Speech by Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar at the Road Safety Authority International Conference on Driver Distraction in Dublin Castle on Thursday 20th March

-   Ken Gaughran

Good morning to everyone and welcome to today’s conference on Driver Distraction hosted by the Road Safety Authority.

I also want to extend a special welcome to those of you who have travelled from overseas. From the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, the United States and other parts of the world to be with us here today to share international perspectives and learnings on the timely and critically important issue of driver distraction.

Speaking as Minister for Tourism as well as Transport, I hope you can stay for a few days and enjoy what Dublin and the rest of the country has to offer.

The establishment of the Road Safety Authority, the introduction of the penalty points system, random breath-testing for alcohol, lower permissible limits, the enactment of targeted legislation, the establishment of the Garda Traffic Corps and the introduction of safety cameras are among the measures and initiatives introduced in recent years that have led to positive changes in driver behaviour and have contributed to the reduction in fatalities and serious injuries on our roads.

From 415 deaths on our roads in 2001, we have seen a dramatic reduction to 190 deaths in 2013. This did not happen by chance; indeed it was achieved against a backdrop of increasing numbers of vehicles in the country. Last year was worrying with an increase in road deaths for the first time in many years. This year, so far, is reassuring with a fall in road death year on year. But, as always, there is no cause for complacency, only vigilance.

Delegates, we are all aware that the main causes of road crashes are distraction, excessive and inappropriate speed, intoxication and fatigue. We are examining these areas on an on-going basis to identify measures that can be taken to address and bring about improvements in all of these.

With a view to building on the progress of recent years, I launched the 2013 to 2020 Road Safety Strategy this time last year. The new Strategy, which was agreed by the Government, identifies 144 Actions to be implemented by key partners in the eight-year period that will lead to a further significant reduction in fatalities.

The new Strategy is based on the Safe Systems approach to road safety. This approach reinforces the concept of shared responsibility across organisations, businesses and communities. It seeks to continue to reduce road fatalities, but will also have a new focus on reducing the number and severity of injuries on our roads. It covers a wide variety of sectors that contribute to, and impact, on road safety including education, law enforcement, health as well as the many aspects of transport.

The Actions deal with issues such as:

• Distraction by using mobile phones while driving
• Work related vehicle safety
• Medical Fitness to Drive
• Drug driving
• Fatigue
• Vulnerable road users.

Of course, it is not enough to agree the Strategy and just hope that its Actions will be implemented. We have put in place a number of procedures to ensure that all of the relevant stakeholders will play their part in bringing a successful conclusion to the plan over the eight-year period.

Aside from the Strategy, our parliament passed new legislation in recent weeks. The Road Traffic Act 2014, signed into law by the President on 25th February, introduces measures which will further contribute to road safety in the years to come. The Act provides for further Graduated Driver Licensing measures, adjustments to the penalty points system, increasing demerits for the most dangerous offences such as speeding and operating a mobile phone while driving and new measures to combat intoxicated driving.

Novice drivers, those in their first two years of full licence, will have to display an ‘N’ plate. Learners will have to log a minimum number of hours of driving experience with an accompanying driver before being allowed to take the driving test. Learner and Novice drivers will reach disqualification at 7 rather than 12 penalty points.

Intoxication impairment testing – that is non-technological tests for impairment – will be introduced, and may be used in evidence in any subsequent court action taken against a driver. A new procedure is also introduced for taking a specimen of blood, subject to medical approval, from a driver who is incapacitated following a collision.

The Act also provides for a number of additional measures, including a new offence of tampering with an odometer, and new and tougher penalties for drivers involved in a ‘hit-and-run’.

It is already an offence to hold a mobile phone while driving and I will shortly strengthen the law by prohibiting completely the practice of texting while driving. This will be done by regulation.

There are, of course, a number of dangers on our roads that still remain to be addressed. Work is already underway on the drafting of the next Road Traffic Bill. One of the key aspects of this Bill will be to further strengthen legislation on intoxicated driving. A number of measures are proposed which include:

• Broadening current “alcohol” legislation to deal with all intoxicants;
• Providing for roadside testing for drugs with devices to detect a range of commonly used drugs at the roadside; and
• Placing an onus on employers to ensure employees are not under the influence of intoxicants when driving on public roads.

I expect to publish the general scheme of this Bill in the coming months.

This morning, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the essential work done by rank-and-file members of Gardaí in enforcing the law on our roads. In addition, we should remember the vital role of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in the battle against intoxicated driving. The Road Safety Authority has, of course, played a central role in the many improvements in road safety over the past seven years since its foundation. I would like to welcome Moyagh Murdock to her role as new Chief Executive. There are few State agencies which can measure their success in terms of lives saved, and the dramatic decline in road deaths in the past seven years is something in which the staff of the RSA can rightly take pride. I know that the RSA, under Moyagh’s guidance, will continue to build, in the coming years, on the considerable work done to date. I also want to acknowledge the work of the campaign groups who focus on road safety such as PARC. Road Safety would not get the priority it does without them.

Delegates, we live in a plugged-in highly networked world, where we are ‘always on’ and always contactable – even in the car. However, in the car, our focus needs to be on the road. We need to be cognisant of anything that takes our attention away from our primary focus behind the wheel. I am most concerned about the number of pedestrians that have lost their lives on our roads this year.

As of last week, 11 of 38 fatalities on our road this year were pedestrians. I do not know the cause of all of these fatalities but distraction by the driver, the pedestrian or both must have been a significant factor in some.

Driver distraction is thought to play a role in 20-30% of all road collisions.

The RSA/Millward Brown poll of over 1,000 drivers in November 2013 revealed that one third of drivers admit that they talk on a hands free phone when driving ‘at least sometimes’, with almost half as many, 1 in 7 saying they talk on a hand-held phone when driving.

This level of mobile phone use rises to 75% among male drivers aged 17 to 34, who are known to be a particularly vulnerable road user group in Irish fatality figures.

In 2013 nearly 29,000 fixed charge notices were issued for mobile phone offences.

I am deeply concerned about this and I am taking this issue very seriously. My officials and I look forward to hearing the international perspectives put forward during this important conference and getting your advice on how we can address this problem.

Delegates, this is the first road safety conference that I have addressed since the beginning of the year. I think it would be remiss of me not to say something about the on-going controversy in relation to penalty points.

Last week, the Garda Inspectorate published its report on the Fixed Charge Processing System. The report contrasted greatly with the report of the internal investigation carried out by the Gardaí. It found that there were ‘consistent and widespread breaches of policy by those charged with administering the system’.

With a few exceptions, the Garda Inspectorate found ‘no meaningful evidence of consistent quality management supervision …… either at Garda Headquarters, Regional, Divisional, District or another level’.

On a more positive note, it would appear that the new procedures introduced in recent months have resulted in a step change in how the system is administered by the Gardaí and a significant fall in the number of penalty points being cancelled. This needs to be monitored closely to ensure that the changes are permanent.

The first recommendation of the Garda Inspectorate Report was that a Criminal Justice Working Group be established to oversee and facilitate the implementation of the recommendations in the report. The Group, which is jointly chaired by my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality, held its first meeting last week.

My Department and its agencies are happy to take part in that group. But it is not the first such working group. We already have a ministerial level and inter-agency committee that meets several times a year. And, there is a pre-existing working group established to address the delayed implementation of measures enacted by the Oireachtas as far back as 2010. These include the third-payment option, measures to deal with company cars and the imposition of fines on out-of-state transport operators.

While my Department can and does take responsibility for weaknesses in primary legislation or delays in preparing regulations, we cannot take responsibility for delays in changing court procedures, updating the Garda pulse system, inadequate enforcement or unusual decisions made by judges.

The new working group will only be successful if everyone involved in it makes a priority of it and dedicates the necessary resources both in terms of time and money.

Certainly, if this does not happen, I will not hesitate to say so, publicly and repeatedly.

I think it is also worth saying a few words about the Garda whistleblowers. They have come in for some criticism from some quarters for releasing Garda information about private individuals. I understand this criticism but I do not agree with it. The Garda whistleblowers only released this information after they tried and failed to have their concerns addressed through official channels and proper means. They released the information in an effort to expose bad practice and protect the public and this was done through contact with members of the Oireachtas, which is expressly provided for in the Garda Acts.

Speaking on my own behalf and on behalf of the thousands of families who have had to endure the pain and loss that flows from the death of a loved one on the road, I want to thank Sergeant McCabe and Mr Wilson. They may not have got everything right but they did shine a light into a dark place and forced those who would rather turn a blind-eye to face up to the truth.

There have been many words used to describe their actions. But if I was to use one word, the word I would use is ‘distinguished’.

I hope you all have a very productive and informative day. Enjoy the conference. Thank you very much. 

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