BROUGHAN WELCOMES ROAD TRAFFIC BILL NO.2 2011

Road traffic legislation is clearly very complex. However, there seems to have been an endless need for “tidying up” legislation, as the Minister has noted, in the aftermath of last year’s supposedly landmark Road Traffic Act 2010 which introduced the primary legislative changes for mandatory alcohol testing and the lowering of the drink-drive limit.

It is incredible that this is the second amending Bill that has been necessary to address the profound flaws in the 2010 Act introduced by the former Minister for Transport, Mr. Dempsey. In effect, two absolutely critical aspects of the 2010 Act – the lower drink drive limit and mandatory testing – could not be introduced without this extra legislation. The earlier 2011 amending Act, introduced a few months ago, dealt primarily with aspects of the mandatory testing regime and the No. 2 Bill before us relates to some of the drink-driving provisions.

It is astonishing to learn from the Minister’s helpful note that we will need a further road traffic No. 3 Bill that is intended to cover among other reforms another amendment of the 2010 Act in respect of impairment testing and unconscious drivers.

Why did the Minister not address that matter or the graduated driver licensing system, which has been discussed for years, in this Bill or the previous one?

The short Bill before us sets out a serious of amendments in sections 2 to 9 that clarify and tighten road safety measures. Sections 7 and 8 relate to the obligations of drivers to provide a preliminary breath specimen and a blood or urine specimen in hospital.

Colleagues from the last Dáil will remember the legislative agonies that we went through with the Road Traffic Act 2010.

Genuine concerns were raised by many rural Deputies on the impact of the lower drink driving limit, especially on senior citizens who may live in very isolated parts of the country.

I am deeply concerned with the problems faced by rural citizens and that is why I hope that in the comprehensive spending review, the Minister will again ensure our impressive rural transport network will not lose any funding, and that Bus Éireann will not lose any funding. These are additional responsibilities for him in the next few weeks.

The international evidence that was available on best practice and the drink driving limit was simply overwhelming in support of the reduced 50 milligram limit. This included 2002 research which found the chances of being involved in a collision was 18% higher for drivers with 0.04 grams per decilitre than for a driver who had no drink taken; there was a 38% higher risk at 0.05 g/dl; 63% higher at a 0.06 g/dl reading and 109% higher for a driver with a 0.07 g/dl reading.

I note from the Minister’s helpful briefing notes the list of distinguished countries such as Norway, Sweden, Spain, Romania, Portugal, Latvia, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and the Czech Republic, which have an even lower basic limit than we are finalising today.

Unfortunately, the former Minister, Noel Dempsey, moved to reduce the drink driving limit from 80 mg to 50 mg in the 2010 Act, without having ensured that the evidential breath-testing equipment had been recalibrated to facilitate the new lower limit. This has meant that it is only now that the lower limit can come into force.

Can the Minister confirm that the new 50 mg limit will apply from the October bank holiday weekend? I understand the new machines are currently being tested by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. Has the testing and Garda training programme finished and are all the machines ready to go? How many new machines have been purchased and are being tested by the MBRS?

There have been some suggestions that the MBRS will not have enough breathalysers in place to facilitate the lower drink driving limit from the October bank holiday weekend. Can the Minister tell us the total cost of introducing the recalibrated machines?

Ms. Susan Grey and her PARC – Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on our roads – colleagues have consistently complained that when a breathalyser is sent for analysis to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety regarding a particular case, the machine is out of action for weeks on end.

There are about 1,000 breathalysers currently in use in the country, but there is never anything like that number actually available to An Garda Síochána at any given time. PARC has also long campaigned against the practice of having a standard deduction of around 17.5% from the actual recorded breath-alcohol reading, and this was also starkly highlighted in the recent RTE programme “Traffic Blues”, which followed the work of the Garda traffic corps in a number of different counties.

Road safety campaigners contend that the 17.5% inbuilt deduction means that the evidential reading used in court could be 20%-25% lower than the actual BAC at the time of testing. Is the Minister going to address this in the No.3 Bill?

The Minister is by now well aware of the Trojan work carried out by the Inishowen-based national road safety group PARC, led by Ms. Susan Grey, Ms. Donna Price and Ms. Ann Fogarty. I again pay tribute to these great women, especially for their work in liaising with recent transport Ministers and the members of the transport committees of the last and the current Dáil.

Sections 7 and 8 of the No. 2 Bill deal with aspects of the provision of a preliminary breath specimen by a driver and subsequent obligations on the provision of a urine or blood sample in a hospital by a driver who has been involved in a serious collision. PARC remains particularly concerned about this issue, given the research it cites by the HSE public health medicine specialist, Dr. Declan Bedford, that only 8% of surviving drivers involved in fatal road crashes in Ireland are tested for alcohol.

Ms Grey, Ms Price and Ms Fogarty and their colleagues note that “Our loved ones were tested under coroner’s law at autopsy. However, in nine out of ten cases, the surviving driver, who may well have caused their death or catastrophic life-altering injury, avoided testing. The legislation has let our families down.”

I understand that PARC sent the Minister and the current transport committee a briefing document relating to the system in Northern Ireland, which seems to close any potential loophole on consent of the surviving driver, especially if he or she is in a fragile condition. I am informed that the PSNI can “retain specimens of blood taken from an unconscious driver until the person has regained consciousness. The driver is then asked to consent to the analysis of the specimen. If they refuse, it is an offence.”

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I also hope the Minister will examine some of the ongoing problems with drug driving on our roads. We discussed the Australian system before, so why can we not have that? Viewers of RTE’s “Traffic Blues” will be vividly aware of the problems that gardaí can face in accessing intoxilyser machines. If a motorist fails a roadside breath test here, the garda must find a station that has a working intoxilyser machine to get a definite reading on the motorist’s blood alcohol limit.

Viewers will have seen numerous incidents in the programme where gardaí where left traipsing from one station to another trying to get their hands on a machine. I understand that traffic police in the UK have mobile intoxilyser machines to breathalyse motorists who are suspected of being over the limit as soon as they are pulled over. As a result of today’s Bill, will we now see mobile intoxilyser machines which would greatly facilitate the work of the traffic corps?

I welcome this Bill and any further legislative measures that will enhance road safety. I also commend the director of the Road Safety Authority, Mr. Noel Brett for his outstanding leadership, and its Chairperson, Mr. Gay Byrne. We have made major advances over the past decade, with a 48% drop in road fatalities between 2008 and 2010. However, 142 people have been tragically killed so far on our roads this year.

Recent research by Dr. Sheridan and his colleagues at the department of public health of the HSE Dublin north-east region reports that serious injuries on the roads are significantly underestimated in the RSA figures. The Sheridan research records that there are actually five times the number of serious injuries caused by road collisions at 14,861, rather than the 4,263 recorded in the RSA statistics.

Astonishingly, the Sheridan study indicates that this is still probably an underestimate, as data from accident and emergency units, GPs and private hospitals are not included.

I remember discussing with the Fine Gael transport spokesperson in the last Dáil whether we should introduce a system where a full investigative report on each road collision is produced similar to those of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board. A first step could be to reform the CT68 form used by the Garda. When compared with the PSNI’s document of investigation, it seems to be a much more complicated and less informative document.

The 142 deaths so far on the roads in 2011 is still 142 tragedies too many. The figures are mind blowing across the EU. Over 35,000 people die in road accidents each year in the EU, which is a catastrophe.

I asked former Deputy Noel Dempsey, both when he was Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and when he was Minister for Transport, if he would look at car technology and look to the major car manufacturers. Why do all cars not have Alcolocks? These allow drivers to know whether they are over the limit. Why do all cars not have potential speed limiters, so when younger people from Donegal or Dublin North-East are using cars, the speed can be limited? The technology is there, so why is it not being used?

I warmly welcome this Bill and I hope it will bring us closer to the situation where drink driving is regarded as totally shameful, socially unacceptable and something that becomes a rare and serious criminal event.

reports today that this loophole cannot be closed in this Bill as primary legislation is necessary, so I presume the Minister will address that in a No.3 Bill, but why did he not do it today? I note that Northern Ireland has had this system since 2002.