years of age because persons under 17 years of age are not entitled to drive nor are they permitted to obtain a provisional driving licence.
The adoption of the first national road safety strategy six years ago has been followed by a distinct improvement in road safety performance. That improvement has been particularly linked to the introduction of the penalty points system in October 2002. Credit should also be given to the national car test, the NCT, which has been responsible for putting dangerous mechanically propelled vehicles off the road. The Bill promotes a new system of speed limits and the outsourcing of functions relating to the fixed charge system, which is directly linked to the penalty points system, should further sustain that improved performance. I welcome the introduction of the conversion to kilometres per hour and the Minister of State has outlined the new limits to the House. The main changes to result from these proposals will be the replacement of the current general speed limit which applies to non-motorway rural roads with separate speed limits for the national and non-national roads. I welcome that the Bill provides for elected members of county and city councils to retain the power to make speed limits by-laws to provide for the development of special speed limits. Public representatives are aware of the condition and types of roads in their areas and what speed limit should apply to those roads. The range of special speed limits available to local authorities will be from 120 km/h to 30 km/h, which is from 75 mph to 19 mph.
I agree with some previous speakers who stated that 20 January 2005 is a little soon for the implementation of this legislation and I ask the Minister of State to consider instead 1 March or 1 April 2005. I welcome the fact that a comprehensive education programme has been developed and that both the print and broadcast media will carry notices announcing the change in the system. Has the Minister of State any plans to promote the change in schools because young people are very good at educating their parents, as he will know? Such a programme would be helpful from junior certificate year and upwards.
As a resident of the Border area, I am very aware that Northern-registered cars have no concern for other road users. I have no hesitation in saying they are a danger and a disgrace. I am pleased that there will be what I hope are huge signs stating that 120 km/h does not mean 120 mph because Northern drivers are used to miles per hour. I urge the Minister of State to speak to his counterpart in Northern Ireland and progress the introduction of an all-island penalty points system. Northern drivers show complete disregard for our laws and I live right next to them.
I do not agree with Senator Quinn that we show the same disregard in the North. The Northern system is very strict and if people from the Republic are caught speeding there, their cars can be taken from them. It might be no harm if we started doing that here also.
The Bill deals with the use of radar guns which is to be welcomed. This was the subject of a court challenge. The Garda Síochána is currently finalising development of a new IT system for the processing of fixed charge fines which is to be welcomed. I question the need to outsource this system and wonder why we cannot do it ourselves. What savings are made by outsourcing because I assume that to be the main reason for it?
The Bill also features an extension of the powers available to the Garda to seek the presentation of a person's driving licence where a person is suspected of having committed a traffic offence. A person is currently obliged to carry his or her licence and is allowed a certain number of days to produce it at a Garda station. Will the Minister of State clarify if this will still be the case?
Like other speakers I am a little confused about the insurance aspect of this Bill and I ask for more clarification. I firmly believe that a person convicted in a court of not having insurance, even on the first occasion, should be suspended from driving for a period of time rather than being fined. The amount of hardship and damage caused to somebody who happens to be in collision with a person who is not insured is outrageous. A family car can be written off by somebody without insurance and the consequences for that family are very serious and can last for years.
It might be helpful to make it compulsory to drive with vehicle lights on. I ask the Minister of State to consider this because it is a great help when driving and it should be included in the Bill.
I welcome the Bill and I look forward to the Minister of State's response to my queries.
I have listened to this debate and wonder if the title of the Bill is a misnomer and should instead be the speed limit Bill. The contributions to the debate have proved that the essential components of road legislation such as speed cameras and random breath testing could have been incorporated into a serious Road Traffic Bill. Senator Wilson referred to a concern of mine, the lack of knowledge about the introduction of the new metric system of speed limits and signs. The Minister of State announced that the changeover to the metric system will entail the provision of over 58,000 metric speed limit signs to serve the 96,000 km of public road network. The 34 city and county councils will commence the changeover of signs at least three days prior to 20 January 2005. I presume there will be uniformity in the road signs and they will not vary from county to county. Are the signs in situ in the county council areas as Christmas approaches and will they be erected before 20 January 2005? Will the Department organise a publicity programme to inform the public about the changeover to the new metric system?
An excellent means of promotion already exists. Everybody goes to local authority offices to tax their vehicles. A simple insert to accompany notification of road tax being due could be used to inform drivers of the changes. There will be lack of uniformity when it is introduced. We have been discussing movement on political issues in Northern Ireland today. The change to the metric system is a classical example of a change being introduced in the South, while the old system continues to apply in the North. People will have to make mental adjustments as they move between the North and South. It is a pity the North has not adopted the same approach as the South, although there may be impediments to taking a uniform approach.
People have become more conscious of speed limits in recent times, particularly since the introduction of the penalty points system. Senators have pointed out with regard to the operation of the system that most road tragedies do not take place on national primary routes and motorways. Unfortunately, the majority occur on county roads. As recent statistics gathered from coroners' reports show, many fatal accidents occur between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. and approximately 80% of the deaths investigated involved young people. Many of those driving during these times fall asleep, in many cases due to alcohol. Drivers often wait until after 3 a.m. to drive a vehicle on the basis that the likelihood of meeting gardaí on the road between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. is remote.
People are annoyed that gardaí are regularly stationed at points where traffic flows are good, such as on the new bypass near Patrickswell, outside Limerick. This approach is akin to catching bees in a honeypot. I have not seen evidence of crashes at that location. Drivers in such locations are not creating traffic hazards. While speed checks at such points may be good for pinpointing speeding drivers, they lack credibility when operated on the Limerick bypass at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning when the road is quiet, as was the case recently, according to a person with whom I have spoken. I wonder whether they are in operation when serious crashes occur. The Garda needs to examine this issue if the penalty points system is to have credibility.
Another reason the system has fallen into disrepute is the late issue of speed tickets, which often do not arrive until months after the offence. As Senators will be aware from experience, when one spots detection equipment while driving, one is not sure whether one is driving over the speed limit. One then receives a ticket several months later.
I understand the reason the administration element is being removed from the Garda and outsourced. As Senators have noted for a long time, if we are to deploy more gardaí on the streets, we will have to devolve administrative functions to outside agencies. This is a valid approach. The Department of Agriculture and Food, for example, has successfully contracted out many administrative aspects of its activities, including aspects of the premium system. Its success could probably be emulated in the area of road traffic.
The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General damaged the reputation of the penalty points system. It found that the type of information furnished by speed cameras was inadequate. In addition, only three cameras or thereabouts are in place despite the fact that they are probably the greatest deterrent on the roads.
I ask the Minister of State to clarify a matter related to the exemptions from provisions of the Road Traffic Acts for emergency vehicles. The media will focus on incidents in which Ministers or Ministers of State are caught speeding. The exemptions mentioned in the Bill cover drivers of fire brigade vehicles, ambulances and members of the Garda Síochána driving a vehicle in the performance of their duties. Gardaí are employed as ministerial drivers, while civilian drivers are employed to drive Ministers of State. Section 27 exempts from the requirements of the road traffic Acts, "the use by a member of the Garda Síochána of a vehicle in the performance of the duties of that member or a person driving or using a vehicle under the direction of a member of the Garda Síochána, where such use does not endanger the safety of road users". Will this exemption apply to the drivers of Ministers and Ministers of State? Will they have carte blanche to drive at whatever speed they want? I would be concerned if that were the case. If we expect ordinary members of the public to observe speed limits, we must all set an example. It is, therefore, incumbent on Ministers and Ministers of State to set the same example expected of the public. If a Senator or Deputy was caught speeding, the media would focus on giving him or her adverse publicity.
I welcome the provisions regarding minors. There are many so-called "bangers" around. We have a new phenomenon of cars, many of them very old, being offered for sale at the side of the road. I am sure they are sold at nominal prices. The garages are likely to fully comply with the provisions and will not sell bangers to young persons aged under 16 years. However, we are all aware of cases in which the sale of such cars for small sums of money resulted in fatalities. Will the fines prescribed by the legislation be imposed on the individuals who sell such cars?
The Bill is interesting and addresses a matter of concern to all of us. I seek reassurance that the public will understand the move to metrification and that a proper marketing approach will be adopted.
I welcome the Bill. The Minister of State, whom I welcome to the House, has important responsibilities. Two of the major issues to arise during the previous general election were road safety, notably the number of fatalities, and the cost of insurance, both of which fall to some degree under the Minister of State's remit.
The main reason for the Bill is to adjust the speed limits and change them to the metric system. While I accept that practice regarding road signs indicating distance is inconsistent, with many of them, particularly on minor roads, still in miles, there is an illogicality about having speed limits indicated in miles and distances indicated in kilometres. We are switching over from a system common to these islands to a system operated on the Continent, which I welcome. It is in some ways similar to the changeover to the euro in 2002. I disagree with my colleague, Senator Wilson, in that I believe January to be a good month for changeovers of this kind. In any case, these measures must be planned well in advance and my advice to the Minister is to get on with it.
Senator Henry and others are in the same position as me in that we have older cars. I am a little concerned that older cars clearly indicate speeds in miles per hour, whereas kilometres, if indicated at all, are so faint one would almost cause an accident trying to identify them. One possible angle is for the Society of the Irish Motor Industry to establish some kind of programme to replace dials on older cars. I am not aware that this issue has been covered in discussions and perhaps it should be considered. The general speed limit of 50 km/h is marginally greater than 30 mph. Those of us who sometimes feel constrained by the 30 mph limit will now get an extra one or two miles per hour. The general speed limit on regional and local roads is utterly absurd, and should be 60 mph. Far better roads often have a lower speed limit.
I generally favour local authorities having responsibility for speed limits. However, it must be with the consent of the National Roads Authority. Recently there was vast investment in the Glen of the Downs bypass in County Wicklow. This replaced a very indifferent road which had a speed limit of 60 mph. However, the brand new dual carriageway has a reduced speed limit of 40 mph. What was the point of spending all that money on road improvement when the speed limit was cut by a third?
There is now a facility for dual carriageways which are almost de facto motorways, such as the Watergrasshill bypass, close to Fermoy. There is no good reason that should not have an upper end speed limit. Why must the limit be constrained to 60 mph or 100 km/h? In this regard, we differ from the North, where the general speed limits on dual carriageways is 70 mph. I am glad there will more flexibility in this matter.
We have adopted an increased speed limit of 120 km/h for motorways. If we vastly improve roads situated away from cities, we should benefit in terms of lower journey times and higher speeds when it is safe to do so. In most of continental Europe, the speed limit on motorways is 130 km/h. In large parts of Germany, where they drive Mercedes and BMWs, the speed limit is 140 km/h, and sometimes unlimited. I am not proposing we should do the same. However, after applying the limit of 120 km/h for a period of time, we should consider increasing it to 130 km/h on motorways close to the Border, or the Monasterevin bypass, or other roads situated far from conurbations.
On the issue of insurance and road safety, I share some of the doubts expressed by Senator McDowell as to whether to give an enabling power via regulation for the Minister to put caps on liabilities. Should the situation the Minister envisages arise, there should be separate legislation at that time. In an emergency, this provision may allow the Minister some temporary power. However, if a major change of that kind is made, it should be subject to separate legislation put forward at the time before the Oireachtas.
There are four or five issues with regard to road safety. The danger of unsafe cars is now being addressed with road testing. Road improvements and the presence of warning signs will deal with the problem of unsafe roads. Other issues include drink, drugs and sleepiness or tiredness, which is rather underestimated.
The topic of ministerial cars was raised. Compared to 1981, almost 24 years ago, the number of car accidents these days is far above the average and too high. It is a source of resentment for the general public when officeholders are not subject to the same rules as everybody else. A defence in a case some years ago was that the person had to get to an important function. To the objective observer, some distance from this place, it did not seem as important as that. However, public safety is important. I have been in cars on official delegations abroad and the drivers can be macho in their attitudes which can lead to accidents. As a passenger I was involved in an accident in New York where another passenger was injured for a series of months. Perhaps we should try to do less. It is better to be late temporarily than in the permanent sense.
The issue of cyclists and motorcyclists being subject to laws has been neglected. It is a source of intense irritation when they break red lights. There is a high level of accidents involving such vehicles. More attention regarding road safety should be paid to the matter.
I have not studied the Bill sufficiently, but it will hopefully make road safety regulations more watertight, so that district judges do not have the pleasure of throwing out prosecutions on a whim. If members of our Judiciary, in particular at lower levels, showed a bit more commitment to road safety rather than taking pleasure in throwing out as many cases as they can, it would be better for all concerned.
Senator Minihan suggested formalising extra speed limits, in that if one is only 5 mph or 8 km/h above the speed limit, it should be disregarded in terms of penalty points. Such limits cannot be formalised. They must be left to the discretion of the gardaí. If they are formalised them, then de facto the speed limit is raised and everybody will drive at the increased speed.
I welcome the Minister to the House as well as his sensible Bill. I would like to give him and Members a little bit of information. My faithful 1991 SAAB convertible registers kilometres as well as miles on the dial. Many motor accessory shops sell plastic dials which display speed in kilometres per hour and people can attach them to the dial of their cars.
An issue of particular interest to me has not been addressed today. I had hoped the matter would be dealt with during my time in the Seanad but I am now wondering if that will ever happen. When I first became a Member of the Seanad mention was made of the introduction of a driving instructor standards authority. While a voluntary register has been put in place there has been no further progress on the matter. There was a great deal of communication with the Department of Transport some years ago on the introduction of such a register about which the Irish Driving Instructors Association was encouraged. As far as I can recall, the association set up a voluntary register in the 1990s which is part funded by the Department. I have received different estimates on how many driving instructors are registered. I am often told the figure is 90% and other times I am told it is three out of four. This is an important issue.
Improvements have been made to the driver testing system which now includes a theory test and a practical session. It is important to ensure that those who teach others to drive have a formal education in that area. While some instructors take the matter seriously, the fact they are not required by law to take it seriously is foolish. It is not good for instructors to instil their idiosyncrasies regarding driving into another generation of drivers. I learned to drive during the time when one's mother or father taught one. That was not a desirable way of teaching people to drive. I hope the Minister will introduce such a register soon. Ireland is the only European country which does not have one. While the Irish Driving Instructors Association receives advice from its counterpart in the UK, it is important we introduce a driving instructor standards authority here. I hope that is done fairly soon. I have raised this matter with several Ministers for Transport but to date nothing has been done.
Members have made important contributions on the Bill. Another issue not mentioned is that of the separation of traffic. The Minister of State spoke of the importance of road-users' behaviour. It is difficult for cyclists to be as helpful as they could to motorists when there is not enough space on the road for both. We should separate traffic, particularly in urban areas, wherever we can. Reference was also made to motorcycles. The statistics on accidents-fatalities among motorcycle users are very high. Motorcyclists are extremely vulnerable people. Motorcycles can travel at great speed yet there is little facility which enables them to separate themselves from general road-users.
Another set of road-users who are not helpful — I come within this grouping — are pedestrians. We are a terrible nation of jaywalkers. We tend to always try to cross the road before the next car comes along. Many elderly people are frequently knocked down within ten yards of a pedestrian crossing. Instruction of pedestrians in terms of their responsibilities as road-users would also be helpful. The statistics on pedestrian fatalities involving highly intoxicated people are worrying. Approximately 50% of pedestrians killed on our roads were intoxicated. Senator Norris referred on the Order of Business to a pub in Marlborough Street which has been closed for three days for serving people who were inebriated. I regret to say it has not yet closed. It appears it will close for three days at its convenience.
The Minister of State may recall the bus driver who drove over a pedestrian who had fallen down in front of a bus in O'Connell Street. Pedestrians have a responsibility to consider their safety and that of others. They should not believe they could not be involved in an accident just because they are not behind the wheel of a vehicle. In fact, they could be the people who cause an accident.
Senator Wilson referred to driving with one's lights on. The Minister should consider the introduction of legislation to make mandatory that one drives, during the winter months, with one's lights on. It is often very difficult, given heavy cloud cover and the shorter day, to see people on the road. I recently drove to and from Belfast via the magnificent new road and noted that motorists, particularly around the Dundalk bypass, were driving without lights quite late in the evening making it quite difficult to see them.
I congratulate the Minister of State on introducing this Bill. I hope he will be the one to establish a driving instructor standards authority. There would be no major effort required in doing so. The matter is simply being left on the back burner.
I thank Members for their contributions of which I have taken note. While some of what has been suggested is not accommodated in the Bill I do not necessarily disagree with the points made. I believe we should try to ensure that much of what is deemed appropriate is included in legislation. However, the Minister and I have only been at the Department of Transport for a short number of weeks following the Government reshuffle. Much of the work on this Bill was in progress and a deadline of midnight on 19 January had been set for the changeover from imperial to metric speed limits. In that regard, we were locked into a time schedule in terms of ensuring the legislation was in place to accommodate the date of change.
Senator Wilson asked why the changeover is being introduced in January and suggested people may not take notice at this time of year to the media coverage which this issue will receive. While I appreciate it is the festive season this issue is important and people will take note of it. The campaign will continue after the festive season up to and beyond the date of introduction. Also, people are most likely to change their cars in January. A great deal of work has been undertaken by my predecessor with regard to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry. We are a small peripheral island nation and due credit must be given to the SIMI for its work in successfully ensuring that all new cars imported to Ireland will have in place the metric speed system.
I am unable, in the time available to me, to deal with all the issues raised. Senator Henry asked about the introduction of a driving instructor standards authority. The Government's first road safety strategy provided financial assistance for the voluntary driver instructor register to attain an appropriate quality certificate thereby enhancing confidence in the register. The Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill, providing for the establishment of the authority, was published in July 2004 and Second Stage was taken in the Dáil on 14 October. Good progress has been made in this area.
I agree with comments expressed on vehicle lights being on during daytime hours, a practice which may be beneficial to road safety. The European Commission has engaged consultants to carry out a study on the effectiveness of daytime running lights. While the practice of daytime running lights can reduce vehicle-to-vehicle accidents in northern Europe, it can also increase the risk for less visible road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. The best approach is to await the conclusion of the EU-sponsored research.
Several Senators raised the issue of insurance and Senator Morrissey raised it together with the matter of foreign-owned vehicles. Insurance is mandatory for all road-using vehicles, even foreign-owned ones. If a vehicle is not insured, it is liable to the full rigours of the law. Certain measures apply and others will be introduced on the speed of goods vehicles. In accordance with the 1993 road traffic regulations, which give effect to an EU directive relating to speed limits, a goods vehicle with a design gross vehicle weight of over 1200 kg. is required to be fitted with a speed limiter, so it cannot exceed 90 km/h or 55 mph. In accordance with EU Directive 2002/85/EC, this requirement will be extended to further categories of vehicles.
Driving while under the influence of a substance was also raised. I prefer the term "driving under influence resulting from substance misuse", a term familiar to Senator Henry in her professional capacity, rather than "driving while intoxicated". The medical bureau of road safety participated in an analysis of blood and urine specimens, provided for the Garda by people suspected of driving while intoxicated. In 2002, 388 specimens were tested, of which 30% tested positive for drugs. In 2001, a two year research programme was conducted in which 2,000 specimens were selected for analysis. Half of those was under the limit for alcohol while the other half was over the limit. Of those samples with zero levels of alcohol, 68% tested positive for one or more drugs.
Senators asked why there is no mutual recognition of penalty points with Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, this has not been established and it is an issue that should be pursued. Senator Morrissey claimed that penalty points only apply at certain points of the day. This is not correct as penalty points are applicable 24 hours a day. Several Senators questioned the Bill's proposals on insurance renewal. We are ensuring that people will be re-insured but it has become an issue for the underwriters. It arises from market changes and demands and other issues, such as governance and transparency. Unlimited liabilities did exist but now they have to be stated in a category. We are making an enabling provision but not changing anything. The status quo and how we go about our business will remain. Senator Paddy Burke was particularly concerned about this issue. I invite him to discuss the matter with my officials who will respond to his queries. There is nothing untoward about our proposals in this area. It would be remiss of us to create a situation where people may not be able to obtain insurance renewal. These proposals will ensure that will not arise.
The issue of the number of injuries and deaths on the roads was raised by all speakers. From my research during my short time in the Department, I have found that, in round figures, the number of cars registered in 1990 was shy of 800,000, while in 2004 the figure was 1.5 million. With the increase in the number of cars on the road and the statistical models available to us, if the Government had not introduced a road safety strategy, deaths on the roads would run to 500 per year. In the early stages of the penalty points system, there was a knee-jerk reaction with a reduction in road accidents and deaths. Having weighed up all the issues, and looking at the current figure for road accidents, I estimate the final figure for 2004 will be in the high 300s. This is 35% lower than the figure we could have had if the road strategy was not introduced. Credit is due to my predecessors in the Department who, for the public good, had the courage to introduce tough measures to reduce road casualties and fatalities. The programme for Government contained a commitment to establish a dedicated Garda traffic corps, which is something we will see the benefit of as we progress. I am especially pleased by the recent announcement to proceed with the establishment of a traffic corps over the next three years. It will be headed by an officer of assistant commissioner rank.
I hope I have covered the issues raised. The Bill makes provisions on three matters, including speed limits which are to be converted to the metric system to bring us into line with our European counterparts other than the United Kingdom. One might not want continue to adopt some of the same policies as the United Kingdom on European issues. Ireland has been to the forefront, especially in our approach to monetary union which has led to us being seen as a main European player. It is right that we should convert from the imperial to metric system. Whatever the UK decides to do, so be it. Members will have their own minds made up on that. We should be positive on the European position.
The other matters addressed in the legislation are outsourcing and insurance liability. I look forward to working with Members on Committee Stage when I will have the opportunity to respond to each matter as we go through the various sections of the Bill. I invite any Member who takes issue with any aspect of the legislation to contact my office to facilitate a smooth Committee Stage debate. I would like to think we could respond positively to anything which might cause a hiccough to ease the passage of the legislation and accommodate Members. I record my appreciation of Members' contributions. I have taken notes on them and may be able to respond more positively to what they have said on later Stages. I thank my officials, Mr. John Weafer, Mr. Des Coppins, Ms Ann Cody and Mr. Declan Hayes.
I thank the Minister of State for his attendance and wish him well in his office. He made a great success of the Department of Health and Children and I have no doubt he will be very effective in the Department of Transport. I wish him every success with his brief.