Tuesday, 10 July 2018
Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage
I am very grateful for the opportunity to introduce the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill in this House. In other circumstances, saying so might sound like a cliché to some, but it is certainly not in this case, for two reasons. First, this is a focused and important Bill, which will save lives. Second, it is a Bill which should have reached this House long before now and would have, but for the reprehensible tactics of a small minority who were determined to delay its passage through the Dáil. This is why I am grateful, in every sense, to be in a position to present this Bill to the Seanad today. I know it will be taken seriously by Members of this House and I am grateful for that.
Road safety is one area of policy which is almost never a matter of ideology or political preference. We all want to make our roads safer for all of our people. We may disagree over how best to achieve our goals, but we generally do so in a spirit of pragmatism, with an understanding that all of us want to find ideas which will work. There are many factors involved in road safety. Vehicle standards, road conditions and above all driver behaviour have an impact on how safe our roads are. All of us as public representatives will have encountered the tragic consequences of a failure to deliver on road safety, through meeting with those bereaved or seriously injured due to road traffic incidents. We cannot forget that we are talking about people here, not statistics.
In the past two decades, we have seen a large drop in the number of deaths on our roads. In 1997, there were 472 road deaths in Ireland. Twenty years on, in 2017, we had 157, the lowest annual figure on record. This is a remarkable turnabout, particularly considering the increasing number of vehicles on our roads. Many people, many organisations and many initiatives were involved in achieving this success. No one, however, is complacent. We are still talking about 157 people who need not have died but did. Imagine if 157 people died in a single fire; it would impact on the national consciousness for decades. The same number of unnecessary deaths should have no less effect on us when spread over a whole year. I assure the House that neither I nor anyone else working in the area of road safety is going to let up the pressure to keep reducing the number of tragedies on our roads.
The Bill which I am introducing today is very focused. It will address two core issues, namely, drink driving and driving by unaccompanied learners. I am happy to say that there has been strong support for this Bill from road safety experts and advocates, including the RSA, the AA, Drinkaware, the Irish Road Victims Association and the PARC Road Safety Group.
First, let me talk about drink driving. We all know that alcohol impairs driving ability. The World Health Organization has examined the matter in detail and set out the evidence to show that even small amounts of alcohol can have a significant impact on driving ability. I do not think this is surprising. Even a little alcohol can dull people’s reaction times, and when it comes to a car in front braking suddenly or a child running onto the road, quick reactions can mean the difference between life and death.
In 2010, our national legislation on drink driving was overhauled. By and large, this served us well. In particular, the 2010 legislation reduced the legal alcohol limit for drivers from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood. In light of the international evidence on the effects of low levels of alcohol - evidence which has only increased since 2010 - this was a very sensible change. Unfortunately, there was a very unacceptable compromise made back in 2010. It was meant to be a matter of principle that all instances of drink driving would lead to a disqualification. The 2010 legislation however allowed that people in the new lower bracket of 50 mg to 80 mg of alcohol could in some circumstances receive penalty points rather than a disqualification. This was done to appease some people who were opposed even to the lowering of the limit. This was wrong. It was wrong to compromise the principle. It was wrong to allow people who had driven while over the limit to receive no disqualification and be able to drive away with a handful of penalty points. Finally, it sent very much the wrong message. It suggested that "a little drink driving" was no great harm.
I believe that we have to rectify this mistake. What I am proposing is to replace the three penalty points which people in this situation currently get with a three month disqualification. Some people say this is harsh. I say that the consequences of serious behaviour must be serious. There is a further reason for doing this; hardly anyone goes from being a sober driver to being three or four times over the limit in one leap.If we do not apply serious consequences to drink-driving when the alcohol levels are low, we increase the chance that people's behaviour will escalate and that they will eventually drive with far higher amounts of alcohol in their systems. We can have a great effect on the more dangerous behaviour by nipping it in the bud. We are not talking about small numbers. Between 2012 and 2016, 3,003 fixed penalty notices were issued to drivers in the 50 mg to 80 mg bracket. In 2017, the trend continued, with April 2017 showing the highest number of arrests for drink-driving of any month in five years. We need to reverse this trend and ensuring that all drink-driving merits a disqualification will help to do this.
The second matter addressed in this Bill is driving by unaccompanied learners. While this was not addressed in the original Bill, as published and introduced in the Dáil, I made clear that it was always my intention to address it and I introduced amendments to the Bill as it passed through the Dáil to deal with this dangerous behaviour. Learner drivers are required by law to have a qualified accompanying driver with them. All too many learners ignore this legal requirement. This cannot be acceptable. Driving is not a right; it is a responsibility. If someone wants to be licensed to drive on our roads, he or she must go through the learning process and pass a test to prove that he or she can safely be allowed to drive alone on our roads. This is in the interests of the entire road-using public, including the learner.
The consequences of learners driving unaccompanied were exemplified by the tragic case of Geraldine and Louise Clancy, a mother and daughter killed when their car was hit by a vehicle driven by an unaccompanied learner in December 2015. This appalling incident, like so many needless tragedies on our roads, should never have happened. It was in light of this that the Oireachtas decided, in passing the Road Traffic Act 2016, to create a new offence for the owner of a vehicle used by an unaccompanied learner. The Clancy family drew attention to the fact that the law currently applies no responsibility to the owner of a vehicle who allows an unaccompanied learner to take it out on the road. This cannot be right. If it is illegal for a learner to drive unaccompanied, the person who provides the vehicle is facilitating illegal activity. The Oireachtas therefore decided that in cases in which a learner drives unaccompanied, the owner of the vehicle, if it is someone other than the learner, must be held accountable.
The amendment inserted into the 2016 Act was an Opposition amendment which I supported, but I made clear at the time that I would have to take legal advice before commencing it. I undertook to amend it if necessary before commencement. Subsequent legal advice indicated a number of flaws in the 2016 provision. I therefore decided to repeal and replace the provision to give effect to the policy intention behind it. The key changes which I am making to the 2016 provision are recasting of the provision to reflect more appropriate legal language; extension of the provision to cover cases in which a driver is unlicensed as well as in which the driver is an unaccompanied learner; changing of the penalty in the interests of proportionality; and extension of Garda powers of detention of vehicles to cover cases in which the driver is an unaccompanied learner. I will explain each of these briefly.
The first point is self-explanatory. We all know that legal language is not the same as everyday language, and sometimes a provision which may seem clear in lay terms needs to be refined to ensure the intended effect in law.
On the second point, making it an offence for an owner to let an unaccompanied learner drive his or her vehicle without making it an offence to let an unlicensed person drive the same vehicle would create an anomaly. I ask the House to imagine a scenario in which a person was to be charged for letting an unaccompanied learner drive a car that person owned and the person offered the defence that the driver was not a learner but entirely unlicensed.
The third change concerns the penalty. In 2016, the penalty proposed for the owner of a vehicle driven by an unaccompanied learner was a fine of a maximum of €2,000 and-or a term of imprisonment of up to six months. The law must be proportionate. In this case, the primary offence is committed by the learner who drives unaccompanied, and the owner of the vehicle is a facilitator. We cannot make the owner's penalty higher than that for the driver. An unaccompanied learner faces the general penalty under the Road Traffic Acts. This is a fine of up to €1,000 for a first offence, up to €2,000 for a second or subsequent offence, and up to €2,000 and-or up to three months in prison for a third or subsequent offence within a three-month period. The 2016 provision meant that the owner would face a more severe penalty than the unaccompanied learner. Following legal advice on what would be proportionate, in light of the penalty for the learner and the wider scale of penalties for road traffic offences, I have decided that a class D fine, which is a fine of up to a maximum of €1,000, would be the most appropriate penalty in this case.
Finally, I also propose to amend section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994, which empowers gardaí to detain a vehicle in a range of circumstances in order that they can detain a vehicle where the driver is an unaccompanied learner. The vehicle will be taken to a pound and the owner can then retrieve it on payment of a charge for the cost of transporting and storing the vehicle.
Some critics have talked about the difficulties which might be caused if we took firm action against learners driving unaccompanied. I make no apology for taking firm action to deter behaviour which is illegal, and which is illegal because it is dangerous. I would much prefer if people obeyed the law and acted safely and responsibly. If they will not do so, we must deter them.
I am also taking the opportunity to make a few small technical corrections to existing legislation. There are cross-references to section 11(5) of the Road Traffic Act 2010 in sections 13A and 13B of that Act. Due to previous changes to section 11, these references should be to subsection (6) and I am correcting them in this Bill. Section 78A of the Road Traffic Act 1961 lists information to be provided by motor insurers to gardaí and to me as Minister. One piece of information concerned is referred to as the "licence number". This should be the driver number and the Bill will correct that. The distinction here is that a licence number changes each time a licence is renewed, whereas a driver number remains the same over a person's driving career.
What we need, ultimately, is a culture change on drink-driving and unaccompanied learner driving. It would be better if we did not need to deter these behaviours and if we could rely on people to behave responsibly. In time, I hope more and more people will do so. However, we can help to bring about that culture change by ensuring that seriously dangerous behaviour, such as getting behind the wheel while over the limit or while unaccompanied and on a learner permit, leads to serious consequences.
I thank the House once again for the opportunity to present this Bill. In particular, I thank Senators for taking the Bill so soon after it came through the Dáil. The behaviours it addresses - drink-driving and learners driving unaccompanied - are dangerous and already illegal. We need to take measures to clamp down on these activities and we will save lives in doing so. I therefore urge the House to support the Bill and ensure its speedy passage in order that we can move to enact its provisions as soon as possible.
I will not take up anything like that amount of time. I welcome the Minister to the House. Clearly, this Bill has been thrashed out at excruciating levels in the Lower House, and I do not propose or anticipate that there would be a similar filibustering in this House. At least, it will not come from the Fianna Fáil side because we support the Bill. In fact, it was Fianna Fáil in government that initially brought in strict regulations that addressed the question of drink-driving. We are cognisant that drinking and driving are incompatible and on that we are at one with the Minister. It is regrettable that the Clancy amendment, which was agreed, I think, in December 2016, concerning unaccompanied learner drivers, has taken so long to come before us in the shape of a Bill. In the intervening period, as the Minister will know, I understand 11 deaths related to unlicensed drivers have occurred. I do not know why there was a delay but it was very regrettable.
I have been podcasting my local radio station, Radio Kerry, all morning. The big issue there seems to be not so much the new regulations on alcohol consumption but the question of learner drivers and how the Bill will affect family life. I will not go down the old road of "rural Ireland" and so on, but there is a big difference between a young person who has an L plate in Dublin and a fella who has an L plate in Kerry and who may have to travel 25 to 30 miles and back again for work every day.There is a big difference between a young person driving with an L plate in Dublin and a young person driving with an L plate in Kerry. The latter may have to travel between 25 and 30 miles every day to and back from work. With this Bill, that individual will have to be accompanied by a parent, a sibling or a good friend who is a qualified driver to work and home again in the evening. That is not a proper basis for normal living. The Minister will agree the crux is the delay and backlog in driver testing opportunities for young people. This has to be addressed as a matter of urgency. People want to qualify and be licensed to drive. We expect there will be some waiting period bur if we are going to give credibility to the Bill, we will have to work on the supply side and ensure young people have the chance to qualify fully at the earliest opportunity. I hope getting all and every additional revenues required to bring this about will be a priority for the Minister.
Much controversy has arisen over the debate on this Bill in the Lower House. My two Kerry colleagues, Deputies Danny and Michael Healy-Rae, were to the fore in those debates. Whereas we do not agree on everything, I must say the media did not treat them fairly on this issue. It was unfortunate that the Minister found himself at loggerheads with both of them over an ongoing period which personalised the debate to a certain extent. They are solidly rooted in their constituency and represent the views of their constituents remarkably well. While I may not necessarily agree with everything they say, they are putting up a strong rearguard action for the rights of rural dwellers. The positive element for the Minister to take out of this is that he is getting support and we must put an end to drink-driving. However, we have to give fair play to the young learner driver in a rural area. He must have every access to allow him to qualify to drive to ensure he is compliant with regulations and can go to his place of work and back without inflicting a significant burden on his parents or friends.
Fianna Fáil will support the Bill.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ross.
I support and welcome this legislation. The Minister has presented the rationale for it well. This is a human life and human dignity issue. It is one of those issues where we see the law must sometimes act in a way to deter behaviours, even behaviours which can be understandable in certain circumstances, which create dangers. This legislation flows from a respect for life agenda. I regret that in other areas the Government has not shown a similar respect for life in recent times. I do not intend to dwell on that but I will support this legislation in a full-hearted way.
It is welcome and sensible to reduce the permitted legal alcohol limit from 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg per 100 ml. The Minister is correct that it was anomalous, although he did not use that word, to reduce that limit but, at the same time, to distinguish between providing penalty points for convictions where the alcohol limit was over 50 mg but under 80 mg and only to provide for disqualification after that.
Drinking, whether socially or to excess, is an issue we all have to think about. We have a national alcohol problem. There are other areas of policy which need to be looked at seriously. The association between alcohol sales and marketing, as well as significant cultural and sporting events continues to the detriment of the common good. There is much doublethink in public commentary which continues. On the one hand, lipservice is paid to the fact that there is a national drink problem while, at the same time, there is a constant social referencing to drink in a way that tends to encourage, unintentionally but very definitely, drinking to excess. It is still a source of humour that people drink to excess sometimes. This must be reflected upon. There is much change needed in the way that alcohol is sold in our shops and off-licences.
This is welcome legislation which addresses that in some ways. However, everybody has found themselves in the situation that once they take a drink at all, they wonder if they are at the point where it is no longer safe to drive. That is a dicey situation in which to find oneself. Even though it will require a change of behaviour among many people, we all would accept that were it to be completely illegal to take any drink and drive, that would be no bad thing, particularly as there is no easy way of taking a drink and then finding out whether it is still safe to drive. The law is as it is and provides for certain limits. Due to this fluidity, however, between having had some and having had too much, as well as the way in which people can progress from drinking a little to drinking a lot, there has to be a clear and consistent law. That requires disqualification if one is over the permitted legal limit. Accordingly, I 100% welcome that provision.
I disagree with the way the Minister has characterised the opposition from some quarters in recent days. I know sometimes parliamentary opposition to his Department’s proposals or proposals from other Departments but pursued by the Minister with vigour can seem vexatious and annoying. Where people believe themselves to be representing important social goods, such as issues relating to loneliness in rural Ireland, they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. That is not to say the Minister must cave into what they say but they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. The Minister said they have a heavy cross to bear because of their opposition to the legislation. I personally think that is a little bit harsh. The Minister said that they bear some kind of responsibility should there not be an eventual reduction in road deaths as a result of this legislation and it having been delayed because of their opposition. The Minister placed too much of a burden on parliamentarians when he tried to close down their ability to debate legislation in that way. That is a matter of personal opinion. People are entitled to take whatever view they want of the motivation for people's parliamentary utterances. I certainly do think there was a debate to be had.
I come down on the side of the need to provide for automatic disqualification if one is above the legal alcohol limit. I believe the measure concerning unaccompanied learner drivers is also sensible. However, the Minister has made a change whereby this offence on the part of the owner of the vehicle is extended to cover cases where a driver is unlicensed. Will this apply to situations where a person let their licence lapse for whatever reason?Perhaps it is clear in the Bill and I have not read closely enough. I say that because I have to admit that once upon a time I let my driving licence lapse for a period of years without even knowing I had done so. If I was capable of not knowing my driving licence was not up to date, I would feel sorry for the owner-----
The penalty I paid was that certain penalty points I had on my licence continued. The expiration of the three-year period was frozen for the period I did not have a licence, naturally and logically enough. I was looking forward to penalty points going off my licence at a certain date, only to realise that date was delayed by a considerable period because, without knowing it, I did not have an up-to-date driver's licence. I would like to know the answer to that question because it would be unfair to prosecute the owner of a car who allowed in good faith a person to drive, believing him or her to be licensed on the basis he or she had been in the past, where that licence had expired, perhaps without the person even knowing it. I would be interested in hearing a bit more about what possible defences exist around that provision of the Bill.
I want to speak briefly on this Bill, which I support. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and I listened to all this debate at pre-legislative stage as well. I listened to some of the circus that took place in the Lower House in the past few weeks. I very much support the Bill. I would have started out by asking if there is need to change the law in this area but have listened to the debate and informed myself. Having listened to the families affected and their campaign, I congratulate them on the way they made themselves heard. When one looks in from outside, one can only imagine what the trauma is like. They articulated it very well on the airwaves and elsewhere, and certainly convinced me and any reasonable people along the way that there is need for change.
The Minister clarified that what is changing are the penalties, not the legal limits. A three month suspension is proportionate here as well. That should definitely be supported. Many red herrings were brought in about the dangers. During the pre-legislative scrutiny in committee, it was suggested that if one had a big meal, one could fall asleep at the wheel. That is an issue too, but it is not dealing with the issue of penalties for being over the legal limit for alcohol.
I concur with Senator Ned O'Sullivan's comments on unaccompanied drivers. The driving test waiting times are an issue. I know the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is making extra efforts to shorten those waiting times. Many people book driving tests but do not turn up for them. I know the RSA has people working to try to pre-empt that and speed up the process. It is really important that this happens. On the one hand, this law will be implemented where one will need an accompanying driver but if one has to wait months and months for a driving test, and then has to redo it if one does not pass, it causes all kinds of problems logistically for families.
There was a legitimate point on drink-driving penalties and suspensions rather than penalty points. Whatever resources are needed for the Garda to implement the laws as much as possible are important. In general terms, I would be very supportive of this Bill.
I welcome an tAire to the Seanad. I am delighted to be here and hope that this Road Traffic Bill passes. I welcome the members of the Irish Road Victims Association, IRVA, Ms Margaret Kavanagh and her colleagues, who have all experienced first hand the heartbreak, trauma and pain of the tragic loss of their loved ones.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this amendment Bill, which I will support. It is designed to change the penalty for those found to be driving with blood alcohol levels above 50 mg and below 80 mg. This is already an offence for which the penalty is a fine along with three penalty points. The Bill does not propose to change the legal limits for drink-driving. Only the penalty would change, which will include disqualification. It should be a zero-alcohol level. I support the Bill because it sends a message that drink-driving is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable, which we have been educated about by the IRVA and the RSA. We have become aware of the danger that driving on our roads after drinking poses. We have a poor record in this State for deaths on our roads. We have come a long way in the past decade. However, there has been a worrying trend in the past few years with the number of annual deaths rising due to road traffic. The numbers are creeping up. Sadly, over the past several years, the number of people dying on our roads is increasing. There are many reasons for this, including poor roads, careless drivers, phone technology, drink-driving and drug-driving, and the slashing of the Garda traffic corps.
In recent years, drink-driving has become less acceptable. We need to work towards a society where drink-driving is universally condemned but we are not there yet. This was clear in recent months with the attitude of some public representatives whose statements were unbelievable and dangerous, to say the least. Some Members have been jumping up and down over this Bill claiming they are concerned about protecting rural Ireland. A Bill which seeks to impose harsher punishments on those caught drinking and driving is not an attack on rural life. Indeed, those most at risk of being killed in collisions where alcohol is a factor are those living in rural areas. I am sympathetic to those living in rural and isolated regions who do not have adequate access to transport links. It is a disgrace that 93,000 households do not have access to public transport, and I have raised it on several occasions.
The Bill underwent pre-legislative scrutiny at the transport committee. That process was hijacked by some committee members, as well as non-committee members who oppose the legislation. Those on both sides of the argument appeared before the committee. The only interest group to give evidence against the legislation was, surprise surprise, the vintners' group. Its reason for having an interest in this is obvious. To my colleagues who claim they oppose these matters because of rural decline, I say that if the best method they can come up with to address the issue is to argue that rural people should receive a softer punishment for drink-driving, I despair. It is quite disturbing that elected representatives care more about the votes in their constituencies than their constituents' lives and safety. Politicians need to show leadership and do the right thing. They are many other measures we can introduce to help people in the rural areas including transport links and expansion of the transport network. People are entitled to be able to travel safely and efficiently. This Bill's measures will not solve any of the problems faced by those who do not have access to adequate services, but it will help to reduce the incidence of drink-driving.
In 2007, there were 1,200 members of the traffic corps. Will the Minister indicate how many there are now? Many people drive from home and from pub to pub, in rural areas in particular, knowing they will never come across a checkpoint.This is a deterrent and we need to act to increase those numbers. I call on the Minister to roll out measures, not just for the three weeks of Christmas, but which are sustained throughout the year. I will support Bill and I hope the Minister will take my comments on board. The Bill is a further step towards road safety and the saving of lives and I wish it well on its passage through the Oireachtas.
I will leave it like that. I welcome the Bill as I would welcome any measure that reduces road fatalities. There is some misunderstanding about the legislation, however. It has been suggested that it represents a reduction of the alcohol limit when, in fact, it does not. It is simply the case that it changes the penalties. A privilege has been extended to particular drivers who are first-time drink driving offenders over the 50 mg limit but below the level of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood in that they were allowed to receive penalty points as an alternative to disqualification under section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 2010. This mitigation is being removed by the Act, which is reasonable. However, I ask the Minister what evidence there is of people between 50 mg and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood being involved in fatal road crashes. There may very well be such evidence, but I have not heard it and would like to know what is there.
We are getting very close to a situation in which one glass of wine puts one over the limit and I do not know why, in a sense, we do not go the whole hog and provide that one cannot take a drink and drive at all. That appears to me to be the logical step if there is evidence. The Bill proposes to replace the penalty points with a three-month disqualification where the person pays a fixed-penalty notice, which is appropriate in view of the situation. I queried with someone how many accidents were caused between the 50 mg and 80 mg level and I was told that, in fact, accidents did not so much involve the people who had one glass of wine, but rather people who had hangovers. If one goes out on a real booze up, one will still have a residue of alcohol in one's system the next day. I wonder if there is any way to differentiate between people who are suffering from a hangover as opposed to people who have taken a couple of glasses of wine and are over the limit.
Another matter addressed by the Bill is the question of learner drivers driving without an accompanying qualified driver. Although they have been required to have an accompanying person since 2007, the practice of driving unaccompanied continues apace. I refer to the Clancy amendment. It is the most horrifying thing for a poor unfortunate man to lose both a wife and a child to what I believe was an unaccompanied driver. It is a shocking thing to happen and I cannot comprehend the grief which that gentleman must have experienced. I note that the provisions of section 41, which allow An Garda Síochána to detain a vehicle in certain circumstances such as where it is untaxed or uninsured or the driver is disqualified from driving, will be extended to permit the seizure and detention of a vehicle driven by an unaccompanied learner. In that context, I raise with the Minister the question of Lucia O'Farrell who has raised with me over a number of years the tragic death of her son, Shane. He was killed when he was flung onto the road and the driver continued on and concealed the car. That driver was a drug addict who had more than 40 convictions. Not only that, this person had only one hour before been stopped by gardaí while driving a vehicle which was untaxed and uninsured. Nevertheless, they let him go on his way. I would like to be reassured that these matters will be addressed by An Garda Síochána and not just by legislators. Gardaí must take this on board in circumstances in which a young man who had a brilliant legal mind and who was an athlete of considerable talent should be flattened on the roadway in this manner. I would like the Minister to take up actively a full independent inquiry, as sought by Mrs. O'Farrell, into the circumstances of that death.
Another thing that occurred to me during the discussion today was the situation mentioned by Senator Rónán Mullen whereby a person might accidentally forget to renew his or her licence. In the old days, one used to get a reminder that one's licence was expiring. I would like the Minister to ensure that people get a reminder, which is not much to ask given that we have to pay a hefty fee for a driving licence. I do not think I am allowed to get one anymore because I have got so terribly old, but I used to get a ten-year licence. At the end of ten years, one does not realise one's licence is gone. I ask the Minister, therefore, to provide for a situation whereby one gets a reminder automatically that one's licence is expired. It is not too much to expect.
The Minister referred to recasting the provisions in law to reflect more appropriate legal language. He said we all know legal language is not the same as everyday language and that sometimes a provision which seems clear in lay terms needs to be refined to ensure the intended effect in law is created. That is fair enough and it is a good point. However, I ask the Minister to ensure that the law is understandable by ordinary people. Last night, we had a situation with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 which contained a disastrously drafted section. The language of the provision was opaque and stylistically it was horrible. Grammatically, it was completely and utterly wrong and no one in the House seemed to know what it meant. We need to be able to know what legislation means. It should not be beyond the wit of man to construct something that is both legally accurate and appropriate and understandable by the ordinary citizens of Ireland.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank the families who have supported him through their campaign for this legislation. The fact that they shared publicly their stories and losses helped the Minister to get this Bill as far as it has come. I thank the Minister for his diligence, bravery and efforts to ensure the legislation got to this House on Second Stage. I thank his staff for their work on the legislation also. I welcome the Bill and I give the Minister an undertaking that my colleagues and I will do everything we can to ensure the Bill passes on Second Stage today, which it will, Committee Stage and, hopefully, Report and Final Stages before we rise for the summer vacation to allow the President to sign it into law. I believe firmly that it will save lives. It is a good day for the Minister to have brought the legislation this far and I look forward to it passing next week. If there is anything I can do to assist it going through the House as speedily as possible, I will do it.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I respond firstly by thanking all the Members for what has been quite a new experience for me, namely, a mature, sensible, reflective, understanding and sympathetic hearing for the Bill. It has happened in a calm atmosphere. I understand fully those who have asked questions and expressed reservations on the Bill, but the fact that it will pass with, possibly, unanimity, albeit I do not want to anticipate anything, is a tribute to the fact alluded to by Senator John O'Mahony that this is a very interesting Bill.Normally when Bills go to the Dáil or the Seanad, there is a fair idea where they will go, where the opposition will come from and what the result will be. This Bill has had an interesting journey. Senator O'Mahony will not mind if I refer to him, and I am open to contradiction, but he is reflective of a number of people who have also had an interesting journey on this issue. That journey is that it probably started with a majority of Deputies in a reflex action - I do not know about the number of Senators - and under a huge amount of pressure from the Vintners Association of Ireland being instinctively against it because they felt that in some way it was an attack on rural Ireland, which it is not, and deprived people of the right to drink a certain amount without severe penalties. What has happened, and I do not claim any credit for it, is that gradually over the length of time the Bill has taken to get through the earlier Stages there has been a process of public persuasion and of persuasion of Deputies and Senators, and many of them have changed their minds. That is something I very much welcome. The change of mind by at least one political party on this Bill during these debates is quite unusual and I welcome it.
A lot of this has been due to the fact that the pressure for the passage of this Bill came from outside the political arena, not inside it. I pay tribute, as everybody else has, to the fact that the reason this Bill has changed in atmosphere and moved opinion is because the victims groups, who are in the Public Gallery today, took such an active part. To see those civil society, during the passage of a Bill such as this, putting their point of view, exerting public pressure and enlightening people who were not aware of all sorts of circumstances and changing that view is something that is very welcome. That is quite apparent here today in the general welcome that this Bill has been given. We should say "yes". Those who have been tragically affected by the consequences of drink-driving have been the most persuasive force in ensuring that this Bill eventually comes through. People stopped, sat back, thought about it, met them and said that this is the right thing to do. It took a lot of courage because I know that large numbers of people came under pressure from vintners. Every Deputy, including even myself, got a letter from vintners asking them to vote against this Bill. There was a systematic lobby which was gradually resisted and in the end very few people decided to take the route of the lobbyists and eventually took the route of their party or the route which their individual conscience persuaded them to take. That is a welcome exercise in democracy.
I will address some of the issues which were raised. I take Senator Ned O'Sullivan's point when he says that the L plate is different in Dublin than in Kerry. It is obviously the same but what he is saying is that it has different effects in Kerry than in Dublin. That is a point that was well made. It has been made in the Lower House ad nauseam. I realise, as does anybody who is involved in promoting this Bill, that the effect of some of the measures we are taking is different and that there is the appearance that this Bill will have more dramatic effects in the country than in urban Ireland. I say two things to that. I am sure that the Senator is aware of the fact that there are far more deaths in rural Ireland as a result of alcohol and driving than there are in the urban part of Ireland. If the Senator wants to apportion it, he would say that it is hoped that this would have a disproportionate effect on the number of lives lost in rural Ireland as opposed to urban Ireland. If that is the case, I will have to ask people in rural Ireland to pay a price and maybe it will mean that there are people who are more reluctant to go out to the pub and drink too much. That is a good thing if it does have that effect.
If it has a detrimental effect on social life in rural Ireland, we are moving to address that and we have done so. I was in Kerry last month launching the Local Link buses which have been set up deliberately to address the problems the Senator has rightly identified. Rural Ireland does have a problem with social isolation and with people old and young not being able to mingle and meet at night in the same way as people do in the cities. I know the Senator will be aware of this but what we have done is to say that we recognise this and we have started a pilot project in every county in Ireland, supported by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and I launched it in Kerry a couple of weeks ago. We will see how that goes. We do not know how it will work but I am told by the NTA that it is meeting a huge, pent-up demand in rural Ireland for more social activity. By the way, I am not only talking about people going to pubs. I am talking about people going to bingo, meeting or going to games and all other sorts of activities. If the routes we have designated which were requested by the Local Link groups are not suitable or need tailoring, we will tailor them, change them, increase or decrease them. Many of them are demand response routes which stop anywhere where people want to go. We are serious about this and we recognise that this needs to be addressed. We cannot immediately resolve it by saying we will put a bus here and there but let us see how it works. It is a complicated problem but we know there is a problem there. For some of us it may be something that we were late to recognise because we do not live there ourselves but we do recognise it and we will continue to address it.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan is also right on the issues of tests. The issue of driving test waiting lists being too long is serious and it is unacceptably high. All I can say is that the average now regularly quoted to me in the Lower House is 23 weeks because people tend to quote the most extreme one, but it is down from 14 weeks to 11.9 weeks and it will continue to be addressed by the Road Safety Authority, RSA. It has taken a range of measures to bring down driving test waiting times in acknowledgement of the difficulties that it presents to people, particularly if they fail their tests and they have to go again and wait for 11 weeks each time.
Senator Mullen addressed the human life issue and I agree with him about that and he also addressed the issue of loneliness. He addressed the case where a person allows a vehicle to be driven by an unlicensed driver, especially where it happens if the licence has lapsed. It was a good point. It is not specifically mentioned in the Act, but without anticipating what view a judge would take in such a case, I would presume that an owner can always offer a defence that reasonable steps were taken to see that the person was licensed. On top of that, I presume the owner can also offer a defence in such a case that he assumed that the person, having had a licence, always had a licence, as the person in question probably assumes themselves. I am not sure that will cause as much difficulty as is suggested.
We did not close down the ability of Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae and others to debate the Bill. They had an awfully long time to debate and they took advantage of a parliamentary loophole which prevented us from closing the debate and they kept it going for about six months.I do not think it is fair to say we did that.
I thank Senator O'Mahony for his support and for telling us what happened to him. The Senator is typical of a large number of people whose instincts might have been elsewhere but who took a reasonable approach to this. I thank him for supporting the Bill.
Senator Devine talked about the fact there are many reasons for these accidents, which there certainly are. She mentioned drug driving, and speeding is another factor. It is not as though we in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are completely hung up on drink driving as the sole reason. We addressed drug driving in the 2016 Act, which I was happy to introduce in the other House. Speeding is an issue which causes a huge number of deaths and which we will, hopefully, also address before the end of the year. The Senator rightly referred to the vintners and vested interests. They were the most powerful opposition to this Bill and I am thankful to all those who stood up against them in that situation.
Senator Devine asked about Garda traffic corps numbers. I agree they have been depleted and have been far too low, and enforcement has been a problem. As she knows, the Garda traffic numbers came down a lot after the financial crisis of 2007-08. I have a table with me, with which I am sure the Senator is familiar, which shows that at the end of 2016 the numbers stood at 674 and at the end of 2017 this figure was 623. A target was set to increase Garda traffic numbers by 10% in 2017 and a further 10% in 2018. Primarily due to the large number of applications, the competition for the 2017 cohort ran into 2018, which is regrettable. The result of this is that both the 2017 and 2018 vacancies will be filled in 2018 with the appointment of a total of 150 members. To date in 2018, 87 new members have been recruited, with a further 63 due in October. This will bring the strength of the unit above 700 by the end of 2018. Further increases are expected to bring the total Garda road policing strength to 1,032 by 2021.
We have a regular meeting, probably every three months, with the Garda, the Attorney General, the Department of Justice and Equality and other Departments on road safety, and we had such a meeting yesterday. I asked the gardaí exactly the question the Senator is asking and they confirmed the figures which I have just given to the House.
Senator Norris is right that there is no lowering of the limit. There is a bit of a misapprehension out there and I have heard this on many reputable programmes, where it is said the limit is coming down to zero, which it is not. I can understand his point when he says that it might be better to bring it to zero so people do not suffer, as Senator Mullen said, by asking themselves, "How much can I drink?" or "Can I drink this amount, that amount or the other?" The advice is that while we do not know the complete answer to that question, I would not ask it; I would just not do it. The advice is: do not do it. The law is that a driver can go up to 50 mg, or to just 20 mg for a professional driver, but the very strong advice is not to do it. We decided we would plug this obvious loophole, which was given for political reasons to get through the lowering of the limits in 2010, and we thought we would do this with a great deal of support. We were a bit surprised by the opposition we got to it from many people initially and also in this final period.
I understand the point Senator Norris is making. The point has often been made that there is a residue of alcohol in people's system on the day after. However, that residue of alcohol quite clearly indicates something - it indicates they are still impaired. The idea they may not feel impaired does not mean they are not impaired.
Senator Norris also looked for some evidence that people in the 50 mg to 80 mg range were the cause of accidents or involved in collisions. The most recent data on alcohol as a contributory factor in road fatalities comes from the national drug-related deaths index, the coroners' data collected on behalf of the RSA by the Health Research Board. This covers the period 2013-14, when eight of the fatalities were in the 21 mg to 50 mg range, six in the 51 mg to 80 mg range and four in the 81 mg to 100 mg range. The fact of the matter is that any alcohol does impair, and that is incontrovertible evidence from the World Health Organization. We can say what we like about statistics and argue about the 0 mg to 50 mg range or the 50 mg to 80 mg range, but it is absolutely beyond dispute that any alcohol causes people to react slower, and that means they are in far greater danger of causing an accident than if they had drunk nothing. That is the World Health Organization - not me or anybody in Ireland, but an international body.
I want to very much thank Senator Humphreys for his support. I consider it very valuable that he rounded off this debate, which has shown what appears to be all-party support for this measure. Whereas the debate in the Lower House was at times offensive, irresponsible and reckless in its treatment of what is a very serious Bill on a very serious issue, I would like to thank everybody here today for taking it seriously and for having carefully considered it, in particular those who perhaps found it difficult in the beginning but who came round to supporting the Bill.