Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2014: Second Stage
I thank the House for facilitating the introduction of this Bill at such short notice. Let me provide the rationale for introducing it.
The Bill involves technical amendments to existing road traffic legislation to close off issues relating to the endorsement of penalty points on driver licence records and contains a provision to address the implications of doing so.
While we will consider the very important matter of the implementation of the law and how it will work, first and foremost, the Bill deals with road safety. We want to build on the progress we have made in making our roads safer in recent years. While we have reduced the level of injury and loss of life, every life lost is one too many. Crucial to our efforts to reduce this loss of life and to make our roads safer is the integrity of the fixed charge notice and penalty points system.This is a core issue of the Bill.
Senators will recall that, in the Road Traffic Act 2014, which was passed by the Seanad earlier this year, we made provision for the adjustment of penalty points for certain offences. These included the endorsement of penalty points on the record of foreign driver licence holders and for the reduction of the disqualification threshold for learner and novice drivers from 12 to seven penalty points. As is normal with road traffic legislation, different sections of the Act were commenced at different times. Among the penalty points adjustments in the 2014 Act were provisions for bringing in the offences of using a vehicle without a valid NCT certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position into the fixed charge notice system, with the consequent endorsement of three penalty points on the person's licence record. I commenced the relevant sections of the 2014 Act for these and other adjusted penalty point offences with effect from 8 December 2014. Prior to commencement, these were straight to court offences attracting five penalty points on conviction. In other words, people who committed these offences could not avoid a court appearance by paying a fixed charge. This is an important point because some of the commentary on it could have created the impression that we were bringing in entirely new offences. In fact what we were doing was changing the penalty point regime in respect of those offences, to give people the option of paying a fixed charge notice and avoiding a court appearance.
When preparing the Commencement Order, an oversight in the legislation was detected in my Department. The 2002 Road Traffic Act, which first established the fixed charge notice and penalty points system, provided for the endorsement of the relevant number of penalty points on the records of those who made payment on foot of fixed charge notices for offences listed in the Schedule to the Act. It excluded from this provision the offences which were straight to court offences including using a vehicle without a valid NCT certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position. When the 2014 Act was being drafted, these two offences should have been removed from the exclusions contained in the 2002 Act. If the Senators were to look at the table of offences in the 2002 Act, they would see in the section of the table that refers to these two offences a blank space. That is at the heart of the challenge we faced with this provision. When the 2014 Act was being drafted, these two offences should have been removed from the exclusions in the 2002 Act. Due to an oversight, this did not happen and I am proposing to rectify the position in this Bill. There are no implications from this oversight so long as it is closed by the provisions of this Bill. The other issue the Bill addresses also relates to the endorsement of penalty points.
Section 2 of the 2002 Road Traffic Act provides the basis on which penalty points can be endorsed on a person's record following the payment of a fixed charge under section 103 of the Road Traffic Act 1961. Section 8 of the 2014 Act amends section 2 of the 2002 Act by substituting a reference to section 37 or 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 for section 103 of the 1961 Act. So the 2014 Act anchored reference to the implementation of penalty points for fixed-charge notices in sections 37 or 44 of the 2010 Act. So the 2014 Act made direct reference to those two sections in the 2010 Act.
In other words, with the enactment of the 2014 Act, penalty points would be endorsed on payment of the fixed charge under those sections of the 2010 Act. Section 8 of the 2014 Act was commenced with effect from 1 August. Unfortunately, because sections 37 and 44 of the 2010 Act have not yet been commenced, the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act removes the power to endorse points on the licence record. That is the heart of the difficulty. The 2014 Act made reference to sections in the 2010 Act which actually had not been commenced.
Section 2 of the Bill seeks to address both of the issues to which I referred. The section also provides clarity where an offence has been committed but the appropriate penalty points associated with the offence have been increased before the fixed charge is paid. The section reflects the current practice of endorsing the number of penalty points that were applicable on the date the alleged offence took place.
The concern that arose when this error was detected was that there might be a question mark over the penalty points endorsed since 1 August following the payment of a fixed charge. I contacted the Office of the Attorney General on this point and have received comprehensive advice. The advice points out that the legal vacuum caused by the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act cannot be said to reflect the intention of the Oireachtas, which can be taken to have been that there would, at all points, be some mechanism for endorsing penalty points on the driving licences of persons choosing to make a fixed-charge payment in lieu of potential prosecution.
On the basis of the advice, I am satisfied that it is appropriate to provide that those penalty points that have been endorsed following the payment of fixed charges should be retained on licence records. The effect of section 3 of the Bill is that penalty points endorsed since 1 August following payment of a fixed charge are deemed to have been lawfully endorsed. I believe this is appropriate. The drivers involved will have received a fixed-charge notice for the alleged offences and will have made payment on foot of it.
The fixed-charge notice will also have advised the person of the number of penalty points that would be endorsed on their licence following payment. By paying the charge involved, therefore, the person accepted that penalty points would be endorsed on their licence. This concern applied only to drivers who had paid the fixed charge. The penalty points applied to drivers convicted by the courts were not affected as endorsement in these circumstances is provided for in a separate section of the 2002 Act.
For the information of the Senators, I propose to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage in section 3 on page 4 between lines 23 and 24. I will elaborate on it then, but the purpose of the amendment is to clarify that the section is not intended to infringe the constitutional rights of individuals.
When the fault in legislation was detected on the week before last, I instructed my Department immediately to cease issuing to drivers who had paid the fixed charge notifications that their licences would be endorsed. With the enactment of this Bill, endorsement of licences will recommence. However, in order to remove any doubt that the penalty points that were not endorsed in the two and a half week intervening period may be now applied, the Bill provides in section 3(b) for the endorsement of these points.
The fixed-charge notice and penalty-points system has played an important part in enhancing road safety and has been very effective, since its introduction in 2002, as part of a suite of measures in addressing safety concerns on our roads. The main objective of the penalty-points system is not to penalise but to raise awareness of unsafe practices, improve driver behaviour and, as a result, reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. The system is widely accepted by the public, as evidenced by the fact that over 70% of those served with a fixed-charge notice pay the stipulated amount without recourse to the courts.
The Bill I am presenting today provides a means of addressing inadvertent errors that took place in recent months. I am satisfied that enactment of the Bill will correct these errors and will provide, as is the previously stated will of the Oireachtas, a clear legal basis for the endorsement of penalty points when a fixed-charge payment has been made following a road traffic offence.
The provisions of the Bill will also ensure that penalty points endorsed following the payment of a fixed charge since 1 August will remain on the licence record. I again thank the Seanad for facilitating the Bill. I am sure Senators will appreciate the urgency of the matter and I commend the Bill to the House.
In 2002 my party introduced the notion of penalty points which by and large have worked well to make our roads safer.
I have a few issues with the Bill, in particular the three penalty points for a driver taking a car on the road without completion of an NCT. I will give a practical example, which I raised on the Order of Business here last week or the previous week. My old jalopy of a car is due for NCT on 1 March. When I applied on 1 December, three months ahead, I was told it would be mid to late March before I had any hope of getting a date for an NCT. Under this legislation am I, living in west County Cork and the most remote Senator from this House, supposed to park up my vehicle and wait three weeks?
I know of one young fellow, whose father came to me three weeks ago, and he has been waiting five months for an NCT. There seems to be no moratorium for someone who has genuinely applied. The first thing to be fixed is that no person should have to wait three months for an NCT, which is ridiculous. As a consequence of this legislation, from 1 March I would be forced to either park up my vehicle or wait for three weeks during which I could not go to Dublin to attend the Seanad or go elsewhere. That practical difficulty must be overcome.
The Minister may not revert to this matter; I actually raised it a week or two ago. However, there should be some excuse. I may have to appear before a District Court judge and point out that I applied three months earlier for a NCT but was yet to get an appointment. It is not my fault, but the fault of the system that is either overloaded or it is different in different areas. If that is the case I have serious concerns over the Bill. Those are just two practical cases of a young fellow who was waiting for five months. Thankfully the law was not in place at the time and he continued driving - he had to do so given that he was 23 or 24 miles from his place of work - but it was a concern to him and nobody wants to drive a vehicle without NCT.
I know the Minister has contacted the Attorney General and received advice on the retrospective nature of this Bill. From my days as a young law student, I have always had a deep concern where any legislation is retrospective. I was trained to think in the Aula Maxima of University College Cork that retrospection does not rest lightly with our Constitution or the courts and is to be avoided if at all possible. I know the Minster has a job to do and I do not wish to be critical of him personally. Nevertheless, I have deep concerns about this, and my colleague, Senator Byrne, may elaborate on the issue. We also have concerns about the amendment but rather than repeating ourselves, Senator Byrne will concentrate on the inherent flaw of the amendment as put before us.
When we consider the extra penalty point offences, we might all be worried. By and large, the system works well, and it is not that I am critical of it. One must also reflect on the strong assertions of the former chairman of the Road Safety Authority when he indicated there is a lack of resources contributing to a problem. Two years ago saw the fewest number of road traffic deaths and although nobody likes to see it, last year saw an increase and this year it looks like the figure will be up again. If there is a lack of resources in introducing penalty point offences relating to the national car test or speeding, there could be a serious flaw in the system. I am not sure how the Minister can respond to this but it would be remiss of me not to bring it to his attention.
Another issue relating to the NCT was brought to my attention by a public representative from the west. A lady sold her clapped-out car for scrap and got €450 for it. She ended up in court in Cork with a serious number of charges relating to parking offences around Cork city, although she never even thought the car could get to Cork. The car had been towed away. Although it is not directly related to this legislation, there is a duty imposed on a person selling a car to go to a local authority and get the ownership certificate transferred and so on. Perhaps the Minister and his departmental officials can reflect on this with respect to the NCT. The vehicle was towed away as scrap but two or three weeks later, these non-national people had got the car going. They took it to Cork and parked it wherever they liked. I am thankful that the judge in this case, when the facts were outlined to him, struck out the summons, but she could have been facing €800 in fines. The woman sold the car for parts or scrap but if we pursue the issue to its end, she could be seen to have allowed a vehicle to be driven on the road without a valid NCT as she was technically the legal owner. That is something that also concerns me.
We support the thrust of what the Minister is trying to do but we cannot ignore the issue. I respect the Attorney General but in the past that office has made mistakes. When doctors differ, patients die, but with the Attorney General and lawyers, as I was told once, if they are paid enough and one asks the right questions, one will get the desired answer. I am not clear that we can overcome this issue of legislation being retrospective. For the past few months, what is done has been done. One could say that from 1 January the legislation would take effect and we might have to ignore the lacuna. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and I do not want to come in here completely opposed to the legislation, although I have deep reservations about it. I have had them from day one. I am touching on a few points and my colleague, Senator Byrne, might expand concerns about it as well, particularly the amendment which the Minister proposes. It is a constitutionally dangerous process and it is flawed. We might end up opposing the Minister's amendment and voting for the Bill.
It is difficult but we are not trying to be obstreperous, as that is not in my nature. Most of my colleagues know that when I have something to say, I say it, and if I have deep concerns, it would be wrong of me to bury or ignore them. I welcome the Minister to the House. He is one of the new young Ministers who are doing very well and I wish him a peaceful and good Christmas and new year. I hope we will see safe driving for all of us. It is important that we highlight and promulgate our concerns.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He probably did not want to be here to deal with this issue as we thought it had been dealt with in the 2014 Act. As the Minister has pointed out, this stems from the Road Traffic Act 1961, which has been amended numerous times, most recently in 2014. Due to the nature of road traffic legislation, it is always a work in progress, with the two main drivers of change being policy developments and amendments, which are regularly required as experience demonstrates a need for change to existing legislation. Given the numerous pieces of legislation that have been enacted since 1961, the Department plans to consolidate the Acts. This is a significant undertaking which has been deferred on occasions as a legislative priority to bring about improvements to road safety, particularly regarding drug and drink-driving.
I commend the Minister, as he only found out about this issue last Wednesday and he has brought the legislation to the Houses of the Oireachtas immediately. I accept Senator O'Donovan's point regarding retrospective legislation, and one could say the horse has bolted. The Minister and Members of the Oireachtas have the job of putting legislation in place, and it is up to the courts and judges to enforce that law. We must ensure legislation is proper. If people win cases on appeal, we cannot do anything about it.
Road safety is a very emotive issue and all communities have been affected by either fatalities or injuries. Since the introduction of penalty points in 2002, with different legislation bringing in different offences, road safety has improved. Last year, unfortunately, we had more fatalities at 190 than the 162 in the previous year. It is important that we continue to produce legislation to ensure our roads can be safer places. It is interesting that an EU survey of the 27 European capitals indicates that Dublin, Lisbon and Oslo are the safest capital cities with regard to road traffic fatalities. This indicates that our penalty points system is working.
This legislation must be introduced because a commencement order was not signed in the 2010 legislation. It relates to driving without an NCT certificate and dangerous parking. These offences had to be dealt with in the courts previously and the punishment was more penalty points. The court should not have to deal with a case of somebody driving without an NCT certificate. If gardaí feel a vehicle is defective, they can impound it, and we should not be giving court time to such an offence. It is the same with dangerous parking, which may cause fatalities and accidents, but the offence should not have to be dealt with in court. This is a way of freeing up court time, as we are always complaining that the District Court is overly burdened and does not deal with the offences it should be dealing with. This streamlines the process.
I commend the Minister as he and his officials were courageous in immediately alerting the Members of the Oireachtas and the Attorney General while getting the best advice. That advice is that we must introduce retrospective legislation, which is before us today. We must support the Minister and I commend the Bill to the House.
It is a very important matter, as the Minister indicated.
Motoring is an activity that used to kill more than 600 people per year. We will probably get the fatality figure down to 200 this year, compared with the figure of a little over 160 in our best year. We must keep the legislation up to date with what is happening. The Minister indicated that a commencement order was not signed and referred to "inadvertent errors" in this regard. We all make such errors from time to time and I appreciate fully the Minister's bona fides in this matter. He is trying to correct those errors and is doing so urgently. We must be vigilant to ensure commencement orders are signed.
Some 75,000 offences are affected by this error, 70% of which relate to speeding. Senator O'Neill noted that the offences also include dangerous parking and driving vehicles that have not been tested. These offences contribute to a lack of safety on the roads. We must always keep an eye on where the next improvements in safety is coming from and keep the momentum up, because it moves to other activities. We were all rightly shocked by the death of a gentleman near this building recently. We know the human toil and misery road accidents cause and we have met the groups campaigning against drink driving and so on. Likewise, we all have seen the progress that was made in recent years.
In the spirit that the Minister saw a situation that needed to be addressed and is seeking to raise awareness of unsafe practices and deal with those practices, he is right to bring this legislation forward before Christmas. The seasonal road safety campaign is not just an exercise for the cameras. Where it is necessary to change laws urgently to address a particular issue, I support the Minister in that. While I appreciate the human rights emphasis of the Irish legal profession, it sometimes seems that the rights of people to conduct themselves in an unsafe manner on the roads are vindicated much more strenuously than are the rights of the victims of that behaviour. I feel a certain sense of despair when I see yet more transport cases being dismissed by judges up and down the country. There is a huge cost to that.
The Minister is trying to address a problem of safety and he deserves the support of the House in that effort. I agree with Senator O'Neill that we probably do need new and comprehensive road safety legislation rather than repeatedly adding new provisions to existing law to address loopholes and errors that were made. It is a major problem. For young males aged under 35, the leading cause of death is road accidents. With that in mind, I broadly support what the Minister is proposing to do here. I also support Senator O'Donovan on his point regarding the national car test. If it is to be a serious offence for drivers not to display a valid NCT certificate, then we must facilitate those who are genuinely trying to have their vehicles tested by ensuring there is no waiting list. I am sure the Minister already has that issue in hand.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Senator O'Neill explained very clearly the technicalities of what this Bill seeks to achieve. I have concerns regarding the retrospective aspect of the legislation. I hope it works, but we will not know that until such time as we see whether there is a legal challenge to it. Perhaps the way around this problem would have been to wipe any penalty points given between 1 August and the enactment of this Bill.
Senator O'Donovan made a very valid point in regard to NCTs. In some parts of the country, one will get an appointment within a fortnight, while in other locations there could be a wait of five months. A solution might be to oblige motorists either to have a valid NCT or be able to prove they applied to have the test done before the expiration of the previous certificate.
I am being opportunistic in raising the issue on which I will conclude. It relates to the renewal of provisional licences, particularly for older drivers. I met two elderly people in the past two months, one aged 72 and the other 77, who never had a full licence in their lives. In each case, a provisional licence was repeatedly renewed. However, because one does not get notification that one's licence is about to expire, these individuals did not notice that the time had come and now they are both obliged to sit a theory test. I can guarantee I would not pass that test and I suspect the Minister might not pass it either. The only people who are able to pass theory tests are 18 year olds applying for licences for the first time. They are so anxious to get on the road that they will put in the required study time. Will the Minister consider making some provision for older people in the circumstances I described and looking sympathetically at their cases? They might not pass the theory test but they have been driving all their lives, they are careful and do not get into accidents, and they can fulfil any other requirements, medical or otherwise. They should not be put through a theory test that they simply will not be able to pass. In the meantime, the two individuals to whom I referred are currently without a licence and off the road.
I support this legislation. None of us likes getting penalty points, but the system has been tremendously successful in ensuring fewer people are killed on the roads. It is a system that is working and we must maintain its integrity.
It occurred to me last night while searching for other legislation that it is very difficult to find commencement notices. This presents a difficulty not just for Oireachtas Members or members of the public but also, I am sure, for Departments. We must have a different system whereby it will be easier to identify which sections of a particular Bill have been commenced and which have not. Alternatively, perhaps we should end the current system altogether and set out in legislation itself when its provisions will be commenced. As it stands, it is difficult to know what is law and what is not, a difficulty that clearly is also being encountered by experts in the Department. This issue needs to be examined at Government level. The fault rests ultimately with the Department in this instance but we, as legislators, also must take some responsibility. This Bill should make us cautious and wary about rushing legislation.
I understand the Minister is meeting spokespersons today, presumably to discuss the amendment he proposes to bring forward on Committee Stage. I can think of no other word to describe that amendment other than "weird". It does not read right and I do not know what the Minister is seeking to achieve. I do not use "weird" in a derogatory sense but to convey how strange it is; perhaps "strange" is the right word to use. The Oireachtas does not set out to make unconstitutional legislation and there must be a presumption that the laws we enact are constitutional. We are often told when we bring forward Private Members' Bills that something cannot be done because the advice is that it is in conflict with the Constitution. However, the Minister's amendment No. 1 states:
If this section would, but for this subsection, conflict with a constitutional right of any person, the operation of this section shall be subject to such limitation as is necessary to secure that it does not so conflict but shall otherwise be of full force and effect.I am not sure there is any precedent for that. I wonder whether a lawyer panicked and urged that it be included just in case. If this issue only arose today, I would be urging the Minister to seek further advice and omit this provision if at all possible. If a particular provision is unconstitutional, the courts will find it such. It is not for us to put in a "just in case" clause. I am sure the Minister will elaborate further on Committee Stage, but these are my initial thoughts.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Several legal practitioners contacted me to express concerns in respect of the retrospective element of this Bill. I understand the Minister has taken the advice of the Attorney General in this matter, but there are concerns about penalty points issued since 1 August. I warned about retrospective legislation on a previous occasion.
Fortunately the Supreme Court held it to be unconstitutional. The entire Bill was thrown out in 2004. I have concerns about it because I come from a legal background. I fully understand that the Minister is trying to follow the correct course to deal with the problem. I believe that it will be challenged.
The penalty points that result in a driver being put off the road have been reduced from 12 to seven. A legal colleague has raised with me question of offences that occurred when the 12 point rule applied, but by the time the matter came to court, the seven point rule applied. Where does that leave the person involved? Will that be considered? The legislation made that retrospective too. Our role as legislators is to ensure that all legislation stays within the provisions of the Constitution. My legal colleagues have expressed genuine concern about these issues. We all in the legal profession like a good legal challenge that starts off in the High Court and goes to the Supreme Court. These are the checks and balances we are fortunate to have in our Constitution to deal with these concerns.
My office and another legal office in Cork identified a problem regarding nursing homes and emergency legislation was rushed through. It is amazing that this always happens in December. We highlighted the problem in December 2004. It went into the High Court which decided not to allow a judicial review because we had not given adequate provision to the health board to deal with the issue. The Department's response was to rush emergency legislation through the Dail and Seanad in three days. The President was concerned about it because it made legislation retrospective. She referred it to the Supreme Court which in February 2005 found it to be unconstitutional. Since then I have always been concerned about legislation coming through in December, particularly if it goes through the Houses in three days. There is always someone there are waiting to make sure the t's are crossed and the i’s dotted. This needs to be carefully considered before we sign off on it.
I welcome the Minister to the House. The penalty points system was a great success in terms of road safety between 2007 and 2013, when there was a 44% reduction in road fatalities across the State, going from over 330 in 2007 to a low of 162 in 2012. That was a massive achievement, given that the Government target for that year was 100 more than the final outcome. Unfortunately, there was a rise in fatalities in 2013 and 2014. As of now, there have been 183 deaths on the roads, and the Christmas holiday period is upcoming. This highlights the importance of getting legislation right and maintaining the effectiveness of the penalty points system in legislation and in practice, as well as ensuring that motorists and pedestrians know that it is in place. It is not the failure of the idea that has led to this rise or the problem we face today. It is human error, which we must change and protect against. I have no intention of hammering anyone about the problems in the legislation which led to this. It was a mistake and should not have happened, and might have shaken the structure that we use to improve road safety. The Minister recognised it was a mistake and owned up to it and it is admirable that he sought to deal with it swiftly. If other Ministers and Departments had acted similarly, in other respects, the Government would have had a smoother time in the first half of 2014.
This legislation does deal with the issues that have arisen. Simply passing this Bill will not put an end to the matter, but it will go a long way towards resolving the problem, although it might be challenged by some people. Most of those who might feel disgruntled or hard done by in this case only do so in light of the discovery of our legislative mistake. None would have been aware of this had they not been driving in a manner which put themselves or others at risk, to a lesser or greater extent. People who held up their hands and took fines and points on their licences cannot expect to have them pulled following the passage of this Bill. That is how it should be. Road safety is too important an issue to allow anything else to happen. Penalty points have been too valuable a tool to suffer greater damage. Killer behaviour, as the Road Safety Authority, RSA, calls it, must be challenged and in Ireland we have shown a great willingness to adopt common sense policies on safety, for example, the smoking ban. People no longer accept drink-driving or other practices that put drivers, passengers, and other road users at risk. This is due to the effective use of a public awareness campaigns which have brought home the seriousness of such behaviour to the public.
It would be remiss of me not to mention resources. We have passed several Bills which have imposed new responsibilities on the Garda in respect of road safety. We have all highlighted that while we support those changes, the Garda may have been less equipped to carry out existing responsibilities and the legislation we are debating would not be as effective as we had hoped it would be. The previous head of the RSA was very clear, as I expect the new one is too, that enforcement is the key to the effectiveness of penalty points and Garda resources are very important. I implore the Minister to make sure this issue is prioritised at Cabinet level and to ensure that providing better Garda resources is a major plank of future road safety strategy. We will support this legislation. I thank the Minister for his work on this.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions. Senator O'Donovan and others raised the status of the regime requiring a driver to have a valid NCT certificate. It was an offence before the Road Traffic Act 2014 and before this Bill. The 2014 Act changed the penalty point regime on the need to have a valid NCT certificate. A driver now has the option of not going to court, paying a lower fine and having a different number of penalty points imposed on the licence. It was not that a new offence was brought in but that the existing offence was changed to make the option of a fixed charge payment available. The more significant change, however, is the degree of advertising support and awareness that this change commanded.
It has been something that has been the focus of a significant amount of support and advertising from the Road Safety Authority and there has been a huge increase in awareness of this changed offence, which has led to an increased demand for NCT certificates.
On the points the Senator put to me, I will give a set of figures which have influenced how I view this issue and what I have done on it. These figures show that at the end of November the Road Safety Authority carried out approximately 25,000 NCT tests. Of those, 9,000 were either late or very late, and 1,450 of the tests refer to vehicles that should have had an NCT in 2013. A significant minority of vehicles which are being tested for an NCT should have had the certificate in place for a long period of time before the examination actually happened. This is directly relevant to an issue everyone has touched on, namely, the issue of road safety. The safety of a vehicle and how roadworthy it is can have a potential impact on safety on our roads. That is why this measure was introduced and why I support it.
There has been an increase in the amount of public comment on what the Road Safety Authority and I have done with regard to this. The average waiting time at the moment for NCT test centres is 11 days. On foot of getting that national average, I requested a regional breakdown. The Senator made this point in relation to his constituency. The average might look okay or good, but there could be particular distortions or unacceptable waiting times in particular centres. I have requested, and got, the waiting times per NCT centre across the country. This information showed me, when I last checked it, which was last week, that the waiting time for most centres was inside what is acceptable. The Road Safety Authority has since told me that it has now hired an additional 50 staff, approximately, to deal with this, and, in particular centres, it has made more services available to deal with the demand for NCT certificates. I will continue to request that information on a weekly basis to see where the situation stands.
Drivers who had valid NCT certificates are seeking to renew them and their perception is that it is more difficult to get an appointment because of the increased number of people who are coming in to test vehicles. This is causing concern. I have raised the issue with the Road Safety Authority and it tells me that people must call the centre. I have said this here and in the other House also. If they call the centre, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a test will be provided. Further, if a test cannot be provided within 28 days, there is a provision in place stating that it should be provided for free. I have also raised this issue with the Road Safety Authority. At the moment, the free test is only being provided in the case of 2% of NCT tests. I am happy to respond further to the Senator on this point later on in the debate, but I note for now that I will continue to get this information. I know it is an issue of concern at the moment. Further, I will specifically look at the waiting time per NCT centre and I will work with the Road Safety Authority to ensure that additional resources are deployed in the best way possible.
The Senator put some other points to me. I am going to conclude with the common theme of the retrospective nature of this legislation, because I think it is the major theme people have raised with me. On the issue of resourcing, a point also made by Senator Reilly, and making sure that we have an adequate number of gardaí and personnel available to support the law that has been supported, given the resources that are currently available, the Garda is doing a very good job on this issue. However, I have raised the matter directly with the Garda Commissioner myself. This might also answer the point put by Senator Reilly to me. I have argued that with an increase in the number of gardaí being recruited and active - this change is happening this year - we should see a similar increase in the number of people who are in the traffic corps and involved in running enforcement tests and checkpoints to make our roads safe. Ultimately, the body of law that we have in place will only be safely and properly implemented if there is an enforcement regime in place that people believe is credible. I have made this point to the Garda Commissioner. As the number of gardaí grows, as it will, this area is one that should be better resourced in the future.
Senator O'Neill put a number of points to me. One is a point that was also touched on by Senator Byrne. The law in this area is weighty and complex and this has led to an issue on the implementation of the commencement order. I would draw a parallel between this area of law and company law. Road safety legislation has been more highly prioritised in recent years, but there is a huge body of road safety law in place dating back to the main Act of 1961. There is a large degree of complexity in it with a large number of different Bills referring to different subsections in other Bills, some of which have now been in operation for a long period of time. To my mind, there are two necessary next steps that have emerged from this issue. We should begin the process of consolidation of road safety and road traffic law. That will take a long period to do, a period well beyond the lifetime of this Seanad or Dáil. In my Department, I have requested an audit of any other potential areas of non-commencement. We will look at all of the recent sections of road traffic law and ensure that this specific error does not happen again. Road safety law is very important and an area that is tested regularly.
Various Senators have touched on the effect of penalty points in improving safety on our roads. We have gone from a situation where life was being lost every day to a situation that is much improved but in which too many people are still losing their lives, as the last number of days have illustrated. I believe a very credible and strong penalty point regime has contributed significantly to this.
Senator Barrett touched on similar areas as well. He also acknowledged, and it is a point worth making again, the absolute misery, heartache and grief that is involved in all of the statistics to which we referred. Very early in my time as Minister, I met a family which lost a life. Their young boy was tragically killed outside their home. To sit down and hear a family talk about their grief and how this changed the course of their lives brings home, in a way no statistic can, the need to continue to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible.
The point was made that there is a need to look, in as comprehensive a way as possible, at all the different areas of road safety. I chair a group that meets twice a year to look at all of the different agencies that are involved in road safety legislation, the status of each of the actions under our current road safety strategy and what actions are not happening and how they need to be changed. The most recent meeting of that group happened within the last two weeks. This is a forum in which we look at the implementation of different points.
Senator Kelly put to me that I should have considered the raising of penalty points between 1 August and the point at which this issue was detected. I decided not to pursue that course of action because my own belief was that something like that would significantly undermine the credibility of our penalty point regime in the future.
I was also aware of the sheer number of actual offences that were committed. My view as Minister is that I should do what I can to ensure a system is in place that delivers the sanctions to the offences that have been committed. In the interests of transparency, because it is important that the Senator is aware of the figures, from 1 August until the point at which this issue was detected and action taken, 78,504 people were affected and the total number of penalty points affected by this is 206,030. This is a very significant number of offences and people, which was crucial in the decision I made to look at how we would put in a place a continuous regime since 1 August and not to go down the route of erasing penalty points, due to the figures that were there.
I have touched on the point in regard to regional NCT centres and I note the point made in respect of individuals who have had a large number of provisional licences built up over time and what can happen when they realise they cannot get another one. I accept that this is an issue, particularly for elderly people who have had many provisional licences. That being said, as the Senator will appreciate, the main issue I have to consider is what we need to do to make our roads as safe as possible and to ensure that the people who are on our roads have gone through the right level of testing, both theory and test. It is for that reason that a theory test was required, but I might get some more information for the Senator on that particular issue after this.
In regard to the point raised by Senator Thomas Byrne on commencement notices, it is certainly something I and my Department have learned in regard to the status of such notices. On the point put to me regarding the legislation being rushed, I am seeking to have it passed in an afternoon and evening. I appreciate the fact that I am allowed to bring it into the House at this stage. I am struck by the last piece of road traffic legislation, the 2014 Act, which went through a huge amount of scrutiny and was debated extensively in the House, in the Committee and in the Dáil. While responsibility rests with me as Minister - I am not seeking to divert that in any way - it was the basis of commencement notices. In fairness, I could not expect any Senator, no matter how aware he or she is of road safety legislation, to know the commencement status of every section in the Bill. That is a lesson that I and my Department have learned from this debate. I have already said what we are doing in that regard.
Senator Thomas Byrne raised a point in regard to the amendment which I will discuss on Committee Stage when we go through each part of the Bill. The sole purpose for bringing this to the House is to make clear that the constitutional rights of any person will not be infringed in any way by the passage of the Bill. I will discuss that issue on Report Stage.
Senator Colm Burke made a point in regard to emergency legislation which I have touched on. Senator Kathryn Reilly mentioned trends and penalty points in regard to collisions and noted the position this year versus a year ago which shows an increase, particularly after the events of recent days. We will be introducing a further change in terms of the sanction regime on our roads when we bring in greater facilities for drug testing next year in respect of the devices that will allow that to happen. When that is done, there will be an amount of road safety legislation in place and at that point we will have to consider other issues, such as what can be done with vehicles, what else can be done and needs to be done in respect of driver awareness, the education of drivers and so on. Given the number of changes made to the penalty points system, there are a large number of specified offences that carry penalty points or for which other consequences are available. We will need to look at other areas for next year.
I have touched on the point in regard to the resourcing of the Garda in the comment I made to Senator Denis O'Donovan. The work of the Road Safety Authority in terms of enforcement and advertising is crucial. It is an independent body of my Department, to which I was pleased to appoint Ms Liz O'Donnell as chairperson. She is an independent and vigorous chair of that organisation. An important change that will take place in that body is that it will soon be self-financing. Given that, it will have the ability to make its own independent choices in terms of the issues it seeks to raise and the advertising campaigns it wants to commence. I commend its present advertising campaign for the Christmas period and particularly the impact the consumption of drugs can have on one's ability to drive.
I turn to the most substantive point Senators have raised, which is the issue of retrospection. The issue was raised by Senators O'Donovan, Burke and Byrne in respect of their concerns in this area. In addressing these concerns I wish to make two points that the Senators may wish to consider as we go into Committee Stage that have been crucial in my taking this course of action. I want to take a step back and explain the process overall when one gets penalty points. When an offence is committed, the Garda Síochána will stop a person and decide that, for example, penalty points is the right sanction and will choose to go down the fixed charge notice route. To be clear, we are not talking about offences that go to court but which incur fixed charge notices. The Garda will communicate that to the individual who will then be asked by the Garda Síochána if they accept the penalty points on their licence. The person will indicate their acceptance of the penalty points and-or payment of the fine. The Garda Síochána will then notify the national driver vehicle licence database and it is at that point the penalty points are applied to the licence. It is at that stage of the process that we have this issue. We are not talking about creating a new offence retrospectively, but when the person has admitted the offence, we are talking about the right-footing, as it were, for the application of the penalty points. We are not seeking to create a new offence but to deal with the implementation of an existing offence for which the driver has accepted liability. That is why this course of action and this Bill is being pursued.
We are referring to a sanction that is civil in nature. Unless they are appealed to the courts, they are not a criminal matter.
The two reasons that led to me bringing this Bill forward are the fact that we are dealing with the administration of an offence as opposed to the creation of an offence and the fact that the offence is civil in nature. These are among the points made to me in the advice I received from the Attorney General, but it is up to me to decide how to act on that advice. The two points that led to me bringing the Bill forward concern the application of the points and the fact that the application occurs in regard to a civil offence. I have done my best to respond to the different points that Senators have raised. Obviously, if Senators have more detailed points to put to me on Committee Stage, I will do my best to respond to them.
I wish to correct a point on the record in case I mislead the Minister, his officials or the RSA. Since I raised my case on the Order of Business, I got a date in January and am, therefore, off the hook. When I first contacted the NCT authorities using the general set-up, they said my test date would be in the middle of March, meaning my certificate would expire.
I acknowledge that the Minister attempted to contact our spokesman on transport, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, who is unavoidably absent this evening. I was told only at 3 p.m. that I was to take this Bill. In the interest of fairness, I would have liked to have met the Minister beforehand but what has occurred was not his fault or mine. It is just something that happened.