Wednesday, 14 November 2007
Road Safety: Statements (Resumed)
We all welcome the opportunity today to have a debate on road safety. As Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport during the last Dáil, I had the privilege of working with a number of groups and organisations and making various contributions in respect of what could be done in this area. Last year was probably the best year for road safety in a long time, with a serious reduction in the number of deaths. However, much more can be done.
One does not need to single out any particular group in this regard. Across the board, every citizen who uses our roads, be they motorists, pedestrians or cyclists, has an obligation with regard to road safety. On many occasions these obligations are disregarded by some people. The chances they take and their actions can lead to the deaths of others or total disablement. We have all seen cases where negligence has been a major contributor in many accidents.
We must not look solely at drivers, although perhaps I should first deal with them. Across the board we accept that the behaviour of certain drivers leaves much to be desired, such as the driver who turns out from a side road without looking or one who drives at 150 mph on a motorway, twice the legal limit. On a motorway one has a better chance of avoiding trouble than on a country road because of the quality of the road. The Minister of State referred to this in his contribution. It is safer to drive at 100 mph on a motorway than 40 mph on second class or third class roads in rural Ireland, which are deathtraps at current speed limits. On some of these roads the limit is 80 km/h when 50 km/h would be more appropriate.
Local authorities have the power to impose speed limits on county, rural and regional roads. There is an obligation on them to fulfil this commitment by deciding what roads should have reduced speed limits. Local authorities should do a survey of every road under local authority management in order to decide the speed limits for those roads. Regional roads, with a speed limit of 80 km/h, are on a par with national secondary roads but would be quite safe with a limit of 100 km/h. There is an obligation on local authorities to address this.
We must consider various types of drivers in this debate. There is a backlog of learner drivers who hold provisional licences, with which we must deal. This will be a major problem, particularly for those in rural Ireland. Many of them are capable of getting to and from their nearest town without accidents or mistakes. Those in their 50s or 60s would be shellshocked if they had to sit a theory test even though they have been driving free of accidents for up to 30 years. We must provide support to these people, such as proper tuition by driving instructors or some other system to ease the difficulties older people have in passing the test. Some have learning difficulties, which must be accepted and for which provision must be made.
There is a group of people with a high accident rate, those in the first two years of holding a full licence. We are not running down this group. There are, however, people who feel they could participate in the world rally championship in Sligo this weekend as soon as they walk out of the test centre with a licence. We need a learner permit and a post test permit to keep such people under control. It has been suggested that those who have passed the test less than two years prior to committing an offence such as speeding or dangerous or careless driving would receive higher penalties. This would be a means of deterring young people who pass the test from abusing the licence. The drivers licence is a right to use the road, not the right to abuse it or others on the road.
Another prevalent category is non-national drivers. I am not critical of people who work here and make a tremendous contribution to our country. Some of their driving, however, is questionable, to put it mildly. The sad part is that statistics show that the incidence of serious accidents is far higher for non-nationals than for those who hold Irish licences. This must be pursued. This category of people also bring cars into Ireland that do not conform to standards of the NCT. In conjunction with the Department of Transport the Road Safety Authority should insist that a vehicle in this State for more than one month must be put through the NCT. This must be considered for road safety and for the general safety of those who use our roads. I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Minister for Transport and to the Road Safety Authority that this must be tackled quickly. Along with scrappage incentives the NCT did a tremendous job in removing bangers from the road and we should consider another scrappage scheme for older and less efficient cars that are responsible for CO2 emissions to be removed before the end of life of the vehicle.
Ireland has had tremendous success with regard to reducing road deaths. Some 120,000 extra vehicles, either new or imported, go on the roads every year. This means an extra 120,000 drivers on our roads. Despite this we have managed to reduce the accident and serious injury rate. The Garda Síochána must be complimented on its diligence in dealing with road safety. The cameras may be a good idea but Garda presence is a better incentive. A camera will have been installed for no more than one day before one can go on the Internet and find out its location. There is one camera on the N4, at the Lucan Spa Hotel, and those caught speeding by it should be asked where they have been for the past ten years. Very few people are caught on that stretch of road because they know where the camera is located. There must be another mechanism, such as Garda presence or unmarked cars, because fixed point cameras are as relevant as an ashtray on a motorbike. They will serve no purpose if one can find out their locations on the Internet. In the UK, satellites can tell where every camera is located and the same will apply here.
Garda presence would be more effective because bad driving is as serious a problem as speeding and the culprits are not always learner or incompetent drivers. In many cases the bad driving is done by those who believe they are so competent they can push everyone else to the side of the road. The only way to deal with this is with unmarked Garda cars. Gardaí using unmarked cars will not take long to take people in and award them penalty points. When people pass four penalty points on their licences, they begin to think.
The final group to which I wish to refer is pedestrians. It is terrible that pedestrians using the roads in the winter do not wear any form of reflective gear. I appeal to these people to wear reflective jackets or armbands when they are walking on the roads at night. Senator Donohoe indicated the number of miles he drives on average each year. If he lived in a rural area, he might drive between 40,000 and 50,000 miles per year. People who live in rural areas definitely see a different aspect of this matter than their counterparts in urban areas.
I would have liked to discuss permits and the issue of road safety in general. What is emerging from this debate is that the situation is clearly improving. It is also emerging that we must begin to educate people about this matter while they are at school, put in place a permit system and teach individuals that when they go on the road they must respect, not abuse, the rules that apply.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his contribution, particularly as it related to the strategy. There is no doubt in people's minds that there are three principal elements that lead to road deaths. If action is taken in respect of speed, alcohol and seat belts, the number of deaths will be greatly reduced.
The Minister of State has responsibility for European Affairs. I recently met Commissioner Verheugen, who is responsible for European integration. I offered to make a deal with him, the terms of which were that people in Britain and Ireland would switch to using two-pin plugs if the rest of Europe would agree to drive on the left-hand side of the road. This gave rise to a discussion and someone accompanying the Commissioner stated that they were in Sweden in 1968 when the switch from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right was made. The change was made at 5 a.m. on a particular day and a speed limit of 30 km/h was introduced for the following month. Not one death occurred during the month in question because the speed limit was enforced and people focused on respecting it. Perhaps we should switch from the left to the right and vice versa each month and thereby reduce the number of road deaths dramatically.
If we want to spot a trend in the level of road deaths, we must step back from concentrating on monthly figures and examine them over a much longer period. Even when things are getting better, there will still be a month when the figures are horrific. This can easily lead us to the false conclusion that things are getting worse rather than better. The Minister of State provided us with some interesting figures. In my opinion, we should examine a full year's figures before drawing any conclusions about trends. I am a believer in what is called the moving annual total. Under this, one examines the figures for the most recent 12 months. Each month one adds the latest month's figure and deducts the corresponding figure for the previous year. This produces an annual figure that is updated each month. As a result, it is always up to date.
If we consider the current situation from this perspective, the news is, as the Minister of State indicated, fairly good. In the 12 months to the end of October, there were just 330 deaths on our roads. Awful as that figure is, it is a definite and a worthwhile improvement on the figures for recent years. If the remaining two months of this year just kept pace with the level of last year — in other words, if there were no further improvement between now and the end of the year — our total for 2007 would be the lowest for almost 50 years. We would, therefore, have returned to levels not seen in this country since the end of the 1950s when Ireland was a very different place. Clearly, we are doing something right. It is vital that we recognise what this is and that we build on it in order that we do not let the advantage slip away.
The change in the past 12 months has been a simple one. The introduction of random breath testing has brought about a change in behaviour because people are beginning to realise they have a much greater chance of being caught if they drink and drive. The same pattern emerged in 2003 with the introduction of penalty points. For a brief few months, people believed there was a large likelihood of being caught and they changed their behaviour accordingly. They changed back again, just as smartly, when they realised that, even despite penalty points, they still had a large chance of getting away with it because the drink driving laws were not being effectively or rigorously enforced. Random breath testing has made a far greater impression on members of the public and, to date, they remain convinced that the game has shifted against them. That is why it is crucial that the standard of enforcement should be fully maintained and even improved on because if people again start to feel they can get away with it, they will adjust their behaviour accordingly.
The new road safety strategy is crammed full of ideas to improve road safety. There is, paradoxically, a danger in this because it might lead to our efforts being diffused over too many areas, particularly when it is clear that only two actions really count, namely, the extent to which we enforce the law and the extent to which we educate people to respect it. Without effective action in respect of these two elements, all the rest will be a waste of time. For example, a great deal of useless effort is expended on the issue of the number of unqualified learner drivers on our roads. We discuss these people as if we were talking about staffing our hospitals with doctors straight off the dole queue. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of these individuals are perfectly good drivers. They will not become any better when they possess a piece of paper which states they passed the official test. All the huffing and puffing about this issue will not result in our roads being made measurably safer.
The issue relating to unqualified drivers is a red herring. The last thing we want at this stage are red herrings of any kind. Road safety is, at the core, a very simple matter. We do our case no good at all by complicating it unnecessarily. We must educate people to use the roads more responsibly. In the meantime, we must ensure they respect the law by convincing them they will incur dire consequences if they flout it.
I would like a public attitude that refuses to accept road deaths, even at the levels envisaged in the road safety strategy, to develop. At present, we have an average of just over 28 road deaths every month. If we reduced the figure to 20 per month, we would be among the best in Europe. However, when we reach that level — I hope we do so long before the expiry date of the new road strategy — we must not stop. A total of 240 deaths per year from road accidents is far too high to be ever acceptable. We must persevere until the number of deaths is reduced to an absolute minimum. The latter should be measured in dozens per year rather than in hundreds.
I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, by whom we have just been joined.
I welcome the new road safety strategy. However, we must change people's mindsets. Some years ago in France, the then Prime Minister, Mr. Sarkozy, stated that he would make a difference by reducing the number of road deaths. He focused the attention of the country on this matter and this led to a dramatic reduction. His achievement was to establish a change of attitude or mindset among the people of France. We must also change people's mindsets and I am of the view that we have an opportunity of being successful in that regard.
Senator Ellis referred to speed cameras. I am a great believer in technology and speed cameras. A thoroughly modern system involves the use of hundreds or thousands of speed cameras. Everyone would know the location of these cameras. Under this type of system, one's licence plate is identified once and then again approximately 5 km or 10 km further on. People on the ground are not needed to operate these cameras. One can be informed that one left Balbriggan at a certain time and reached Swords at a time which meant that one must have broken the speed limit on the way. It would, therefore, be no use to people to slow down on reaching camera sites and then speed up in between them. I understand that approximately 1,800 speed cameras are needed throughout the country. If we put them in place, it will encourage people to change their behaviour. That is the answer.
The two matters on which we must focus are education and enforcement. If we take action in respect of them, we will overcome this challenge.
I thank Senator Quinn for sharing time and I welcome the Minister of State.
It is clear that a large preponderance of accidents involve many young people with alcohol taken driving on country roads in the early hours of the morning at weekends. If one applies a grid test, one will discover that it covers a significant number of these five or six elements. We must, therefore, examine these elements and address them.
I do not believe that travelling at speed is, of itself, dangerous. One need only consider Germany, where there are either no real speed limits or very high speed limits on the autobahns. It has not lead to any greater danger. It is a question of bad driving and bad manners on the part of road users and bad management of the roads on the part of us.
I am all in favour of equality. I note that women, who used to be much better and more courteous drivers than men, have achieved equality and are now just as ignorant and subject to road rage. I do not state this is specifically directed at male drivers. It now covers everybody.
Some people are prepared to cause a possibly fatal road accident rather than allow somebody legitimately to change lanes. I come across this frequently. If one attempts to pass somebody out on a motorway or a suburban street, the reaction from a man or a woman is to put the foot down and do his or her damnedest to prevent one from doing so. This may well place one in a situation where one must try to reduce speed and get back in behind this driver or face the possibility of going straight into oncoming traffic. It is a question of manners. We also seem to have a great deal of road rage, particularly in the city of Dublin.
Travel at speed is not of itself a danger. What is dangerous is having completely inconsistent and chaotic speed limits and the ordinary driver has no incentive to respect them. I have stated this on numerous occasions during previous debates. It was eventually taken up by the previous Minister who quoted me. We can all give examples of this. The example I usually give is going from the excellent three lane highway in Tallaght where the limit is 60 km/h to a winding country road where the speed limit increases to 100 km/h. It is insane. Why would anybody respect this? I certainly do not. One will probably find a camera or a couple of gardaí there to catch one out.
Legislation should be introduced to take the setting of speed limits out of the hands of local authorities and place it at national level. The answer I am always given is that these are different jurisdictions. If we are serious let us have consistency. It is the same with road humps. Who designs these things? One would not notice some of them and if one goes over others at 10 mph one is likely to break one's axle. I crossed one on the North Quays at 15 mph and I am lucky to have a car left. Will the Minister of State and his officials make note of this and see whether we can introduce uniformity? Where the speed limit is 30 km/h it should be a requirement of those putting in road humps that motorists can travel across them at that speed. Otherwise it is dangerous and motorists do not respect them.
The Minister of State is aware of a number of tragic cases such as that of a young woman on her way to Shannon Airport to take a plane to the United States who was killed because of the negligence of the local authority, which used a completely inappropriate road surface treatment and did not place any warnings. The same situation was involved in the school bus tragedy in Trim. Local authorities do not live up to their responsibilities.
Often, I walk down O'Connell Street as I am afraid to cycle because I have been knocked off my bicycle. We should also consider how motorcycle couriers dangerously weave in and out of the traffic on O'Connell Street. On occasions, when walking home with my partner, he pointed out the paving system on O'Connell Street which is extremely dangerous. He stated repeatedly to me that an accident would occur and somebody would be killed. To create a piazza effect the distinction between the pavement and the road has been blurred. A couple of days ago a lorry mounted the pavement and a young man was seriously injured.
Drivers have responsibility and this issue is not only about speed. We have a syndrome involving young people, drink, the early hours of the morning, country roads, too many people in a car and old bangers. As legislators we also have a responsibility as do those at local authority level. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the matters of consistency of speed limits so they will be respected and observed and I urge him to create uniformity and safety in road humps which in some cases are no use and in others are virtually a death-trap.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I echo the points made on road safety by other speakers. The statistics for 2006 give us real cause to be concerned. A total of 366 people were killed on Irish roads and, unfortunately, in the first ten months of this year 279 people were killed in road-related accidents.
Other statistics are equally depressing. More than 166,000 people were caught speeding on the road so far this year. Of those killed on the roads, four out of ten were between 17 and 25 years of age. More than 15,000 drunk drivers were caught on Irish roads in the first ten months of the year and this is despite increased awareness and programmes on the dangers of drink-driving. A total of 26,347 motorists were caught using their mobile phones while driving and 4,173 seat-belt detections were recorded.
This shows the dreadful number of road related fatalities in this country are not inevitable. They have clear causes to do with alcohol consumption, speeding, lack of training and carelessness. There may also be a sense that road safety requirements are not properly enforced. We have a lackadaisical culture in Ireland which we need to change and introduce more of a zero-tolerance approach to these practices. Unless we do so, the statistics will remain high. We know, as we approach the Christmas holidays and bank holidays, that at the end of those periods we will have an unacceptably high level of road deaths. Yet, we do not seem to be able to seriously reduce those statistics.
The OECD produced a report in 2006 which examined the behaviour of young drivers in 30 countries. It was interesting to note Ireland is not on its own in terms of some of the trends evident on the roads. In crash and traffic fatality statistics, 16 to 24 year olds were greatly over-represented and crashes were the biggest killer of 15 to 24 year olds in all countries studied. Mortality rates for young men were consistently higher than those for young women. This suggests we must particularly focus at younger men those road safety programmes aimed at younger people as it seems they have a greater tendency to speed.
The study also found the younger people are when they start driving on their own and without restrictions the more likely they are to have fatal accidents, particularly prior to turning 18. Age is a key factor. The report found that people receiving more training prior to starting to drive, particularly with a focus on safety issues such as speed, alcohol, seat belts and drugs, results in fewer fatalities. One of the most effective counter-measures suggested by the report was the introduction of a requirement for more accompanied practice before a person obtained his or her driving licence.
The question of driver testing standards will be a critical issue now that we have introduced a requirement for all second provisional licence holders either to be accompanied or to have a full drivers licence by next June. We know of the concern when these measures were introduced and in view of this a time extension was granted to allow people to regularise their situations. It will mean that the 122,000 drivers on second provisional licences will try to complete their driving tests and obtain their full licences by next June, which will put considerable pressure on the testing facilities. Some of the tests are already being carried out by private companies over which concerns have been expressed. The Comptroller and Auditor General investigated driver testing and his report in June found significant regional variations. For example Buncrana had a very high level of passes with 65% whereas the figure for Carlow was as low as 42%. We need to understand the reasons for such significant variation in the result. Given the volumes of tests to be carried out by next June concerns have been expressed that standards should not suffer. There should be rigorous assessment and monitoring of the standards applied to ensure consistency across the country and that people are ending up with the kinds of skills they need and not being passed because of pressure of numbers.
The Green Party approves of all the new road safety measures the Government has recently announced. In addition to these measures we would like to see more full-time road safety officers, especially in secondary schools to provide training in road safety to young people. We would also encourage the inclusion of driving lessons as part of the school curriculum, particularly for transition year students. If many young men received in-depth road safety training at that stage before they began driving, it would result in better driving once they got on the road.
We also support the requirement for young drivers to be accompanied when driving, which the Minister intends enforcing from next June. We would like to see more enforcement of the wearing of seat belts. The statistics I mentioned earlier suggest that not everybody is wearing them. Providing greater resources for the traffic corps would result in people being more careful about meeting the requirement to wear seat belts when driving. We need more consistent standards in testing throughout the country. We need compulsory testing for motorcyclists who are often involved in unfortunate road accidents. With proper training many of these accidents could be avoided.
The Green Party strongly favours lower alcohol limits for drivers. We fully support reducing the permitted levels from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg per 100 ml. I would favour the requirement for drivers to be alcohol free. Even having one or two drinks alters a driver's reaction times. Given that we want to improve significantly the culture of road safety, that would send out a very clear message to people. We need to encourage people not to combine drinking and driving. While that might sound somewhat severe to some people, unfortunately it is very hard to agree a limit at which it is safe for people to drink and drive. Young people with one or two drinks taken can often find it difficult to stop at a certain stage. In general we would be better not to mix drinking and driving at all.
The Green Party would support roadside drug testing. We are aware that there are many people who while they may not have drink on them when driving might be under the influence of other substances. As part of the testing carried out by the traffic corps, we should also consider roadside drug testing. It is a particularly green issue that we also take the road safety requirements of pedestrians and cyclists into consideration. To that end as part of the road safety initiative the Green Party in Government will press for safe routes to school to become a feature of every town and village. The safety of our schoolchildren making their way to and from school is paramount. Local authorities need to take a lead role in ensuring these safe routes to school are effective and properly implemented.
The Green Party would like to ensure an effective high-quality system of cycle lanes throughout the country and especially in urban areas so that cyclists do not take their lives into their hands when they decide to become greener and more environmentally responsible by cycling. Unfortunately at the moment, given the levels of traffic on our roads and particularly in urban areas, many cyclists are taking a significant risk when they decide to cycle rather than drive. We should work with local authorities which should be encouraged to ensure a consistent and acceptable set of cycleways in cities, towns and villages. The unfortunate practice of cars parking in cycle lanes and therefore obstructing them needs to be properly policed by the Garda Síochána.
The Labour Party has already welcomed the publication of the new Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 and I as the party spokesperson on transport in this House want to emphasise that support further. However, we believe it needs to be backed up with strong enforcement measures if it is to be effective and successful. Critically, that enforcement must be highly visible to the wider community.
I commend Mr. Gay Byrne, the chairman, and Mr. Noel Brett, the chief executive and all the team at the Road Safety Authority on preparing a new road safety strategy. It is a much better and more focused strategy document than its predecessor, Road Safety Strategy 2004-2006, with a greater focus on results than on operational activities which was a feature of the previous one. There are 126 valuable proposals in this report, including a new target for cutting road deaths to no greater than 60 fatalities per million by the end of 2012 and to reduce serious injuries by25%. This is to be welcomed and, if attained, will be a wonderful achievement. The stated primary aim of the strategy is to save lives and prevent serious injuries by reducing the number and severity of collisions. While I welcome this aim, I note that the target for serious injuries in the 2004-06 strategy was abandoned and there are still major issues to be resolved involving the collection of road traffic injuries data.
The report indicates that the first phase of the new graduated driver licensing scheme will begin when learner permits will replace the existing provisional licence system. To drive unaccompanied on a learner permit will now be an offence, as will driving without L plates. Nobody could disagree with changing a policy which requires learner drivers to be accompanied by a qualified driver until they complete a test but, having failed a driving test, there being no such requirement. However most people disagree with the shambolic way the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, attempted to introduce the change. However, enough has been said on that and the U-turn or three-point turn has been completed.
It is disappointing the Minister has again refused to make a decision on whether to reduce the blood alcohol limit to 50 mg. Instead of stating clearly whether they wish to maintain the present 80 mg of alcohol limit, the Minister and the Taoiseach have again kicked this issue into touch. Another consultative process is under way with legislation, if necessary, only to be brought forward in the second quarter of 2009.
The central question regarding the new strategy is how effective the enforcement measures will be. The document states that the target level of 1,200 Garda traffic corps personnel will not be reached until the end of 2008 at the earliest. It is pointless to roll out a series of new measures if they are not backed by the relevant Garda and judicial resources and I call on the Government to accelerate the process immediately. Just last month Garda figures indicated that as many as 50% of motorists fail to pay fines accrued for driving offences. What message does this send out?
Road safety must be one of the Government's highest priorities. However, the last road safety strategy ran from 2004 to 2006 and we have had nearly a whole year with no safety strategy in place. The 2004-06 road safety strategy contained a number of measures and targets that were never implemented, including provisions on road death targets, reform of the provisional driving license system, mutual recognition of penalty points with Northern Ireland and measures to tackle people driving under the influence of illegal drugs. Many of these measures are rightly included in the new strategy. A question arises, however, regarding how the targets laid down for speeding in the new strategy will be measured. The targets in this area refer to increased compliance, but how is this to be measured? There are also concerns about possible cuts in expenditure for the RSA and other safety agencies in the forthcoming budget. If the Minister is serious about the strategy, he must ensure this does not happen.
My colleague, Deputy Broughan, suggested that the new Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport should publicly invigilate progress on the road safety strategy on a half-yearly basis to ensure its full implementation rather than leave it to gather dust on a Minister's shelf. In Gay Byrne's introduction to the strategy, he stated that the RSA will report on implementation of this policy and the progress made against its targets and gave his assurance that the agency will do all that is humanly possible to deliver the strategy in full. I do not doubt Mr. Byrne's determination but success will be dependent on various agencies and I hope he is not let down by the Government.
I thank Senator Ryan for sharing his time with me. I want to focus my contribution on the issue of safety outside schools and, in particular, parking provisions, quarrying and construction traffic, driving standards, inadequate signage, road conditions and walking buses. I assure Senator de Búrca that the latter is not only of interest to the Green Party; it is also high on my party's agenda.
Many parents across Ireland have to drive their children to school on a daily basis. One of the biggest problems they face is finding somewhere to park. According to a survey I conducted last year of schools in my area, the lack of parking spaces present major problems. At Donore national school, for example, parents have to walk 150 metres with young children because there are no spaces directly beside the school. A new phenomenon has resulted whereby irresponsible parents pull up outside schools and let their children jump out of the cars to cross in front of traffic. They do this because they know gardaí are not enforcing the law when it comes to road safety outside schools. In addition, many schools were built 50 or 100 years ago, when car ownership was much lower and people used to walk to school, so there was no demand for parking spaces. Many of us walked to school but the new reality is that people drive to school and they need parking spaces. It is not fair to expect school boards of management to purchase land for parking from the local land owner because the issue is a national one. I would like the Departments of Education and Science and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to co-operate in developing a strategy for retrofitting parking spaces outside schools.
In many rural locations, such as Bellewstown in my area, the quarry and construction traffic which trundles past schools on a daily basis, often at high speeds, causes concern among parents. When planning permission is granted for quarries and new estates, the routes used for traffic access should be clearly stated in the conditions.
Since the advent of private testing, we have seen a difference in passing rates. The most recent report in today's The Irish Times indicates that of the 40,000 tests carried out this year, the pass rate for private test centres was 62% compared to 52% among Road Safety Authority centres. It is important that standards are applied and rates do not vary. I would like the Minister for Transport to investigate why differences exist in pass rates.
One of the biggest problems outside rural schools is road signs which are overgrown or have fallen down because they were not properly maintained. Many are located on secondary roads. Last week, the Department of Transport announced its intention to reduce expenditure on secondary roads by 13%. That has a potential impact on road safety because of the condition of road surfaces and signage. I ask the Minister to reconsider the funding for secondary roads.
Walking buses, whereby parents walk their children to school, reduces the amount of car traffic on the roads. A walking bus was established in Laytown, County Meath. They cost little to establish beyond the purchase of high visibility jackets but, rather than having them rely on donations, the Government should introduce a nationwide funding programme as a way of getting children out of cars and encouraging safety awareness. More can be done and it is important the Government prioritises this aspect of road safety.
I am disappointed at having to speak about road safety. County Donegal has had more than its fair share of young lives lost. It is cold comfort to bereaved families for me to say that we do not want people under the age of 25, who have not yet had a chance to start their lives, to be cut down so prematurely. I welcome, therefore, the concept of the strategy and hope it achieves the intended results. Whether we are driving, walking or cycling, we all have a role to play in protecting ourselves, our passengers and fellow road users. The road is a shared space.
The road safety strategy was developed with input from partners such as road engineers and gardaí. One of my problems with that arises from the recent decision to reduce the speed limit on county roads from 60 to 50 mph on the basis that local authorities could revert to the 60 mph limit. Having served on a county council, I am aware that the last thing public representatives in County Donegal or elsewhere would want is responsibility for increasing a 50 mph speed limit to 60 mph. It would not be relevant that an accident was caused by someone driving at 162 mph because the public representative would be blamed for increasing the speed limit. It would have been more sensible to maintain the speed limits at 60 mph while allowing local authorities to decrease them on dangerous roads. I asked three different Ministers to reverse their policies in this regard but was told each time that the policy was devised in partnership with road engineers, gardaí and safety experts.
Road safety has to begin with setting realistic speed limits which are enforced. In many places, so-called good national secondary roads are not good. In Donegal many of the county roads are better than the national secondary roads and yet one is expected to drive at 80 km/h. Inishowen has experienced many road deaths and some people would criticise me for asking that the speed limit be more than 80 km/h. However, people see the quality of the roads and yet they are being asked to drive at 80 km/h all over the Inishowen peninsula bar a little bit of it. If the road is safe, the speed limit should be appropriate to it. I do not believe an accident occurs because someone is driving five or ten km/h over the speed limit. In many cases, people are driving at almost double the speed limit. There is no doubt there is a number of different reasons for accidents.
In The Irish Times last week, Killian Doyle wrote an article entitled, "From the Human Race to Boy Racer". He had a cut at Donegal and the phenomenon of the boy racer. He wrote: "Donegal's roads have more doughnut marks on them than Homer Simpson's desk, and these mental midgets go by the well-known moniker of "boy racers"." We have a problem with people who seem to like the sound of their exhausts. I believe legislation is on the way from Europe which will tighten that up but we must implement it.
When I spoke to the Department about noisy exhausts, I was told it was a matter for the gardaí but when I spoke to them, they said they could not implement the rule because they could not measure the decibels. The legislation requires that one must bring the car one believes is not using the appropriate exhaust to the nearest NCT centre. Many people in Inishowen live more than 50 miles away from the local NCT centre but the difficulty is that the legislation states these cars can only be moved eight miles. Someone is ignoring a basic flaw in terms of what we expect the gardaí to do and what they are empowered to do. That needs to be addressed.
In that article, Killian Doyle attacked the gardaí on the fact they are to clamp down on boy racers. It is fair to ask what were they doing up to now if they are only to clamp down on them now. Was there a laissez-faire attitude to them? I do not believe there was but the speed limits should be imposed. The traffic corps, which we got because I and others fought the case for it, should focus on the people who cause the greatest difficulty. It should not be a case of shooting fish in a barrel whereby people driving at 35 km/h in a 30 km/h zone are more likely to be caught than those driving at 120 km/h in a 60 km/h zone.
The gardaí and the schools have done a lot of work and have brought some of those identified as being at risk of becoming dangers to themselves on the roads on a number of excursions. They took the young students to pounds where cars and other vehicles involved in accidents were taken, to the courts where they saw how people were dealt with after car accidents and to hospitals where they saw what people looked like after being involved in such accidents. There has been some very good interaction in which the gardaí have been involved. I would like the reduction in the number of accidents continue, although one is always terrified to acknowledge recent improvements because once one does, someone one knows is involved in an accident.
The noisy exhaust issue must be addressed. Many of these young people are terrorising towns. A couple of years ago, there were photographs in the newspapers of gardaí being chased around towns in my area by boy racers. That must stop. There must be some reason these young people enjoy this. How come they are back on the street even though their cars have been impounded and their licences revoked? I would like someone to give me the statistics on people before the courts. In the towns and villages of Donegal, which I do not believe are that different from anywhere else, practically everybody could give one a list of the registration numbers of cars which are causing problems. The Government should deal with this issue as a matter of priority. If these people are back on the road the next day with a new car, there is something wrong with the system. We must investigate what is wrong with a system which enables that to happen.
Targeting speed checks is important. The view of the gardaí is that if one breaks the law, that is the end of the matter. However, if someone is caught driving slightly above the speed limit and he or she is passed by someone exceeding it to a staggering degree who is getting away with it, it is very hard to bring people on board in terms of the new strategies.
Traffic islands are very important in the context of road safety. They are mostly unlit and if they are lit, they will be unlit the next time one goes past. A simple solution is to put cat's eyes or a reflective band around the base of the traffic island so it does not matter whether the light is working. The idea of painting them yellow and black is fine during the day but it does not matter at night because the paint is not florescent. The most dangerous thing one comes across driving at night is one of these unlit traffic islands. This problem could be easily remedied.
I walked into the House today and I nearly got run over by a cyclist even though there was a cycle lane. The cyclist decided to cycle on the footpath instead. Bicycles should be lit in this age of modern technology. In the past, push bicycles had a light. Perhaps this issue needs to be addressed at a European level. There is no reason a bicycle should not be lit. Going home one evening I counted 23 bicycles. There was no light of any description on 13 of them and they could not be seen. Ten bicycles had some form of lighting.
I will not get the chance to consider the question of whether single car accidents are suicides or accidents. The rural transport issue must be addressed. People living in locations like mine must have cars because rural transport is not available. There has been considerable investment in good roads. However, better roads mean faster roads. Roads must have the right speed limits which must be enforced. Motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and passengers have a role to play in road safety. If we work together, we can reduce the risk of having the history we have had in Donegal. I extend my sympathy to the families who have experienced tragedy.
I acknowledge the efforts of the Road Safety Authority and all State agencies trying their best to reduce the number of deaths as a result of traffic accidents. We would all agree that one death is one too many. We set a target in regard to the number of road traffic deaths but were any measurements done on serious road traffic injuries? Many accidents do not result in deaths but in serious road traffic injuries. Is there any measurement of the number of such injuries? They result in debts for the families affected and the State in taking care of them.
It is fine to call for enforcement but one in four people who receive penalty points do not get them on their licences because they hold out-of-State licences. If we are serious about enforcement, this is sending out completely the wrong message. Something has to be done about this problem. I understand that AA Ireland made proposals to the Department some months ago about the introduction of parallel licensing arrangements to cover those who hold out-of-State licences. If the Department is serious about sending out the right message in respect of enforcement, it should adopt the AA Ireland proposals. They would ensure that penalty points have an effect when they are issued. They are not having the required effect at present.
I would like to speak about mandatory breath testing. We all agree it is irresponsible in the extreme not to test for alcohol at the scene of an accident. I welcome the Minister's U-turn on mandatory breath testing. I understand he is working with the Office of the Attorney General to establish how the current legislation can be amended to provide for roadside testing, which Fine Gael has been advocating for many years. We welcome the Minister's engagement at this juncture. In light of the widespread use of what are termed "recreational drugs", we believe the Minister should also consider drug testing. It is imperative that we provide funds for research and development in this area in order that we can facilitate on-the-spot drug testing in the future.
I concur with Senator Hannigan's comments about road safety near schools. Fine Gael believes that school transport services should be the subject of proper auditing systems and obligatory risk assessments. I ask the Minister of State and his officials to take on board that point. We need to reflect on how pedestrians, cyclists and people travelling in cars and buses arrive at and depart our schools. Significant problems are associated with car parking in the vicinity of schools. If proper risk assessments are to be conducted, possibly led by local authorities in conjunction with boards of management and the gardaí, they need to be properly resourced. As we all know, local authorities do not receive enough funding to fulfil their mandates as things stand. They should receive more resources to work on school safety.
I have spoken previously about the National Roads Authority's policy in respect of rest areas and service stations on our national roads. When the previous Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, instructed the authority to provide such facilities, it started to examine its policy in this regard as it pertains to new motorways and dual carriageways. I propose that it should consider extending this programme to national roads, such as the N25 Rosslare-Cork route in the south east. The drivers of heavy goods vehicles have no option other than to pull up on hard shoulders on the outskirts of towns and cities, thereby causing traffic hazards, if they are to meet their obligations under EU law to take rest periods. The Government's failure to implement a proper policy on rest areas to serve our national roads means that drivers have to park on the hard shoulders of roads leading into towns and villages throughout the country.
It is important that the Government should continue to invest in non-national roads in rural areas. Some Senators have already commented on the number of accidents on such roads. I am concerned about the message that is being sent out in the context of the current budgetary outlook. It is proposed to decrease by 39% the level of funding given to local authorities for non-national roads. Is it right that the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport have agreed on such a reduction? We will debate this issue again during tomorrow's debate on the Local Government (Roads Functions) Bill 2007. If we are genuinely interested in road safety, it is paradoxical to cut the funds being given to local authorities, which are doing the best they can with the limited funds available to them.
We all know road accidents happen for many reasons. Among the factors which contribute to such accidents are the human factors which have been discussed throughout this debate, such as driver inexperience, speed, drink driving, driver fatigue and irresponsibility. We should also focus on issues like the poor standard of the roads, particularly in rural Ireland. There are problems with road surfaces, alignments, junctions and signs. Somebody spoke earlier about the alignment of cats' eyes on the side of the road. All of these issues need to be addressed, but that will not happen if funding is reduced. I ask the Minister for Transport to deal with these difficulties.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House for this important debate on road safety, which was requested by Senators from all sides of the House. I congratulate the Road Safety Authority on its new strategy. It is obviously critical that we put in place a very broad strategy that commands the support of the wider public, including drivers of all ages. We know from the statistics which have been published that young drivers, in particular, are vulnerable on our roads.
On the Order of Business this morning, a number of Senators welcomed the arrival in Ireland this weekend of the world rally championship. Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on the decision of the Road Safety Authority to invest money in Rally Ireland by becoming one of its partners. Could that decision be interpreted as contributing to the glorification of speed? I appreciate that the authority is trying to connect with young drivers by supporting a popular professional sport that appeals to them. I accept that rallying, which requires a combination of great driving skills and speed, has a great following in Ireland. I wonder if the authority's decision to fund Rally Ireland on a formal basis will be seen as an endorsement of the enthusiasm of young male drivers, in particular, for speed and modified cars. I am concerned that the Road Safety Authority's important message, which relates to responsibility while driving, may be lost.
Has research been done into the effectiveness of the current television advertisements which form part of the overall road safety campaign? The advertisements in question are terrifying for most of us. What impact do they have on young male drivers? How many of those drivers even see the advertisements? Has research uncovered the most effective way of transmitting the message about safe driving? Can the Department of Transport and the Road Safety Authority confirm whether the substantial spend on this campaign has been backed by scientific evidence? It would be interesting to establish whether it has. Perhaps such research could also clarify the wisdom of the authority's sponsorship of a rallying event.
We have to do a great deal of work on education if we are to reduce the shocking level of road deaths. I am sure all Senators will agree that horror stories about the effects of speeding have a limited effect on those who do not have the skills needed to drive safely. It is clear that the recent announcements about provisional licences and driver testing were botched. I am concerned about whether the waiting lists for driving tests will be cleared by the deadline set by the Minister. If they are not cleared, what will the Minister do?
The resistance to reducing the legal blood alcohol concentration levels for drivers is based on the argument that rural communities would suffer. It is time to address this issue. We should develop and support rural communities by putting in place proper transport networks in rural areas. We should not use concerns about rural communities as an excuse for not reducing the blood alcohol level at which people can drive legally, because we know very well such a reduction would save lives. Members of the House have a particular responsibility to deal with this issue in a manner that will save lives. If we are ambivalent about drink driving, we will cause further loss of life. The time has come to grasp this nettle and to deal with the issues faced by people in rural communities. We should not use spurious arguments as an excuse for not taking the sort of action that is necessary. After all, what could be more conducive to developing community spirit than encouraging people, communities and families to support the concept of the designated driver?
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. Having listened to the debate over the last hour, it seems many of the points I had intended to make have been already made. We are here to talk about how we can reduce the number of road deaths. That is the fundamental reason for the reform and updating of road traffic legislation. The idea that one road death is one too many has been echoed throughout this debate. I often reflect on the consequences of each road death for the family, extended family and community of the person in question. I would like to get that message across, but how can that be done?
The public welcomes the legislation in respect of those holding second provisional licences. If such drivers do not pass the test, then so be it; they should be able to pass the test at the second attempt. I am delighted the Minister has given a lead-in period to allow all those on second provisional licences to prepare for the test in the next six months.
We must question the reasons so many young people are involved in road accidents. We should examine the causes rather than the symptoms of the problem and these point to a larger societal issue. Something is radically wrong when young people are having accidents between 2 and 4 in the middle of the night. This points to a lack of responsibility in society at large.
While legislation is very important, it is not enough. We had legislation which did not work and accidents were not prevented. I question whether people are aware of the legislation or whether they are interested in it. An awareness campaign is required. Other speakers referred to the television advertisements which in my view are very frightening. I cannot look at them, in particular the advertisement showing the young girl sitting on the wall with her boyfriend. Such advertisements are necessary even though I cannot watch them.
Young people need the support of their parents and their communities. There is a role for educationalists. Young people of 16 and 17 should be prepared at second level and taught how to be responsible when on the roads. Most young people will aspire to driving a car by 18 or 19 years of age. Parents must take responsibility and should know the rules of the road. I suggest joined-up thinking between the Minister for Transport, the Minister for Education and Science and the local authorities to produce an educational module which would teach young people to be responsible for people other than themselves.
Society will have to change. The Celtic tiger is roaring and we have more money than we need but we do not have a quality of life. There is a macho attitude of owning a car, having money and being free to drink and take drugs and no legislation will change such an attitude except by the introduction of colossal penalties. There needs to be a change of attitude within families and within communities to get the message across to young people.
When I drive I take responsibility for other road users such as those coming around the corner. I have travelled the roads of Ireland over the past six months and I have had near accidents high up and low down on secondary roads. I have seen people driving while using a mobile phone or talking to a passenger or attending to a child with one hand and the other hand on the steering wheel. No legislation will put this attitude right. Public representatives have a duty to speak to community and residents associations and at public meetings. We must ask the public to help us because we can introduce or reform legislation but we need their help. Community spirit and co-operation is required to change attitudes. Otherwise we will see a continuation of people breaking the rules by not wearing seat belts and by drink and drug driving.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht ar an cheist thábhachtach seo. Níl morán daoine sa tír nach bhfuil aithne acu ar dhuine a maraíodh ar na bealaí móra nó a bhí i dtimpiste. Tá sé iontach tábhachtach go bhfuilimid ag déanamh ár sheacht ndícheall aghaidh a thabhairt ar an fhadhb sin. Cuirim fáilte roimh an mhéid atá déanta ag an Road Safety Authority go dtí seo. Silim, áfach, go gcaithfimid níos mó a dhéanamh. Mar a dúirt Seanadóir eile, duine amháin a maraíodh ar na bealaí móra, sin duine de bharraíocht.
I reiterate the call made by my Sinn Féin colleague, Cathal Boylan MLA, who has demanded an all-Ireland conference on road safety. This week in the Assembly, Sinn Féin submitted a motion on road safety calling for an all-Ireland summit to tackle the crisis on our roads and for the integration of the Road Safety Council and the Road Safety Authority to deal with issues of road safety on an all-Ireland basis. The Border, which was imposed against the will of the majority of people on this island, continues to cost lives and impinges on the well-being of the people. The very existence of two road safety authorities on a small island does not make sense. While hundreds of people are killed annually on our roads, there is a particular concentration of road accidents in the Border areas. The death rate from road accidents is one third higher in the Border region than anywhere else in the island. Partition is a major impediment to improving Irish road safety because of the two entirely separate systems. There are two different systems of speed limits, different road signs and different standards for drivers.
It is in the interests of everybody on the island that we work together on an all-Ireland approach to save lives. The Good Friday Agreement strand two provisions have defined transport as a significant area of co-operation and this must include road safety. The Sinn Féin all-Ireland road safety policy document spells out clear proposals, including all-Ireland ministerial and departmental co-operation in the area of transport, including road safety and an all-Ireland road safety strategy to harmonise speed limits into kilometres per hour, as is required under EU law, the harmonisation of road signs and other road safety measures. It also proposes a single road safety authority for the entire island, an all-Ireland licensing system, including a common driving test and a common penalty points system. Although I acknowledge the growing North-South co-operation, more must be done. Lives are at stake and all-Ireland co-operation would improve road safety and reduce fatalities.
I welcome most of the recommendations in the recent publication by the Road Safety Authority and while I hope, like all other Members, they will lead to a reduction in fatalities and injuries on our road, I question the Government's reluctance to deal with the issue of the blood-alcohol limit. A positive step could be taken that would have an immediate effect if it was followed up by enforcement. The template is in place in other European countries where a zero blood alcohol limit applies and I am disappointed action will not be taken on this issue until the second quarter of 2009.
I concur with Senator Ormonde's sentiments on public awareness campaigns. At a recent public information meeting in Donegal attended by Mr. Gay Byrne the message was never drink and drive and one drink is too many but the message sent by the Government by not reducing the blood alcohol limit to zero is one can drink and drive up to a certain level. That confusion needs to be addressed for once and for all and a blood alcohol limit of zero needs to be introduced. This needs to be followed up by making proper provision for rural transport for those who need it.
I am also disappointed that the issue of drug driving has not been tackled. As Ireland has been a pioneer in other areas such as smoking legislation, it should also be a pioneer on drug driving. When we debate the issue of drugs in society, we know people are taking illegal substances on a daily basis. Do we believe they walk home from the pubs, clubs and parties they attend where they take these substances or do we believe they get behind the wheel of a car under the influence of drugs? This is allowed to continue by not introducing the necessary legislation and measures together with appropriate enforcement to provide drug testing on the side of the road.
A number of years ago the Government introduced legislation that permitted local authorities to reduce speed limits on roads and, in particular, outside primary and secondary schools. If the speed limit was 100 km/h, it could be reduced to 50 km/h. Although the legislation is in place, local authorities to not have the funding to implement the changes. It would cost between €2 million and €3 million to apply the reduction in County Donegal but that money has not been forthcoming from the Government. While aspirations and strategies are important, they need to be supported by Exchequer resources, particularly for local authorities when they are asked to implement such measures.
Funding for non-national roads is also a concern. We all know the blackspots in our communities where accidents and fatalities occur on an ongoing basis. While a scheme is in place to address accident blackspots, it is not sufficient. The funding for the scheme is released in dribs and drabs and local authorities can only take action on a number of them annually. If the Government is serious about reducing road accidents and fatalities, it needs to provide funding to local authorities and their engineers who know where the blackspots are located.
There is a reason one third more accidents occur in the Border region. The Minister of State, who is from Donegal, will be aware of the difficulties relating to road safety and action is needed. Co-operation must be enhanced on a North-South basis and the necessary funding must be provided to address these issues. Senator Keaveney and others referred to young people doing donuts on the road and the need for the Garda to tackle them so that they do not terrorise communities. Young people are not solely responsible for our poor road safety record or bad driving.
I refer to a project in Gweedore, west Donegal. As a result of a young person losing his life on the road, his friends came together and decided to take action. They set up a stock car rally club and developed a rally track. They raised tens of thousands of euro and developed the track. It is fully insured and fully compliant with safety regulations and it has the support of the local Garda. More important, if the young people who participate in the stock car racing identify another member abusing the rules of the road, they are immediately excluded from the club. The Minister of State was present at a meeting with the local superintendent who applauded the young people. The Government should support initiatives such as this promoted by young people.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I fully support the ambitious programmes laid out by the Road Safety Authority and the determined and direct fashion in which it is going about its mission. Enforcement of road safety legislation has always been an issue. Speed is the greatest killer and while I welcome initiatives in recent years such as the penalty points system and the traffic corps, which have made a contribution, I am concerned that enforcement of speed limits and penalty points is focused on revenue generation rather than on saving lives.
A number of Members referred to shooting fish in a barrel. I can recall many checkpoints on our dual carriageways and motorways. Senator Ellis mentioned the famous camera on the N4 but if one is caught on that camera, one should be brought in for a psychological assessment because everybody knows where it is positioned. The N4 is a quality road with many long straights which would allow for the landing of a jumbo jet while cars travelled on it and it is not a blackspot. Many deaths have occurred on the Sligo-Donegal road, including in recent weeks, because of the quality of the road. However, a police presence would discourage drivers from taking risks on a road that is not capable of taking cars driving within the speed limit, much less those driving in excess of it.
Garda enforcement should focus on blackspots rather than on good roads where drivers can be caught travelling at 105 km/h or 110 km/h in a 100 km/h zone. While they are breaking the law and deserve to be punished, in the context of preserving lives and dealing with accidents, it would be more appropriate to enforce speed limits on national primary and secondary roads of a lesser quality between 12 midnight and 8 a.m.
I acknowledge young people are not solely in danger but a disproportionate number of young men are involved in accidents and die. I am a relatively young person and I was no angel driving when I was younger. I am not proud of some of the risks I took. I was in a number of car accidents and was possibly lucky not to be killed. We must focus on the demographic age range most at risk and at the times of day when accidents are more likely to occur. I live on a main road in Sligo and I could point out to a garda every night the cars involved. They have been adjusted so that they are lower to the ground and they have wider tyres and louder exhausts, even though exhausts that exceed a specified decibel level are outlawed. There are other aspects of enforcement and if they were focused on, they would be effective. I am not launching an all-out attack on young people but they are the ones who, it appears, are most at risk and we must wake up to that fact.
I welcome the initiative regarding drivers with provisional licences in that the law will be enforced to the point where they will have to take their test. I am delighted the implementation of that initiative was extended as it makes better sense. There is no shame in admitting when a good suggestion was made to move forward matters that the timeframe was not right. I welcome the fact that we pushed forward the implementation of that initiative. We must ensure the resources are made available to allow us meet the reviewed deadline.
On roads, for example, improvements must be made to the N16, N15, parts of the N17 and the final parts of the N4. Those roads are in the north west where I come from. Those improvements must be made, and under Transport 21 I believe they will be. I would like, however, that to happen a little more quickly than the timeframe proposed under Transport 21 and I know the Minister of State will take on board those suggestions.
I suggested previously the installation of speed governors on cars. I realise that would be a draconian move but it should be examined. A speed governor with an upper speed of 50 mph should be mandatory on cars driven by motorists up to the age of 25. We could offer other incentives to appease people who might be annoyed about that initiative in terms of cheaper insurance or car tax or exemptions in that regard. That could be examined.
In regard to secondary schools, Professor Ray Fuller of the school of psychology in Trinity College stated yesterday that in terms of training he would propose some element of driver training in the secondary school curriculum. That is something that would be worthwhile and I ask the Minister of State to take on board that suggestion.
On the Order of Business this morning I mentioned an important event taking place in the north west and in Belfast over the next five days, namely, the world rally championship, known as Rally Ireland. I was disappointed to hear Senator Fitzgerald's contribution in that respect. I almost always agree with her well-thought out and positive contributions, but she questioned the Road Safety Authority's involvement in Rally Ireland. It is for initiatives such as this that we should salute the Road Safety Authority in the context of its involvement in Rally Ireland because people want to speed. As mentioned by Senator Doherty, I commend the people in north west Donegal who set up the stock car racing club, an excellent initiative. Rather than sticking its head in the sand, the Road Safety Authority realises that young people get a buzz from driving fast and like to be involved in racing sports and the like. The authority acknowledges that and it became involved in the world rally championship.
Those who travel to the north west this weekend will see billboards with the notice "Keep the race in its place" displayed. It is that initiative in which the Road Safety Authority has been involved and it is an excellent one. The message "Keep the race in its place" is pioneering in the context of the many other rounds of the world rally championship worldwide and Formula One.
As the event takes place throughout Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Belfast over the coming weekend, I appeal to the 150,000 spectators who will enjoy the activities to follow the instructions of the Garda and the marshals to ensure they, too, can keep the race in its place and be safe while monitoring the event.
It would be remiss of me not to say that I was delighted over the past five years to be associated with the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, and the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, on the political side in ensuring the Irish bid to host the world rally championship was successful. We beat many other countries. King Abdullah fronted the Jordan bid for it. We also beat Australia and South Africa. As the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, knows, we did not need King Abdullah because we had the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and the Government backing us.
Absolutely. I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak on the issue of road safety. Several discussions on it have taken place in the six years I have been a Member of this House and I wonder whether the words we utter here have much impact. I commend the work of those in the Road Safety Authority and the gardaí who police the roads to try to reduce the awful number of accidents, deaths and injuries that occur on our roads daily.
We are discussing this issue in the immediate aftermath of the cock-up by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, with his proposed reform of the licensing system. I am sure many Members would have received many communications from their constituents on the proposed changes the Minister intended to introduce to crack down on people driving on a second provisional licence. It is not the case that people do not agree with the proposal but there are still significantly long waiting lists for driving tests throughout the country.
I am glad the Minister backtracked and decided to allow a lead-in time for the changes to come into effect. I live in a rural area and many people from rural areas who have to be in work at 8 a.m. have no possibility of being accompanied by a qualified driver. They only way they can get to work is by driving because a public transport service does not exist in most parts of rural Ireland. The initial proposal by the Minister with such a short lead-in time was exposed for the faults it clearly had.
Significant changes need to be made in the driving test system. The backlog of people waiting for driving tests needs to be addressed and I hope significant reductions will occur in the waiting times for driving tests in the next few months.
I have raised the format of the driving test on a number of occasions in the House. I do not know when the last significant changes were made to it but it strikes me that many tasks in the driving test are irrelevant to the dangers motorists face on the roads. The most dangerous task a motorist will do is to overtake another vehicle, but that task is not part of the driving test. Despite this, part of the driving test involves reversing around the kerb of a junction which, as far I know, is illegal. Parts of the driving test are outdated. It does not include the most dangerous aspects of driving. If we are serious about reform of the licensing system, we should fundamentally reform the nature of the test.
I have also spoken in the past of the need to examine the provision of facilities and places for people to learn how to drive. If one lives in a rural area, as I do, one can learn to drive on country roads on which there is little traffic. However, if one lives in a town or other urban area, the first time one sits behind the wheel of a car, one will drive on the public road and even though one is accompanied by an experienced qualified driver, driving on such a busy road is hardly suitable. Local authorities and Government agencies have large landbanks and I have asked before for the provision of facilities where people can get their first few lessons to ensure they do not have to drive straight out on the highway given the danger that presents.
Previous speakers mentioned the difficulties regarding the speed limits that apply on some roads. The speed limits on some roads are ridiculous. I can travel to Dublin on the N7 or the N11. I travelled on the N11 yesterday. It is a fabulous new road for most of the way but a 60 km/h speed limit applies to a significant stretch of it around the Glen of the Downs and Kilmacanogue and yet an 80 km/h speed limit applies to a twisty and windy stretch of the road closer to Wexford that has only two lanes, one in each direction.
A proposal was presented a number of years ago that a concerted effort would be made by local authorities to streamline the speed limits in operation but that does not seem to have worked. I agree with Senator MacSharry that we seem to police most heavily our best roads. I note that the Garda always appears to police a new section of road built between Enniscorthy and New Ross, which is a fine stretch of road. However, I never seen the Garda policing a poor stretch of road between Clonroche and New Ross. I do not understand the reasoning behind those decisions. If motorists want to avoid detection, they can drive at whatever speed they like on the twistiest, windiest and narrowest stretches of national road but they must stick to the speed limit on the best stretches of national road. That does not make sense.
The penalty points system introduced four years ago has been successful. I supported it then and I support it now, although I have been given a couple of penalty points. I learned my lesson when I got them and they have disappeared from my licence by now, I suppose.
At the time the then Senator Brian Hayes made the valuable point, which has not been acted upon, that at certain peak times, especially bank holiday weekends which tend to be black spots, the possibility of doubling penalty points should be examined. It is done in many other countries, as I know having spent some time in Australia where it is done on bank holiday weekends when more accidents tend to occur. Similarly, in Ireland most accidents occur at such times. We should look at the possibility of doubling penalty points so that instead of getting two for speeding, the offender will get four and so on. That has not yet been done. Perhaps it is being looked at, and it should be.
I disagree with Senator Pearse Doherty about a zero blood alcohol limit as I do not believe it would work. If one goes to Mass on a Sunday and takes altar wine, one might find oneself over the limit. It is not practicable. To be perfectly honest, I do not see the need to reduce the alcohol limit from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg. Senator MacSharry is right in saying that what is needed is enforcement. We have enough laws, whether they concern justice, transport or road safety. We just need to implement them and there is not enough of that. I do not see that there is a significant need in rural areas in particular, where there is no public transport system, to reduce the blood alcohol level. I do not believe it would serve a purpose. If we were to implement what we have, that would be better rather than trying to reduce the current levels.
Previous speakers have touched on drug driving. Something needs to done in that regard and testing should be introduced.
My last point concerns young people. I still regard myself as a young person. There is a danger in all this discussion that we will demonise every young fellow who has a car. I am delighted to see any able young person providing himself or herself with a car and spending some money on doing it up. They could be spending their money on much worse. Young people are not the cause of the majority of road deaths. There is a significant problem but we should try to work them with rather than demonising them. Initiatives such as those that took place in Donegal should be welcomed and encouraged throughout the country.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher. He and I have often discussed safety at sea rather than safety on the roads. In any event, this debate is very welcome and I am pleased to contribute to it.
I echo the point made by the previous speaker about young people. As a parent I believe the majority of young people are very responsible and tuned in. They know it can sometimes be difficult to get insurance, even with a full licence. In the event, they value and treasure it much more than I did when I was a teenager, for example. They tend to be very responsible and it is unfair to tar everybody with the same brush. My experience indicates too that the younger generation of drivers tends to be better trained.
As a Seanad Member who probably has the furthest distance to travel to this House — up to six hours' driving — I experience a good deal of ignorance and bad manners on the road from people of my age or older. They do not indicate, overtake on double white lines or continuous single white lines and in general display bad manners which contribute overall to accidents. We should not lose sight of the statistics outlined by the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, to the effect that last year, despite all the media exposure, we had the lowest number of road deaths in this country in 40 years.
It is difficult to credit that we had a worse record in the 1960s with one third of the traffic. Coming from a rural area in particular, I am conscious that we have, perhaps, one of the worst systems of public transport imaginable. When I was a child there used to be a train going to Bantry, but it no longer operates. People have to drive to work. I know we have made many improvements, but usage of cars among the public is probably one of the highest relative statistics in Europe, and that should be acknowledged. We have reams of legislation on the Statute Book and enforcement is probably the key. More of this needs to happen.
We hear much about drink driving and certainly this is a serious contributor to road accidents, although not the only cause. There is a question too of speed, inexperience and human error. As a Member of the Oireachtas I have become increasingly concerned that in the past five to seven years drugs have been a contributor in some of the major collisions. It will not show up in a blood alcohol test whether someone has had cannabis, cocaine or a more dangerous drug. We should be attuned to ensuring that people involved in road traffic accidents are tested for drugs as well as drink. If that were done I am confident the statistics would show that drugs contribute to accidents and serious carnage on our roads much more than we realise.
As someone who travels a good deal by car, unfortunately, what bugs me are the easy options being taken by the Garda as regards speed traps. A recent example I came across was in Castletownbere where gardaí set up checkpoints on the old 30 mph, now 50 km/h, road exiting from the town. There are two or three kilometres of straight wide road and very little traffic. I was a victim of a speed check myself in that situation, put my hands up and just accepted my responsibility. Fortunately I have only two penalty points. The garda said that she had caught 33 people that day in that situation. There was no accident and a fine straight stretch of road.
The gardaí should instead be watching for situations like the one I encountered recently on a pretty bad road with a continuous white line. A person of unknown nationality or sex whistled past me certainly doing 80 mph. One could see the shudder and shake of the vehicle as it passed.
Instead of the Garda saying it had 500 speed traps in place last weekend which caught 8,000 people who got penalty points, it should focus its energies elsewhere. Such statistics do not enhance or help as regards road traffic accidents. Catching somebody doing 36 mph where there is a 30 mph limit constitutes a soft target. While it merits brownie points for the garda concerned it contributes very little to the strategy of reducing road deaths.
Speed is certainly an issue and there is sufficient legislation covering this as well. One of the key reasons I wanted to contribute to this debate was because of something I raised in the House three weeks ago when I called for a debate on the safety of pedestrians. I am conscious as I leave west Cork at 6 a.m. for Dublin during these short days of the numbers of pedestrians killed each year on the roads. When the figures are added they are quite significant. I am concerned in particular for the elderly and schoolchildren. It should be compulsory for old age pensioners to wear armbands. It would not cost an arm and a leg to distribute them to the elderly and schoolchildren so that they are reflected in the dark. I have had occasions where I have come around a corner on a bad foggy morning only to see a dark elderly figure emerge suddenly. One blesses oneself on having passed them without incident. One need not have drink taken to be involved in such accidents.
Someone mentioned earlier that the method of testing is far from appropriate and I agree. The tests being done today are the same as I did 30 years ago. As a young man I had to go to England and had to do a test there because my Irish licence was not acceptable. I also sat a driving test in the United States. The current test in Ireland, which is conducted primarily in an urban area without driving on the main roads, overtaking other vehicles or accelerating to 50 mph or 55 mph, should be changed because we do not all drive in urban environments.
I agree with what was said by most of the Senators in that we must save lives where possible. I welcome the initiatives of the Road Safety Authority and other bodies and also the reduction in the loss of life over recent years, but much more can be done. I and other members of the Joint Committee on Transport visited Australia during the last plenary session and saw the very advanced up-to-date systems in that country. It seems we must go to Australia for everything because we are now considering its health service model as well. We should be able to take the initiative ourselves.
At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, I spoke to Mr. Barry of the National Roads Authority on the recently opened Charlestown bypass. I was hoping the development would involve a two-plus-one carriageway and Mr. Barry stated there would be ample opportunity for motorists to pass others on the stretch of road in question which is nearly 18 km in length. However, if one travels on the road one will note there is a continuous white line on almost all of it. I cannot understand why either of the lanes of a two-lane carriageway could not be a little wider or why greater use could not be made of the hard shoulder, nor can I understand why it could not be converted into a two-plus-one carriageway. If there is even a small amount of traffic on the Charlestown bypass, one cannot pass other motorists.
I agree with the use of fixed cameras. Senator Ellis drew attention to the fixed camera at the Lucan Spa Hotel. Everybody knows it is there and slows down but Senator Quinn stated that if there were another further down the carriageway, the authorities would know whether motorists were breaking the speed limit because they would know the time it takes to travel between the two. We must consider this and I would welcome the placing of many more fixed cameras on the roads by the Government or Road Safety Authority.
Local authorities can do more to prevent speeding on bad sections of county roads but they need funding to put the appropriate notices and speed limit signs in place. A special grant should be made available to local authorities to achieve this because it is in everybody's interest. Local authority members recognise they should do more to reduce speed on certain roads but they do not have the necessary manpower or funding.
I thank Senator Paddy Burke for sharing time with me and I am aware most of the relevant points have already been made.
Statistics on road safety speak for themselves and consequently road safety must remain a top priority, not just for the Government and Road Safety Authority but for us all. We must all take responsibility, not just for our own actions but also for actions that would influence the communities in which we live.
Statistics suggest that many of the measures adopted to date have been successful. It is especially important to note this. Perhaps we are not sure which measure has been most successful, be it the penalty points system, the drink driving legislation or the graphic advertisements on television. I have no doubt that all the measures have had a role to play. This will have been the first time in the history of the State in which there will have been a road safety strategy in operation. When drawing up the strategy, it might be well worthwhile identifying specifically the immediate needs.
I always underline the issue of education. Perhaps graphic advertising forms part of this but I am referring to education in schools. I am not just suggesting that a member of the Garda Síochána or other representative visit the schools every year because road safety should be part and parcel of the curriculum. It is so important to the lives of young people. I am not just picking out young people because everyone is affected. I recently saw on television a list of those who had died in road traffic accidents over the previous year. Their ages were listed also and I was particularly surprised by their range. It was not only young people who were involved. Education must extend beyond the school and it should be regular. It should not only point out the dangers to ourselves but also the irresponsibility associated with placing other people's lives and limbs in jeopardy.
One must ask how much inconvenience motorists will accept. When the drink driving laws were first introduced, there was all manner of debate in which some Members argued that exemptions should be made in certain cases. However, if we want to prevent the carnage on the roads, as we all do, we must decide how much inconvenience we are prepared to accept. The same applied to the penalty points system. It was introduced over a holiday period and I remember how we all slowed down at the time. We gradually built up our speed until we received our first two points and we then started to slow down again. This demonstrates that the system works.
I remember having been a passenger in cars in the United States and noted that US motorists take driving quite seriously. They watch out for speed limit signs and speed cameras. The Administration there must have succeeded in instilling such concern and fear into motorists. I compliment the Government and Road Safety Authority on what they have done to date. I hope we all have an opportunity to discuss and have an input into the strategy on an organic basis.
This is a very important topic. The Minister of State, like his predecessors from Donegal, has an opportunity to be remembered for years to come for the work he may do to ensure road safety. We know the work his predecessor, the former Ceann Comhairle Joe Brennan, did as a Member of Dáil Éireann. The two longest speeches ever recorded in the Houses of the Oireachtas were made by former Senator Bernard McGlinchey, a colleague of ours. These men have been remembered for their contributions in the House. The Minster of State, Deputy Gallagher, who is also from the north west, can also make a significant change by addressing the topic under discussion.
I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Senator Ellis, formerly a Member of the Dáil, was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport. I would like to believe we both made a significant contribution to bringing about the current position on road safety, given the level of carnage on our roads five years ago compared with today. There were only 575 personnel in the dedicated traffic corps three years ago. The Garda Commissioner, along with the three Ministers of the time, allowed this to take place. The number of personnel increased to 800 last year and 1,000 this year. The number will increase to its full compliment of 1,200 next year. When the dedicated traffic corps in New York was given the funding and wherewithal, not only was there a reduction in deaths and serious injuries, there was also a 30% reduction in crime. It is a win-win situation for everyone concerned.
The biggest change we have seen is the introduction of random breath testing. In the period between its introduction on 21 July 2006 and 20 July 2007, over 80 lives were saved and over 1,200 people were saved from serious injury. It will grow and be enhanced. That is on record and it is to the eternal credit of the Road Safety Authority; its chief executive at the time, Eddie Shaw, who was of enormous help to the committee; its current chief executive, Noel Brett; and its current chairman, Gay Byrne, that they have taken this issue seriously.
For an additional cost of €15 in the manufacturing process, vehicle manufacturers can, and have an obligation, to ensure that seatbelts are connected to the ignition. If three people get into the car but do not fasten their seatbelts, the car will not start. We are making this very simple request of manufacturers today.
The Government must lead by good example. A total of 53,000 vehicles, such as taxis, buses and school buses, are registered by the Government. Black box technology should be installed in those vehicles. This technology only costs about €200 and three manufacturers are offering to play an enhanced role in this. Accidents are not planned, rather they happen. If someone travelling home on their own at night has an accident, either through falling asleep at the wheel or something else, they could be dead within half an hour. For example, they could bleed to death. Black box technology will notify emergency services immediately after the accident. The nearest hospital or Garda or fire station, which could be 15 miles away, will be alerted and on the scene 15 to 20 minutes later. This will save lives.
We have seen how, unfortunately, school buses have been involved in accidents and young people have been killed. No one definitively knows what has caused these accidents. A bus mounted the pavement below the Clarence Hotel in Dublin on a Saturday afternoon and people were killed. No one definitively knows what happened. Within 20 minutes, the black box technology will tell one the cause of the accident, in the same way as a black box fitted in an aircraft.
Insurance companies have come on side and have said that they will reduce premiums by a minimum of 20% for anyone who installs this technology. The Government must lead by example and I call on one of the most experienced Ministers of State in the Government to bring the matter to the attention of his Department. Black box technology was strongly recommended by the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment in its fifth and final report to the Government. In fairness, the Road Safety Authority and the Department have accepted most of our proposals in the last four interim reports and the final report.
I could speak on this matter for a long time. The Minister of State can see that this has been a very worthwhile debate and I hope we will look forward to making the roads and country of Ireland safer to live and work in.
I thank all the Senators from all sides of the House for what can only be described as a well-informed debate on road safety. Their interest and concern, which is not surprising, is very evident from the contributions of all Members.
The Government has made great strides in the area of road safety. I am possibly more aware of this than most, having worked in that Department with the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Martin Cullen, for about 16 months during which time I took a particular interest in this area. There is a committed strategic integrated approach by all the relevant agencies to reduce the level of deaths and injuries.
I wish to emphasise the subject of injuries. We always talk about fatalities and the statistics at which we look concern fatalities. However, injuries on our roads can be horrific. I know many people who have been paralysed for life, a situation which is extremely difficult for them and their families. Many of those people have very special needs and will need full-time care and attention for the rest of their lives.
Significant initiatives identified in the last road strategy for 2004 to 2006 have been realised. We want to continue to see the results of the mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints. Since the commencement of these checkpoints in July 2006, over 30,000 drivers per month have been tested. Aligned with a significant increase in high visibility enforcement, some 90 fewer people died on our roads in the period to the end of July 2007, compared to the same period to the end of July 2006. It can be said that this reduction is a direct result of the introduction of roadside tests.
The request for tender to deploy and privatise the operation of speed cameras was recently issued, with six companies being short-listed as part of that overall process. The applications are being examined, with a view to selecting the contractor very shortly.
I will also refer to what the Government has achieved to date. A dedicated road safety strategy has been produced. The Government has invested in new, improved and safer roads. Of course, there is much more to do. However, over the past ten years, through the Road Safety Authority and various local authorities, the Government has invested heavily in our roads, making them safer, which is to be applauded. Much more remains to be done and the Government, including the Department of Transport which is responsible for the National Roads Authority and non-national roads, will continue to ensure that this level of investment continues.
The penalty points system has been in place for some time but was extended in April 2006, featuring 35 separate offences, as well the addition of mobile phone offences from September 2006. Fixed charges apply to almost 60 offences. Over 570,000 drivers have received penalty points to the end of 2007, with 93 drivers on 12 penalty points, resulting in six months disqualification.
We also established a dedicated traffic corps whose current strength stands at over 800. There will be an additional 400 members attached, bringing the total to 1,200 by the end of next year. This commitment will be realised.
Greater levels of visibility and enforcement contribute greatly to road safety. The Road Safety Authority was set up in 2006. We have a ministerial road safety committee on which I served with colleagues from the Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Taoiseach attended the committee at various times, which is an indication of his commitment and that of the Government and all Members of the Oireachtas. The new rules of the road were launched last March. Following its development by the RSA, the new road safety strategy 2007-12 was launched last month. It is quite detailed and its primary target is to reduce deaths to no more than 60 fatalities per million people by 2012. It may seem ambitious but it is realistic. This equates to 21 road deaths per month or 252 per year. This year the average is much too high, 28 per month. The recent introduction of the new regulations regarding driving licences and learner drivers is a building block in the introduction of the graduated licence system in Ireland. There was criticism of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, for not having a lead-in time but he was pragmatic in deciding that the period should be extended to June, a welcome decision. The changes involve the replacement of the provisional licence, details of which Senators are aware.
There is a downward trend as a result of various Government and departmental initiatives. There have been 285 deaths to date this year, a reduction of 34 on the same period last year, but these statistics are cold comfort to the families of the 285 people who died on our roads. We must continue to achieve a lower rate, as outlined in the road strategy. If the current trend continues to the end of the year we will achieve one of the lowest death rates on Irish roads in 40 years. The strategy contains a range of initiatives in education, enforcement, engineering and legislation. It expressly provides for the evaluation of road safety policies. The implementation of the measures in the strategy should achieve further reductions in road deaths, a goal shared by all Members.
When this legislation was being debated in this House reference was made to penalty points and the revenue generated. This was not the intention. The Gweedore stock car rally track has been successful. Other areas should try to emulate it. It came about as a result of the death of Mr. Hugh Sweeney from Gweedore station. He made such an impact on people that his friends decided he should not die in vain. I believe he did not die in vain in light of the developments that have taken place. His parents and brothers can take comfort from the fact that his death may have saved the lives many others in west Donegal.
The track in Gweedore is well organised and the young people who use it are committed to saving further lives. It has the full support of the Garda Síochána, to which Senator Doherty referred. We met representatives of the Garda Síochána last week in the Gweedore forum. We should promote it in all parts of the country where young people between 18 and 26 will use it. Statistics suggests that many accidents involve young male drivers between the ages of 18 and 26 and occur between 12 midnight and 4 a.m.
We can refer to legislation, strategies, the RSA, the Department, Members of the Houses and the good advice we are given but we must remember each one of us is responsible for his or her safety. If every individual were to decide to be more careful, not to pass out on turns, single and continuous white lines, and to be responsible for safety we could drastically reduce the number of road deaths. Young people are prepared to take risks, which I see in my area. They pass out at 100 mph and further down the road one sees them stopped behind traffic or at traffic lights. We must instil in them an awareness of the dangers of driving at speed. Alcohol also contributes, as does a refusal to wear seatbelts.
The world rally championship will take place over the next few days. I was at the first meeting about the rally, when we met the then Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, and the event will be economically important for the north west. It will be a showpiece for Ireland and will be transmitted to millions of people. We must send out a word of caution to the many young people who will try to emulate professionals. They should slow down, take care and keep the race in its place. I pay tribute to the organisers of the world rally championship. They have made a major contribution. I hope the weekend will be accident and fatality free.
Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do na Seandadóirí go léir a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht fíor-thábhactach seo. Molaim iad go mór as sin agus tá súil agam nach mbeidh timpiste ar bith thar deireadh na seachtaine agus go mbeidh muid ábalta an méid daoine atá ag fáil bháis ar na bóithre a laghdú idir seo agus deireadh na bliana agus na blianta amach romhainn.