Gaybo ain't seen nothing yet

  • 29 March 2006
  • test

Not a single one of the three vital measures promised by Government eight years ago has been implemented. Meanwhile, in that eight years almost as many people have been killed on the roads here as were killed through the 25 years of the Northern conflict. By Donal Kavanagh

Gay Byrne will have to confront the uncomfortable reality that eight years after the Government an-nounced (in 1998) a strategy to deal with the crisis of road deaths, none of the "urgent" measures then announced have been acted upon. In that eight years the number of people killed on the roads (3,181) has almost equalled the total number of people killed during the conflict in Northern Ireland in the twenty-five years from 1969-1994 (3,521). That 1998 strategy included random breath testing, a reduction in waiting time for driving tests and penalty points. The strategy was meant to be completed in 2002, and eight years on from its announcement the Government had failed to implement every one of these measures.

Random breath testing

The 1998 "Road to Safety" strategy envisaged a decision "on provision of random breath testing" by 1999 – that is random breath-testing on the levels of alcohol in a driver's system. This was considered urgent as it was noted that alcohol is associated with at least 25 per cent of all accidents and 33 per cent of fatal accidents.

Random breath testing has yet to be introduced. In January the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said the Attorney General, Rory Brady, had finally declared the proposal constitutional – this was after years of dithering by Rory Brady and his predecessor, Michael McDowell, on whether random breath testing would be constitutional or not (even were it unconstitutional, the Government could have instigated a constitutional amendment, as it has done on several other issues).

Martin Cullen says he is now going to introduce legislation providing for random testing but the inevitable consequence of this is that there will be a constitutional challenge, first in the High Court and, inevitably, then appealed to the Supreme Court, which, together could take two years. And then if the Supreme Court finds the measure unconstitutional, a constitutional amendment will have to follow, the new legislation and all this could take a further year at least.

So there will be no random breath-testing for at least two years and maybe longer – at least ten years after its introduction was promised! More unnecessary deaths, probably running into the hundreds, will occur as a result of this procrastination.

Incidentally, random breath testing is a proven lifesaver in Australia. In 2001 over one million of Victoria's 3.8 million population were breath tested randomly. That year there were 62 road fatalities in Victoria, while in Ireland (with the same population) there were 411.

Alcohol limit

There is also the issue of the permissible alcohol limit. Many experts think the present Irish limit (80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood) is too high. Most EU countries have a limit of 50 milligrams. The European Transport Safety Council says that this (50 milligrams) is the highest level that should be permitted – Sweden's is just 20 milligrams. In Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic it is illegal to drive with any alcohol in the blood stream at all. The National Safety Council estimated that, if a 50 milligram limit were enforced, road fatalities would drop by 46 per cent.

Driving tests

The second prong in the 1998 road safety strategy was a reduction in the waiting time for driving tests to ten weeks. This will be an issue that will concern Gay Byrne particularly, for he has focused on the extraordinary levels of people who are driving currently who, as yet, have failed to pass a driving test.

At present there are 425,000 provisional drivers on the waiting list and some test centres currently have a waiting period of over 53 weeks. Nationwide, over 130,000 people are waiting an average of 32 weeks to take a driving test.

The "Road to Safety" strategy had stated: "a quality target of ten weeks longest waiting period has been set for achievement by end-1999".

Last year there were 35,000 fewer driving tests done than 2000, despite the appointment of ten extra driving testers in that time. In 2005, the country's 119 testers conducted 137,500 tests – an average of 1,155 tests each. But, in 2000, 109 testers carried out 172,376 tests – or an average of 1,581 tests each, nearly 30 per cent more.

The relevance of the driving test is underlined by figures from the National Roads Authority (NRA) which show driver error was the cause of 81 per cent of all fatal and injury crashes from 1997 to 2000. Again this is an issue on which Gay Byrne has focused. These NRA figures go on to show that in 2001, a young driver (under 25) is killed every ten days and one is injured every 11 hours. Male drivers aged between 18 and 24 represented the majority of these drivers. Statistically 17-24 year olds are 7.7 times more likely to be involved in a fatal or serious injury collision.

Driving education

Even if the 1998 target for driving test waiting time is met, there are still basic elements lacking in the education of young Irish drivers.

In many countries, road safety is part of the school curriculum and drivers need to prove they have taken approved driving lessons before driving on a public road. In Denmark, young drivers must pass a three-year probationary period during which they are under stiffer threat of penalty points and licence confiscation than the mature driver.

Martin Cullen recently said he hoped to bring in a new system whereby drivers re-sit their test every ten years, once the current testing waiting list is down to four to six weeks. But since that is nowhere near the horizon, this can hardly be treated as a serious proposal at this stage.

Penalty points

The Government Strategy also recommended that legislation for a penalty points system be brought in by 1999. The Road Traffic Act 2002 devised 69 offences to be incorporated by 2003. This didn't happen. In October 2002 four penalty point offences were introduced (speeding, driving without insurance, careless driving and ignoring seat-belt laws). On Monday (3 April) a further 31 new offences will be added, a total of 35, just over half the number of offences provided for in the Road Traffic Act 2002 (see panel on penalty points, page 16).

The delay has been blamed on the failure to update and co-ordinate the three computer systems (the National Driver File, the Garda records and Courts Service records) necessary for the effective administration of penalty points. In their second strategy on road safety the Government said this would happen by the second quarter of 2004. An Garda Síochána said this week that computer problems with the introduction of penalty points had been overcome, and the Garda Pulse computer system would be linked to computers in the Courts Service from 15 April.

The handheld computer system used by gardaí on duty is still not effectively linked to the National Driver File, with the result that they cannot tell whether a driver has penalty points or not.

Drivers who have reached the 12 point mark ought to have their licence revoked, yet many gardaí believe they do not have the legal right to confiscate a licence in these circumstances. As a result of this, the gardaí are relying on drivers voluntarily to hand in their licences. The Department of Transport has said that not all 49 people who have reached the 12 point limit have voluntarily handed in their licences. Since the penalty point system was introduced in 2002, only 30,000 drivers have had points added to their licences. But, according to the National Roads Authority, 63 per cent of car drivers broke the 80km/h limit on regional roads in 2005.

"This is the situation with only four penalty point offences in place. What a shambles it will be when another 31 penalty points are introduced on 3 April," said Olivia Mitchell, the Fine Gael transport spokeswoman.

Road deaths

The central aim of the Government Strategy on Road Safety 2004-2006 was to reduce road deaths per year to 300 by 2006. In the first three months of this year (to 28 March) 90 people have died on the roads. This is roughly the same as other years – by the end of March last year 97 people had died and in 2004 there had been 93 road deaths by the end of March. The totals for those years were 399 and 374 respectively so it seems unlikely that the Government will meet its target by the end of 2006. This month the Irish Insurance Federation said the Government "must acknowledge that the Road Safety Strategy 2004 to 2006 has failed".p

Additional reporting by Emma Browne