'Penalty points have been hugely successful'
Minister says new Road Traffic Bill will make a big difference to safety on the roads.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar: “I am a member of a Government that has reduced the number of public servants including gardaí, so I don’t want to come across as if I am pointing the finger. We are collectively responsible.” Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
For the first time since 2005, the number of people killed on Irish roads will rise this year. Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar admits the increase this year to 188 as of yesterday, an increase of 28, is too large to be a statistical blip and marks the reversal of a recent downward trend.
Reasons for the increase are multifaceted, but Road Safety Authority (RSA) chairman Gay Byrne has identified reduced enforcement as the main factor as a consequence of the falling strength of the Garda Traffic Corps.
To support his point, Byrne wrote to the Minister earlier this year quoting Garda figures which showed detection rates for speeding, mobile phone use and non-wearing of a seatbelt were down by an average of 36 per cent during the first quarter. Byrne has repeatedly said public perception has shifted and drivers believe they are unlikely to meet “yellow jackets” on the roads.
Varadkar responds that the Garda Commissioner has assured him road traffic enforcement levels are appropriate.
“That is not something I can easily second guess,” he says, but “what certainly is the case is that the number of fixed charge notices being issued is well down and certainly fewer samples are being sent to the Medical Bureau of Road Safety to be analysed”.
The Minister agrees public perception has changed.
“The fact that less people are getting [fixed charge] notices and less people are being tested [for alcohol] is driving the public perception that enforcement is down, and that . . . is a problem in itself.”
While he wants to see more enforcement, Vardakar says he is not “pointing the finger” at Minister for Justice Alan Shatter or gardaí. “I am a member of a Government that has reduced the number of public servants including gardaí, so I don’t want to come across as if I am pointing the finger. We are collectively responsible.”
Asked how be plans to reverse the rise in deaths, the Minister highlights some of the measures in the Road Traffic Bill 2013. This legislation is quietly completing its passage through the Oireachtas and will come into force early next year. It increases penalty points for speeding and illegal mobile phone use from two to three. It also includes measures aimed at young and inexperienced drivers, including the introduction of a limit of just seven points for learner motorists before they can be put off the road. Learner motorists detected driving unaccompanied will also receive penalty points.
As a result of the changes, fully licensed drivers will now lose their licence after being caught speeding or using their phone just four times (down from six) over three years. Inexperienced drivers (learners and those on their first two years of driving after passing their test) will be off the road if detected offending just three times.