Check against delivery
Before we turn our attention to the General Scheme, I would first like to acknowledge the opportunity that has been afforded us today to discuss and consider the policy framework of this Scheme. The Government approved the General Scheme only two weeks ago and, today, we are breaking new ground with this, a more consultative approach to developing legislation. The Programme for Government made a commitment to involve public representatives at an earlier stage of the legislative process. This was to allow Oireachtas Committees to consider proposed legislation prior to its publication. As far as I am aware, this is the first piece of proposed legislation to undergo this process.
It is my understanding that today’s meeting will act as a forum to discuss the policy issues contained in the proposed legislation and not the specifics of each Head. Once the legislation has been published, the Bill will, of course, be subject to the usual legislative procedures in the Oireachtas and the Committee will be given an opportunity, at Committee Stage, of debating the specific details contained.
I think it would be more productive today if members would focus on the major changes brought about by the legislation and I am looking forward to getting feedback on the provisions at this early stage. By way of providing context, I would now like to make a brief statement to set out my aspirations for this Bill.
The Scheme that we are considering today will allow for a range of new road safety measures. Once the Bill is enacted, mandatory breath testing for the lower drink driving limits, approved under the 2010 Road Traffic Act, can become operational. As can the preliminary impairment testing provisions of the 2010 Act. The Scheme provides for new measures to be introduced for supporting inexperienced drivers and will instigate the necessary provisions for transforming and reforming the commercial vehicle testing and driving licensing systems.
This is the second piece of road traffic legislation that I have initiated this year, reflecting my intention to build on the momentum of recent years – in 2010 and this year. With this Scheme, I am advocating a reform agenda that will deliver efficiencies and improve practice and services generally.
In the last decade alone, the Oireachtas has passed eight major pieces of legislation on traffic law. This is testament to the level of commitment and support throughout our society for improving road safety standards. The last ten years has borne witness to 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 and the establishment of the Road Safety Authority. More recently, we have seen the roll out of a network of privately operated safety cameras.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Road Traffic Bill 2011 to the Dáil. Arising from its enactment, it is now mandatory for a member of An Garda Síochána to test for alcohol if a driver has been involved in a road traffic collision where an injury has been caused. Mandatory breath testing now also applies where a member of the Gardaí is of the opinion that a driver has consumed alcohol.
It is certainly no coincidence that deaths on our roads have been halved in the last decade.
The measures already outlined along with the dedication of relevant stakeholders have harnessed a sea-change around attitudes to driving in Ireland. This has been recognised internationally. In June 2011, the European Transport Safety Council ranked Ireland 6th in the top performing EU countries compared with 7th in 2010. The downward trend in road deaths appears to be continuing in 2011.
However, we must never become desensitized to these numbers as each and every road fatality statistic masks a tragic account of loss and sadness. And fatalities are only part of the picture. Many people can be left devastated by road crashes and some will suffer life-changing injuries. We need to make travelling safer and we must not lose focus.
With those sentiments in mind, I would now like to turn to the provisions that have been included in the General Scheme and are being considered in the drafting process by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
A large part of the Scheme is devoted to the consolidation of existing driver licensing legislation. Over the years, a significant amount of road safety legislation has been enacted. Under the Road Safety Strategy, it was considered that it would be beneficial to all concerned if the various strands of legislation could be consolidated in one Act. This proposed Bill takes a further step in this direction by bringing together provisions related to driver licences.
The Scheme also proposes a number of new measures in relation to driver licensing. Firstly, in Head 38, I am proposing that an enabling provision be included in relation to the introduction of a plastic card driver licence. We are required under EU legislation to have in place a plastic card licence in 2013 and the RSA has begun preparations for its introduction.
The provision in the Bill will allow for the making of regulations regarding the specific content of the new licence and administrative arrangements regarding its production and distribution. It is also my intention, as part of the overall introduction of the plastic card licence, to transfer responsibility for driver licensing generally from local authorities to the RSA.
The Scheme will also provide for some elements of the graduated driver licence system that the RSA launched in September of last year. In particular, it introduces the concept of ‘restricted, or novice, driving licence’, which is a driving licence held by a driver in the two year period that follows the passing of his or her driving test. Novice drivers will be required to display ‘R’ plates for this two-year period and will, with learner drivers, be subject to higher penalty points than other drivers for certain offences. Some other elements of graduated driver licensing are already in operation, such as the taking of compulsory driving instruction, and I intend to provide for other elements, such as alternative sentencing options for judges, in future legislation.
Another major issue addressed in the Scheme is mandatory breath testing of drivers by the Gardaí at the, soon to be introduced, lower alcohol levels. Members will recall that the 2011 Road Traffic Act, the first piece of legislation approved by the new Dail, provided for mandatory breath testing at the current alcohol levels. This Scheme applies the same provisions but relates them to the lower levels of blood alcohol concentrations enacted under the 2010 Road Traffic Act. I expect to commence the sections of the 2010 Act relating to the lower levels later this year when the apparatus for measuring the new levels has been tested and distributed to Garda stations.
I am also proposing to strengthen the relevant section of the 2011 Act by providing that a blood specimen may be taken from a person who attends hospital after a road collision but, for medical reasons, is unable to give permission for the specimen to be taken. The specimen will be held but not analysed until the person is in a position to give consent.
In Heads 49 to 54, I am proposing to transfer responsibility for the operation and supervision of the commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing system from the local authorities to the RSA. This proposal is based on recommendations by consultants following a review, a few years ago, of the arrangements in place for roadworthiness testing of commercial vehicles. The review was undertaken following a number of high profile collisions, including the Kentstown bus crash, involving commercial vehicles. The overall objective is to make a step change in the quality of commercial vehicles using Irish roads and thereby help improve road safety, reduce congestion, develop a much greater awareness of road safety issues and improve the culture of safety within the transport industry.
In Head 55, I am providing that a written statement from a member of the Gardaí or a designated official would be produced in court as evidence in court proceedings for speeding offences. This would mean that the Garda or the designed official would no longer be required to attend at court, thus saving a considerable amount of Garda time.
A number of other issues are addressed in the Scheme including:
• Enabling provisions for the use, detention and destruction of non-roadworthy vehicles,
• Enabling provisions to allow for the regulation of electric and car-club parking bays and
• A number of minor, technical amendments to previous legislation.
I look forward to discussing and debating the provisions of the Bill with Deputies and Senators when it is published. It is my hope that the Bill can be published quickly and that I can formally introduce it in both Houses after the summer recess. With this in mind, I would again ask that the Committee make a submission to me on the proposals within the next month. I will report to Government on any substantive additions or amendments that the Committee proposes.
Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport Press Office. Tel: (01) 604 1076 / (01) 604 1090