Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Road Traffic Bill 2011: Second Stage


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

1:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Meath West, Fianna Fail)
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This Bill, following its enactment, will allow for the early introduction of significant provisions in road traffic legislation to support and reinforce the existing drink driving enforcement regime. Its provisions will further communicate the message that drink driving will not be tolerated. Drivers who, in the opinion of the Garda, have consumed intoxicating liquor and are involved in collisions where injury is caused will be required to undertake preliminary breath tests following the enactment of the Bill.

This is the seventh major legislative initiative taken on traffic law in the past decade. The legislative progression during that time has seen the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points systems, a new structure of speed limits based on metric values, the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority, the introduction of the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the United Kingdom and, most recently, the roll-out of a network of privately operated safety cameras. This year will also see the introduction of lower blood alcohol concentration, BAC, levels for drivers and preliminary impairment testing by the Garda Síochána for drug driving enforcement. Ongoing initiatives such as the introduction of safety cameras have had a significant and positive influence on road user culture. It is fair to say our roads have, without question, become increasingly safe for all users in the past decade.

Since 2001 Ireland has seen a rapid improvement in road safety, with the number of fatalities down by 41%, following the implementation of a comprehensive set of road safety measures, some of which I have outlined. The number of road deaths per 1 million of the population was halved from 107 in 2001 to 54 in 2009. That downward trend continued in 2010. Despite the significant gains in recent years, however, it remains unacceptable that so many still die on our roads. It has never been more important for all of us to ensure complacency does not set in. The Bill will help us to keep people safe on our roads.

I will turn to the specific provisions contained in the Bill. My commitment to endorsing mandatory breath testing at collision sites where injury is caused is again being represented in the Bill. I want the necessary legislation in place as quickly as possible in order that no driver can avoid being tested for alcohol intoxication where serious road collisions occur. The legislation will also serve a dual purpose by sending a strong message to all drivers who still contemplate drink driving.

The Bill allows for the bringing forward of consolidated provisions relating to the obligation to provide a preliminary breath specimen that are planned for commencement later this year under the Road Traffic Act 2010. Senators will be aware that new evidential breath testing instruments will be necessary to measure the lower BAC levels provided for in the 2010 Act. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety is well advanced in procuring the new evidential breath testing equipment for detecting and measuring the lower BAC levels. Once equipment has been selected, a significant amount of testing will be required before the instruments can be put to use. A detailed training programme for the Garda Síochána in the use of the instruments will also be undertaken. It is estimated that the testing and training programme will be complete and instruments distributed to Garda stations in the autumn.

Section 9 of the 2010 Act provides for the mandatory breath testing of a driver who, in the opinion of a member of the Garda Síochána, has consumed intoxicating liquor or been involved in a road traffic collision that has resulted in an injury. Section 14 of the Act which is linked with section 9 provides for the mandatory testing of a driver of a vehicle involved in a road traffic collision where the driver is injured and removed to hospital. It provides that a member of the Garda Síochána shall test that driver in the hospital unless, following consultation with a doctor treating the driver, such testing would be prejudicial to the person's health. There is a close interrelationship between sections 9 and 14 and the provisions in the Act for lower BAC levels. I have been advised that because of this link it will not be possible to commence sections 9 and 14, either in part or in their entirety, until the new evidential breath testing apparatus of which I spoke is in use. I would prefer if the mandatory testing provisions were introduced earlier than this. However, this was the strong view expressed when we discussed the 2010 Act. Therefore, the Bill provides for the amendment of existing legislation, namely, sections 12 and 15 of the 1994 Act, to reflect the provisions contained in sections 9 and 14 of the 2010 Act, thereby providing for the early introduction of these provisions. The Bill also provides for the amendment of section 4 of the 2006 Act, dealing with mandatory alcohol testing, to reflect the amended provisions in section 12 of the 1994 Act as a result of section 2 of the Bill.

I have been asked to explain why there is no provision to test drivers involved in all road traffic collisions. I have explained the reason before but it bears restating. In many instances, collisions result in material damage to vehicles only, are generally minor in nature and settled by the drivers concerned. Sending gardaí to each such collision would be a bad use of Garda time and resources that could be used for other road safety and security issues.

The issue of mandatory testing of drivers at collision sites was the subject of much debate during the passage of the Road Traffic Act 2010. During that process it was acknowledged that road traffic legislation, particularly the provisions relating to intoxicated driving, was one of the most challenged in the courts. This necessitates that the drafting process for any new legislation must also focus on making the provisions as robust as possible. Consequently, I am acutely aware of the need to strike a balance between the practicalities of the mandatory testing provision and the need for any change to be consistent with existing intoxicated driving legislation.

While drafting the 2010 Act and debating it in this House a concerted effort was made to consolidate all intoxicated driving legislation in a cohesive format that would be robust enough to withstand future challenges. In this context, it was important that the mandatory provision was knitted into the fabric of this legislation. I sought legal advice on the relevant drafting of the Bill before us, given the association with so many other vital provisions in the Road Traffic Acts. I did not want an oversight in providing for mandatory testing to undermine the entire testing regime and undo all what we were trying to achieve together.

Owing to this detailed examination of the likely impact on other provisions and following the advice of the Attorney General, sections 2 and 3 of the Bill also recognise the powers of arrest conferred by law on the Garda Síochána, the interaction between these provisions and the requirement for the preliminary breath-testing of drivers. This necessary and explicit clarification will avoid any possible undermining of the provisions when introducing mandatory testing. It will also need to be reflected in the related intoxication provisions of the 2010 Act. As Senators are aware, it is intended to commence all of the intoxicated driving provisions of the 2010 Act later this year. Accordingly, it is my intention to amend sections 9 and 14 of the 2010 Act in a new road traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 to be drafted soon. This will ensure all of the necessary initiatives will come on stream together.

The key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Consequently, the primary focus of our road safety strategy is to influence that behaviour positively. This can be achieved through various initiatives across a range of areas, including the enactment and enforcement of laws that promote good road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications, as well as the necessary technological resources. The Bill is yet another element of that overall programme and will undoubtedly build on the achievements of recent years. It will help to deliver additional improvements in the manner in which all drivers interact with the road system.

Senators will make worthwhile suggestions for other road safety initiatives for inclusion in the Bill. While these may or may not fall within the parameters I have set for this legislation, I am particularly anxious to secure the passage of this short Bill as quickly as possible to allow for the early introduction of the provisions contained therein. However, all suggestions Senators might make will be afforded consideration within my Department with a view to their inclusion, where appropriate, in the next road traffic Bill to be introducedd later this year, on which work has already commenced.

I thank Senators in advance for their co-operation in facilitating the taking of the Bill and, I hope, its speedy passage through the House.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. My party is supportive of the Bill which it wants to see pass through the House as quickly as possible and then the Dáil before being implemented. As the Minister acknowledged, improving road safety and assessing the progress made to date are priorities that are genuinely shared by both sides of the House. The issues the Bill seeks to deal with were recognised by my party when legislation was introduced last June. I welcome the introduction of such legislation.

I wish to focus on a number of areas, in respect of which clarification and answers from the Minister would be appreciated before we proceed to take Committee and Remaining Stages. We support the overall thrust of the Bill and the policy underlying it. When the Road Traffic Bill 2010 was before the Seanad, we had detailed discussions on its elements and how it could be improved. In the interests of saving time, I do not propose to rehearse all of the points made, but I will refer to five issues, some of which were touched on during our previous discussion and are pertinent to this Bill.

We discussed the issue of drivers caught driving while under the influence of drugs. The Minister answered that he did not want to progress the matter through legislation because there was no clear policy in place on what instruments could be used to detect the presence of drugs and how the Garda would respond to such cases. Has any progress been made since? Unfortunately, it is become frequent for drivers to drive with drugs in their bloodstream and the issue must be addressed. I understand, however, why such a provision is not contained in the Bill, given the Minister's eagerness to have it passed through the Houses in the time remaining to us, but what work has been done to that end and does he expect the issue to be addressed in a future road traffic Bill?

I wish to raise a minor point about the vehicles covered by the Bill. Since the Minister stated road traffic legislation was often contested in court, clarifying the definition of "a vehicle" might prove worthwhile. The Bill and the original Act use the same definition, namely, a mechanically propelled vehicle. Given the use of electric cars and electrically powered vehicles, is the Minister confident that they will be covered by the definition? I am sure they will be.

The Minister referred to oversight. He stated, "I did not want an oversight in providing for mandatory testing to undermine the entire testing regime and undo all what we were trying to achieve together." I am confused as to what is the oversight and I ask the Minister to clarify it and to explain how he believes it would play a role in slowing down implementation of the Bill.

I refer to the statutory instruments necessary to ensure implementation of the Bill. Due to the desperate cutbacks in spending across all Departments, the funding is not in place for many projects. I ask the Minister to confirm his confidence that the Estimates for his Department will be able to fund the proper and comprehensive roll-out of these statutory instruments and the Garda Síochána will have sufficient training and the back-up of sufficient statutory instruments. It is worthwhile raising this point because yesterday the new Garda Commissioner stated that the level of funding available to him to deal with organised crime has been halved compared to the allocation for last year and what he was expecting this year. It is important, therefore, to clarify whether the Minister is confident that the funding will be in place to ensure the proper roll-out of both the training and the statutory instruments.

I refer to subsections (6) and (7) of section 2 of the Bill which introduce a discretion for a member of the Garda Síochána as to whether he or she is of the opinion that the testing of a participant in a collision or some other event would be prejudicial to the health of the person. I am interested in the Minister's thinking as to how "prejudicial to the health of the person" will be defined. Could it be taken to mean that a person's life might be in danger, that his or her quality of life might be threatened, or does it mean with regard to how the person feels when the incident has taken place? Such a phrase, in my view, will be contested in the courts. It also gives a degree of discretion to the Garda member making the decision. I ask the Minister to confirm the thinking behind that section of the Bill and how it can be determined that such a test is prejudicial to the health of the person.

I will be proposing an amendment on Committee Stage and I will speak in detail on it. My amendment proposes making clear to the participant in the incident that if he or she fails to comply with the instructions of a garda, he or she will be guilty of committing an offence. My amendment seeks to probe what is the interaction between the garda and whether we can do everything possible to ensure the person is clear about the directions of the garda and that he or she understands the garda is protected by the full weight of the law and has the ability to sanction that person if he or she does not comply with the instructions. I would appreciate a response from the Minister when he speaks at the conclusion of Second Stage. I wish to be constructive, to understand the thinking behind the Bill, to ensure it is passed promptly and that it will stand up in court if challenged. Progress has been made in reducing the number of fatalities and accidents on the roads. We all want to see this continue. The Fine Gael Party is pleased to see this loophole being filled and we look forward to the implementation of the legislation as a further tool in helping reduce the number of people killed on the roads.

Photo of John EllisJohn Ellis (Fianna Fail)
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Like Senator Donohoe, we all welcome this legislation. I ask the Minister to clarify some points. The discretion for the initial testing of a person involved in a collision will lie with the Garda Síochána, unless a person has been seriously injured. Who will determine the seriousness of the injury? What training will be provided to the Garda Síochána? I am acting as the devil's advocate in this matter because I foresee it being challenged as to whether the garda was able to determine if a person should be tested. Nobody wants to see people allowed to drink and drive or to drive under the influence of drugs.

The Minister's commitment to endorsing mandatory breath testing at collision sites where injury is caused is again being presented in this Bill and nobody will have a problem with that. However, I want the necessary legislation in place as quickly as possible so no driver can avoid being tested for alcohol intoxication in the case of serious collisions. The reference to alcohol, without reference to drugs, needs to be amended. Drugs and alcohol should both be relevant as the use of drugs is now as much of a problem as alcohol with regard to driving offences. In most cases a blood test will be carried out in hospital so it should be quite simple to determine whether drugs are present.

I compliment road users and the Garda Síochána on the obvious improvements in statistics for road deaths. I know this is no consolation to families who lose family members in road accidents but genuine accidents will always happen, no matter how we try to avoid them. However, we cannot accept accidents in which contributory negligence such as the involvement of drink, drugs or excess speed, is involved. We need to improve the system of training for young drivers, even at secondary school level and to make them aware that once they sit behind the wheel of a car, they are in command of a lethal weapon which is very dangerous. If they do not know how to use such a weapon it is as dangerous as a gun or a knife. Nobody wants to condone driving under the influence of drink or drugs but the omission of a reference to drugs will mean there is a loophole in the legislation.

3:00 pm

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister. I acknowledge the improvements in road traffic legislation set out by the Minister in his opening contribution. The achievements are measurable and have been delivered upon.

The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the amendment of existing legislation to permit the early introduction of mandatory alcohol testing of drivers of mechanically propelled vehicles in certain circumstances and the Labour Party welcomes the Bill. The Bill provides for mandatory testing at crash sites. The fast-tracking of these provisions is very important.

I agree with the Minister that a long debate was held on the need for such testing during the passage of the Road Traffic Act 2010. I do not think, therefore, it is necessary to go over that ground again today.

I will play my part in speeding up the legislative process in this House.

The Minister conceded some ground on this issue during the debate on the 2010 Act, when he proposed an amendment providing that such testing shall be mandatory. As he appears to have diluted his position with this Bill, my party will table several amendments on Committee Stage to restore the previous measures. We share the concerns expressed by certain action groups, representatives of which are in the Visitors Gallery, that for the first time in Irish drink driving legislation a garda shall not ask for a breath sample if he or she believes it would be dangerous to the driver's health. Why is this necessary given that the Bill does not state how the driver is to be tested? The section needs to be tidied up somewhat but I am interested in hearing the Minister's response.

In regard to cases where a driver has not been involved in a collision and, therefore, a hospital procedure does not apply, section 2(1)(a) of the Bill dilutes the provisions of the 2010 Act by substituting the provision that a garda shall test with the provision that the test will be carried out unless it is prejudicial to the health of the driver. How can the garda form such an opinion in the absence of advice from a doctor?

While I welcome the Bill, amendments are needed if we are to achieve the agreement previously reached by all sides of the House and conceded by the Minister during passage of the 2010 Act. We can discuss in greater detail our proposals for and concerns about the Bill on Committee Stage. I concur with Senator Ellis in regard to testing for narcotics and I would like to hear the Minister's response on the matter.

Photo of James CarrollJames Carroll (Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Minister well in his pending retirement. He was a superb public representative for my neighbouring county of Meath. I have had several arguments about him but I continue to consider him as one of the most idealistic members of the Cabinet. He has retained his idealism and fire after 14 years in office and if I can do the same I will be a happy man.

My comments on the Road Traffic Bill 2011 will focus on three areas, namely, why it is being introduced, the changes it will deliver and the benefits it will bring. The general reason for the Bill is to amend existing legislation to allow for the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing of drivers in advance of the coming into force of the provisions contained in the Road Traffic Act 2010. Given that the Minister outlined the basis for the Bill in detail, there is little for me to add in that regard.

While Ireland has one of the best records in the EU for reducing the number of road deaths, 2010 was truly a black year for horrific accidents. Several people were killed over Christmas in the Minister's own county. It is never a good time to lose one's family members but Christmas is an especially difficult period for this to happen. Since the Minister was appointed to his current office, the number of road deaths has decreased. The figure for 2009 was 238, which represents a decrease from a high of 279 in 2008. The figures were stark for the years prior to the Minister's appointment. He took a lot of abuse from members of Fianna Fáil for his tough stance on legislation but by sticking to what he believed was right he delivered change. The best change that we can hope for is that more people are alive than would have been the case under the previous legal regime.

Senator Ryan expressed concern that the Bill may not go far enough. The Labour Party has submitted several amendments which I look forward to debating. The Minister outlined the reason for the measures introduced in the Bill.

I come from an area alongside the old N1 in County Louth, which was one of the worst places in Ireland for road traffic fatalities. The road outside the Monasterboice Inn, which is at the bottom of the lane on which I lived, was the site of some of the worst accidents ever seen on Irish roads. A variety of accidents took place including one in which a large number of people were killed. Every road traffic accident that could be prevented is a tragedy and that is why it is critical we pass this Bill swiftly. We must also implement the legislative changes contained in the Road Traffic Act 2010 at the earliest opportunity.

Nobody likes to see legislation or targets being delayed because of a lack of equipment. We all want the equipment yesterday and that is always the case in regard to measures aimed at saving lives. Equipment to test breath samples will not be available until September 2011. Evidential breath testing machines will be needed to measure alcohol levels in drivers' breath.

This Bill introduces mandatory breath testing at sites of accidents, which is very important. I had the misfortune of being involved in a minor road traffic accident in 2010. It was the first time I had ever been involved in an accident and it was a shock to the system. I did not know what to do. An hour after the accident I called a garda, who asked me whether I had contacted anybody earlier. When I told him I had not done so he pointed out that the other party to the accident could easily blame me for causing it. I learned an important life lesson from that conversation. Mandatory testing is important because every public representative will have dealt with cases where the people involved in accidents changed their stories.

The consequences of having alcohol in one's system are potentially immense. If one takes a drop of alcohol, one should not get behind the wheel. People fear that the limit cannot be reduced to zero but that is a target I would like to reach. Some might say this is a generational attitude. My peers and I who are in our twenties would never dream of drinking and driving because it is stupid. When I was younger, I was a passenger in cars driven by individuals who had consumed a few pints. We thought that was a normal practice at the time but thankfully that culture has been broken. As more young people get behind the wheel, they realise the importance of never even dreaming about touching a drop of alcohol.

Senator Ellis and others have raised the issue of drug driving. The Minister has addressed this issue on a number of occasions. Some young people who would never get behind the wheel if they consumed alcohol believe they are capable of driving after smoking cannabis or taking other drugs. That one can drive after taking a small amount of drugs is another myth that needs to be punctured. It might be an idea to get some role models to highlight this, whether sports people or otherwise. Many people mentioned the new road traffic legislation to me over Christmas and the advertisements. When one goes on-line to listen to radio, one sees road safety advertisements. Many people feel very awkward when they see these advertisements in which people who have been in accidents talk about them. It hits people between the eyes that this is what happens when one takes one's eye off the road or if one is silly enough to get behind the wheel when one is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

This Bill introduces mandatory alcohol testing, which is necessary. I look forward to the 2010 legislation coming into effect in September 2011 and to further road traffic Bills which are more strict than this one. That is critically important to save lives. I commend the Bill and look forward to discussing the further Stages.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. I am sure this Bill has all-party support because it is very hard to find anybody who is opposed to it. The Minister has grabbed hold of challenges in the past and I remember well when he introduced the plastic bag tax. He listened carefully to those of us with problems and took them on board. As a result, the plastic bag tax has been hugely successful. I am sure the same will apply to his efforts in regard to road safety.

There was a very bad accident very close to Mosney in the Minister's constituency and I believe in Senator Carroll's area in, I think, 1963. Five people were killed, three of whom had been in school with me. I remember the following week going out to get a new thing called a "seat belt". It was not compulsory at the time. I remember saying to everyone I met that I would never drive without a seat belt. I would have felt a right fool if I had an accident and was not wearing it. The same applies to alcohol, about which Senator Carroll spoke. It is interesting that young people nowadays, in particular our families, are astounded if anybody had a glass of something and drives.

I remember some years ago a good friend of mine came to our home and we went to a restaurant close to where we live. He telephoned me the following day - I thought to thank me - to remind me that I had a few glasses of wine and drove home. This was perhaps 20 years ago. I said it was a short distance but he said he thought I was most unwise. He was a real friend - somebody who said he was saving my life and drawing attention to something which is quite common now in that we just know that one does not drink and drive. However, in those days, we did not always think that.

We have all talked about the human cost but I was surprised to read the cost of road safety. The figure in regard to fatal and road injury collisions for 2008 is €1.2 billion. I do not know how accurate that is or where the Minister got that figure. However, it is nothing compared to the human cost. We must remember the massive progress we have made when it comes to road safety. There has been a 41% reduction in road deaths, in particular, from 107 to 54 per 1 million inhabitants between 2001 and now. It makes sense that the legislation gives gardaí the power to test all drivers involved in a crash where somebody has been killed or injured for alcohol.

Could we come up with more ideas to improve road safety in other ways? Could every car have a mandatory warning triangle? A warning triangle was provided with my car but I gather they are not mandatory. They should be placed on the road if a car has broken down. They would make the road safer and would give motorists some warning of an obstacle ahead. During the recent bad weather a number of cars were abandoned by the side of the road. It is interesting to read that in some parts of Europe legislation requires that snow chains are provided with cars. I hope we do not need them despite the weather we had a few weeks ago. Many of the cars abandoned by the side of the road during the snow were obscured and a warning triangle would have helped motorists to avoid a crash.

A triangle is already compulsory in many European countries, including France and Germany, and perhaps the Minister will indicate whether it is here. It could be a mandatory item sold with new cars or it could be mandatory to have one from 2012. The cost would be approximately €5 or €10 but it would be much less if the car manufacturers supplied them.

In some countries, every car must have a small standardised first aid kit. I am not sure if that is compulsory here. It is a requirement in Germany and Spain and it has the effect of helping to limit the effects of serious injury or worse and it would be of relatively little cost. I have seen first aid kits in Europe for €10 or €15, although the cost in Ireland would be much more expensive.

In some countries, including Spain, France and Belgium, one must wear a reflective vest if one's car breaks down and one must get out of it. It is obviously very dangerous to get out of a car on a motorway and there have been cases of people being run over after their car has broken down. It would be helpful for people to have reflective vests and whether it should be compulsory is worthy of consideration. In many European countries carrying a fire extinguisher in case of engine fire is strongly recommended. I am not sure if it is compulsory here but if it is not, it should be.

I refer to drivers' eyesight and how that could contribute to accidents. Eyesight usually markedly declines as a person gets older. If a person passes an eyesight test at 18 years of age, I do not think there is a requirement for a further test until one is 70 years of age. Senator Mary White might be able to tell me if that is correct. I am not sure that is an ideal situation. There was a letter in a newspaper recently written by somebody over the age of 70 who complained that they had to get a licence every two years, that it cost them money and that the only photograph they can get cost them €10. I would not be surprised if Senator Mary White spoke about that.

Senator Mary White raised the problem of tourists over 70 years of age renting a car previously. I know it has nothing to do with this Bill but it is a challenge in regard to efforts to promote road safety if rental car firms place stipulations on people over 70 years of age. I am over 70 years of age and I feel quite capable of driving a car. I would not like to be told I was too old to rent a car and I hope it does not happen.

Making it compulsory to carry a warning triangle and first aid kit could make a significant contribution to road safety. There is much talk from the Road Safety Authority about getting the message across but what about implementing something practical and straightforward which would have the effect of putting road safety in people's minds? I do not believe people would object if they were legally required to carry a first aid kit and I believe there would be support for that.

I support the Bill which strives to improve road safety. The suggestions I outlined could have a big impact on improving road safety. I would like some or all of these proposals to be discussed or implemented in the near future. I know the Minister listens to all suggestions and has implemented many changes. This one is worthy of support. I would not be surprised if the Minister got support for everything he proposes here as well as for additional measures.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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May I share time with Senator Mary White?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister and commend him on this initiative and the initiatives he brought before us previously. In a radio interview after he had announced his intention to retire, the Minister was asked what his legacy would be. He said a considerable number of people were alive as a result of legislation he had helped to bring through the Houses. That is an extremely important legacy and being able to say it is something of which he can rightly feel very proud.

No one seems to disagree with the Bill. It is great to take part in a debate in which there is no disagreement on either side of the House.

I listened carefully to Senator Quinn's contribution and having had the experience of driving elsewhere in Europe, the Minister might take notice of what he was saying about the use of the red triangle and the high visibility vest. However, we should probably stop short of requiring the use of cold weather tyres which I hope is not necessary here yet, but with climate change, one never knows. Whether it is in amendments to this or another Bill, any measure that will improve safety is crucial.

I have often been out during the evening - as one tends to be in politics - and people might say there is no issue with having one drink. However, it is important that public representatives practice what they preach and I encourage the Minister to do likewise. If one is driving home, the safe level of alcohol is zero. I am not remotely interested in narcotic drugs, but there are many who are and their use is prevalent in our society. Aside from the fact that they are illegal, the safe level of drugs is zero. Given that it is a privilege to drive a car, not a right, anyone who causes a serious traffic accident because he or she has taken various substances or been irresponsible in any way should never drive again. A person being killed in an accident is not a risk worth taking just to allow someone to get around quickly and be cavalier about it. The attitude to road safety is far too casual.

As a Green Party member, I obviously advocate that trains are safer than cars. It is important to put this issue at the top of the agenda. A single road death in a year is unacceptable; the levels in the past were outrageous. One of the primary reasons the roads are considerably safer is the building of motorways, for which I give credit to Fianna Fáil. Motorways are safer than winding roads with narrow bends.

The vehicle roadworthiness tests introduced in recent years represent a very important addition in terms of road safety. No one likes the idea of having speed limits, but the reality is that having them makes driving safer. The law on speeding is the one that is most frequently broken and the limits are not enforced to any great extent. In Galway we have had debates on the issue that speed limits should be appropriate to the road. They are often not taken seriously, particularly on a dual carriageway with a speed limit of 50 km/h and when just up the road there is a boreen with a speed limit of 80 km/h or, in the recent past, 100 km/h, which makes absolutely no sense. The Bill is a good one.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and compliment him on introducing this most important Bill. In his entire political career he has been innovative, entrepreneurial and different in his activities as Minister and I wish him the best of luck in his new career.

The Bill provides for the early introductin of mandatory alcohol testing at the scene of all road accidents and collisions where someone is injured. Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, with which I work on the issue of suicide, is appealing to every Member of the Seanad to save lives on the roads and support upcoming legislation which will allow for the early introduction of mandatory alcohol testing of all drivers involved in road collisions where someone is injured. Alcohol Action Ireland director, Ms Fiona Ryan, said:

Nine out of ten surviving drivers in fatal crashes are not tested for alcohol. The passing of the new Bill will allow for the mandatory testing of drivers involved in such collisions to be commenced immediately.

In 2006, the Government introduced random breath testing and in each succeeding year, the number of deaths on our roads fell. We now urge the Government to implement mandatory alcohol testing without delay.

Alcohol, even in small amounts, can and does impact on driving. This decision should be an easy one to make - voting in favour of this legislation is a vote to save lives.

Unlike the Leader, I am not a pioneer, but from my studies of preventing suicide and self-harm alcohol presents a more serious problem than the recession. I make that bold statement based on my experience. The economy will gather pace and improve - it is improving already - but we need to have a national conversation about the abuse of alcohol in our society.

Senator Quinn has referred to the archaic legislation that provides that people aged 63 years cannot get a ten-year licence without first getting a doctor's certificate to prove fitness to drive. All of the international evidence indicates that older people are safer drivers. I attended a seminar at Tallaght hospital on the issue. Older people know when their eyesight may be becoming a problem. Requiring people to go to the doctor to get a certificate can deter older people from applying for a driving licence.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and join other Senators in wishing him well in his forthcoming retirement in the not too distant future. He has had a long and distinguished career in the Dáil and was always well on top of his brief when he came to this House. I have no doubt he is well on top of this legislation. Of course, we all support legislation that will save lives.

The difference in cars between when I was a young fellow which is not today or yesterday and today is unbelievable. The smallest car now is probably bigger than the biggest car at the time when a good sized car was a Ford Prefect. When one looks back on such old cars, they were very small. I presume they looked big when I was a gasúr, but they look very small now compared with the smallest cars. Cars are now much better made and can travel much faster, which is the danger. Speed has always been a significant factor. I agree with Senator Quinn on the need to wear high visibility vests and have a red triangle when one's car breaks down, particularly on a motorway. When one pulls over on a motorway or any of the main routes, cars pass by at an unbelievable speed. I believe there was a fatality in Longford in the past few years when somebody pulled into the hard shoulder - it was not a motorway or dual carriageway - and a car ran into them. I agree with Senator Quinn in that regard. I stated before and it remains my view there should not be any unmarked Garda cars. All should be well marked and gardaí should be out in the face of the public. Even when one is driving on the opposite side of a motorway to where a Garda car is parked one will take note of it and check oneself.

I welcome the Bill and any legislation that has the intention of saving lives. I have a question for the Minister of State. Section 2 applies to "a person in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place who, in the opinion of the Garda Síochána ... has consumed intoxicating liquor". Heretofore there was random breath testing under which provision a Garda superintendent or similarly established person in a Garda barracks could make an order that the random breath test must take place within certain areas, on specific routes or at certain places and times as were laid down. Under the proposed provision it would seem that a Garda could stop a person on the road and if he or she thinks that person has consumed alcohol, he or she could do a breath test there and then. That is my reading of that part of the Bill. It would mean that random breath testing would become redundant. The Minister of State might explain this.

Another aspect of the Bill concerns the designated doctor or nurse. When gardaí go to a hospital the Bill states they must work with a designated doctor or nurse. Heretofore a blood sample was taken from the driver who looked for his or her doctor to come to the hospital or he or she might use a doctor on call. When gardaí go into a hospital, will they ask who is in charge? Will they state they want a doctor and, if a person has been involved in an accident and admitted to the hospital, that they want a specific nurse or doctor to take a sample? Who gives that power to the designated doctor or nurse? We have seen hold-ups in accident and emergency departments during which a patient may be detained for up to three hours. In a different section of the Bill there is a requirement to hold for an hour the person from whom a sample must be taken at the side of the road. Does that requirement of an hour also apply within the hospital in that the sample must be taken by the designated doctor or nurse within an hour? Might it be taken the following day or does any time limit apply to the blood or urine sample taken within the hospital such as applies to the sample taken at the side of the road?

That is all I have to say. I hope the Minister will clarify those points either now or on Committee Stage. Otherwise, like my colleague, Senator Donohoe, I welcome the legislation.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Áine Brady. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, stated that no driver can avoid being tested for alcohol intoxication when serious road collisions occur. If we start from that point, this Bill is welcome. As Oireachtas legislators, in tandem with local authorities, the Garda and motorists, we must ensure we support every initiative and all legislation that will eliminate the risk of lives being lost on our roads. We live in an era where there is polydrug use among a wide section of society and within communities which is causing difficulty. The Minister referred to this point in regard to preliminary impairment testing by the Garda for drug driving enforcement.

It is time the country had a serious discussion on the use and consumption of alcohol. It is important we do this in a non-hysterical, sensible and mature fashion and that we listen to the debate, arrive at a conclusion and work on its implementation. I use that terminology deliberately because it is my view we are a nation which uses alcohol unwisely. We have a difficulty with it and need to address the issue. It has manifested itself in many different ways but especially regarding road safety. The random breath test is important, as are the powers to be given to the Garda, which are welcome. The introduction of mandatory alcohol testing must be supported.

I am concerned that we are becoming somewhat complacent. We believe the arrival of speed vans on different roads throughout the country will deter motorists from speeding. I would very much like to see the use of gardaí on non-national and secondary roads which have a speed limit that is not being observed by some people. One sees little or no Garda activity on these roads. I draw an analogy with the speed limit on the Cork-Dublin motorway, namely, 120 km/h from Watergrasshill to the outskirts of the old Naas dual carriageway. There are very few accidents on that road. People generally drive safely and adhere to the speed limit. One might also take, for example, the Ballincollig bypass in Cork which extends from Bishopstown to just beyond Ovens. It, too, has a speed limit of 120 km/h and few if any accidents . People adhere to the speed limit or stay close to it. Nevertheless there is a preponderance of Garda speed checks on this road which makes no sense. We need to concentrate on the minor roads where people speed in excess of the limits of 80 km/h or 100 km/h in areas adjacent to hospitals or schools in rural areas. On occasions in certain towns and parts of the country I have seen people who do not adhere to the speed limit as they approach schools on main roads at the edges of towns or drive in areas with particular difficulties.

It is welcome that we have lowered the number unfortunately killed on our roads. It took a long time to arrive at that and a great deal of investment and time on the part of the Government to listen to the families of those who died and to the Opposition. As legislators, we must ensure drink driving can never be condoned in any shape or form. There is a very powerful vested lobby group in this country which is well able to speak for itself. It is important we work collectively rather than divided to eliminate the dangers on our roads. In his remarks the Minister spoke about the medical bureau of road safety. It is critical for the equipment to technically measure blood alcohol content to be manufactured and purchased in this country in as much as is possible. The Garda Commissioner spoke yesterday about reduced budgets and if it is possible I hope the equipment to be used for breath testing will be sourced within the country in order to provide jobs.

I ask the Minister of State to inform the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, that we must consider the issue of drug use and people driving under the influence of drugs. It is a problem and gardaí have given anecdotal evidence. We must embark on an educational programme in our schools and among our adult population. The Bill is welcome and I hope it will have the desired effect. I thank the Minister of State for listening to the contributions.

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill and I hope it has a safe passage through the House. We have come a long way on road safety in seven years. I remember in 2003 when I was appointed chairman of the committee dealing with enterprise, trade and small business, which carried out an investigation on insurance. Part of this dealt with road safety, as at the time deaths on our roads amounted to approximately 450 per year, with thousands of people maimed for life; such events were completely unacceptable.

The deliberations of the committee I chaired at that time took in meetings with senior civil servants in the Departments involved with justice, transport and education, and I asked for their assistance. There were three gentlemen who were magnificent, along with their Departments, in their contribution. The Ministers of the day gave assistance to the committee on the interim recommendations made each year between 2004 and 2007. We brought in representatives of insurance companies as well as others involved in the insurance industry, asking them about doing business in Ireland. The most senior underwriter in Ireland at that time stated in evidence that Ireland was not a safe place in which to do business, which was an alarming statement we had to take at face value. Returning to the committee within three months they said they urgently required four Bills to be passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, and the Taoiseach of the day, Deputy Bertie Ahern, gave approval for that under the various Ministers in the three Departments I outlined.

The Personal Injuries Assessment Board was set up and it has been of significant assistance to those who are unfortunate enough to have accidents. It has helped to speed up claim processes. The Civil Liability and Courts Act forces those who make a claim to give a sworn affidavit to that effect and the penalty points system was also set up, which overnight transformed respect for the law and put fear back into it.

Health and safety at work was also tackled because the construction business, which had 300,000 employed in it, did not have regulations that were strict enough. That led to fatalities on various sites but that position has improved enormously in the intervening years. The dedicated traffic corps of the Garda Síochána at the time amounted to 525 gardaí but I am pleased to be able to report to the House that it now has a full complement of 1,250 gardaí doing terrific work right across the country. That was a recommendation from our committee.

The son of one of my cousins was involved in a very serious accident three nights ago. The victim is 19 years old and he had an operation lasting six and half hours yesterday. He is very seriously injured because he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of his accident. We all remember when we got our first cars and there were many hidden dangers because nobody thought an accident could occur.

The committee conducted research in Tennessee, an area which has seen a successful programme to enhance respect for the law. One idea coming from this was to link ignition of a car to the fastening of a safety belt. From the manufacturers of cars we understand this small piece of technology only costs €40, and if that is the case I strongly suggest to the Minister of State and her officials that this idea be considered in Ireland. We were the leaders in the world in banning smoking in certain public places and with such a young population - 50% of the people are under 40 - we could encourage manufacturers to implement the idea for the sake of €40. For the life of me I do not know why insurance companies do not insist on this as it could save thousands of lives.

I welcome the mandatory alcohol testing legislation. The committee of which I was a member strongly recommended that there would be random testing for substance or drug abuse as well as alcohol abuse. I know accidents are not planned but just happen. All we can do as legislators is assist the Garda Síochána and everybody involved in the emergency services to try to help those who are using our roads daily to have more respect and fear for the law.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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Before responding I thank Senators for taking the necessary time to consider the provisions of this very important Bill. As always this House provides an excellent forum for examining the provisions of legislation and the space to have an informed debate on all kinds of issues, including the vital provisions of road traffic legislation.

The Road Traffic Bill 2011 will allow for the early introduction of mandatory preliminary breath testing for drivers who, in the opinion of gardaí, have consumed alcohol or for drivers who are involved in road traffic collisions where injury is caused to another person who requires medical assistance. As already mentioned, the latter provision will only apply where there are no overriding medical considerations in respect of the driver.

The provisions contained in this Bill will cast a wider net over the circumstances in which drivers can be breathalysed but will provide a useful gauge for determining the extent of the role that alcohol plays in causing road collisions. I should be clear that the purpose of extending these breath-testing powers is not to obtain an increased number of convictions; in fact we would expect them to become more effective as a deterrent measure, with this success being measured against decreasing detection rates. The ultimate aim of these measures is to have a direct impact on the number of road deaths and injuries in future.

The first of the mandatory alcohol testing provisions were introduced by this Government in 2006. The number of people killed on our roads since has declined and the success of mandatory provisions can be attributed in part to a robust system of detection and scientific analysis. This is essential to maintain the public perception that there is a real risk of being detected and prosecuted and it is an integral part of the effectiveness of the deterrent.

During 2009, 529,037 breath tests were carried out under mandatory alcohol testing. The number reflects the commitment of the Garda to get behind new initiatives and this has produced dividends. Our achievements in recent years were recognised last year by the European Transport Safety Council with the presentation of a road safety performance index award to Ireland. Ireland has seen a reduction of nearly 50% in road deaths since 2000. In a European context, nearly 35,000 people were killed in road collisions in 2009. On an annual basis, approximately 1.7 million people are recorded as injured, with 300,000 or 18% recorded as serious injuries. Such statistics show that road deaths represent only the tip of the iceberg. Many people suffer lifelong injuries and trauma as a result of collisions. It is difficult to absorb these figures fully as the extent of their impact on road travel is so ingrained in our way of life that we have become complacent to its inherent dangers. It is vital, therefore, that we keep pace with innovations in road safety and drive forward legislation that will help us reduce these dangers. The Bill will help influence driver behaviour and send out a clear message that irresponsible choices will not be tolerated.

It is illegal to drive while under the influence of drugs. Enforcement of the law on drug driving is a matter for the Garda Síochána. When a member of the Garda suspects that a motorist is driving under the influence of any intoxicant, he or she may arrest the driver. However, unlike alcohol, there is no legal limit for drugs. The influence of drugs on driving behaviour is an issue of increasing concern. Unfortunately, the process of identifying the presence of drugs is more complex than for alcohol. The current road safety strategy provides for reviewing the legislation and appropriate enforcement options on this issue. It also provides for the development of testing of impaired drivers based on the incidence of drink or drug driving or both. As many Senators will be aware, the 2010 Road Traffic Act provides for such preliminary impairment testing. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, in association with the school of medicine at University College Dublin, is responsible for the provision of this training to gardaí. It is hoped to commence such training in 2011.

On roadside drug testing, there is no feasible basis to date in Ireland or Europe for the introduction of a preliminary roadside test for drugs as testing devices are still in the prototype stage. While some progress is being made in research at European level, as yet nothing has been finalised. We must be careful about jumping the gun on this issue. If a device appears to be operating effectively in one region of the world, it does not automatically mean the same device will be appropriate for another region. A number of disparate variables are involved, including climactic conditions. If there were any doubt about the reliability of such apparatus, it could undermine the entire system in terms of prosecutions and road safety enforcement generally. Any proposals around the development of roadside drug testing will need to have certainty embedded in the process from detection to conviction.

On the matters raised by Senator Paddy Burke, mandatory alcohol testing at checkpoints will continue to operate. The provisions in the Bill are additional to those relating to such checkpoints. The Garda consults doctors treating patients in hospital. Legislation provides that testing for alcohol will take place within three hours of the driver being stopped or detected.

Senator Donohoe referred to the definition of a vehicle. Section 71 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 amends previous definitions provided for in the principal Act. The Minister is satisfied that the definition includes an electric vehicle. He also assures the Senator that funding is in place this year for the procurement of evidential breath testing instruments.

On the issues raised by Senator Feargal Quinn, the Road Safety Authority examines all issues related to the enhancement of road safety and advises the Minister on the appropriate approaches to be taken.

Question put and agreed to.