Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Road Traffic and Transport Bill 2006: Second Stage


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

3:00 pm

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Members present for their interest in the Bill and the Leader of the House for agreeing to deal with it so quickly and at such short notice.

The Bill itself is short, as it comprises only two sections, the first relating to road traffic law underpinning and promoting road safety in the area of drink driving, and the second to road transport matters. The Bill is, in essence, mainly technical, although it proposes two important policy initiatives that improve and strengthen provisions relating to drink driving. I shall address the road safety provisions in the first instance.

Senators have shown particular interest in road safety issues generally, expressing a concern that I share about the high level of deaths and injuries on our roads. Many issues raised by Deputies during debates and discussions are now reflected in legislation enacted by this House.

The ongoing progression of road traffic legislation reflects a response to the changing environment in which we use our roads and an increase in the number of vehicles on them. The scope and level of investment in our road network in the past ten years, allied to programmes for the improvement in the design, construction and performance of vehicles, has given rise to an ongoing need for an appropriate legislative response. However, the most significant driver of the process of legislative modernisation has been the need to augment and enhance existing road safety provisions.

The promotion of legislation to support road safety initiatives represents an important response by Government and the Oireachtas to the need for the ongoing advancement of improved safety performance. This, allied to consistent and effective enforcement of the traffic laws promulgated in such legislation, the promotion of road user education and awareness, and programmes to promote the formation of drivers, provide the bedrock for the application of the measures that stem from legislative initiatives and ensure their effectiveness and relevance.

In Ireland, as in many other states, the force that binds the various road safety measures and programmes into a cohesive policy framework can be found in the road safety strategies. First adopted eight years ago, the strategies have provided the basis for the development of a range of legislative and other responses promoted over that period. Through the adoption of road safety strategies, we have seen the identification of a series of significant and, in many instances, linked measures that have to date, and will continue in the future, to advance the safety message for all road users. One of the great advantages of adopting strategies is that they place our plans in the public domain, thus allowing for informed debate that in turn provides a benchmark of public, media and political opinion for the delivery of the measures identified.

The key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Positively influencing such behaviour lies at the centre of our road safety programmes and forms the primary focus of our road safety strategies. Behaviour is influenced by initiatives across a number of areas. One of these is the promulgation and enforcement of laws that promote road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications that collectively create an appropriate deterrent to those who endanger the lives of others by their failure to acknowledge and comply with the appropriate behavioural norms.

The Road Traffic Act 2006 considerably strengthened the law in these areas. In the area of legislation as promoted in the current strategy, we have already seen the implementation of the new system of speed limits based on metric values, the extensive roll-out of the penalty points system and the allied system of fixed charges, which is being outsourced to relieve the Garda of administrative functions. We have seen the introduction of roadside mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, the establishment of both the Garda national traffic corps and the Road Safety Authority, and both of those organisations will, I am sure, have a profoundly positive effect on road safety in the future.

The debate on road safety has for some time now become the centre of political media and public attention. There is understandable and significant disquiet at the level of death and injury inflicted by road collisions. The number of people being killed and injured on our roads is still unacceptably high. I do not hide my concern about the trends in road deaths that have become established over the past two years — 396 people lost their lives on Irish roads in 2005 and 279 this year up to the end of September.

However, there is a glimmer of hope for the future. A small change has occurred and potentially a very significant one. Since the introduction of roadside mandatory alcohol testing in July, which has a legislative basis in the Road Traffic Act 2006, drivers are beginning to take heed and, more importantly, they are beginning to change their behaviour and attitudes towards drinking and driving. The number of road deaths in August 2006 was 17 — the lowest number for any month since November 1999. This compares with 24 road deaths in August 2005 and 35 in August 2004. This trend is also reflected in the number of deaths during September 2006 which was 22, compared with 31 in 2005 and 34 in 2004. The downward trend follows the introduction of roadside mandatory alcohol testing by the Garda. In parallel, the number of road collisions has fallen. The increased levels of enforcement are having a significant deterrent effect on those who would otherwise drink and drive. While it is important not to base trends on two months' statistics, the reduction during August and September is a positive development and I hope with the levels of enforcement, the downward trend will continue.

In general terms, the immediate focus of the Bill before the House today on the road traffic side is to support the introduction of legislation that will further strengthen drink driving provisions and improve the enforcement of drink driving legislation generally. These provisions relate to a proposal to take away the necessity in a Garda station for a garda to form an opinion, in advance of administering an evidential test, that a person has consumed an intoxicant, and a proposal to provide that nurses can take blood or urine samples at a Garda station. At present, the Road Traffic Act provides that only a designated doctor can take a blood or urine sample in a Garda station. Unfortunately, a typographical error also occurred in the Road Traffic Act 2006 which could have a limited impact on the operation of mandatory alcohol testing. This is being corrected. The error may have come to Members' notice through coverage in the national newspapers last week. This error relates to only a small number of cases where a person refuses to give a roadside breath sample and where he or she is arrested for the purpose of providing an evidential test. Overall, the mandatory alcohol testing system has operated effectively since the end of July and the numbers who refuse to provide samples are very low, according to the Garda.

I will now refer in some detail to the main road safety provisions proposed in the Bill. Section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 provides that a person arrested under various provisions relating to drink driving, as well as the commission of other serious offences, can be required to provide a breath, blood or urine sample in a Garda station for evidential purposes. However, the section refers to the formation of an opinion by a member of the Garda that an intoxicant has been consumed in advance of administering an evidential test. My Department has looked at decisions in the courts and found that the presentation of the wording of the section gives rise to the potential for misinterpretation. In recognising that this is a pivotal provision in the overall code applying to drink driving, I am taking the first available opportunity to both clarify and strengthen the provision.

It is proposed, therefore, to re-state section 13 (1) to remove the requirement for a member of the Garda to form an opinion in the Garda station that an intoxicant has been consumed, where a driver is arrested under any of the drink driving provisions, including those relating to a refusal to provide a roadside sample, and in the case of the other serious road traffic offences which are not related to drink driving. This amendment is sensible since the initial roadside encounter between a garda and a driver involves either the commission of a serious road traffic offence, the formation of an opinion that an intoxicant has been consumed, or in the case of a mandatory alcohol testing checkpoint, a refusal by a driver to provide a sample where there was no requirement to form an opinion. With the assistance of the Attorney General, I propose to streamline the provision so that the necessity to form an opinion again, in the Garda station, no longer applies.

The Road Traffic Act currently provides that only a designated doctor can take a blood or urine sample in a Garda station. For some time, the timely availability of a doctor has given rise to problems in this area. Given the increase in detections resulting from the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing, it is likely this problem will become more significant. It is therefore proposed to extend the pool of resources available to the Garda to take blood and urine samples. The proposed improvement to this provision will ensure that, once practical arrangements are in place for the identification of nurses in the vicinity of Garda stations, greater numbers of medical staff are available for taking samples. There are several consequential amendments included in the Bill resulting from this provision.

A typographical error, which could have a limited impact on the operation of mandatory alcohol testing, is also being corrected. Section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 2006 provides for the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints. It is an offence under section 4(6) to refuse to give a roadside breath sample, the penalty for which is a fine of up to €5,000 on conviction and-or imprisonment for up to six months. A person who refuses to give a roadside breath sample can be arrested under section 4(7). Section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 provides that a person arrested under various provisions relating to drink driving, as well as the commission of other serious offences, can be required to provide a breath, blood or urine sample in a Garda station for evidential purposes. Section 4 of the Road Traffic Act 2006 amends section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 to provide that a person, who is arrested for refusing to provide a roadside breath sample under the mandatory alcohol testing system, can be required to provide an evidential test in a Garda station.

The amended section 13 refers to a person arrested under section 4(6) of the 2006 Act. This should read section 4(7). This typographical error relates to only a small number of cases where a person refuses to give a roadside breath sample and where he or she is arrested for the purpose of providing an evidential test. The mandatory alcohol testing system has been operating effectively since the end of July and the numbers who refuse to provide samples are very low. It would be ultimately a matter for the courts, in any relevant case brought before them, to determine whether the typographical error did or did not negate the clear intention of the Oireachtas in enacting the relevant provisions of the 2006 Act. However, to remove any such uncertainty, and in light of legal advice received from the Attorney General on this matter, it is proposed to amend the section. There is a small number of consequential technical amendments being made, which arise as a result of the changes.

The road transport provisions of the Bill, dealt with in section 2, address a problem which was discovered by my officials in recent days. It emerged that section 3 of the Road Transport Act 1986, which contains the power for the Minister for Transport to grant road haulage licences, had been inadvertently repealed by the Road Transport Act 1999 (Repeals) (Commencement) Order 2005 made on 28 October 2005. The repeal was made as part of a wider exercise of modernising the licensing regime as provided for under the Road Transport Act 1999. The issuing of any further licences was immediately suspended pending further investigation of the legal position. Following this internal investigation, clarification of the legal position was sought from the Office of the Attorney General. That office confirmed that a power for the Minister to grant such road haulage operator licences must be contained in primary legislation. The necessary powers to do so do not exist under the European Communities Act 1972, even though the framework for access to the profession of road haulage operator is contained in EU law. This means that an Act of the Oireachtas is required to restore the power of the Minister to grant a licence.

The Minister's powers regarding the granting of licences to passenger operators were also reviewed by the Office of the Attorney General, as both passenger and haulage operators share a common regulatory framework under EU law. Currently, the power for the Minister for Transport to grant passenger transport operator licences is contained in regulation 3 of the European Communities (Road Passenger Transport) Regulations 1991 (SI 59 of 1991). This statutory instrument was made under section 3 of the European Communities Act 1972 to give effect to European directives which laid down the criteria for access to the profession of passenger transport operator. However, after reviewing the position, the Office of the Attorney General advised that as a specific power to grant road passenger operator licences is not contained in the relevant EU directive, I as Minister did not have a power to issue those licences under the statutory instrument made in 1991. The Office of the Attorney General advised that such a power must be provided for in primary legislation. Section 2 of the Bill is designed to remedy this problem. The Bill was considered and approved by the Government on Wednesday, 27 September 2006 for publication and introduction at the earliest possible time.

This brings us to today. As soon as this Bill is passed, subject naturally to the consent of both Houses, it will restore the ministerial power to grant these licences. In summary, therefore, the licence granting power for road haulage was repealed in 2005 which leaves the Minister without any power since that time to issue such licences. Road haulage operator licences issued before 31 October 2005 are not affected. As regards road passenger transport, the power to grant licences by means of regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972 had been considered to be satisfactory. It has now emerged that this is not the case. Having regard to recent Supreme Court decisions, it is not possible to make such a provision in secondary legislation if none existed in primary legislation. No such power was available in the directive which the order was brought in to give effect to, hence the urgent need now for primary legislation. I should point out to the House that there are no safety implications arising from this issue. Matters relating to the roadworthiness of vehicles, public service vehicle licensing, insurance etc., are contained in different statutory provisions and are not affected.

Section 2 provides for the Minister to have the power to grant road haulage and road passenger transport operator's licences and other related matters. Subsection (1) provides for the Minister to have the power to grant national and international road haulage operator's licences and to grant national and international road passenger transport operator licences. Subsection (2) provides for the conditions to be met in any application for a road haulage or road passenger transport operator's licence, specifically that applicants must satisfy the Minister that they are of good repute, appropriate financial standing and have professional competence. Subsection (3) provides that operator's licences (which include both road haulage and road passenger transport operator's licences) come into effect on the date specified on the licence, and expire on the date specified on the licence.

Subsection (4) amends section 1(1) of the Road Transport Act 1999 to redefine certain terms commonly used in road transport legislation. Subsection (5) gives effect to any operator's licence (which includes both road haulage and road passenger transport operator's licences) granted, or deemed to have been granted, under the Road Transport Acts or under any statutory instrument made under the European Communities Act 1972. Subsection (6) provides that the Minister may make regulations regarding applications for operator's licences, which includes both road haulage and road passenger transport operator's licences.

Subsection (7) provides for an amendment to section 13(1)(b) of the Road Transport Act 1999 to modernise the text. Subsection (8) clarifies that any reference in the Road Transport Act 1986 or in the Road Transport Act 1999, or in any other Act or regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972, to a road freight carrier's licence is now to be read as a reference to a road haulage operator's licence. Subsection (9) provides for the definitions of some of the terms commonly used throughout this section. Subsection (10) provides that this section and the Road Transport Act 1933 are to be read as one. Section 3 contains standard provisions regarding the Short Title of the Act.

In line with the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, my Department is urgently reviewing all relevant statutory instruments made under the Road Transport Acts to ensure that they are statutorily compliant as regards licensing. My officials will then begin a thorough root and branch review of all legislation governing the road haulage and road passenger operator sectors in order to consolidate them into a single Bill. I know Senators have previously raised an issue in different debates. I am conscious of the fact that the Road Traffic Acts have also become a complex body of legislation and this must be addressed. A programme of restatement of legislation is being commenced under the Government initiative to improve the quality and accessibility of legislation. In response to the consultation exercise carried out during the summer, my Department put forward the Road Traffic Acts as a body of legislation suitable for restatement and I understand this is currently under consideration. The restatement of these Acts will greatly facilitate their subsequent consolidation.

I thank the House for allowing this urgent debate on these important provisions. I look forward to a positive and supportive debate on the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I did not think we would be welcoming him back so quickly with this legislation.

It is disappointing that we are faced with having to rectify this important legislation, the Road Traffic Act 2006, so soon after its introduction. The ink has barely dried on the Bill and we are now faced with having to correct an error. I accept that mistakes can be made and at least this mistake has been recognised relatively quickly, which is something to be grateful for.

The drafting error in this Act means, as I understand it, any persons that have refused to give a breath sample at a checkpoint and from whom a breath, blood or urine sample is later taken at a Garda station, are unlikely to be successfully prosecuted for drink driving. This is extremely worrying for all legislators who desperately want to see an improvement in road safety standards throughout the country. We waited for almost ten years for the introduction of random breath testing and to have the system called into question so soon into its operation is a matter of huge concern. There have been 282 deaths on our roads in the year to date and hundreds of horrific injuries and casualties.

The Government's record on road safety is appalling. At a time when most European countries are significantly improving their road safety measures and succeeding in reducing the level of death and fatalities on their roads, Ireland's level of road deaths is worsening. In 2005, 399 people were killed on our roads; in 2002 this figure was 23 less at 376. With 282 people dead on our roads already, this year's figure is not likely to show any decrease; at the moment it is similar to last year's unacceptably high figure.

The picture of road safety in Ireland is an extremely poor one. This month an EU survey placed Ireland's level of enforcement of road safety measures quite low down the scale of European states. We sit in the bottom half of the table and this has been a consistent feature during the lifetime of the Government. EU surveys have persistently highlighted our problem in dealing with drink-driving and speeding. We desperately need to tackle these two key issues and I am worried that the most recent glitch in road safety legislation specifically threatens to undermine random breath testing and, more generally, all road safety measures.

While personal responsibility in terms of safer driving is crucial, the level of road deaths and general poor driving standards cannot be solely attributed to driver behaviour. Two central reasons lie with the Government's paralysed approach to this issue and also the appalling condition of our roads. Indeed, a survey published last week by the Insurance Industry Federation found that 90% of motorists felt that the Government needed to do more to reduce road deaths.

The Government is not unaware of the fact that we have a bad road safety record. It has had more than nine years in office when it could have taken decisive actions to reduce deaths and fatalities. Instead, this jaded Government has produced two glossy road safety strategies and failed to implement the key recommendations contained within them.

The Minister owes this House and the wider public a full explanation as to the reason it has taken so long for key lifesaving measures such as the roll-out of speed cameras, random breath testing, stiffer drink driving penalties and the ban on mobile phones to finally make their way into legislation. The Government has been in office for almost ten years and in that time these measures could easily have been debated and enacted by the Oireachtas. Instead, we got stalemate, inaction, U-turns and procrastination from a paralysed Government. The result was that while the public waited for action from this Government, hundreds of people have died in the interim on our roads and thousands more have been injured.

Not once but twice the Government has failed to reach the targets it set in its own road safety strategy. First from 1998 to 2004 and now in its second strategy, which will end this year, the Government has failed to reach the target of reducing road deaths by 25%. We are nowhere near tackling our appalling road safety record. In France, the Government succeeded in reducing road deaths by one third in three years. In Ireland, we have had ten years during which the situation was allowed to get increasingly worse before any decisive action was taken. The difference between France and Ireland was that the political will existed in France to tackle the issue head on. In Ireland, the unacceptably high level of road deaths has been pushed under the carpet by the Government. The Government cannot be proud of its record of inaction and paralysis on this crucial issue. Neither does its response offer any comfort to the families, friends and communities of those who have been killed or seriously injured on our roads.

The problem with the flaw in the current legislation is not so much the specifics of the error itself but rather its wider damaging impact in terms of the public's perception of road safety laws. There is a common perception among the motoring public that if they break road safety laws by speeding or drink driving, there is a good chance they will get off if the matter proceeds to the courts. The public's perception of being able to get away with it is not that far off the mark, given that the road safety legislation is often aggressively challenged before the courts. Even the case of a motorist having his conviction quashed creates a negative picture.

Regarding the drafting mistake we are dealing with today, I am not sure how many motorists could have had their convictions thrown out as a result of that. The Minister might inform us of the number in question. The only response is for gardaí to increase their level of enforcement to get out the message that drink driving will not be tolerated and that offenders will be caught if they take the risk.

I was delighted to hear the Minister say earlier that the higher levels of enforcement in July and August have resulted in a decrease in the number of deaths in those months over previous months. I welcome that because everybody has said it is all about enforcement. The greater the level of enforcement, the greater reduction we would see in fatalities and serious accidents. In that regard I welcome the figures the Minister gave the House earlier.

I recognise that when random breath testing was initially introduced it had a positive impact in reducing road deaths and discouraging motorists from drinking and driving. I urge the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister and the Road Safety Authority to ensure that the level of enforcement is sustained throughout the year and not just at certain times such as bank holiday weekends and at Christmas.

Members of the Joint Committee on Transport travelled to Australia where the police are very much in people's faces, so to speak, in this regard. They advertise the locations where they do random breath testing. That is to highlight their presence to the public and ensure that the public can see they are taking action. They want to make the public aware of the consequences if they are caught drink driving. That is the way we should proceed here. The gardaí should be in people's faces and promoting road safety all year round, not just at Christmas or bank holiday weekends.

l would also encourage the respective Ministers to prioritise the introduction of the remaining measures contained in the road safety strategy, particularly the roll-out of speed cameras nationwide and the implementation of the remaining penalty point offences. We have waited long enough for these initiatives and it now appears unlikely that either will happen before the next election. Of critical importance also is the need to reform the driving test and to reduce the waiting times of those waiting to sit a full driving test. Until we do both, we will continue to have a poor standard of driving on our roads.

The Minister has introduced private outsourcing but this will only bring about 40,000 extra driving tests. That is insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem. Can the Minister give us a set deadline as to when he expects the backlog will be reduced to a maximum of four weeks' waiting time?

The Ministers and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have much work to do if they are serious about addressing the huge problem which exists in road safety legislation enforcement and compliance. They need to remain focused and not lose interest once the gloss has faded from the latest initiative, as happened so often in the past. Reducing road deaths and casualties requires a sustained commitment over the long term and it cannot be achieved with quick fixes. Our current road safety strategy will come to an end in December. I urge the Minister to put the structures, manpower and resources in place to ensure that we are capable of meeting the targets we have failed to meet in the past.

The Cathaoirleach ruled out my amendment No. 3, which concerned the consolidation of all the Acts in regard to this area. If we had consolidation of the Acts regarding transport, this error would have been spotted and we would not be dealing with this legislation today. As the amendment has been disallowed, I urge the Minister that a consolidation of the Acts should be considered and perhaps introduced in the not too distant future. I support the legislation.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and the provision he brings before us today. It is worth noting that the legislation that has been in place for a number of months has been very effective in dealing with the scourge of road deaths we discussed on many occasions in the House last year. It was one of the most hotly debated issues not just in this House but in the media and among the general public. So many people had lost their lives it was incumbent on the Government and all of us as legislators to try to do something about it.

In my view and in the view of most of the people I meet on an ongoing basis, the legislation that has been brought in has provided a tremendous benefit to the country, not just in terms of the people who are alive today and whose families are not affected by the scourge of death on our roads but also to those who would have been affected through injury in accidents. It is worth noting that when one considers the number of people killed on our roads, it is only a small percentage of the number of those who are injured through serious accidents in a way that affects them and their families for the rest of their lives and also affects the state of our health service in providing services to deal with that. There has been a much greater benefit than the ten or 20 lives saved as a result of this legislation in terms of the number of people saved from serious injury. In that regard it is a little disingenuous of Senator Paddy Burke, for whom I have great respect and who generally makes some very good contributions, to make the type of statement he made today on the ineffectiveness of the Government in dealing with road deaths and road safety. That is a charge that might have been made earlier last year to some extent, not taking into account the work the Government had done in developing two road strategies.

Senator Burke made reference to the fact that we had only produced two road strategies but that is two more than the Opposition produced when they were in Government. He talked about the ban on the use of mobile phones. I understand such a ban is in place and perhaps the Minister will confirm this.

Senator Paddy Burke referred to random breath testing. While mandatory breath testing might be a different name, it is effectively the same thing. The Government and the officers of State, particularly the Garda, should be commended on their success in the past two and a half months. The figures clearly speak for themselves and we have turned a corner. While this may have taken longer than anyone, the Minister included, would have wished, it has been successful and must be built on.

It is unfair to try to be negative about the legislation because of a minor technical difficulty or error found therein. This reflects as much on Members for not spotting it during the legislation's passage as does the suggestion that someone within the Department failed to identify it or that the Minister or the Government is at fault. All Members had access to the legislation and their role in parsing that legislation should be to identify such errors. I am thankful the Minister has identified the issue so early. Legislation has been brought before the House and will become law quickly to ensure no one will avoid the penalties or the rigours of the law in this regard, which would have a damaging overall effect on the legislation's credibility. Given the background work undertaken by the Minister, this will not take place.

Enforcement is working and it is clear people now take a realistic approach, in terms of their behaviour and attitude, to driving after consuming alcohol. I always believed that mandatory breath testing would not be required to induce people to change their behaviour and attitude, had the requisite level of enforcement been present. Consequently, I am uncertain whether the present level of enforcement was brought about as a result of redeployment within the Garda or the provision of additional resources. Nevertheless, regardless of one's point of view, this is welcome.

I wish to raise an enforcement issue that is worth noting within the context of this debate although it does not fall within the Minister's remit. I refer to mandatory breath testing early in the morning. While this issue is difficult, it should be addressed, or at least discussed. In some cases, it has probably created a negative effect on the overall aspect of what is otherwise good legislation. This matter pertains to the operation of enforcement and probably falls within the remit of the Garda Commissioner. People who have consumed a certain amount of alcohol late at night or during the previous evening are now concerned while driving to work at 8 a.m. While such concern may be unnecessary, it has had an effect on people's approach to what is otherwise good legislation and may be causing some negative sentiment towards it.

This matter must be resolved through enforcement rather than through legislation. It should have been addressed by the issue raised in respect of the Bill's constitutionality, when there was much talk regarding a proportional response to its implementation in respect of times, locations etc. and as to the location of such mandatory alcohol testing points. I understood the enforcement response was obliged to be proportional to the risk, which is greatly diminished from 6 a.m., 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. The Minister may wish to discuss his views in this respect with Members or his other colleagues. The great majority of accidents involving the over-consumption of alcohol usually take place before 5 a.m. While I recognise this matter cannot be prescribed in legislation in a manner that would set down definitive guidelines, it can be addressed through guidelines in respect of enforcement. Although such guidelines will probably never be published, this should be taken into account by the enforcement authorities.

The Minister spoke about the approach taken by the Government to road safety. Everything he has done since taking up office in this Department has increased the capacity to deliver a safer environment for road users, including his road improvement policies. I welcome the Department of Transport's recent announcement that the Ennis bypass will be opened in or around next December. The opening and continued development of such dual carriageways will bring about a safer environment for all who go about their daily lives. In addition to complimenting the Minister in this regard, I encourage him to push ahead with the Gort to Crusheen and Gort to Galway sections of the western road corridor. The removal of such bottlenecks, as well as inferior sections of roads that carry heavy traffic, from the daily commute of many people will definitely reduce death, injury and accidents.

As for changing behaviour and attitudes, it is critical that, as part of its overall curriculum, the Department of Education and Science should become involved in developing an approach or at least some capacity to teach young people safer methods of driving. It should introduce them at an early stage to the kind of approach that is necessary to ensure children grow up with respect for the road, rather than a belief they have a right to its use. Respect for the road is far more important than a belief that one has a right to be a road user. The only way in which one will change a culture over a generation is to start at the beginning and hopefully this can be done as a matter of urgency.

In the course of several debates, Members have recognised that the majority of deaths on the road occur among those who are under 30. In many cases this befalls young people with cars that have greater power than they are capable of handling, in addition to the alcohol issue. However, there is a great lack of understanding as to their responsibilities regarding the use of the road. It is the old story of trying to put an old head on young shoulders, which has never worked. Hence, it is important to educate our youngsters before they get an opportunity to go behind the wheel in the first place. Perhaps the school curriculum is the best place to so do. I ask the Minister to inform Members of any discussions he may have had with the Department of Education and Science in this respect.

Road safety is under discussion and the national car test, NCT, on which a consultation report was prepared regarding a potential review, is part of this issue. The Minister may wish to comment on its present status and whether any changes are imminent in this regard. From time to time, one hears about some of the more pernickety elements of the NCT that should be addressed. I am familiar with a number of incidents in which people have been failed on the basis of emissions one day and, without making any adjustments to their vehicles, have returned a number of weeks later and have passed the emissions test with flying colours. While I do not know whether this constitutes a quirk in the system, it is an unnecessary source of annoyance to road users and vehicle operators.

4:00 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome this Bill. While I would not normally welcome the passage of legislation in a single day, this is an exception. The reason for this Bill is evident, namely, something that was missed the last time. Hence, this serves as a reminder to Members.

The entire question of deaths on our roads is a scandal that should never have been permitted throughout the years. The slaughter and carnage which took place is a scandal and the Minister is now doing something about it. While I understand Senator Paddy Burke's comments, I will not scold, because this was not done heretofore. It is being done now. I urge the Minister to take hold of all of these matters and to implement them as rapidly as possible.

I wish to take one particular case, namely, what used to be referred to as random testing and what are now known as mandatory alcohol checkpoints, a phrase that does not roll off the tongue as easily. After the first weekend it was introduced, The Irish Times sent a reporter out with gardaí to cover three mandatory tests. It reported one woman who said she had only had one glass of wine — maybe it was a very big glass — and who ended up in the back seat of the car in tears, unable to believe she had failed the test. A large number of people talk to me about that story. The gardaí had parked on one occasion in Ranelagh, on another outside a hotel in Leeson Street and in one other location. Suddenly people were alerted to the fact that they did not need to show signs of alcohol consumption to be tested. A very large number of people appear to have begun to change their behaviour and that is exactly what we need.

Technology is a good investment that delivers value for money. We know the technology exists and how it can work. Register identification cameras should be installed everywhere to ensure people are aware of what can happen. With these cameras in place it is not necessary to catch somebody because they record a car passing at one point in the road and its arrival at another point, maybe 5 km or 10 km further on. If they arrive before they should were they to obey the speed limit, it is automatically recorded. A relative living in France informs me that an important element of the regime there is the certainty that a driver will receive penalty points or a summons as soon as he or she sees the camera flash.

I emphasise the importance of speed. I do not know how the technology works in Ireland but I believe it relies on manpower. It takes weeks to receive penalty points or a summons. If this could happen within hours or days, it would result in a change in the behaviour of those who speed or drink and drive.

I congratulate the Minister on the appointment of Gay Byrne, who was an inspired choice. It was a brave choice because Gay Byrne will resign if he is not happy with what the Minister does. He took the job not because he wanted it but because he thought he could do some good, and the Minister knows his head is on the chopping block if Gay Byrne registers his disappointment with him and resigns.

The Minister is making progress. I urge him to recognise that investment in anything that reduces road deaths is good value for money. In France, where President Chirac made reducing the number of road deaths a priority, the figures have been reduced dramatically. I urge this Government to continue to devote effort and enthusiasm to what it has already begun because, if it does, we can hugely reduce the figures we saw in August. I agree with the Minister that it is dangerous to read too much into those figures because when penalty points were introduced, the initial success did not last for long. With investment in commitment and money, the Minister will achieve his objectives.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the legislation. This Government has made a real effort to improve road safety. Sustained results are needed, not short-term results. I wish to dissipate the assumption underlying all contributions to this debate that the Government is solely responsible for road safety. Each and every one of us, when on the road, is responsible for the safety of ourselves and everybody we pass. Government can influence the framework but we should not lose sight of the fact that people have personal responsibility for safety.

I have some criticism of the way the courts sometimes address these issues. On the one hand, for ten or 15 years we have witnessed judges who delight in throwing out vast numbers of cases on the basis of technicalities. I gather they are reviewing such a practice over the water and may even have done something about it. They are trying to prevent legislation being thrown out on the basis of a technicality by allowing attention to be drawn to the need to address the technicality. If that can be done swiftly, the legislation can be prevented from failing. On the other hand, I recently heard of a judge acting in a despotic manner towards a person who had committed a road traffic offence and had paid the fine. Nonetheless the person received a summons and the judge refused to hear a plea, only asking whether the defendant had committed the offence. The defendant ended up paying twice over and the costs of appeal were prohibitive. That sort of behaviour should not be encouraged either.

There is space for more effective television advertising. The recent television licence fee campaign concentrated on the shame of a court appearance, but drink driving or causing serious accidents by dangerous driving is infinitely more shameful than not paying for a television licence. Public relations campaigns should also be launched to inform people of their options. In particular, they should be aimed at pubs in remote areas urging people to get a lift, share a taxi or have a mineral drink. Victims of road accidents are often pedestrians or cyclists, the latter of which do not seem to be subject to the rules of the road and are a danger to themselves. Pedestrians should be educated as to how they can protect themselves.

There ought to be a test for drugs because drug related driving is also a problem. Often both drink and drugs are involved and scientists and researchers must focus on devising something to test specifically for drugs.

Yesterday I was glad to see the opening of the Fermoy bypass and huge improvements are being made to our roads, which make a huge difference to safety. There is further space for a review of speed limits because the right speed limits enable people to reach their destination as quickly as is safely possible and reduce accidents. There has been a general acceptance of the 80 km/h speed limit for country roads and it has been successful. However, I do not see an objective reason for the limit on cross-country dual carriageways, which are almost as good as motorways, of 100 km/h while in the North it is 110 km/h.

I hope the time will come when we have the confidence they have on the Continent and maybe we should experiment by allowing a limit of 130 km/h on a suitable road. While such a suggestion may be counterintuitive, if people can travel quickly between two points on dual carriageways, they will be less reluctant to observe the speed limit on the part of their journey that includes a country road.

We should relate this debate to the broader issue of excessive drinking, including binge drinking. More stringent application of the drink driving regulations may indirectly help to address that problem. I do not deny there might be some scope for fine-tuning. In my experience, the national car test, NCT, is good and efficient. If all Government services worked as well as it does, we would be very well off.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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I support those who argue for consolidation of the Road Traffic Acts. I tried this morning to understand the amendment we are making today to correct the alleged defect in the Bill we passed earlier this year. It is mind-boggling. We are inserting a section 1 to amend section 13 of the 1994 Act which was in turn inserted by the earlier Act of this year and must be read in conjunction with the 1961 Act. I learnt that off by heart. This is mad. It is impossible for lay people to understand this and even practitioners have difficulty understanding it. Everybody accepts the legislation is crying out for consolidation.

In doing this mental exercise I tried to pay attention to the offence of refusing to give a sample, how it could be prosecuted and the resulting penalty. As I did not have the benefit of advice from the Labour Party's legal adviser who loves this kind of problem, I am not sure I have reached the correct conclusion. There appears, however, to be an anomaly in the Bill because in the Act we passed earlier this year, we provided in conjunction with mandatory alcohol testing for the offence of refusing to give a sample. We also provided for penalties of €5,000 or six months in prison.

Section 13 of the 1994 Act provides for the offence of refusing to provide a sample in the Garda station but the penalties are significantly less, at approximately €1,000 and-or six months in prison. I assume if a person were arrested under section 49, he or she would be open to the offence under the 1961 Act of failing to provide, which also allows for a disqualification. I am not clear whether we can therefore infer that a person who is arrested under section 7 of the Act we passed earlier this year can be convicted of failing to provide a roadside sample and then be disqualified. I confess my reading of the Bill is rudimentary as I spent just half an hour on it this morning. It is not clear to me whether, under the mandatory alcohol testing regime, if one fails to provide a sample, one can be convicted and disqualified. I would appreciate clarification on that point.

Speakers today have rightly commented on the reduction in the number of road traffic deaths in the past couple of months. I am sure this is a result of the publicity that surrounded the passage of the Act earlier this year. That is good and right. I do not support the mandatory alcohol testing regime, given the gradual amendment or erosion of the need for the Garda to form an opinion, as was the case in the previous 20 or 30 years. I felt that was sufficient, provided it was enforced. The real risk in the mandatory alcohol testing regime is that it could criminalise many people who do not present a serious danger to themselves or others, for example, a person who has had two and half pints and drives on an empty road. With reasonable discretion on the part of the Garda in implementing the Act, that will not happen.

It is important people understand that if they have taken a serious amount of drink, they will be caught. The passage of the Act earlier this year created that impression and it is important that it be sustained. This will happen only provided the Act is rigorously implemented but with a certain measured discretion which maintains the credibility of the Act. As I am sure the Minister knows what I am talking about, I will not spell it out.

The provision that allows nurses to take blood samples is a sensible move. In hospitals or in doctors' surgeries, where there is a practice nurse, they take most samples.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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They are better than the doctors.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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I am sure they are in many cases and more experienced than them. It is only right and sensible to extend the provision in this way. I am not sure how it will work but I assume stations will have a rota of nurses to perform this duty.

Nobody has mentioned the provisions for road haulage and the road passenger operators. Is there a lacuna? Have these drivers been operating illegally or improperly since October 2005 as a result of the Minister granting any licences ultra vires in that time? If so, has anybody been exposed to the possibility of prosecution or has anybody been prosecuted for operating without a licence during that time, when in fact he or she could not have properly held a licence, or held one that was improperly granted?

I understand from what the Minister said that he is satisfied the regulations implementing or transposing the European regulations about road passenger operators were effected ultra vires or were not properly brought into statute law. Will the Minister spell out the consequences of that? He is correcting it as of today, or whenever this legislation is passed, but are there any negative consequences in the fact that we have not properly transposed the regulations on road passenger operators over the past several years?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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We had but we deleted the provision because we thought the power existed in a particular section so we must restate it.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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That was in the Act passed last October, so there is a one-year gap.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, we are correcting it retrospectively. This came about because a case arose.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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It was not clear to me in reading the Bill before us that it is retrospective.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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It is. I have copperfastened it. All licences issued since 2005 will be deemed to have been valid.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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Has anybody been prosecuted to their disadvantage in the meantime?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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There was one case. That was how it arose.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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Is this a Committee Stage dialogue?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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There may have been more than that but there was one that caused the issue to arise.

Derek McDowell (Labour)
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I just wanted to clarify whether this was a lacuna or whether anybody got caught in it since October 2005.

I welcome the Bill in broad terms. We will neither oppose it nor seek further amendments on Committee Stage.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House . Like my colleagues, I welcome this legislation. It would have been better to get it right in the first place but we are all human and mistakes are made. There is no doubt mandatory breath testing has saved lives this year. A total of 17 unfortunate people lost their lives in August 2006 but that compares with 24 in 2005 and 34 in 2004.

Like Senator Dooley, however, I have reservations about the mandatory checkpoints early in the morning. I am aware some of these checkpoints operate as late as 10 a.m. That is unfair, particularly to people in rural areas who have no access to public transport. They may have been out socialising the previous night and made every effort to get home safely in a taxi. Often they must wait a long time for a taxi because there are so few in country areas. It is more lucrative for taxis to operate in urban areas. I understood the legislation was not to be used in this way. This should be considered. I have no difficulty with it being enforced from 6 p.m. until 6 or 7 a.m. but it certainly should not operate after that, particularly in country areas. Most accidents occur in the early hours of the morning or late at night, not at that time of morning. I urge the Minister to consider that, particularly for rural areas.

The Minister stated that, "The key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users." I firmly believe in that principle. People in the part of the country from which I come are persecuted by drivers from Northern Ireland who disobey the rules of the road. People with cars which have been registered in the South make every effort to adhere to the rules of the road and the law of the land, whereas people with cars which have been registered in the North make a mockery of those rules and put people's lives at risk. I ask the Minister, Deputy Cullen, to pursue the extension of the penalty points system to all Thirty-two Counties as soon as possible. Along with his departmental officials, he is trying to make progress in that regard, but I ask him to treat it as a matter of urgency. People in the Border region are dying as a result of the behaviour of drivers from Northern Ireland who, unfortunately, disobey the rules of the road. It is not possible for gardaí to be deployed at every boreen because there are thousands of such roads in the Border area.

Northern drivers travelling in the Border region have no regard for the laws of the land. When I was driving earlier today — I was closer to Dublin than to the Border — a Northern registered 4x4 flew past everyone. It was travelling at more than 100 km/h in a 40 km/h zone, which is not acceptable.

The Minister needs to reflect on the fact that foreign drivers are responsible for a significant percentage of road accidents in the Border area. I am not being racist when I make that point. The majority of such accidents take place at weekends when the individuals to whom I refer are out of their minds on alcohol. We must examine this aspect of the problem. Where possible, we need to educate such people about the rules of the road in this jurisdiction, although I am not sure how that can be done.

I agree with my colleague who argued that the rules of the road should be taught as a mandatory part of the secondary school curriculum. In County Cavan, such lessons form a mandatory part of the curriculum of Youthreach training programmes for early school leavers. Such programmes also include the driver theory test.

I agree with Senator Mansergh that road safety advertising campaigns on television have been very effective. It would be beneficial to have more advertising of that nature on the radio. A pilot scheme conducted by Today FM over a few weeks, involving a series of blunt advertisements of this nature, was very effective. It would seem sensible to ensure that more advertisements which are short, sharp and to the point are broadcast by radio stations.

I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for introducing it. I welcome the withdrawal of the objections which were made to the proposed M3 development. I am pleased that people from my part of the country will be able to travel in safety to their capital city and all the facilities there in the not too distant future.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Cullen, to the House. I thank him for his continuing attendance at this debate. I understand why this legislation is needed and I fully support it. However, a general legislative principle arises from the need to introduce this Bill. As Senator Paddy Burke and Senator McDowell have said, difficulties can arise when sections of legislation are introduced to amend previous legislation. It can be difficult, even for people who study the process very carefully, to follow the progress of legislative provisions through the various Acts. Errors can occur in such circumstances. While the error in this case was a slight one, it was also quite significant and needed to be attended to.

This general issue within the drafting system will need to be addressed at some point. If one examines British legislation going back to the 1890s, one will find that it was clear and easy to understand because it was written in plain English. I accept that legislation needs to be couched in certain terms, but this issue must be examined.

The issue of enforcement has been raised by some speakers. Over the past week, I have driven frequently on the N7 and to Galway on a couple of occasions. I accept that things have definitely improved. However, as I was driving towards Newlands Cross on the N7 this morning, on three occasions I saw people driving while using mobile telephones. I thought at one stage that this phenomenon was confined to white van man, who is a particular sub-species of road user, but I was wrong. This morning I saw the driver of an XJ series Jaguar using a mobile telephone. When I was travelling on the Kildare bypass some days ago, I saw the driver of a van — I noted the name of an event management company on the side of it — travelling well in excess of the motorway speed limit, which is quite high, while using a mobile telephone. Another phenomenon I have noticed is that some drivers pull over onto the hard shoulder of the motorway to use their mobile telephones. People seem to think it is okay to pull over onto the hard shoulder and to stop the car there to take a telephone call. Perhaps there is a gap in the law in this regard which means that people are entitled to behave in such a manner. I do not know the answer to that.

It is obvious that speed is an issue. Things have improved, as I have said, because the Garda traffic corps is more in evidence than it used to be. It is quite active in ensuring that drivers slow down. If one sees a Garda car on the N7, it has a fairly salutary effect on one, even if the car is not pulled over and the gardaí are not taking numbers. If one is travelling home late in the evening, one can sometimes set the cruise control in one's car to the speed limit. The number of cars which pass one by in such circumstances is amazing. I suppose all of us, including myself, have been guilty in the past of exceeding the speed limit from time to time.

I have a certain sympathy with Senator Dooley's comments about people who are caught drink driving the morning after they have been consuming alcohol. If one's blood alcohol level is above the legal limit, however, one is not fit to drive. That applies as much at 8 a.m. as it would have applied the previous night. I do not know how we can deal with that. It is reasonable to state that if one is not fit to drive at 10 p.m., one is not fit to drive at 8 a.m. One must accept that. If that means one must get a taxi to work as opposed to getting a taxi to a function, that is what one must do.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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One cannot get a taxi in such circumstances.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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I do not think that problem is as bad in rural areas as it used to be. I have been told that people who have holiday homes in the west are buying bicycles so they can cycle to pubs.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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They can keep fit as well.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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They are getting away with it.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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One would get drowned.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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It is obvious there are dangers in such behaviour. I am not sure how it can be dealt with in practice.

The level of adherence to the rules of the road is an important issue. In my home town of Newbridge, for example, cyclists and pedestrians seem to ignore red lights. This problem can be solved if we ensure that children are taught the rules of the road, possibly in civics lessons. When many children leave their school for the day, they go straight through the lights irrespective of whether they are red, green or amber.

I am concerned about inconsistencies in the setting of speed limits. I am aware of a dual carriageway that used to be deemed to be a national road, but it has been redesignated as a regional road following the opening of a bypass. The road was perfectly capable of carrying traffic at the old 60 mph speed limit, which is equivalent to the new 100 km/h limit, but it is no longer seen as suitable because it is now a regional road. That does not seem to make sense. If the standard of the road was good enough before the new road was opened, it is still good enough now. It is a bit like the principle I outlined when I was talking about blood alcohol levels the morning after alcohol is consumed.

I have raised previously the issue of signage. The Minister is familiar with the junction on the M7 where one can take the M9 towards Waterford. If one is on the road to Cork or Limerick, having passed the exit for Waterford, one will see signs for certain towns which are on the Waterford road. That is a recipe for drivers to decide to stop and reverse towards the junction.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I have seen it happen.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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That is something that should not happen, obviously. An increasing number of road signs seem to be getting clipped by lorries, vans and trailers. I do not know why that is happening.

I welcome the provisions of this Bill which relate to the national and international licensing of commercial vehicles. It is right that the Minister for Transport has availed of this opportunity to include such sensible provisions in legislation. I compliment the Minister on his work which has meant that things are progressing in the right direction. He knows that things are certainly not perfect, but they are better than they were.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators who contributed to this debate for the important and helpful points they made. As I said earlier this year during the debate on the Road Traffic Act 2006, when many issues were teased out, I will introduce a road safety Bill later this year. Some of the issues which have been raised today will be dealt with in the forthcoming legislation. The Bill before the House today has been introduced to correct a specific problem quickly. When the proposal relating to nurses was made, I thought it was sensible and I discussed it with the various party spokespersons. We decided to include it in this legislation, even though it is a technical Bill, because it is worthwhile. I welcome the support I have received in this House for that aspect of the legislation.

I would like to make a point about the last review. While not making excuses, the last EU review was up to only the end of 2004. In the past two years many policy and legislative changes have been made in keeping with the best international standards. At the heart of this was mandatory alcohol testing. I am not complacent about the matter, but we are moving in a better direction. It comes down to strong laws, their enforcement and a collective view of personal responsibility on the road. People have changed their attitudes to drinking and driving but there will always be that 5% who will continue to drink and drive.

The "morning after" issue is relevant. As Senator Dardis correctly stated, if it is illegal to drive after drinking at 10 o'clock at night, it is equally illegal at 8 o'clock in the morning. People have been killed in multiple accidents in the morning where alcohol and drugs were at play. The Garda needs public support for its efforts. The greatest emphasis on combatting drink-driving is between 11 o'clock at night and 4 o'clock in the morning, the most dangerous time on the roads. With regard to the "morning after" campaign, it is aimed at people out for a late party until 5 in the morning. The message to them is not to get into a car at 8 o'clock and drive to work after three hours of sleep. That is more the point than someone who is out for a normal social evening.

Mandatory alcohol testing has seen a reduction in drink driving. One glass of wine may be acceptable but many people have changed their habits and are not having even a glass of wine.

On the issue of road haulage licences, there were several cases where even though it did not necessarily arise because of a licence, it came up as an issue. The 2005 Act will be amended retrospectively. When EU directives were being transposed, the section covering road haulage licences was inadvertently deleted.

I thank Senators for their support with this legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: Committee Stage is ordered for 5.10 p.m. today.