Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

10:30 am

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, to the House. I have repeatedly raised this particular issue over the past three years, but perhaps now is an opportune time to have a proper debate. It is the question of whether the wearing of high-visibility jackets should be compulsory for cyclists and pedestrians, especially in rural areas and where there is no footpath or street lighting. The percentage of road fatalities that are made up of cyclists and pedestrians presents a frightening figure.We can get all the statistics and facts but I want to open up a debate on this. I have said to people that I was going to raise this issue and they said I would be accused of creating a nanny state but so be it if we create a nanny state if it is going to save lives. If the Minister of States checks the record, he will see that within three days of my raising this issue on the last occasion, two pedestrians were killed at night in my own county. I will keep raising this issue until something is done.

There are no footpaths or lit-up areas in rural areas, in particular. The term used is "vulnerable road users", and these are said to be pedestrians and cyclists. I do not agree with that. I believe the most vulnerable person on the road at present is the motorist. The motorist must deal with the rules of the road and needs to have everything right with the car, have it taxed and insured and have seat-belts, airbags and everything else. Drivers are going about their business and yet people will not adhere to the simple requirement that they would wear a high-visibility jacket, in particular on dark evenings in winter. This is why something more strenuous has to be put in place.

To give a piece of anecdotal evidence, two years ago I met a neighbour of mine who had a grá for the drink and who has sadly passed away. It was before Christmas and I said to him: "Don't let me see you back in the village without a high-visibility jacket on you". He said he would not but when I met him four or five nights later, he had no high-visibility jacket on him. When I said I would drop one over to his house in the morning, he replied: "Don't bother. I have three of them at home."

In fairness, the Road Safety Authority, FBD Insurance and the IFA and other farming bodies are constantly giving out high-visibility jackets and there is a great programme whereby the high-visibility jackets are made available to schoolchildren. That is all well and good. However, we have to insist on this. There is no point having people act like the man I have just mentioned, who had three of these jackets at home but was walking back from the village in the pitch dark. There is no good having high-visibility jackets at home if pedestrians and cyclists are not wearing them.

I will wait for the Minister of State's reply. I intend to keep raising this issue because I believe it will save lives.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Tom Sheahan for raising this very important matter. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, myself, the Department, the Road Safety Authority and any right-minded person should be gravely concerned at the number of pedestrians and cyclists who are being killed and injured on our roads. To date in 2015, ten pedestrians and one pedal cyclist have been killed in collisions with motor vehicles. While I am not aware of the individual circumstances behind each and every one of these awful tragedies, I would expect that anything that could attract a driver's earlier attention to the presence of a pedestrian, pedal cyclist or other vulnerable road user may have resulted in a different outcome in these cases.

As of yesterday, Tuesday, 12 May, there were 16 fewer deaths as a result of road collisions than in the same period last year. While it is too early to say whether this trend in 2015 will be sustained, I am confident that the implementation of the actions set out in the Road Safety Strategy 2013-2020 will, over time, lead to a reduction in road traffic collisions, fatalities and injuries.

Vulnerable road users, in particular cyclists and pedestrians, are a focus of concern and action for the RSA in the authority's current promotional campaigns. The RSA is continuously engaged in publicity drives involving radio and television advertisements on national and local media. The RSA puts huge effort into educating all road users to the dangers on any road and to instill a sense of personal responsibility into all of us.

Specifically, it has devoted significant resources to get the message across to all road users about the dangers for walkers and cyclists on or near roadways. Its high-visibility vests and other road safety apparel are in evidence everywhere we look. If we step outside these four walls, we will see the RSA-supplied high-visibility vests with its logo and slogan, "Be Safe, Be Seen", on hundreds of cyclists, runners, delivery persons and walkers, among others. I understand that up to 5 million various items bearing reflective material have been distributed to members of the public in recent years. These include the high-visibility vests mentioned by Senator Sheahan, as well as Sam Browne belts, ruck-sack covers, bicycle clips, torches and other novelty items, all with a road safety theme to them.

The aim of the RSA is to ensure that all road users develop safe behaviours and appropriate attitudes to be used on our roads. To do this, it looks to impart knowledge and the appropriate skills to road users as they move through life. The RSA's current policy is to deliver road user education and awareness in a combined approach up to third level education. Educational resources have been developed from pre-school all the way up to third level and right into the heart of local communities. These resources are delivered in schools and communities throughout the country on a continuous basis.

While the wearing of high-visibility equipment is a part of keeping safe on the roads, there are other safe behaviours to be practised when using roads and these are of equal value. In circumstances where people are negotiating unlit or poorly lit roadways, it is the responsibility of all us - cyclists, pedestrians and drivers - to take extreme care. However, no matter how much effort the RSA puts into its campaigns, there has to be an element of personal responsibility in all of this. Road safety awareness campaigns by the RSA that promote personal protection equipment for pedestrian and cyclists, and which support a shift to healthier forms of mobility such as walking and cycling, are included in the Government's Road Safety Strategy 2013-2020. The supply of high-visibility equipment was also provided for under the previous Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012. Even now, these items are available free of charge and can be ordered by telephone, e-mail or online directly from the RSA ordering system. The RSA also has a number of sponsorships each year that include a partnership with the ESB on its Back to School campaign and with the Irish Farmers' Journalfor the ploughing championships.

I am not aware of any country that makes the wearing of high-visibility material by walkers and cyclists compulsory. A difficulty with such an approach would be in what circumstances walkers and cyclists would be required to wear such high-visibility material, in what weather conditions and at what times of the year, and so on. While I understand the Senator's concern, and we are all convinced of the usefulness of high-visibility vests, I understand the Minister believes that the current promotional approach to high-visibility material is the correct one and the Minister has no plans to make their use a compulsory legal requirement.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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I must compliment the Minister of State on a very comprehensive reply. He is stating more or less what I am stating myself. As I said, it is not that there is a lack of supply. I forgot to mention the ploughing championships, which are very good in this regard, but I referred to the schools initiative and so on. None the less, the gent I spoke to had three high-visibility vests at home. The Minister of State spoke about personal responsibility but this is where it lies. The point is how we highlight this.

Again, the term "vulnerable user" is used to refer to a cyclist or pedestrian. However, I believe the motorist is the most vulnerable person on the road now because, God forbid it should happen, but if a driver is unlucky enough, in the dark of night, to hit a pedestrian who does not have a high-visibility vest, one can be sure it will be fatal if the car's speed is over 25 mph. The point I want to stress about the vulnerable road user is that the person driving the car will have to live with that for the rest of his or her life.

I understand that by making it compulsory, we would be accused of making this a nanny state. However, anything that saves lives should be done. The resources, in particular the high-visibility jackets, are available and there is no question mark in that regard. However, is there anything we can do to make people wear them? I have been told by gardaí that they often hand them out to pedestrians when they are on the beat.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator is over time.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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I will conclude. I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive response.I continue to believe that anything that saves lives is worthwhile. We have to develop a stronger strategy. Education has worked, to a point, but as the Minister of State has said, it comes down to personal responsibility.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. There are thousands more people cycling and walking now than in the past. People are more health-conscious, as one sees every day in the city. The Senator is quite correct to raise this issue and refer to personal responsibility. In terms of the law on road users, it is the same for those on bicycles as those driving cars. Everybody has to obey the rules of the road. Every day one sees people on bicycles driving through lights.

The time has come to examine the issue. The Road Safety Authority has made a major effort in terms of schools and educating people. As the Senator said, he raised the issue with his neighbour. What more can one do? Once cannot put it on for people in the evening and again in the morning. At the same time, there needs to be personal responsibility. While driving around the country, one sees people walking late at night wearing black jackets. Such people have to take responsibility for themselves.

The Senator is quite correct; if there is an accident, the people involved are affected. If a person is killed, that has an effect on families. The Road Safety Authority and the Department are examining the issue. At the current time, they do not feel it is something that should be compulsory, because it would be very difficult to implement such a law.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.