Wednesday, 1 February 2006
Road Safety: Statements.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I am pleased to be here in Seanad Éireann for this important discussion.
At the end of the first month of this year 39 lives have been lost as a direct result of road collisions. The total for January represents an increase of six over the total in January last year. That experience has been replicated in many months in the recent past and the reality is that we are now facing a major and immediate road safety challenge.
I will not rehearse the case that over the past eight years, since we adopted the first road safety strategy, we have made measurable progress in terms of the achievement of reductions in road casualties. It is an undeniable fact that since the end of last summer the death toll on our roads has been rising.
Some 399 people lost their lives as a result of road collisions in 2005. That is an increase of 64 on the total in 2003, which saw the lowest level of road deaths in over 40 years. It is now a simple imperative that the trends of the past number of months must be reversed and that progress be made on a sustained basis.
This debate affords me the opportunity to outline to the House the response that the Government is making to support the achievement of the necessary changes to the situation in which we find ourselves. This response is based on the delivery of the commitments set out in the Road Safety Strategy 2004 to 2006. That strategy had a very narrow planning horizon and in recognition of that, it was always accepted that many of the key initiatives could only be delivered towards the end of the period.
The major policy initiatives targeted for delivery over the lifetime of the strategy are as follows: the introduction of a new system of speed limits based on the adoption of metric values; the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps; the extension of the application of the penalty points system; the introduction of a programme for the engagement of private sector interests in the operation of speed cameras; and the introduction of a form of random breath testing.
Drinking and driving is recognised as one of the most serious contributory factors in road collisions in this and all other countries. Despite ongoing efforts to inform and educate drivers of the inherent dangers in mixing alcohol and driving and the commitment of the Garda to enforce the law, there are still many who will not desist from what can only be described as reckless, selfish and irresponsible behaviour.
The road safety strategy promotes the introduction of random roadside preliminary breath testing. A detailed examination of the possible approaches that could be adopted to allow for the introduction of a scheme that would contribute in a positive way to address the problem of drinking and driving has been pursued. That examination was progressed in close consultation with the Attorney General with a view to establishing a balance between, on the one hand, the legitimate expectations of society as a whole that the level of road deaths and injuries must be radically reduced and, on the other hand, the rights of citizens.
As the Taoiseach announced in the other House last Wednesday, the Attorney General has provided advice on the exercise of the powers available to the Garda to stop vehicles for the purpose of the enforcement of traffic laws generally and, in particular, the enforcement of drink driving laws. He has also advised on the development of a scheme for the operation of random breath testing in a targeted manner.
In his contribution to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport on 25 January, the Garda Commissioner welcomed this advice and gave a commitment that, as a result, the Garda would pursue enhanced levels of enforcement of drink driving based on the current legal structures. Those current structures provide that the Garda may require that a driver must submit to a preliminary roadside test where a vehicle has been involved in a collision, where a traffic offence has been committed or where a member of the Garda is of the opinion that the driver has consumed alcohol.
The attorney has also advised on the development of a scheme for the operation of random breath testing in a targeted manner. Based on that specific advice, I will bring forward legislation during the current Oireachtas session that will allow the Garda to establish roadside checkpoints at which drivers will be required to submit to a preliminary test for the presence of alcohol. The legislation will provide the basis for the production of guidelines that will establish definite parameters for the application of these proposed checkpoints. The actual terms of the guidelines will be developed by my Department, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda in close co-operation with the Office of the Attorney General. The introduction of the new system will mean that the enforcement regime available to the Garda will result in the level of general deterrence needed to address drink driving in a comprehensive and robust way.
The House will be aware that last week I announced a major extension to the operation of the penalty points system. The focus of that extension will be on those offences that relate directly to driver behaviour. Unfortunately, 86% of all road deaths can be attributed to driver behaviour in its broadest sense. This extension will see the system being applied in respect of 31 new offences, bringing the total to 35. All of the new offences relate directly to driver behaviour. They include the offence of failure to obey stop and yield signs and traffic lights, crossing white lines and illegal overtaking.
There was a positive response to the initial roll-out of penalty points. The resultant improvement in road safety reflected a more precautionary approach by drivers in the knowledge that repeated poor behaviour would be reflected in the accumulation of penalty points. As of the end of December 2005, over 291,800 drivers have had penalty points endorsed on their licences and 19 stood disqualified at that date.
As we all know, that early improvement in road safety has not been maintained. The extension of the application of penalty points from April is aimed at reversing recent trends and instilling a greater sense of responsibility in motorists. The extension of the penalty points system will be supported by the application of the fixed charge system to the majority of the new penalty point offences.
The metrication of speed limits involved the introduction of a revised speed limit structure, including a reduction in the speed limit on regional roads and local roads. The changeover went smoothly and is a good example of co-operation between different national and local agencies to ensure that a project is delivered successfully. The Road Traffic Act 2004 provides the legal basis for the system. The Act also provided that the range of special speed limits that county and city councillors can apply was extended, and special new arrangements for speed limits at road works were introduced. Special guidance has been given to local authorities to assist in the exercise of their roles. One other significant change introduced was the addition to the consultation process relating to the adoption of special speed limits of a direct engagement with the public at large. I would now urge local authorities to pursue a review of speed limits based on their extended powers so that a realistic and coherent application of speed limits will result.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced in November 2004 the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps. This is a key element to changing road user behaviour. The presence of a high-visibility force on the roads will instil caution in drivers. The numbers in the traffic corps by the end of 2008 will be 1,200 which is over twice the number currently engaged in traffic duties. The corps is led by an assistant commissioner which ensures that traffic and enforcement matters feature at the highest management levels within the Garda. I very much welcome this positive development.
I am developing legislation which will be brought forward during the current Oireachtas session to provide for the operation of privately-operated cameras. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will then undertake a tendering process to engage a private operator. This is an important element of an enforcement strategy and is the best way to ensure a high level of speed enforcement is reached. I reassure anyone who has fears of the introduction of such a system, however, that there will be no connection between the receipt of fixed charge payments resulting from detections and the funding of the operation. This initiative is focused on the promotion of road safety. It will feature the establishment of clear management structures both at the strategic and operational levels under the general supervision of the Garda. In addition, the Garda will make the site selection for the placement of cameras with the assistance of the National Roads Authority. The criteria for site selection will be grounded on collision history and the history of speeding incidents.
The process of establishing the road safety authority is well advanced. The Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004, which has completed Second Stage in the Lower House, provides the legislative basis for establishing the authority. The principal purpose of the Bill was to establish a driver testing and standards authority whose primary responsibility will be the delivery of the driver testing service and the regulation of driving instructors. The authority will also have a statutory duty to promote the development and improvement of driving standards. As the House will be aware from the Second Stage debate, the Government decided to amend the Bill to enable other functions to be assigned to the authority, which will ensure it can play an important role in improving road safety in general. The body will, therefore, be known as the road safety authority.
The authority will be a single agency with responsibility for a wide range of functions that have a bearing on road safety and it will be in a unique position to co-ordinate and advance the road safety agenda through delivery of a range of road safety programmes. These will include the testing of drivers and vehicles, driver education and the promotion of awareness of road safety, issues relating to transport sector workers, the oversight of the national car testing service and other vehicle safety issues. The authority will also be given responsibility for road safety research. This will enable the authority to both analyse the causes of road accidents and evaluate what action might be taken and make appropriate recommendations where necessary. The authority will have significant advisory role to the Minister in the development of road safety policy.
In advance of the formal establishment of the authority, I propose to appoint an interim board. This gives a clear indication of the importance I and the Government place on the proposed authority as an instrument to improve road safety. An interim board with varied relevant experience will also bring valuable expertise and support to the CEO and staff transferring to the authority, which would undoubtedly be of benefit during its establishment phase.
In a further recognition of the need to promote road safety as a key and urgent area of public policy, I also announced last week that a new high level Government road safety group, comprising the Ministers for Transport, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Finance, Health and Children and Education and Science is to be formed. I will chair the group, which will also include senior Government officials and the group's first meeting will be held tomorrow.
Safety on our roads is an important element of public policy. As a society, we cannot accept the inevitability of the rates of casualties we have witnessed in the recent past. The Government is committed to the reversal of the current trend and the policy initiatives I have outlined are aimed at achieving that result. They reflect and demonstrate the Government's determination to deal with road safety in an immediate and effective manner. I appeal to all drivers to reduce their speed, drive within the speed limit and, for heaven's sake, not to drink and drive.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I concur with his concluding remarks. Everybody should be asked to drive more carefully. Recently, it was stated that if drivers reduced their speed by 5 mph, it would have a significant impact on road safety. I sympathise with all those who have lost relatives following road accidents over the past number of years and, in particular, over the month of January when 39 people lost their lives. That was the highest number of road deaths in January for five years.
The issues of road safety and, in particular, driver behaviour have been raised regularly in the House over the years. It it time to do something radical to change the behaviour of drivers. A code of conduct should be introduced for drivers because driving patterns in Ireland are not similar, for example, to England. As one drives on motorways or dual carriageways in Ireland, one is passed out regularly on the inside by other motorists. If one, for example, is travelling in the middle lane of a three-lane motorway, one could be passed on either side by other motorists. In England, the right hand lane only is used to pass other vehicles and if one is not travelling fast enough in that lane, one moves into the left hand lane.
In the early 1990s car ownership in Ireland was measured at 28 per 100 head of population while the European average was 56 cars per 100. Car ownership must exceed this now, as the number of cars purchases has increased significantly over the past ten years. While improvements have been made, our roads have not been improved enough while driver behaviour has also not improved enough. A great deal could be done in this regard.
The main road safety issues are speed, drink, drugs, mobile telephone usage, poor signage and driver frustration. The latter issue is significant. The Minister will add 31 offences to the penalty points system later this year. Under the new system if one drives on the hard shoulder, it will be an offence and penalty points will be incurred.
One will also incur penalty points if one crosses a continuous white line. However, on numerous county, national primary and national secondary roads, people must cross such a line to enter their property. I hope they will not incur penalty points.
Tractors must use dual carriageways to transport farm produce such as sugar beet and they often travel on the hard shoulder to ease the way for other motorists. I am afraid they will incur penalty points and I hope that will not be the case.
There is ambiguity about the random breath testing issue. The advice given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport by the Attorney General was that such testing would be unconstitutional. However, the Taoiseach announced last week in the Dáil that random breath testing would be introduced. Our courts have been clogged with various cases taken under road traffic legislation regarding breathalyser usage. The Attorney General provided advice, which the Taoiseach contradicted in the Dáil, and this could leave the issue of random breath testing open to different interpretations, which could result in many cases being contested and numerous people escaping without conviction.
In 2003, some 335 people were killed on our roads, in 2004, 378 were killed, in 2005, 399 were killed and already this year 39 people have been killed. There has been a significant increase in road deaths over the past years. I hope the extra penalty points announced by the Minister will have the impact the system had initially. When the Minister initially announced the penalty points system, there was a significant reduction in the number of accidents and a big change in driver behaviour on our roads. I hope that when the extra penalty points are introduced it will have the same impact. The Government can do much more in regard to how drivers behave and how we do our business when travelling from A to B.
The number of motorists suspected of driving under the influence of drugs increased by 30% in 2005, yet there is no system in place to deal with drug driving. Roadside equipment is already being piloted in the UK to test for drug driving. This is an area we should examine because the level of drug taking has increased throughout the country. It is, therefore, natural to assume that if people are taking drugs, they are also driving under the influence of drugs. I drive as much as anyone at night time. When I am travelling at night, there is very little traffic on the roads, yet a huge number of one vehicle crashes take place at night, whether on national primary or national secondary routes. Everyone would like to know why is this the case. Some type of survey or independent monitoring of this aspect should take place because, while the roads are quiet and the volume of traffic is down at night time, a huge number of people are being killed on the roads then.
There are also problems in regard to motorcyclists. While one motorcyclist is killed each week on Irish roads, the Government has still to deliver on its promise to introduce compulsory basic training for motorcyclists. This was promised in 1999 and 2002 and in the national roads safety strategy 2004-06. It appears that motorcyclists are 17 times more likely to be killed than a driver of car. This represents 25% of driver deaths, even though motorcyclists represent just 2% of the total number of licensed drivers. The Government has not done much in regard to motorcyclists.
There was the episode whereby Mr. Eddie Shaw resigned because he felt the Government was not doing enough to protect road users. More than half of all drivers fail the driving test, which must point to poor driving behaviour by participants, and poor driving instruction. The Government has failed to introduce regulation of the driving instruction process. Anyone can currently set up a driving school because there are no stipulations for drivers to have a full driving licence. We need better regulation and certification of driving schools. One in six drivers on Irish roads has not yet passed the full driving test, which means they are on provisional driving licences.
The high number of provisional drivers is largely due to a 43% driving test failure rate, long waiting times and no incentive to pass the test. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system which allows almost 1,400 people to fail the test each week. The Government refuses to regulate driving instructors. It is not prepared to provide a driving structure for driver training. The driving test needs to be reformed urgently. For example, the sheet given to people who fail the test does not explain why they failed or what the position is. Something must be done in regard to these issues. The Minister did not include the use of mobile phones in the extra penalty points. The increased usage of mobile phones in cars is a contributory factor in some accidents.
While Government and Opposition parties are united in trying to solve this problem, I agree with the Minister when he says that everyone should take more care on our roads. Someone said on "Prime Time" or some other programme during the week that if we reduced our speed by 5 mph, it would greatly help the situation. The Department of Transport and the Minister are slowly putting together the Garda traffic corps. More gardaí should be assigned to this task. One way to deter people from speeding is the presence of the gardaí on our roads, particularly on the national primary and secondary routes. The public believe that the gardaí are out to catch people. If there is a Garda presence, people will automatically reduce their speed. This should not be an exercise in collecting revenue for the State. While it will cost the Government and taxpayers money to assign more gardaí to the traffic corps, the main objective of the exercise should not be to hound people but to see that they drive and behave properly, particularly on the national routes, which is not the case. The public believe that the gardaí position themselves at strategic locations to try to catch people. These locations may not be where accidents occur but where people are more likely to put the boot down.
I welcome some of the points proposed by the Minister. I am pleased he clarified the position in regard to the hard shoulder, which only applies to the motorway, and that it is not an offence to cross the white line if one is entering one's farmyard or house. Some people understood it would be an offence to cross over a continuous white line. There is much the Government can do in this regard. The Government, which has been in office for almost eight years, has done very little in that time. The public has taken advantage of the lack of activity on the part of the Government in not putting in place the proper resources to deal with this issue, which has been to the detriment of those who have been killed on our roads.
I hope the Minister of State will inform the Minister for Transport that more needs to be done in this regard. However, I agree with some of the measures he is putting in place.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this important matter. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Cullen, on the script he delivered and the information he provided to the House. I wish his officials well in their deliberations in the next number of weeks and particularly with the new interdepartmental group mentioned.
I agree with what Senator Paddy Burke said, particularly on the all-party approach to this matter. I extend sympathy to all those affected by the deaths on our roads. As Senator Paddy Burke said, there has been a significant increase in the number of road fatalities already this year. A total of 39 people lost their lives on our roads in January of this year. That is a worrying trend. There was an increase in the number of road fatalities last year compared to the previous year. There was a significant number of road fatalities last year with the number reaching 300 by the end of year. That was a significant increase on the previous year and was the highest since 2001. Notwithstanding the introduction of penalty points, the incidence of road deaths is bedevilling all elements of society. We cannot take the approach to this matter that the Government has not acted in the way that it should. Senator Paddy Burke has been fair in that respect in attempting to analyse or rationalise, as we all do on a daily basis, this situation to understand where the problems lie.
On the trend in the number of road fatalities this year, it is difficult to analyse figures with such a small snapshot of incidents, but 25% of the road deaths to date are of non-nationals. That is particularly tragic when one considers that many of these people have left relatively poor economies to come here to better their lives and those of their families and in the course of doing that they have lost their lives. That is particularly worrying. I would not like to draw any other inference from that trend. There has been an attempt in the media and by certain people for political gain to try to make links to the race issue. That is neither welcome nor helpful.
Another interesting statistic is that 45% of those who died on our roads this year were under 30 year of age. We knew that a concentration of young people die on our roads. These are people who do not have the same experience or perhaps regard for road safety as those who have more experience and more responsibilities in life. We must bear in mind that many of the people killed on our roads are from the younger cohort of the motoring population. That must inform us in developing future policy. The Government is taking this matter seriously, particularly with the introduction of measures announced in terms of the additional penalty points this week and, more particularly, the interdepartmental group the Minister mentioned.
It is also worth taking into account some statistics although they can at times be misleading. In 2001 when there were 411 road deaths, there were 1.6 million cars on our roads. The number of cars on our roads has increased to 2.1 million and there were 399 deaths on our roads last year. Taking account of the increased number of cars on the road, the number of road deaths is not as bad in real terms as it might seem. There has also been a growth in our population in that period. I do not want in any way to imply that any person killed on our roads should be addressed as a statistic. However, in analysing the incidence of road deaths, it is worth noting that in terms of the number of road deaths as a ratio to the number of cars on our road and the increase in our population, we are changing our behaviour and attitude, albeit not quickly enough. Statistics show that to benchmark ourselves to the best practice in road safety in other countries we could do significantly better. Mr. Eddie Shaw has been to the fore in highlighting that. He has said that while no death is acceptable, a figure of 250 or 260 in terms of road fatalities is the figure that would be so-called acceptable for the size and population of this country. We have to try to achieve that reduced figure as quickly as possible.
The Minister referred to driver behaviour being at the root of most accidents, and we know that to be the case. When one notes the ages of those killed on our roads, it is clear that the safer drivers are in the older cohort of the motoring population and tend to be more responsible — correspondingly, their road behaviour tends to be safer and they are less prone to having an accident. The goal facing us is to try to change driver behaviour and culture. The measures the Government is discussing are welcome in that context.
In terms of changing the attitude to and culture of driver behaviour, one cannot simply decide to do that at 9.30 a.m. on a Monday and hope that it will be achieved by 5 p.m. on Friday. It takes almost a generation to bring about that change. The stringent measures in place in terms of penalties for the offences of drink driving and speeding do not act as a deterrent. At times motorists feel they can get away with such behaviour because the gardaí cannot police every street corner or back road in a country the size of Ireland. Therefore, some motorists will take risks. Many accidents have taken place on small country roads. Even if the size of the Garda force were trebled, our country roads could not be policed. It is simply not feasible to do so. Far too much emphasis has been placed on the lack of enforcement. While it is a major issue, some groups are of the view that if the Garda force was doubled or increased to a certain number, there would be more gardaí on street corners, but that is not possible given the dispersed population and rural nature of the country. Accidents are not happening on the motorways and dual carriageways to the extent one might expect. An analysis of road accidents shows they happen in the main on back roads, minor roads and, at times, unapproved roads. In this context, the issue of driver behaviour and education comes into play. I have harped on about the interdepartmental task force, as I consider it is one of the major planks forward in this regard.
The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science is very much aware of that. She is to be applauded for the work she has done in adult education. There is a role for continuous learning in this context, a concept the Minister espoused in a major way in her time in the Department, whereby people are on a learning curve for the rest of their lives. Such education could be used to change driver behaviour on our roads through people gaining an understanding of issues related to driving and the changes needed. The Department of Education and Science might be able to contribute in that respect because this matter not only comes under the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, although it plays a significant part in terms of the traffic corps. There must be a joined-up approach to dealing with this issue, on which Government is working. That is welcome.
The random breath testing issue has been well covered by the Minister. The proposal legislation is welcome and I look forward to its introduction. It will remove the necessity for a garda to form an opinion on the alcohol consumption of a motorist. This issue has been bandied about in the courts for too long. Court cases have turned into an interrogation of a garda and about how she or he formed an initial opinion, regardless of the results of the intoxication test. We hear from some gardaí reports that a motorist might fall out of the vehicle such is the level of the individual's intoxication but it can be challenged in court that the garda did not form the opinion in the correct way and, subsequently, the case is thrown out of court regardless of what the intoxication test showed or the state of the individual concerned at the time. It is to be welcomed that this issue will be addressed.
I do not want to cross the line but the Judiciary also has a role to play. There is a complete separation of powers and that is necessary, but it is clear from debates in the Oireachtas what is the intention of the Executive and the Legislature in this context at this time. My basic understanding of the way the law works is that the judge is there to interpret the legislation within the confines of the Constitution. The intention of the Oireachtas is clear; it certainly is not that with crafty parsing of legal text a garda can become the person being interrogated and the individual concerned who has been proven, through the evidential breath test and the intoxiliser test, to have been well over the limit can find a way through the system. I suppose drink driving was acceptable or semi-acceptable at one time but that culture has changed, certainly in more recent years. We must deal with that.
I have always had a cautious approach to the introduction of penalty points. I welcomed the initial introduction of the penalty points and I give a guarded welcome to the current round of penalty points, although I would not want the penalty points to go any further. I understand that initially up to 60 offences were identified as being worthy of penalty point accumulation. Some of them bordered on the ridiculous. We might lose a certain amount of the public's buy-in to this concept if we go down that road to the fullest extent.
The list of offences which attracts penalty points at present is important because it affects driver behaviour. I have said on many occasions that education is important if we are to change driver attitudes and culture. The offences which initially led to the imposition of penalty points were speeding, failure to use a seat belt, drink driving and dangerous driving. Further measures are being put in place at present.
I am not sure that penalty points are appropriate in the case of a driver who is not in the correct lane when turning onto another road. I have found myself in the wrong lane on more than one occasion, particularly when I was on roads with which I was not familiar. I hope that penalty points will apply in such instances only on major roads with the maximum speed limit. I am not sure that penalty points should be imposed when people choose the incorrect lane in confined areas such as villages and towns. Those of us who come to Dublin on a weekly basis find that the lay-out of lanes on streets can change from week to week. The regulations in this regard should be subject to a liberal interpretation or further qualification.
I have seen the basic information sheet on the new penalty points regime. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to discuss this matter with her officials. We need to amend the regulations to ensure that the offence I have mentioned does not attract penalty points in towns, villages and other places where restricted speed limits are in place. Drivers can easily find themselves in the outside lane when travelling at a snail's pace. I understand the need to ensure that drivers do not swerve from the outside lane across the inside lane to try to reach the exit on a dual carriageway or a motorway. There is no justification for such behaviour because exits are very well signposted on all primary routes. I would like the Minister of State to clarify this matter at a later stage.
The striking advertisements with which we are familiar demonstrate that a real effort has been made to increase publicity as part of an overall programme of driver education. There has been a helpful degree of co-operation on both sides of the Border in the interests of helping people to understand the impact of deaths on our roads. I compliment RTE, particularly Mr. Charlie Bird, on an interview that was broadcast last evening with a gentleman who is mourning the death of his daughter who was killed in a road accident some weeks ago. I understand that the man in question spoke to Mr. Bird just 48 hours after his daughter was buried. It is right that the harrowing report in question was the lead item on last night's RTE news bulletins. A story about two dogs on drugs was the lead item on the news for a couple of days last week, which cannot be justified in the context of what is going on in society.
I was impressed by the report on yesterday evening's 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. news bulletins. The comments of the father of a woman who was killed in recent days will remind people of the importance of this issue. He explained what it means to him to have lost his daughter and, more particularly, what it means to his daughter's young child to have lost her mother. Those of us who see children on a daily basis understand the impact such a tragedy would have. Such a striking and harrowing report will probably do more to change driver behaviour than many of the other measures which have been put in place. I compliment RTE on the report and I hope it will continue such an approach to its news output.
I came across a road accident before Christmas as I was travelling from Dublin to County Clare early one morning, just after I had finished my business in this House. As the traffic was moving slowly, I was able to see a priest saying prayers over the body of a dead woman, which had been abandoned on a ditch by the road. For the rest of that day, I thought I would hear reports of what had happened and what was the cause of the accident but it never even made the news. There was not a scrap of information about it in the newspaper the next day. It would be particularly sad if the deaths on our roads, which have such significant consequences for the lives of all concerned, were not deemed worthy of news coverage. It would be wrong for media organisations not to see such accidents as news because they happen so frequently.
If the deaths on the roads are kept to the fore by being in the headlines, they will continue to shock people. Given that we depend on news reports for our information, such reports should not omit any mention of the fatalities on our roads. If those of us who listen to "Morning Ireland" each morning start to notice that the first item is usually about a person having died in a traffic accident, slowly but surely that will help us to slow down. When I saw a dead woman on the road as I was rushing to a number of events in County Clare, I took the attitude that it did not matter if I was ten minutes or half an hour late for the rest of the day. We will have some success in this regard only if the media takes the approach I have suggested. The media has an obligation to report road deaths and it is certainly doing it. I compliment RTE on the approach it adopted on last night's news bulletins.
I thank the Minister of State for attending this debate. I am sure she will use her position in the Department of Education and Science to make some proposals in this area.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. I am delighted that the Government is taking an increased interest in road safety. That so many people have been killed on our roads in recent years is appalling and depressing.
I am glad the Road Safety Authority is to be given responsibility for research into road safety. We have been far too casual about this aspect of the matter in recent years. Not much of the considerable amount of road safety research that has been undertaken in Ireland and other countries has been brought to the attention of consumers. We need to tell consumers about the increased risks, not only for drivers and their passengers but also for other road users, which are associated with the use of certain types of vehicles, particularly sports utility vehicles, which have become very popular in Ireland. A considerable amount of international research has indicated that those who drive such vehicles feel they are safer than they would be if they were driving other types of vehicle. There is nothing to substantiate that feeling, however. Not only are the drivers of sports utility vehicles no safer, but they represent far more of a risk to other road users such as pedestrians.
Many reports have highlighted the danger presented to children when they are struck by vehicles with bull bars. Children are small and therefore less visible to the drivers of sports utility vehicles. As such vehicles are much higher than other vehicles, they strike the entire child which means there is no chance of a child being thrown onto the bonnet. It is a serious issue. A woman in Australia who killed a five year old child while driving a sports utility vehicle — she drove over the child without realising she had struck the child — is spearheading a campaign to ban such vehicles from being used within a certain distance of schools.
Dr. Ciaran Simms, who is a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Trinity College Dublin, and Professor Desmond O'Neill, who is the college's associate professor of medical gerontology, have published a survey, based on information provided by hospitals, of the fate of older pedestrians who are struck by sports utility vehicles. They have found that older people suffer much worse injuries if they are struck by such vehicles because they are usually struck on the upper leg, the pelvis or the chest. Such collisions cause severe internal injuries and are much more likely to lead to death. When people purchase sports utility vehicles, I do not think they understand they are choosing to drive a vehicle that is much more likely to cause serious damage to their fellow road users. It would be a good idea to make the observations of Dr. Simms and Professor O'Neill generally known to consumers.
The risk of serious injury to people travelling in a sports utility vehicle is no less than the risk to people travelling in what is described in the United States as a "sedan", or what we would call an ordinary car. A study published by the University of Pennsylvania's school of medicine suggests that parents should be advised that "despite their greater size and weight, SUVs are not any safer than standard sedans for children during a crash because of their increased tendency to roll over". Sports utility vehicles are twice as likely as other cars to roll over as a consequence of their high centre of gravity. The most common circumstances in which children are injured is when they are thrown about, because they are not restrained, when the vehicles in which they are travelling roll over. It should also be noted that side passenger airbags are more likely to inflate in such circumstances. We have known for a long time of the lethal effects on children of front seat passenger airbags. Everyone is advised not to allow any child in the front of a car fitted with an airbag. This survey shows that side airbags also cause extremely serious damage to children. It states that no child under the age of 13 years should be allowed sit in the front seat of a car and that the danger to children in SUVs when unrestrained versus restrained in a rollover crash was of the order of 24.99 and 6.68. That is a huge difference in the injuries one could sustain if one has such a vehicle.
I cannot understand why bull bars have not been removed from cars. I do not see bulls all over the roads of Ireland. I understand they were originally for kangaroos which are also in short supply. Persons driving these cars should be made aware of the dangers to themselves and to other people, pedestrians in particular.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, to the House. This is a matter that caught my attention some years ago. I was asked to go on the National Safety Council which had decided to draw attention to those in the media who were highlighting the problem of deaths on the roads. I did not realise how much the problem was capable of being solved until I got involved in it. It is capable of being solved. What it needs more than anything else is a sense of leadership at the top. I looked at France which I know quite well. France had horrific problems. At the last election President Chirac said he would put that issue at the top of his agenda and that it was his priority. Once he said that and put it high on the agenda it actually worked and France has dramatically reduced the number of deaths on the road. The behaviour in France used to be totally different.
If only one message comes out of this debate that we have been tearing ourselves apart with in recent times it is that it needs leadership. I am not speaking only about the Minister who is doing his best, it has to be the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach has got to say this is a priority. What happened in France also happened in Australia. Victoria, in particular, took action. It is interesting to note that recently in Northern Ireland there has been a reduction in accidents and we question why.
I am informed it will cost money to do some of what needs to be done. That is wrong, it is value for money. We can save money in many areas. This is value for money investment. I wrote an article in The Irish Times 15 months ago on the topic of value for money. I took the instance of enforcement and changing the attitude of the nation and it is possible to do so. In my own business we saw how the attitude of people changed on the issue of plastic bags. It happened overnight because we behaved differently. The same can happen regarding road deaths. I was in Australia a few months ago and I was taken by the fact that I did not see anybody drinking who was driving. The question did not even arise. I did not see anybody breaking the speed limit. These things depend on enforcement and that is where we are wrong.
One of the actions we could take, and it is a proposal I made 18 months ago, is to put in place thousands of speed cameras not only on main roads but on side roads and back roads. There is no need for somebody to stand watching them, people automatically take note. If the legislation is enforced there will quickly be an attitude change. We have to change our attitude towards speeding and I believe we can do it.
For many years we have been told there are constitutional difficulties in introducing random breath testing. Suddenly we find we do not have a problem any more. The solution was there all the time but we were not determined or committed enough to introduce random breath testing. If we had to change the Constitution we should have done so. It turns out we do not have to change the Constitution, the solution was there all the time. That is the sort of thing that can happen only if there is determination and if we give the matter priority.
The third issue which was touched upon by Senator Henry is the attitude to seat belts. If we had the experts in here they would say the three issues that are most important are speed, alcohol and the wearing of seat belts. The use of mobile phones is a side issue. If we are determined to address these three issues, and it is possible, we would reduce the problem dramatically. However, none of that will happen without enforcement. It is a question of enforcement and steps are being taken now.
I am not one of those who asks why we did not do it earlier but it looks like something will now happen. It is unfortunate for the parents and families of those who died in recent years that we did not do this in the past but let us grab this opportunity. Let us put the matter high on our priority list and ask the Taoiseach to put it at the top of his agenda as did President Chirac. Then, I believe, it will happen. We are convinced this can be achieved. I know the Department and the Taoiseach's heart is in the right place. Let us ensure it is not just talk but action.
I thank my colleagues for sharing their time with me. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, to the House and hope she will take our views on board. I wish to put a few simple points on the record. I listened with some care to the points made by my two colleagues who raised issues that can be simple matters. Certainly the higher the vehicle the more likely it is to cause serious injury, as made clear by Senator Henry. The reports are there to prove it.
The issues raised by Senator Quinn are also ones that can be moved forward. I wish to add a few more. Perhaps we can look at a simple issue. The condition of the roads has been mentioned by everybody as an important factor in determining safety. That is a cost issue and I will not develop it.
There is another issue that always interests me every time I drive on the Continent. On most of the main highways in France there are two speed limits, a wet and a dry speed limit. It is a simple matter and it is implemented. The wet sign indicates a speed limit of 90 km/h and the dry sign 120 km/h, 115 km/h or 110 km/h. That is the rule. It is sensible and practical. That is another thing we could learn.
The other issue has to do with side roads. Those of us who have been driving North-South all our lives used to like to get to the Border years ago because there were better roads in the North.
We do not find that any more. When we get to the North we find the main roads are narrow. Similarly, in the North if one goes off the main roads the side roads are way ahead of those in the South. That is the difficulty. I know Senator Wilson will have much to say about that given that he lives in a Border county. The difference is clear if one goes on a non-main road North and South. Road conditions are crucial to accidents.
The other issue is the overtaking manoeuvre. The number of people who cannot overtake a car is infuriating. They cannot judge the speed of an oncoming car. With half a mile of road ahead they cannot overtake the car in front. These are people who have full licences. The simple reason for this is that there is no overtaking manoeuvre in the driving test. It would be hypocritical as the test is normally done in a 30 mile speed limit area and they will never get the opportunity to overtake. People should not get a driving licence without being able to show they appreciate the speed of a car and of an oncoming car and that they can overtake with safety. That is an essential requirement.
The Minister will not accept the logic of the argument I am about to make and I need a good deal of time to develop it, but I will state it in about four sentences. One in four of the fatalities that have occurred in Ireland in the past year has involved immigrants. Similarly, every year, and over Christmas, we have seen the tragic deaths of Irish people on the Continent. We are driving on the wrong side of the road and that is causing a problem. I have looked very closely at this matter. I spoke to a man from the west of Ireland who was in Sweden on the weekend in 1963 or 1973 or whenever it was that they changed over from driving on the left to driving on the right. I accept that the Swedes are far more disciplined than we are but they did it in one weekend. We should do it, take the pain for a year and move on. We should drive on the right like the rest of the world.
In terms of drink driving, I would welcome a requirement on all people who run public houses to take responsibility for getting a taxi or a hackney cab for anybody who looks for it. People go to the pub with good intentions of taking a taxi or a hackney cab home but when it becomes difficult they get into their car and drive. It is happening all the time and it is an important issue. This is a small thing which should be taken up with the hospitality industry, as it now likes to call itself.