Dáil Éireann - Volume 433 - 01 July, 1993

Road Traffic Bill, 1993: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.

Mr. Bradford: In relation to driving licences—admittedly this is extraneous —I was making the point that the driving test regulations must be reviewed. I am unhappy with our present hit and miss system. From the statistics one will see that 50 per cent fail the test on the first occasion but pass it second time around. I would like to see a system introduced under which applicants for a driving test would have to demonstrate that they had taken a certain number of lessons from a registered driving instructor. It would be a step in the right direction if applicants received a licence only after they had completed a certain number of driving lessons. This would lead to an improvement in standards.

I welcome the provision in the Bill under which local authorities will be able to alter speed limits. Those of us who are [913] members of local authorities, in particular county councils, have always found it difficult to accept and explain to our constituents the reasons local councillors do not have sufficient powers to alter a speed limit. I have been a member of Cork County Council since 1985 and we have had only one opportunity since then to alter a speed limit in the county. The Minister's decision, therefore, to give us the authority to carry out that simple but important task will be welcomed by councillors all over the country. They know that they will have discretion within their own communities. This is welcome.

The Bill also appears to give discretion to local authorities in relation to road signs, another welcome provision. I would like those who design our road traffic signs to show more imagination. Most of the signs used today have not been changed for a long time and familiarity breeds contempt. As people ignore most of our signs there is a need to make them more dramatic and eye catching. I hope local authorities will use their discretion and introduce new signs and have them approved by the Department. Signs can be an effective extra road safety feature if they catch the eye.

I welcome the Bill, which will improve road safety and hopefully reduce the number of accidents on our roads, thereby ensuring that fewer people are killed.

Mr. B. O'Keeffe: This legislation is very wide ranging. In many ways it calls for a social revolution in terms of the attitude of Irish people to drink driving. The reduction in the permissible alcohol level from 100 milligrammes to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, with a corresponding reduction in the level for urine, is significant in view of the startling statistics in relation to road accidents, 35 per cent of which occurred between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., an average of 400 deaths per year. We have to be concerned about the trauma caused to the families of those who were killed. It is incumbent [914] on the Minister and the Government to take these figures seriously. When one considers that an additional 100,000 people have been maimed and badly injured in accidents, it is timely that the Minister has introduced this Bill.

The Minister's proposals are laudable. Driving while under the influence of alcohol is a very serious crime which people in Ireland have tended to brush under the carpet—we seem to think that it is part of our culture and way of life. In saying that, we tend to forget our responsibilities in this area. For example, we tend to forget that a car driven by a person who is drunk is a lethal weapon. Anyone who has lost a loved one or had a member of family injured as a result of drunk driving will commend the Minister on the introduction of this Bill.

This is not to say that the Bill will not have other consequences. People who come from rural areas are very much aware that those who live in very remote areas visit the local bar, which could be two, three or four miles away, in order to socialise and meet other people. This Bill will require those people to think twice before taking their car to the pub if they are going to drink. It will be a culture shock for them. Why has the Minister not decided to go a step further and ban drink driving altogether? Those people may well surmise that under the law they can have either one pint or one and a half pints and at that stage they will have to use their discretion about whether to drink any more, but it gives them no discretion about whether they should drive. While I welcome the reduction in the permissible alcohol level, I believe the Minister should have gone the whole hog and banned drink driving altogether. I know this Bill is a major step forward, but I am of the view that drink and driving should be totally separated.

The owners of rural pubs will look at this Bill with a jaundiced eye. They may think that things were tight enough without this restructured legislation, which will add to their difficulties rather than help them. However, people have [915] to look at this Bill in an objective way and consider the high number of deaths which have been caused by people driving under the influence of drink. This Bill is only one of a series of measures which will have to be introduced by the Minister and his colleagues to tackle the drink driving problem. Does the Minister have figures on the percentage of accidents between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. which are directly related to drink driving? There are people who will say that there is a greater possibility of an accident occurring at night-time than in the day time. For example, a person who gets up at 6 a.m. and drives a long distance will be tired returning home late at night and may nod off, thus causing an accident.

I welcome the provision which will require drivers to carry their driving licences at all times when driving a vehicle. This requirement is not any different to the requirement that a person must have a ticket before getting on a train. I ask the Minister to look at the laws governing the mandatory closing of pubs at certain hours during the day. If there are regulations in place which provide that a person may consume only a certain amount of alcohol before driving, what is the point in putting extra pressure on Garda resources in ensuring that pubs are closed at certain hours during the day?

The Bill addressed to some extent the question of insurance. It is fair to say that the cost of insurance for young drivers is a national disgrace. I can think back to the time when we were told by the insurance federation that insurance premiums would be reduced if the jury system was done away with. Having done that, premiums, instead of being reduced, continued to rise and the amount of awards increased by, I think, 25 per cent. I am glad the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, Deputy Brennan, has decided to look seriously at the cost of insurance. I ask him to look in particular at the contentious interaction between insurance companies, the legal profession and the engineering profession. [916] There is a perception abroad that the administrative costs in the insurance industry are exceptionally high.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the cost of medical witnesses—and as many as five or six medical personnel may be involved—as well as legal representation and engineering witnesses adds up and is a major factor in the cost of insurance. It is not before time that we took a serious look at the industry to see how we can cut out unnecessary costs. It is necessary also to examine the conduct of solicitors who approach individuals in hospital who have been involved in accidents of one type or another and say that they will handle the case and it will not cost anything; but they will take anything from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of an insurance award and the individual keeps the balance. Obviously that is unprofessional conduct, but it is going on. We are all concerned about it and it is time we faced up to it and ensured that something is done about it.

I welcome the devolution of functions to local authority members. In fact I advocated this for a number of years. I always thought it extraordinary that when we wanted to set speed limits it often took five years before it was implemented, but when the function is devolved to local level at least the local authority in conjunction with the Garda Síochána will have the power to decide where the speed limits should be. I suspect the danger is that we could have a proliferation of speed limits and the effect of that is that they could be honoured more in the breach than in fact. However, that is a matter for the local authorities.

Deputy Gilmore raised the question of different parking discs all over the country. I certainly agree that there is a case to be made to standardise the parking discs throughout all local authority areas. It is particularly galling for tourists who tend to travel throughout the country to find that they need a different parking disc for each area. Surely the local authorities can come together to work out the unit cost of the parking discs and provide that they are interchangable in [917] any area throughout the country. For example, there seems to be no reason that someone from Dublin cannot use his parking disc in Cork. There is a quid pro quo and the other counties will benefit.

Towards the end of his speech the Minister says:

The impounding provisions are designed to give the Garda Síochána the powers they need to tackle both motor tax and motor insurance evaders ... The power to impound vehicles being driven by under-age drivers is specifically designed to help tackle the problem commonly known as joyriding and I have no doubt this will be particularly welcomed by the House.

Members certainly will welcome anything that can be done to reduce the number of people involved in joyriding. However, how will this provision help in this case, given that the joyrider, generally speaking, will steal someone else's car? Will the Minister clarify the benefit, if any, of impounding a stolen vehicle?

This is an extremely important Bill and I give it my full support. This Bill, in conjunction with other legislation to follow from other Ministers, will help to make us more conscious of our behaviour on the road and make us more aware of the need to be courteous and caring on the road.

Ms O'Donnell: I very much welcome this wide-ranging, comprehensive and integrated Bill, which strengthens our laws relating to drink-driving. It introduces welcome measures for the enforcement of the Road Traffic Acts. There has been a large measure of criticism and dissatisfaction with the enforcement of the Road Traffic Acts. It is very welcome that this Bill strengthens the enforcement procedures. I very much welcome the devolution of powers to the local authorities.

The genesis of this legislation was the setting up of a task force by the Progressive Democrats Party Leader, Deputy O'Malley, a long time ago to look into the whole matter of the cost of motor insurance. Many of the recommendations [918] of that task force have been taken on board in this legislation. This Bill was driven by economics, given the huge cost of road accidents, estimated at £600 million per annum. It is important also that we as legislators are motivated by the overwhelming public policy need to concentrate on road safety and the prevention of death and serious injury on our roads.

The number of deaths on our roads has decreased over the past couple of years. The decrease, though small, is welcome. A number of factors have contributed to this decrease, not least the intensive road safety campaigns mounted by the National Safety Council. These campaigns have brought about an increased awareness of road safety as evidenced by the change in public attitude to drink driving, which is no longer seen as socially acceptable at any level in society. However, it is still acceptable to speed, and perhaps the thrust of our campaigns should concentrate equally on speeding. I think speed is just as much a killer and I do not think the social awareness of the consequences of speed is as well developed as it is for drink driving.

The number of road deaths is still too high, with an average of eight people dying on Irish roads every week. We need to do much more work both in preventive engineering, that is, intervening in the planning of our roads and in the education field. Half of those who die in the age group seven-24 die as a result of road accidents. Those are startling figures and everybody needs to be very concerned that so many of our young people end up dying on our roads.

It is important to appreciate that the Irish Insurance Federation has been sponsoring the National Safety Council's campaigns and they very generously have given £650,000 to the 1993 campaign in addition to the £248,000 given towards the promotional work of the National Safety Council. I am a member of the Dublin Road Safety Council, an excellent committee comprised of elected members of Dublin Corporation and representative of the motor industry, the Insurance Federation and others. We [919] have a common interest in preventing road accidents and devising safety campaigns for the Dublin Corporation area. I believe three other local authorities have such councils which specifically target their own local areas with a view to preventing road accidents. I think it would be a good idea to establish such a council in each local authority area. for example, we initiate campaigns on safe cycling and pedestrian safety and we run a traffic school in Clontarf for children.

It is right to teach children of primary school level how to get about and weave their way through traffic. Our committee has been substantially improved by the very valuable contribution of Dr. Ray Fuller, Head of the Department of Psychology in Trinity College. He is making an excellent psychological input and educating us on the need for an evaluation of safety campaigns and methods which could be used to change attitudes.

Road safety in the context of child safety is an important political issue, particularly in urban centres. Many people in Dublin South East—where I am a local authority member—and in my constituency of Dublin South have been politicised by the growing dissatisfaction at the level of commuter and freight traffic going through residential estates. The most frequent reason people contact me as their political representative is in relation to traffic management. The quality of people's lives is diminished because traffic management in Dublin city is at crisis point. Because of that the Dublin Transportation Initiative was set up by the local authority committee of which I am a member. This is an excellent initiative and we have just completed our final report of phase I.

The Dublin Transportation Initiative seeks to establish a vision of the city and to study the area of transportation and land use policy. In the past our planning and transportation policies were not synchronised which meant that the roads policy was not integrated with planning. That is why there is a chaotic traffic problem, particularly in Dublin city. The neglect of public transport services down through the years has given [920] rise to the need for the Dublin Transportation Initiative which comes down very firmly in favour of moving priority from the use of the private motor car and enhancing public transport by way of quality bus corridors and light rail. Planners and road engineers need to be integrated with a view to the final report of the DTI becoming part of our national development plan. I see light at the end of the tunnel in terms of transportation and planning in the greater Dublin area.

Port access in Dublin is vital, many proposals for which—including a tunnel under the Liffey—are being put forward. That is preferable to the now discredited eastern by-pass. Of course, the completion of the C ring is vital. These matters have considerably diminished the quality of people's lives in Dublin city and county. There has been a positive chorus of requests in my constituency for traffic “calming”—which is now the buzz word. Basically, people are crying out for ramps or anything that will relieve the sense of frustration because their residential roads are no longer safe for their children. As politicians we should take an interest in the quality of people's lives. If people are happy they are better parents and better citizens. This is particularly so in areas of high social deprivation. If we had good, cheap public transport for areas of high density population, the quality of life would be substantially improved with a resultant decrease in crime and family stress. All these issues are related and, therefore, we need to have a broad approach to matters such as public transport.

The fact that local authorities have so little money to spend on pedestrian crossings is a constant source of annoyance. The annual budget allocated to Dublin Corporation for the provision of pedestrian crossings is scandalous, enabling us to complete only a couple of schemes each year. In the context of DTI and traffic management proposals, I hope some mechanism will be found for funding local authorities to provide better pedestrian facilities.

I congratulate the Environmental [921] Research Unit who have carried out excellent surveys on driver attitudes, speeding, drink driving, etc. Their 1992 survey showed up interesting attitudinal facts. For example, 54 per cent of drivers correctly stated that the general speed limit was 55 miles per hour; 30 per cent believed the limit was higher than 55 miles per hour and 12 per cent believed it was less. This is an area of confusion as many people do not know the speed limit.

In regard to drink driving, over half the drivers interviewed said that having consumed up to two alcoholic drinks they would drive, indeed, almost a quarter said they always did. Since this Bill reduces the level of alcohol permitted we will have to make it clear just how many drinks people can take. That will have to be part of the public awareness campaign. As the number of drinks consumed increased the proportion of people who were willing to drive decreased, although one fifth of motorists surveyed would drive after consuming more than two drinks. Even in the most extreme scenario 4 per cent of motorists said they would drive after consuming over six alcoholic drinks; 4 per cent is still enough to do a lot of damage on the roads.

Further analysis of the research findings showed that males and those with the longest driving experience were most likely to risk driving after consuming large quantities of alcohol. By comparison the survey showed that those least likely to risk drink driving were young drivers in the 17 to 20 age group and female drivers.

In respect of the largest number of drinks consumed before driving, 6 per cent admitted to six pints or more; 5 per cent admitted to five pints; 6 per cent admitted to consuming four pints and 59 per cent admitted to consuming three pints. This suggests that approximately 30 per cent of drivers admit to driving on some occasions with blood alcohol levels which are probably in excess of the legal limit. Three-quarters of the drivers interviewed believed that someone convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level over [922] the legal limit would face disqualification. This ties in with their perception that the most effective deterrent for drink driving would be the risk of losing their driving licence. The research showed that the threat of disqualification was a greater deterrent than the risk of being involved in an accident. For that reason I welcome the mandatory disqualification of one year for first offences.

The following startling statistic was brought to my attention by the Dublin Road Safety Council; in 1991 males accounted for 96 per cent of drink driving convictions while females accounted for 4 per cent. At that time I asked the commissioner if he could account for the difference. With a high percentage of female drivers in the State it is extraordinary that 96 per cent of the drink driving convictions should be males. Could it be that women are more responsible or is the Garda more lenient towards women in not asking them to be breathalysed?

I should like to see the development and implementation of rehabilitation courses for drink driving offenders. That provision should be stitched into the present legislation which requires the taking of a driving test before a driving licence is restored. Development and evaluation of a driver training component, which includes risk assessment skills, would be useful. We will be tabling amendments to the Bill but, in general, we welcome it and look forward to Committee Stage.

Debate adjourned.