Dáil Éireann - Volume 584 - 27 April, 2004
Private Members’ Business. - Road Safety: Motion.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: I move:
That Dáil Éireann:
— notes that the number of road deaths is now at a similar level to that before the introduction of penalty points, believes that this is in part due to a lack of  adequate enforcement because of the failure of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deliver the promised 2,000 extra gardaí and his failure to create a dedicated traffic corps;
— expresses its deep concern, at the lack of a national road safety strategy to reduce the loss of lives on our roads and notes that the chairman of the National Safety Council has accused the Government of failing to adequately fund the road safety strategy;
— condemns the Minister for Transport for his ill-thought-out initiative to clamp down on provisional driving licenses, which has lead to a chaotic backlog within the driver testing system;
— condemns the Minister for Transport for his inability to address the huge driving test failure rate and the current backlog which is costing young motorists an estimated €50 million in extra insurance premiums by denying them a chance to obtain a full licence;
calls on the Minister for Transport to:
— ensure the effective enforcement of road safety legislation and the penalty points system and the creation of a traffic corps to allow for a visible presence and higher level of enforcement on our roads, especially in areas of known accident black spots;
— improve driving standards on our roads by reforming the current driving test to ensure better driver education and higher standards and by introducing a structured driver training programme for motorists and motorcyclists;
— immediately address the driving test backlog by increasing the number of testers and the re-introduction of a bonus scheme;
— tackle the unacceptably high driving test failure rate and the level of variation in pass/failure rates throughout the country, by implementing a comprehensive and regular training programme for driving testers and ongoing evaluations of testers;
— reform the provision of driving instruction through the introduction of mandatory approved training courses for all instructors and the establishment of a statutory registration for driving instructors; and
 — establish a road accident investigation unit to investigate all road accidents and to issue recommendations to prevent recurrences especially in the vicinity of black spots.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Neville, Ring, Connaughton and Hayes.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: The facts speak for themselves. There is one accident on our roads every 21 minutes and one person killed on our roads every 23 hours. Behind these statistics lies the personal grief and suffering of many families involved in such tragedies. For example, people could not be but touched by the report of nine year old Alyssa Blazer who was left orphaned last year after her father was killed in a road accident, just a year after her mother was killed in a car crash in the Canary Islands.
Since January of this year, road fatalities are up by one quarter on those of the same period last year. While the Minister for Transport is prepared to introduce new laws, he has shown that he is not prepared to fund their enforcement. This makes a farce of the gains made since the introduction of the penalty points system. Both the Garda and the Minister for Transport use the penalty points figures to highlight their success in implementing their road safety measures. Penalty points were never devised to put people off the road. The system was developed to get people to change their attitude, abide by the rules, improve their driving standards and thereby save lives.
I support a system which saves lives and is fair. While there is no doubt that the penalty points system has saved lives and has the potential to save thousands more, there are, however, serious questions about its fairness. Unmarked vans and cars hide on the sides of long, straight, wide sections of road trying to catch anybody who is just over the speed limit so gardaí can meet their quotas.
It was admitted publicly by members of the Garda last week that they had been issued quotas by their superiors. If we want a policy of zero tolerance, we must accept that these people are breaking the road traffic legislation, but this method of filling quotas will do nothing to change their attitude or save lives, especially in light of the downright stupid speed limits — 30 mph limits on dual carriageways and 60 mph limits outside national schools. The penalty points system will only work if nationwide speed limits are reasonable and logical; this is currently not the case. It is imperative that our speed limits are reformed. There is little point pressing ahead with new offences under the system without an overhaul of speed limits across the country.
This Government must remember that drivers have rights too. The penalty points system was devised to change attitudes. Why, therefore, do we have a situation where it takes months to inform people of their speeding offences? By the  time drivers have received their first penalty points notice, they could have clocked up two or three more penalties of which they are unaware. Where two points could have slowed a driver down and highlighted the need to “heed your speed”, instead they end up with six or eight points.
The paper-based penalty points system is grinding to a halt because of the lack of resources and is having a dramatic impact on the ability of gardaí to enforce the system. Only a pilot computerised project is expected to be up and running by June of this year, despite the impression given by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the computerised system would be fully functional by then and the personal commitment given by the Minister for Transport to rank and file gardaí.
To date, the penalty points system has saved the economy €148 million. The National Safety Council estimates that the implementation of the new road safety strategy will cost approximately €60 million. It does not take an accountant to figure out that significant savings can be made by properly funding the road safety strategy. However, the Minister Transport, even armed with this information, has failed to resource the delivery of the Government’s road safety strategy.
I was informed in May 2003 that the forthcoming road safety strategy, which was to commence in January 2003, was under review and being finalised. This strategy is seen as the key priority within the Department of Transport to reduce accidents and cut insurance premiums. We are now 16 months without a road safety strategy and 446 more people have died on Irish roads. It now seems that these issues are no longer a priority. There is no way gardaí will be able to meet the targets set out in the strategy when it is published, particularly in terms of enforcing speed laws. This fact is supported by a confidential Garda document which states that just 3% of the target number of speed checks can be performed with existing resources.
Since the beginning of this year, there has been a significant reduction in Garda manpower due to a redeployment of staff to cover the demands of the European Presidency. When we add this to the problem of bureaucracy associated with the penalty points system and the failure to roll out fixed speed cameras across the country, it is no wonder the carnage on our roads is increasing.
This Government has, over the past seven years, dragged its heels in implementing its strategy to improve road safety. On top of that, it is failing to deliver on its programme for Government.
Currently, there are only 144 members of the Garda Traffic Unit on duty at any one time in Ireland. The number of traffic unit gardaí on duty falls further when administration and leave periods are taken into account. Research in other countries has shown clearly that the level of  enforcement must be increased for the penalty points system to have any long-term impact on driver attitudes and accident statistics. The Government has failed in this respect.
Government has not delivered on its promise to create a Garda traffic corps. Instead there is a departmental turf war regarding the establishment of the new road traffic corps between the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, with conflicting views on the creation of a traffic corps. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has said it is not possible to create the corps as it would not be part of the Garda Síochána. The Attorney General has advised that a conviction would not stand up in court. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, has refuted this and claimed that the corps is still on the agenda. Does anybody know what is going on? None of us will forget his downright irresponsible comments on provisional licences in December 2003, which led to a 13-month backlog in an already chaotic driving test system. I am sure the Department officials were impressed with that comment. Unfortunately, that type of comment from the Minister is not uncommon.
As late as October of last year the Department rowed in behind the Minister, who was toeing the line with regard to this announcement when he stated in a parliamentary reply that he was reviewing second provisional licences, that second provisional licence holders would require somebody to accompany them and that this would be implemented by the end of 2003, with less than two months to go. If the Minister really wanted to address the problem rather than getting yet another sound bite, why does he not address the real scandal of provisional drivers whereby professional drivers hold such licences. That, however, would not get headlines. This was nothing more than one of the Minister’s usual half-cocked ill thought out measures.
The current situation is chaotic. One in four drivers on Irish roads has not passed the driving test. The high number of provisional licence holders driving is largely due to a 43% driving test failure rate. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system which allows nearly 1,400 people flunk the test every week. There is something wrong with a system, which sees a 4% improvement in driving standards of young male drivers on passing their test and, which is prepared to tolerate a 20% variation in the pass rates at different testing centres around the country. How could anybody stand over such a system? The Minister has said this is a European system. I doubt that there is any country throughout the European Union that could stand over such statistics.
There are several reasons for the failure of this system. The Government refuses to regulate driving instructors. It is not prepared to provide a structure for driver training. The driving test  needs to be urgently reformed. For example, the result sheet given to drivers who fail the test does not explain what they did wrong. The problems caused by poor road safety standards need to be tackled in a coherent and comprehensive manner. This is not being done at present.
Fine Gael wants to see better driver education at all stages of life, an improved, reformed, modern driving test, an environment that encourages good driving and punishes those who endanger the safety of others. Fine Gael is calling for the establishment of a mandatory approved training course for driving instructors together with a statutory register on to which all instructors must be placed before taking up employment in the sector. At the moment, new drivers can be faced with an instructor who is unqualified to teach them. As the law stands, the instructor on whom the new driver is depending may not have passed the test. Would we allow doctors be trained by someone with no medical qualifications? The potential to pass on bad driving techniques and habits is obvious. Last June the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy McDaid, appeared before a Dáil committee and gave a commitment that a new register of driving instructors was imminent. We still await its introduction.
The driving test has not been reviewed for some twenty years and is therefore not reflective of today’s traffic, or modern road engineering, not to mention vehicle engineering. For example, even though more motorways are being built throughout the country, competence in driving on a motorway is not examined under the current test. The test should be reformed to include the option of a longer test and-or continuous assessment for nervous applicants. Applicants with low literacy skills should also be catered for. This is not done at the moment.
Fine Gael proposes a change in the status of the provisional licence which at present is the same as a full licence. This would mean a maximum of six penalty points for provisional licence holders; that provisional license holders must maintain a zero blood alcohol level, that L plates must be clearly visible at all times; that all drivers either of cars or motorcycles must complete a short competency course before they go on the road for the first time — this could be done during the summer months or as part of the academic school year and could easily be funded from savings in road fatalities.
Fine Gael is also calling for the establishment of a road accident investigation unit. We do not know the root cause of many accidents. There are statistics as to causes of accidents. While drink driving and speeding are major contributing factors to our poor road safety record, they are not necessarily the main cause of the accident. There are no accurate figures in respect of drink driving and the number of fatalities involved. There is no way of collating these unless the coroner tests the blood alcohol level of people who have been involved in a fatal road traffic  accident, compiles the figures and makes them available. That is at the discretion of the coroner and the figures are not compiled. Therefore, no figures are available. What we need is a system under which investigations into the causes of accidents will be carried out automatically.
At present, the National Roads Authority has responsibility in this regard. The NRA compiles statistics relating to dangerous stretches of national roads, but if one asks communities around the country about accident black spots, it is clear that many black spots are not included in the statistics. According to the NRA 2.5% of all accidents are caused by road conditions. What else would it say? It is responsible for ensuring that roads are safe. It will not say roads are a major contributing factor to road accidents. However, communities will say that bad sections of roads, bends in roads and so on have not been addressed, that the local authorities and the NRA are aware of them but have turned their backs on the problem. That is why it is critically important to have an independent road accident investigation unit to examine and report independently on the causes of accidents.
Fine Gael believes that by seriously targeting road safety in a way that balances the right to drive with the responsibility to drive safely we can cut down on death and injury and thus reap the benefits of safer roads, fewer grieving families, fewer serious injuries and lower insurance costs. We need to tackle bad driver behaviour on every front — punishment for dangerous drivers, reward for careful motorists, better instruction and improved research. Anyone driving on our roads is entitled to know they can return home safely, but the current accident rate increases the risk of ending up in an accident and emergency unit every time we drive. I firmly believe that Irish motorists can become safer and better drivers, but only if they feel they are being treated fairly by the system. Only then can Ireland hope for safer communities, stronger families and an equal chance of a long and healthy life for everyone whether or not they drive. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr. Neville Mr. Neville
Mr. Neville: I have great pleasure in seconding the motion and congratulate Deputy Naughten on his initiative in proposing it. I also congratulate him and thank him for the work he has been doing during the lifetime of this Government since he took up the position of spokesman on transport. He has been one of the most active Front Bench researchers and one of the most vocal in expressing his view on his responsibilities and he is to be congratulated on that.
There is no doubt that the Government’s road traffic initiative is a shambles. We had great expectations of an improvement in road safety and a reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. After 12 months of a road safety programme that was introduced with a fanfare, the rate of road deaths has returned to its level  prior to this initiative. The road fatality rate for 2004 has increased by 25% on the 2003 level.
The success of any programme or initiative is measured by its outcome. It is clear from the outcome of this initiative that it has been a total failure. While there was an initial improvement, it has dissipated as a consequence of a lack of commitment on the part of the Government, particularly the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan.
The level of funding for road safety is paltry and no road safety strategy is in place for 2003-04. One has to have a strategic approach and a set of objectives when one is introducing any programme. If one adopts a wing and a prayer attitude and hopes for the best, one will not achieve any success. All programmes require investment. It is obvious that the Government is not committed to this programme because it is not investing.
The fact that there are just three speed cameras in the country is an indication of the approach the Government has taken to what was heralded as an initiative that would substantially reduce the level of road accidents. It was hoped that the programme would change the behaviour of drivers. There was an initial change as a result of the hype that surrounded the advent of the penalty points system, but those of us who drive on national primary and secondary roads are aware that it has not endured. I have observed the speed of traffic on such roads, for example when drivers are overtaking.
The Garda Síochána has admitted that it is under-resourced and is unable to meet its targets, as outlined to it. It is appalling that the number of speed checks undertaken by the Garda is just 3% of that mentioned in the programme. Some 75% of motorists who are given penalty points are apprehended in zones in which one should drive under 30 or 40 mph. Fine Gael does not condone the breaking of any speed limit at any time, but it is aware that major accidents take place at very high speed levels. An initiative to re-examine speed zones should be started as a matter of urgency.
We need to concentrate on drivers who have provisional licences and to ensure that they can take driving tests. Such drivers have been practically ignored by the Government. There are 232,000 such drivers on a waiting list at present, an increase of 51,000 since 2001. Fine Gael has criticised the Government’s performance in this area and Deputy Naughten has brought forward a proposal to remedy the problems that exist. The Minister should examine the Deputy’s suggestion, which will assist him in achieving a higher degree of road safety and a reduction in the number of deaths and injuries on our roads in the short to medium term.
Fine Gael believes that the acquisition of driving skills does not begin and end with the taking of a driving test. Road safety is too important an issue for it to be appropriate that a  person should take one driving test in a lifetime. We need to consider driving in terms of life-long learning, so that we can become better drivers and our roads can be made safer.
People are apprised of changes and new developments in most spheres of competence. The ongoing education of drivers should be the norm, given that there have been such changes in traffic levels, traffic control and the condition of roads. As they renew their licences, drivers should be expected to demonstrate that they have examined changes and brought themselves up to date with new developments. I do not suggest that they should have to sit a driving test, because a test is merely an indication of how one performs at a certain point in time, which is important in itself.
Fine Gael proposes that road safety be studied in secondary schools during transition year. Students should take part in a road safety programme designed to instil in drivers the importance of observing speed limits, the drink driving laws and the rules of the road. Such a programme, to be drawn up in conjunction with various interested bodies, will act as an early starting point for good driving behaviour.
Fine Gael also proposes that advanced driver training and an advanced driving test be made available to those who wish to promote their driving skills for personal or professional reasons. My party will provide for traditional training and testing, to allow for a generally accepted industry standard of advanced driving skills which will be recognised by employers and insurers as part of the development of a safe driving culture. It would be an advantage for a person seeking employment as a driver to have such skills and such advanced driving training.
The training and testing programme I have outlined will be part of an overall package of reform that includes the establishment of a register of organisations and specialist instructors who can provide training. Deputy Naughten has referred to the lack of control in the area of driver instruction, a matter which has been discussed over a number of years. Perhaps the Minister will address in his reply any proposals he has to ensure that driving instructors have the level of competence required to ensure that the imparting of skills to trainees is of the highest level. Some of the charges made to trainees are of that nature.
Fine Gael proposes that driver refresher courses be introduced. As the population ages, there will be an increase in the proportion of older people who are driving on our roads. The fact that older people tend to drive less frequently and slower than other drivers is reflected in their lower involvement in car accidents. Many older people have mentioned to me that they are concerned and disappointed by the reduction in the time period in which they are entitled to a driving licence without ongoing medical examination. While the current approach has some merit, we have to realise that people age at  different stages of their lives. A person who is 70 may be as capable as a person aged 50, or a person aged 60 may be as incapable as a person aged 80. We have seen that people age at different times.
Perhaps it is not right to introduce a blanket system which states that when one is 70, one has to undergo an examination. I suggest that medical personnel should have the discretion to say when a person should be examined for the purposes of renewing his or her driving licence. I have encountered a certain resentment among old people about the manner in which they are treated.
Fine Gael has suggested that we examine the possibility of providing refresher courses for older drivers because it is keen to find ways of helping them to drive safely for as long as they are fit to do so, rather than taking measures to prevent them from driving at all. This recommendation is consistent with my earlier statement that knowledge and skills should be upgraded on an ongoing basis. A variety of different methods should be used to that end, including observed driving and pre-drive and post-drive briefing sessions by trained driving instructors. We should provide more information and advice and encourage refresher courses for older drivers. In that manner, we can ensure that drivers of all ages continue to drive safely throughout their lives.
Fine Gael proposes the introduction of a driver’s logbook and new teaching methods. As driving involves a myriad of skills, it is time that resources were provided to equip learner drivers with the knowledge they will need and the skills they will use. Fine Gael proposes the publication of a learner driver’s logbook that will provide a structured approach to learning. It will contain a modern driving syllabus relevant to today’s road conditions. It will provide driving instructors with a framework for training, allow trainees to track their progress and give trainees a guide for practice.
The logbook will cover diverse areas such car control skills and manoeuvres, driving at night, driving in adverse weather and environmental issues. In that way, we can ensure that new drivers have the knowledge they need to drive well and to stay safe.
Mr. Ring Mr. Ring
Mr. Ring: I compliment Deputy Naughten on tabling this motion as road safety is a growing concern. It is the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, and the House to make our roads safe.
On the second class roads of County Mayo and throughout Connacht, one often sees signs indicating “black spots”. Many have been there for the past 20 years, with up to ten people killed in road accidents at each one. Local councils also have a responsibility to ensure road safety.
Drink driving is the main cause of road accidents yet we are afraid to condemn it. Whatever we have against doing so, it must be  recognised as the greatest killer. In the two hours after the pubs close, there are always fatal road accidents. Not enough resources are given to the Garda to deal with the many people who still drink and drive. Added to this, there is the growing lunacy of people driving while high on drugs. However, the Garda have not been given the resources to test those driving under the influence of drugs. In a fatal road accident, if a driver is arrested, he or she should be immediately tested for drink and drugs. The findings should then be released to the media when the inquest is being heard.
There is much discussion about driver behaviour but little about pedestrian behaviour. Drivers are required to have their vehicles in good order and must learn to drive properly. Yet, every winter’s evening on primary roads when there is little or no light, one will encounter pedestrians wearing dark clothes. The wearing of armbands in the winter months must be made compulsory. Pedestrians have responsibilities as well as car drivers. If a pedestrian is found not wearing an armband, he or she should be prosecuted.
There are pedestrians who defy drivers in every city and village, expecting drivers to halt when walking across the road. Those pedestrians have responsibilities and yet they are never prosecuted for such actions. Many drivers cannot anticipate what these pedestrians will do. Very often when a driver is about to pass them, they will simply walk out in front. I have noted people ignoring traffic lights, yet I have never seen a prosecution for this. The concept behind traffic lights is simple: stop for red — go for green. However, many pedestrians “jump the lights”, frightening drivers in the process.
I support the Minister’s efforts in addressing road safety. Every life that can be saved and every accident that can be prevented is important. The penalty points system has worked to a degree. However, young people need to be aware that a car can be described as a monster. If a car ran into a crowd, it would kill many. If one wants to use a gun, one must get a licence every year from the Garda. A car is more dangerous than a gun.
The time has come when every young person from the age of 16 years should be trained how to drive properly. Such education programmes have already begun with tidy towns and recycling. School is the best place to give young people the opportunity to learn good driving skills.
Mr. Connaughton Mr. Connaughton
Mr. Connaughton: I congratulate Deputy Naughten on bringing this motion to the floor of the House. There will have to be a sea change in how we handle road safety. I am behind any proposal by the Minister for Transport that will save one life or see one less person injured on our roads. However, I am not satisfied with the road safety programme so far. Driving tests will have to be dramatically changed. I will not go into the nuts and bolts as Deputy Naughten did, but  incentives will have to be introduced to encourage higher driving standards.
Statistics show that over the last five years, road fatalities have dropped by 20%. One fatality is too many but this must be welcomed. However, the insurance companies have simply piled on the premia. Only in the last year — though for different reasons — was some calm introduced to the motor insurance market. However, more control of the insurance companies is needed. The way they are in concert with each other reminds me of the arrangements between the meat factories. Instead of allowing the insurance companies to cherrypick, they must be made to give a quotation to every single driver. It is not enough for an insurance company to give a premia quotation of €4,000 to a young driver.
An injustice is being done to many young people in car insurance. I admit statistics show that the greatest number of claims come from the 18 to 25 year old age group. However, many young drivers never have a motor accident. Many are law-abiding drivers, never under the influence and careful and considerate road users. Why must they carry the can for the others who break the road laws? Many young people need a car to travel to work. It is a great injustice that every young driver is tarred with the same brush. Why are careful young drivers penalised for the madness of others? Why should those who drive recklessly drag down every law abiding young driver with them? There should be a fixed discount by right, not at the whim of the insurance companies. Many people would choose to submit to advanced driving tests and so on in order to qualify. The matter of fraudulent and exaggerated claims is a very important one. People who attempt to make fraudulent claims should be very severely dealt with.
Mr. Hayes Mr. Hayes
Mr. Hayes: I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this important debate. I commend Deputy Naughten for putting down this important motion for debate. Those of us who live in constituencies more than 100 miles from Dublin must do a lot of driving. Every day when we get into our cars we are aware of the dangers on our roads. We all become frightened when we see bad traffic accidents on the road. They happen on a weekly basis — sometimes daily, particularly at weekends.
In the course of travelling around our constituencies there are a few issues that strike us. One of the most important, which has been neglected, is the issue of traffic calming in villages and smaller towns. In my constituency there are many smaller villages on regional and national routes which have no traffic calming measures. During my time on the local authority we were constantly writing to the Department seeking funding for these measures. It took four years of extensive lobbying to obtain the funding for traffic calming in New Inn, a small village on the  Dublin to Cork road. The measures were sanctioned just 12 months ago and the job has been completed. There were so many accidents and near misses in that small village that people were frightened to cross the road. The traffic calming project for that village can be held up as an example.
There are other villages across the country, from Donegal to Cork to Wexford, that need traffic calming. I suggest that, as a matter of urgency, substantial moneys should be put aside over the next number of years to provide traffic calming measures for those villages so that people can walk around safely. We have village renewal and town renewal but there is no traffic calming, which is the essential to saving lives. I urge the Minister to find the funding for traffic calming measures.
Next year people will be coming to live in the countryside in large numbers because of decentralisation and we need to make sure the villages where they will live are safe. I know there is already support for this view on the Government back benches. There are villages in the Minister’s own constituency, such as Pallasgreen in east Limerick, that need further traffic calming.
My son has just started to drive in the last few weeks. It is quite an experience to see how keen young people are to be behind the wheel when they reach the age of 17 and obtain their provisional licence. He is anxious to drive and anxious to be safe. It struck me quite forcefully that he and others like him had not been trained in secondary school. It is vitally important that driver training is introduced in schools. Deputy Naughten has mentioned this and it is included in our policy document. It would not be costly. It would be a reasonable and timely measure for this Government to introduce, particularly for students in transition year. Young people are anxious to drive safely and carefully. I urge the Minister to take this into consideration.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all the words after “That” and substitute the following:
— notes that the first road safety strategy was adopted by the current Government—
— commends the Ministers for Transport and Justice, Equality and Law Reform and all the other agencies, particularly the members of the Garda Síochána, involved in the pursuit of road safety policy for the achievement of the sustained reductions in road deaths realised over the past six years;
— notes that the Minister for Transport will shortly publish a new road safety strategy, which will cover the period  2004 to 2006, and is based on the work of the high level group on road safety;
— commends the Government on the continued pursuit of policies on an integrated basis that is based on the contributions of all of the bodies involved in the promotion of road safety, including the Garda Síochána, the National Roads Authority and the National Safety Council;
— notes that in the 17 months since the introduction of penalty points road deaths have fallen by more than 100 when compared to the preceding 17-month period;
— acknowledges that Garda numbers are at their highest ever level, that recruitment is being prioritised to bring the force to its authorised strength of 12,200 and that significant increases were secured for the Garda in this year’s Estimates, bringing the allocation to more than €1 billion for the first time;
— notes that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is planning to support existing Garda resources by means of innovative private sector involvement, such as the outsourcing of certain administrative functions and the privatisation of speed cameras;
— commends the Minister for Transport on his commitment to reform the provisional driving licence system in order to reduce long-term reliance of drivers on provisional licences and notes that a package of measures to achieve this objective is being finalised by the Minister;
— notes that the Bill to establish the driver testing and standards authority will be published shortly and that the authority will have greater flexibility to respond to variations in demand for driving tests and will be responsible for driving standards in general, including the registration of driving instructors;
— notes the almost twofold increase in the number of driver testers recruited to the driving test service during the course of the Government’s road safety strategy for 1998 to 2002; that the current waiting times for driving tests are due to a record level of some 234,000 test applications received in 2003; that the number waiting for a driving test is being reduced and that the Minister for Transport is considering measures to reduce waiting times more quickly;
 — notes that the driving test is conducted to the standard as set down by the European Union and that the pass rate is in line with experience in other countries.”
There is little doubt that everybody in this House has either had personal experience of a road collision or knows somebody who was either killed or injured as a result of such a collision. This happened in my own family in years gone by. It is appropriate that the subject of road safety should be debated here and I am grateful to Fine Gael for offering me the opportunity to outline the progress that has been made and to consider the issue.
So far this year the trend in terms of road deaths has been worrying and disappointing. However, I am both hopeful and confident that over the long term we will see the fruits of the policies that are being implemented in the form of a sustained reduction in road collisions and the resultant deaths and injuries.
Looking at the Fine Gael motion, one would think there was no Government programme relating to road safety. In 1998 it was this Government that undertook the establishment and publication of the first national road safety strategy. As a result of the implementation of the policies set out in that strategy, road deaths are year-on-year significantly reduced from the position the Government inherited. I find it unusual that in its motion Fine Gael expresses its deep concern at the lack of a national road safety strategy. The parties opposite did not produce a road safety strategy when they were in office. I am glad to note that the main Opposition party has now adopted the demands for a road safety strategy and we will not differ on that issue.
The situation facing this Government in 1997 was unacceptable. In that year alone 472 people died on our roads. As Deputy Ring pointed out, one is too many. Road deaths in the period 1995 to 1997 amounted to 1,362. That was 112 greater than in the preceding three years. The first road safety strategy became effective from the beginning of 1998. I ask the House to note that in the first three years of the strategy, road deaths fell to a level of 1,286 and that in the last three years the numbers were down to 1,128. One can only imagine the trauma and horror behind these numbers.
This improved performance, if one can call it that, was achieved because the Government, having seen the inertia in the system, chose to adopt a strategy based on delivery. Central to its achievement was the fact that all the agencies directly involved in road safety played a role in the development of the strategy and oversaw its delivery.
Road safety is a multidisciplinary area of policy. For that reason the high level group on road safety, on which is represented all the agencies and Departments who have a direct engagement in the delivery of the various aspects of road safety, was tasked with the oversight role.  The development of road safety is primarily a function of Government and the strategic approach adopted after 1997 was the subject of Government approval.
The first road safety strategy, covering 1998 to 2002, established a target of realising a 20% reduction in the number of road deaths and serious injuries over the five-year period of the strategy by comparison with the position in 1997. By the end of 2002 that target had been achieved in the case of road deaths and had been surpassed in the case of serious injuries. If we look at the trends that occurred over the lifetime of the strategy we see that significant reductions in fatalities and serious injuries were recorded in 1998 and 1999 and again in 2002. The downward trend in fatalities continued in 2003 when we recorded the lowest number of fatalities, 341, since 1964. Over this 40-year period, the number of vehicles and drivers in Ireland has more than quadrupled.
The road safety strategy specified demanding and quantified targets in regard to road safety in Ireland and the Government and the road safety agencies have held themselves accountable regarding to their targets. We will do likewise with the new road safety strategy to cover the period 2004-2006, which will be published shortly.
The headline initiative proposed under the first strategy was the introduction of the penalty points system. The full system has not been deployed yet and this is disappointing. However, accepting that the full roll out of the system would have to be delayed, I was determined that it should be introduced as quickly as possible, despite these obstacles, in regard to speeding offences. Excessive speed is a crime. However, the contribution of excessive speed in terms of the number and consequences of collisions is such that by making a determined effort to address and tackle that problem, I was of the opinion that the early deployment of penalty points could lead to a significant return in improved road safety generally.
With the co-operation of the Garda, the effect of the application of penalty points to speeding offences has been dramatic. This effect can be summarised succinctly by reference to the fact that the number of road deaths during the 17 months following its introduction was 100 less than in the previous 17 months. This was some success and I have also overseen the extension of the penalty point system to the key offences of seat belt wearing and motor insurance. It is my intention to extend the system to cover careless driving from June.
In addition to the initiatives I have taken in respect of penalty points, I have also provided for the extension of the basis for the operation of preliminary roadside breath testing. A form of random testing was introduced prior to Christmas. This was promised in the road safety strategy. We did not, as some have suggested, recommend the introduction of full random  breath testing but I intend to introduce full random breath testing in the upcoming legislation.
I have ensured that the promotion of road safety has been established as one of the high level goals for the Department. The adoption of a strategic approach to the delivery of road safety policies presents the best option for achieving results. The national strategy, allied to the central monitoring carried out by the high level group on road safety, provides a benchmark for future policy development. The actions identified in the strategy represented positive value by comparison to the investment needed. Deputy Naughten stated that €148 million has been saved as a result of the introduction of the penalty points system.
On foot of a commitment in The Road to Safety, a study carried out in 1999 by Peter Bacon & Associates, it was estimated that the first national road safety strategy would have a cost-benefit ratio of 1:8.3 following complete implementation. The relationship between costs and benefits in road safety is complicated by the number of bodies involved and the fact that the benefits, in financial terms, do not accrue to the agencies making the necessary investments. As part of the programme of public expenditure reviews, a cross-departmental expenditure review of road safety measures is being undertaken. The results of the review will assist Government in assessing the benefits of investment in road safety, on a whole of Government basis.
I am disappointed with the continued criticism of the funding of road safety by the Opposition. Over the lifetime of the first strategy there was significant investment in Garda enforcement assets and the financial support necessary for the production and presentation of the most effective public awareness campaigns ever mounted on road safety was provided. Many of the campaigns received international recognition for their quality and focus. The Department provided for major investment in programmes to address road collision black spots and to deploy traffic calming measures.
Exchequer funding in respect of 2004 for road safety agencies under the aegis of the Department of Transport amounts €22.488 million.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: That is a long way short of €148 million.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: In addition to Exchequer funding, the Irish Insurance Federation contributes to the National Safety Council’s budget and funding is also received from sponsorship sources. Local authorities receive funding for road improvements and remedial measures on non-national roads, which is not included in this figure. Furthermore, expenditure by the Garda on its work is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
 In proceeding to develop a second strategy, the high level group on road safety considered it appropriate that a major independent review of the previous strategy should be carried out. An international expert on road safety was appointed to examine the overall approach and primary aims established in the strategy. His report confirms that basing the primary targets on the achievement of progress in the areas of speeding, drink driving and seat belt wearing was the correct approach. The benchmarks for the second strategy, therefore, were to take account of the achievements in meeting the targets set out in the Road to Safety Strategy 1998-2002 and further positive trends established in 2003, the review of that strategy and developments under the EU third road safety action plan.
Since I was appointed Minister, I have given particular support to the promotion of road safety at European level. Earlier this month I hosted a meeting of Transport Ministers from the current and accession states specifically to discuss road safety. I also facilitated the first signing ceremony for the Commission’s road safety charter, which is a central element of the action plan, and it gives the opportunity to private sector interests to make commitments in this area. More than 40,000 people died on roads of the 15 member states last year. That is equivalent of the population of a large town. This issue must be continually addressed, not only domestically but also at European level
The programme for Government states a three year road safety strategy will be developed which will target speeding, drink-driving, seat belt wearing and pedestrian safety in an attempt to tackle deaths and injuries. The high level group also prepared a draft new strategy for the period 2004-2006 and I recently received Government approval to publish the strategy. Care has been taken in the preparation of the new strategy. This will be evident in reference to the targets established in respect of the major policy areas addressed in the strategy and their enforcement. The targets will be specific and challenging and will be supported by the establishment within the framework of the strategy of operational plans by each of the main organisations that have contributed to its preparation. Arrangements are being put in place to provide for printing and publishing of the strategy as soon as possible.
The strategy will outline a range of issues that will be pursued over the period in question. In overall terms, measures will focus on the areas of education, enforcement, engineering and legislation and will target the key areas of speeding, driving while intoxicated and seat belt wearing. Over the period of the new strategy the following major road safety policy initiatives will be pursued: the introduction of random preliminary breath testing for drink driving; the introduction of a new speed limit structure to be  expressed in metric values; the development of a network of speed cameras to be operated by private sector interests; the finalisation of a comprehensive package of measures to address issues surrounding driver licensing and testing; the roll out of the full penalty points system; and the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to which I remain committed.
In recognition of the importance of enforcement, the Garda has established commitments to the achievement of specific levels of enforcement across the three key areas of seat belt wearing, speed limits and drink driving. The Garda has issued penalty points to more than 120,000 drivers in the past 17 months. Members can imagine the physical workload involved. They deserve credit for making that happen.
New legislation is being prepared in my Department which will provide support for the deployment of key initiatives in the area of speed limits and drink driving and will further enhance the enforcement capacity of the Garda. The Bill will feature a number of radical changes that will focus on those key areas. A new system of speed limits based on metric values will be introduced this year. I assure the travelling public that the speed limits applied at specific locations are reasonable and fair and reflect the road safety needs and capacity of the road in question, as pointed out by Deputy Naughten. I have raised this issue with county and city managers. The new speed limit structure will, as was envisaged in the report of the working group I established to review speed limits, offer greater flexibility to local authority members, who will retain primary responsibility for determining the application of speed limits at specific locations.
The Garda will be empowered to engage in what is colloquially termed as random breath testing. This is a fundamental initiative, which will greatly strengthen the enforcement capacity of the Garda of drink driving. This is a fundamental initiative. It will greatly strengthen the enforcement capacity of the Garda with regard to drink driving. Before the summer, I intend to bring forward the legislation on random drink testing, and I will be asking the House for strong support on that initiative. This is one of a number of initiatives being developed with regard to the problem of drinking and driving, which as Deputy Ring said, remains one of the most intransigent of road safety problems.
Garda enforcement will also be supported by the introduction of private sector engagement in the provision and operation of speed cameras. That legislation will provide the legislative framework for those speed cameras. This is not a money making policy. The operational parameters for the provision of this service will  be clearly established, and decisions on the deployment of enforcement assets will remain within the gift of the Garda. This is a very significant initiative in that the introduction of a new source of speed enforcement capability will provide greater freedom for the Garda in the enforcement of other areas of traffic law. In that same context, the Bill will see the removal from the Garda of direct involvement in much of the day to day administrative work associated with the operation of the penalty points and fixed charge systems.
The early publication and passage of the Bill is essential if the delivery of the programme established in the new road safety strategy is to be delivered, and I am glad to announce to the House that the Government has today approved the heads of the legislation. The Bill will now be presented to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for urgent drafting with a view to its early publication and presentation to the Members of the House. I look forward to its early passage into law.
The programme for Government contains a commitment relating to the establishment of a dedicated traffic corps. As I have already indicated in this House, I support the implementation of this proposal through the formation of a corps that will be separately identifiable and visible. A consultation process involving my Department, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Síochána regarding the establishment of this traffic corps is being progressed. The question of the relationship that the corps will have with the Garda, and in particular whether it will be under the overall control of the Commissioner, is central to the development of this proposal. The establishment of a corps that is wholly independent of the Garda would face formidable hurdles. The powers available to members of such an independent force would need very careful consideration, and there is the overriding issue of the capacity of such individuals to engage in more general police work. The incidents, both here and abroad, where dedicated traffic police were instrumental in the detection of other general activity and the detention of persons involved in such activity, are well documented.
I note with interest recent media coverage regarding the recruitment in the UK of highway agency officers who are civilians and have been given very limited powers regarding traffic management and highway patrol duties. We will monitor carefully the usefulness of this move in determining if similar arrangements could operate in this country.
A working group has been established to consider urgently the options available in terms of progressing this proposal. This group comprises representatives from the Department  of Transport, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Garda Síochána, the Dublin Transportation Office and the Office of the Director of Traffic. I will be chairing a meeting of this group over the coming weeks in order to progress this matter personally.
I am aware that multi-modal investigation units which investigate rail, air and marine accidents are in operation in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Holland and France. However, they do not investigate road traffic accidents, which are investigated in all cases by the police. I understand that in Luxembourg, the accident investigation unit has being expanded to cover road accident investigation, and that in Norway plans are under way to incorporate road accident investigation into the multi-modal investigation unit. In Ireland and in most countries, the primary immediate investigative role in road accidents is vested in the police. Priority in the pursuit of such an investigation must be given to the determination of the causes of road accidents, and in particular to the determination of whether a breach of the road traffic laws contributed to the occurrence.
The Garda Síochána is the only body empowered to make such a determination, and to launch criminal proceedings against any person whom the Garda considers should be accused of the commission of an offence. In the final instance it is a matter for the courts to decide on the guilt or innocence of an accused person. The Garda reports relating to an accident provide information to assist the courts in making decisions in such matters.
Given the pivotal role played by the Garda in accident investigation, it is tasked with the preparation of detailed reports in relation to each accident its members attend. These reports are passed on to the National Roads Authority and subsequently to each local authority for the purpose of the establishment of accident trends and causes generally, and to facilitate the carrying out of remedial works relating to road infrastructure where such action is deemed necessary. I know that Deputy Naughten has put forward this idea. I have not arrived at a decision but retain an open mind on it, convinced of the added value that would result now from the establishment of such an agency.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: On a point of information, it is inside the Garda structures, rather than outside them, that such an agency is being suggested. The Garda itself is seeking it.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: There are fundamental differences between road traffic and all other forms of transport. In the first instance, road transport is to a great extent delivered by individual drivers using their own vehicles. This contrasts with the delivery of transport services  by rail, air and sea, which are generally provided by large organisations which may be privately or publicly owned. In addition, and probably because of the involvement of private individuals, road traffic is subject to criminal law in the vast majority of states. For those reasons, I feel that the arrangements currently in place provide a positive and competent response to the needs for traffic law investigation. I have said to Deputy Naughten that I will keep that under review, and I continue to retain an open mind on it.
Some Members spoke this evening about driver tests and training. The Government’s strategy for road safety 1998 to 2002 acknowledged the importance of driver training and testing, with the qualification that these could not be expected to yield road safety benefits on the scale of measures directly targeted at speeding, alcohol and seat belt wearing which were prioritised by the strategy. Driver formation has in accordance with that strategy been assisted in a number of ways, including the introduction of a driver theory test for applicants for first provisional licences, support for the voluntary driving instructor register and support for an initiative by the Irish Motorcyclists’ Action Group to establish a network of motorcycle instructors throughout the country. Policy in relation to driver training and licensing will be further considered in the context of the new road safety strategy which I will publish shortly.
Proposals being developed by my Department for the regulation and quality assurance of driving instruction will involve a test of the competence of individual instructors. That is important. The design of these standards has been formulated by a working group comprising representatives of my Department and of instruction interests. The original intention was that where an instructor would be accredited to an organisation of driving instructors recognised by my Department as meeting appropriate quality standards, the instructor would be exempted from the requirement to undergo the test. It was envisaged that as part of this process an organisation would have to seek accreditation from the National Accreditation Board that it is operating to a set standard. The legislative basis for implementing these proposals is contained in the Road Traffic Act 2002.
However, I now propose that responsibility for overseeing implementation of the standard will be given to the proposed driver testing and standards authority. It is not now likely that the National Accreditation Board will be involved in the process. I would of course like to record the Department’s thanks to the board and to all involved in it. The standard will apply to all prospective driving instructors. I am considering what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that existing driving instructors also meet this standard. It is important that there is a standard  of instruction in which we can all have confidence. I will look to the new authority to set about this work with some urgency.
It is my intention that a course of initial basic training will be compulsory for learner motorcyclists. It is important that before using their motorcycles on public roads, learner motorcyclists are trained, and made familiar with handling motorcycles. A working group has been established in my Department to advise on the most appropriate means of introducing compulsory initial basic training for motorcyclists.
I have introduced requirements to assist the operation of the penalty points system. Since I January 2003, persons while driving, and persons acting as accompanying drivers to provisionally licensed drivers, must have their licences with them. I have also announced that measures will be taken to reduce long-term reliance on a provisional licence. Indeed I have been criticised for this by Deputy Naughten
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: That is correct.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: Under the Road Traffic Acts, a provisional licence may be granted to a person who wishes to learn how to drive a vehicle in order to pass a driving test. This licence provisionally allows a person to drive that vehicle in a public place. Over the years various changes have been made to the regulatory conditions under which provisional licences have effect. I am considering whether further changes are desirable in this regard. In particular, I am reviewing the provision whereby holders of second provisional licences for cars are not required to be accompanied by a person who holds a driving licence for that category of vehicle with a view towards ending this arrangement. All other provisional licence holders other than drivers of motorcycles and work vehicles must be accompanied by a qualified driver at all times when driving in a public place. I intend to submit detailed proposals for a package of driver licensing reforms to Government shortly. These proposals would be implemented on a phased basis.
A particular change which I intend to make is to change the title of a provisional licence to that of learner permit. This measure will reinforce the fact that such a licence is designed for learning purposes and is not intended as a driving licence. Primary legislation is required to give effect to this proposal and I hope to include it in legislation as soon as possible.
I now turn to the driving test. The test has been in operation for over 40 years. The first test took place on 18 March 1964. The Fine Gael motion before the House refers to the high failure rate in the test. This is a misconception. The pass rate for driving tests nationally in 2003 was 54.5%.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
 Mr. Naughten: What about the other 45%? That is not a high rate. The Minister would not accept it in the leaving certificate if he were Minister for Education and Science.
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: This is consistent with the pass rate in recent years and is higher than the pass rates in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Another criticism is the variation in pass rates from centre to centre. While there are differences between pass and fail rates at different test centres throughout the country, the experience is similar in the UK. There are a number of reasons that can contribute to variations at different test centres. The number and frequency of driving lessons taken by a prospective test candidate, the quality of instruction received and social and demographic factors are among factors that can affect the test outcome.
To help candidates a number of initiatives have been put in place in recent times. The driving test report sheet has been revised to give detailed information to the test candidate on the faults incurred during the test and the severity of those faults. This should enable candidates to take appropriate steps to remedy the faults. Also, communication with driving instructors has been improved and supervisory testers now liaise with driving instructors working at test centres to help them deal with queries they may have about the test. The proposals to register driving instructors which I have already outlined will require driving instructors to meet and maintain a predetermined level of competence in delivering instruction. I anticipate this will increase the success rate of test candidates. Driver testers already receive a significant level of training to ensure that as uniform a test standard as possible is applied throughout the country.
My Department is also in the process of upgrading the motorcycle driving test. The test will be radio controlled and a pilot scheme to assess the new test, which was carried out earlier this year, received a very positive response and there is work being done in that area.
I note that speakers opposite called for reform of the driving test. I am not entirely clear as to what reform is being asked for but I will read carefully their suggestions to see if I can take them on board. The driving test in Ireland is designed in accordance with an EU standard and the delivery of the test to a uniform standard is achieved by way of the training of testers that I have already outlined. I would welcome any suggestions as to how the test might be further improved and I will take those on board if it is practical to do so.
I am concerned at the increase in waiting times for driving tests which has resulted from the unprecedented volume of 234,000 applications received in 2003. This compares to 146,000  applications for a test in 1998. I accept personal responsibility for that enormous growth which happened as a result of my commitments to reform the provisional licence system.
Ms Shortall Ms Shortall
Ms Shortall: That is big of the Minister.
Mr. Naughten Mr. Naughten
Mr. Naughten: What commitments?
Mr. Brennan Mr. Brennan
Mr. Brennan: The increased demand for tests has arisen from my expressed commitment to take steps to reduce long-term reliance on provisional licences. I presume the Deputies opposite would support the objective of reducing long-term reliance on provisional licences. When those measures are before the House we will be able to debate them in some detail. At present, there are 120,000 candidates awaiting a driving test. Since 1998, the Department’s testing corps has been increased from 66 to 118 to deal with the additional workload and had achieved an average waiting time of ten weeks by 2002. To deal with the increased demand in 2003, a bonus scheme was put in place to generate additional capacity. In addition, a number of retired testers have been engaged and they are delivering tests. In addition, testers continue to work overtime.
Government policy on public sector staffing levels requires that numbers employed be reduced by 5,000 in the period to December 2005. My Department, in common with others, has specific targets to achieve in this regard. However, there has been no reduction in the resource level available to the driver testing service as a consequence of this policy and I am conscious that the service levels must be optimised. There are currently eight vacancies for driver testers and while recruitment to fill these vacancies has been deferred pending discussions with staff representative bodies on the establishment of the driving testing and standards authority, I have requested officials in my Department to explore possibilities for filling of these vacancies.
Work is at an advanced stage on the preparation of legislation for the driver testing and standards authority. I expect to be in a position to publish the Bill in the current Dáil session. The authority will have responsibility for delivering the driver testing service and will have greater flexibility to respond to variations in demand. In addition, the authority will have overall responsibility for driving standards and this will be the first time that an agency has specifically under law been given the responsibility for improving driving standards. It will also be responsible for registration of driving instructors, which is also long overdue. I envisage the authority becoming a body with responsibility for ensuring that these standards are raised to the highest level possible in the interest of road safety.
 In thanking the House for considering this motion, the House will recognise that since the adoption by the Government of the road safety strategy in 1998, steady progress has been made. The facts speak for themselves. That progress has been sustained over the past six years and our aim is to keep that focus into the future. I am concerned at the increase in road deaths but as I pointed out, in the 17 months since the introduction of penalty points, 100 fewer people have been killed on our roads compared to the 17 months prior to the introduction of penalty points. However, it is a constant battle to keep on the pressure and reduce deaths and injuries on our roads, which I am aware is an objective shared by all sides of the House.
Ms Shortall Ms Shortall
Ms Shortall: I wish to share time with Deputy Wall.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle An Leas-Cheann Comhairle
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Ms Shortall Ms Shortall
Ms Shortall: There are many areas of transport responsibility where the Minister, Deputy Brennan, has failed to make an impact but there is no area of which that can be said in a more profound way than in the area of road safety. Early in his term of office as Minister for Transport the indications were that the Minister would take this issue seriously. Regrettably, his predecessor, Senator O’Rourke, had failed to make progress in introducing the penalty points system which was part of the 1998 road safety strategy. The Minister moved early on that and introduced the system in October 2002, and that initiative was welcomed both inside and outside this House.
Initially the measure was very successful. People changed their driving behaviour overnight. It was quickly very obvious, whether on motorways or suburban roads, that there was a marked difference because people realised, for the first time in respect of driving, that there was a reasonable chance that if they broke the speed limit they would be caught. In an ideal world it would be nice to think that all of us as drivers would take responsibility for our behaviour and our actions but, unfortunately, we do not. Human nature means that people will try to get away with whatever they can and unless there is a reasonable chance that the law will be enforced, in a rush we take the chance of driving over the speed limit. The measure was welcome because fatalities and serious injuries had reached a critical level and following a number of particularly tragic accidents, the decision was taken to introduce the penalty points system.
Unfortunately, the success of the system was extremely short-lived. Within a matter of weeks drivers realised that the level of enforcement for road traffic offences was completely inadequate.
 While initially there was a good deal of publicity about it, that waned very quickly and it was discovered that very few people were being nabbed for breaking the speed limit. Within a matter of months, people reverted to the original bad habit of exceeding the speed limit.
It has been quite noticeable in recent weeks that there has been a great deal of talk both at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and in the media about penalty points. I have tried this one or two times recently, since in my own constituency, apart for two very short stretches of motorway, I cannot go beyond 30 mph. The vast bulk of my driving is under 30 mph, and it is exceptionally difficult to do that when I am conscious of the vast majority of cars passing me. The same applies on the motorway if one is trying to keep under 50 mph, 60 mph or 70 mph. The number of cars that will overtake if one keeps to the speed limit is quite remarkable. Clearly, they are driving with abandon and no consciousness of any serious enforcement of speed limits.
The initial, very positive results from the introduction of penalty points were welcomed by everyone. The Minister certainly got a great deal of credit for that, as was his due. People on this side of the House were quite fulsome in their praise of the action he had taken and the terrific results he achieved within the first few months. Unfortunately, however, that was not sustained, and we have now reverted to old habits. In the first three months of this year there has been a 30% increase in road fatalities compared with last year. The Minister is massaging the figures and taking a 17-month period. I accept that there has been an improvement when one compares that with the preceding 17 months. However, that is not the point. We saw for a short period at the beginning of last year what could be achieved with the proper enforcement of penalty points. The public had expected the system to be enforced strongly and changed its behaviour accordingly. Then it realised that it was not being enforced and reverted. Those are the figures that we should examine — the first three months this year compared with the first three months of last year.
It is all the more reprehensible that the figures are so high in the first three months of this year when one considers what could be achieved. It is entirely possible to do it. We know the levels that have been achieved in other EU states and how it can be done. We had the potential to do it last year. For that short period we did so, and it was wonderful. However, it is quite disgraceful that it has not been maintained and that we have allowed the figures to creep up again. That is simply down to the absence of adequate enforcement. I made the point last week that I cannot remember the last time I was stopped at a speed check. I do a fair bit of driving, day and  night, and I cannot remember the last time that happened.
The other issue, apart from the lack of adequate enforcement, is that the penalty points system has been dogged by several difficulties, principally because of the lack of planning regarding its implementation. I will mention a few that have arisen in recent months. It was quite clear that completely inadequate IT back-up was provided for the system. I have yet to figure out how it was that the system was contained in the 1998 strategy and should have been planned for from then; yet now, six years later, we still do not have the basic computer system to support penalty points. That is a scandal. I am not saying it is necessarily the responsibility of the Department of Transport. Serious questions must be answered by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, it is outrageous that we have reached this point six years later without that issue having been sorted out. Although every small business, school and organisation around the country manages to be computerised we do not have the basic system in place after five years’ delay.
There has been very slow progress in adding the other offences to the scheme. Penalty points, as envisaged by the 1998 strategy, were to cover nearly 70 offences. Progress in adding new offences is painfully slow, and so far only four areas have been included. Another matter of serious concern is the late discovery by the Minister that primary legislation would be required to add the use of mobile telephones to the penalty points system. That is quite incredible. It is an extremely dangerous activity, albeit one in which we probably all engage. It should not be allowed and it is practised because it is not against the law. The Minister has issued several press statements talking about his intention of adding this to the list. It seemed very late in the day that he discovered that he would not be able to do so by regulation and that primary legislation would be required. I noticed that in the Government legislative programme circulated today there is no reference to that.
The other problem is the series of legal challenges made regarding the issuing of notices for penalty points. There has been conflicting information in the media about how that is to be dealt with. The Minister must make a very clear statement on how he intends to deal with that problem, which has serious implications for many hundreds of cases in the pipeline or likely to arrive in the pipeline over the next year. The invalid speed signs in parts of the country are quite incredible. They have led to unwarranted awards of penalty points. That simple matter could not be hammered out before the introduction of the penalty points system. It is not as if the Minister did not have enough time to do  it. His predecessor and he certainly had enough time, as did their Department, to get it sorted out.
It is clear that public confidence in the system is now quite low, and the knock-on effect of that is that people have reverted to their old driving habits. The Minister’s challenge was to stamp that out. Trying to do that now will be even more difficult than it was last year, since he built up people’s hopes, saying that he would change habits and behaviour and that there would be serious enforcement. That did not happen. Now he will have to redouble his efforts to get that message across again. Not only that, he will have to put his money where his mouth is and put adequate resources into enforcement.
It is quite clear that the Garda do not have the capacity to operate the system adequately at the moment. They have admitted as much. We saw their comments reported in the media, where they said they will be able to meet only about 3% of the enforcement target set out in the new strategy. They are quite clearly unable to operate the system adequately; nor should they be expected to do so, given their range of responsibilities. All public representatives are aware of the demands on Garda. We want more of them involved in a whole range of areas, particularly — I have to say, as a Dublin Deputy — in combating juvenile crime and anti-social activity. The capacity does not exist in the force. That was one of the reasons Garda capacity was identified as a key issue by people in the Minister’s own party before the last election. They recognised that there are not enough gardaí to enforce the law, be it traffic law or criminal law. The Minister then came up with his promise of 2,000 extra gardaí which he has failed to meet since the election. It is quite clear the capacity is not there. Gardaí are regularly saying that to us on a local level. They do not have the capacity to police the streets properly regarding criminal activity. The involvement in enforcing road traffic legislation is an afterthought in many areas.
There was also the promise of a dedicated traffic corps, but that seems to have completely fallen by the wayside, though it was clearly mentioned in the programme for Government. The Minister specifically said there would be a six-month consultation period after which he would establish the traffic corps. Almost 18 months later we now read in the newspapers that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is saying it is not going to happen and that it cannot happen, because of constitutional impediments. The next day the Minister for Transport is saying it is going to happen. So which is it?
The Minister talks about setting up a working group. What has he been doing since he was elected? This was a key area that needed to be  addressed and it is still a matter of just talk at this stage.
Dáil Éireann 584 Private Members’ Business. Road Safety: Motion.