Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2013: Committee Stage (Resumed)
The Cathaoirleach said that I could raise a number of points on this section and I will do so with the indulgence of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, although I may be stretching it. This section deals with the principal Act. There is an issue that needs more specific attention in the principal Act. I do not know if the Minister is of a mind to examine it on Report Stage. It concerns slow drivers, who can be quite hazardous. We have all had the experience of driving in a 100 km/h zone and not being able to do more than 60 km/h because someone in front is going at that speed. It happened to me today. At night time it can be dangerous when there is a build-up of traffic and someone is trying to make time by driving at the normal speed limit. The person starts to overtake, which is one of the most risky driving manoeuvres. Getting the timing wrong or doing it near a bend can lead to a serious accident.
I raised the point in the House a number of years ago and a predecessor of the Minister said there was provision within the legislation for the Garda Síochána to deal with the matter as the driver would be showing insufficient regard for other motorists. This is true and is in legislation but there are very few prosecutions. There was one well-publicised prosecution a few years ago, when someone was driving a tractor and did not pull in. There was a build-up of traffic and a member of the Garda Síochána presented the driver with a summons. There was a lot of controversy about it but there should be some provision. I am not sure how we can do it but through the Road Safety Authority or the Department something can be done. The best I can come up with is that when driving 15 km/h below the speed limit for the area, if there is a build-up of more than three or four vehicles, people should be obliged to pull in at the first opportunity and let traffic pass. I do not know if the Minister is amenable to the argument but it is a serious traffic safety issue.
An unrelated point is that many speed limits across the country have been pitched too low. A review in the past two years changed some of the limits. A prime example is the N11, which I use to travel up and down to Dublin. Construction work is taking place at the moment, which reduces the speed limit on parts of the road to 80 km/h and there is no argument with that. However, large sections remain at 100 km/h. The road is of a standard that the limit should be 120 km/h for the vast majority of it, with the exception of a bend at the Glen of the Downs which does not meet the normal standard of motorways.
There should be a mechanism whereby motorists can bring such matters to the attention of the authorities so that the investment in roads yields the anticipated productivity for the economy. This may be a subjective matter but the N11 is a prime example. I remember when the Arklow bypass was opened and I raised the matter with the National Roads Authority. The chief executive of the National Roads Authority said that it could not be done. Subsequently, the speed limit was upgraded to 120 km/h. Where we are investing in roads, we should ensure construction is to best international standards and that people can drive at the appropriate speed. Motorists tend to drive at speed in those areas, which is not good. It also feeds into a disregard for speed limits generally. There is a need to have speed limits set at an appropriate and sensible level, which is sometimes not the case.
I support my colleague, particularly in respect of his first contribution about slow drivers syndrome. In his response, perhaps the Minister can indicate whether any analysis has been carried out. What level of Garda Síochána prosecutions takes place? Are they significant or infinitesimal?
One hears a great deal about the emphasis on speeding and the danger it causes to other drivers and pedestrians, but we rarely hear about drivers who are slow, for reasons best known to themselves, perhaps because they are not confident, have just passed their test or are driving a vehicle that does not have the capacity to go faster. All of us, if the truth were told, have been behind long lines of traffic. I am not talking about agricultural traffic, which has rights because at certain times of the year when farmers need to be out on the roads and cannot do anything about that, but about the mainstream driver, particularly on single-carriageway rural roads, of which there are many, not the dual carriageways or motorways where one does see a certain amount of slow driving.
Has the Minister reflected on this at all or does he think there is a case to be answered? Senator Walsh is right to say the law provides for the gardaí to prosecute or follow up on complaints of slow driving under a certain interpretation of the Act. Does the Minister have a view on this? If he has not formed one, he might perhaps consider doing so.
On a point of order, the Minister was here last week when I attempted to raise this in connection with a specific amendment and the Cathaoirleach told me to raise it under the section. I am following through on that guidance. The Minister is amending the principal Act and I am referring to the principal Act.
It is not for me to tell the Leas-Chathaoirleach how to do his job, but my understanding is that on Committee Stage it is not good practice to raise any issue one likes in the Bill under whatever section one likes. I will, however, do the Member the courtesy of responding.
The speed limit review was raised the last time we spoke on Committee Stage of this Bill and on Second Stage, and I explained in detail how the speed limit review works, what was in it and how it will operate, so I refer the Senator to the comments I have already made on this subject on Committee Stage. I do not wish to repeat myself.
On slow drivers, there are offences of careless or dangerous driving and insufficient regard for other motorists. I do not have figures on prosecutions for these offences but if they are available to us I will make them available to the Senators. I do not see an alternative solution. It would not be practical to introduce a minimum speed on any roads. There may be all sorts of reasons why somebody may need to drive slowly, regardless of the speed limit - for example, if there is an animal or ice on the road. I cannot imagine how a minimum speed limit or something to that effect would work.
It is an important point. The slow driver is as much a hazard as a really fast driver, although some people may dispute that. This phenomenon has caused accidents. I take on board what the Minister says about its being difficult to fine someone for this, but it is not impossible. It is not impracticable to have a minimum driving speed. It happens in other countries on particular types of road. It is not impossible and there is an international precedent for it.
I came up with the best suggestion I could think of but if the Minister agrees that it is dangerous for someone to drive well below the speed limit, with a build-up of 20 cars or vehicles behind them, particularly at night, would he give some thought to how that might be addressed? The current catch-all provision of not showing sufficient regard for other drivers is not sufficient. We need something specific. There will be people who, for whatever reason, may not be able, or confident enough, to drive that fast. I am only asking for a system whereby somebody in that position would take the first opportunity to allow the build-up of traffic to pass. Some professional drivers, such as lorry drivers who drive below the speed limit because they have heavy loads, tend to pull in to allow traffic to pass. One sees that happening from time to time.
Will the Minister consider this point? It is a hazard. There is a failure to address it sometimes because it might fly in the face of tackling speeding. We should, however, recognise that it is hazardous and that the practicality of dealing with it should be passed on either to officials in the Department or to the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to come up with a sensible suggestion to address the problem. That is the only point I am canvassing.
I am happy to, but I really do think the Senator is out of order. However, it is a matter for the Leas-Chathaoirleach to implement the Standing Orders.
I was not here on the last occasion. I want to be fair to everyone. Senator Walsh tabled an amendment and I do not know how relevant it is to the section. I have my doubts, but I do not want to test the Minister’s patience. I think Senator Walsh is suggesting that the Minister take his views on board and consider them before Report Stage or at some other time.
First, the speed limit is a limit, not a target, so the fact that somebody is driving below the speed limit is not in itself a problem. People should drive as safely as they need to drive. The speed limit is a limit, not a target. We are not asking people to drive at the speed limit but below it. I am certainly very aware that people driving slowly and slow-moving vehicles can be very frustrating for people who are queuing behind them. I am not aware of significant numbers of collisions, injuries or deaths caused by slow-moving vehicles. If there is evidence to support that I am happy to consider the Senator’s views, but without evidence to support it he is talking about an inconvenience, not a road safety issue.
I am not disputing that, but the Cathaoirleach told me to raise the point under this section. That is why I am doing it here.
If the criterion is that people are being killed or injured, why do we have parking offences? There is a ream of offences in the Road Traffic Act which are judged not on the basis of injury to people but on the basis of best practice for traffic management. I am making a point that I think is valid. I ask only that the Minister consider it. I am happy to leave it at that if the Minister is not interested.
I have raised the issue with the Minister in the past and he responded adequately to the query about the number of unmarked Garda speed detection vehicles on major roads. I instanced an example on the N4, on which there is a speed limit of 100 km/h for the entire length from Dublin to Sligo, with the exception of a number of towns and villages. It is not until one comes to Longford that one must slow to under 100 km/h through the villages of Ballinalack, Rathowen and Edgeworthstown. Longford is bypassed, as are other villages in County Leitrim, and it is not until one reaches Sligo that speed must be reduced again. There are one or two stops on the road, one outside Carrick-on-Shannon on the N4 at Annaduff. It comprises a pub on one side of the road which is faced by a church where religious ceremonies, with the exception of funerals, are confined to weekends. Nevertheless, a driver is immediately requested to drop from 100 km/h to 60 km/h and, within the space of approximately 200 yards, 50 km/h. After a couple of hundred yards the speed limit increases to 60 km/h. I go into such detail to ask if the Garda considers it important and relevant to ensure safety on the road to have an unmarked car operate in the area. I am not talking about GATSO vans. There are other instances in my county to which I could refer, but I will not do so. I am sure the same is true for other Members. Is there a case for the Garda authorities to indicate on-line where they are locating unmarked cars? One can access the locations of GATSO vans on-line and there are signs across the road network which indicate where a car is entering a speed camera area. There is no such sign in the example I have outlined. Will the Minister consider requesting the Garda authorities to publish where they generally located unmarked Garda vehicles? If the purpose of the exercise is to encourage all of us to slow down, rather than engage in a revenue gathering exercise or making a person's record of prosecutions look good, surely there is a case to be answered to make the information available on-line. I am referring specifically to unmarked Garda speed detection cars rather than GATSO vans in the context of povided the required evidence.
I note the Senator's comments. He raised this matter the last time we took Committee Stage of the Bill. I cannot account to the House for Garda operations, as the Garda is controlled by the Garda Commissioner who is accountable to the Minister for Justice and Equality. It is not really for me to answer that question and I do not know enough about the reason there are unmarked cars. Anybody engaged in policing is not necessarily involved in one type; therefore, every garda, whether he or she is in the traffic corps, can enforce the road traffic laws. There may be very good reasons for having an unmarked car in a particular place, other than for speed enforcement. If gardaí see somebody speeding, they will enforce the relevant laws.
Will the Minister communicate with the Minister for Justice and Equality or is it necessary to do so? It is promoted that people can access on-line the locations of GATSO vans, which encourages them to slow down. I am asking the Garda authorities to indicate where these cars are located. This is not being done on a one-off basis, as the cars are located there regularly. It might not be as often as GATSO van, but they are staying in one location. That is the only reason I raise the issue. I do not want to delay the Minister, but as we can access the likely locations of GATSO vans, surely the same logic should extend to unmarked Garda speed detection cars. I appreciate that they could be located there for other reasons.
The Senator is saying that what is good for one should be good for another. Taking the idea to its logical conclusion, a driver would only slow down where he or she knew there would definitely be a speed check, if it could be noted on-line before undertaking a journey. There might be checks at five locations, but the driver could go mad for the rest of the journey. I do not know how this could be policed, especially if the location of every Garda had to be identified. There could be a free-for-all on the rest of the road.
I understand there may be operational and practical reasons for not doing this. It is, nonetheless, a frustration. I agree that there might be issues if people knew where the vans were. I know the locations are available on-line, but I do not log on to find out what they are. I try to ensure-----
I do not want to delay the Minister, but I wanted to take the opportunity to raise the point. Perhaps in his ongoing discussions with the Garda authorities the matter could be debated in the context of penalty points, speeding, etc.
I move amendment No. 10:
I welcome the Minister and thank him for engaging in the previous discussions when we given an insight into the use of technology and new interpretations of numbers for people without licences and so on. As he mentioned, road conditions may have been responsible for 3% to 6% of fatalities, rather than the driver of a vehicle. I am indebted to him for providing such information.
In page 19, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
“23. Section 81 of the Act of 2010 is amended by substituting for subsection (7)(a) the following:“(7)(a) The Minister for Justice and Law Reform may by an agreement in writing entered into with any person, upon such terms and conditions as may be specified in the agreement, which shall include a condition to the effect that the determination of the locations where equipment is to be operated shall be a function of a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Sergeant, provide for the authorisation of that or other persons for the purposes of subsection (2), and the performance by those authorised persons of any function, which shall be specified in the agreement, relating to the establishing of prima facie proof of a constituent of an offence including the provision, maintenance and operation of equipment and the development, production and viewing of records produced by that equipment and the production of measurements or other indications from which a constituent of an offence can be inferred.".".
This amendment is tabled in response to a very recent case, in which it was judged that a roadblock was not legally valid as the person who had authorised it was not of superintendent rank or above. The amendment substitutes the term "rank of Sergeant" for "Superintendent". We have reproduced section 81(7)(a) from the Road Traffic Act 2010 and the amendment would increase the amount of assistance the Minister would have in achieving the commendable goal, which we all share, of improving road safety. The provision, as it stands, means that 2% of gardaí can decide on these checks. There is a Garda Commissioner, as well as a deputy commissioner, nine assistant commissioners, 45 chief superintendents and 159 superintendents. That gives a total of 215 gardaí. The strength of the Garda force is 15,330, meaning that this figure amounts to 2.1%, although it would be a little more if we were to take out the number of civilians. If sergeants and inspectors were to be given this power, approximately 80% of the Garda force would still be unable to mount these checks. The base on which action can take place is really small.
That was the problem in the case to which we referred. Superintendents and inspectors are people with authority in the Garda, as indeed are sergeants. If they feel these checks are necessary for speeding, drink-driving and other problems - we have a problem with road safety which appears to be increasing again unfortunately - why not use the Garda to a greater extent to assist the Minister and everyone in ensuring safer roads? The definition of “manager” in the 2010 Act seems narrow. I always thought of some of those excluded as being pretty powerful in the organisation. I would like to give them that discretion in the interests of safety through this amendment. It would be better for these ranks to have the discretion to put a system of checks in place for speeding or driving under the influence rather than having to go up the line to find a superintendent. The amendment aims to better utilise our Garda force in assisting in achieving an important national goal.
Recent newspaper reports stated a number of drink-driving cases could not proceed because of difficulties with the MAT, mandatory alcohol testing, checkpoint authorisation system. The media reports suggested that MAT authorisation identified a number of checkpoint locations and, because of this, was considered contrary to the provisions of the legislation. This was not down to the rank of the gardaí involved.
The Road Traffic Act 2006, as amended and restated by the Road Traffic Act 2010, provides that a member of the Garda Síochána, not below the rank of inspector, may authorise checkpoints in a public place or places at which the members may exercise the powers provided under the Act on blood alcohol concentration levels. The authorisation shall be in writing and shall specify the date and public place at which the checkpoint is to be established, as well as the hours of any time between which it may be operated.
Following the raising of this matter three weeks ago in the Seanad on Second Stage, I asked the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, for further clarification. It appears the newspaper article was incorrect in its identification of the reason the DPP did not proceed with the case cited. The problem was not that the authorisation covered different townlands but rather that the time spread for the authorisation was too wide, covering a period of almost 24 hours. In the DPP’s view, this was an impermissible delegation by the inspector.
Another issue raised in the Seanad concerned the appropriate rank in the Garda for authorising the MAT checkpoints, the issue which it would appear this amendment is meant to address. Legislation sets this at not below inspector level, while the amendment proposes lowering this to sergeant grade. Again, I have discussed this matter with the Garda. It has informed me the current situation has operated without difficulty and the Garda sees no need for any change to the legislation.
When the 2002 Bill was drafted, the establishment of MAT checkpoints was regarded as a significant development in the efforts to deter drink-driving. Given the critical contribution that the evidence gathered at checkpoints would have in any consequent court hearings, it was considered the decision as to the location of checkpoints should be taken at a relatively senior level in the Garda. This approach demonstrated to all concerned, particularly the courts, the importance associated with the MAT checkpoints and addressed any potential charges of bias or personal subjectivity regarding their location.
If there were a need to change the law in this regard, this amendment would not be acceptable. It proposes a change to section 87 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, which in fact deals with approval of equipment to be used and requires approval from an officer of the rank of superintendent. Were an amendment of the kind intended necessary, it would be to section 10 of that Act which deals with the setting up of checkpoints.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We may have been reading different newspapers but there was one case where the rank of the garda who authorised the checkpoint was an issue. I am sure the Minister has access to more authoritative information on that.
While I will not press the amendment, I am struck by how the Garda management structure is extremely narrow. As there are only 158 superintendents, 45 chief superintendents and nine assistant commissioners, 80% of the force cannot take a decision on these checkpoints. Is it wise to have people excluded from decision-making? What do we expect the Garda to do, given its incredible public prestige and the invaluable role it plays in promoting road safety? We might consider this amendment in the context of other legislation the Minister has said he will introduce later in the year or on Report Stage. If very few people at the top are making decisions, what does this do to an organisation tackling the major problem of the loss of so many lives on the roads?