Speeches

Speech by Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey TD - Road Traffic Bill, Second Stage.

17 - 02 - 2010

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The Bill that I am moving today represents the persistent resolve of Government to develop appropriate legislation that supports our policies in relation to traffic law and road safety generally.
 
As Deputies will be aware, road safety is to the fore of our national consciousness and it is imperative that legislators and policy makers are kept intrinsically aware of the pain and anguish that is pervasive behind road collision statistics.
 
In this context, Government and the Oireachtas have responded through the promotion of legislation to support road safety initiatives and the ongoing advancement of safety performance. 
 
The cohesive policy structure that binds the various road safety measures has been set down by the three Government Road Safety Strategies to date. 
 
The current Strategy, covering the period 2007 to 2012, has been the trigger for many of the major provisions being debated here today and contained in the 2009 Road Traffic Bill.
 
 
This Bill is the sixth major legislative initiative that has been taken on traffic law in the past decade. The legislative progression during that time has seen the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points systems, a new structure of speed limits based on metric values, the introduction of Mandatory Alcohol Testing checkpoints, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority and most recently, the introduction of the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the UK.
 
 
In the first instance, the advancement of road traffic legislation reflects a response to the transformative nature of road usage. 
This past decade has borne witness to a significant increase in vehicle volume. To put this in context, there were nearly 2.5 million registered vehicles in Ireland by end 2008. This was a 74% increase on 1997. 
 
This user demand has increased the requirement for good infrastructure and as a result, the last decade has also witnessed unprecedented levels of investment in our road networks. This level of investment continues into 2010 with allocations of over €412 million for regional and local roads as well as €1.1 billion for the National Roads Programme. A total of €15 million has also been provided towards road safety measures under this Programme. Such persistent investment has played a major role in reducing the deaths and injuries on our roads in recent years, particularly the development of our motorway infrastructure. 
 
The Major-Inter Urbans Roads Programme should be completed by the end of this year and we expect that these motorways will continue to support our safety objectives for many years to come.
 
Greater road usage has also encouraged the development of robust vehicle standards as well as the technology to support better enforcement. However, the most significant legislative factor has been the need to augment and enhance road safety provisions, which has led to a cultural shift in best practice ideology and practice for drivers and vehicles. All of these elements have merged to create a better road safety environment.
Since the publication of the first Road Safety Strategy in 1998, there has been a steady decline in the numbers of people being killed on our roads. In that year, 472 people lost their lives in collisions. 
 
These fatality records provide a sad reminder of the loss suffered by people over the years but particularly in 1972 when road deaths reached a staggering 640. This figure is really astonishing when you consider that the number of vehicles on our roads quadrupled between 1970 and 2008. In contrast to 1972, last year was the safest year on record with fatalities totalling 239. It is never good news when talking about lives lost but our roads, without question, are becoming increasingly safe for all users.
 
In 2009, the European Transport Safety Council ranked Ireland 6th in the top ten best performing EU countries for road safety. To put this in greater context, we were ranked 16th in 2005. Our latest high-ranking position was based on figures for 2007 and it is anticipated that we will achieve even better results this year when the statistics for 2008 are taken into account. 
 
A recent OECD International Transport Forum Annual Report shows us in 5th position internationally in terms of road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometers in 2008.
 
However, it still remains unacceptable that so many people should die on our roads in this way. It is up to all of us to ensure that, despite the significant gains in recent years, complacency does not set in. There still is a lot of work to be done by all of us.
 
The House will recall that the first Road Safety Strategy 1998 to 2002 asserted the necessity for coordinating actions across a range of disciplines. Not to do so would have resulted, it is estimated, in road deaths reaching some 550 in 2002. A continuation of the “business as usual” approach would have seen annual road deaths rise to well beyond that figure in 2009. 
 
While we still cannot be content with the current trends in road collisions, it must be recognised that our road safety record is significantly more advanced as a result of the action taken by this Government to develop such a strategic approach.
 
Through the adoption of Road Safety Strategies, we have been able to identify and link measures that reinforce the advancement of the safety message. The establishment of the Garda National Traffic Corps and the Road Safety Authority have also had a profoundly positive effect on transmitting that message through enforcement, detection, education and awareness.
 
One of the great advantages of devising strategies is that they place our plans in the public domain, thus allowing for informed debate. This provides a useful benchmark of public, media and political opinion on the delivery of measures that have been identified. 
In fact, the current Road Safety Strategy was the subject of a wide-ranging consultation process, not only with the public at large, but also with key stakeholders and the outcome of that process is reflected in the 126 actions contained in the Strategy. Each of those actions has a designated responsible stakeholder for the delivery of each action. Such debate informs policy going forward and leads to the kind of legislative development being considered here today.
 
Indeed, the experience gained to date from such consultations has been invaluable. The drafting of the Bill before you today is the result of very extensive and detailed consultations between my officials and the key stakeholders involved. As we all know, road traffic legislation is one of the most challenged in our courts and consequently, requires that the drafting process of any new legislation must also focus on making the provisions as robust as possible.
 
I would now like to turn to the specific provisions being promoted in this Bill.
 
 
The primary focus of the legislation before the House today is to advance the road safety agenda through changing driver behaviour, particularly in the area of intoxicated driving. In this context, the Bill provides for the lowering of the legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) from 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 20 milligrammes for learner, novice and professional drivers, and from 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50 milligrammes for other drivers. The equivalent levels in urine and breath will apply. This provision is central to the approach of the 2009 Bill.
 
 
The Bill also provides for the mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions. 
It introduces administrative fixed penalties for certain drink driving offences, and also introduces Preliminary Impairment Testing to further assist the Gardaí in their enforcement role.
 
This Bill amends fixed charge and penalty point provisions by introducing the option of a fixed charge payment on receipt of summons. It sets out certain presumptions in relation to the delivery of fixed charge offence notices and seeks to improve certain matters relating to the endorsement of penalty points on driver records.
 
In relation to driving licences, the Bill amends related provisions to ensure that penalty points and disqualifications can be applied to non-national driving licences, and to give the Gardaí powers to seize a licence in certain circumstances.
 
In addition, the Bill amends provisions and penalties in relation to inconsiderate, careless and dangerous driving.
 
 
The Bill also restates existing provisions on intoxicated driving, consequential disqualifications and fixed charge offences, in a consolidated and clearer format, and includes a number of minor amendments to the Road Traffic Acts
 
All of the amendments and new provisions associated with this legislation stem directly from commitments given in the current Road Safety Strategy.
 
 
Reduced BAC (Part 2 – Sections 4 to 6)
In relation to drink driving, this House does not need to be reminded of the obvious incompatibility between alcohol and driving. 
The effects of this pairing are well documented.   The scientific evidence is conclusive and irrefutable.   
 
The simple fact is that any alcohol impairs driving and affects driver capacity in a variety of ways including psychomotor skills, cognitive functioning, choice and simple reaction times, visual function, vigilance, perception as well as ability to divide attention and absorb information.    As the House is also aware, the current Road Safety Strategy identifies the need to legislate for and introduce a reduction in the legal Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level for drivers, but does not specify what that level should be.  
 
In determining what the BAC limit should be reduced to, I sought the advice of the Road Safety Authority. 
 
That advice was informed by a number of issues, including known driver behaviour, past offending rates, enforcement practicalities, best international practice and research as well as analysis of data held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety. 
 
The safety imperative requires that this measure, even if modest in its impact on deaths and injuries, should be pursued, particularly to change behaviour and personal choices made in relation to drinking and driving. 
 
Furthermore, I am aware that the Northern Ireland Authorities published a consultation document last year, which advocates a similar reduction in that jurisdiction. It would be important for road safety and enforcement on both sides of the border to have the same BAC levels if possible.
 
Following the success of the roadside Mandatory Alcohol Testing and the associated high visibility enforcement by the Garda Síochána of the existing BAC levels, I consider it appropriate that we move to a lower BAC level at this juncture. 
 
Penalties (Part 2 – Sections 26 to 28)
While the RSA’s advice does not address the issue of appropriate penalties for drink driving offences, following the reduction in the BAC level, I have given much consideration to the structure of penalties under the Road Traffic Acts for such offences. 
 
The deterrent effect of a potential disqualification is a significant factor in changing driver behaviour in this country on drink driving.
   
While wishing to maintain the overall principle that intoxicated driving is and should be considered to be a serious offence, one which attracts such automatic disqualifications, I am mindful that in providing for lower BAC levels, some recognition should be made for those detected for the first time at the lower levels.
 
Accordingly, the Bill provides for two measures in this regard. As a transitional measure, in advance of the introduction of the lower BAC levels, provision is made to amend Section 5 of the 2006 Road Traffic Act to allow for an administrative option for those detected within specified lower levels, not exceeding 100milligrammes, to pay a fixed charge, accept a six month disqualification and avoid having the matter dealt with in a court.
 
Following the introduction of the new levels, penalties are provided for on payment of a fixed charge. 
The status of the driver and the BAC level detected will determine the disqualification period and associated penalties. For learner drivers and the recently qualified, as well as professional drivers, the penalties on payment of a fixed charge associated with the specified BAC will be three months disqualification and a €200 fine. All other drivers will receive three penalty points and a €200 fine for a first offence. This fixed charge option in lieu of court proceedings will only be available once in a five-year period to drivers who are not disqualified at the time of detection. 
 
Mandatory Alcohol Testing (Part 2 – Sections 8 and 9)
 
However, the application of appropriate penalties will not single-handedly save lives. Good enforcement and detection practices are also vital in achieving this aim. 
In this context, Mandatory Alcohol Testing (MAT) was introduced in 2006 and has proved a very successful intervention. An Garda Síochána, as a key partner, have had a major role in delivering on road safety results through ongoing roadside operations and a stringent testing regime. The percentage of drivers actually detected with excess alcohol levels continues to fall, thus confirming the deterrent effect of this measure. 
 
This system of detection by the Garda Síochána as well as the scientific analysis provided by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety is essential to maintaining the public perception that there is a real of risk of being detected and prosecuted, and is integral to the effectiveness of the deterrent. 
 
 
Section 8 of the 2009 Road Traffic Bill provides for mandatory testing of drivers involved in road traffic collisions, where a member of the Gardaí attends at the scene of a road traffic collision and where injury has been caused to another person who requires medical assistance. This is yet another improvement on the current legislation. On previous occasions, I have been asked to explain why there is no provision to test drivers involved in all collisions. This is because, in many instances, the collisions result in material damage to vehicles only, are generally minor in nature and are settled by the drivers concerned. 
 
Overall, I believe the newly extended provisions related to the testing at collision sites will enhance the deterrent effect and support the enforcement of the reduced BAC.
 
Preliminary Impairment Testing (Part 2 – Section 10)
 
Complementary to the measures already outlined will be the new provisions to introduce Preliminary Impairment Testing. 
 
It is illegal in Ireland to drive while under the influence of drink and/or drugs to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle.   The Gardaí are obliged by law to determine whether a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant to such an extent.  
 
This obligation is more difficult when trying to determine the presence of drugs. There is currently no suitable device available that will permit roadside testing of drivers for drugs.
 
 
However, the Medical Bureau of Road Safety is keeping abreast of developments in this area and will inform me when a suitable device has been identified for testing and certification.
 
Unlike alcohol, there is no legal limit for drugs. Detections for drug driving are on the increase and as concern grows for the effects of both polydrug use and mixing drugs with alcohol while driving, a more detailed review of the regulatory regime in relation to this issue has been raised in the context of the current Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012. It is planned that such a review will commence this year and will require very detailed consideration and consultation by the relevant key stakeholders involved. 
 
 
In the interim and arising from the actions in the Strategy, Section 10 of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 provides that a driver may be required by the Gardaí to perform tests, “Preliminary Impairment Testing”, to assist the Gardaí in determining the extent to which a driver is under the influence of an intoxicant. That Section also provides for the making of regulations by the Minister to prescribe how such tests should be carried out.
 
Formal training in impairment testing for the Gardaí will begin this year.   The Medical Bureau of Road Safety with the School of Medicine at UCD will give the training with the aim of enhancing the assessment of drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. The training course is currently being designed by the Medical Bureau in close consultation with the Gardaí.
  
I am certain that the combination of the reduced BAC level, along with the introduction of preliminary impairment testing and the extension of the testing regime at collision sites, will further augment the momentum that has been achieved to date in reducing road fatalities and increasing road safety overall. 
 
Improvements in Enforcement Provisions (Part 3: Sections 30 – 43)
 
As previously mentioned, enforcement needs to be a key element in any road safety agenda. This Bill contains a number of provisions aimed at improving aspects of the enforcement of road traffic offences.
 
An Garda Síochána are responsible for the detection of road traffic offences. Many of the offences are included in either the fixed charge or the penalty point scheme. 
 
The aim of these schemes is to increase the effectiveness of Garda enforcement, to improve driver behaviour through the deterrent effect, and to reduce the volume of road traffic offences coming before the Courts. From a road safety point of view, I would see this trend continuing into the future with more offences being included under these schemes. 
 
With regard to fixed charges, payment is possible within 56 days of the issue of the notice but there is currently no option for payment after that date. While some 70% of fixed charge notices are paid, an estimated 30% end up in Court for failure to pay within the prescribed 56-day period. The case has been made to me that, for a number of reasons, a person may not be able to make a payment within the prescribed time but many would rather make a payment than be prosecuted in Court. 
 
The Bill therefore provides for a final option of payment not later that 7 days before the date set for the Court hearing. If the payment is made within that period, the prosecution will not proceed. 
 
Where fixed charge offences proceed to Court, other amendments have been included in the Bill to improve the effectiveness of the overall fixed charge system. Section 34 sets out certain presumptions in relation to prosecutions for fixed charge offences, in particular the presumption that a notice has been served where there is proof of posting or delivery of the notice.
 
Penalty Points (Part 4: Sections 44-46)
Any penalty points or driver disqualifications arising from paid fixed charge notices or Court convictions must then be applied to the driver through the driver licence record, held on the National Vehicle and Driver File (NVDF) in Shannon.
In order to make the system more effective and to make the best use of available resources, it is necessary to maximise the payment of fixed charge notices and minimise the numbers proceeding to Court. In addition, it is critical that the correct driver details are recorded at all stages of the process to enable the effective integration of driver information, penalty points and disqualifications on the driver record.
 
The main provision in the Bill in relation to penalty points is under Section 44. This Section provides for amendments to facilitate the endorsement of penalty points where a licence record does not exist or has not been identified, or where the person is the holder of a foreign driving licence. It also provides for the transfer of any penalty points accumulated from such a record to a pre-existing record, which is later identified. 
 
 
Recent media attention focused on the endorsement of penalty points following a conviction in the Courts for such an offence. The 2002 Road Traffic Act currently provides that a person who is alleged to have committed an offence under the Road Traffic Acts must produce their driving licence to the Court on the first day he or she is due to appear before the Court or on a subsequent date at the discretion of the presiding judge.
 
The Act also provides that the Court shall record whether or not the licence has been produced. The purpose of the requirement is to enable the Court to record the driving licence details to facilitate endorsing penalty points on the licence record of drivers convicted of such offences.
 
Issues arising relating the application of these provisions were identified during the very extensive discussions that preceded the drafting of the Bill. Consequently, Section 51 establishes a requirement to produce both a driver licence and a copy of the licence to the District Court clerk on the first day of the Court hearing. This will further assist administrative procedures in the Courts and the application of the Penalty Points to the appropriate driver licence record.
 
Driving Licences (Part 5: Sections 47-51)
In this context, it is vital that the driving license system is robust from an enforcement perspective. Accordingly, this Bill has established a new requirement that will further validate the identification process of licence applicants. Section 48 specifies that licence applications including renewals must include a Personal Public Service Number (PPSN). In addition, Section 49 provides for the offence of applying for a driving licence or learner permit while disqualified for holding a licence.
 
Increasing travel, migration and movement of goods in recent years has meant that there are many more holders of non-Irish driving licences on our roads than in earlier years. It goes without saying that compliance with road traffic legislation is important for all road users, both for their own safety and the safety of others. 
 
The introduction of mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the UK on 28 January this year marks a very significant road safety measure because it aims to target some of the most dangerous drivers on our roads. It is also a good example of the co-operation that exists between the jurisdictions and separately, our joint determinationto save lives and reduce injuries on our roads.
  
Part 5 of the Bill also provides for amendments to the definition of a ‘driving licence’ to bring foreign driving licence holders into the scope of the application of sanctions for road traffic offences, including a disqualification for holding a driving licenceSection 52 of this Bill will also ensurethat a person who is in receipt of a disqualification order stands disqualified for holding a driving licence, whether that person holds an Irish or a foreign driving licence.
 
 
Other Miscellaneous Provisions
 
The Bill, in addition to addressing the major policy issues that I have outlined, provides for a number of necessary initiatives that will help to bring clarity to a number of areas, with particular attention being paid to deterrents.
  
Section 61provides for making current third party motor insurance data available as soon as possible for the purposes of enforcing the requirements of the Principal Act and to meet the information needs of the 4th and 5th Motor Insurance EU Directives in providing insurance and ownership details to the victims of motor accidents by means of an Information Centre, operated by the Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland.
 
Section 62repeals section 21 of the Act of 2002, section 15 of the Act of 2004 and section 17 of the Act of 2006 and restates the provisions in respect of evidence in relation to speeding and certain other offences and clarifies those relating to the development, production and viewing of records produced by safety cameras by Garda civilian personnel designated by the Garda Commissioner under Section 19 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.
 
Section 63 provides for the ordering by the Court of costs of prosecutions, incurred by the Court, in relation to the investigation, detection and prosecution of offences under the Road Traffic Acts 1961 to 2009.
 
Section 70 provides for the amendment of section 35 of the Act of 1994 to allow regulations made under the section to specify the manner in which permits issued by a local authority must be displayed on the vehicle concerned
 
In addition to the new and amended provisions already described, I have taken the opportunity in the Bill to consolidate the intoxicated driving provisions from a number of earlier Road Traffic Acts, in a clearer format, and with consequent repeals. This means that all intoxicated driving provisions will now be together in one piece of legislation.
 
 
Conclusion
 
To conclude, the key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Consequently, the primary focus of our Road Safety Strategy is to positively influence that behaviour. This can be attained through initiatives across a range of areas including the enactment and enforcement of laws that promote good road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications as well as well as the necessary technological resources.
 
In that context, the finalisation of the safety camera contract in 2009 by my colleagues Minister Ahern and Garda Commissioner Murphy is most welcome. Reducing excessive and inappropriate speed on our roads is another key road safety component for all road users. 
 
The safety camera initiative along with the introduction of the new drink driving limits levels should have a major impact, both in deterrence and enforcement, in the advancement of the overall road safety programme.
 
This Bill is yet another element of that programme and will, without doubt, build on those achievements of recent years. It will help to deliver additional improvements to the manner in which all drivers interact with our road system. Society both expects and requires these improvements, whether in the short, medium or long term.
 
The establishment of both the Road Safety Authority and the Garda National Traffic Corps is testament to the radical approach that has been taken towards the development of road safety policy. That approach is also supported by the separate establishment of a special Ministerial Committee on Road Safety, chaired by me, to promote cross cutting road safety issues at which all of the relevant Ministers are afforded the opportunity to address issues of immediate importance in a collective and systematic way.
 
This Bill that I am presenting here today is targeted at some very specific areas of driver behaviour. As Deputies will be aware, road traffic legislation is very complex and covers a very wide range of activities but I have taken the approach in this Bill of concentrating on certain key priority issues.    I hope that this particular approach will help to deal with these issues in a more focused and prioritised way. When taken with the institutional changes referred to above, the Bill marks a significant watershed in the deployment of road safety policy.
 
Deputies will, I am sure, make very worthwhile suggestions for initiatives in the area of road safety. However, these may not fall within the parameters that I have set for this particular Bill. Nonetheless, I can assure the House that any such suggestions will be considered very carefully.
 
Indeed, my officials are currently considering, in consultation with the Offices of the Attorney General, a number of amendments to the Bill, which I propose to introduce at Committee Stage. For the most part, these will be technical adjustments to existing provisions. However, I will also be proposing amendments to deal with certain issues that have arisen since the Bill’s publication. These will include provisions to address the role of the Gardaí in enforcing Advanced Driving Instructors (ADI) requirements, changes to the detention period under Section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 and further changes to the requirements provided under Section 51 of the Bill relating to the production of a driving licence in Court.  
 
My officials are also giving consideration, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, to proposals submitted by the Road Safety Authority for the introduction of a Deposit Scheme to address the issue of breaches of certain offences for non-resident drivers under the Road Traffic and Transport Acts.
 
I look forward to the cooperation of members in facilitating the passage of this Bill and I commend the Bill to the House.
 
 

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