Tuesday, 16 December 2014
I thank the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for staying on to take this debate. I have discussed this issue informally with the Minister previously. I am pleased to have an opportunity to put my thoughts on the matter on the record of the House this evening. I come from a very rural part of County Kerry. Many young people in the area work in nearby towns that are 15 or 20 miles away. As the Minister knows, it is illegal for a learner driver to drive without being accompanied by a qualified driver. This is causing many problems in parts of rural Ireland where there are no DART, Luas, bus or train services. Young men and women who have no public transport options are finding it difficult to get to work. Many of them have to get their parents, brothers or sisters who are qualified drivers to drive them to work. A great deal of expense is incurred by driving someone 15 miles to work and returning home, before making the same round trip again in the evening.
I did a little research before I came to the House for this debate. I was trying to find some statistics with regard to learner drivers. I learned than in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, some 6% of all fatal collisions involved learner drivers and 94% of such collisions did not involve learner drivers. Similarly, 6% of collisions in which serious injuries were sustained involved learner drivers and 94% of such collisions did not involve learner drivers. It seems from those statistics that we are coming down very hard on learner drivers. I would not come in here to advocate that people should break the law. I ask the Minister to see whether this problem can be addressed in a way that would alleviate the hardship that is being experienced by young people in rural Ireland as a result of this requirement.
I have been trying to think of a way to come around this. I did not want to come in and demand something without sitting down to think about it. Learner drivers have a logbook that is signed every time they take a professional lesson. I suggest that in the case of a learner driver who has spent more than 12 hours under the professional supervision of an approved driving instructor and has applied for a driving test, the current restriction could be confined to the hours between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. That would give people a chance to go to work. For the last 30 years, learner drivers have been driving without being accompanied by qualified drivers. I suggest we could make more use of the approved driving instructors. Maybe they could assess learner drivers as they make progress through their lessons and judge whether they have reached a specific standard. There is a huge waiting list and timescale for a driving lesson. I will wait for the Minister's reply. I will see if he has anything to offer me.
I thank Senator Moloney for raising this issue, which we have discussed already. I am pleased to respond to the topical issue she has raised. As she will be aware, the driver licensing system is one of the most important foundations of safety on roads. Driving is not a right. It is a privilege which must be earned by learning and proving a capacity to control a mechanically propelled vehicle safely on public roads. The system of driver licensing we operate in Ireland has come a long way over the past decade. Ten years ago, anyone could fill out a form and get on the roads without prior testing of any sort. We allowed learners to drive unaccompanied. As a consequence, an enormous number of drivers did not seem concerned with the need to take the driving test.
A system of graduated driver licensing is now in place in Ireland. This stepped approach to the driver learning process focuses on the acquisition of skills and experience, rather than simply on passing a test. The first step in the introduction of graduated driver licensing was taken in the Road Traffic Act 2006, which replaced the old provisional licence with the learner permit. This was not just a change of name. Under Irish law, it is an offence to drive without a licence. A provisional licence was a licence, but a learner permit is not. It is a permit to drive while learning, subject to certain conditions. These conditions include displaying an L plate and having a qualified accompanying driver. It is worth remembering that a learner permit holder who is not complying with his or her permit conditions is not covered by it. Since 2006, we have progressively introduced other graduated driver licensing measures. These include lower blood alcohol limits for learners and recently qualified drivers and compulsory lessons for learner drivers. I introduced measures earlier this year to require each novice driver to display an N plate. I set a disqualification threshold of seven penalty points for learners and novices. This was an increase on the threshold of 12 points that previously applied.
I emphasise that the ultimate purpose of graduated driver licensing is to save lives. We have seen a dramatic reduction in road deaths over the past decade. Unfortunately, this trend was reversed last year. Current indications are that the death toll for this year will be at least similar to last year's toll. Graduated driver licensing aims to improve the quality of driving of our young drivers and, in time, of all drivers. We know that there is a particularly high risk of collisions, deaths and injuries among learner drivers, particularly the high-risk category comprising those between the ages of 17 and 24. Graduated driver licensing systems generally place a range of restrictions on learner drivers. These restrictions usually apply for a period of two years after passing a driving test. Learner drivers are vulnerable road users. They face greater risks and challenges due to their inexperience. Evidence suggests that the best way to reduce risk is to introduce measures that are designed to protect them until they have built up enough experience.
The regulations to give effect to the learner permit system were made in October 2007. These regulations provided for the replacement of the provisional licence with a learner permit, required each learner permit holder to be accompanied by a driver who holds a full driving licence for at least two years, removed the entitlement of first-time learner permit holders to undertake the driving test for six months after gaining their learner permits and obliged learner motorcyclists to display the letter L on a yellow fluorescent tabard. The changes which came into place on 8 December last do not create a new offence. Since the learner permit was created, it has always been an offence to drive without an L plate and without an accompanying driver. What has changed is that people committing these offences will now receive penalty points. The purpose of these regulations is to improve road safety, to save lives and to reduce the number of collisions, deaths and injuries among inexperienced drivers. I appreciate that the restrictions on learners may create difficulties for some people. However, our overriding consideration must always be the safety of learners and other road users.
I thank the Minister for his reply, which was nothing less or more than what I expected. I reiterate that by concentrating on just 6% of those who cause fatalities and collisions, and particularly by applying penalty points to this offence, we are coming down very hard on learner drivers. Does this really necessitate the imposition of penalty points? Things were hard enough for these drivers before this was done. I remind the House that many parts of rural Ireland are very isolated. I am not referring specifically to the Minister when I say it is very easy for people living in Dublin and other urban areas to say they can manage.
It is, however, proving difficult in rural areas. Minister, is there a possibility that some people drawn from expert groups such as driving instructors or the RSA could have one more look to see if there is anything we can do to alleviate this problem?
I have listened very much to what Senator Moloney has said. I take her point that 6% of road accidents involve those with L plates are in the learner driver category. To really understand that figure further, we would have to look at the share of learner drivers as a percentage of the total driving population and to compare that with the figure of 6% of learner drivers who are involved in accidents to arrive at a ratio that will show whether they contribute proportionately or disproportionately to the number of accidents on our roads. Other figures I have seen give me food for thought and lead me to think this is the right course of action. In 2013, 26% of car drivers who were killed were under the age of 25 years. If I consider how we focused on that issue in the past, for example in 2012, the figure was 30%, so in that two year period between 26% and 30% of deaths on our road were of men and women under the age of 25 years. Half of all the drivers killed at present range from 16 years to 35 years.
These are the statistics that lead me to believe that the change in this measure was correct. As I have said already it was always an offence for a learner driver to drive unaccompanied, but as the Senator said, the recent change was that penalty points were applied to the offence. I have to be unambiguous, I believe this is the correct course of action to look after a young group of drivers across the country. I fully appreciate the fact that it has different consequences for people who are living in rural areas as opposed to those who live in urban areas. We will keep all of these measures under review. I do not want to signal this measure out in particular because I do not want to weaken our commitment to the implementation of it in any way. I will certainly look at this measure as I will look at the other recent changes and look at the impact it is having on road safety and any consequences it could have.