'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.
The Bill will also bring in roadside impairment testing, testing of unconscious drivers and new penalties for hit-and-run offences.
Roadside impairment testing is one of a series of measures planned to combat drug- driving, which the Minister says is being under-detected. Legal provision for this was made three years ago but the section was never enacted due to concerns over the wording. These impairment tests require motorists to perform cognitive and co-ordination tasks at the roadside to allow a garda determine if the motorist is intoxicated.
Blood samples will be taken from drivers who fail the test. Roadside drug-testing devices will also be introduced next year to help gardaí determine if a motorist has consumed one of the seven most commonly detected drugs. New legislation will be required next year for the introduction and use of these devices.
Varadkar, meanwhile, is enthusiastic about the appointment of former Bus Éireann chief operating officer Moyagh Murdock as the new RSA chief executive. “We are very lucky to get someone of her calibre.” Murdock is a mechanical engineer who will take up her role in late January. She replaces Noel Brett who departed in August.
Notwithstanding the controversy that has surrounded the penalty points system this year, and the ongoing issue of a significant proportion of drivers not receiving their points for a variety of reasons, Varadkar believes the public retains confidence in the system. “Penalty points have been hugely successful.”
He is planning to broaden the range of road traffic offences covered by penalty points next year, by including cyclists who commit offences such as breaking red lights. However, he admits there are problems with penalty points, including ongoing problems with drivers failing to bring their licence to court so points can be recorded and difficulties prosecuting motorists from other countries.
He says if the State was unable to pursue out-of-State offenders, confidence in the justice system and in road safety enforcement would be undermined. With regard to the allegations by two Garda whistleblowers of the widespread cancellation of penalty points, Varadkar, who has recommended the issues be referred to the Garda Ombudsman for investigation, says he is confident that new Garda guidelines governing termination of penalty points are “pretty solid”.
“These issues are now before the Garda Inspectorate, the justice committee and the Public Accounts Committee and I imagine one of those committees will hold public hearings where everything will get an airing.”