Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - drug and alcohol testing.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - drug and alcohol testing. (10 Nov 2020)

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Deputy Kieran O'Donnell: Unfortunately, this issue is becoming more prevalent. It was raised at joint policing committee, JPC, briefings by Garda Superintendent Gerard Roche in the Limerick city division. He stated that, aside from what people would traditionally know as drink-driving, there had been an increase in the phenomenon known as drug-driving. He has requested more testing equipment. Currently, the division has only five machines, four of which are mobile and the fifth one being static. The Garda has applied for a further six machines.


The statistics are stark. From January to September, the ratio of detections for drug-driving compared with drink-driving was virtually 50:50. There were 128 drink-driving detections, an increase of 12% on last year's figure, but the 121 drug-driving detections represented a 128% increase year on year. This major surge occurred during the Covid period. More alarming was what happened during June and September. In June, there were 22 drug-driving detections and 19 drink-driving detections. In September, drug-driving detections numbered nearly three times more than drink-driving detections at 22 versus eight.


People need to be aware that, for a first drug-driving offence, drivers lose their licences and are disqualified from driving for four years. They lose their jobs as well. People might believe they will not be caught drug-driving after a certain time, but a drug, be it cannabis or cocaine, can stay in a driver's system for up to three or four weeks. The consequences are significant. People will automatically be disqualified for four years for a first offence. They will lose their jobs in many, if not nearly all, cases.


Will resources be made available to An Garda Síochána in Limerick to increase the number of machines for testing for drug-driving from the current five to 11? This is a growing phenomenon and education is needed. Gardaí in Limerick are looking for extra resources. Nothing I say takes away from the issue of drink-driving, which is equally as bad, but drug-driving is increasing significantly if the Limerick statistics are anything to go by. We are looking for funding for an extra six drug testing machines so that gardaí can do their job and ensure that people are not driving under the influence of drugs.

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): I thank the Deputy for raising this serious and important issue. While the Garda has been testing drivers for drugs with the assistance of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, since 1999, the Deputy will be aware that the drug-driving provisions in the Road Traffic Act 2016 were only commenced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on 12 April 2017. The Deputy has outlined some of its measures and, indeed, consequences if people are caught. One of the legislation's key measures provides for preliminary drug testing, which enables gardaí to test motorists at the roadside whom they suspect of driving under the influence of drugs. An Garda Síochána can establish roadside checkpoints, known as mandatory intoxicant testing checkpoints or MITs, to test drivers for the presence of alcohol and drugs. The operation of MITs and the enforcement of road traffic legislation are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner. The Deputy will appreciate that I as Minister have no role in these matters. However, I am assured that Garda management keeps the distribution of all resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure their optimum use. I am also assured that this is the case in Limerick.


An Garda Síochána enforcement figures indicate that 1,216 drug-driving arrests were made in the first six months of 2020, an astonishing figure compared with the 591 in the first half of 2018. This represents an increase of 106% in drug-driving arrests despite a 70% reduction in traffic during the period of the Covid-19 restrictions.


As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has committed to ensuring that the Garda has the maximum level of resources available to perform its policing duties. The Garda has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion for 2021. It is anticipated that each county, including Limerick, will benefit from this additional funding, some of which I will outline now. This level of funding is enabling sustained and ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff first and foremost, given how important it is to ensure that these duties can be carried out. As a result, there are approximately 14,600 Garda members and more than 3,000 Garda staff nationwide. Budget 2021 will allow for the recruitment of up to 620 new gardaí and an extra 500 Garda staff. This recruitment is supporting the redeployment of gardaí from administrative to operational policing duties where their training and expertise can be used to best effect. An additional €22 million has been provided for Garda ICT, bringing the total allocation to more than €70 million for the second year in a row. There will also be continued investment in the Garda fleet of €8 million. This is in addition to the highest ever investment of approximately €15 million in the Garda transport fleet in 2020, a portion of which relates to the Garda Covid response. I anticipate that all of this additional funding will be spread depending on where the Commissioner and his team know resources are required.


Budget 2021 provides the Garda with a significant resource allocation to support its vital enforcement role on our roads. Drug-driving not only puts drivers at risk but also passengers and other road users. Preliminary drug testing strengthens the Garda's ability to tackle drug-driving and I am committed to supporting this important statutory enforcement provision in my role as Minister for Justice.

Deputy Kieran O'Donnell: I thank the Minister. She stated that the national figures had shown an increase of 106% in the first six months of the year. That correlates with the 128% increase in the Limerick Garda district across the first nine months of the year. It is a serious issue. The Minister also mentioned that there had been a reduction in traffic levels due to Covid. One can only imagine what the detection rates would have been had we normal driving patterns.


This appears to be a growing feature on our roads. The Minister spoke about it not only putting the lives of the drivers themselves at risk but also the lives of their passengers, other car users and, in many cases, pedestrians. Many pedestrians have been knocked down recently.


In the course of her normal engagement with the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, will the Minister ask whether the Garda has adequate resources to ensure that gardaí on the ground in the Limerick district, such as Superintendent Gerard Roche and his fellows, have the extra six drug testing machines for motorists provided to them, thereby ensuring enforcement? I also suggest that the Garda and Department address the education dimension to make people aware of the consequences of their being caught drug-driving – automatic disqualification, no licence for four years and losing their jobs, given that they will not be able to drive.

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