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Home > Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

[Oireachtas] Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed). (05 Oct 2011)

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Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Vol. 742 No. 3
Wednesday, 5 October 2011 

Continued from 4 October 2011
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
An Ceann Comhairle: The next speaker is Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor. She is sharing time with Deputies Dara Murphy, Tony McLoughlin and Áine Collins.

Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I fully support the measures in this Bill to reduce the legal blood-alcohol limit while driving from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood and to provide for a reduced rate of 20 mg per 100 ml of blood for learner and professional drivers. These measures had cross-party support when they were introduced in the Road Traffic Act 2010.


For too long drink driving was the scourge of our society and our nation’s roads. Road safety statistics show that 2010 was the safest year on our roads on record. I commend the work of the Road Safety Authority in this regard. In the Seanad last week, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport mentioned a striking statistic, that in 1972 a total of 640 people died on Irish roads. This equates to more than 50 deaths per month. A total of 212 people were killed in 2010. While that is still far too many, it represents the lowest figure since records began in 1959. Drink driving incidents fell by 14% between 2009 and 2010. However, we cannot become complacent. Any death that occurs on our roads owing to the consumption of alcohol is one death too many.


An Automobile Association, AA, survey published in August showed that 87% of motorists believed that drink driving is shameful. This is clearly a positive trend, but what worried me about this survey is that while many people would not drink and drive, more than one in four young people say they have taken a lift from someone they knew to be over the drink driving limit. What does this say about our behaviour and the risks we are willing to take? Does it mean it is the fear of being caught that is reducing drink driving incidents rather than a concern for health and safety? Reducing the legal blood-alcohol limits to such a low level will reinforce in the minds of drivers that any level of alcohol consumed affects the ability to drive. It puts the driver, their passengers and everyone else on the road at risk.


The same AA survey revealed that more than half of 17 to 24 year olds say they have driven the morning after a night’s drinking while unsure if the alcohol they consumed had cleared from their system. The new levels will also make drivers more aware of their ability to drive the morning after a great deal of alcohol has been consumed. The timing of the introduction of this new lower limit is very important. I am pleased the legislation will come into force in time for the October bank holiday weekend. It sends a strong message and one hopes we will no longer hear bank holiday news headlines reporting high numbers of road tragedies.


I support the provision for mandatory testing but I wonder if we can take it further. Will the Minister consider the introduction of mandatory drug testing? A two-pronged approach is necessary to tackle this problem, legislation requiring mandatory testing for drugs and an increased focus by the Road Safety Authority on the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs. The Minister said in the Seanad that there is as yet no reliable technology to provide for roadside testing for drugs. He also said that where someone has taken drugs, they will probably also be drunk, so we can catch them for one offence if not the other. I am concerned that this might not always be the case and I hope the Minister will seek to address that.


I commend the measures in the Bill. I congratulate the Road Safety Authority on the improving statistics.


Deputy Dara Murphy: Like my colleague, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Obviously, we are discussing lowering the limits and endorsing the mandatory testing system at accidents involving injuries. I especially welcome the provisions in the Bill for dealing differently with young people. Driving is already a difficult part of growing up and life.


It is something we all must learn and gain experience in. It is already difficult enough without introducing the scourge of alcohol into the mix. Perhaps this is the first step in how we, as a society, address the issue of alcohol consumption among young people. We have seen a significant change in how people, in particular young people, engage in alcohol consumption. There has been a move away from beverages with a lower alcohol content such as beers to those with a higher alcohol content such as spirits. As a society, it is time we engaged in a debate on how people of a relatively young age — those aged 18 years to those in their early 20s — are able to purchase and consume spirits and alcopops without any limits. We are effectively introducing a zero alcohol limit for drivers. Perhaps our society will now be willing to engage in a debate on introducing people to alcohol which can be consumed in an enjoyable and a responsible fashion at a slower pace. Many people drive for a living, while many others spend many hours behind the wheel, particularly in driving young people and or in public service vehicles. The limit for such drivers should be reduced to zero.


We must acknowledge that there has been significant societal and cross-party support for many of the measures introduced. The Minister noted that in 1972 there was the extraordinary number of 640 road deaths, while last year there were 212. It is difficult to celebrate the reduction to 212, but in 2010 more than 400 people were alive than there would have been in 1972. When one multiplies this figure, it shows there has been a significant improvement.


Society can engage in many ways to prevent deaths and the Government has a big role to play in that regard. The ending of the Troubles resulted in a reduced number of unwanted deaths in the North and this country. Maximising the effectiveness of the health servic, as well as social, education and justice and policing services, has helped to reduce the numbers of drug deaths, murders and so on. The two main issues in which society is most engaged are deaths by suicide and road deaths, an entirely preventable scourge. There are two ways to reduce them. What must run in parallel with legislation is training in schools, as well as further improvements in education in the driving test system. I compliment the work recently done by the Road Safety Authority. At the recent National Ploughing Championships yellow high visibility vests were given out at many stalls. I encourage schools and teachers to engage with young people as the days get shorter. My children frequently have their lunch boxes checked to ensure they do not have crisps and other unwanted and unhealthy foods in them. Teachers could ensure every child has a yellow high visibility vest or an armband when he or she comes to school because they unquestionably work.


There is no doubt the issues being addressed and the new levels being provided for by the Minister will discommode people but so too did the wearing of seats belts, the penalty points system, the camera network and many other measures. They caused them minor difficulties and inconvenience. However, we must focus on the fact that gardaí have called to many thousands of families at night to bring them the bad news of the loss of life as a result of alcohol consumption. These measures will deny them that experience and this is the reason the legislation is being brought forward. I compliment those responsible on the great progress that has been made in this regard. We must continue to try to reduce the number of people who die on the roads.


Deputy Tony McLoughlin: I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill and would like to concentrate on two measures which will have the effect of reducing the numbers of road deaths and serious injuries as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol. Section 3 refers to the offence of knowingly driving a dangerous and defective vehicle, an offence applicable to the driver and the owner of the vehicle. I warmly welcome this measure. People who have driven vehicles which were not fit for purpose and in a dangerous condition have often offered the defence that they were not the owners of the vehicle. However, the Bill will give the power to the Garda to prosecute the driver as well as the owner of such vehicles. This will help to deter some young drivers from buying vehicles which were only fit for scrappage for sums of money in the region of €100 or less and then taking to the roads, often ending up involved in serious accidents. We have seen evidence of this where the condition of a vehicle resulted in serious injuries to the driver and passengers. Vehicles have been shown to have defective tyres, suspension system, steering and chassis which, if involved in an accident, would literally disintegrate on impact. It is important to get the message out that people must be responsible when they dispose of such vehicles and ensure they are properly scrapped at the designated centres in every county and local authority area.


The measures in the Bill will no longer allow drivers to get away without being prosecuted when their names are not on the vehicle ownership form. As legislators, we must send a warning to parents who have children of 17 and 18 years who desire to purchase a vehicle to ensure the necessary checks are made and that, at a minimum, vehicles have an up-to-date NCT certificate.


Alcohol consumption in Ireland continues to be significant in comparison with other EU countries. For many years this was reflected in the driving habits of the nation and included driving while under the influence. Successive Governments have identified this as a major cause of accidents and because of measures introduced, Ireland has seen a significant fall in the numbers of road deaths and injures. Up to last week, 138 people, unfortunately, had died in road accidents this year. That is down by 13 for the same period last year. The number of collisions has also been reduced. We have seen a steady fall since 2003 which, whether it is a coincidence, is in line with the steady reduction in the blood alcohol level during the years. In 2003 it was estimated that 37% of all road deaths were alcohol-related. That figure was reduced to 31% by 2005.


Two out of three accidents occur between 10 p.m. on a Friday and 8 a.m. on a Monday, which tells its own story. I advocate increased vigilance by the traffic corps of the Garda Síochána between these times. The accidents mostly involve young men. I am glad to state the vast majority of young people believe that if one goes out to drink and party, one should arrange transport as part of one’s plan. That is a sea change in attitudes from the 1970s and 1980s. However, the boy racer culture is a source of concern in many areas. If we are to reduce the number of road deaths, measures to tackle speed, dangerous driving and, in many cases, drink and drug driving must be considered by the Government in any future road traffic Bill.


Will the Minister consider further measures to deal with drivers who drive under the influence of drugs? Considerable thought and research must go into tackling this problem. It is estimated that two out of five deaths of 25 to 40 year olds between 2000 and 2007 were drug-related. In Canada one in three road deaths is attributed to drug use. Further study by the Government is warranted. Section 7 deals with testing drivers in hospital. The Bill provides for mandatory testing of a driver involved in a serious traffic collision resulting in death or serious industry. Over the years, victims of drunk drivers have expressed their frustration that the drivers were able to escape convictions because of the inability of gardaí to test for blood-alcohol levels. This has been an anomaly and I welcome this section of the Bill.


I welcome the Bill but I suggest to the Minister that he should take account of the views expressed in devising future measures to enhance road safety.


Deputy Áine Collins: I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House and welcome the opportunity to speak on it. It will add much needed clarity to road traffic law and bring Ireland’s regulation of drinking and driving in line with the vast majority of countries in the EU and the developed world. It clarifies outstanding elements of the Road Traffic Act 2010, which allows for mandatory testing of alcohol at lower limits. The equipment needed to record lower blood-alcohol levels was not in place when the 2010 Act was introduced but it has since become available to the Garda.


The Bill enables the policy decisions already taken under the Road Traffic Acts 2010 to 2011. Under the previous legislation, mandatory testing was for higher levels of blood-alcohol but the Bill provides for lower thresholds. It will allow gardaí to administer tests in cases where they have good reason to suspect that a driver has consumed alcohol having been involved in a collision in which someone has died or incurred an injury requiring medical attention. This is a welcome development.


There is considerable evidence to demonstrate that even low levels of alcohol consumption can seriously affect an individual’s ability to drive safely. That road fatalities have dropped substantially here as a result of lower acceptable alcohol limits lends further support to this argument. The decrease in fatalities is due in no small part to the Road Traffic Act 2006, which reduced the acceptable amount of blood-alcohol in drivers from 100 mg to 80 mg. In 1998, 448 people were killed on our roads but that figure had dropped to 299 by 2006. While this was partly due to road safety campaigns and increased vigilance over road speeds, reduced alcohol levels also played an important part.


Drink driving is an emotive subject for many people on this island. Many families and communities have been devastated by the tragic loss of young and old alike. Drivers need to be aware of the danger involved in getting behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.


In October 2011, the Road Safety Authority held a conference on the effect of drugs on driving. Much of the evidence presented at the conference came from Canada but we can identify a number of similarities with that country’s experience of drink driving and drug driving. The Canadian research indicated that drug driving mainly occurs at weekends. Between 2000 and 2007, drug driving was found to be a contributory factor in one third of driver deaths. While there is an absence of empirical evidence from Ireland, I suspect we will record similar results. I urge the Minister to strengthen the legislation on drug driving and bring clarity on the drug driving testing methods open to the Garda.


As a rural Deputy from Cork North-West I am acutely aware of the impact the further reduction in blood-alcohol limits will have on those who enjoy driving to their local pubs for a pint or two. The limits create difficulties for those who do not have access to public transport or alternative options for travelling to their local pubs, which are in many cases their only social outlets. I recognise the impact the Bill will have on their socialising habits but there is no easy answer. I ask the Minister to look favourably on the communities and publicans who, I am sure, will show an entrepreneurial spirit in setting up small local taxi or minibus services to provide affordable transport. An incentive scheme, such as reduced insurance premiums, could be put in place for those who provide rural public transport services.


While the decrease in the alcohol limit will impact on rural communities and their socialising habits, the loss of life caused by drink driving has done untold damage to families and communities alike. These accidents also impact negatively on emergency services, including the Garda, ambulance staff, doctors and nurses. Road deaths cause countless ripples within our communities and all efforts to reduce their number are to be commended. The Bill clarifies breath testing laws, brings Ireland in line with best practice throughout the developed world and will have the welcome effect of reducing road deaths and injuries. For these reasons, I commend it to the House…..


[To read the full debate please click on the link above]


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