The controversial Road Traffic Amendment Bill delayed for weeks in the Dáil, has passed the early stage debate in the Seanad in just over an hour.
Debate on the Bill ran on for weeks in the Dáil because of filibustering over its two main provisions - the extension of an automatic three months driving ban to first time drink driving offenders caught with between 50 mg and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood, and making it an offence for the owner of a vehicle to allow a learner driver to use the vehicle unaccompanied.
Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan said his party supported the legislation and it was regrettable that the Bill had taken so long. He said that since the unaccompanied driver provision was agreed in 2016, 11 deaths related to unaccompanied drivers had occurred.
He said that in Kerry the issue was not the penalties for alcohol consumption but rather how the Bill would affect family life.
“I will not go down the old road of ‘rural Ireland’ and so on, but there is a big difference between a young person who has an ‘L plate’ in Dublin and a fella who has an ‘L plate’ in Kerry and who may have to travel 25 to 30 miles and back again for work every day.”
Mr O’Sullivan said “with this Bill, that individual will have to be accompanied by a parent, a sibling or a good friend who is a qualified driver to work and home again in the evening. That is not a proper basis for normal living”.
He said the crux was the delay and backlog in driving tests. “This has to be addressed as a matter of urgency. People want to qualify and be licensed to drive.”
Minister for Transport Shane Ross said "there are far more deaths in rural Ireland as a result of alcohol and driving than there are in the urban part of Ireland".
The Bill goes to committee stage in the Seanad next week.
Mr Ross said road deaths had fallen from 272 in 1997 to 157 last year, the lowest annual figure on record, but “we are still talking about 157 people who need not have died but did”.
The Minister said that all too many learner drivers ignore the legal requirement that they have a qualified accompanying driver with them.
He pointed out that between 2012 and 2016, there were 3,003 fixed penalty notices issued to drivers in the 50 mg to 80 mg bracket.
“In 2017, the trend continued with April 2017 showing the highest number of arrests for drink-driving of any month in five years. We need to reverse this trend and ensuring that all drink-driving merits a disqualification will help to do this.”
Independent Senator David Norris asked the Minister what evidence there was of people with levels of between 50 and 80 mg/100 ml being involved in fatal road crashes.
He said they were getting very close to a situation in which one glass of wine puts one over the limit and he suggested that perhaps they should “go the whole hog and provide that one cannot take a drink and drive at all. That appears to me to be the logical step if there is evidence.”