DÁIL SPEECH ON THE ROAD TRAFFIC BILL 2016

I warmly welcome this opportunity to speak on this long-awaited Bill. I acknowledge that the Minister made time, soon after being appointed, to meet a number of important civil society stakeholders who promote road safety, in particular, Ms Susan Gray and Ms Anne Fogarty and other representatives of Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on Our Roads, PARC, a great civil society group. I also acknowledge the recent decision of the Garda Commissioner to scrap fees for abstracts and statements for families who have been bereaved by road traffic collisions. A number of Deputies and the PARC organisation had campaigned for this change for a decade.

Many of us have been waiting for this Bill to be brought before the House. Finally, we will have legislation in place to address drug driving and close the loophole which arose when the mutual recognition of disqualified drivers agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom lapsed. During my time as an Opposition spokesperson on transport, I pleaded with a number of the Minister’s predecessors, on perhaps 30 occasions at Question Time, to introduce a model of testing for drugs and follow the example of States such as Victoria in Australia which embarked on the invigilation of drivers in respect of drugs 15 or 20 years ago. The Minister referred to the three key drugs involved. The question is why it has taken so long to address this issue. The safety of people on roads is the key responsibility of the Minister and, as such, I welcome the fact that this Bill has finally been introduced to the House.

The Bill also provides for the reduction of speed limits to include 20 km/h zones. Deputies will remember the debate we had on Jake’s law which arose from the tragedy of little Jake Brennan. We tried to introduce legislation to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable citizens, including older people, in housing estates. As a member of Dublin City Council for 12 years, I called for the introduction of home zones many times. This concept, which was piloted in the Netherlands, involves the designation of certain areas in cities where very low speed limits would apply. At that time, we sought a 25 mph (then) restriction in all housing estates.

The Bill includes a number of other amendments to the Road Traffic Acts dating from 1961 onwards.

It is important to note the purpose of the Bill is to improve road safety and reduce fatalities and serious injuries. While there has been a significant improvement in the number of fatalities on our roads, and 2012 had a low of 162, we have recently seen the worrying trend of numbers of deaths increasing, with all of the incredible tragedy that brings to families, the removal of citizens from society and the associated costs. Of course, one life lost on our roads is one too many. Distressingly, as of 27 September, the number of fatalities was 23 higher than last year, at 138 compared to 115 at the same point in 2015.

The Minister, Deputy Ross, is the person on the deck and he has the responsibility to see how that may be addressed, in conjunction with the RSA. I believe a major focus of RSA campaigns should be on speeding. What we are doing in this Bill is important, as is what we did in the past to discourage drink driving, the use of mobile phones and so on. However, speeding seems to be the essential issue that results in horrendous deaths and casualties. The RSA has mounted some very effective campaigns recently to protect motor cyclists and pedestrians, but the emphasis should be on speeding. The statistics for the west of the country, from Kerry to Donegal, have been shocking for many years, which is something we have to address.

Despite such high numbers, it is striking a judge recently gave a bachelor farmer from Kerry time to find a woman to drive him around before his ban for driving while intoxicated came into effect. Such jokey comments about drink driving and dangerous driving are totally inappropriate, and this culture has to be changed. As I said to the Minister at a previous Question Time, I believe the Courts Service has been deficient in regard to enabling us to collate the information we in the House need to know, and the Minister needs to know, in order to make our roads safer.

I note the stand the Minister took today on the judicial appointments Bill. I applaud this as I believe it is the direction the House needs to take in order that the best possible people are appointed to the bench in a transparent and independent manner. Some of the things we hear in the District Court are very disrespectful in regard to the ongoing litany of tragedy on our roads. Earlier in the summer, a man whose blood alcohol reading was 198 mg per 100 ml, which is almost four times over the limit, and who had previously pleaded guilty to drink driving in 2014, was granted an adjournment of his driving ban until 8 December. Earlier this month, there was a case where a driver who had nine life bans for driving without insurance was jailed for just five months and given a small fine for breaking the law repeatedly in a most profound way.

The Bill will provide for the changing of the name of the mandatory alcohol testing – the MAT checkpoints – to mandatory intoxicant testing – the MIT checkpoints. Figures I have received in response to previous parliamentary questions I raised on this issue with the Minister and his predecessor, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, show there were 78,000 MATs in 2014 and 59,000 up to the end of September 2015. However, there has been a concern among citizens that the number of checkpoints has been decreasing due to the fall in the number of gardaí and, in particular, the dramatic fall in the number in the Garda traffic corps and the fact the traffic corps is not given the specific, 24-7, role of protecting our citizens on the roads. It is important to ensure accurate reporting and the Bill reflects this. The new MITs indicate how many tests are conducted for alcohol only or for drugs only, or for both. Research carried out by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety showed that of 1,158 specimens, 58% tested positive for at least one type of drug and, of this figure, 70% was for cannabis.

Since January 2015 there has been no mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the UK. Up to December 2014 we had an agreement under the European convention on driver disqualifications but the UK then opted out of the convention when it was moved to the jurisdiction of the European Court. While a bilateral agreement was reached on 30 October 2015, it could not be placed on a statutory footing without legislation. Again, the Minister is to be commended that, at long last, we have reached this milestone. It is unfortunate that an impasse of over a year and a half arose, and I raised this with the Minister’s predecessor many times. Given the Brexit result, the closing of this loophole is of even greater importance.

What is the impact of section 18, which amends section 38(1) of the 2010 Act? While section 38 has not yet been commenced, when will this important section be commenced and when will the third payment option be introduced? I note the legislative programme which we received today from the Chief Whip states that the courts (fixed charge notice, third payment option and summons printing) Bill, which was listed for pre-legislative scrutiny before the summer recess, is to be published before Christmas. The Minister might confirm that it will be published before the end of this session. What is its status and what is the timeframe for bringing it to the House? The Bill is listed on the priority list for publication and I hope this will happen.

I presume this minority Government has made a collective decision that it will finally, in the coming 12 weeks, start to legislate seriously. We have lived through a different era since the general election but there are so many important Bills on that programme, including Bills that have not reached the pre-legislative stage, that we need to see action from the Government to produce legislation.

That amendment concerning fixed charge notices was requested by the Director of Public Prosecutions due to the number of persons in court claiming they had not received their fixed charge notices. Some people say this charade is still going on, that people can still make this claim and very little can be done, and that offences are then struck out. If this Bill is not passed and enacted before the Road Traffic Bill, how will the Minister ensure there are not further delays in enacting section 44? Statistics have shown that many drivers before the courts on penalty points offences such as speeding and holding a mobile telephone while driving are avoiding conviction and application of penalty points in court by claiming non-receipt of the fixed charge notice.

With regard to section 44, on the third payment option, we know there was a disagreement between the Garda and the Courts Service in regard to the operation of this measure due to the inadequate IT systems of both bodies. The Minister might tell us whether those two critical IT systems are now upgraded, whether there has been financial support for this and whether we will begin to get the flow of statistics that governments and road safety organisations in other jurisdictions seem to have. It is notable the British Government has apparently decided to double penalty points from three to six points for drivers using a mobile telephone while driving. This initiative will mean the loss of a driving licence for learner drivers in the UK who infringe the law in this way. What is the Minister’s view on this? There was an increase in that penalty point category fairly recently. It is striking the UK authorities, in making this decision, seem to have very detailed information on the role of mobile telephone use by drivers in causing serious crashes on British roads.

I wish to make a couple of points to the Minister on the Bill as there are some important issues that it does not address. I refer specifically to section 19, which relates to the amendment of section 78A of the principal Act, namely, to ensure the motor insurance industry gives both clarity and full information details to An Garda Síochána on driver insurance policies. The details specified include the name and address of the policyholder; the period of cover; any limitations as to the use of a vehicle; the persons or the classes of persons insured; the vehicle itself and the names of any driver or the class of driver who is covered under the policy. It has been put to me by the PARC road safety organisation that the Minister should also have included the driving licence number of the policyholder and the named drivers. In view of the appalling increase in insurance, more and more young people are being put on policies as named drivers. I urge the Minister to look again at section 19.

It is intended to commence the amended provisions, of which the Bill is virtually entirely composed, when necessary administrative supports have been agreed with the insurance industry and put in place. It is expected that a more robust and targeted enforcement of uninsured driving can take place. It is very important that the full details of the driver linked to the licence is specified in that section of the legislation.

It is a cause of much frustration among people who are very committed to road safety that licence numbers of those disqualified in court are not accurately recorded and forwarded quickly enough by the courts to the Road Safety Authority, within days of conviction, as is the procedure in Northern Ireland. Currently, it seems to take the Courts Service three months to forward the information to the RSA. The identification of disqualified drivers is a significant problem if they decide to continue to drive. According to data received by the PARC organisation, a total of 96% of drivers disqualified in court do not surrender their licences to the RSA via the post office box number in Cork. Is that something the Minister could address? I accept that issues relating to the Courts Service and enforcement by An Garda Síochána is the responsibility of the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, but they are matters that must be urgently addressed.

In one of the first Question Time appearances of the Minister he said the Department is committed to the consolidation of the Road Traffic Acts. It is striking how much of the Bill is virtually composed of a series of amendments to the Act of 2010 and all the Acts going back to 1961. Surely, the promised consolidation must be put out to tender without delay. Could it not be considered in stages, while giving priority to drink and drug driving, penalty points, driving licences and disqualification? The Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, replied to a parliamentary question a year and a half ago that the work will commence this year, which was 2015. Could the Minister comment on the matter in his reply? One could ask what is a reasonable amount of time to allow for the consolidation to be completed. Part of the problem in terms of adequate enforcement is due to the complexity of traffic law.

Another outstanding problem which has already been raised with both the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality, is the wording on the summonses for the Gardaí to prosecute drivers who fail to present their licence in court. As the Minister is aware, Judge Marie Keane dismissed all 21 cases taken by the Gardaí in November 2015 for this offence due to the wording not appearing on the summonses as well. She ruled that the summonses were “fundamentally flawed”, because a person who comes before the court is entitled to know the consequences that flow from not having produced his or her licence. What has the Minister or his colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, done to correct the wording on the summonses so the Gardaí can begin to prosecute again?

The 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report, recommendation 2.10 is that a system would be introduced immediately to ensure that all penalty points are endorsed on driving licences. A parliamentary question I tabled in 2013 revealed that only 40% of defendants convicted of penalty point offences had their licence numbers recorded. Although the inspectorate considered that was an urgent matter in February 2014, another question I tabled in April 2016 revealed that more than half of those convicted in court for speeding offences in the past 27 months did not have points applied to their licence. What solutions, if any, has the Criminal Justice Working Group arrived at, and what has been the contribution of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in that regard?

Late last year I was informed by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, that the Courts Service has advised that there is no project under way to electronically record the non-production of a licence in court, yet we know that the manual recording of licence numbers does not happen most of the time. Figures supplied to me by way of reply to parliamentary questions showed that in the case of drink driving convictions and disqualifications between January 2013 and March 2015, just 20% of licence numbers were recorded and in the case of speeding convictions just 42% of licence numbers were recorded. What is the Minister’s intention in that regard?

What progress has been made on the proposed master licence record project, an initiative to link driver licence details with vehicle registration details which was to cost just over €4 million and take three years to implement? I asked the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Donohoe, about the matter as well.

A further issue concerning the application of road safety laws is the continuing use of the court poor box for penalty point offences. A reply I received in April 2016 to a parliamentary question revealed that almost 2,000 drivers avoided points in that way over a 27-month period. That was despite a High Court judgment by Mr. Justice Gerard Hogan in February 2014 which confirmed that section 55 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 precluded District Court judges from allowing offenders to make donations to the poor box to avoid incurring points for road traffic offences. That is another reason for the judicial council Bill to be introduced as quickly as possible.

I understand that a future project is to be introduced to furnish the Garda with roadside IT devices. Will they be similar to the devices used by the PSNI which are linked to an accessible central database? Has the Minister asked his officials to examine the potential use of the new driving licence which could be used to electronically record penalty point convictions and disqualification?

I welcome the general thrust of the Bill and I am pleased it is before the House. It will be another step on the way to making the roads that bit safer. I urge the Minister to consider the points I have made on the amendments. One of the difficulties with road traffic law is that very close interaction is required with the Department of Justice and Equality. There are many examples of where there is one line Department but in the road traffic area the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport must liaise closely with the Department of Justice and Equality and they must speak with a united voice. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has responsibility for road safety and the Road Safety Authority. I urge him to follow up on those issues.