Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

11:00 am

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who cannot be in the House. He intended to deliver this speech which I am making on his behalf.

This debate gives me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, to update the House on recent developments in road safety policy. In 2006 we saw the second lowest number of road deaths in 40 years. That is a sign that matters are improving. Many of us would agree that matters could improve at an even greater pace. However, the figures are moving in the right direction. The collective goal of all those involved in the promotion and delivery of road safety policies is to ensure the improvements that have occurred are sustained and built on. Every death on our roads is a tragedy too many.

Significant initiatives in the past two years include the extension of penalty points and fixed charge systems, stronger legislation, mandatory roadside alcohol testing, with which I strongly agree, greater levels of enforcement and, in September 2006, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority. There is a need for even more fundamental change, which must take place in the minds and attitudes of those who sit behind the wheels of motor vehicles and take journeys each day.

The Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 was launched last month. It sets out the direction on road safety for the next five years and is the outcome of detailed research and consultation with stakeholders by the Road Safety Authority. The purpose of the strategy is to reduce death and injuries on roads to bring us into line with best practice countries. It will consolidate the reductions in deaths in 2006. During the life of the strategy the aim is that a minimum of 410 lives will be saved and Ireland will move closer to becoming one of the best practice countries in the EU. The strategy outlines 126 separate actions and is focused on delivery and outcomes with built-in targets and accountability. That is the best way forward — to set targets and quantify them in terms of achievement with specific time horizons. As anybody in business knows, that is the way to reach targets — assigning responsibility to individuals for their achievement. The measures contained in the strategy are based on international best practice and have the endorsement and commitment of all of the stakeholders involved.

The RSA carried out a comprehensive public consultation process and the new strategy has the support of the public. It addresses and puts in place actions to deliver many of the items people have called for in recent years and which have a proven road safety dividend in other best practice countries. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, will work with the RSA to ensure each of the actions outlined in the strategy are delivered in full. An annual progress review will be undertaken by the RSA which will oversee the implementation of the strategy and report to the Minister on progress. It is an ambitious initiative and it behoves everyone to support in full its implementation.

There has been a 20% drop in deaths on roads since the launch of the Government's first road safety strategy in 1998. This has been achieved despite a 52% increase in the number of vehicles on our roads. The reductions experienced in recent years have been continued in 2007. So far this year, 285 road deaths have taken place which is a reduction of 33 compared with the same date last year. Welcome as that is, we face an especially hazardous period in the weeks and month ahead, so let us all work to keep the numbers down.

The core objective of the third road safety strategy is to build on what has been achieved through a range of measures in education, engineering and enforcement. The strategy recognises the need to evaluate policies to establish whether they are working. The primary actions set out include proposals to reduce road deaths to no greater than 60 fatalities per million of the population by the end of 2012, with demonstrable downward reductions in each year of the strategy. This equates to an average of 21 road deaths per month or 252 per annum, a chilling statistic. The average number of road deaths per month so far this year is 28. It seeks to reduce injuries by 25% and develop a reliable database for serious injuries based on data from the health care system and insurance industry by the fourth quarter of 2008. It is extraordinary that these data are not available at present.

It is proposed to implement a safety camera network to provide in the region of 6,000 hours of enforcement per month to increase conformity with speed limits. The best way to ensure people comply with the law is to ensure that when they break the law they will be caught.

Another target is to increase adult front seat belt wearing rates from 86% to 95% or better and to increase the adult rate in the rear seat from 63% to 85% or better by 2012. The strategy identifies the need to legislate for and introduce a reduction in the legal blood alcohol level for drivers and the Government has accepted that recommendation. The precise level to which the blood alcohol level will be lowered will follow consideration of the outcome of research being carried out by the RSA into the incidence of drink driving. The target date for completion of this measure in the strategy is the second quarter of 2009. This allows for the enactment of the necessary legislation and the adaptation of the enforcement technologies. However, the Minister for Transport will be doing his best to ensure that as soon as the advice of the RSA on the proposed level is received in the coming months, the target date for the reduction of the blood alcohol level will be improved upon, if possible.

It is also proposed to review legislation on the issues of roadside breath testing at the scene of a collision and drug driving, and to consider appropriate enforcement options. This is something that is vital. Groups representing victims of road tragedies have sought these measures for some time and it is a welcome development. On the issue of testing at the scene of collisions, the Government has made a commitment that, with the assistance of the Attorney General's office, we will determine how existing legislation can be changed to bring about the compulsory testing of drivers at collision scenes while having necessary regard to overriding medical circumstances. From personal experience I am aware that frequently in road accidents there is a reluctance among members of the Garda attending to look for tests because they are concerned this might interfere with medical procedures. Again, it is very welcome that this would be changed.

On the engineering side, the National Roads Authority will invest €1.25 billion each year of the strategy on major inter-urban projects and will develop a new network of motorways and dual carriageways, from Dublin to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford by 2010. There are conflicting views, sometimes, on the upgrading of roads but the reality is that high quality roads are the safest. There has always been a two-fold objective behind the roads programme: the improvement of economic infrastructure and the building of safer roads. There is now an abundance of statistical evidence that collision rates on our greatly improved stretches of road are significantly lower than on those parts of the network where improvements are planned.

In relation to education, the Road Safety Authority will implement programmes in preschool, primary, post-primary and third levels in the community by the end of 2008. This again is a very welcome initiative.

It is proposed to research, develop and publish a national pedestrian safety strategy, a national motorcycling safety strategy and a national safety strategy for cyclists by the first quarter of 2009. The implementation of these further measures should assist in maintaining the downward trend in road deaths which we have seen in recent times.

The new learner permit was introduced on 30 October for all first-time licence applicants as well as those renewing their provisional licences after that date. This is a key building stone in the introduction of a graduated licensing system for Ireland. The Minister is aware that many people in Ireland depend on their cars and acknowledges that the backlog of driving tests has meant that many of those who would like the opportunity to become fully licensed have not been able to take a driving test. There is widescale recognition on all sides within the Houses of the Oireachtas that this is an area that has caused difficulties.

For that reason and to enable them to apply for a driving test or make alternative arrangements, the Minister has deferred until 30 June 2008 the introduction of the requirement for second provisional licence holders to be accompanied by a qualified driver. This move was made in response to two clear messages from the public. In the first place, there was strong support for the proposed reforms to improve road safety. There was also a strong desire for a reasonable lead-in time to enable people to prepare for and take their test or to make alternative arrangements.

The amended arrangements that were announced on 28 October are as follows. From 30 October 2007, the provisional licence is being replaced by a learner permit to emphasise the fact that the holder is learning to drive. From 30 October 2007, a new applicant learner permit holder must be accompanied by a driver who must hold a full licence for at least two years. With effect also from 30 October 2007, new applicant learner permit holders cannot apply for a driving test for six months. Existing provisional licences will continue in force until their expiry date, after which holders will be issued with learner permits. From 30 June 2008, a holder of a second provisional licence or learner permit for a car must be accompanied at all times. He or she may, however, drive unaccompanied in the period up to 30 June 2008. The existing rule that first, third and subsequent holders of provisional licences must be accompanied by a person holding a full driving licence, for which no minimum period is necessary, continues in force after 30 June 2008. From 30 June 2008, all provisional licence holders or learner permit holders must be accompanied by a driver who has held a full licence for at least two years. A person whose provisional licence has now lapsed but who held a provisional licence at any time in the five-year period prior to 30 October 2007 can renew his or her licence by obtaining a learner permit before the five-year limit expires.

From 1 December 2007, a learner motorcyclist must wear a learner "L" plate on a yellow fluorescent tabard. All of these measures form the initial phase of the introduction in this country of a graduated licence. Graduated licences have saved lives in those countries where they have been introduced. It is right and proper that we also introduce a system of graduated licensing to afford maximum protection to all our road users, not least those who are learning to drive.

The Minister for Transport now encourages all provisional licence holders who have not already prepared and applied for a driving test to do so. He has recently had extensive consultations with the Road Safety Authority about its capacity to deliver tests. Both the Minister and the authority have confirmed that all 122,000 applicants currently on the waiting list will be tested by early March 2008. This will have eliminated the current backlog, as promised. A further commitment is that, by the end of June 2008, all applicants for a driving test will be able to get a test within ten weeks. These are very challenging targets but it is appropriate that they be set.

The Road Safety Authority is working to have all driving instructors registered by 31 December 2008. This means instructors giving instruction after that date will have to have passed a three-stage examination covering knowledge, driving skills and ability to give tuition. It will come as a surprise to many that this does not happen already. Applications are being processed at present from driving instructors who wish to become approved. The Road Safety Authority has a dedicated team of specially trained staff to undertake this work and has the capacity to deal with the volume of applications from driving instructors over the coming 14 months.

Undoubtedly, the introduction of the new measures has placed our attitudes to driving and safety under the spotlight. While it was proper, in response to public concerns, to defer the implementation of the accompaniment rule for second provisional licence holders, there is little doubt that a change in the law was needed. It is very interesting that this point was made by media since the measures were introduced, particularly in the more insightful articles. The strong public support for the measures following their announcement is indicative of a change in public attitudes to road safety matters. We all accept that road safety cannot be taken for granted.

The political criticism following the announcement of the new measures was very disappointing considering that a concerted and determined effort to resolve the problem of having over 400,000 provisional licence-learner permit holders on our roads was long overdue. It has long been a matter of political comment and there is little doubt that when the political controversy has passed the introduction of the graduated driver licensing regime will have a very positive impact on road deaths, as more learner drivers become more competent on our roads.

Many of us in public life who have had family members, friends or colleagues killed or injured on the roads look forward to a day when we have the best safety record possible. Ultimately, we need the co-operation of everyone, including motorists and pedestrians, young and old, to take responsibility for their actions. It is clear that the solution lies in the hands of everybody who drives. The Government and public agencies are prepared to assist but it is ultimately a matter for ourselves to take charge and exercise our responsibilities. The Government is confident that over the coming months and years, as the measures in the road safety strategy are rolled out, we will all benefit from the tangible improvements in safety on our roads. I look forward to hearing the Senators' comments and hope they are constructive because this is a matter that goes way beyond partisan politics.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, to the House. It is regrettable the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, could not be here to put across these points, given the undoubted importance of road safety.

The Minister of State highlighted the work that still remains to be done in respect of this important issue. He encouraged us to make our best effort not to be partisan and shrill in what we say but, none the less, the gravity of this issue is such that we all have responsibility to acknowledge what is not going well and where there are clear shortcomings, just as we acknowledge what is going well. The Minister of State said:

A further commitment is that, by the end of June 2008, all applicants for a driving test will be able to get a test within ten weeks .... The Road Safety Authority is working to have all driving instructors registered by 31 December 2008.

This means there will be immense pressure on the Road Safety Authority and its associated bodies to meet the deadline in June 2008. The vast majority of testers will not be registered by the authority by the deadline, nor will they have done the test or completed the training programme created for them by the Government and the authority. I read an article recently that stated only two driving instructors in the country are registered and have completed the programme to improve driving standards on our roads and increase driver safety. This illustrates clearly the failure of our system. I can understand why responsibility will be placed on the driver to do a test but the people administering that test will not have sat and passed the examination they are expected to do in order to teach drivers to drive more safely.

On the deferral of the new requirement for second provisional licence holders to be accompanied by a qualified driver until 30 June 2008, the Minister of State stated, "This move was made in response to two clear messages from the public. In the first place, there is strong support for the proposed reforms to improve road safety". There was such a strong reaction to the Minister's announcement some weeks ago because the public and the Government, when it was pointed out to it, realised the scheme would not work and that it would criminalise people who were waiting for a test but who could not get one. It would have meant that drivers' ability to drive around their communities would be removed.

A common failing of the Government is that it attempts to draw attention to the resources being made available and the money being spent. This in spite of the fact that when we try we are unable to discover a clear, integrated strategy to ensure money is well spent and that the recipients, be they patients, students or those awaiting driving tests, are getting the service they need. I will not accept an argument that places responsibility in this regard on the Road Safety Authority, the National Roads Authority or any other such body; it is a question of political responsibility because of the seriousness of the matter. This responsibility is not being met at present.

On the statistics quoted on improvements in road safety, while I will be clear in acknowledging the shortcomings that exist, I will also acknowledge the progress that is taking place. My awareness of the developments in this area has never been higher. I, as a very new Member, am privileged to be able to walk from my home to the Oireachtas, and travelling to my workplace prior to becoming a Member involved only a very short journey by car. While standing for election to the Seanad, my awareness of my political mortality was never higher. Likewise, my awareness of my physical mortality was never higher because I suddenly found myself travelling frequently throughout the country. Fortunate as I was to be supported by friends who accompanied me, I found myself on numerous occasions on the road at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. or even 1 a.m. trying to get home, feeling exhausted, and wondering whether I was going to make it. It brought home to me how frequent this experience is for so many people and how it is a way of life for them. That comes across in the statistics on road safety and fatalities.

I acknowledge the clear progress that has been made on this issue by the Road Safety Authority and the Government. There has been a decline in the number of fatalities. In the early 1990s the number stood at around 40 to 50 per month. The Minister of State has acknowledged that today, the figure stands at around 30 per month. This was also mentioned in the recent statement by the Road Safety Authority.

Alongside this, a number of other points must be made. The first is that the rate of decline we are experiencing in Ireland is now one of the lowest across the EU. According to the European road safety committee, the rate of decline we have had in the number of fatalities on our roads is around 10% since 2000. The figure in France and Portugal is 42% and in Luxembourg it is48%. While the improvements are to be welcomed, they are a fraction of what other countries are achieving.

Worryingly, the performance in recent months in terms of the number of accidents taking place has begun to buck the trend of decrease and begun to increase. Tragically, in August and September of this year, the number of fatalities increased by 35%, compared to August and September of last year. The number of individual tragedies to which we are referring does not bear thinking about. We should not let this debate go by without pausing to offer our condolences to the families involved.

The Road Safety Authority report refers to the number of people involved in these fatalities but this only illustrates how far we must go. The report said that one in three deaths are still caused by excessive speed, alcohol and not wearing a seatbelt or any other form of restraint within the car, while one in five deaths are caused by fatigue. The fact that road users continue to behave in this way, despite the money that has been spent and increased awareness, shows how we are failing and how far we must go.

I have carefully read through the new strategy on road safety produced by the Road Safety Authority. While I acknowledge the quality of thought and intent in it, there are failures. Elected representatives too frequently avoid commenting on and criticising the work of august bodies like the authority but it is important to point out that the strategy lacked an acknowledgement of, or detail about, what is not working. This was illustrated by a section in it that detailed "the current critical success factors" in Ireland, where nine different points were outlined. However, nowhere in the report did it describe the factors that are leading to the fatalities we wish to stop, acknowledge the shortcomings we have compared to other EU countries or point out failures at Government and policy level in dealing with this issue. This contrasts with the tone and clarity of the report issued yesterday by the Health Information and Quality Authority on hospital hygiene and HIQA's courage in pointing out what is not working. We must discuss why a section in the strategy pointed out success factors but did not point out what is not working.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Donohoe has one minute left.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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This must be tackled in coming years.

In respect of driving tests, it was already acknowledged earlier in the House that SGS Ireland, the company named by the Taoiseach as being crucial in delivering the tests we need to meet the target set for June 2008, has extremely uneven success rates across the country. It has an average success rate of 62% compared with the Road Safety Authority testers' success rate of 52%. This goes back to a point I made earlier. We have set a new target of June 2008 but do not have the infrastructure in place to ensure it will be met. Critical voices are now being raised about one of the bodies being called on to make that happen and questions are being asked as to why its success rate is so high compared to that of the Road Safety Authority.

The Department of Transport has issued a statement that by the end of June 2008 all applicants for a driving test will be able to get a test on demand, that is, within ten weeks. Not only will Members from this side of the House hold the Government accountable in respect of making this happen, the people using our roads, the families suffering as a result of road fatalities and the drivers waiting for tests will be even more demanding in this regard.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Donohoe made a very good point about the fact that failures were not noted in the report. I will ensure that the Minister has a note of that.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Debate adjourned.