Dáil Éireann - Volume 348 - 21 February, 1984
Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Mr. N. Treacy Mr. N. Treacy
Mr. N. Treacy: I was speaking about the proposed excess penalties in this Bill for illegal parking in public places. Over the years the State has initiated this type of illegal problem because the location of many Government Departments and  agency offices in the heart of our cities and towns has made it impossible for the public, who use these offices to get what they are entitled to, to park. Private institutions who want to purchase, acquire or develop property in similar locations have to get planning permission to do so, and one of the conditions they have to comply with is the provision of parking facilities. I appeal to the Minister to try to ensure that reasonable parking facilities are made available in close proximity to all Government and public offices so that physically able-bodied people, or people who may be physically retarded or disabled, would have proper parking facilities available to them.
I should like to refer to the fines proposed for speeding. Since the energy crisis the maximum speed limit on our national primary and secondary roads is 55 mph. Despite the fact that energy is readily available its cost has not lessened in the meantime. We should now have the abolition of speed limits on our national primary roads. There should be open driving without limitation on our national primary roads. There should be certain limits on our secondary roads and lower limits on minor and other roads.
We have an ever-increasing population. In modern times with a high rate of unemployment, it is inevitable that our people should turn to the normal types of recreation on more numerous occasions than heretofore. As a result we have many pedestrians, cyclists and joggers on the roads during the day and in the evening at twilight. Many of these people are a major hazard for our drivers because they do not wear armbands. A person may be walking, running or cycling along the road at twilight, or in the dark, with no armband or light, and a driver comes around the corner not expecting to meet oncoming traffic and goes bang into the pedestrian, runner or cyclist. The result is another death on the road.
We all know drivers are the victims at all times in those situations The gossip is that the driver was drunk or a careless person, or perhaps he was even blind. He wore glasses. That is said after a tragedy which could be averted if we had proper  legislation. What about the poor innocent victim who did not wear an armband? More pedestrians, cyclists and joggers are using the roads and of course we have more drivers. The laws are loaded against the motorist. Why? Surely there should be equality within the law in both content and application for all road users. The wearing of armbands should be compulsory for all road users except motorists. The displaying of a tax disc is obligatory for a motorist and, in the same way, the wearing of an armband should be compulsory for all other road users. I call on the Minister of State to draft the necessary legislation and bring it before this House as soon as possible.
I should like to refer to drunken driving. The law or perhaps the weight of medical opinion prevents an injured driver, drunken or otherwise, who is admitted to hospital as the result of an accident from having a blood sample taken, or a breathalyser test, or giving a urine sample. Surely a blood sample would be a simple solution to a major problem with regard to the application of road traffic law and ensuring that justice is available to all our citizens? The time has come for urgent action to eliminate this loophole in the law. Those responsible for thoughtless actions culminating in the death of innocent law-abiding citizens must be brought to justice and the most severe penalties must be imposed for these savage breaches of the law. I appeal to the Minister on behalf of the families of all the victims killed or maimed on the roads to remedy this problem immediately.
Mr. Molony Mr. Molony
Mr. Molony: This Bill is an important measure which is somewhat overdue. I fail to understand why we cannot devise some system of updating fines and penalties rather than waiting for new legislation to come before the Oireachtas. It must be possible to find some way of reviewing every few years the levels of maximum fines which courts can impose. The level of fines in respect of some road traffic offences has become a complete nonsense and the same applies in many other areas of the law. They are so outdated as to make a complete farce of the  judicial system. Judges are frequently blamed for the levels of penalties they impose in certain cases and people do not often recognise that judges can only apply the law within the discretion which the Oireachtas allows. It has been the case for the past few years that it has been much cheaper to drive uninsured and incur a penalty of £100 or £200 if caught than to pay an insurance premium. It is ludicrous that things have reached such a stage.
Many Members have dwelt on our appalling accident record. It is a feature of media comment to blame high jury awards for the high cost of insurance. I do not blame the media for this. This comment is inspired by some insurance companies who wish to point out that the reason for high insurance is the size of these awards. The reasons for the high cost of insurance are the appallingly high accident rate and the appallingly high rate of uninsured driving. This Bill will go some way to deal with the latter point but it is only one step towards what needs to be done. The Minister made the point during his speech on Second Stage that he would be introducing a further Bill later in the year. I welcome this commitment but I am sorry he did not use the opportunity to set out some of the things he proposes to do. There have been a number of reports on what might be done to get the problem under control.
One of the major causes of high insurance is the rate of accidents. The report published by the committee who reported in December 1982 on the cost of insurance indicated that in Ireland there are 7.2 road deaths per 10,000 drivers compared with 3.4 per 10,000 drivers in Great Britain and 2.9 in Norway. Our record is appalling. This problem could be approached in various ways. There is something of a vicious circle because the high rate of road accidents must obviously lead to high insurance costs and this in turn must lead to a high rate of uninsured driving, particularly when the problem is out of control.
I want to make some suggestions, most of which will already be known to the Minister because of the report to which I have referred and other reports. Our  laws compare very badly with those in other European countries with regard to driving and motor insurance. The standard of our driving test is inadequate and it must be raised. There should be no question of a backlog arising in the number of applicants awaiting a driving test. We must never have a repeat of the appalling mistake made some years ago when the Minister for the Environment, because of the large number of people awaiting a driving test, decided to abolish the queue altogether. Everybody who was on the waiting list was given a licence without having to do a test. If that is the measure of the seriousness with which we take the highest accident rate in Europe, Governments and the officials who advise Ministers have a lot to answer for.
Alcohol consumption makes a substantial contribution to the level of accidents and our approach has been too simplistic. I would urge that the law be reviewed in two respects. As suggested in the report on motor insurance, some differentiation should be made between the alcohol content which would be permissible for younger people and older people. There is medical evidence to suggest that the level which might be acceptable in a fully grown adult might not be acceptable in a young driver. There is a strong case to be made for reducing the present content level but it should not be an absolute reduction. At the moment it stands at 100 so far as a blood test is concerned. That could be reduced to 80 but the presumption of guilt should rest with the person charged who has an alcohol content between 80 and 100 in the bloodstream. A person who is found to have an alcohol content of 85 in his blood and brought before the court should be acquitted if he can prove that his driving was in order. An onus should be put on persons who have taken any alcohol. It might be a bit harsh to reduce the level from 80 but there is a strong case to be made for reducing it from 100 to 80. If a person driving a vehicle is seen to be at fault that person should be liable to prosecution for having taken alcohol and driven. If, on the other hand, his or her driving can be shown not to have been at fault then that person should be acquitted. A person  should certainly be convicted of an offence if the alcohol level is over 100.
I pay tribute to the Garda who, with very limited resources, are expected to police all sorts of activities. If we are to tackle the problems of uninsured driving and the use of cars which are not road-worthy we must have more extensive checks by the Garda. There should be a compulsory annual road test for cars aged three years or more. Gardaí or special wardens should operate a constant checking system until we arrest the problem.
Some insurance companies estimate that the level of uninsured driving is in the order of 20 per cent or 25 per cent. The Garda in a survey they carried out found the level to be 22 per cent. Two or three years ago the level was estimated at about 10 per cent. Somewhere between all those figures lies the truth. It is impossible to estimate accurately what the true figure is. We have an outrageously high level of uninsured driving which is multiples of the level of uninsured driving which occurs in other countries. If we are not prepared to tackle that problem by putting resources into it, we have no business complaining about it. Insurance companies and consumers have no business complaining about the cost of insurance unless we are prepared to tackle this where it matters — the enforcement of existing laws. I regard this as very important and I regret that something has not been done more urgently in relation to it. The report I referred to was published in December 1982. There has been adequate time to bring in something more than the increase in penalties proposed in this Bill.
There was a provision in section 57 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, where a judge of the District Court who was dealing with a charge of a person driving without insurance, could impose a penalty which was the equivalent of damage done to the other person's car if there was a crash. That was known as a “piggy back” claim. If the crash was the fault of an uninsured driver, instead of the victim having to introduce civil proceedings to recover money from the miscreant a district justice could impose a fine. If there  was damage costing £1,000 done to a third party's car, the District Justice could impose a fine of £1,000. I regarded that as a most efficient section in our law so far as these cases are concerned. It worked quickly and put the onus for discharging the penalty on the person responsible. It avoided duplication of legal proceedings and it also ensured that a person before a judge dealing with a criminal matter would have to respond realistically to facing up to the damage he had done. At the moment, if a person driving an uninsured car causes damage and if the person injured thinks of suing that person, he can sue him; but, unless the person who causes the accident has means or assets that can be taken, the third party victim has no prospect of recovering any money. He has to undertake the cost of bringing his own civil proceedings in order to obtain a judgment against the miscreant.
Section 57 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, dealt with that problem. Unfortunately it was found to be unconstitutional. I searched in the Library this evening to see if I could find a copy of the judgment but I failed to find it. I recall reading that judgment very carefully at the time. It was quite clear from reading it that there was a way out of the problem. There was another way of re-introducing the provisions of section 57. I am sorry that the Ministers responsible for this matter over the last few years have not taken the trouble to re-introduce that provision. It was a highly efficient and effective one. In regard to the whole question of uninsured driving, this is very important. I urge the Minister in the second Road Traffic Bill, which he has promised us later this year, to give serious consideration to the re-introduction of that provision. I will be delighted to receive an explanation if there is some reason why that cannot be done.
I have dealt with some suggestions which might help to solve the problem of uninsured driving. There are two final areas I want to deal with in relation to this matter. The first one is the constant attack on the system of jury awards. I can understand people's frustration when they get their motor insurance premium  account which shows a charge of £400 or £500 and they pick up their newspaper and find a very abbreviated report that somebody has received an award of £500,000, £750,000 or some other amount. I can understand their feeling of frustration and annoyance because their insurance premiums are so high, but I can also understand insurance companies constantly saying that jury awards here are far too high, particularly when they complain they lost money in the motor insurance business. I am obliged to say from my own experience that one cannot generally offer the view that jury awards are too high. I know of cases in which people succeeded in obtaining awards that seemed very high five and six years ago, but with the ravages of inflation these have been reduced to very little. I am talking about people who have been very seriously injured in road traffic accidents and who require constant medical treatment and care as a result of injuries received.
I am not just talking about those people who have been reduced to a state of being vegetables as a result of road traffic accidents. It is tragic that those victims of road traffic accidents who get the high awards are not in any position to defend the awards. It is sadder still that the people who will benefit from such awards in the future, if the system is left there, are not in a position to speak because they have not yet suffered their accidents. There are thousands of people throughout the country who have yet to suffer the most appalling injuries on the roads. We are codding ourselves about what is really wrong if we put the blame for high insurance premiums on our accident victims and the juries who give them the awards. I object to the way insurance companies and other interest groups throughout the country have blamed the high level of jury awards for the high cost of insurance.
I challenge those people to go through the awards and show me where in the generality of all awards made those awards have been too high. I believe that the President of the High Court is the judge who is vested with responsibility for looking after wards of court. As far  as road traffic accidents are concerned, wards of court would generally be people who are so seriously injured that they are unable to manage their affairs because of the mental damage caused to them. I am told that the judge in charge of that section has been concerned that awards given to those people in the past simply have not been sufficient to meet their requirements as the years have gone on. This is not a very popular thing to shout about. I know of instances of fatal accident cases and personal injuries cases where people who had not lucky investments have not been able to retain in their awards the necessary value to overcome the inflationary problems we have had. I caution Deputies who tend to rush in to make comments about those awards to think very carefully about the people who suffer appallingly bad injuries and even the people who suffer injuries which are not quite so bad.
We cannot blame the victims of motor accidents for the cost of motor insurance. We are going about the matter in the correct way if we reduce the number of victims or if we ensure that everybody who is driving pays into the system. I find it reprehensible to say of those poor victims, some of whom were thrown on the scrap heap after their accidents, that it is their fault and that they are getting too much. I am glad I have not heard any Minister make any remarks along those lines. It is far too easy a line to take and is one which, if pursued, will not deal with the problem we have.
I am quite certain that there are some changes which should be made in our legal system which would help make the system more efficient. I am glad to say that recently the High Court have significantly caught up with the arrears of work which had built up a couple of years ago. That is very important. There are other changes which could be made. Judges should be permitted to advise juries about the type of awards given by other juries and a certain pattern should be established for specific types of injuries. That could be done to useful effect. Aspects of legal procedure could be changed, for example the system of having two senior counsel in all cases.  However, effectively those are very small areas and we are only creeping around the side of the problem. The real problem is our high accident rate and uninsured driving. I have dealt with the problem of the high accident rate and made some suggestions that might be of assistance. I want to make a last comment on that. The National Road Safety Association should be funded sufficiently to allow them to carry out far more work in bringing to the attention of people the cost of our high accident rate in terms both of insurance and damage to life. We have seen on television and through the other media some very effective advertising campaigns.
In the last year or two we have not seen quite so much of that and I would be concerned if that is to develop into cost-cutting because that would be penny wise, pound foolish. They should be given sufficient funds to enable them to carry out a constant, comprehensive, well-funded programme to draw to people's attention the cost involved in road traffic accidents and the appalling human misery resulting from them. Insurance companies should be encouraged to involve themselves in that field also. I would like to compliment the Hibernian Insurance Company who involve themselves by advising people about how to reduce risks. They do not confine themselves merely to road traffic accidents, but they refer to all sorts of risks on the various policies they offer. That is a good and sensible approach from an insurance company. I ask insurance companies to go along with the National Road Safety Association or perhaps go on their own in investing in programmes advertising and educating the public on the dangers involved in all of this.
I want to move to the question of uninsured driving particularly among young people. It is incomprehensible that it has become so expensive for young people to take out insurance that many of them are driving without insurance. I do not think that there is any other explanation for the level of uninsured driving we have which amounts to somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of all drivers. We have about  three-quarters of a million drivers in the country and if 20 to 25 per cent of those are uninsured, then apart from the appalling law-breaking that is taking place, the amount of money that insurance companies are closing off for themselves by charging such high premiums must be significant.
Insurance companies who operate in the motor insurance field give all sorts of commitments to Government that they will refuse insurance to nobody on the grounds of age alone. I understand that an agreement called the declined cases agreement is in existence and was entered into by the motor insurance companies with the Minister in 1981. Under that agreement insurance companies undertook to refuse insurance to no person because of age alone. Again I understand that that system is meant to work, or works, as the case may be, that a young person who is refused insurance at six different insurance companies has the right to complain to a monitoring committee in the Department of Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism who can then oblige the first company to whom that young person went to quote that person and give him insurance. I say I understand that the agreement contains those provisions and that it works as I have outlined because I do not know what is in the agreement. When I asked to see that agreement first I was told that it was a secret agreement and I could not see it. Since then there has been a sort of breakdown in the attitude of the insurance companies or the Department — I do not know which — and there was some talk subsequently about giving it to me. I cannot for the life of me see the advantage in having an agreement to ensure that young people get insurance if it is a secret agreement, if it is not available for a Member of the Oireachtas to look at and judge its worth and it is of damn little use to people aged 18, 19 or 20 who are looking for insurance for the first time and who have never heard of the declined cases agreement. How they can be expected to know what is in that agreement is beyond me. The insurance industry, as they claim, are fulfilling their responsibilities under the agreement as  long as at least one insurance company is offering insurance to young drivers. That to my mind is an outrage and could not possibly represent the intention of the declined cases agreement. In addition to that, any insurance broker will tell you that if you are a young person then effectively you cannot get insurance. That is an indication that the motor insurance industry has failed to discharge its responsibilities in that regard.
I can understand the motor insurance companies saying that insuring young people is very expensive because of their high accident rate. I cannot deny that if young people have a record of bad accident driving they must face a higher premium charge. I am not sure that every young driver should be asked to pay for the bad driving of other young people. We must find some mix. Perhaps a solution would be to insure a young person at an ordinary basic rate plus 50 per cent for, say, a year and see how he gets on. If he has an accident jump it up to the full whatever it may be to pay for the average accident committer. On the other hand, if a person does not have an accident then it is time to bring the 50 per cent loading back towards the base. There must be an incentive for young people. At the moment of all the insurance companies I could trace who operate in this field, only about one in 20 would even quote an insurance premium to a driver aged 20. When I got in touch with that insurance company and asked them to quote a premium for a Ford Fiesta which we valued at £2,000 we were told that the premium would cost £1,034 to insure the vehicle. That is a promise of insurance cover, but to charge over 50 per cent of the value of the car for insurance cover is making fair nonsense of the declined cases agreement, of other agreements and beliefs we have and of statements from Government Ministers in this House to the effect that young people could not be refused insurance on the grounds of age alone.
I want to place on the record of this House the responses that insurance companies gave when asked to give insurance to young drivers.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Conaghan) Acting Chairman (Mr. Conaghan)
 Acting Chairman (Mr. Conaghan): Deputy, before you do so, let me remind you that this Bill is dealing with penalties. I ask you to come back to the content of the Bill and speak ad rem.
Mr. Molony Mr. Molony
Mr. Molony: I would have to refer to the Minister's Second Stage speech where he dealt with considerably more than penalties and gave the background to the problem. I must insist that I am dealing with the background to this problem. The reason the penalties are being increased is the higher insurance rate and that is precisely the problem I am dealing with. It is most important that I be allowed make this contribution because I want the Minister to know my feelings on the subject so that the matter might be examined more comprehensively.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: The procedure would provide for a passing reference to what you are speaking about but you must speak ad rem and the Bill essentially deals with penalties. I ask you to come back to that and confine your remarks in that direction.
Mr. Molony Mr. Molony
Mr. Molony: I want to confirm to the Chair that I am dealing with the question of penalties. The Bill is increasing penalties in order to overcome the problem of offences under the Road Traffic Acts, and that is precisely what I am dealing with. I want to explain to the House the reason for the high level of uninsured driving and the level of offences being committed under the Road Traffic Acts. I insist on that because it is pertinent to this legislation.
Acting Chairman Acting Chairman
Acting Chairman: I will not go into the realm of semantics but if you channel your contribution in the direction of penalties I will agree with you.
Mr. Molony Mr. Molony
Mr. Molony: Let me resume my contribution by making the point that the reason so many young people are driving without insurance today is that the insurance companies operating in the motor insurance field offered the following responses to people looking for insurance. In all instances we quoted to the  insurance companies a 20 year-old person seeking insurance for a car worth £2,000. The following are the responses from the companies:
American International Insurance Corporation — will not insure anyone under the age of 25 years.
Afia Insurance Company — will not cover private individuals.
Castle Motors — will not insure drivers under the age of 25 years.
Erin Syndicate at Lloyds — will not insure persons under the age of 25 years.
Ecclesiastical Insurance — will not cover car insurance.
FBD Insurance Company Ltd — will not take any new clients at all.
General Accident Fire & Life — will not take any new clients at all.
Insurance Company of North America — will not take any car insurance.
The PMPA, the one I mentioned, is the one exception and, I might add, that it is now a State-subsidised body. Other responses were:
Church and General — will not accept any proposals under the age of 30 years and then only on a comprehensive basis and if they are given supporting business at the same time.
Hibernian Insurance Company Ltd. — will not accept any proposals under the age of 25 years and will only accept those if the proposal places supporting business with it.
Shield Insurance Co. Ltd. — will not accept proposals from anyone under the age of 25 years.
Irish National Insurance Co. — will not accept a proposal from anyone under the age of 25 years.
Sun Alliance — will not accept any proposals from persons under the age of 28 years.
 Zurich Insurance Co. Ltd. — will not accept a proposal from anyone under the age of 28 years.
Insurance Corporation of Ireland — will not accept proposals from anybody under the age of 25 years.
Norwich Union — will not accept any new motor business at all and have not done so for the past year.
Guardian Royal Exchange Group — will not accept any proposals under the age of 21 years and those between the ages of 21 and 25 years will only be covered if they take comprehensive cover which is expensive. For example, a 21-year-old with a provisional licence for a Ford Escort car would pay £1,200.
I welcome the Bill in so far as it increases penalties, but do not let anybody believe for one second that it will deal with the problem of uninsured driving here. The motor insurance industry stands indicted for, firstly, flouting the agreement they entered into with the Minister in 1981, namely the declined cases agreement. I have the greatest of sympathy for insurers given the very high acident rate we have. The House stands indicted for failing to deal with this problem. I urge the Minister to get on and deal with the problem in as comprehensive a way as he can to take due note of all the recommendations in the report on the cost of motor insurance.
Something that can and must be done is that the Minister responsible must bring in the insurance companies straight away and come up with some system of giving young people motor insurance at a reasonable rate. He should demand that the motor insurance companies offer insurance to young drivers because at the moment, due to their age, they are being denied the opportunity to drive at all with insurance cover. I do not believe that it is proper and responsible of us to deal with this problem only in the manner we are doing at the moment, increasing penalties. Young people do not have £1,000  if they are found guilty in court of driving without insurance cover and, perhaps, they will be sent to jail or have their driving licence suspended. Young people are being encouraged to break the law and it is being made impossible for them to abide by the law. If they have a job that is a few miles from their home the only way they have of getting there is by car. Many of the jobs open to them would of necessity involve driving a car. If they cannot get insurance cover they will break the law. Insurance companies have contributed to the level of uninsured driving by the approach they have adopted. If they reduced their premiums to realistic levels and offered insurance to young people, as the vast majority of them do not at present, at realistic levels — not every young person is a bad driver — they would collect a lot more premiums. Certainly, in terms of the number of premiums they would receive, the premiums would have to be of lesser sums but they would get a lot more money.
I regard this problem as extremely urgent and serious and I urge the Minister to take action at that level now. He has the power to bring in the insurance companies. If the insurance companies are not prepared to deal with it then we have a very serious problem to deal with. The quicker we tackle it the better.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien) Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien)
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): In replying to this debate I should like to thank those who contributed for their comments. They have been helpful and encouraging. The Bill is about fines and increasing fines and it is reasonable that they should have been looked at long before now. Human nature being what it is, we will always weigh the costs up one way or another, whether it is the payment of a fine of £5 or £10, irrespective of the problems being caused in the whole area of road traffic. One only has to go through our major urban areas to see the total chaos caused because people take the soft option when parking. They park and commit other road offences without any thought. What motivates them is the thought that if they are caught they will only have to pay a few pounds of a fine.  I have held the view for a long time that something should be done about those fines. If people do not want to exercise good manners on the road we must impose them on such people.
There has been criticism that the provisions of the Bill represent another attack on motorists. Motorists, in more ways than one, feel hard done by as a result of many increases but the Bill does not represent an attack on them but an effort to protect and help them when driving. Illegal parking around town causes total chaos. People park on double yellow lines, on clearways and bus lanes. That is not helping traffic management. It is gumming up traffic. Bus lanes and clearways were devised to make traffic move more smoothly but that is being impaired by selfish motorists who have no consideration for their fellow motorists. It is important that we look at the provisions in the Bill in that light and not as a type of witch hunt or further imposition on the beleaguered motorist.
We are all aware that the law in regard to the use of safety belts is not being taken seriously. We are aware that if all drivers and front seat passengers wore seat belts many lives would be saved and serious injury prevented. If people chose not to wear safety belts it is time we protected them from themselves. By increasing the fine for such offences we are hoping people will respond. If they are found guilty of such an offence I have no doubt that the fine they will be asked to pay will ensure that in future they will take more care. Speeding is another serious offence for which the fines have not been high. There is nobody who will deny that speeding is responsible for many serious and fatal accidents from time to time. They are some of the reasons why the fines are being increased for such offences. I believe it will help traffic management considerably, and that is important, and it will also protect life.
Deputy Molony spoke at length about insurance and I have taken on board the case he put up particularly for young people. If people want to drive a car and get insurance there should be a system under which this insurance can be made available.  Not only young people are not insured. About 25 per cent of the people driving today are without insurance. That is a scandal.
Dáil Éireann 348 Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage (Resumed).