I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak briefly on the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 and to support it strongly. However, on reading the Bill, it is a little like a jigsaw, amending different sections and subsections of the many Road Traffic Acts, with deletions and substitutions also provided for. The Bill therefore reinforces the urgent need for a consolidation project for all Road Traffic Acts back to 1961. The number of Acts and the complexity of legislating in this area have led to so many loopholes and lacunae over the years, which weaken what should, in practice, be very strong road safety legislation. It is unfortunately typical of this piecemeal Government that whereas Deputy Paschal Donohoe committed to consolidation of road traffic law when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport a few years ago, the current Minister told me at the beginning of October:
The consolidation of existing road traffic legislation is a significant project, requiring the allocation of resources specifically to deal with such a project over an estimated two to three year period. In light of the fact that my officials are currently working on a number of Bills, most of which are primarily focused on road safety, it is not possible to commence such a consolidation project at this time.
However, just last week I asked the same question of the Taoiseach, who was the predecessor of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in the very same Department, and he said:[Consolidation] is, it is fair to say, a longstanding project in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I am not sure how much progress has been made on the legislation as yet … A consolidated Bill would be a very good step forward.
The Taoiseach went on to refer to the fact we have consolidated company law and taxation law over the years to very good effect. The question for the current Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is, where exactly does he stand on consolidation? Is he committed to it, or has it again been put on the long finger? During debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2016 last December, the Minister, Deputy Ross, told me:
My Department is working on consolidation, as has always been the case. I understand it is being worked on quite aggressively at the moment.
I would like the Minister, Deputy Ross, perhaps in his reply, to indicate whether or not there is a consolidation project. Since 1961 there have been something like 16 or 18 Road Traffic Bills and a whole plethora of other Bills which also affect the courts system and transport generally. However, after that initial caveat, I commend the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, for bringing forward this important legislation and for his determination in the past 18 months on different matters to improve road safety for road users. I am delighted to support the Bill. The Minister has certainly faced much opposition to the Bill from lobby groups such as the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, the Fianna Fáil Party and some rural Deputies, and I note the weasel words from Fianna Fáil again tonight. Rural Deputies wrongly state that the Bill is anti-rural. In fact, as the Minister already said, 81% of alcohol-related road deaths occur in rural Ireland and, therefore, the Bill will undoubtedly save rural lives.
The legal blood alcohol content, BAC, limit is 50 mg for most drivers and 20 mg for certain drivers, namely, learners, novices and professional drivers. However, due to an anomaly inserted into legislation by Fianna Fáil, drivers over the 50 mg limit but under 80 mg receive just three penalty points and a €200 fine, whereas drivers with blood alcohol levels between 80 mg and 100 mg are disqualified from driving for six months and fined €400. The Bill addresses this anomaly. The disqualification penalty has been shown in the past to be a very powerful deterrent. This is the reason the Bill is fundamentally worth supporting. The Bill amends the relevant subsections of section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 2010, removing reference to penalty points and substituting references to disqualification. As I mentioned, the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill in April and May showed the strength of the alcohol lobby, with many Deputies disregarding the huge numbers of lives lost and the families tragically affected by drink-driving.
As the Minister knows, I have worked very closely over the years with Ms Susan Gray and her colleagues in the excellent civil society group Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on our Roads, PARC. I warmly welcome some of our guests to the Gallery, including Susan and other members of PARC and the Clancy family and others whose lives have been tragically affected by loss of lives on our roads. I pay tribute to the heroic work of Susan Gray, Ann Fogarty, Noel, Fiona and Declan Clancy, James Regan Snr. and James Regan Jnr., Louise Doyle, Marie McElhinney, Jo Petford and the many other campaigners for saving lives on Irish roads over the years. Susan lost her husband, Stephen, very tragically a number of years ago on St. Stephen’s Day. The unaccompanied learner driver in that crash had been drinking that evening.
The Road Safety Authority, RSA, has compiled data on alcohol’s involvement in fatal crashes which show that between 2008 and 2012 alcohol was a contributing factor, as the Minister said, in 38% of fatal crashes. In her appearance before the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on 17 May to refute disingenuous claims by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, RSA chief executive Ms Moyagh Murdock stated, “A total of 25 drivers and motorcyclists with a confirmed BAC between 21 mg and 80 mg were responsible […] for killing themselves [tragically] and-or others because they consumed alcohol.” Based on statistics available from the RSA, the Minister has estimated that at least 35 people could possibly be saved on our roads over a period of five years. Those 35 precious lives are well worth saving, and this is one reason we should bring this legislation forward. However, we know for a fact that the figure quoted by the Minister is an under-representation of the extent of the problem because for three and a half of these five years there was no compulsory testing of surviving drivers in fatal crashes. We also do not have the figures for those with serious injuries due to road traffic collisions where alcohol is a factor because of the dearth of accurate information in this area.
Since the Road Traffic Bill 2011 there is supposed to be mandatory alcohol testing at the scene of all road traffic collisions, RTCs, where someone has died or been injured. Early questioning by me on the matter in 2012 showed that more than half of the drivers involved in RTCs were not being tested despite this legislation having been passed. In January 2015 the Tánaiste replied to a follow-up question on this, saying that up to 19 November 2014 there had been 161 fatal RTCs and that just 97 drivers, or 60%, were tested at the scene, six of whom tested positive for being above the legal limit. I then asked why the other 64 drivers were not tested and at the end of May 2015 I received an answer. At that point the information available from An Garda Síochána was that of the 181 fatal collisions in 2014, 82 drivers involved could not be tested “due to fatal injury” and a table indicated reasons for a further 51 drivers. However, 51 plus 82 equals only 133, and an explanation was never given for the remaining 48 drivers. Many other reasons were given for not testing drivers at the scene, but these figures do not seem acceptable. I submitted questions on this matter again recently and again received “holding” replies. Section 3 of the Bill relates to the transitional provision for the period prior to commencement of section 1 of the Bill. Disqualification from driving for the offence of driving with a BAC of between 50 mg and 80 mg will only apply after the commencement of section 1, so I hope the Minister will this time indicate that we will have an early commencement of this section.
We have experience of the Road Traffic Act 2016 where a number of sections were not commenced despite the fact this House took on board amendments from Opposition parties and Independents. The Minister has effectively ignored them and refused to commence sections. The Minister said in a reply to a parliamentary question earlier in October that he would add an amendment to address the need for section 41 of the 1994 Act to give powers to An Garda Síochána to seize the vehicles of unaccompanied learner drivers. Last week saw much discussion in the media about vehicles owners being responsible for unaccompanied learner drivers. Will the Minister indicate whether there are one or two Government amendments being brought forward relating to unaccompanied learner drivers on Committee Stage? They relate to the power for the gardaí to seize cars and making vehicle owners responsible. Both provisions are to improve road safety which the Minister promised this time last year to Mr. Noel Clancy and his family. The Dáil passed a section of the Road Traffic Act 2016 to this effect. Unfortunately, the action by the Minister then turned out to be an empty promise. We want to know for definite this time when the commencement orders will be signed for the various sections.
I welcome the provisions in section 2 which amend the Road Traffic Act 2002 to provide for the pausing of penalty point timing during a period of disqualification. Therefore, penalty points and reaching the threshold for penalty points will run consecutively rather than concurrently with any period of disqualification, as in other jurisdictions.
As always, the library and research service produced a very useful and informative Bill digest. It discusses the Bill and includes an interesting section on what works to combat drink driving. I note the RSA talks about the three Es, education, engineering and enforcement. We know that greater enforcement of road safety legislation is key. More mandatory intoxicant tests, MITs, and visibility of gardaí on the roads are the most important aspects of increasing road safety and reducing deaths and serious injuries. There are also some technical and practical things that the relevant industries, the motor insurance industry, for example, could be involved in championing. The ignition interlock is an area that is of interest. It is a device linked to the vehicle which would prevent the vehicle from starting if any alcohol was detected in the driver’s breath. Queensland state in Australia, for example, uses these locks for drivers who have already been convicted of drink-driving and interlocks are also used in some European countries. Drink-driving is an international issue and organisations, including the World Health Organization, WHO, have published reports and strategies on how to reduce drink-driving. Disqualification for driving over the limit is one of the WHO’s recommendations, as is lowering the blood alcohol content, BAC, limits. It is in line with the legislation before us. The 2010 North review in the UK stated that “the threat of a substantial period of mandatory disqualification has proved to be a potent weapon in combatting drink driving.” I believe that vehicle manufacturers and EU vehicle standards, in other words, the whole car industry, need to focus on driver safety most of all. For example, why do many saloons not have a rear window wiper and why is speed limit warning technology which one finds in many new vehicles, such as the Toyota Avensis, not mandatory for all vehicles?
In Ireland, 615 drivers were arrested in January for driving while intoxicated, 672 in February, 711 in March, 903 in April, 801 in May, 750 in June, 723 in July and 776 in August. This represents an increase of 14% on the same period last year. It would be interesting to see how many of these, depending on the BAC levels, have taken their penalty points and paid their fixed charge notices to avoid a court appearance and how many have decided to challenge the matter in court. We know that because of a mistake by the Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, while he was the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, large numbers of drink-driving cases have been thrown out of court due to the loophole around the breathalyser reports being printed in only Irish or English. That was SI 541. The Minister at the time and the Department seemed to misinterpret the rule about two copies being given after a breath test, one for the driver and one for the Garda Síochána. We await the opinion of the Supreme Court on this. The previous Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, closed the loophole arising from Deputy Varadkar’s mistake in 2015.
In January this year, the RSA conducted a national survey on attitudes to drink-driving and, as the Minister of State said, found that 91% of people surveyed supported automatic disqualification for those driving over the limit. As the Minister of State said, this equates to 93% in favour from rural Ireland and 89% from urban areas. I do not buy the argument that the Bill is anti-rural. The figures I have mentioned here today show that, statistically, more rural lives will be saved given that alcohol is a factor in such a high percentage of road traffic crashes, RTCs, around the country. Saying that rural pubs will suffer is a totally unacceptable argument against this Bill. Using social isolation as a reason for rejecting the Bill disrespects the thousands of friends and families who have lost loved ones or suffered serious injuries in road traffic crashes due to alcohol over the years on Irish roads.
As a transport spokesperson in the past for the Labour Party, I was always a strong supporter of local and community public transport companies. I remember an impressive local transport company, OK Transport, a brilliant public service for Offaly and west Kildare, and other similar bodies from Kerry, Cork and various parts of Ireland, presenting to the committee which covered transport. Local taxi and hackney services should also be encouraged and measures should be brought forward to support them. I note the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, responded sympathetically to Deputy Heydon’s proposal that we should support local rural transport providers. Like my Sinn Féin colleague, I would like to see evidence of that as soon as possible.
Besides the number of tragic deaths and the horrendous suffering of families following deaths of family members, there is a simple and powerful argument against drink-driving. A motor vehicle is a complex machine where the driver’s absolute and full attention is always necessary when the vehicle is in use. No employer would permit an employee to operate machinery if he or she was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Why should the operation of a vehicle be any different?
Already this year, as of yesterday lunchtime, we have lost 130 people on our roads and while this is 33 fewer than last year, it is still far too many. We are not giving enough attention to serious injuries caused on our roads. I was invited recently to a very informative briefing by Dr. Jack Short from Trinity College, Dublin on a paper he published in October 2017, Traffic injuries in Ireland: a neglected problem, for the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society and he has found a very serious problem with the reporting and recording of serious injuries caused by road traffic crashes. His initial conclusions seem to be that serious crash injuries may be underestimated by a factor of three. He gives interesting statistical evidence from what he has been able to gather from the health system and justice system that this is indeed the case. I believe the Department is currently examining Dr. Short’s paper and I would certainly encourage it to do so.
We know that conviction rates for drink-driving remain low and even if the court figures are believed, the number of those who have lost their licence on conviction is shockingly low and worse still are the recorded figures of those who have been disqualified from driving returning their licences to the RSA post office box address in Cork.
On 29 May 2017, I visited the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, on the invitation of Professor Denis Cusack, its director. It was a very informative and useful visit. It would be very useful for all Deputies to visit it. Professor Cusack, his colleagues and the chief analyst showed us breath-testing and drug-testing devices. We were informed that the tender for the new breath-test Draeger devices had gone out two weeks previously and was due back before the end of June. Professor Cusack said that these would then be selected and tested for months before being sent out for use. Professor Cusack also stated that he would expect the new devices to be available to gardaí in early 2018. The new breath-test devices will have a chip to record the location, time and number of each test. That visit and the information we received is positive and will hopefully return the breath-test mechanism, process and legal measures that flow from it to being a process that will become accountable, given revelations that breath-test figures may have been inflated by more than 2 million.
The road safety group, Promoting Awareness Responsibility and Care, PARC, has done extensive research and analysis of figures supplied by the Minister for Justice and Equality following parliamentary questions I raised on drink driving. As the Minister of State is aware, PARC has attended court cases around the State to monitor the outcomes of road traffic offences and in particular those relating to drink driving and disqualified drivers. PARC also regularly completes analyses of parliamentary questions data from the Department of Justice and Equality. From PARC’s analysis of drink-driving court cases during 2015 and 2016, an average of 20% of those convicted in court had their licence numbers recorded. This figure reduced to 7% in Kerry and 8% in Limerick. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, is in charge of driver licences since 2013 yet, on its own admission to RTÉ this year, 98% of persons who are disqualified are not surrendering their licences to the RSA. It appears there are huge gaps in the information and the administration of road traffic law that we need to address urgently.
I warmly welcome the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 and urge all my Dáil colleagues to support it. Hopefully, it will be a major step to end drink driving and to save many lives annually.