Dail Debate on Road Traffic Act – Speech by Dan Neville TD – 5th October 2011
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011, which aims to clarify existing legislation relating to drink driving, as it reflects policy decisions already taken during the course of development of the previous Government’s Road Traffic Act 2010 and Road Traffic Act 2011. Previous Bills amending legislation on drink driving had all-party support in the Dáil, and this Bill deals with the implementation of legislation because of difficulties arising from the operation of the previous Acts. This was identified during the debate on previous Bills. The current Bill clarifies legislation with regard to preliminary and mandatory breath testing requirements and alternative verdicts, along with other measures. It also allows for mandatory alcohol testing for lower drink driving limits, as set out in the Road Traffic Act 2010.
There is no doubt there has been a massive cultural change in our attitude towards road safety over recent decades, leading to an enormous change in the standards of roads and driving, as well as issues of vehicle safety, proper driving instruction and the use of alcohol while driving. It is now rare to hear of someone being fined for not wearing a seat belt, which is indicative of the cultural change that we have seen. In line with this, the area of road safety has changed dramatically, with significant decreases in the number of accidents and deaths.
No death is acceptable so we must continue to ensure the level of road deaths is reduced. It is interesting to note that in 1972, 640 people died on our roads, or more than 50 people per month. As late as ten years ago in 2001, 411 people died on our roads, but last year the number was 212. Although the current number is unacceptable, it certainly shows a consistent improvement over a period. I will give some of the trend figures since the Road Safety Authority came into being. In 2006, 365 people died on our roads; in 2007 the number was 338; in 2008 the number was 279; in 2009 it was 239; and in 2010, 212 people died on the roads.
Gardaí believe road deaths could fall below 200 this year for the first time since records began and, as of yesterday morning, 151 people had died on the road this year, 15 fewer than at the same stage last year. Were fewer than 200 people to die on the road this year, it would see Ireland match Sweden’s record last year. The Road Safety Authority is to be congratulated on the work done since its foundation, and as a Parliament we should recognise its professionalism and promotional work. It is very important that the authority should be facilitated in continuing its work, and the lives of people should come before any cutbacks or savings with regard to its resources. I do not know how savings in any area can be calculated with regard to road deaths, but our fight against road fatalities should not be compromised.
The Road Safety Authority has identified factors contributing to the reduction in road deaths, with one of the main elements being the level of expenditure on and campaigning for road safety. Attention has been drawn to the number of deaths and the need to ensure that people are aware of the dangers related to unsafe driving. Recently, we have seen the level of vehicle safety increase, and we now have seat belts, airbags and improved braking systems. Even if a collision occurs, the chances of death and injury have been substantially reduced because of the implementation of such safety devices. The national car test, NCT, system carries out regular checks on vehicles, and while some may see it as a nuisance, it has contributed to ensuring vehicles are fit for use.
The road network has been upgraded and motorway and dual carriageway driving has been proven to enhance safety. I have seen this on the weekly, or sometimes bi-weekly, journey I take from my home to Leinster House.
There is dual carriageway as far as Newlands Cross and there is motorway to Naas. That has increased safety substantially. Even in County Limerick, where serious accidents have occurred over a number of years, the road improvements that have taken place have contributed to reducing the level of deaths and injuries on the roads.
The penalty points system might not have been very popular but it has improved safety and contributed to the reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. There are also fixed penalty notices and charges and, most recently, the GoSafe safety camera network. We have all been educated to be more conscious of road safety. I reiterate my support of and congratulations to the Road Safety Authority on the work it has done since its foundation.
The other point I wish to raise relates to the downside of the introduction of this Act, which is rural isolation. When Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív was Minister he had strong opinions on this. Many people living alone in rural areas saw the local bar as a meeting place for socialising. There is little social activity in many rural areas aside from the local bar. Everyone is aware that some people are prepared to go to a bar and not drink, but there has been a tradition of interaction among rural dwellers at the local bar. There is now isolation, loneliness and an increased level of depression among people in those circumstances.
The road safety figures show that 212 people died on the roads last year, compared with the 609 people who died by suicide. If the Government can take any lesson from its relative success in the road safety area in terms of the contribution of resources, I implore it to examine the situation where 609 suicides occurred last year and apply a similar formula to ensuring there is a professional approach through the development and resourcing of the National Office for Suicide Prevention. That office’s campaign is quite different from the road safety campaign, but the principles are similar. There is also the issue of road deaths by suicide, which is linked in some ways to the road safety campaign.
Perhaps someone would examine the pilot projects carried out by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív when he was Minister with responsibility for rural and Gaeltacht affairs. They were introduced when the original Bill was being discussed. Perhaps the Minister could be informed by the civil servants who were involved in those projects why that initiative died.