Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 October 2013

1:25 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I am calling for action to be taken to ensure roll-over protective structures, ROPS, also known as roll bars, are installed in all vintage tractors. The phenomenon of vintage tractor runs is increasing in popularity and is a pastime enjoyed by many people in this country. Many tens of thousands of euro are raised for charity on a weekly basis by the holding of runs such as the one that will take place in Meath this coming weekend. I compliment those involved in this activity for their efforts in supporting charities throughout the country.

I was contacted recently by Mrs. Carmel Gilsenan from Kilmainhamwood in County Meath whose daughter Gráinne, aged 22, died in a tragic accident during a vintage tractor run in June last year. Gráinne was a respected member of her community, very active in charity fund-raising and took great pleasure in participating in vintage tractor runs. In the aftermath of her death, Gráinne's mother has, very generously, voiced her support for the continuation of vintage runs, while also calling for the enforcement of more effective safety precautions in respect of older vehicles. She asks specifically for legislation to be amended to ensure the installation of safety features such as roll bars are made mandatory for vintage tractors.

Mrs. Gilsenan recently told the Meath Chronicle and Cavan and Westmeath Herald:

I do think that Gráinne died doing what she always wanted to do and was happy in herself. But I would like to see her memory honoured, to have legislation amended so that roll bars and safety features are made mandatory on these vehicles. If it would save another person going through this loss it would be worth it.
Her words are extremely generous in light of the severe grief she has suffered. I met Mrs. Gilsenan this week along with members of a vintage club and others who regularly take part in vintage runs, raising significant sums for charity in the process. They fully support her call. In fact, many have already voluntarily taken it upon themselves to increase the safety features of their own vehicles. I understand this can be done at a relatively modest cost.

I expect the Minister will point to legislation from a long time ago in arguing that regulations in this regard already exist. Even if that is the case, the issue must be given more prominence by the Road Safety Authority. I cannot find any reference to it on the authority's website, which suggests a lack of awareness of the potential dangers. We must ensure that growing numbers of people who participate in this excellent pastime are doing so safely. This is particularly pressing in the case of vintage tractors that are used on the road, as opposed to those that are simply for display purposes, such as vehicles show-cased in the Moynalty steam threshing festival.

We would all like to see the charity fund-raising facilitated by these events continue and develop. Indeed, many recipients of the organisers' efforts say that they depend on the funds raised by the vintage runs. At the same time, however, everybody would like to be confident that safety is a top priority. As Mrs. Gilsenan said, that would be a fitting tribute to her daughter who died so tragically last year.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for drawing my attention to this issue. As a road safety matter relating to vehicle standards, I have accepted the transfer of the matter from my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.

It is generally accepted that tractors operated unsafely are potentially lethal, and accidents involving agricultural tractors account for a very high proportion of all farm accidents each year. In fact, statistics compiled by the Health and Safety Authority show that farm vehicles and machinery account for the highest proportion of farm deaths and accidents. In the period 2000 to 2010, 19% of fatalities involving vehicles were as a direct result of the vehicle overturning while being driven by the operator.

It is important to address any perception that there are no safety standards in place for vintage tractors. On the contrary, the Road Traffic (Construction, Equipment and Use of Vehicles) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1969 require all tractors used in a public place, irrespective of age, to have roll-over protective structures of an appropriate standard fitted. These generally take the form of a cab or frame that provides a safe environment for the tractor operator in the event of a roll-over. Also known as anti-roll bars or cabs, they are designed to prevent death, minimise injury and protect the driver from being crushed if the tractor overturns. The regulations, which have been in effect since 1 September 1977, mean that all vintage tractors - that is, tractors which are more than 30 years old - which are driven in a public place for whatever reason, whether taking part in a vintage run or otherwise, must, by law, have the safety structures referred to by the Senator. A public place is defined in road traffic legislation as "any street, road or other place to which the public have access with vehicles whether as of right or by permission and whether subject to or free of charge".

Enforcement of road traffic law is a matter for An Garda Síochána. Regulations provide that the penalty for a breach is a direct summons to court and, on conviction, a class C fine, namely, up to €2,500, or a prison sentence or both. This relates to the person who commits the offence and the owner of the vehicle. I am advised that the protection structures must pass a series of static or dynamic crush tests. These tests examine the ability of the structures to withstand various loads in order to ascertain whether the protective zone around the operator station remains intact in an overturn. The tests are extensive and destroy the roll-over protective structure.

A homemade bar attached to the tractor axle cannot protect the operator if the tractor overturns. Vintage tractor owners should not, therefore, add their own roll-over protection devices to tractors which were manufactured without such protections. Without proper design and testing, homemade devices offer a false sense of security which can be more dangerous than operating a tractor without ROPS. The Organisation for Economic Co­operation and Development, OECD, has standards for the design of roll-over protective structures, and these are the appropriate standards referenced in the road traffic regulations.

There are several ways to reduce the possibility of tractor roll-overs, but it is important to remember that they are not a substitute for ROPS. Operators of tractors equipped with ROPS are advised to avoid sharp turns and reduce speed when turning because, unlike cars, tractors have a high centre of gravity and can tip or overturn more easily. Drivers are also advised to avoid driving on steep embankments, near ditches and around holes. These areas are more likely to lead to a roll-over because the ground can give way and the tractor lose support. When conditions require operation on steep slopes, operators should travel in the forward direction down the slope and in the reverse direction back up the slope. This will place the tractor in a more stable position and reduce roll-over risks. Older tractors can be retrofitted with roll-over protections systems, for which vehicle owners are advised to engage the services of a dealer for their particular brand of tractor. The services of an automotive engineer may also be required in instances where a particular brand or marque of tractor is no longer in production.

In short, in the interests of safety for both driver and other road users, owners and operators of vintage agricultural tractors are obliged to mount roll-over protection on their vehicles when in use in a public place. The age of the vehicle has no bearing on this requirement.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for setting out the law in this area. A review of the regulations, which were introduced in 1969, might well be timely. Will the Minister ask the Road Safety Authority to give more priority to raising awareness of this issue? I again thank the vintage clubs for all the charitable work they do and the tens of thousands of euro they raise for worthy causes. I join them in calling for stricter enforcement of safety measures in order to prevent future tragedies.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Senator's raising of this matter afforded me an opportunity to examine the regulations in question, which date back to the 1970s and 1980s. I will undertake to discuss the matter with the RDA, seek its view on whether they should be updated and ask that it issue an advisory on the issue and perhaps contact the vintage clubs. We all wish to support those clubs in their charitable activities while ensuring those activities are carried out in a safe manner.