Tuesday 4 April 2017
Road Traffic (Fixed Penalty – Drink Driving) Bill 2017 Joint Oireachtas Committee Pre-Legislative Scrutiny
Opening Statement by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross TD
I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to come here today for a pre-legislative discussion of the Road Traffic (Fixed Penalty – Drink Driving) Bill 2017. This is a short but important Bill. I appreciate the opportunity to explain what it is about, and I look forward to hearing the Committee’s views on it.
The proposals I have put in this Bill have already generated a great deal of comment. They are supported by the Road Safety Authority, Road Traffic Victims Groups, the A.A. and the Gardaí. Unfortunately, certain vested interest groups, particularly The Vintners Federation of Ireland, have lobbied – often in quite a cynical manner – against it.
I would like briefly to refer to some of the matters which have been brought up in public debate about my proposals, and where appropriate, clear up some misunderstandings.
First, I am not proposing to lower alcohol limits. What this Bill is about is ensuring proper consequences when people drive while over the existing limits. The current limit is not changing.
Second, I know many people have questioned whether this proposal would really have a significant impact on road safety. I am not claiming that this Bill is the only answer to drink driving. But what it will do is strengthen the law and remove the dangerous impression that people who drive over the limit can be allowed to keep on driving right away.
To give an idea of the problem with drivers concerned; between 2012 to 2016, 3,003 fixed penalty notices issued to such drink drivers in the 51 to 80mg alcohol concentration bracket, with numbers increasing significantly during 2016.
Before someone says – as I’m sure they will… and some already have – that they have doubts about these figures because of the recent issues over figures deriving from An Garda Síochána, the figures I am quoting are based on specific notices issued to specific individuals detected and arrested for drink driving offences and follow a determination of the detected alcohol levels by the MBRS.
They are absolutely reliable.
I would hope that no Deputy here would – whether deliberately or mistakenly – attempt to create confusion between a badly needed piece of legislation which could save lives on our roads and an issue which relates to how Gardaí have reported on the number of roadside preliminary breath tests conducted. And so, I want to be absolutely clear that the data and research supporting this Bill is, in no way, related to the current controversy in the Gardaí.
In addition, the RSA’s independent research shows that the incidence of drink driving among younger drivers is increasing. This is based on an RSA survey and depends on the numbers who admitted to drinking and driving. I think it is fair to suppose that the numbers drinking and driving are likely to be higher than the numbers admitting it. Similar results were found in a recent survey conducted by the AA.
The RSA has also found that drink is a factor in 38% of road deaths. Again, just to be clear, this is a figure from the RSA which depends on coroners’ reports into road deaths. The RSA also established that at least 35 people died in collisions over the period from 2008 to 2012 which involved drivers being found responsible due to alcohol levels at between 21mg and 80mg. Of these, 16 were in the 50-80mg range. Members will be aware that the RSA have recently written to them in order to ensure they are familiar with these facts and aware of misleading information.
So, if people ask what good this Bill will do, there is their answer. If we could prevent 35 deaths over the next five years, wouldn’t it be worth it? If we could prevent people getting the idea that driving over the limit was acceptable and could prevent them, perhaps, going on to drive at higher and higher levels, would that not be worth it?
I certainly think it would. And I suspect that those families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured in preventable traffic collisions would agree.
A culture-change in the way we view drink driving is needed. Having a law on our books which allows drink-drivers to get away with penalty points rather than a disqualification says that some drink driving is not really serious. Is that really a message we want to send?
Third, I know that a number of commentators, and some Deputies, have expressed concerns that this Bill would somehow damage life in rural Ireland. I would encourage them to stop and think about this. By far the highest number of alcohol-related road deaths – 81% - occurs in rural Ireland. No part of the country would benefit more in terms of lives saved.
I want to save lives in rural Ireland.
The results of a national survey on my proposals which the RSA conducted in January of this year are overwhelmingly clear in terms of the public’s view on this issue. It found that 91% of the public supported automatic disqualification for all drivers caught driving over the limit, as I am proposing. Support for my proposal in rural areas was, at 93%, a little higher than that in urban areas at 89%. The notion that this is an urban/rural issue is simply wrong.
Some legislators and certain vested interest groups like The Vintners, would seem to be very much out of step with public opinion where drink driving is concerned. In fact, the full RSA survey shows a public with little or no tolerance for drink driving under any circumstances.
I would urge all public representatives to read it on the RSA website.
We are all aware of the very worrying increase in road deaths last year. After 2015, which with 162 road deaths was the joint lowest year on record for this kind of tragedy, the number of deaths jumped to 188 in 2016. Seen over a wider number of years, I think we can identify a distinct pattern. Starting from 2005, when there were 396 deaths, there was a decrease in every successive year until 2012, when 162 people were killed. The years since have seen a fluctuation – 188 in 2013, 193 in 2014, back down to 162 in 2015, and then back up again to 188 in 2016.
Clearly, a long downward trend has been reversed. We need to look into why this is the case, and how to put things back on track.
The starting point has to be the fact - recognised by all who deal with road safety nationally and internationally – that there is no single factor involved in road deaths and no one solution. As the factors affecting road safety are many, so we need to apply a range of solutions.
The bigger and more obvious problems have been dealt with. Investment in infrastructure, particularly during the ‘Tiger’ years, has improved the quality of our roads. The driver learning process has been enhanced through the introduction of graduated driver licensing measures.
The introduction of mandatory alcohol testing checkpoints and the lowering of alcohol limits have contributed to the downward trend in fatalities. The creation of the NCT has improved the quality of vehicles. Measures in these areas, and others, were responsible for the long downward trend in road deaths from 2005 to 2012. Further measures will be needed to restore the downward trend in road deaths.
The current Road Safety Strategy, which runs from 2013 to 2020, contains a wide range of such measures. Work is well-advanced on a mid-term review of the Strategy, and this will enable us to identify the areas where we need to push harder in order to resume the pressure to reduce the unnecessary deaths which are occurring on our roads.
So, where does this Bill fit in? As members know, it addresses the question of drink driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a major risk factor on the roads. I don’t believe anyone will disagree with that. For some years there was a belief that we were witnessing a culture-change, and that it had become less socially acceptable to drink and drive. If that was ever true, it isn’t any more. Drinking and driving is again a major problem, and one we need to address.
I want to be very clear – no one is saying that drink driving is the only problem in road safety, and no one is saying either that this Bill on its own is the solution to drink driving. What I am saying is that this Bill offers a very important step forward in the campaign against drink driving, and it deserves to be considered, and, I believe, supported, as such.
So, to sum up, there are many factors in road safety, and indeed many aspects to drink driving. This Bill is not a solution to all of them and it is not meant to be. What it is, is a measure which we can and should introduce now, which will save lives, take dangerous drivers off our roads, and send the message that drink driving is never acceptable. It is a good Bill and will have a positive impact, and deserves to be supported and introduced as a matter of urgency.