Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Road Safety Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage.


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

12:00 pm

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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The establishment of the road safety authority is an important element in the Government's strategy to improve road safety and I am pleased to be in a position to bring the Bill to the Seanad today. The purpose of the Bill is to establish the road safety authority and to make an amendment to the Road Traffic Act 2002 to facilitate the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications on a bilateral basis between the UK, Northern Ireland and ourselves. In regard to the code of road traffic legislation in general, I intend to introduce in the near future a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Acts. This Bill will include provisions in regard to drink driving, use of mobile phones, speed cameras and enabling provisions to facilitate future reforms of the driver licensing system.

The decision to establish the road safety authority was taken after detailed analysis and full consideration of the issues involved. I am confident that the establishment of the authority will lead to a more focused development of initiatives to promote road safety, result in improvements in driver formation in general and lead to improved service delivery for the driving test, which will facilitate future reform of the driver licensing system. The authority will play a major role in the development of future road safety strategies by developing programmes that will form the basis of the Government's future road safety strategies. The headquarters of the road safety authority will have an office in Loughrea, together with driving test centres throughout the country.

The establishment of the authority is a crucial step in promoting the road safety agenda. I anticipate that the authority will be in a position to deliver a more flexible driver testing service and be able to respond more readily to customer needs and future demand. Dealing effectively with a continuing backlog in applications for the service is a prerequisite to bringing forward reforms in the licensing system to reduce long-term reliance on provisional licences. In this context, we are committed to eliminating the current backlog by the middle of next year.

In light of the authority's duty to raise driving standards, I envisage such a body having the necessary flexibility to take an innovative approach to the whole area of driving standards that will have long-term benefits for road safety. Such benefits will not be as immediate as those resulting from the targeting of the offences of speeding, seat belt wearing and drink driving. However, it is important to foster the development of driving standards in order to underpin the overall strategy for road safety.

When the legislation was introduced, the primary objective was to establish a separate public sector body to deliver the driver testing service and assume responsibility for related functions. However, it was decided to assign additional functions to the authority and change its name from the Driver Testing and Standards Authority to road safety authority to reflect the wider role being assigned to it. The additional functions assigned to the authority are intended to bring within one single authority activities, currently under the auspices of the Department or its agencies, which are focused on improving driver and vehicle standards and the promotion of road safety.

The functions are provided for in section 4 of the Bill. The authority will have functions in regard to driving tests, vehicle testing and registration of instructors, which will be designated in regulations made under the Road Traffic Acts. The authority will be the issuing authority for certificates of competency following successful completion of a driving test, and test certificates certifying that vehicles meet test standards on successful completion of a vehicle test. In this context, the authority will take over responsibility for the commercial vehicle testing scheme operated by local authorities and the car testing scheme operated by the NCT.

The authority will be charged with the registration of driving instructors. It will be the approved body which will issue instruction certificates for the purpose of regulating driving instructors. It is envisaged that the authority will also carry out functions related to driving, provisional licences and vehicle standards which are currently carried out by the Department of Transport.

In the case of licensing, blank licences are issued to licensing authorities and the operation of the licensing system, including the driver theory test, and the application of penalty points and disqualifications is monitored. In regard to vehicles, a wide range of functions relating to vehicle standards, which are technical in nature and include type approval and construction, equipment and use standards, will transfer to the road safety authority.

The road safety authority will carry out the road safety functions of the National Safety Council. The authority's primary focus will be to promote greater coherence in the advancement of road safety generally. It will adopt the lead role in respect of the promotion of road safety awareness by building on the excellent work of the National Safety Council. The authority will also take on the enforcement functions under the Road Transport Act 1986 relating to enforcement of road haulage licences, the working time directive, driver hours and digital tachographs.

Crucially, the clear legislative provision in section 7 ensures that the authority has a lead role in the development of strategies and measures to advance the road safety agenda. Road safety comes under the remit of various Departments and agencies. In consideration of its very extensive remit, the authority will be in a position to engage with all of those contributory bodies in order to develop and monitor the delivery of a comprehensive road safety programme. The authority will play a major role in the development of future road safety strategies and will submit its programme for approval by the Minister. The authority will also have a role in overseeing the implementation of the Government's road safety strategies and, in that context, will report regularly to the Cabinet sub-committee on road safety.

I also envisage that the road safety authority will compile reports that address policy recommendations across a range of road safety measures. In this context section 8, which empowers the authority to collect data relating to road safety, will assist it in carrying out road safety research. The aim of this provision is to provide for the co-operation of all relevant agencies in supporting this area of the authority's overall range of functions. This will add value to our current statistical base and the information collected will facilitate the development of future road safety strategies.

As part of its extended remit, the authority is empowered under section 6, in addition to its general duty to promote better driving standards, to take an active role in the development of regulatory proposals in the areas of vehicle standards and testing, driving testing and licensing, speed limits and control of traffic. While the power to make regulations will remain with the Minister, the authority will be expected to provide the necessary technical and administrative expertise and to take an active role in the development of regulatory proposals in these areas.

The staff of the authority may attend EU and other international meetings on behalf of the State. This is particularly relevant in the areas of vehicle standards, driving testing and licensing and road haulage, where EU directives apply.

A major area of work for the RSA will be the delivery of the driving test. In recent years the driving test has been improved and the parameters for the test reflect the high standards laid down in EU directives on driving licences. This is facilitating the recognition of Irish driving licences in the EU and internationally.

The driving test must determine whether an applicant is competent to drive a vehicle safely and with due regard for the safety and convenience of others. After successful completion of an oral and practical road test, a certificate of competency is granted indicating the necessary standard of driving has been reached. This certificate is then submitted to the local licensing authority which grants the individual a driving licence for the appropriate category of vehicle. The role of the driving testing service in ensuring that drivers reach an acceptable level of competence is important in the context of road safety. Driver competence and formation are an important part of the Government's road safety strategy.

The number of applications for driving tests has fluctuated considerably in recent years. Between 1998 and 2002 considerable additional resources were invested the driving test service and waiting times fell to an average of ten weeks in the latter half of 2002. However, the current waiting time problem started in 2003 when an exceptionally high number of driving test applications were made to the Department in response to concerns about the possibility of stricter regulation of the use and renewal of provisional driving licences which was being reported in the media. In 2003, applications rose to an unprecedented 233,889, which was an increase of 22% over the previous record of 192,016 applications in 2002. Applications in 2004 and 2005 reduced to 177,000 in each year.

As the Minister for Transport has indicated on a number of occasions, the delay in providing driving tests is a matter of regret. The delay not only represents a poor service to the public but is also hampering the development of initiatives which the Government wishes to pursue in the interests of road safety. The driving test and those who deliver it are a key element in the road safety strategy.

Our objective is to eliminate the backlog of driving tests by the middle of 2007 and the Department has developed a package of measures, in consultation with staff interests, to achieve this. Additional staff have been made available to the driving test service. To date, seven additional testers have been trained and are carrying out tests while a further ten driving testers are due to commence training shortly. I am pleased to acknowledge that a very high number of the existing driving testers have indicated they will participate in a bonus scheme which commenced in February and will make a significant contribution to the reduction of the backlog.

An important element of the package of measures to reduce the backlog was a proposal to contract out a set number of driving tests. The Civil Service Arbitration Board has determined that, otherwise than by agreement, the contracting out of core work of driving testers to a private firm is not contemplated or permitted by the provisions of paragraph 21.9 or by any other provision of Sustaining Progress. However, the board urged a resumption of discussions at which all options should be considered to ensure that a solution is implemented without delay. Departmental officials are currently in discussions with the unions regarding the way forward with a view to dealing with the backlog by the middle of 2007.

I am very conscious of the need to provide a testing service which can offer tests within a reasonable period of time. The establishment of the road safety authority, which will have the necessary flexibility to respond to variations in demand, is essential to the improved delivery of the driving test.

There have been a number of improvements to the driving test in recent years, most notably the introduction of a detailed report sheet that shows the test candidate where his or her driving skills are weak. The on-line application facility has proved popular since its introduction. In addition, a motorcycle test with radio communication between the tester and the candidate has been introduced. This enables the driving tester to carry out a much improved test and has been well received by both testers and test candidates.

I draw the attention of the House to the proposal that the authority will be responsible for the registration of driving instructors. Driving instructors are not currently regulated. Proposals have been developed by the Department for the regulation and quality assurance of driving instruction that will involve a test of the competence of individual instructors. A working group comprising representatives of my Department and driving instruction interests has formulated the design of the standard that a driving instructor must meet. It will be a matter for the authority to determine how best to fulfil its obligations in carrying out its function in this area. In any event, the end result will be a register of driving instructors held by the authority.

Instructors on the register will have passed appropriate tests of competence to instruct, which will be the responsibility of the authority to administer. Prospective instructors will have to demonstrate that they have appropriate instructional skills in addition to demonstrating their general driving competencies. A consultation paper setting out the Department's proposals in this regard will be published shortly. I am aware that many existing driving instructors, who have been instructing for many years, are concerned as to how the proposals to regulate their profession will affect them. In this regard, I am of the view that, in the interests of ensuring that an appropriate standard of instruction applies throughout the country, all instructors must demonstrate they have reached the required standard. During a period of transition, when all new instructors will have to undergo the appropriate tests in order to instruct, existing instructors who can show they are bona fide instructors will be allowed to continue instructing before having to undergo the appropriate competency tests. The consultation document will address these issues.

Driver formation is an important element in the Government's road safety strategy. The proposed system of regulating driving instruction that I have outlined should assist in the achievement of improved standards of driving and assist in the formation of drivers.

A related issue often raised in the context of road safety and the waiting period for driving tests is the number of provisional licence holders on the roads. Some misconceptions exist regarding the number of persons driving on provisional driving licences and the arrangement governing the number of provisional licences which a person may obtain. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify the position. There is no limit to the number of provisional licences a person may obtain for any particular category of vehicle. The first two licences are each valid for a period of two years. However, in order to be entitled to a third or subsequent provisional licence for any particular category of vehicle, a person must have undergone a driving test for that category within the preceding two years, or failing that, have a driving test appointment arranged, in which case the provisional licence is granted for one year only.

Another misconception is that 410,000 provisional licence holders drive around without having undergone the driving test. This is not the case. In 2005, approximately 45% of applicants underwent the test for at least the second time. The overall pass rate for driving tests in 2005 was 53.6%, with the pass rates for first time candidates at 51.5% and non-first time candidates at 56.1%. Notwithstanding the fact that many provisional licence drivers have undergone the test, I recognise that the proportion of Irish drivers relying on provisional licences is too high at 17% of all current licences. We are determined to reduce this proportion significantly and the establishment of the authority would ensure that we can offer driving tests more quickly than at present and thereby reduce the number of provisional licence holders.

As the waiting times for driving tests become more manageable we propose, as signalled in the current road safety strategy, to bring forward appropriate amendments to the driver licensing regulations to discourage long-term reliance on provisional licences. Nevertheless we should not assume that provisional licence holders are per se unsafe on the roads. There is no evidence to suggest that holders of provisional licences are, as a group, disproportionately involved in serious road accidents. In this regard, Senators may wish to note that of 310,760 drivers who had penalty points on 31 March 2006, only 24,843 were provisional licence holders.

International research indicates that age and length of driving experience are more important indicators of the likelihood of safe driving behaviour than the possession of a full driving licence. Young people need to be encouraged to cultivate safe and precautionary driving habits, even after they have obtained a full driving licence. My Department's leaflet, Preparing For Your Driving Test, is sent to all test applicants and advises them that, having passed the test, they should continue to drive carefully and build up their experience in different traffic, weather and road conditions. The driver theory test introduced in 2001 has assisted in driver formation and has ensured that provisional licence holders have an adequate knowledge of the rules of the road before being allowed to drive on the road.

Before going into more detail on the provisions of the Bill, I advise the House that the process we initiated to establish the authority is open and transparent and has been established in a spirit of partnership with all the staff associations. Consultation with staff interests has taken place. The forum is a sub-committee of departmental council where staff have been kept advised of developments and have been given the opportunity to voice their concerns. An interim board and a chief executive officer have been appointed. I wish them well for the future.

I would now like to turn to the main provisions of the Bill. I have already outlined the provisions in sections 4, 6, 7 and 8 as they were amended or inserted on Committee Stage in the Dáil to reflect the wider remit of the road safety authority. In addition, section 10 enables the Minister, following consultation with the authority and any Minister concerned, to confer by order additional functions on the authority. Any such additional functions must be connected to functions already being carried out by the authority.

The authority, in carrying out its functions, will have a general duty, contained in section 6, to promote the development and improvement of driving standards and will be able to make recommendations to the Minister in this regard. This provision will allow the authority to develop its services in such a way as to encourage better driving rather than simply testing driver competence. I envisage that this provision will give the board and staff of the authority the scope to move beyond the basic task of testing and allow it to be more innovative in its approach to the development of better driving in this country.

While it will ultimately be a matter for the board of the authority to decide on the best approach to take, I envisage the authority taking a proactive approach towards encouraging better driving standards. The section also places a duty on the authority to conduct its business at all times in a cost effective and efficient manner and provides that the authority will have all powers necessary for the performance of its functions. Section 9 provides that the Minister may issue general policy directions to the authority on the performance of its functions and that the authority shall comply with any such direction.

Section 11 provides that the authority may, with the consent of the Ministers for Transport and Finance, establish subsidiary companies to perform any of the functions conferred on it by this Act. For example, it would be open to the authority to engage in the publication or production of materials relating to the promotion of better driving standards. Any necessary capital need not come from the Exchequer but may be raised in the marketplace by reference to the commercial merits of the project concerned.

Section 12 provides that the authority may, with the consent of the Ministers for Transport and Finance, hold and dispose of shares or other interests in a company and become a member of a company. Section 13 enables the authority or any subsidiary of the authority to borrow money, subject to the consent of the Minister, with the agreement of the Minister for Finance, for capital or temporary purposes. The aggregate of temporary borrowings will not be allowed to exceed a limit set by the Minister with the agreement of the Minister for Finance.

Section 15 provides for the appointment of a board of the authority by the Minister. The board will consist of a chairman and not fewer than six and not more than 11 ordinary members who may serve not more than two terms. The period of membership of any member will not exceed five years. Sections 15 and 16 contain provisions on the appointment of a chairperson and ordinary board members as well as to the meetings and procedures of the board.

Section 17 provides for the appointment of a chief executive officer. This officer will be responsible for the staff, administration and business of the authority and will be the person charged with the day-to-day running of the authority and the carrying out of its functions and will be answerable to the board. The chief executive officer will be responsible for the propriety of the authority's accounts and the economic and efficient use of its resources and will be answerable to any committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas set up to examine its affairs.

Section 18 provides for the transfer of staff from the Department of Transport to the authority and the appointment of staff to the authority. The section provides that the terms and conditions of employment of staff transferred from the Department of Transport will not be less favourable than those already enjoyed by the staff and that scales of pay to which such staff were entitled will continue to apply, unless agreed otherwise with a recognised trade union or staff association. Sections 19 and 20 deal with remuneration and superannuation arrangements for staff.

Sections 23 to 25, inclusive, provide for the disclosure of interests by staff, members of the board and directors of a company which has been set up as a subsidiary of the authority. Section 26 prohibits any unauthorised disclosure of confidential information by members of the board of the authority, its staff, advisers or consultants. The section also provides that the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts will apply to the authority.

Section 28 provides that the Minister may make a service agreement with the authority related to the performance of its functions. Funds advanced by the Minister under section 27 out of moneys voted by the Oireachtas to carry out these functions will be conditional on the authority seeking to meet the terms of the agreement. The service agreement will set out the performance standards the authority will have to meet in carrying out its functions. Section 29 provides for the keeping of accounts and the conduct of audits of the financial accounts of the authority. Responsibility for the keeping of accounts rests with the chief executive officer. The accounts will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the auditor's report will be laid before the Oireachtas.

Section 30 provides that the authority will make an annual report to the Minister not later than six months after the end of each financial year and also provides for the annual report to be laid by the Minister before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 31 provides that the authority may purchase or lease land or purchase or build premises for the purposes of carrying out its statutory functions and, with the consent of the Minister, may sell or lease any land or premises which are no longer required for these functions.

Section 32 specifically provides that the authority may make charges to the performance of its functions and the provision of its services. The level of such charges will be subject to the consent of the Minister. Sections 34 to 37, inclusive, provide for the transfer from the Minister of property, assets, liabilities, contracts and pending legal proceedings relating any functions transferred, to the authority; that existing contracts and agreements of a continuing nature will continue to operate; and for appropriate transitional arrangements.

Section 38 amends section 9 of the Road Traffic Act 2002, which provides for the procedures to apply when the European Convention on Driving Disqualifications is in force. At a recent meeting of the British-Irish Council it was agreed that the terms of the convention be applied between the UK and Northern Ireland by means of a bilateral agreement between Ireland and the UK. Currently the procedures in section 9 can only apply when the convention comes into force across the EU, which is 90 days after the last member state which signed it has adopted it. This section provides for section 9 to apply before the convention comes into force. I look forward to the agreement with the UK on mutual recognition of driving disqualifications being in place by the end of this year.

I reiterate that the establishment of the road safety authority is an important step in reducing the unacceptable level of fatalities and injuries on our roads and I look forward to the support of Senators in the establishment of the authority. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport to the House and the opportunity to speak on this very important legislation. It is long overdue. The Minister of State indicated that with regard to the code of road traffic legislation in general, it is intended to introduce shortly a Bill to make amendments to the Road Traffic Act. That Bill would include provisions regarding drink-driving, use of mobile phones, speed cameras and enabling provisions to facilitate further reforms of the driving licensing system.

I thought there would be more in this Bill, but the Minister is clearly bringing more legislation before the Oireachtas. I hope the other legislation will be brought before us as a matter of urgency. I travelled to Australia with the Joint Committee on Transport and there is cross-agency compilation of records there. Much information is received from various agencies, and one unit of the organisation would compile nearly all the information and statistics are produced. We do not have statistics in this country so we do not have the information to go on. I hope the further legislation will be brought before the House as a matter of urgency.

With regard to the Road Safety Authority Bill 2004, when the authority is up and running, will it be able to make a recommendation to the Government that a particular stretch of road of very poor quality — be it in Galway, Mayo or wherever — be upgraded or aligned? It may make other recommendations in the interests of safety; will the Government take that on board immediately and take action or will it be another exercise in dust gathering?

It is fundamental that if there is a body such as a national road safety authority, it can make recommendations and such recommendations will be prioritised and be carried out straight away. The funding should be put in place, which is crucial. Otherwise, despite our setting up a national road safety authority, putting people such as a chief executive and chairpersons in place, it will be of no benefit.

The Government's record on road safety is appalling and extremely disappointing. At a time when most European countries are significantly improving their road safety measures and succeeding in reducing the level of death on their roads, our level of road deaths in Ireland is getting worse. In 2005, 399 people were killed on our roads; in 2002 this figure was 23 less at 376. This year, with 150 people dead, 18 more than at this stage last year, it seems this year's figure will be even worse.

The picture is one of a worsening scenario of carnage on our roads. Yesterday, an EU survey placed Ireland's level of enforcement of road safety measures quite low down the scale of European states. In particular, it highlighted our problem in dealing with drink-driving and speeding. This survey once again identifies that we are going backwards on road safety. That is a reason I welcome this Bill and the opportunity to speak on it.

The Government will lay the blame for this level of death and injury at the door of personal responsibility. Individuals have a significant role to play in ensuring that one drives carefully and responsibly, and that the rules of the road are obeyed. The Government and State structures are also very important and play a vital role. In this respect, the current Government should hang its head in shame. It is not new to the fact that we have bad road safety measures.

The Government has had over nine years in office when it could have taken decisive action to reduce deaths. Instead, the Government has produced two glossy road safety strategies and failed to implement the key recommendations contained in them. We have been promised a number of measures from the Government. It promised the full national roll-out of speed cameras but, according to what the Minister of State said today, the necessary legislation has still not been introduced. It also promised the implementation of all 69 penalty point offences and the immediate introduction of a 2,000 strong traffic corps, which is vital to increase enforcement of existing road safety legislation.

The Government promised an increase in the detection of offences such as drink driving and speeding and a complete ban on the use of mobile telephones when driving. A party colleague of mine is introducing legislation proposing a complete ban on hand held mobile telephones but on our visit to Australia we learned that there was no difference between hand held and hands free telephones in terms of their effect on drivers, which is interesting. The telephone, however, is a big distraction in a car, notwithstanding that some people say it is a great asset when driving long distances at night.

We were promised compulsory training for learner motorcycle drivers, and measures to end the horrendous backlog of drivers waiting for a test. We were promised enforcement of the existing provisions barring drivers on a provisional licence from driving unaccompanied. The Government also stated it would introduce measures to ensure the proper qualification of all driving instructors, and that it would reform a driving test system which has remained unchanged since the 1960s. It also promised new rules of the road, which have not been altered in more than ten years.

I have mentioned ten measures which the Government promised to deliver to improve road safety and there are probably more. However, none has been delivered, which is disgraceful. Lives have been lost while the Government has dithered and procrastinated. Even the National Safety Council has repeatedly pleaded with the Government for the implementation of measures which could save 200 lives each year. That amounts to almost 2,000 lives since this Government first took office nine years ago. Instead, this Government and the Minister for Transport have allowed this important issue to remain on the back burner and only now, one year from an election, does it suddenly decide to do something about it.

One of the most significant contributors to the level of deaths and injuries on our roads is the poor standard of driving of our motorists. Irish drivers in many cases take too many chances when driving. They neither know nor obey the rules of the road and have poor driving skills and ability. However, this is hardly surprising given the fact that the driving standards we require of our motorists is at a very low base to begin with. On several occasions in this Chamber I have called, as has a former Member, former Senator Willie Farrell, for a driving code of conduct or a courtesy code for the roads. In England people will automatically let another driver out if they are at a crossroads or a side road. That does not happen in this country. In some cases drivers pass others out on the inside lane, as well as on the outside. One would not see that in England, where they have strict rules on overtaking.

The current system of provisional licensing is totally unacceptable for modern conditions. Currently, one in five drivers on our roads does not have a full driving licence and has never passed a driving test. Worse still, one in seven motorists has been driving on a provisional licence for the past seven years. This means that almost 300,000 drivers have failed the test several times and yet remain on our roads. It is ludicrous that someone can turn up to sit the driving test, fail and then simply drive off. It is bad for the safety of the learner driver and for the safety of fellow motorists.

Provisional licences were always intended to be just that — provisional. They were never, as is now the case, intended to be a lifelong passport to carefree motoring. It is time this charade was brought to an end. I hope that the proposed road safety authority, the subject of the Bill before us today, will sort out this chaotic system. The new authority must put in place structures to ensure that those on provisional licences can sit the driving test in a short period of time and can re-sit the test quickly once they have undergone sufficient training. The Minister of State appeared to suggest such measures in his speech today, which, if correct, is welcome.

At the moment provisional drivers often have no other choice but to continue to drive on a provisional licence. This debacle, in which there is a several month backlog of people waiting for a test, is due to the incompetence of the Government. The Government has allowed nine driver tester vacancies in the driver testing system to remain unfilled for four years. That is not acceptable because it did nothing but expand the waiting lists.

The Minister is also negligent in his handling of the outsourcing of driver testing to the private sector. Last May, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, launched his plan to cut waiting times and the numbers waiting for a test. One year on, the number waiting continues to grow. Outsourcing of testing to the private sector has not taken place. This is the one measure which could have made an impact. The Minister will lay responsibility for his failure to temporarily outsource at the door of the trade unions, but the Minister surely knows that it is within his power and that of his Government to immediately resolve this issue. If the Government insists under the terms of the new national pay agreement that private sector outsourcing be permitted to deal with what is now an emergency situation we could resolve the problem. I urge the Minister to act immediately on this suggestion.

One of the key functions of the new authority must be the urgent reform of the driving test. The current system of testing has been in place since the 1960s, a period when there were far fewer cars on our roads, speed was lower and road conditions very different. Today, there are over 2 million vehicles on our roads, more significant hazards and a greater variety and type of road and road conditions. The current testing system does not reflect these changes. Also, almost half of those who sit the test fail and are still permitted to drive away. There is also significant variation in the level of pass and fail rates throughout the country. This suggests a variation in the standards applied by testers, whose training must also be reviewed by the new authority. In Australia a person remains a learner driver for a number of years before becoming a full driver. Statistics have shown that if people do not have a full licence they are more careful than drivers who receive their full licence and feel they can drive away. There is a graduated licensing system in Australia and it seems to be a good system.

The high level of driving test failure also raises questions about the standard of instruction received by learner drivers. Regulation and quality control of driving instruction in Ireland simply do not exist and it is time for a new authority to ensure they do. Currently, anybody can establish a driving school. It is not even necessary to have a full driving licence, much less own a car. There is a real danger that some schools could be passing on bad driving habits to learner drivers.

It is Fine Gael policy that any driver presenting for a driving test must be able to show that he or she has undertaken a minimum number of driving lessons. This must be complemented by the application of high quality standards in the driving schools that teach our young drivers. I urge the Minister to ensure that the new authority takes on this policy when it is up and running.

When will the Rules of the Road be updated? The current manual is out of date. The Minister promised that he would prioritise this issue but its publication is no nearer. If we cannot get the basics right, how will we properly educate our drivers?

While I welcome the measures in the legislation to establish a unified, strong body to tackle all areas of road safety, I am critical of the way this legislation has been formulated. The Bill before us establishes the authority as little more than a shell. It fails to clarify and comprehensively set out the functions, responsibilities and duties of the new body. These must be dealt with by ministerial order. I will deal with these further on Committee Stage. In effect, the new authority is at the mercy of the Minister. It will not have the power or authority to hit the ground running from the first day. It should be able to do this but instead it must rely on the Minister to delegate functions.

I am obliged to conclude. I wish the Minister luck with the Bill. We will discuss it more comprehensively on Committee Stage.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Paddy Burke referred to the Road Safety Bill and I hope to deal with some of the issues he raised in that regard later in my contribution. Road safety is about two things — first, bringing forward policy initiatives and legislating for them as necessary and, second, enforcement. The road safety authority is being established to oversee the delivery of key road safety initiatives. Initially, it was intended to name it the Driver Testing and Standards Authority, which was to deliver driver licensing and driver testing services.

In July 2005, however, the Government decided to assign a range of additional road safety functions to the new body, thereby creating the road safety authority. That is the reason for the Bill before the House today. The road safety authority will be directly responsible for road safety promotional work. This work has been carried out to date by the National Safety Council. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the council for the work it has done over the last eight years or so in educating people, through television, radio and the newspapers, about driving behaviour and the consequences of breaking the law.

The authority will have the legislative and financial muscle to co-ordinate and advance the road safety agenda. The remit of the authority will be critical, be it through formulating strategies, advising the Government and testing drivers and vehicles. I noted the Minister's and Senator Burke's comments about the testing of drivers. A total of 177,000 people are waiting to do the driving test at present. Some 260,000 people have provisional driving licences and the majority of them have yet to apply for a driving test. The Minister cleared up the misconception that 410,000 provisional licence holders are on the roads without having undergone the driving test. This is not the case. In 2005, approximately 45% of applicants were undergoing the test for at least the second time.

The overall pass rate for driving tests in 2005 was 53.6%, with the pass rate for first time candidates at 51.5% and for non-first time candidates at 56.1%. The Minister also stated that the number of Irish drivers relying on a provisional licence is far too high at 17%. It certainly is. The legislation before us is the way forward. It will put one body in control of all these matters.

The continuance of the backlog for driving tests represents a potential threat to road safety. It is unacceptable that people on provisional licences, who have failed the driving test, continue to drive. The Minister also addressed the fact that anybody can set up a driving school in the country at present. The legislation will deal with this through the establishment of a register of driving instructors. However, the vast majority of driving instructors currently operating are doing a good job. They will be allowed to continue their work until the register is established.

I note from the Minister's figures that almost 50% of those who sit the driving test fail it. Something is seriously wrong with that. Either they are dreadfully bad drivers or the test is too hard or not relevant. How many of those drivers fail the theory test? I suspect a high percentage of them pass the theory test and then fail the driving test. Basic training should be provided for motorcyclists. Many of the people driving motorcycles at present are not capable of handling them so there should be basic training for them.

The authority will also be responsible for road safety research, data collection and driver education. I am familiar with the Youthreach programme in County Cavan. In the three Youthreach centres in Cavan it is compulsory for the trainees to complete the theory test. It should also be compulsory in schools and other training institutions attended by young people. That would contribute to safer driving.

The authority will be responsible for promotion and awareness of road safety in general. I welcome the establishment of the board and the appointment of Mr. Gay Byrne as chairman. I do not know him personally and I did not particularly like his radio programme but women in this country seem to love him.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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That is just jealousy.

3:00 pm

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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He has received a great deal of publicity and that can only be good. He is a straight talker and will take no nonsense from anybody, including the Government. That is good.

With regard to the Bill, section 14(4) provides that each member of the board shall be a person who, in the opinion of the Minister, has wide experience and competence relating to roads, road safety, transport, driver education and examination, industrial and commercial matters, local government, the organisation of workers or administration. The board should also include a young person, given that we are targeting young people, as well as a representative of the non-national community given that a large percentage of road traffic fatalities are non-nationals.

Section 22 deals with membership of the board for Members of the Oireachtas and European Parliament. Subsection (1) states:

(1) Where a member of the Board—

(a) is nominated as a member of Seanad Éireann,

(b) is elected as a member of either House of the Oireachtas or to the European Parliament,

(c) is regarded pursuant to Part XIII of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, as having been elected to the European Parliament to fill a vacancy, or

(d) becomes a member of a local authority,

he or she shall thereupon cease to be a member of the Board.

I understand an individual elected to the Oireachtas having to relinquish his or her membership of the board of the road safety authority because he or she will become a legislator. I do not understand, however, why an individual elected to a local authority should have to resign. Local authority members deal with their communities. An individual elected to a local authority should be allowed to remain on the board until its term expires.

Section 30 provides that the authority will make available a report on its activities not later than six months after the end of the financial year. As with many reports, this may not happen. With a staff of 300 dedicated to the authority, it should be in a position to have its annual report published within six months.

Senator Paddy Burke pointed out that to date, 150 people have been killed on the roads this year. It is an unacceptable figure. Up to 399 were killed on the roads last year, 63 more people than 2003. That year saw the lowest level of road deaths in over four years. From 1 April, 31 new offences were added to the penalty points list, including careless driving, not wearing a seat belt and driving with no insurance. I agree with the list of careless driving offences. However, driving too slowly is not listed as an offence. This should be classed as careless driving. The case of an individual driving slowly, resulting in a build-up of vehicles and necessitating drivers having to pass them, should be included in the list of offences.

An individual has 28 days to pay a traffic offences fine. If it is not paid after this period, from the end of the 28 days to the 56th day, the fine increases by 50%. After that period, court proceedings can take place. In certain cases, particularly where a driver is caught committing a traffic offence by a speed camera, it is necessary for notification of the fine to be sent by registered post. I am aware of situations where the first a driver knew of an offence was when a garda arrived at the front door with a summons. These drivers had never received the letter notifying them of the offence. The Garda had no proof of the letter being sent because it was not registered. Notification of traffic offence fines by registered post must be introduced.

Several issues raised by Senator Paddy Burke are included in the Road Safety Bill 2006. The Bill will provide for disqualification from driving for drink-driving, hit-and-run and insurance offences. The offence of driving with no insurance is included in the penalty points list but I always believed anyone driving without insurance should be put off the road. Senator Paddy Burke referred to driving while using a mobile telephone but that is also included in the Road Safety Bill. The privatisation of speed cameras is also included in the legislation. The Garda will be given the power to impound uninsured, untaxed or unlicensed vehicles, not only for State-registered vehicles but for foreign-registered ones.

I wish this important Bill well in its progress through the House and I look forward to debating the Road Safety Bill when it is introduced.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Over the past while, the issue of road safety has been much debated. It is important to consider some of the issues underlying this. It has become a political football. I was a Member when the Government changed from one side of the House to the other. At the time, I had tabled amendments to road safety legislation to give local authorities the power to implement minimum speed limits on roads. It was supported by my then colleagues on this side of the House. Two months later when they were on the other side of the House, they opposed it. I take some Senators' views with a grain of salt.

I must admit I do not have a great record with dealing with speed limits. This is not a holier-than-thou speech but one of hard experience. I believe the driving test format is appalling because it does not test certain essential driving skills. There is no requirement on learner drivers to show any understanding of speed or distance for overtaking purposes. The fact that there is no overtaking manoeuvre in the driving test is criminal. It is the single most important manoeuvre in the course of driving and it must be included in every driving test.

The same applies to motorway driving. Learner drivers need to have some simulated motorway driving. I would be happy, as happens in some countries, for learner drivers to do a simulated motorway driving test on a machine. Very often one sees a driver with three quarters of a mile of road in front of them. When a driver on the other side of the road overtakes a half a mile away, the oncoming driver starts flashing lights and blowing the horn. That is bad driving. These drivers consider themselves the safest on the road but they do not have any concept of space or distance required to overtake safely.

The legislation I referred to earlier contained a provision which enabled the State to require all drivers to carry their driving licences. At the time, I said it was somewhat unrealistic but was pooh-poohed out of it. I was informed it was only an enabling matter and would never be introduced. It was introduced five years ago. I made the point that in order to ensure people comply with the law, it is important drivers have a durable driving licence. I suggested a plastic, credit card-sized driving card be introduced with all the information required by the Garda contained on a small chip. I raised it with the then Minister for Transport who told me there were problems finding EU agreement on the matter.

Regardless of any agreement, it must be introduced in Ireland, even if it means having two licences. It is not rocket science. An IT student could design, develop and produce such a card format in a month. It could be introduced in Ireland with the next 25 years spent getting the EU to agree to the format, rather than the reverse.

We should also examine signage. The finger signs unique to Ireland are incredibly dangerous. A significant number of the accidents involving foreign nationals in this State are caused by the daft signage which makes no sense to anyone who was not born and bred here. Even then it is difficult to figure them out. In every country in Europe, a driver will see substantial signs on both sides of the road pointing to a turn, not a small sign pointing in its general direction. We should have done this when we moved to the metric system.

Senator Wilson said that the fourth most common driving offence involves uninsured cars. It is a disgrace. I only found out last week courtesy of Senator McCarthy that it is possible to tax a car on-line by inputting false information on insurance because the system does not read it. The Minister for Transport should not listen to those who say this is a problem, it is not. It is a simple link where if someone inputs the name of an insurance company and a number, it is sent to the mainframe of that insurance company and comes back as valid or invalid. It takes about 20 seconds for Michael O'Leary to determine if he is getting the right credit card number. This is not new. I will be vocal on this because I know what will happen. Ministers do not like to look stupid so the Minister will ask a few questions. He will listen to what he is told and will accept it. He is being told lies if he is being told this cannot be done, it can. It should be sorted out straight away.

The problem with speed cameras is that someone decided that a man on a bicycle must drive up to every speed camera every day to renew the film or the battery. There should be no need to open them except for an annual service. They should send the images back to a mainframe computer and the system should work from there. There should be no need for anyone to go near them. That should have been in the initial specification.

There should also be a speed camera at every accident black spot in Ireland. In many European countries, there is a warning before every camera. That does not appeal to us in Ireland because we like to catch people, like the school inspector long ago, ducking his head under the window so he was not seen arriving. If people are told cameras are in place, they will act more realistically. We should not be trying to catch people, we should be trying to slow them down.

Right turns should be banned from all national roads. The Department of Transport film which seeks to train people in road safety suggests that drivers should leave their wheels pointing straight ahead if waiting to turn right. That way, if they are shunted from behind, they will be shunted straight ahead rather than into oncoming traffic. That is wise but it would be easier to say right turns are not allowed, drivers must turn left and come straight across, with a loop on the other side of the road for entry. Other countries do that and so should we.

It makes no sense to have the same speed limit on a sunny day like today as when there is a torrential downpour or fog. All over Europe there are two speed limits on signs, one for wet and one for dry. That is too complex for us apparently. We should erect these and let the courts decide on them. This is not rocket science, these are simple ideas that we should put in place.

There is no bonus for those who buy cars that are safer than others. It should be reflected in some way. These things should be done immediately. The speed cameras should be installed. It is possible to buy cameras for less than €100, this is all cheap technology. A speed camera should be in place at every black spot and we should ensure that no one can tax a car on-line without a check on the insurance policy. There should be no right turns, different speed limits for wet and dry conditions and the abolition of finger signposts.

There should be some semblance of uniformity across Europe for road signs. At sea, a pyramid shaped buoy has a different meaning from a spherical buoy. In many European countries the same applies. In either Poland or Latvia there is a system where a round sign denotes an imperative but the opposite is the case here. Brussels should try to achieve some uniformity, it does not have to be absolute.

If I am driving on a thoroughfare which also has a bus lane at 7.01 p.m. and I drive into someone, should I have crossed the heavy white line on the dot of 7 p.m. when the bus lane finished? How does the requirement to drive in the left hand carriageway apply to bus lanes? I do not expect the Minister of State to have the answer because I have asked senior officials the same question. Are cars supposed to move in at 7 p.m. precisely or should they continue in the wrong lane? We have no answers to these questions.

There must be a review of the areas covered by the driving test. According to the driving test, a car should be parked with the handbrake on and the gears in neutral. Those of us who learned to drive in the dim and distant past, when handbrakes were a luxury, parked in the lowest possible gear to ensure the car could not be moved. Can someone explain why it is safer to park in neutral instead of first gear? This makes no sense. I do not understand many aspects of the driving test. People who learn to drive over the course of a year are complying with rules and regulations that make no sense in the real world.

I wish to see credit card-sized driving licences. Overtaking should also be added as a manoeuvre tested in the driving test. No one should be allowed on the roads until he or she knows how to overtake. We do not want people who need three quarters of a mile to pass the car in front. The problem is never the car drawing a caravan, it is the driver in the car behind who does not know how to overtake.

I would like to see a speed camera at every black spot and to see on-line road tax organised in such a way that car insurance is checked automatically. We should put an end to finger signs on roads and put proper European signage in place, speed limits should be different for wet and dry weather and there should be an end to right turns. These changes, along with some of the other suggestions I have made would provide us with a nice agenda I would like to see carried out.

It is appalling that people do not have a difficulty with the fact that a Member of the Oireachtas may not be a member of the road safety authority. There is no reason that should be so. I disagree with the point made by Senator Wilson that if they were to be allowed, they should be nominated. Why? There is no reason Members are not allowed on the authority apart from the fact that this is what the drafts people put into every piece of legislation. We should get rid of that stipulation. We are as trustworthy in this regard as anybody else.

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House. We all know the terrible context in which we are discussing the legislation, namely the high number of people being killed on our roads. It is important for the Minister of State and his officials to hear our contributions. There are no experts guarding the secrets of success with regard to road carnage. If there were, we would not experience it every day on our roads.

It is ironic that this Bill is being set up outside of normal Civil Service structures in order to deliver flexibility and focus. Current driver testing arrangements, which are seen as core Civil Service work, are a clear indictment of inflexibility. It is good that as a result of this Bill the RSA will be able to set up PPPs and outsource driver testing. This is important.

We must focus on whether we have been placing too much emphasis on passing the test rather than educating drivers. I agree with the Minister's recent statement that a driving licence should be difficult to obtain but easy to lose. Currently it is difficult to obtain a licence, but this is not because we are setting high standards. The driving test fails young people because they must wait 12 months for a test. During this period they only serve time until they get notice of their test and then go to an instructor to cram in as many hours as possible to enable them to pass. They do not seek this instruction to make them better drivers, which could not be done in that short time. Young people are forced into this way of behaving. As a result of this system, they are forced to pay thousands of euro for insurance, but only a pittance on education.

I would like to see a change of focus to education. We should not be asking young people to pass the test per se, but to improve their driving skills. We should insist that a certain number of hours are spent on driver education. A brother of mine did his driving test in Germany 20 years ago. At the time it cost £1,500 to get a driving test there. One dare not fail the test there, or one then had to go to a psychologist to prove one was capable of driving in order to sit a second test. As a result of this system, people in Germany put more effort into education on how to drive properly.

Young people here fail the test, not because of high standards but because the test fails them. The current regime must change. Over the past 12 months the Minister has tried and failed to change the system and reduce the long delays by getting agreement on outsourcing of driver tests. I regret his attempt to change the system has failed because of union intransigence.

We must look outside the box with regard to providing tests for the hundreds of thousands of people awaiting them. I suggest we focus more on education and driver behaviour. We could, for example, take a cohort of those who have been driving for more than a year but who have failed their test — possibly for minor reasons — remove them from the waiting lists and encourage them to take ten to 15 hours of lessons from an accredited instructor in order to obtain a credit that would permit them to drive for another year. We would reduce the waiting lists and get people to spend money on education instead. Young people would spend up to €500 on driving lessons to discover their weaknesses and be credited with driver education permitting them to drive under certain conditions for a further 12 months. We could, perhaps, have a graduated system where there could be a curfew on such drivers after 11 p.m. until they had built up more experience.

The current emphasis on passing a test and allowing those who have passed to drive under the same conditions as those with 20 or 30 years experience is not right. The more we consider the education route, the better it will be for young people. There are no experts in this area. If there were, we would not have the appalling mess we have on our roads.

Senator O'Toole mentioned finger signs. We cannot even get signage on our motorways right. I drove back from Portlaoise last Sunday and watched out for signs on my way. I did not see a sign from Portlaoise to Naas informing me of the speed limit. When one drives along the M50, one sees signs every few hundred yards. South Dublin County Council has 100 km/h limits, but Fingal County Council allows speeds up to 120 km/h making it difficult for drivers to know at what speed they should be driving. Along the N11 signage is even worse. Where we have roadworks on the N7, there are makeshift signs on every piece of machinery or pylon. How legal are those signs? I imagine they are illegal and wonder whether they have been agreed with Kildare County Council under the statutory process allowing the erection of temporary signs.

Senator O'Toole asked why no Member of the Oireachtas was permitted on the authority. Why is no local authority member allowed on it? Have they done something wrong or do they lack experience? Is it because, as Department officials have said, they could go down Grafton Street and select any six people at random who would fit this board and be capable of doing the job? Is this the type of safety encouraged by the Department of Transport and is this the reason for the mess on our roads?

The contributions of Members must be taken into account in the setting of driving standards and the accreditation of driving instructors. I wrote to every driving instructor in Dublin last year and met many of them over the summer months. They said that for over 20 years nobody from the Department had ever had a meeting with them. However, they got edicts over time telling them how their careers and business would change. They are crying out for proper regulation because they know young people are going to them not looking for instruction on the way to behave on the roads. They are asking for grinds. They want to know how to turn a corner correctly. They want them to bring them to the driving test centre and show them the route. Effectively, they are grind schools and the driving instructors are annoyed about the position. They know what is going on.

In the accreditation process, a system should be brought in where young people would be required to take a certain number of lessons before being allowed to apply to do the test. The position currently is that they can apply to do the test even before they take a lesson. They get the provisional licence, apply to do the test, wait for a year and do a few lessons in the meantime. A total of 50% will fail the test and they go back into the system but it is appalling. The Minister stated that the success rate the second time around is only 56%. If any State examination had a failure rate of 56% we would be asking if the standard was too high or if the students were failing to prepare. Both are wrong in this case. The standards are appallingly low. There is no night time or motorway driving involved in the process. There is no testing on those issues yet as soon as people pass their tests they can drive away. We are forcing those young people to pay thousands of euro in insurance as a result of our negligence. I appeal to the Minister to examine that issue in a serious way.

We must consider the messages we are giving. We heard about the crime figures again today and the Minister, Deputy McDowell, said that the messages are not getting across. Gay Byrne is only in his job two months and he is frustrated. One can imagine how Eddie Shaw must have felt after a few years.

Some 40% of the surface area of a packet of cigarettes warns of the potential dangers of smoking — smoking can kill — yet one can drive a car, buy insurance and motor tax without getting any safety messages along the way. We all say the issue is about safety. Is it any wonder our safety strategy is not working as it should and that hundreds of people are being killed on our roads? We must find new ways, using cigarette packages as an example, of getting the message across at every stage of the process of driving, whether it is buying insurance or buying or taxing a car.

I am delighted the Bill is before the House. The irony is that it is providing structures that do not currently exist or that have failed. It will allow the road safety authority to out-source and form private partnerships. The reasons for doing that are focus and flexibility. We must ensure that young people are not allowed drive on our roads in an unsafe manner. The Department has failed them miserably over the years in not establishing the correct standards. Consequently, they have lost faith in the system and are merely trying to use it to pass their test. It is not about long-term driver behaviour. I agree with the points raised by Senators O'Toole and Burke about signage.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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Some months ago I read an article in a magazine inquiring of the reader as to the number of people that had been killed on the roads in the United Kingdom in the preceding 15 years. The number was a staggering 58,000 or 59,000. It then went on to inquire as to the number killed as a result of accidents involving airlines based in the United Kingdom in the same period and the answer was none. The magazine was looking to promote air travel for obvious reasons but it struck me that in a sense the message can be turned around. It proves the relative safety of air travel but it also proves the relative danger of road traffic. If we were experiencing the level of carnage through air travel that we do on the roads, we would be talking about grounding aircraft and taking radical action yet there is a blithe acceptance in this country, and I suspect in others, that if one travels on the roads there is at least a significant danger that one will, at some point or other, be involved in an accident which may involve injury or even death. As ordinary individuals we must ask why that is the case. Logically, it should not be the case but it is the case, more so here than in other countries.

The relative statistics indicate — I do not want to go into them in detail but I read them this morning — that it is undoubtedly more dangerous to drive on the roads in Ireland than it is, for example, in the UK, Scandinavia or even France. It is also the case that we accepted for many years, until we introduced the penalty points, that, inevitably, the number of fatalities would increase. They have not increased in other countries. The statistics suggest that in 2005 in Europe as a whole they decreased by approximately 5% and they have come down by much larger figures in other countries. There is nothing inevitable about this problem, therefore, and there is nothing particularly Irish about it.

For a long period we thought that the problem was the standard of our roads but the sad truth is that even as we have improved the standard of our roads, the number of fatalities has continued to rise. In the past week or ten days there have been fatal accidents on motorways, national primary roads, secondary roads and so on. It is clear, therefore, that road standards are not the problem either. In fact, we know the immediate causes of most fatal road traffic accidents — alcohol and speed. We have had a good deal of debate about alcohol, and I do not intend to go into that today, but we have not had anything like adequate focus on the issue of speed.

In my circle of friends, and I am sure others will have had similar experiences, people have very little time for drink driving. There is a measure of social pariah attaching to it but there is nothing like the same measure of opprobrium attaching to speed. In fact, men who would never drink and drive, and who have little time for those who do, will happily boast that they travelled at 120 km/h, 140 km/h or 150 km/h on their way to Limerick or Galway to get there in a few hours. They have no sense of guilt or of doing anything wrong but the figures from the Road Safety Council suggest that by far the biggest cause of road traffic fatalities in this country is speed and those who are most likely to speed are young drivers. In terms of the public advertising that is done by the new authority, we must focus far more on the issue of speed and put the problem of drink driving into some sort of perspective.

Again, we come back to the issue of enforcement. I holiday on occasion in South Africa, as I am sure many others do, and if one travels down the garden route out of Capetown one knows as a matter of certainty that one will be stopped or go through speed traps. It happens all the time. They are virtually constant, not in the same places, but one will be stopped on that main road. There is no such certainty here. If one travels from Dublin to Galway a dozen times the chances of passing a speed trap are not very high. The chances of anything happening if one does are even less. We must take the issue of speeding more seriously. We must have more speed traps, be they electronic or manned, and we must act upon them quickly; on-the-spot fines are by far the most effective way of deterring people.

The Bill primarily seeks to address the issue of licences. Following on what Senator Morrisey said about the question of provisional licences, we are in an extraordinary position in that 420,000 people drive on provisional licences, approximately one fifth of those who hold licences. That is an astonishingly high number. The Minister and his two immediate predecessors are on record many times as saying that is unacceptable and have talked about putting in place radical and urgent measures to do something about it. The Minister's contribution earlier contained those phrases also. I hope something good comes of it this time.

I acknowledge Senator Morrissey's point that there have been industrial relations difficulties which delayed the implementation of any improvements. That is regrettable. I do not seek to allocate blame one way or the other but it is something that must be resolved and if it cannot be resolved within the current structures, it should be resolved through outsourcing or whatever. One way or another we must get more testers in place. The Minister talked about having an additional six or seven in place now by comparison to this time last year. That is just tinkering with the system; we need far more than that. There is no prospect of getting through the ever-increasing lists if that is the sort of numbers we are talking about in terms of the improved facilities we want to provide.

Implementing a system whereby failing a driving test carries consequences is perhaps even more important than the need to reduce the numbers of people on provisional licences. Everybody is entitled to sit the test two or even three times but at this stage we must surely realise that something is wrong. Either the person in question does not take the test seriously or is incompetent and cannot drive. At the very least, we must tell people to go away and take a compulsory road safety or driving instruction course. There comes a point where if a person fails the test four or five times, which does take place, he or she must be forbidden to drive. The person can come back in a year's time after having taken a course of between six and 12 driving lessons and sit the test again but in the meantime, he or she should not be allowed to drive.

We must also take the issue of accompaniment seriously. I am aware that such a course of action would not be politically popular, which is presumably the reason why Ministers have shied away from it. However, there is an overwhelming case for insisting that people who fail the driving test more than once or twice must be accompanied by another person when they subsequently drive. We cannot allow a situation to continue whereby people fail the test, drive away alone, come back in a few years' time and perhaps do the same thing all over again.

Much of this debate has centred on various elements of road safety identified by individual Senators. I will address one or two of these issues. The issue of cyclists is particularly relevant to Dublin. The former director of traffic in Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, was at least conscious of the need to meet the needs of cyclists in the city. If one examines the record — one can tot up the kilometres — one can also see that the provision for cyclists is hopelessly inadequate and what provision there is does not, for the most part, work. One frequently finds non-segregated pieces of tarmacadam which may be a slightly different colour on main roads which go on for 100 m. or 150 m., a gap of 50 m. then appears where the road narrows and the cycle track resumes a few hundred metres down further. Often the track will have been dug up and not replaced if it is a different colour. In any event, it is not segregated from the rest of the road. Cycling in Dublin city centre is uncomfortable and frequently dangerous.

We must examine European cities which take cycling seriously and seek to encourage it. The only serious way of doing this is by allocating some part of the roadway or pathway in a segregated fashion. Based on my experience as a member of Dublin City Council, I am aware that there is great consumer resistance to such a measure. One of the first matters with which I dealt following my election to the council in 1991 was a proposal to put a cycleway on Griffith Avenue, a wonderfully wide, tree-lined avenue on the northside of Dublin. All hell broke lose. Being a newly-elected councillor, I naively believed that cycle lanes were good, green and should be encouraged but the people of the avenue did not think so. I understand that they are still opposed to such a proposal.

If we are to take cycling seriously, we must acknowledge the necessity of providing a segregated piece of pathway for cyclists. People in Dublin would get used to it, as has happened in other European countries where cycling is taken seriously. It is the only safe measure to take because an unacceptably high number of cyclists are being killed or injured on the streets of this city.

Other speakers mentioned the issue of foreign cars and foreign drivers, an area where we must make progress. It is unacceptable that people from Northern Ireland or other jurisdictions in the EU simply ignore the rules of the road because any penalty points imposed on them in this jurisdiction will not be recognised in their own jurisdiction. This issue has been discussed at Council of Europe level but progress is needed. We must move to a situation whereby at least people in Northern Ireland know that if they infringe our laws it will be held against them in their home jurisdiction and that penalty points will be internationally recognised. Surely, such a measure would not require considerably more inventiveness or political will than currently exists.

I would be interested in finding out how we stand in terms of smart card driving licences because it would facilitate the international recognition of penalty points. I am aware that smart card licences have been in the pipeline for many years. Such licences would be a useful way of storing information in a way that would be internationally identifiable. The Minister of State can update us on progress on this issue. When I last examined it some time ago, the proposals to introduce these licences seemed to run into the next decade and I am unsure as to whether the timeline has become any narrower. This issue is increasingly important because we now have many more drivers and cars from other jurisdictions on our roads. Action is needed.

I understand that one of the authority's functions will be to take responsibility for vehicle standards sooner or later. I am aware that the former Minister of State, Deputy Callely, instituted a review of the NCT, excerpts of which were published some months ago. I gather that the entire report was not published. Could the Minister of State update us on the status of this review? On the one hand, various aspects of the NCT appear to be niggling to the public and cause a certain amount of irritation, while on the other hand, it appears that insufficient attention is paid to some of the more important aspects of the test. My car failed the NCT because there was insufficient space on the licence plate to include the Irish version of Dublin. The very pleasant Russian man who carried out the test informed me that he normally recommends including a sticker but as there was insufficient space on my licence plate, I needed to get a new licence plate. These are the kinds of issues which frustrate people. One needs to be able to distinguish between factors which seriously affect safety and other cosmetic issues which do not really matter.

This Bill is an enabling Bill in that all it does is establish an authority and allows the Minister to make regulations setting out the way in which the authority is to work. I hope the experience of the authority will be considerably more positive than that of the National Safety Council. Sadly, it appears that the council will be forever damned by the comments of its former chairman, Eddie Shaw, when he resigned his position. He effectively stated that the political will to ensure that the number of road fatalities was reduced was not there. If the awful events of the last number of months have done nothing else, they have ensured that this issue is further up the political agenda with the result that perhaps there is the political will to ensure the authority is properly resourced.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I join with others in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. I welcome this Bill, which, as Senator McDowell noted, establishes a road safety authority and gives the Minister the opportunity to make regulations, which is very positive. Any measure which attempts to resolve what is effectively a national emergency involving the deaths of so many people is a positive development that must be constantly reviewed. The Bill is an important step in this process.

As other Senators have noted, one death is too many but at this stage, road deaths are out of control. If we recorded a similar number of deaths from air accidents, we would ground airplanes. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the number of people killed in certain years may have lower than the number of people killed on the roads but there were 3,000 or 4,000 gardaí and half of the Army at checkpoints during that time. Yet, the problem of road deaths is more serious on an ongoing basis so we must commit additional resources or introduce additional measures if necessary.

The establishment of the authority will be of considerable assistance in terms of the licensing system, vehicle testing and instructor competence. The register of instructors is a very important measure. Other speakers have addressed these issues in significant detail but the single most important part of this Bill is section 6. This section does not concern the administrative or regulatory setting in which the authority will be involved. The Minister of State's speech states that the aim of the section is to encourage better driving. This is where the authority's role is most important because one can introduce all the penalty points, signs or speed cameras one likes but one must address the specific demographic group of people who are being killed on the roads for specific reasons, namely, alcohol and speed. A wide variety of sources glamorise speed, fast cars and associated alcohol or drug abuse, which contribute to road deaths. This is the single most important issue facing the authority. I hope it will not be an authority in name alone but that it will get involved in innovation and the conceptualisation of new ways of getting young people to engage with the necessity of saving lives and acting more responsibly. Let us make it cool to be responsible rather than reckless.

Senator Wilson referred to Gay Byrne becoming chairman of the authority. I welcome his appointment, as he is a man of tremendous life experience. While Senator Wilson said he did not particularly like him, women over a certain age seem to like him. That said, let us not lose sight of the fact that we must focus on a specific demographic. While I do not doubt that Gay Byrne could do this, his role is to convince his younger colleagues in the media, acting and celebrity worlds to engage in the process. Ultimately, it is the likes of Colin Farrell, Podge and Rodge and the Sugababes who need to state that driving slower and more responsibly is the smartest and coolest thing to do. With the best will in the world and while it is welcome that Gay Byrne has agreed to take on this role, he could not sell the message to me, a 33 year old. We need to focus on the 17 to 25 year old age group, which I previously mentioned to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen. I hope Gay Byrne can draw on his friends and colleagues, such as U2 and others, to help in this regard.

As the Minister of State knows, the north west was lucky to host Rally Ireland. We are confident that counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and others in that area will host a round of the World Rally Championship in coming years. It was important that, during the event, there was signage all over the region that read: "Keep the race in its place". Top drivers and people from the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, FIA, were there. With the helicopters, Ferraris, Aston Martins and so on, it was like a Formula 1 weekend in the region. Young people were bowled over. If we are to sell the message, these are the events on which we must focus. I hope that the authority, through Motorsport Ireland and Rally Ireland as it grows and develops, will continue innovating in this way.

If possible, the incentivisation of younger drivers should be examined. For example, in return for placing governors in their cars to stay below a certain speed, they could get cheaper or subsidised insurance premia. I would do this myself. The possibility of using a driver simulator such as that used in flight training could be examined. I do not know how practical it would be, but as we innovate in pursuit of a successful conclusion to this worsening issue, we must examine the possibility. If it were reasonable to train people in simulators, it would be a good step. How much time have I remaining? At the outset, I intended to say that I wished to share my time.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has four minutes remaining.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Can I share my time with Senator Kate Walsh?

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Yes, if that is acceptable to the Senator.

Kate Walsh (Progressive Democrats)
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It is.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Senators O'Toole and McDowell referred to licences which stored information via chip and PIN technology, for example. This would be beneficial in a range of issues, not least of which is driving competency, but also all State transactions. I am sure this matter will arise in later debates on the register of electors.

I welcome the Bill. It is another step in the right direction but more needs to be done. The key is innovation. I am not against Gay Byrne's appointment, as it is fantastic for a famous personality to take control of the authority, but let us not lose sight of the ultimate goal. As there is a specific demographic, let us see the Gay Byrnes of the world engage with their colleagues who are half their ages and are of direct appeal to the 17 to 25 year old age group. I thank the Minister of State for listening to my points.

4:00 pm

Kate Walsh (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have a few specific points to make. My colleague, Senator Morrissey, has spoken on the broader points of the Bill.

I commend the Government on this legislation setting out the responsibility that is to rest with the road safety authority. It has a duty to promote the development and improvement of driving standards as set out in section 6 of the Bill. My specific points refer not to the responsibility of the authority, but the responsibility that lies with road users to improve road safety. I am at the point of seeing my own vehicle for what it really is, namely, a lethal weapon. Cars have shown themselves capable or taking life after life in this country and abroad. My fear is that, as with so many issues today, the element of personal responsibility is either overlooked or underplayed. This is the third time in short succession that I have spoken in the House on road safety and I assure Senators that it depresses me more than them to be making the same points.

However, I am still not confident that the basic responsibilities of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are being taken into consideration. This is confirmed by the 150 road deaths to date this year.

I am talking about the very basics, such as vehicle cleanliness and road-worthiness, driving with lights on and cyclists taking increased care. On the first point, it is crucial that drivers, particularly those of trucks, buses, lorries and all large vehicles, keep their lights, indicators and number plates clean and visible. The road safety authority must do its part to ensure drivers are compelled by law to keep their vehicles in the safest possible condition. Research has shown that dirty headlights can cut drivers' night vision by 50% to90%. The consequences for road safety are obvious, so it is not good enough to just clean cars and lights on the day of tests, when going to weddings or for Sunday afternoon drives. Ireland has seen too many needless funerals.

Research has shown that leaving dipped headlights switched on during daytime, regardless of the weather, reduces the risk of collisions. This is particularly the case while overtaking, when one travels on the wrong side of the road. Laws in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Sweden require vehicles to operate with their lights on all day. In Canada, this practice has been in place since 1989 and its Government estimates that the measure saves 120 lives per year. What consideration has been or will be given to applying a similar regime here? I have twice asked the Minister of State this question in the Chamber. The regime could be in the context of the legislation before us in that the Bill allows the authority to make such recommendations to the Minister as it considers appropriate to promote, develop and improve driving standards.

In previous contributions I focused on the extra care that must be taken by pedestrians, but given the specifics of the Bill, I would like to ensure that another often overlooked group, namely, cyclists, is referred to. From an environmental and personal health point of view, I admire those who cycle as much as is practical on our roads. However, there must be sufficient education of drivers and cyclists to the specific danger cyclists pose to themselves and others on the road. The ability of cyclists to weave in and out of traffic does not give them the right to do so. I hope the road safety authority takes this and the other issues I have raised on board and I wish it well in its important work.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. Regrettably, he is part of a Government which does not enforce its own legislation or initiatives. Its every action sends a message of low priority in respect of driver behaviour and the consequent threat to road safety. Hence, can Members be surprised when some drivers pick up this signal and cause mayhem, injury and death on our roads?

This leads me to question the extent to which the Bill will have an impact on road death statistics. If the ensuing Act was to be strongly enforced by the Government, the benefits for drivers would result in lives being saved. However, persistent lack of activity would mean continued death and carnage, as well as grief for bereaved families.

According to articles in today's edition of The Irish Times, and other newspapers, a report on road safety in all 25 EU states has placed the Republic of Ireland in 13th place in terms of law enforcement. This constitutes an indictment of the Government. The European Transport Safety Council study measured the progress of member states in enforcing speeding, drink-driving and seat belt laws from 2003 to 2004. This is the first independent analysis of road safety enforcement across the enlarged EU.

The main finding for Ireland is that we lag behind in the enforcement of drink-driving laws. It contends that we have the second lowest number of drink-driving checks within the EU and this poor record was due to the absence of random breath testing.

Finland had the highest score, with "exemplary speeding and drink-driving enforcement records". The example of Sweden, which had the second highest score, brought home the reality of the problem of road deaths in Ireland. Last year, 450 people died on Swedish roads, compared with 400 in Ireland. However, the population of Sweden is more than twice that of Ireland.

Much of the problem with regard to safety on our roads can be laid at the door of our spendthrift Government. Despite throwing away millions of euro on one fiasco after another, it has failed to set a budget for the road safety strategy, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the performance measures taken on foot on the strategy. The Irish Insurance Federation has called for more resources to be devoted to road safety following a 7% increase in fatalities. I fully agree with its contention that road safety must be given the political priority and resources it so desperately needs before many more people needlessly lose their lives on our roads.

The state of our roads is disgraceful and lack of a proper road infrastructure in some areas, combined with the lack of proper road maintenance, are among the main contributory factors to our overly high level of road fatalities. For example, the midlands, and counties Longford and Westmeath in particular, were totally overlooked in the Transport 21 proposals. Consequently essential works on what are some of the most dangerous roads in Ireland have been omitted.

I have raised the issue of road safety many times in the House, and have called for an urgent debate with the Minister for Transport on plans to improve road safety. Dangerous roads, particularly in the midlands, such as the N55 between Athlone and Cavan, the N53 between Kinnegad and Tyrrellspass and the N63 between Longford and Lanesboro, are at the crossroads of Ireland and constitute important strategic routes. However, together with the appallingly bad stretch between Edgeworthstown and Armagh city, which runs close to Senator Wilson's home, they pose a serious threat to the safety of the public.

I refer to the proposed extension of the dual carriageway from Mullingar through Longford and on to Sligo. While this has been promised, it has not been delivered on in Transport 21. There have been a number of serious accidents, some fatal, on the stretch of road between Longford and Mullingar in the past decade. Whenever the issue is raised by local Deputies, the reply is that the matter will be dealt with when the dual carriageway is put in place. However, the extension of the dual carriageway from Mullingar through Longford and on to Sligo was not mentioned in Transport 21 and the people of the midlands have been let down by its omission.

Previously in this House, I have highlighted the death of a young man in my own parish, on the worst stretch of a county road in the midlands, namely, the Rathowen to Legan road at Ballygarvey. A large percentage of similar deaths on country roads are due to their neglected and dreadful condition. Sometimes, while a road has been surface dressed, deep embankments have been left on either side and this issue has not been dealt with by either the Government or local authorities.

These roads were described as the "roads to hell" following a survey earlier this year by the Automobile Association. The roads to which I referred were highlighted, in addition to a significant number of other dangerous roads which are a major threat to our safety. The Minister of State should be in no doubt that the condition of our roads and the need to deal with the situation, come up repeatedly. Problems with road signage and markings are not dealt with because some local authorities are cash-starved, particularly those authorities with a low rate base. The survey describes the Edgeworthstown to Armagh road, the N56, N54 and A3, as the worst continuous stretch, varying between medium to high risk and very high risk.

There was a major underspend on roads last year and many of those which needed remedial action were in the BMW region. Along with other Members, I have repeatedly called for a debate with regard to underspending in the BMW region. Although the plans for many roads and bypasses are in place, the Government has failed to release the money. Were such routes upgraded and improved, it would bring about greater safety.

Members should feel helpless and despairing when they learn that, on average, every garda in rural Ireland only arrests one driver per annum on suspicion of drink-driving. Figures show that annually, only one person for each of the 12,000 pubs in the country is arrested for driving offences. Even more strangely, only one quarter of that number are convicted. In any initiative to increase safety on our roads and to decrease road fatalities, inputs are directly related to outputs. If the Government does not channel resources into improving standards, the circle of low standards leading to high road death figures will continue.

However, as far as this Government is concerned, the message is that anything goes. While much legislation is in place regarding this matter, as well as in respect of law and order, it is not implemented. This is a serious fault on the part of the Government. More than 30% of drivers on our roads break speed limits and drink-driving is commonplace. In the past 12 months, more than 450 people have been killed on our roads. How many were underage or unqualified drivers, such as holders of provisional driving licences? The issue of unqualified drivers must be addressed.

A lame duck Government results in lame duck policies and when its lack of intervention and initiatives result in death, a change of direction and of Government should be sought. Our road death statistics are a crying indictment of poor Government and precious lives are being sacrificed on the altar of mismanagement. The carnage must stop and if the Government is not prepared to carry out its collective responsibility and do its job, it should leave office and give others the opportunity to take action to save lives on the roads.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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It would be preferable if Members could debate these issues without descending into election broadcasts. I welcome the Minister of State——

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is good at doing so himself.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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——and the Bill.

First, I welcome it from the perspective of public administration. It is good that a discrete function such as this is hived off into an authority. It is a priority in its own right. Notwithstanding what one of my colleagues said, I am pleased that someone of the profile of Gay Byrne will chair the body. It will guarantee that what he says and does will get substantial media coverage, which is the point. The Podge and Rodge aspect might appear in some of the tabloids, but that might switch off many other people. There are pluses and minuses to this aspect.

I am pleased the authority will be located in Ballina. Part of the Government's decentralisation policy was that when setting up new authorities it would, in principle, consider locations outside the capital. It is one more sign that the mantra one reads in the national media from the Opposition that decentralisation is a total failure, it is going nowhere and so on is untrue because the authority is going to Ballina.

The issue of testing was debated on the Order of Business. I do not have a problem with any public safety function, whether it is rail safety, road safety, air safety or fire safety, being run by a public authority. Obviously there must be sufficient people to carry out the function. The Minister of State gave details in his speech of extra recruitment. I do not have the ideological point of view that everything is more efficient and better if it is carried out by a private agency. I hope I am not part of a diminishing minority who believe in the values of public service, which are particularly relevant where safety is concerned.

I note what the Minister of State said about disqualifications being recognised within these islands. However, he did not specify that it applies to penalty points. This matter has preoccupied the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. It is a meaningless exercise from the point of view of people who acquire penalty points on the M1 this side of the Border but who have Northern registered cars, and vice versa for cars from the South travelling north of the Border.

Substantial road improvements have taken place, which makes a contribution to road safety. While there is an enormous amount of work to be done, which will take at least 30 or 40 years, over the past ten years, the Government has put very significant resources into improving the road network. However, I fully accept there is a long way to go.

I would like to make one point about speed limits, which may be counter-intuitive. If speed limits are set much too low in certain areas, it encourages drivers to disregard them, and this may get them into the habit of doing so generally. A notorious stretch of roadway is the Naas dual carriageway where no one that I observe sticks to the 60 km/h speed limit. Perhaps the speed limit should be set at a more realistic level.

I have always queried dual carriageways such as the N11 or, for example, the road all the way to Fermoy. In Northern Ireland, the speed limit on these dual carriageways is 70 mph. Given that we have something which is practically up to motorway standard, I do not understand why people are forced, in theory anyway, to keep to 60 km/h. The road safety authority should consider credible speed limits on good roads. Apart from anything else, good roads are meant to be time-saving, but this will not happen if drivers are not allowed to travel at a speed which is within the capacity of the road. Generally speaking, I am pleased to say there appear to be very few accidents on our motorways. The accidents about which one hears day after day rarely happen on motorways.

We all read with great interest the comparative road safety statistics which show Ireland ranging roughly in the middle at 13th out of 25 countries. It is good in some aspects such as the wearing of seat belts but it is not so good in other aspects such as drink-driving. We must ask ourselves some searching questions. What is it that we as a people actually want?

Many of us value the relatively easy-going culture that exists in this country as opposed to a Nordic-Germanic rigid insistence on regulations. I have listened to debates in various groupings where people complain about speed cameras on clear stretches of road or gardaí lurking near restaurants and bars. This is exactly what the Swedish police do. If, on the one hand, we do not want this sort of culture, perhaps we should accept that more people will die. On the other hand, if we want to decrease road deaths, perhaps we will have to do things that are very unpalatable from a cultural point of view. We must think hard about this issue and make choices. I will not be dogmatic about what we should do, but we must realise that there are not many easy solutions.

Earlier in the debate, my colleague referred to having headlights on all day, an idea to which I would be resistant. I notice the countries she mentioned are all Nordic countries where the daylight is pretty dim during the winter months. It is not suggested that people should drive with the lights on in bright countries like Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Perhaps this issue should be examined further.

SUVs are responsible for many accidents, and cause more injury to people who come into contact with them, which needs to be examined. While they may make the driver feel fairly safe, they are also high off the ground which means there are blind spots and children and so on get killed in parking spaces because drivers cannot see behind them.

My final point relates to the experiences of haulage companies who drive all over Europe. In circumstances where asylum seekers gain access without the knowledge of either the driver or the owner of the company, heavy fines are imposed, regardless of the innocence of the people concerned. I am aware of a particular instance in Tipperary where a fine of £7,200 sterling was imposed for two asylum seekers who got onto a trailer without the knowledge of the driver. What can be done to protect lorries and trailers from being invaded in this way and having such severe fines imposed on them? It is something that the authorities of different countries should discuss because obviously it is very difficult for honest owners of companies to have large fines imposed on them.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Browne, who will take the last two minutes of my slot.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, to the House and I welcome the Bill before us. I hope the road safety authority will bring together many of the issues which have been addressed in a very sensible manner by Members today. I am delighted that the road safety authority will develop and monitor the delivery of a comprehensive road safety programme because that has not happened to date. One of the most serious deficiencies at present is the fact that we have very poor statistics about what happens in road accidents. The statistics are very weak.

I was delighted to read in the Garda Review of 3 April 2006 that the Garda Síochána is most anxious to start properly investigating road traffic collisions, which are described as "road homicides". That is an accurate description, given that in many cases one could have foreseen the accidents because of the behaviour of drivers or the state or sort of vehicle being driven.

We have poor figures in Ireland and accidents are divided very roughly into those involving car users, pedestrians, motor cyclists, cyclists and other road users. In contrast, the United States of America has, for many years, had a most sophisticated system, known as the US fatality analysis reporting system, which gives them a very detailed picture of what happened in each accident.

The garda who wrote the aforementioned article in the Garda Review said that if there was a camera, yellow chalk and a measuring tape in the back of every patrol car — which would not cost a lot of money — it would be of enormous help in the investigation of accidents. Of course, aerial photographs are also useful. Frequently, however, gardaí are trying to get the vehicles involved in an accident off the road so that other traffic can pass, rather than actually trying to determine what happened. I hope this particular issue will be addressed.

I would like to focus on pedestrians, who make up approximately 20% of those killed on our roads annually and almost as many again suffer serious injury. Of course, pedestrians must look out for themselves, but some are particularly vulnerable, especially with regard to certain types of vehicles. Elderly people and children are some of our most vulnerable pedestrians. However, they must use our roads, as many of them are not in a position to drive.

I was very interested in recent reports concerning sports utility vehicles, or SUVs, and pedestrians. We already know that heavy vehicles are over-represented in accidents involving cyclists. Based on figures from the United States, it appears that SUVs are over-represented in accidents resulting in pedestrian fatalities. When a person is hit by an SUV or a light truck, he or she is hit much higher up in the body than would be the case with a standard vehicle. SUVs are much higher off the ground so that it is the abdomen, chest or head that is injured, rather than the legs.

The Road Safety Strategy 2004-2006 states, with regard to pedestrian safety, that:

The Minister for Transport will make regulations to transpose Directive 2003/102/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 November 2003 relating to the protection of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. The Directive applies to cars and van-cars up to 2.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight and lays down the harmonised technical requirements for EU type approval of such motor vehicles with regard to pedestrian protection.

As far as I am aware, nothing has been done in this regard.

The strategy document goes on to state that "The aim of the Directive is to reduce deaths and injuries to pedestrians and cyclists by motor vehicles through changes in the design of the fronts (i.e. bumper, bonnet and windscreen) of vehicles." I do not think anything has happened in this regard either. The document also suggests that the Department would do something to address the issue of the so-called bull bars, which are on such vehicles.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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We have done that.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I did not think anything had been done. Certainly it had not when I last asked of the Department. Bull bars festoon the front of these vehicles in the suburbs. A friend of mine, recently returned from Australia, was horrified to see them. They are known as roo bars in Australia, where they were first introduced because of kangaroos on the road. I have not met any kangaroos, whatever about bulls, in Ballsbridge but people are driving around with their cars festooned with bull bars. The fatality rate, if one is hit by such cars, is very high. I suggest there are many useful actions we could take at once.

The Irish Medical Organisation suggested that purchasers of SUVs should be warned about how dangerous they are for pedestrians. Many are being used as family cars. The fatality rate for pedestrians hit by such vehicles is 2.5 times greater than for a standard car. The same situation applies for small children, particularly in the driveways of houses because, as Senator Mansergh has said, driver vision is very limited when reversing even if one has convex mirrors or a wide angle lens. Perhaps we should consider a more rigorous driving test for such vehicles, similar to that for heavy vehicles.

It is appalling the way people persist in parking on footpaths, the only place where pedestrians are supposed to be able to travel safely. I was near a primary school in the Nutgrove area yesterday and saw numerous cars, including SUVs, parked all along the footpath. A friend of mine told me of a lollipop lady she knows who recently resigned her post because she was on the receiving end of considerable cheek from the owners of vehicles when she asked them to refrain from parking on the footpath, which was making it difficult for her to ensure that the children crossed the road safely. Courtesy seems to have left many drivers. We should do something to encourage a resurgence in common courtesy.

I was delighted when Mr. Gay Byrne was appointed to lead the road safety authority because he is a great man for capturing the public imagination. He also has the trust of large numbers of the public and I am sure he will be a great spokesman for the authority, which I wish every success.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Henry for sharing her time with me. I was my party's spokesman on transport until October of 2004. Unfortunately, matters seem to have gotten worse in the intervening period, instead of getting better, despite the many excellent debates conducted in this House.

The former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, gave a commitment to examine the issue of the high fatality rate for motor cyclists on Irish roads. Motorcyclists who do not have a full licence are not allowed to carry passengers but many do so. Statistically, motorcyclists represent the highest rate of fatalities and I am interested to know what work the Department has done in this area. Has any prosecution followed on from the former Minister's comments in the House over two years ago? That is something that can be tackled at a practical level.

I apologise to my colleagues, whom I am probably boring at this stage, but I must reiterate my call for the Department to examine the issue of drug testing drivers. I am sure that when drink testing for drivers was introduced, it was laughed at. At the time, many people were drink driving and the concept of them not doing so, or drinking in a limited fashion, would have been ridiculed. The time has now come for a similar debate on the issue of drug driving. A report was published in the United Kingdom which found that 20% of young motorists take to the road every day while high on illegal drugs. A startling finding was that young people are now twice as likely to be driven by somebody high on drugs as someone who is over the alcohol limit. While the Minister of State has only recently been appointed he must urgently examine the issue of drug driving. He should at least commission a study based on the English example, or the example of other countries, to ascertain how big is the problem. I am sure it is far worse than we can even imagine.

I fully agree with what Senator Mansergh said regarding speed limits on the Naas Road. I travel on the road every day. The speed limit is 60 km/h, which is totally unrealistic. If I were to get penalty points while travelling on the road I would be extremely upset. Will the Minister of State examine that issue, discuss it with the relevant authority and revise the limits upwards? They are completely unrealistic. Travelling at 60 km/h would cause a crash. It would be an extremely raw deal for people to receive penalty points on their licences because of the temporary roadworks. Special leeway should be given in that case.

In a debate on road safety yesterday a call was made to reduce the alcohol limit to zero. I do not agree with that. Perhaps I am in the minority. This is a rural country. People should be allowed to have one or two drinks and drive if they feel they are competent to do so and are below the current limit. The idea of a zero alcohol limit would only cause more trouble. People need to go to pubs for social interaction. We should not cut that off in a rural setting. Common sense is needed.

I put a question to the Minister of Transport last week on provisional driving licence holders. We have more than 400,000 such drivers, almost 30,000 of whom are on their fifth or subsequent provisional licence. That means they may have been driving for the past eight years without either having sat or passed a driving test. That is shocking.

I advise the Department that it should not issue statements about revamping the driving test. Its main priority is to clear the backlog. Otherwise we only fool ourselves. Will the Minister of State follow the example of the NCT test? If that test is failed, the driver can return a week or two later to put the car through it again. The notion recently put forward by the Minister for Transport whereby a person who fails his or her driving test would not be allowed to drive afterwards is only fine if he or she can resit the test within a short time period and not face another year-long waiting list.

Maurice Hayes (Independent)
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Most of the points to which I want to refer have already been dealt with by other Senators. I welcome the creation of the agency and I wish Mr. Byrne well with it. It is a bit of a cod to put it in Ballina, but that is another story. It will create an amount of extra driving.

I hope the agency will have sufficient funds for research, which is very important so we begin to understand what are the real facts regarding who are the people most likely to be involved, what types of vehicles and road conditions are involved and whether it is caused by speed, drink or road design. It gives policy makers the opportunity to adjust themselves.

Although this may be a slight trivialisation of the argument, I am struck by poor signposting, which I believe is a contributing factor to accidents. One sees it throughout the country. It is terrible for tourists in particular. One follows a traffic sign, is suddenly left without direction and that is it.

The NRA has done wonderful work in improving the roads, particularly those which I use to go North. One needs stopping places on the motorways. When I get on a road at Portlaoise, I have nowhere to stop until I am over the Border without going into a town. There is nowhere to get petrol. It is all very well to state one can go into the nearest town, but people tend not to do so.

I support those Senators who referred to the need for realistic speed limits. Where the speed limit is manifestly low for the quality of the road, people will exceed it. This brings it into disrepute. I am glad the Minister of State will contemplate arrangements whereby disqualifications apply North and South. He should go further and harmonise speed limits. People used to driving in one jurisdiction suddenly find they offend when they come into the other. If there is a motorway from Dublin to Belfast, as I hope there will be shortly, the same speed limit regime should exist throughout it. That is very important because of the nonsense regarding penalty points.

On the question of drink driving, I have spoken with police on both sides of the Border who are equally concerned. I favour a zero alcohol limit. One should either drink or drive. It was stated that people should take a drink and decide whether they are competent. The fact that they have taken a drink might distort their judgment.

It comes down to enforcement. I have seen a good deal of driving in France over the past few years. French driving standards were appalling but one of the most remarkable occurrences of the past two or three years has been the improvement in standards. It goes back to Mr. Sarkozy, who clamped down for one or two summers. There is no greater deterrent or encouragement to people than the prospect of being caught. I commend the French experience which is quite marked. I wish the Minister of State well. He is going in the right direction and I will support his Bill.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Will the Acting Chairman indicate to me when I reach six or seven minutes? I want to leave some time for my colleagues.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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The debate does not have to conclude today.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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According to the Order of Business, the Minister will respond at 4.50 p.m.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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The debate has not been ordered to conclude at 5 p.m. It may do so.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I will try to finish before my time has concluded. I want to speak in this debate, not because it is part of my brief but because every two or three weeks I have raised on the Order of Business a variety of issues on road safety. It is worth stating that a great deal must be done. One of the most terrifying facts is that back in the 1970s, the figure for road fatalities was in the mid-600s. I am not stating this as a means to dilute the need for action but if we had continued on that route we would have figures of approximately 1,000 now.

Roads have improved because of investment. Cars have dramatically improved because of technology and NCTs. We are now trying to get the drivers to improve. That may well turn out to be the most difficult aspect because changing human beings is not easy.

Has the Government done any serious studies on quality assurance in driving tests? The fluctuation in failure rates throughout the country is well beyond what one should expect in any properly standardised system. I do not believe it is because the drivers in one centre are dramatically worse than the drivers in another. Like my party leader, I have no great patience with trade unions which attempt to avoid that. Everybody else working in education must go through a range of comparative studies, such as the way in which the leaving certificate is evaluated. There ought to be an appeals system. In every other area of training and education a person who fails has a process of appeal. By all means impose a charge €150 to discourage fatuous appeals but let us have an appeals system.

I want to repeat what Senator Browne mentioned, namely, that fatuous unenforced speed limits are worse than no speed limits. The classic example which comes up over and over again is the Naas Road. A parked Garda car in some areas on that road would slow people down. Nothing is ever done and thousands of vehicles surge along that stretch of roadway at 80 km/h or 90 km/h, many of them heavy goods vehicles. They are breaking the law as it would stand anywhere, as they are not supposed to drive faster than 80 km/h.

I have no idea what type of compact, unofficial or otherwise, has been entered into by the heavy goods industry and the State. The vast majority of heavy goods vehicles are permanently breaking the law, as the NRA survey indicates. I have driven in a queue of traffic, with a Garda car in the middle of it and heavy goods vehicles in front and behind all doing 100 km/h. Even with the Garda car in the middle nothing was being enforced.

There is a series of issues like the failure of enforcement. The greatest deterrence for people and incentive for them to observe the law is the prospect of being caught. There is no point in arguing that people have a responsibility, which they clearly have. We have a fundamental need for people to understand that if they do something wrong, there is a likelihood of being caught. There is a confident belief held by many people in this State that this is not so. According to the NRA, heavy goods vehicles represent 3% of all registered vehicles but are involved in 10% of all fatal accidents. That is the real issue I wanted to discuss.

Another issue concerns gender. The driving test failure rates are consistently higher for women than men. The insurance figures show that claims by women are far lower than those by men. That again indicates that something is wrong with the driving test mechanism. The driving test mechanism should at least appraise the skills that show up in real drivers. It appears that women show those skills better, as the insurance companies have the figures as evidence and charge women less because they make and are the cause of fewer claims.

Why do women fail the test in greater numbers than men? It is caused by a belief that there is a degree of assurance and confidence that driving testers will expect and which they will get from brash young men but not from more cautious young women? Therefore young men pass the test and are more likely to crash, but young women fail and are safer.

I am familiar with a glorious anomaly of a test centre which has a sign indicating that there should be no waiting there. This means that when a person is being tested he or she cannot have somebody to accompany them because such a person would have nowhere to wait. Therefore, the person being tested is required to drive there on their own, in breach of the law. There are different anomalies, and the issue comes back to a willingness to enforce the law to its full extent.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Feeney.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill and its provisions. It is a step in the right direction and I compliment the Minister of State and his officials in bringing it forward. I will concentrate on a few issues. Senator Ryan spoke about heavy goods vehicles and Senator Mansergh mentioned having speed limits at realistic levels so that there would be a culture of adherence to them. Unfortunately, heavy goods vehicle restrictions are a good example of unrealistic speed limits being imposed.

Approximately 23 or 24 years ago, when I was president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, we campaigned to have the 50 mph limit increased to 60 mph. I could never understand why it did not happen. As has been mentioned, most heavy goods vehicles will travel at 60 mph, which is approximate to the current 100 km/h speed limit. It is often not realised that heavy goods vehicles cannot get into top gear unless they are travelling at more than 80 km/h. It defies all logic to ask drivers to drive in lower gears, from an environmental point of view and every other point of view. If one considers speed limits in other countries, 100 km/h speed limits on two-way routes is very common for heavy goods vehicles. We should examine the matter.

We have sections of good quality dual carriageway, heading out towards Lucan, for example, or down the N11, with 60 km/h speed limits. There is no logical reason for this. One can travel on these routes without meeting a garda until one enters those sections. If a person observes the speed limit within those sections, for which there is no reason from a practical view, that person will not be caught for speeding. The entire thrust and emphasis of the issue should be considered.

I took interest in the comment made by Senator O'Toole in his advocating different speed limits for wet conditions as opposed to dry conditions, for example. There is some logic in this. If we start doing this, we would have to allow that experienced drivers can clearly drive more safely at a faster speed than inexperienced drivers. Likewise, the capacity of a car, especially the braking capacity, is a significant factor in the speed at which cars can safely travel. If we start factoring in these variables, it would be difficult from a practical point to enforce and implement limits.

I welcome the section dealing with the evaluation and monitoring of driving instruction. That is undoubtedly a key component in bringing new drivers to a level of proficiency which will make them safer and it is in the interest of all drivers. I compliment the Minister on this, as it was overdue.

There are three main points I would like to make. We all know of speeding and drink driving etc., but three factors would dramatically improve road safety. Slow drivers should be focused on.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to clarify a position with the Senator. Senator Feeney is prepared to speak on the next occasion so there is no need for the Senator to share his time. The Senator can use his full ten minutes.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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That is correct. I understand the Opposition will not finish its contribution today.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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How long have I left to speak?

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Approximately five minutes.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I was arguing that three elements should be introduced. The first is a concentration on slow drivers, as they are undoubtedly a significant factor. I have travelled numerous times on national primary routes where I have been travelling at 30 mph or 40 mph, and somebody in front, who probably has a full licence, is hugging the white line and not taking any account of a huge build-up of traffic behind them. People may then attempt to pass out three or four cars at one time in a highly dangerous move.

Other countries have dealt effectively with this by having a number of lanes for overtaking on periodic sections of the road. There are signs which constantly remind drivers that it is courteous to allow cars behind to pass, and when drivers come to areas where they can overtake, it is clearly indicated that a person should drive on the left unless overtaking. We have a slow lane here and a driver may feel that he or she is not a slow driver, so he or she remains in the fast lane. We should consider that matter, as people driving between two points are looking to do it within a certain amount of time. If drivers are held up it can give rise to much of the frustration and difficulties which occur on the road.

Taking into account accident statistics and insurance premia for younger drivers, just because somebody passes their driving test, does not necessarily equate to that person being a proficient driver with experience to drive in a similar way to somebody who has 30 or 40 years of driving experience. In other jurisdictions I have seen instances where if penalty points are incurred within a certain period — two or three years, for example — of passing the driving test, the penalty points are doubled. There is therefore a clear imposition on the younger driver to comply. When a person passes a driving test, instead of getting an open driving licence he or she should graduate from being a provisional driver to an improver for perhaps three years. If such people accumulate a certain number of points in that period they may have to repeat the test. There should be some incentive for the younger driver to accumulate experience in a probationary environment.

Third, and most important, is enforcement. Enforcement should take place across the board but particularly in high risk areas and at times when accidents are most likely to happen. It defies logic that we cannot concentrate enforcement activities between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and at weekends. We should target people who feel they can drive under the influence of alcohol with impunity, so they know there is a high risk of detection. If we concentrate on weekends and other high risk times, rather than just in the run-up to Christmas, we would engender the necessary culture of compliance. These are practical measures to change our culture and I know the Minister hopes the new authority will take innovative steps in that regard.

We must also bear in mind something which is lost sight of but which is important for business. Traffic must flow freely, which should be possible at the speed limit. In recent weeks I have driven in areas where 100 km/h was the limit but the average speed, which I measured, was between 80km/h and 90 km/h. In this jurisdiction motorists can only drive at 60 km/h and it is an area on which we must focus because it creates a built-in incentive for people to break the speed limit when they get the opportunity, in order to increase their average driving speed.

I welcome the Bill. It contains many good initiatives and I have no doubt that in time we will see the fruits of it. I compliment the Minister of State and his staff in that regard.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Bill but it creates as many questions as answers, as many speakers have said. A headline in today's edition of The Irish Times reads "Safety strategy hampered by lack of proper budget." That is typical of what the Government has been guilty of in recent years. There has been no joined-up thinking on road safety. As much has been stated by the former chairman of the road safety authority, Mr. Eddie Shaw, on a number of occasions. The article also states: "The Government has been criticised for failing to provide a budget and a way of measuring the performance of the road safety strategy." That should have been one of the first things the Government did. Someone from the Department of Transport said we could learn from that experience for future strategies but that is not good enough. One can always learn from mistakes but having a plan and failing to have a budget to implement it is not acceptable.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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There is no need to rush any speaker. We can continue for an hour next week.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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We will adjourn the debate.

5:00 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I will deal with a subject many speakers have raised, namely, the fact that there is no limit on the number of provisional licences a person can have. One can fail one test after another and simply go onto the road with another provisional licence. A person can be a menace and still have the liberty to drive. That is not right and must not be allowed to continue. Many drivers are menaces who cause havoc on the road. I am not saying that all are provisional licence holders but many are. That will have to be looked into as part of a road safety strategy because the current situation is a farce.

I welcome the section of the Bill requiring driving instructors to be registered. It is about time such a measure was introduced because at the moment anybody can set up a school of motoring or act as a driving instructor without any knowledge or training in instruction. Will existing instructors be tested as to their competence? It is essential that they also meet the necessary competency levels.

We have so many provisional licence holders because of the farce that is the backlog of driving tests. The fact that nine positions went unfilled for four years shows how negligent the Government, the Minister and the Department have been in this regard. The Minister said that seven of those positions have now been filled and that ten testers were taken on last year. People on all sides of the House have spoken for many years about the backlog of driving tests. The current situation results from negligence of the highest degree.

I am pleased action has been taken on hand-held telephones but we all know that if drivers receive a call on a hands-free set, they must still take their eye off the road for a second or two to press a button, which is also dangerous. A previous speaker said all telephones were banned in one particular country. We must ban the use of hand-held telephones but should also review the use of carphones. It is important to have a telephone in a car at night for security and for use in the event of an emergency, but otherwise it should be turned off and stored in the glove compartment. The whole question of the use of mobile telephones in cars must be looked at, though it will not be popular with the industry. It is a contributory factor in that it distracts people's attention when they are on the roads.

Then there are accident blackspots, which have existed in some places for a number of years. Some of them are being attended to.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Senator to move the adjournment. The Senator will be in possession when the debate resumes.

Debate adjourned.