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Home > Joint Committe on Transport, Tourism and Sport. General Scheme of Road Traffic (Fixed Penalty - Drink Driving) Bill 2017.

[Oireachtas] Joint Committe on Transport, Tourism and Sport. General Scheme of Road Traffic (Fixed Penalty - Drink Driving) Bill 2017. (05 Apr 2017)

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Chairman Deputy Brendan Griffin:

I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and his officials, Mr. Ray O'Leary, Mr. Declan Hayes and Ms Nicola Hayes. I thank all of them for giving of their time.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Before we commence, I will outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 is to be amended such that all those detected drink driving above a certain limit will be subject to automatic disqualification from driving, while those detected driving with alcohol levels between 50 mg and 80 mg will be subject to disqualification from driving for three months instead of receiving three penalty points, which is the current position.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Shane Ross):

I thank the joint committee for giving me the opportunity to engage in a pre-legislative discussion of the Road Traffic (Fixed Penalty – Drink Driving) Bill 2017. It is a short but important Bill. I appreciate the opportunity to explain what it is about and look forward to hearing the committee's views on it. It is also appreciated that it has taken it today as a matter of urgency.

The proposals I have included in the Bill have already generated a great deal of comment. Most members will be aware that they are supported by the Road Safety Authority, road traffic victims groups, the AA and the Garda. Every member will have received a letter from the chief executive of the Road Safety Authority in support of the measures included in the Bill. Unfortunately, certain vested interest groups, particularly the Vintners Federation of Ireland, have lobbied - often in a cynical manner - against it. I will refer briefly to some of the matters which been brought up in public debate about my proposals and, where appropriate, clear up some commonly held misunderstandings.

I am not proposing to lower the alcohol limits. The Bill is about ensuring proper consequences when people drive while above the existing limits. The current limits are not changing, about which there is a misconception. I have heard it quoted by some Deputies and have certainly heard it quoted on radio by some authoritative commentators that we are bringing down the limit; we are not.

Many have questioned whether the proposal will have a significant impact on road safety. I am not claiming that the Bill is the only answer to the problem of drink driving, but what it will do is strengthen the law and remove the dangerous impression that those who drive over the limit can be allowed to keep driving right away. To give an idea of the problem, between 2012 and 2016, 3,003 fixed penalty notices were issued to drink drivers in the 51 mg to 80 mg alcohol concentration bracket, with numbers increasing significantly during 2016. Before someone says, as I am sure someone will - some already have - that he or she has doubts about these figures because of the recent issues with figures deriving from An Garda Síochána, the figures I am quoting are based on specific notices issued to specific individuals detected and arrested for drink driving offences and follow a determination of the detected alcohol levels by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS. They are, therefore, absolutely reliable. I hope no Deputy will, whether deliberately or mistakenly, attempt to create confusion between badly needed legislation which could save lives on the roads and an issue which relates to how gardaí have reported on the numbers of roadside preliminary breath tests conducted. I want to be absolutely clear that the data and research supporting the Bill are in no way related to the current controversy in the Garda. In addition, the RSA's independent research shows that the incidence of drink driving among younger drivers is increasing. This is based on an RSA survey and depends on the numbers who admitted to drinking and driving. It is fair to suppose the numbers drinking and driving are likely to be higher than the numbers admitting to it. Similar results were found in a recent survey conducted by the AA.

The RSA has also found that drink is a factor in 38% of road deaths. Just to be clear, this is a figure from the RSA which depends on coroners' reports on road deaths. The RSA has also established that at least 35 people died in collisions in the period from 2008 to 2012 which involved drivers being found responsible owing to alcohol levels between 21 mg and 80 mg. Of these, 16 were in the 50 mg to 80 mg range. Members will be aware that the RSA has recently written to them to ensure they are familiar with these facts and aware of misleading information. When people ask what good the Bill will do, that is their answer. If we could prevent 35 deaths in the next five years, would it not be worth it? If we could prevent people from getting the idea that driving over the limit was acceptable and prevent them from going on to drive at higher levels, would it not be worth it? I believe it would and suspect the families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured in preventable traffic collisions would also agree. A culture change in the way we view drink driving is required. Having a law on the Statute Book which allows drink drivers to get away with penalty points rather than a disqualification says drink driving is not really serious in some instances. Is that a message we wish to send?

A number of commentators and some Deputies have expressed concern that the Bill will somehow damage life in rural Ireland. I encourage them to stop and think about it. By far the highest number of alcohol related road deaths, 81%, occur in rural Ireland. No part of the country would benefit more from the number of lives saved. I want to save lives in rural Ireland. The results of a national survey of my proposals which the RSA conducted in January this year are overwhelmingly clear in terms of the public’s view on this issue. The survey found that 91% supported automatic disqualification for all drivers caught driving over the limit, as I am proposing. Support for my proposal in rural areas, at 93%, was a little higher than in urban areas, 89%. The notion that this is an urban-rural issue is simply wrong. Some legislators and certain vested interest groups such as vintners appear to be very much out of step with public opinion where drink driving is concerned. In fact, the full findings of the RSA's survey show a public with little or no tolerance for drink driving in any circumstance. I urge all public representatives to read the findings of the survey on the RSA website.

We are all aware of the worrying increase in the number of road deaths last year. After 2015 which, at 162 road deaths, saw the joint lowest number on record, the number jumped to 188 in 2016. Over a wider number of years we can identify a distinct pattern. Starting from 2005 when there were 396 deaths, there was a decrease in every successive year until 2012 when 162 people were killed. The years since have seen worrying fluctuations, with 188 in 2013, 193 in 2014, 162 in 2015 and up again to 188 in 2016. The figures this year are not good. They have not improved and, sadly, are above the numbers for the equivalent period last year. Clearly, a long downward trend has been reversed. We must examine why this is the case and how to get matters back on track.

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