Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Road Traffic Bill 2016: Second Stage
I thank the House for the opportunity to introduce the Road Traffic Bill 2016. Road safety is an area which concerns all of us, both as citizens and as public representatives.Happily, it is not a partisan issue. We might occasionally disagree about the best measures to improve road safety, but there is no disagreement on the overall goal or, for the most part, on how we wish to achieve it.
There has been a remarkable transformation of the situation on our roads since the start of the millennium. In 2000, 415 people died on our roads. Last year, 2015, saw 166 fatalities. This represents a decline of almost 60%. It is not a uniform decline, however. The number of fatalities dropped for the first few years of the millennium, only for the number to rise again in 2004 and 2005. From that point, there were several years in which the number of fatalities fell, reaching a record low of 162 in 2012. However, in 2013 and 2014 the numbers increased again. Last year, 2015, there was a significant improvement, with a 15% decline in the number of fatalities recorded, but the year ended on a very tragic note. Before December, 2015 appeared to be an even better year than 2012, which had the lowest number on record. Then there was a series of fatal collisions which made that month the worst December for road fatalities since 2007. That should be a reminder and a spur to all of us to ensure that the pressure to reduce the number of road fatalities is maintained by all means at our disposal. Too many people are still losing their lives on our roads.
Road safety depends on a wide range of factors. These include the quality of our roads and the quality of the vehicles driven on them; sensible traffic planning and management; keeping to the right speed; the health of the driver; factors which can cause driver impairment - above all, intoxicants and driver distraction; driver skills and training; and the enforcement of the law. The improvements of the past decade and a half have been the product of effort in all of these areas. Investment has improved the quality of our roads. The national car test, NCT, and improvements in commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing have contributed to improving and maintaining higher standards for vehicles on our roads. Legislative reform has led to a more robust driver learning process and tougher measures to combat driving while intoxicated, while driver informer programmes have been conducted to improve public awareness of the most important risk factors involved in driving.
This has been the work of many stakeholders. My Department has led the way with legislation but many other organisations have made, and continue to make, a vital contribution. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, was established in 2006. It has made an immeasurable improvement to road safety as the body responsible for the NCT, for regulating driving instructors, overseeing the driving test and, more recently, as the body responsible for national driver licensing services. The RSA is also responsible for public information and education on road safety through schools, through public information campaigns and through engagement with other stakeholders such as cycling groups. It has provided a wealth of expert advice and assistance to my Department and other stakeholders.
In the area of law enforcement, I acknowledge the essential and tremendous work of the Garda Síochána. The establishment of a dedicated traffic corps was a major step forward. New tools have been provided which have proven a great help in enforcing the law, including the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points system, random breath testing for alcohol and lower permissible limits, and the introduction of safety cameras. Last summer, I also extended the fixed charge system to cover road traffic offences by cyclists. I must also mention the essential work done by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. The bureau has responsibility for testing specimens for intoxicants and for the supply of testing equipment used by the Garda. In addition to its often heavy workload, the scientific expertise of the bureau has been an essential support to my Department and, in particular, has been crucial in developing proposals for intoxicated driving which are at the heart of the legislation before the House today. I acknowledge the dedication and hard work of all the road safety advocacy groups and campaigners who work tirelessly to raise awareness of road safety issues. However, none of this should distract us from one very important fact: that each person who gets behind the wheel of a car or any other mechanically propelled vehicle has a personal responsibility to drive safely. We can pass all the laws we want but only one person is behind the wheel of each vehicle. Drivers must think and act responsibly. This is the message we have to get across to the public. The main causes of road collisions are well known. They are: speeding; driver intoxication; fatigue; and distraction. In all these areas, there have been important initiatives over recent years. Work to reduce speed and raise awareness of intoxication, fatigue and distraction is ongoing.
The Bill I am introducing today will provide a number of important measures to make more progress on safety on our roads. Its main focus is on intoxicated driving. The Road Traffic Act 2010 provided a very sound new basis for the law on driving under the influence of alcohol. The Act of 2010 and the number of amendments made thereto in the interim have greatly assisted An Garda Síochána in addressing drink driving. However, the law now needs to be strengthened in the more complex area of driving under the influence of drugs. The Bill before the House will mark a major advance in that regard.
The Bill includes a proposal for a new special speed limit of 20 km/h. This will be an option available to local authorities in built-up areas where they believe there is a particularly high risk to public safety. Another major element will be the provision of the necessary legislative basis to give effect to a new agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom on the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications.
Before I explain the proposals contained in the Bill, I must acknowledge the extremely valuable contribution of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in their development. The joint committee made very pertinent and helpful contributions to the proposals of the general scheme of the Bill. In many cases, this led to important changes in the proposals. I informed the joint committee, in response to its report, of my intention to adjust the proposals in light of its comments. Due to constraints of time, and since we are coming to the end of the life of the current Oireachtas, I subsequently decided to remove some provisions from the proposals of the current Bill altogether. A key reason for doing this is my commitment to ensuring we have mandatory intoxicant tests in place later in the year. In order to do that, we need to have the provisions on the use of the drug testing devices enacted. It was my judgment, as Minister, that if we had delayed the introduction of those sections of the Bill for any period, our ability to deliver on the commitment to have mandatory intoxicant testing for drugs would have been compromised. It is for that reason that I decided to remove some sections from the Bill. However, we will continue with our work on examining how we can improve the law in this area.
Among the measures about which the committee expressed concern was the proposal that employers of professional drivers would have to conduct periodic tests for intoxicants. The committee raised specific concerns about the likely impact on small businesses in particular. Similarly, proposals for tighter regulation of the use of electronic devices while driving were included in the general scheme and were the subject of much constructive comment by the committee. Again, due to time factors, I have not included any proposals in this area in the current Bill but it is a matter we must address. The range of devices that can distract drivers has grown significantly. Driver distraction is a major area of concern. We must, in due course, bring the law up to date with reality. My Department continues to work closely with An Garda Síochána to examine how this might best be achieved. I now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. Driving under the influence of intoxicants is one of the greatest dangers on our roads. It is also, potentially, one of the easiest to eliminate. I repeat what I said before: every driver has personal responsibility for their own driving. If people act responsibly, and do not drive after drinking, or do not drink if they know they will have to drive, we will not have a problem. Tragically, many people have not got this message, and too many have suffered as a result. The Road Traffic Act 2010 introduced a comprehensive overhaul of our legislation on drink-driving. Under that Act, it is an offence to drive or be in control of a mechanically propelled vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent as to be unable to control the vehicle. It is also an offence to have more than a specified limit of alcohol in your system. In the latter case, the offence depends on proving the presence of a specified level of alcohol only and not that the person was actually impaired, a principle which we are replicating for certain specified drugs. Over the years, concerns have grown about the level of driving under the influence not just of alcohol but also of drugs. A report on road traffic fatalities over a ten-year period showed that 10% of drivers had a positive toxicology for drugs. The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, annual report for 2014 shows that 58% of the 1,158 specimens tested for drugs were positive for at least one drug. The report also gives another disturbing fact - 53%, or more than half, of the specimens that tested positive for drugs tested positive for two or more drugs. One does not need to be an expert to see the risks of taking not just one but a cocktail of drugs and then driving.
Addressing drug-driving is a more complex matter than addressing drink-driving. It involves multiple substances, and until recently the technology to test for drugs at the roadside, in the way we do for alcohol, did not exist. When my predecessor was introducing what became the Road Traffic Act 2014 in the Oireachtas, he noted these difficulties and promised that legislation would be introduced to deal with drugs and drug testing when the technology was available. That time is now. Part 2 of this Bill addresses the issue of drug driving. It is already an offence to drive under the influence of an intoxicant to the extent of being unable to control the vehicle, and this applies to any intoxicant. Today I am proposing a new offence of driving while the person has more than a specified level of any of three specified drugs - cannabis, cocaine or heroin - in their system. This means that the presence alone of these drugs in a person's system will be an offence, and there will be no need to prove that the person's driving is impaired.
The levels proposed for each drug in the Bill have been considered in the context of other jurisdictions. Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Greece have the same thresholds. The levels proposed also take into account MBRS experience and factors such as lag time between arrest and the collection of a specimen, and measurement uncertainty. Levels have been chosen on the basis that they are indicative of recent use. This is important given that we are not making a requirement to prove impairment. Since I published this proposal, some have called it draconian. It is not. It is, in fact, what the law already provides in relation to alcohol. Some have also questioned what might happen if cannabis were to be legalised, and suggested that this may mean my proposals should be rethought. This is not the point: cannabis impacts on people's ability to drive by dulling their reactions, and if it were to be made legal tomorrow it would still be a danger when driving. If cannabis were legal, it would be in exactly the same position in respect of road traffic law as alcohol, and we would be just as concerned about its presence in drivers.
I am allowing in the Bill for the fact that a form of medicinal cannabis is licenced for use in Ireland, although I understand it is not yet available. This is a medication called Sativex. It is likely to be prescribed only rarely, to treat a small proportion of multiple sclerosis patients. People who have been prescribed this drug will receive an exemption certificate from the new offence. However, this exemption would not apply if they were actually impaired due to the medication, in which case they would be liable to prosecution under the existing 2010 provisions. Once again, it is a matter of individual responsibility - we all encourage people to take necessary medications, but if a person's medication, for example, makes them drowsy, they should not drive until the effect has worn off. Any driver who has concerns about their medication and their ability to drive should discuss this with their doctor or pharmacist. Some Members may have noticed that while I am proposing the new offence in relation to three drugs, there are in fact five substances named in the Bill. The reason for this is that in some cases the drug itself will metabolise quickly but can be detected by the metabolite, that is, the chemical into which it breaks down, so the Bill is listing these also.
I referred earlier to testing. Advances in technology mean that there are now devices available which can be used to conduct roadside tests of oral fluid for the presence of drugs. I am proposing measures in this Bill which will give the necessary powers to the Garda to use these devices, and the necessary powers to the MBRS to approve and supply them. Gardaí will in future be able to conduct a breath test for alcohol and have the option of conducting an oral fluid test for drugs, in these circumstances. Both of these tests are preliminary rather than evidential, and will serve to assist gardaí in forming an opinion that a person has consumed an intoxicant. I am also proposing to amend section 10 of the 2010 Act, which is the basis for mandatory alcohol testing, MAT, checkpoints. These are the roadside checkpoints set up by gardaí where they have the power to conduct random breath tests. In future, these powers will be extended so that breath and-or oral fluid tests can be conducted. The checkpoints will henceforth be known as mandatory intoxicant testing, MIT, checkpoints. Other measures in Part 2 will underpin these proposals. For example, refusal to provide an oral fluid specimen when required will be an offence, as is the case now with refusal to provide a specimen of breath. Also, when taking a specimen at a Garda station in alcohol-related cases, a specimen of breath, blood or urine may be used. Scientific advice indicates that in order to establish recent drug use, a specimen of blood will be necessary. For this reason, in cases where there is a suspicion of breach of the new "presence only" offence for cannabis, cocaine and heroin, gardaí will be empowered to require a specimen of blood only.
The third part of the Bill contains only one section, which I consider to be very important. At present, the default speed limit in built-up areas is 50 km/h. However, a built-up area can mean a number of things. Some are long, straight roads which have houses on either side and which are significant arteries for traffic. Others may be small, winding roads in housing estates where there are children frequently playing near, or even on, the road. Of course, roads in built-up areas can be anything in between. The law recognises these distinctions by allowing local authorities to lower the limit on particular roads in built-up areas under their jurisdiction to 40 km/h or to 30 km/h, according to what is suitable to the circumstances. Members may be familiar with the Jake's Legacy campaign. This began in 2014, following the tragic death of six-year-old Jake Brennan, who was killed by a car outside his home in a housing estate in Kilkenny.The campaign has asked for a mandatory 20 km/h speed limit in built-up areas. While I fully sympathise with the Brennan family over their terrible loss, I believe local authorities are best placed to decide on a 20 km/h limit for all built-up areas and this is what I am introducing today.
Part 4 introduces a series of miscellaneous measures. These are largely technical changes which will improve the clarity of existing legislation in a number of respects. I am also introducing one new penalty point offence and providing that, in future, summary offences under the RSA (Commercial Vehicle Roadworthiness) Act 2012 will be brought within the fixed charge regime. Technical amendments are also made to some provisions in the 2010 Act.
In Part 5, I am providing the legislative underpinning for an agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications. Under EU law, drivers must receive their driving licences from the country in which they are ordinarily resident and can drive on that licence anywhere in the EU. If they are disqualified from driving in the country which issued their licence, they cannot drive anywhere else, given that they do not hold a valid driving licence. However, what happens if they are disqualified in another country that is not their country of residence? The question has particular relevance for us. For example, what if an Irish licence holder is disqualified from driving in the UK? There is an EU convention on driver disqualification which, if implemented, would ensure that disqualification anywhere in the EU would mean disqualification everywhere in the EU. However, the difference in legal systems throughout Europe has meant implementation has proven difficult. The convention allowed that any two member states could establish mutual agreements on disqualification ahead of the full implementation of the convention but within its framework. Ireland and the UK subsequently reached such an agreement, which was the only one of its kind in Europe. The EU decided that, as of December 2014, the operation of the convention on driver disqualification would come under the jurisdiction of the European Court. Given that the UK was unwilling to enhance the court's powers, it withdrew from the convention and, as a consequence, our agreement with it under the convention came to an end. Both the Irish and UK Governments were, however, keen to retain mutual recognition of driver disqualification. We therefore set about remaking our arrangements through a bilateral agreement outside the framework of the convention. This agreement was signed on 30 October 2015. In order for it to come into effect, we need legislation and that is what I have brought before the House today. The effect will be that Irish drivers who go to the UK and commit road traffic offences serious enough to lead to disqualification there will also be disqualified here. Likewise, UK licence holders disqualified here will be disqualified in the UK. This is to the benefit of both jurisdictions.
The measures I am proposing are a major step forward in combating driving under the influence of drugs. They also provide a significant new addition to the options available to local authorities in setting speed limits in built-up areas and the necessary legislative platform to give effect to a very valuable international agreement. These measures, and the other miscellaneous matters dealt with in the Bill, will make a contribution towards greater safety on our roads. I hope Senators will support these initiatives. As always, I look forward to hearing their views on them, seeing if there are opportunities to improve the Bill and to a positive and constructive discussion.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, Senator O'Sullivan, who is unavoidably absent due to an obligation to attend a meeting. I apologise on his behalf.
My party supports the Bill and strongly welcomes the main provisions it contains, in particular those relating to the creation of new offence of driving with certain specified drugs in the blood and to allow for roadside drugs testing by the Garda Síochána. The Bill is particularly timely in light of the increase in the numbers of road deaths in the past two years, as the Minister outlined. We also welcome the two other main provisions in the Bill, namely, the giving of legislative effect to the agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications and the creation of a new special speed limit of 20 km/h for local authorities to implement in built-up residential areas.
We regret the fact that the original plan to introduce new penalties for drivers who allow themselves to be distracted by messaging services - including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp - has been dropped from the Bill. The legislation was also intended to address weaknesses in the 2014 regulations based on primary legislation in 2006 governing texting while driving. These regulations, introduced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, aimed to close a loophole that allowed drivers to escape fines and penalties if they were caught texting on a phone that was resting in a cradle or via a hands-free kit. In a bid to deter drivers from this activity, the new offence would have attracted severe penalties, including a mandatory court summons and a fine instead of penalty points. It subsequently became clear, however, that these regulations did not close any loopholes and are considered unenforceable by gardaí. The numbers bear this out, with no court convictions in respect of the commission of such offences. This is because drivers rarely text with a phone in clear view and most hands-free kits are situated low within a vehicle. This means that unless a driver is observed texting while stopped at a junction, it is difficult to obtain enough evidence for a successful prosecution.
Driver error represents the single biggest contributory factor in road accidents, accounting for at least 80% of fatal collisions in recent years. Texting while driving is a major source of driver error and, in the past, legislation has been shown to have a significant preventative effect on mobile phone usage. Although it is regrettable that the Minister was obliged to drop the relevant measure from the Bill, I understand the reasons he has outlined, particularly the fact that he does not have enough time in the lifetime of the current Dáil. We hope that those in government after the general election will make it a priority to implement legislation in this regard.
I welcome the fact that the agreement between Ireland and the UK on mutual recognition of driver disqualifications is contemplated in the Bill. Could it be extended to penalty points on an all-island basis? Although there are technical and legal difficulties, it would contribute greatly to road safety. As someone from a Border area, it is obvious to me that when people drive Northern registered cars across into the Republic, they generally have no regard for the rules of the road, particularly the speed limits. This also applies to drivers going from the Republic to Northern Ireland. I would like if some progress could be made on this so that people from the North who commit road traffic offences here would be given penalty points, and vice versa. There is increasingly close co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána, as well as other agencies of this State and the North, regarding cross-Border crime.I would like that to be extended to safety issues, particularly in Border areas. It is a difficulty.
Another issue on which the Minister might comment relates to the resources provided by his Department to the Road Safety Authority and the number of officers designated to serve with the Garda traffic corps. I understand that said number was previously in the region of 1,200 but that this has been reduced to fewer than 800. We all agree that not as many checkpoints are being operated by the corps as should be the case. Perhaps the Minister could indicate to us the Government's plans - in conjunction with his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald - to increase the membership of the traffic corps. In terms of resources for the Road Safety Authority, I understand it could do with more personnel.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a very effective road safety education programme in schools. However, I understand it is no longer in operation. Perhaps it is something we could consider. There is a programme in Youthreach training centres which has a major emphasis on driver education and the driver theory test. I would like this to be extended to mainstream schools because it would be of significant benefit.
I very much welcome the Bill and we will support it. I wish it a speedy passage through the House and I thank the Minister.
As spokesperson on transport for the past five years, I have found the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to be very progressive. Under the previous Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the current incumbent, a great deal of legislation has been passed by the House during that period. The Road Traffic Bill 2016 will further improve the position regarding safety of our roads. I thank the Minister for bringing it before the House before the Dáil is dissolved for the general election. It is important that the legislation will come into effect.
Road safety has been a priority of the Government in the past five years. The Minister provided some statistics on fatalities. December 2015 was a bad month for Ireland but there has been a steady decrease in the number of deaths on our roads in the past ten years. One death is one too many and any legislation that can help is important.
I have a few points to make in respect of the Bill. As the Minister said, it deals with drug driving, the mutual agreement with the UK and special speed limits. The explanatory memorandum refers to section 22 and states that the amendment of section 7 of the principal Act will include an obligation on cyclists to provide, on demand, a name and address, etc., to a member of An Garda Síochána. Was it already the case that in law a cyclist did not have to give his or her name to a member of An Garda Síochána? I was amazed to read that amendment to the existing legislation.
In the context of the mutual agreement with the UK, I agree with Senator Wilson's comments on penalty points. We should try to enforce penalty points in the North and the Republic. When people cross the Border they think they have a licence to break whatever laws they want. If the Minister can, in conjunction with our colleagues in the North and the UK, introduce such a measure in the next Dáil or Seanad, he should do so.
The Minister referred to disqualification for a serious offence. What constitutes a serious offence? Does it involve being involved in a road traffic accident? If, as the Minister indicated, one is disqualified from driving in the country in which one lives, then that disqualification also applies to the UK. I am amazed by the fact that it is not possible to introduce legislation in this regard across the European Union. If one is disqualified from driving in the UK, that disqualification may not apply in Ireland. If one receives 12 penalty points here, then disqualification would technically apply in the UK because it has been applied here.
I welcome the provisions on special speed limits. It is a testament to young Jake Brennan, the Jake's Legacy campaign, his mother, Roseann, and his family and friends. The Minister proved he was caring by meeting Mrs. Brennan and her supporters. The Taoiseach met the family and discussed the matter. This is an important aspect and it shows that the Minister is now putting in place the ability for local authorities to act. Special funding was provided for special signs in Kilkenny, which refer to slow zones instead of ramps. The provision in this regard is very important provision and it is to be hoped that it will involve a great deal of self-regulation because we do not have the number of gardaí required to go into housing estates. The location of housing estates is a problem because those a 20 km/h speed limit cannot be imposed in those adjacent to main roads. It is important that the system is self-regulatory. If ramps and proper signage are in place, it is important that people observe the speed limit. What has happened in this instance is a testament to what people can do when they get a campaign going. The Jake's Legacy campaign proves this can be done.
The Bill lists five drugs which will be dealt with under the legislation. England, which has had similar legislation in place since 2014, lists eight drugs, including illicit and prescribed drugs. I hope the five drugs we have listed will cover what can be classed as drugs that can impair a person's ability to drive. Questions have been asked about prescribed and non-prescribed medicines. The information provided in some leaflets states that the medicine can make a person drowsy. There are blood alcohol limits. I note the Bill refers to drug limits, whether in respect of illicit or prescribed substances. I do not know enough about the matter. Is it safe to have any type of illicit drug in one's system? Why should there be a safe level? Should it not be the case that if a person has an illicit drug in his or her system, he or she should not be allowed to drive? The Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, sampled and tested 7,776 specimens of blood and urine taken from people involved in accidents over a five-year period from 2007 to 2011. It found that 70% of people involved in accidents had cannabis in their system and 50% had benzodiazepines in their systems. These statistics are alarming, as is the fact that such people were out driving on the roads. Almost 1,500 people a year were involved. This shows that we can make our roads safer if the proper resources are provided.
The Minister mentioned that he may make provision for the medicinal use of drugs. This has implications for non-prescribed medicines, such as cough medicine, antihistamines, etc. The information provided on the leaflets which accompany such products indicates that they make people drowsy. If a person is suspected of being under the influence of a drug, a sample will be taken by means of a saliva swab. If this test reveals the presence of drugs in a person's system, will he or she face the possibility of being disqualified from driving? I presume - the Bill does not state this - that all of the penalties would be the same as those relating to alcohol. The Minister should ease people's concerns about certain drugs. Does the Bill, which lists illicit or prescribed drugs, deal with other substances such as cough medicines?
The Minister has made provision for €800,000 to be spent on this issue and has allocated €500,000 to establish a toxicology programme. A further €200,000 will be allocated this year and €100,000 next year to purchase 150 devices at a cost of €700 each. I am alarmed to hear that one test will cost €15, whereas the cost of a breathalyser test for alcohol is only 16 cent. Lives may be saved, but the cost of taking a sample is significant.There are then further costs for lab testing and so on. I commend this great Bill and I also commend the Minister on being proactive in bringing the legislation before the House prior to the election. It is important that it be passed and I acknowledge the support of every Member in this regard. Jake's Legacy will be the Minister's legacy. He is a caring Minister who listened to the campaigners.
I welcome the Minister. He and I have had this discussion many times in various existences and I compliment him on all the work he has done on road safety, in particular, Jake's Legacy. The family campaigned outside Leinster House and I got Deputies and Senators to sign their petition. The parents, Roseann and Christopher, lost their six year old son, Jake, and I referred them to the Minister because I knew he would respond in a positive way. We could, however, go further. The 20 km/h speed limit is an excellent start but on a housing estate, all public areas belong to the residents and motorists should enter with their permission. This would mean property rights being reversed. People are not prosecuted for playing football on the road anymore but we could have a different view of the way motorists should conduct themselves in residential areas. I commend the Brennan family on pursuing their son's case through Parliament and I am delighted they are being rewarded today.
This problem can turn on one, as the Minister said. There had been 153 fatalities last year up to 21 December but there were 166 by the end of the year. This meant there were 13 fatalities in ten days or 1.3 a day. The roads for those ten days became three times more dangerous than they had been for the rest of the year. There had been 0.43 fatalities per day up to that date and then suddenly, there were 13 fatalities in ten days. That shows we can never relax about road safety. The non-use of seat belts is still a significant issue, for example. Could technology be used, in an extreme scenario, to prevent cars from starting unless seat belts are engaged? The Matthews bus company provides an extensive service between Dundalk and Drogheda and Dublin. Mr. Matthews has fitted alcohol locks on all his buses. He said that these cost a small percentage of the price of the bus but it gives a guarantee that if a person who has consumed alcohol tries to drive the bus, it will not start.
I welcome the Minister's move towards mandatory intoxicant testing. He explained it well in his contribution. However, there seems to be a loophole in the explanatory memorandum whereby lawyers could have their clients say, "Sorry, I was over such a limit but it was for medicinal purposes". They could plead their over-indulgence was for medicinal purposes. If that is the case, then one cannot drive, as the Minister said. Other tests will have to be introduced for drowsiness. There may be vehicle technology for drowsiness. I gather some technology can detect the eye movements of the driver and issue a warning. We are in a position to push to implement this technology because we do not have a vehicle manufacturing industry. The Minister can push road safety issues more strongly at international meetings than other Ministers. One has to deplore the interference with such technology by companies such as Volkswagen in the context of emissions. Technology is available which will recognise unforeseen obstacles and cut off the engine in order that drivers will not go off the road or hit people who have wandered on to the road.
I recently supervised a thesis on road safety in Ireland, which is in the process of completion, and I look forward to its publication. The author found a substantial difference between hospital injury statistics relating to road accidents and those gathered by the Garda. He estimated them at three times what is reported to the force. The problem may be more serious. As long we are both in Leinster House, I will keep the Minister apprised of this but I was disturbed that many road accidents are reported in hospitals but not to the Garda.
I, of course, welcome the closer links between the PSNI and the Garda on cross-Border road safety. There was a period when the road safety record of the Donegal and Cavan-Monaghan districts was much worse than the rest of the country. Something seems to have happened in the Border region. Other Senators referred to the consequences of that.
The Minister referred to how much he relied on the 2010 legislation but the explanatory memorandum states sections 34 to 37, inclusive, 42 and 50 were never commenced. The Oireachtas must inquire into this. A Minister introduces legislation on the advice of his or her officials and the Oireachtas passes it before the President signs it into law. Why is legislation not commenced? I asked some of my legal friends who said the worst case in this regard was the Child Care Act 1991. It was commenced piecemeal over a long period of years. Some of it was repealed in 2013 without ever being commenced. It is a fault of our parliamentary democracy that when we make a decision and the President agrees with us, it gets lost in the administrative system. The advice I received said that in Australia when a Bill has been assented to by the Governor General, it must come into operation by the 28th day after his or her assent. The legislation to which the Minister referred several times runs to 88 pages and I estimate ten of them have not been commenced even though it is six years since it was passed. The sense of urgency the Minister brings to this needs to be more widespread. I am advised it is difficult to find out what sections of all legislation have not been commenced. Whoever drafted the explanatory memorandum did the House a favour by drawing attention to the sections which had lain there without being implemented. This problem can blow up to the extent that it did in the final ten days of 2015 when 13 people died. Whatever prevented the commencement of the relevant sections of the 2010 legislation has to be tackled.
Having been a member of the banking inquiry, I worry about the insurance industry. There was dialogue between the industry and Ms Dorothea Dowling who was in charge of PIAB, which ensured lower claims costs than the industry. Now that the Central Bank is in charge of regulating of the industry, perhaps our mutual friend, Dr. Philip Lane, will address this. Should there be two types of insurance claim, one of which requires many lawyers? According to Ms Dowling, accidents claims pursued by lawyers cost between 40% and 50% more than those settled by the PIAB system. This is a massive cost. Whiplash claims in Ireland are much more expensive than on the adjacent island. We are trying to tackle of the loss of 166 people in a year but lawyers who frustrate the law and a bureaucratic system that prevents legislation from being commenced are not doing anybody in public life or among the citizenry many favours. The Taoiseach was asked about the review of the industry insurance in the context of floods.Although we installed flood protection, insurance premiums did not decrease. Although we have been making roads much safer, insurance premiums are rising rapidly. The insurance industry has a case to answer.
I wish the Minister every success in tackling the problem. If a jet went down and 166 people were killed, it would be a major event. This happens every year in Ireland and we have all probably been too slow to tackle it. This Minister has not been, and I commend him in that regard.
I welcome the Minister and commend him on the legislation. It is not before time that we start to drug test drivers, given that drug driving is rife. I hope it will be random drug testing, not just based on driver behaviour. It might even take some of our politicians off the road. I also welcome the reduction in the speed limits in certain housing estates, particularly where children are at play. While most people are responsible on the road, it takes only one impetuous driver to cause an accident.
The Minister mentioned cyclists. I have often meant to raise the issue of cyclists in Dublin. The city is wholly unsuitable for cyclists. They are a danger to themselves and traffic. While driving down a road with three or four lanes, one is conscious of what is in front of one and one has to take corrective action if something goes wrong. If there are cyclists to the right and left, and if one has to make a move, one of them will be in trouble. We do not have enough cycle lanes and cyclists are using the carriageway along with cars. It is a dangerous city in which to be a cyclist.
I will raise an issue I have previously raised with the Minister, namely, drivers aged over 70 who forget to renew their provisional licences and must, therefore, go through the driving test. The biggest problem with the driving test for a person in his or her 70s or 80s is the theory test. They do not use computers and do not understand the whole thing. They may have been driving for 40 years and have never managed to apply for a full licence but always renewed the provisional licence. All I ask is that the Minister allow them to get a licence and even allow them to get it for a period after which they must undergo a driving test. The theory test is the problem. I hope the Minister can understand this. I am not asking for a total amnesty, but just the opportunity to do a driving test without having to try to do a theory test which they have no way of doing.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for being here for Second Stage of the Bill. The Bill expands on existing legislation, specifically addresses drug driving and proposes a number of road traffic measures such as providing for the further lowering of speed limits in residential areas. It also provides for the recognition of driving disqualifications between Ireland and the UK and proposes miscellaneous amendments to the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2015.
I warmly welcome the Bill. For far too long, there has been no testing for drug driving. While we rightly have stringent drink driving laws and tests, we have largely ignored drug driving and how to deal with it. People driving under the influence of drugs cause accidents and injury to themselves and others, and it is crucial that the legislation be put in place to allow for drug testing of road users. Although we are not yet into the second month of 2016, several people have died on our roads. In 2015, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, 239 people died on our roads. We must do everything we possibly can to minimise the danger on our roads by implementing testing for drug driving. This will be a step in the right direction to improve safety on Irish roads.
The Bill provides for a new offence of driving or being in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle with the presence of certain illicit drugs, namely, cannabis, cocaine and heroin. It makes provision for preliminary testing of oral fluid for drugs by the Garda Síochána at the road side or in a Garda station. It empowers the Medical Bureau of Road Safety to supply the test devices for use by the Garda Síochána in preliminary drug testing.
As well as seeking to implement drug driving testing, the Bill implements a bilateral agreement which was agreed between Ireland and the UK and allows for the application of driving disqualifications for a number of specified road traffic offences committed by those normally resident, or holding a driving licence, in either jurisdiction. Where the offence was committed in the other jurisdiction, the agreement will ensure people who have driving disqualifications in the UK will have them recognised in Ireland and vice versa. The implementation of the agreement will help make our roads safer for all our road users.
I fully support the Bill and look forward to its implementation and the positive effects it will have in making our roads safer for all our road users.
I welcome the Minister. As my friend and colleague, Senator Wilson, indicated, Fianna Fáil welcomes the Bill. It has been in gestation for a long time, particularly in the context of the recognition of disqualifications in the two jurisdictions. I am particularly pleased the Minister has seen fit to introduce it in the Bill. As a result of the difference in signage between the North and South - miles in the North and kilometres in the South - when I cross the Border, as I frequently do, my mindset is geared towards kilometres when I go North and, sometimes, I have thought the journey was much longer or shorter, depending on the signage. There is not much the Minister can do about it. Would it be too far-fetched to suggest there could be dual signs in the Border counties that would show both miles and kilometres? I am not sure, but when kilometres were introduced, there may have been dual signage. Maybe it would be too expensive, given that the Government is buying the signage under contract on a standard, uniform basis. I am just suggesting it.
On the occasions on which I have travelled on the M1, North and South, in some instances, Northern drivers have been using it as a Formula 1 racetrack. I have seen the speeds they have been doing. I refer to private cars, as distinct from commercial traffic. I hope there will be greater enforcement on it. I do not want to inhibit cross-Border traffic or trade, and I do not want to be seen to single out Northern drivers. Irish drivers in the UK will probably have been adopting the same attitude, that they can do whatever speed they want given that they will not be penalised. I am not talking about parking but speeding.
In order to ensure the legislation will be effective, there might be discussions with the Garda in the short term, while the Bill is going through its preliminary introductory period. I am sure it will be a culture shock to some Northern drivers when they are stopped and told their penalty points in the North are effective in the South. There is not the same level of communication between the general public in the North and the South about what is happening in either jurisdiction. It is one of the unfortunate historical oddities. Perhaps the Minister could consider having a bilateral arrangement with the Northern authorities to inform the general public about the implications of the Bill.If one cannot do dual signage then it might be a way of conveying information specifically in the context of disqualifications and, as suggested, reducing the speed limit in residential areas from 30 km/h down to 20 km/h.
Also in terms of reduced speed limits in residential areas, I think I am right in suggesting that this has come about as a result of strenuous lobbying by parents of children and relatives of people who were killed in built-up areas. This again raises an issue, which I might have raised with the Minister before at a meeting of the Committee on Transport and Communications, about a review of speed limit signs throughout the island but especially in this jurisdiction. A speed limit of 20 km/h sounds fine to me but the technology used in modern cars means a person feels he or she is standing still when driving at such a speed. It lulls us all into a false feeling that we are going much slower when in fact we are driving faster than we should be, which is an aspect that cannot be addressed. I hope the 20 km/h speed limit works. I know that the Minister is doing it for the right reasons but I am not sure whether the initiative will work.
My last point is another signage issue. The Minister will be aware that throughout the country, when one enters a county, one can see large signs, which I think were introduced five or six years ago, stating how many people have died on the roads in that county in the previous year. There is a need to update those statistics as the signs do not seem to have been changed in recent years. I could be wrong but I have the impression that they have not been changed.
They are not gone completely. I still see them in some parts of the country. Perhaps a directive has been issued to get rid of the signs. I thought I saw them in some parts of the country but they were out of date. Perhaps the signs could be updated.
The extension of the law to stop people driving when under the influence of drugs is a vital part of the architecture of ensuring more lives will be saved. Although this is relatively simple and straightforward legislation, its contents are very significant and important in the overall context of what the Minister has outlined on many occasions in my presence and with which we all agree, which is that this legislation is about saving lives. Well done, Minister.
I thank the Acting Chairman and I thank all the Senators for the contributions they have offered this afternoon. I will go through each of them in turn.
Senator Wilson opened the debate. I thank him and his party for supporting this Bill because it is very important that we get the Bill enacted early in the year, particularly the provisions to test people who are intoxicated under the influence of drugs. The scrutiny and support of Members of the Oireachtas for this is very important.
On the first point Senator Wilson raised with me, which was also picked up by a number of colleagues in the debate, namely, penalty points being placed on an all-island basis, the technical and legal work to make something like this happen is very formidable, let alone political matters that might emerge from it. Work is under way between officials in my Department and those of the Northern Ireland Executive on some of the technical matters related to this. It is something that will take some considerable time to do. It is one of the reasons, in recognition of that, that I was eager to bring in as promptly as possible the legislation for the mutual disqualification of driving licences and the mutual recognition of disqualification of drivers in the circumstances that I referred to in my introductory speech. Bringing in such a measure will make a further contribution to dealing with the consequences of dangerous driving across the island.
On the comments made by the Senator on mobile devices, I have already acknowledged that this was something I decided not to progress within this Bill. To give a tangible example of some of the difficulties we encountered, an increasing number of cars that have been produced recently and are on the road have touchscreens built into the dashboard of the cars. The difficulty we had was how one would recognise the difference between the behaviour involved in using those touchscreens and that involved in using touchscreens for mobile devices. I have spent much time in this House and in the Dáil over the past 18 months having to deal with the consequences of legislation that was interpreted in ways that were different from how we thought at the time of drafting. When we identified difficulties in defining the use of mobile devices such that those difficulties were going to slow down the drafting of the legislation, I decided that the best thing to do was to continue with that work but incorporate it in a different and new Bill later on in the year while going ahead in the Bill before us with the work in the areas in which we believe the ambiguity is low and manageable. That is the approach I have taken.
The Senator made a point about resources for the Road Safety Authority and the traffic corps. My view has always been that I want to see the size of the traffic corps increased in line with the increase in the level of recruitment available to the Garda Síochána and the increase in total head count within the force. That said, we need to guard against the view that road safety work is purely the work of the traffic corps. We have made great progress in ensuring it is an area all members of Garda Síochána now take very seriously and see as part of their core policing work. Even as we increase the size of the traffic corps, which we will do over time, I do not want that to be at the expense of the focus that all other members of Garda Síochána place against road safety.
Senator O'Neill raised a very substantive issue about prescription drugs, the effect they can have on people driving safely and the need to recognise this in the Bill. It is a fundamental point because it leads on to the delineation we have made between different substances. We are saying in the case of a certain number of substances that their mere presence in the system of anybody who is tested for them by the Garda is so serious that it becomes a road traffic offence. For other drugs, impairment is the relevant test, which is the way we would deal with many prescription drugs. If a person uses prescription drugs in line with how they are prescribed to him or her, his or her driving should not be impaired. If he or she believes his or her driving is becoming impaired or that he or she is not safe on the road due to prescription drugs that have been consumed, the responsibility is with the driver. That is why we have a very clear demarcation between some drugs, the mere presence of which in a person's system is a road traffic offence, and other drugs which, if used below a certain level, should not lead to impairment. If they do not, a person is not committing a road traffic offence.
Senator O'Neill made other points about the recognition of penalty points on an all island basis, which I covered in response to Senator Wilson. Senator O'Neill also raised the issue of the lower 20 km/h speed limit and the role of the Jake's Legacy campaign group in this regard. I always acknowledge, as I do here again, the contribution made by the group. What the group seeks is different from what I am bringing in through this Bill. Part of the reason for that touches on Senator Mooney's contribution, which I will come on to, in that because 20 km/h is a low speed limit, it is important that it should only be introduced via local authorities, which is the way the vast majority of speed limits are set in the State.It is important that because 20 km/h is a low speed limit, it should only be introduced via local authorities, which is the way the vast majority of speed limits are set in the State. As it is introduced, particularly in residential communities, it is important that everybody be aware that this is happening and that this is a low speed limit. However, we have evidence that such a speed limit, particularly in residential settings, can play a role in making them even safer and secure than they are at present.
Senator Barrett broadly supported the Bill and raised a number of issues I have touched on in responding to other Senators. One issue I did not comment upon was property rights and the Senator's suggestion that everything on a housing estate be covered by the property rights of the home owners within the estate. One difficulty is that roads and, in many cases, pathways are public property. We would need to think carefully before relinquishing them to become part of the private property rights of residents but we can debate this issue as the Bill moves through the House. The Senator also mentioned the role technology can play in making cars safer and acknowledged that we are being clear that the mere presence of certain drugs above a particular level will be an offence. If specific drugs are used in the way they are prescribed, drivers should not be impaired.
Senator Kelly raised a number of issues regarding cycling. I differ with him in that I believe the vast majority of cycling routes in our city are safe for cyclists and other road users. There is, however, an ongoing need to invest in proper infrastructure to make cycling as safe as possible. I recognise the Senator's persistence because every time I have been in the House, he has raised one issue. If he is raising it on behalf of constituents, they can rest well assured that he has been an ongoing advocate on their behalf on this matter. I am afraid I am still not in a position to give him the answer he wants because it is important that people seeking a full driving licence should have passed the theory test.
I thank Senator Comiskey for welcoming the Bill and much that is in it.
Senator Mooney acknowledged the time involved in drafting the Bill. It is not simple legislation and significant work has gone into getting it to this point. That has taken time. The Senator raised the issue of penalty points being applied on an all-island basis. I covered that matter in response to Senator Wilson. Work on this matter would be formidable and it would take a great deal of time. It is important that we can move forward in those areas on which there is agreement and the recognition of disqualified drivers is one.
The Senator also raised the issue of using signage with distances outlined in both kilometres and miles. I am reluctant to go down that route because we have made such progress in explaining to the public what the speed limits are in different zones and we would exacerbate matters were we to put two different numbers on the same sign. We would only add to the confusion rather than reduce it because motorists might have to pause to understand the speed limit in both miles and kilometres. The Senator has previously raised with me, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, the need for speed limits to be coherent. He named a particular road in this regard. That is why we are reviewing speed limits across the country through local authorities and TII. One of the objectives I set in initiating the review is to ensure speed limits are as coherent as possible on a single road. However, if a road passes through an area that has no commercial or residential activity, a particular speed limit may be appropriate but when the same road passes through a town, city or community, that has to be taken into account when the local authority or TII set the speed limit for that area.
Indeed. Those speed limits will be reviewed by TII and the relevant local authority. There is good reason for those speed limits currently. Nonetheless, speed limits throughout the country are being reviewed as part of a process I put in place last year.
I thank all Senators for their contributions. The legislation represents a major step forward, particularly in the area of drug driving. I do not believe this is the last time we will legislate in this area because there will be changes in technology and we will go through experiences on our roads, in the courts and in the Oireachtas that will give rise to the need to refine and amend this legislation in the future. This is not by any means the end of the road regarding this new area of road traffic legislation but it is a solid foundation, which, when implemented, will save lives and it is one on which we can build as technology improves and as our understanding of road behaviour improves.