Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, 1983: Second Stage.

Tuesday, 3 July 1984

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 104 No. 9

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Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): Information on Fergus O'Brien  Zoom on Fergus O'Brien  This Bill provides for increases in the penalties for offences under the Road Traffic Acts, 1961 to 1978. The penalties set out in the 1961 and 1968 Acts have remained generally unchanged since their original enactment, the main exceptions being those for drunk driving offences which were revised in the 1978 Act.

The fall in money values over the last 20 years has seriously lessened the deterrent impact of these monetary penalties. Accordingly, the Bill proposes to increase all of them to reflect current money values and living standards and [820] to provide an adequate deterrent for some years to come. The existing legislation also allows for the imposition of prison sentences. These remain largely unchanged. Where changes are being made I will mention them when outlining the detailed provisions of the Bill.

The increased monetary penalties proposed in the Bill can be divided into three categories. The first involves the most serious road traffic offences, such as dangerous, drunk and uninsured driving. The maximum fine is being increased generally from £100 to £1,000 — that is the heaviest fine which the District Court can currently impose.

The second broad category involves the moderately serious offences. In general these have been punishable up to now by fines not exceeding £50. The Bill proposes to increase this maximum to £350. Careless driving, dangerous parking, driving a defective vehicle and most offences relating to the testing, certification and loading of heavy goods vehicles come within this second category.

The third category relates to minor offences such as traffic and parking violations, not wearing a seat belt, speeding and so on. These are covered by the socalled “general penalty” laid down in section 102 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, which relates to all minor offences under the Road Traffic Acts, and regulations made thereunder, for which no other penalty is specified. Section 2 of the Bill proposes to increase the maximum fine arising under the “general penalty” from £20 to £150, in the case of a first offence, and from £50 to £350 for second and subsequent offences.

With the exception of the amendments to sections 112 and 113 which were agreed in the Dáil, all the details of the proposed changes in penalties are set out in the Explanatory Memorandum, which I hope Senators will have found helpful. In broad terms section 2 increases the “general penalty” which I have already mentioned. Section 3 deals with penalties under the 1961 Act, section 4 increases those in the 1968 Act and section 5 is concerned with 1978 Act penalties. I am not going to give the Seanad the details of all the proposed increases which I have [821] already summarised. Instead I will concentrate on some of the more important changes especially those differing from the general principles already set out.

Sections 3 and 4 provide for the transfer of offences relating to vehicle weights and dimensions from the “general penalty” category to that covering moderately serious offences. This will allow for the imposition of fines of up to £350 together with additional mandatory penalties of up to £650 depending on the excess weight a vehicle is carrying over the permitted level. The option of imprisonment for up to three months is also included. The proposed increases reflect the need for firm sanctions where breaches of the law may offer considerable commercial or financial advantage to hauliers. Permissible weights and dimensions of heavy goods vehicles were recently increased subject to additional controls over axle spacings and loadings. While these weight increases were justified on the economic grounds that they promote more efficient transport, I am concerned that infrastructural costs should not be increased because of damage to the road network caused by the failure of heavy goods vehicles to observe the revised regulations. I intend, in consultation with the Garda, to see that the new limits are fully enforced. As evidence of my intent in this area I have recently sanctioned the payment of grants amounting to £260,000 for the provision of additional weighbridges by local authorities at strategic locations and I intend to continue this programme in the coming years.

The penalty for an offence under section 112 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961 where a person uses or takes possession of a vehicle without the owner's consent or other lawful authority is being increased from the present maximum of a £50 fine or six months imprisonment or both to a maximum on summary conviction of a £1,000 fine or 12 months in prison or both. This removes the offence from the present moderately serious category and puts it into the serious category of offences. This is being done because of the growing problem of “joyriding”[822] which has resulted in a number of tragic deaths of innocent victims and, indeed, of joyriders themselves. In addition, it is proposed to provide the option of trial by jury when conviction would attract maximum penalties of a £2,000 fine and/or five years imprisonment.

The penalty for unlawfully interfering with the mechanism of a vehicle is also being increased from the general penalty, that is a maximum £20 fine for a first offence and a £50 fine for a second or subsequent offence to a maximum fine of £350 or three months in prison or both. The opportunity is also being taken to extend the scope of this offence by removing the words “in a public place” from section 113 of the 1961 Act. This will mean that interference with the mechanism of a vehicle will be an offence whether committed in a public place or on private property and gets over the anomaly whereby somebody can at present be prosecuted under this provision when he interferes with a car on the street, but not in the owner's driveway.

The penalty for dangerous driving resulting in death or serious bodily harm is being increased, on conviction on indictment, from a maximum fine of £500 to £3,000. The maximum custodial penalty remains at five years. On summary conviction, a maximum fine of £1,000 is proposed, compared with the existing maximum of £100. The maximum custodial penalty stays at six months. The provisions relating to mandatory disqualification remain unchanged.

The maximum penalty for uninsured driving is being increased from £100 to £1,000, while the maximum custodial penalty remains at six months. In addition, the consequential disqualification for a second or subsequent offence within three years is being increased from six months to one year.

The maximum monetary penalties relating to drunk driving offences, which were last set out in the 1978 Act, are being increased from £500 to £1,000, while the custodial penalties and provisions relating to consequential disqualification remain the same.

Having summarised the most important provisions of the Bill, I now want to [823] make a few general points on related matters. Concern was expressed in the Dáil that the proposed increases in fines may be excessive, particularly in relation to minor offences covered by the “general penalty” such as illegal parking, speeding etc. I do not agree and I will explain why. Firstly, the levels of penalties proposed are generally less than would have been justified had full increases in the consumer price index been applied. The multipliers used are 7.5 in the case of the proposed £150 fine and 7 for the £350 fine compared with a multiplier of 9.5 if the Consumer Price Index were used. Also these penalties have to be set at a level which will provide an adequate deterrent and give the courts adequate discretion for some years to come. The proposed penalties are maxima. They represent the upper limits within which the courts will have to work in dealing with the vast range of road traffic offences coming before them each year. The purpose of the Bill is to provide an adequate and up-to-date framework for enforcement rather than to fix the fines which are actually going to be applied in each case. The courts encounter varying degrees of culpability in dealing with offences and it is important that they have at their disposal an adequate range of penalties to implement a fair and consistent sentencing policy. The proposed maximum fines will give them greater discretion than they have under the present limits to relate the penalty to the degree of seriousness of the particular offence.

In addition, while “general penalty” offences may be considered trivial, they have an important impact on general road safety. An Foras Forbartha's report on road accident facts, 1982 commented adversely on the high proportion of trucks exceeding speed limits, especially on approach routes to towns, and suggested that better observance of these limits would prevent many accidents. An Foras have estimated, moreover, that as many as 50 lives could be saved annually by universal wearing of seat belts, yet the rate of wearing here is no more than one in two, compared with 19 out of 20 in the UK, where mandatory wearing was introduced [824] only in January 1983. Four out of five car drivers and front seat passengers killed in Ireland in 1982 were not wearing seat belts at the time of the crash. Finally, proper observance of parking regulations would bring obvious benefits to the flow of buses and other traffic in our larger urban areas.

Another suggestion made is that there should be mandatory minimum penalties. For example, the Prices Advisory Committee report on motor insurance recommended that minimum penalties should be applied more extensively to offences under the Road Traffic Act. As I have already explained in the Dáil, I have not accepted this recommendation because of the difficulties which it would involve in regard to the courts' constitutional prerogative of administering justice. In 1983, some 416,000 road traffic offences, representing 57 per cent of all prosecutions, were brought before the District Court. Applying minimum penalties across such a wide range and diversity of offences would usurp the court's role in evaluating the degree of culpability involved in each case. Minimum penalties could also be unjust. For example, a minimum fine of £100 for insurance offences, as was suggested by the Prices Advisory Committee, would be very substantial and punitive for a person of limited means such as an old age pensioner. There is also the risk that minimum penalties might become the norm and thereby effectively represent maximum penalties.

The primary purpose of Road Traffic Acts and regulations and by-laws made thereunder is to enable our roadways to be used safely and efficiently and to a lesser extent to minimise the environmental inconvenience caused by vehicles. It is essential, therefore, that the enforcement of this legislation is not limited by the inadequacy of the sanctions at the disposal of the courts. A realistic level of fines must be maintained to provide proper support for the traffic wardens and the courts in their task of upholding road traffic law. I am convinced that the Members of this House, the general public and road users will support the proposed increases. Some statistics will serve [825] to emphasise the importance of adequate sanctions and enforcement. Recent figures showed that 46 per cent of drivers killed in road accidents had a high blood alcohol level compared with 20 per cent of drivers in Britain. In 1983, the Garda took proceedings in the District Court for 10,222 drunk driving offences and 91,147 offences relating to insurance.

This Bill is only one of a number of measures I am taking in the road traffic area. A review of the Road Traffic Acts is also being undertaken by my Department with a view to preparing legislation to amend, improve and update the existing provisions in important areas — in effect, the present Bill, which tackles the most urgent problem of penalties is the first stage of the review process. As I mentioned already, revised regulations have been made governing the permitted weights and dimensions of heavy goods vehicles, additional weighbridges are being provided and measures to improve enforcement are being considered in consultation with the Garda. I announced recently that, subject to certain consultations, I proposed to make regulations requiring the fitting of laminated wind-screens to all new motor vehicles registered on or after July 1985.

In addition, I have developed a programme of road improvements aimed at eliminating major deficiencies in our road network within a reasonable period. This programme is being considered by the Government in the context of the preparation of the medium-term plan. Despite the present difficult economic situation, my Department will pay out £127.15 million in road grants in 1984, of which £101.65 million will be spent on road improvement and £25.5 million on road maintenance. These funds will enable significant progress to be made on the programme of road works outlined in the road development plan.

In conclusion I wish to thank the Members of the House for their attention and I look forward to the early passage into law of this Bill.

Mr. M. O'Toole: Information on Martin J. O'Toole  Zoom on Martin J. O'Toole  The main purpose of this Bill is to increase the penalties for [826] offences under the Road Traffic Acts. Most people will regard the Bill as yet another tax-collecting machine. It has become the practice to devote most legislation to that purpose. Until such time as adequate parking facilities are provided by the Department of the Environment no blame can be attached to the motorist who from time to time parks in unauthorised places. Tourists anxious to explore our lovely country and who wish to stop in the various towns and cities find that parking is not available to them either. This is a disadvantage from the point of view of attracting people to this country when we should be encouraging them by providing the necessary amenities for them. Instead we embark on an exercise of increasing penalties in respect of parking. I appreciate that some updating is necessary in line with the price index, but people who commit an offence are usually not aware until afterwards of what the penalty for that offence is. Consequently, the level of the penalty does not curb the incidence of the offence. Our first aim should be the provision of proper parking facilities expecially in or near built-up areas.

Every motorist at some time or other is likely to breach the parking regulations. Very often one parks illegally for only a few moments while delivering something or collecting something and returns to find that a warden or a garda has placed a ticket on the car windscreen but if one were to park legally in such instances one might have to walk perhaps a mile or two from the car park. We are putting the cart before the horse in this legislation.

I will be speaking on Committee Stage in greater detail about this question of adequate parking. It is suggested that we increase from £20 to £150 the penalty for what are casual and minor parking offences. This rate of increase is too high especially as it will not curb the incidence of this type of offence.

One group of people who will be penalised unduly by these increased penalties are the drivers of articulated trucks especially those who travel to and from the Continent and who are usually under pressure to reach the ports in time to [827] travel on the ferries. Until such time as we provide proper parking facilities for these trucks we should not harass the drivers who stop for a short time to have a meal somewhere along the route while proper parking facilities are not provided. Some articulated trucks with up to 40 and 50 tons laden weight are unable to get proper slewing facilities. If they have to go to a weighbridge that is not adjacent to their route it may take them miles and miles out of their way. They are having difficulties, as the Minister knows, in some rural towns. The bypasses that were provided for in the road programme for the eighties are not being constructed as quickly as we would like because we have not made sufficient money available. If we had the necessary by-passes these heavy articulated trucks that take our product out of and into the country could move freely. These drivers will be severely harassed and fined for increased weight under this new regulation.

I know that there are plenty of private developers who will be willing to provide parking facilities provided the law entitled them to get proper remuneration for doing so. But at present I do not think it is possible for a private developer to do this because, according to law, he is debarred from getting proper remuneration for doing so in certain local authority areas.

There are a number of ESB truck and van drivers who have from time to time to park in wrong locations in order to carry out maintenance work and so on. Post Office vans, ESB vans and other delivery vehicles have been fined for parking illegally during the course of their daily normal maintenance work. If this penalty is being increased, do I take it that this type of ESB worker, post office worker or delivery van driver will come into the same category as any other person who illegally parks a vehicle? They must park their vans close to the work they are doing whether it is on the streets of Dublin or elsewhere. They must park in order to bring their equipment to the nearest possible point.

Something must be done in this regard to exempt certain categories. Is it right [828] for an ambulance to park in an unauthorised place if it is collecting a patient? Is that ambulance driver subject to a fine? There are certain categories of drivers who are not exempted under this Bill and I hope that on Committee Stage the Minister will be able to tell me that these drivers will be exempted.

There should be increased penalties for uninsured drivers. People in the age bracket 18 to 25 years are penalised already by the excessive premiums quoted by insurance companies. That is the main reason we have this category of drivers driving uninsured cars. They do this mostly at night and some have serious accidents. Insurance companies no longer want to insure this type of driver. There are only a few insurance companies that will quote a driver in that category. That has increased the number of uninsured drivers. Something should be done to give cover to this category of driver. A young driver who buys his first car for £700 to £1,000 — that is the usual price they can afford to pay — cannot afford to pay a premium of over £1,200 to £1,400. They pay more for the insurance per year than the car is worth. An uninsured driver does not have motor tax because he must produce his insurance certificate when taxing his car. The local authorities are losing that money. If a driver who has proper insurance has a collision, through no fault of his own, with an uninsured driver then he will be in trouble and will have to go to the insurance bureau to try to get some type of compensation.

Insurance companies should cover this type of driver. There should be a nominal, attractive premium quoted to them and this would reduce the number of uninsured drivers who are roaming around at present. It would also decrease considerably the high premiums which people who insure their cars annually have to pay. This category of drivers, through no fault of their own, are unable to get insurance. Some of them are on their fathers' and mothers' insurance. This is the only way parents can get their sons or daughters covered for a nominal premium. Something must be done to bring about a reduction in the number of [829] uninsured drivers who are causing havoc throughout the country.

It was stated in the Dáil that people with insurance should display a disc to indicate to the authorities and everybody else that they are insured. That may not be possible under this Bill because it deals with increasing fines. A regulation specifying the display of a disc should be considered. I have a disc on my own car at the moment, supplied by the PMPA. If you have that on your car, it indicates that you are insured for the year and your tax disc is also on display, so all that is required to be asked of you by a garda is whether you have a driving licence. If you have the tax and the insurance discs displayed, it would identify the uninsured driver more easily. Something should be done in this regard under the present review of the Road Traffic Acts.

I spoke about the overloading of trucks, but that does not create much difficulty. I was a haulier and know from my own experience that you do not load your truck any more than it is capable of carrying, especially on long distance routes. In some cases, with increased charges in running a service, the Road Transport and Haulage Association members may have to increase the payload slightly in order to make a business viable in these tough times, with increased charges for diesel, truck parts and tyres. I do not think it is something that should be of concern. The provision of weighbridges could not be warranted because of the small number of overweight discrepancies that would be found. Trucks are now assembled to carry a certain tonnage and it would be unwise for any haulier, particularly a long distance haulier, to overload his truck to such an extent that he would deserve such a penalty.

Throughout the length and breadth of the country accident injuries from time to time are blamed on the non-use of seat belts. I have a horror of using a seat belt and I only use one from time to time — I feel I am trapped. I have been driving all my life and I have had very few accidents. I do not think seat belts give the [830] protection that people feel they do. After this Bill is passed, the penalty will be very high, up to £150, for not wearing a seat belt. That is too stiff a fine. You never know the fine prior to committing the offence, so it will not be a deterrent.

A minimum fine of £100 is proposed, in the case of inadvertent non-insurance. There are plenty of people whose insurance will run out through no deliberate fault of their own and who may be stopped at a checkpoint. A minimum fine of £100 would be sufficient, but a greater fine is suggested and automatic suspension of the driver's licence in the case of deliberate non-insurance. I have no sympathy for deliberate non-insurers, but I have great sympathy for an annual insurer who, through an oversight, has not renewed his insurance but who will definitely insure back to the expiry date. I would ask the Minister to look into the points I have mentioned. I will have more to say on Committee Stage.

Mr. FitzGerald: Information on Alexis J.G. Fitzgerald  Zoom on Alexis J.G. Fitzgerald  I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the Bill. I am somewhat surprised at something my colleague on the other side of the House, Senator O'Toole, said, if I understood him correctly. He was all but encouraging people to park illegally in the towns and cities of our country although they know parking restrictions are well and truly established as part of the law. Similarly in relation to seat belts, I do not know if he understood the Second Stage speech of the Minister, who mentioned that one or two situations have been categorised by An Foras Forbartha as being directly related to the non-use of seat belts. We have here a Bill which seeks to increase fines in a wide range of areas with a view to getting much greater observance and respect from the motoring public and it behoves every Member of this House to support it. The increased fines are justified because the consumer price index is lower today than when the Road Traffic Acts of 1961 and 1978 were passed.

I very much applaud the sentiments in the Minister's Second Stage speech. The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill should be given every support in this House. The [831] numbers of motor vehicles have increased beyond all recognition. We now have vehicle registrations of the order of 900,000, which is expected to double by the year 2000. That is an enormous number of vehicles. We must have regulations and those regulations must have teeth to enable the Garda Síochána and others to deal with the enforcement of regulations with regard to parking, to the use of seat belts, to controlling the level of drunken driving, which cannot be allowed to continue at the present level, and with the many uninsured vehicles that this State has to put up with at the moment. On our well-used road system, 46 per cent of road accidents are related to drink, which is an alarming figure. In the course of 1983, as the Minister mentioned a few moments ago, there were 10,222 prosecutions by the Garda to the District Court relating to drunken driving. This serious problem must be tackled. People who have been drinking are driving through our cities and our countryside and, unfortunately, in many cases their victims are people who were driving carefully, or walking or cycling with care. That level of drunken driving in this State must be dealt with very seriously.

The question of uninsured vehicles is also obviously a major concern. The Motor Insurance Bureau have an estimated a figure of something of the order of £42 million in outstanding claims relating to uninsured driving. Last year 91,000 motorists were brought before the District Court on charges in this area. At least one in five of our motorists are driving around at the moment without proper insurance cover. This is a major segment of our population. The fines are not heavy enough. The increase from a maximum fine of £100 to £1,000 is long overdue. An insurance disc was suggested recently by the Minister for Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism. This is important and it is a feature of modern motoring that I hope to see developed shortly.

The safety factor is of concern to people who are interested in motoring and to those who do not drive and who depend on observation of the rules by [832] motorists, namely pedestrians. In the period since 1961 we have reduced the level of accidents from ten per 10,000 to six per 10,000, a major improvement which we must all applaud. There are a number of features I should like to explore relating to road safety. One is the question of cyclists. The number of cyclists in our cities and towns over the past five years has increased enormously. Forty-six cyclists were killed in 1983 and a third of these were killed by impact with heavy vehicles. We mentioned heavy vehicles a moment ago, and I welcome the increase in the allocation for weighbridges. The Garda should tackle the number of cyclists who are roaming our countryside without any lights.

I gather from the report of An Foras Forbartha that there is a great need for a campaign to get protective sideguards on heavy vehicles. If sideguards were provided cyclists and pedestrians would not be dragged under heavy vehicles and killed. Something could be done in this area by way of regulation which would give greater protection to cyclists. I also mentioned the question of bicycle lights. The number of prosecutions in this area seems to have fallen. Vast numbers of people are cycling around County Dublin without lights. We need a much greater level of enforcement in this area.

We should seek an improvement in road safety. I wonder whether the Department of the Environment have been trying to extend motor testing. Could we make it obligatory for vehicles over five or six years on the road to have an annual test? Something in the order of 7 to 10 per cent of all accidents are in some way related to the state of the vehicle itself. At the moment with our economic problems, people are trying to keep the show on the road and cars are getting less attention, less upkeep. Therefore they are a growing contributory cause of accidents.

Lorries, heavy vehicles and articulated trucks are being parked in residential areas. This problem is very prevalent in Dublin at the moment. These vehicles are parked indiscriminately, with no lights. Many of them are parked night after night in badly lit areas. There have [833] been very serious accidents. Two years ago a number of people were killed in Tallaght and there have been incidents like that from time to time. The Department of the Environment should provide a car park for lorries and encourage those using lorries and articulated trucks to park them off the streets and outside residential areas. We need more action from the Department and the local authorities in providing a facility of this kind. A by-law was proposed to the Department of the Environment by Dublin City Council in 1980 which the Minister saw fit not to accept. It was intended to control this form of hazardous parking. These vehicles are often badly lit and parked in most unexpected places.

I welcome this Bill. The increases relate not only to the drunken driving and insurance areas but also to what are described as moderately serious offences in connection with seat belts and parking. We need to have them increased. More serious attention should be paid to all these matters and I hope that every Member of this House will welcome this Bill in that spirit.

Mr. B. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  There is much in this Bill that goes without any argument and none of us would take much exception to what it contains. It has obviously an impeccable logic in ensuring that penalties which were introduced many years ago at least stay in line with the increases in the consumer price index and I am glad Senator O'Toole mentioned it. Somewhere contained in this proposal is the suggested philosophy that people's response to penalties is directly related to how they behave themselves vis-á-vis certain aspects of the law and the penalties that apply.

As an inveterate breaker of parking regulations through no great fault of my own other than the fact that I am in a permanent hurry and I cannot find a parking space I never knew what was the maximum penalty for a breach of the parking regulations until today when I saw it in the explanatory memorandum and it is a moot point whether I am more [834] or less deterred by the proposal to increase that maximum penalty. I did not know about it and I agree fully with Senator O'Toole that in many cases people do not know. That raises a question about the whole area of penalties and their alleged deterrent value, which I think is highly questionable. Penalties do not more than represent the relative disapproval of society for many aspects and issues.

There is a problem that needs to be addressed here. There seems to be an unwillingness in Irish political life to address some of these problems if there is an implied criticism of those who enforce the law. The problem with many of our traffic offences, whether it be drink-related offences, speeding or nonobservance of the seat belt regulations, is not so much a question of penalties as a question of enforcement. If the level of inefficient enforcement or virtual nonenforcement that we have persists it will not really matter whether the penalty is £50, £100 or £150 or indeed £300. Somebody somewhere has got to address the fact that the law, the complexity of traffic regulations and the restrictions we have, the maximum speed limit and the urban speed limits are not enforced. It is quite realistic now to say that if you drive through the entire urban area of Dublin at 30 miles per hour you will be hooted off the road by dozens if not hundreds of impatient drivers who think you are driving far too slowly. There is virtually nobody to enforce this regulation. I do not think the Garda really believe that they are there to be enforced but at any rate the regulations are not enforced. The problem is not so much the level of penalty but the seriousness of enforcement of the regulations.

Many of us are concerned about the problem of uninsured cars and we have good reason to be concerned. Senator FitzGerald mentioned the frightening sum of money that is now reputedly outstanding to the Insurance Bureau because of claims against uninsured drivers. It is also true that as a society we have a rather extraordinary population structure in terms of age which leaves us with a huge number of young drivers. We [835] would need to be wary — and I will come back to this later on in another section of this Bill — in addressing what is a problem not to impose yet another penalty on our young people. We have done this on a number of occasions recently. I said before that I would regard sections of the Litter Bill as an assault on our young people's culture.

The uninsured driver problem is as much a problem of our inability to devise a scheme of insurance which reflects our population structure as it is a problem of malicious, deliberate avoidance of insurance by large numbers of people who refuse to be insured. The problem is that insurance companies are creaming off the lucrative, low-risk sections of the market at the expense of those sections of the market which are traditionally the areas of high-risk, namely, new drivers, young drivers and people like that. Simply to impose yet more penalties will not make an enormous amount of difference. It will impose considerable hardship on the people who are caught and probably one cannot argue too much with that because uninsured driving is an absolute scandal. However, that is not the solution because it will not stop many people. I do not believe there are deterrent values in these things and I do not believe that 95 per cent of uninsured drivers are going to notice the difference between these penalties and the previous penalties. It will be the few who are caught who will notice, but the other larger number will not notice.

There is, of course, in the middle of this Bill a quite objectionable section, objectionable on so many grounds that it is to me quite frightening it went through the Dáil virtually on the nod with agreement from all sides. I refer, of course, to section 3 (7). While it is probably more appropriately a matter for Committee Stage it is an issue that has commanded considerable concern and that is the question of the unauthorised taking of motor cars. That particular section proposes to change the penalty from a maximum of six months and a maximum fine of £50 without any question of the offence being heard before a jury to the extraordinary new proposal by which people can end up [836] being fined up to £2,000 and sentenced up to five years imprisonment. I do not know what rationale there is behind this quite extraordinary change in penalties. I do not know what sort of extraordinary bourgeois values have taken hold of this country or what sort of extraordinary attachment we have to our motor cars. There are those who would theorise that a car is often the expression of a man's suppressed sexuality. I do not know if that is true or not but that is perhaps why people feel so frightened, wounded and hurt when their motor cars are taken because of what they symbolise for them. What I find quite objectionable is the extraordinary change in penalty for an offence that, while it cannot be condoned, is hardly the most serious offence in the canon of motoring offences.

I want to list the maximum custodial penalties for which we made provision — for driving under the influence of an intoxicant or when the concentration in blood exceeds 100 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of blood and so on, imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; driving without insurance, also imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. I have already heard that 46 per cent of deaths on the roads in this country are attributable to drink-related offences and yet we quite happily accept no more than a penalty of six months imprisonment. There is no question of a jury trial, no question of an indictable offence. Out of all the problems we have we pluck this thing, the unlawful taking of cars, and we give it this extraordinary penalty of five years. What rationale is there for it other than some extraordinary gut reflex action of those of us in society who have some property to protect which we regard as particularly precious? Surely those who take the risk with other people's lives by driving a car when drunk or take the risk with other people's futures by driving a car while uninsured are more seriously culpable than those who take a car without the owner's permission?

I want to refer to subsection (112) of the Principal Act which is being amended which states that a person shall not use or take possession of a mechanically propelled [837] vehicle. If we make a distinction between using and taking possession it appears to me that we are not just saying that the person who takes the car or anybody who knowingly participates in that exercise such as a passenger in a stolen car is also subject to this extraordinary penalty of five years imprisonment.

Let us go on from there. One third of all indictable offences are attributable to persons aged 17 or under, according to the Garda Commissioner's figures. I am quite satisfied that a much higher proportion of the offence of taking a car is attributable to people aged 17 or under, so that one can take it that this clause represents a penalty which, by and large, will be imposed on young people. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that those who take cars are among the most deprived and oppressed of our young people. Add to that the most extraordinary coincidence — I am sure that is all it is — that the minimum sentence to be provided, and which will allow detention for questioning under the Criminal Justice Bill, will be five years. Perhaps we are going beyond the realms of coincidence and into the real significance of this change, which is to make a widely practised but hardly the most serious crime in our society answerable under legislation which, I am sure, we will have ample opportunity to discuss. I do not understand the logic behind that penalty, how it can be suggested that the maximum appropriate penalty for so many offences, including driving while drunk, can be of the order of six months and the maximum penalty for stealing a car can be five years. It represents a distorted set of values in our society. It represents the sort of property philosophy which is in many ways destroying what is best in our society. It is a section which should preferably be removed but, if not, it should be amended. I will be moving an appropriate amendment to that section on Committee Stage, because it has nothing to do with the regulation of road traffic or protecting the average user. It has an awful lot to do with us as part of our [838] comfortable bourgeois society protecting ourselves from what we see as the assault of those outside our comfortable little world. I oppose that section and I will oppose it very vigorously on Committee Stage.

Mr. Durcan: Information on Patrick Durcan  Zoom on Patrick Durcan  This Bill amends once again the already much amended 1961 Road Traffic Act. In so far as the amendments provide for an increase of penalties which a court may impose, I welcome them. The level of fines which can be imposed currently are unrealistic and it is right that this House and the other House should take account of that fact. This is a point I have made in relation to other legislation here. There is a need for a certain amount of codification of various aspects of our statute law, and I think the Road Traffic Act now falls within that category. It is time that the Stationery Office, or whoever is responsible for the publication of what we legislate, should produce road traffic legislation in one volume, which would be easy for the general public to comprehend, for practitioners to use and for the Garda and court officials to deal with.

Reference has been made already to the maximum level of fines. Most Members of this House and of the Dáil have already received representations to the effect that certain minimum levels of fines should be imposed in this legislation for certain offences. That is a suggestion with which I disagree. In so far as any matter is determined judicially by a court of limited jurisdiction, then within the ambit of that limited jurisdiction maximum discretion should be given to the determining judge. Within the District Court there is statutory provision to ensure that justices meet at least annually to discuss the acceptable level of fines they impose for offences. It would be unwise for the Legislature to remove from the Judiciary who have limited jurisdiction the power to exercise discretion. We may put a statutory offence into a serious category but at the same time there may be cases in which circumstances warrant the imposition of a particularly low fine and I would be loath to see that discretion being taken away from the District [839] Court. I am glad that the Minister has not responded to the pressure in that regard.

I would like to make reference to the penalty, which under this legislation is increased from a maximum of £20 to £150, in respect of minor road traffic offences and increased from a maximum of £50 to £350 in respect of subsequent offences.

The report on crime published by the Garda Commissioner for the year ending 31 December 1983 indicates that 684,000 non-indictable offences were prosecuted. The majority of these relate to minor road traffic offences. A previous speaker referred to the enforcement of the law. It is unfortunate and time-wasting that so many of these minor matters have to proceed through the District Court in such a cumbersome way. It is time that the Minister considered a first option of an on the spot or automatic fine for minor road traffic offences. If an offender disagrees with that, he or she should have the option to allow the matter to be determined by the District Court; but, in the event of a conviction being recorded there, then a fine considerably in excess of the automatic fine should be imposed. The present system of prosecuting those involved in minor offences involves substantial waste of time by gardaí who attend minor District Courts in remote venues throughout the length and breadth of Ireland waiting for cases to be called. Anyone who has had experience of attending District Courts will see a number of gardaí lined up waiting all day for perhaps a no light on a bicycle offence to be disposed of. It is ridiculous that valuable time should be wasted in that respect.

I welcome the provision of increased fines for no insurance. All Members of this House are aware from information furnished to us of the number of uninsured vehicles on our roads. We are also aware that it is much easier for a garda to detect somebody who has no tax on his car than somebody driving without insurance. I welcome the commitment to introduce the insurance disc. I suspect there are many insurance offences which are going undetected. The fact that [840] claims paid in respect of uninsured vehicles which were involved in accidents for 1983 was £5.6 million is an indication of the extent of the problem. Juries may frequently award excessive amounts but it is also interesting that the estimated liability for outstanding claims for the end of that year for uninsured vehicles is estimated at £42 million. The introduction of a disc system would make it easier to detect this crime.

Reference has also been made to the question of car stealing. Senator Ryan made reference to section 3 (7) of the Bill. That section provides that if somebody is tried on a summary matter the maximum fine is £1,000 and the maximum term of imprisonment can be 12 months. This is one crime which is very serious for the person who is affected. I had the experience last November of having my car stolen twice in the one day, which I feel was a unique experience, and it took me at least six weeks to get over the mental shock. The shock was numbed by what I read in the Irish Independent on the same day. I read that two Government agencies were operating courses to try to assist people involved in the joyriding business. The article went on to say that the Tallaght community workshop had been given experts from AnCO and money from the Youth Employment Agency to teach young joy-riders and street kids mechanical skills. I have not had the opportunity to check the accuracy of this, but the article concluded by saying that a committee of officials said that similar courses in Belfast proved very successful, but the number of car thefts had dropped. In Belfast, as part of the course, teenagers were taken to local race tracks and allowed to race old cars they had renovated. Perhaps the fact that teenagers may be involved in other activities there may be one reason why car thefts have decreased, but I do not think that is the answer to our problem, and I welcome the provision to impose a maximum penalty. It is reassuring to realise that the attitude of most district justices who deal with this particular problem is to impose a prison sentence on first conviction, bearing in mind the discretion which they exercise and which I believe [841] they should continue to exercise. That is a general rule being adopted by our District Courts and I think it is a welcome one.

Senator FitzGerald referred to other road users and the general problems which they may sometimes cause in relation to the whole question of road safety. I would like to mention another category: the pedestrian. The pedestrian has a duty in regard to road safety. The time has come when people who use the road as a pedestrian or as a jogger should be obliged to wear some form of reflective armband after lighting-up hours. Accidents frequently occur when people are walking on the road without any form of visual identification, and the day has passed when the motorist is put into a secondary position, vis-á-vis the pedestrian.

I would like to be parochial here and refer to traffic control in my own part of the country. As a member of Westport Urban District Council I am aware that we have been attempting to introduce traffic by-laws within that local authority area for the past three or four years. We carried out a traffic control survey at considerable cost; we attempted to introduce by-laws and we were advised that the consent of the Commissioner of the Garda was required. We were then advised that a standard form of by-laws was to be introduced for the three urban areas in County Mayo. After three years waiting that has now been done. But we are having tremendous difficulty arranging a meeting with the Commissioner or his representative. Rather than making this the necessity which I believe it to be, local authorities should be obliged and encouraged to introduce by-laws which deal purely with local needs. There should be a duty to consult with the Garda, but if the Garda, at Commissioner level, fail to respond promptly to this problem, then the local authority should be allowed to proceed immediately. We have tried to encourage the Commissioner's representatives to come to Westport — it is a part of the country well worth coming to at this time of the year — but we cannot get them to come [842] and our traffic problem remains as severe as ever. Our problem is no different from the problems being experienced in many other small towns in the country, and I am quite sure the reason is similar to our own. Local authorities should be encouraged to make their own by-laws, and if the Garda are not anxious to get involved, so be it.

I welcome the provisions of this Bill, in particular, the fact that discretion is being left to our traffic courts. I commend the Minister for his efforts in this regard.

Mr. E. Ryan: Information on Eoin David Senior Ryan  Zoom on Eoin David Senior Ryan  I agree with previous speakers in regard to this Bill being acceptable and inevitable and in regard to bringing fines up to approximately what they should be, having regard to inflation. As the Minister has said, it does not quite do that, but it goes very near it.

I was glad the Minister made an effort to deal with the very serious problem of uninsured drivers. I was agreeably surprised to find that over 91,000 prosecutions had been taken in regard to uninsured driving during the past year. Very few people realise — even though there is a good deal of talk about it — the extent to which uninsured driving is prevalent at present. It has been estimated that about one driver in five is not insured. What happens is that when there are claims against some uninsured drivers these must be met by the Motor Insurers' Bureau, which in turn recovers the claim from the insurance companies, which in turn, of course, increase premiums to meet these claims. Something of the order of 20 per cent of the premiums paid by the average motorist is in regard to claims incurred by those who are not insured, and has nothing whatever to do with the claims experience which would be proper to himself. There are constant complaints about the high premiums charged, but it must be borne in mind, as I said, that approximately 20 per cent of these premiums is due to uninsured drivers and the insured driver has to bear this as well as his own risk. It is very acceptable that an effort is being made to deal with this problem. I hope that effort will continue and that we will eventually get the incidence of uninsured driving down [843] to the norm in other European countries which, I think, is something of the order of 3 per cent or 4 per cent instead of 20 per cent.

The Minister has increased the maximum fines and sentences, but unfortunately this may not help as much as one would expect. The position at the moment is that while the present fines are very small, in most cases the courts do not impose the maximum allowed under statute. The average fine is something of the order of £50, whereas the maximum fine is £100. It is doubtful whether increasing the maximum will have the desired effect of increasing the fine imposed by the courts.

The Minister was asked to consider having a minimum fine rather than a maximum fine to ensure that there would be some minimum imposed in the case of a first offence, in the case of an inadvertent omission to have insurance, and in the case of a person who deliberately did so. The Minister made the case that this would be interfering with the discretion, with the prerogative, of the courts and for that reason he would be reluctant to do so. He also made the case that the minimum might become the norm, which, of course, would not be very helpful. The Minister does have a case that it is inadvisable. If possible, it is better to avoid a situation of a minimum fine and for the present at any rate it may be worth trying out the system that he has brought into this Bill, a system of the past, that of the maximum fine. We hope the courts will increase fines in accordance with the maximum which is now permitted. A very definite effort should be made, whether by discussions with the Judiciary or by some kind of public relations exercise, to bring home to people through the courts the seriousness of this situation, and fines should be fairly severe to try to minimise the present problem of uninsured drivers.

At present many people simply take a chance. They very often get away with it. If they are caught the fine is so low that they say to themselves: “It was well worth taking a chance”. If you get that kind of attitude to uninsured driving, then of course the very high incidence that prevails [844] at present will continue. Every effort must be made to ensure that people do not continue to adopt the attitude that it is worth taking a chance.

Senator O'Toole referred to young drivers and the fact that they find it so hard to get insurance. I would like to point out that insurance companies would like to do business with young drivers as well as others, but insurance companies switch their rates in accordance with the claims experience. They have to do that. The claims experience with young drivers is very bad. That is the reason why the rates for young drivers is very high. If the companies were forced to take on young drivers at low rates they would have to recoup themselves from drivers generally, which would mean that premiums generally would go up. That is the only way they could do it. This would mean that the ordinary driver, who is in no way responsible for the claims experience of young drivers, would have to pay an extra premium to cater for that situation. It is a difficult situation. Senator O'Toole is correct in saying that many of the uninsured drivers are young drivers for whom rates are very high. Some effort should be made to meet the situation. It would cut down the number of uninsured drivers. It is something which should be dealt with as far as it is possible to do so. I am merely emphasising that the reason the rates are high is that the claims experience is very bad with young drivers. There has to be some relationship between premiums and claims experience.

Senator Brendan Ryan talked about young drivers and about insurance companies not wanting to take that business; they prefer to cream off the lucrative areas, he said. The fact is there are no lucrative areas in motor insurance. The picture is that in the last ten or more years in very few cases have any insurance companies made profits in any year. Occasionally one does, but the experience is that nearly all companies in nearly all years in the past have shown losses on motor insurance, in some years quite staggering losses, and that is why the situation is unacceptable or very [845] severe for some people when they look for insurance rates.

I welcome the statement by the Minister that he intends to make laminated windscreens obligatory from 1 July 1985. There is no doubt whatever that the other kind of windscreen, a non-laminated windscreen, leads to very severe injuries, particularly eye injuries. The laminated windscreen is now obligatory in most European countries. I am very glad to hear from the Minister that he intends to introduce this form of windscreen.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:  Before I call on the next speaker I wonder, for the information of the House, would the Leader like to tell us——

Professor Dooge: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  There is only one more speaker to offer from this side and I understand two Senators from the far side. The Minister has assured me that his reply will occupy less than ten minutes. Accordingly, it should be possible to complete the Second Stage by 10.30 p.m. or very shortly thereafter. If the House would agree I would suggest we go ahead.

Mr. Daly: Information on Jack Daly  Zoom on Jack Daly  I, too, welcome the Bill and welcome the increased penalties. I would like to see, although the Minister seems to be resisting it, minimum fines because where the courts already have jurisdiction for fines of up to £100, their fines are often £20 or £25. However, this Bill has been fairly well dealt with. Senator Ryan, who wears another hat in insurance, and a Senator to follow leave me with not much to say, but I would like to make a few points just the same.

Senator FitzGerald raised the question of MOT testing. It would take a long time to deal with that and I propose to deal with it on Committee Stage. The insurance disc was raised by Senators O'Toole, FitzGerald and Durcan. At first this might look a good idea but when you analyse it you find out it defeats its own purpose, because having the disc on the car is no indication that the car is insured for the person who is driving it at the time. Most cars today are insured [846] owner-driven or named drivers. But if you have that disc on the car and a garda comes along and he sees a disc on the car, if that is going to give the impression which it is meant to give, that that car is insured for that driver, that is not true.

So I think it is a double-edged weapon. In no circumstances should the disc be used because then there will be more and more uninsured drivers. It is a very simple thing on the checkpoints I have noticed, as someone who travels a lot through the country: now the Garda will stop you, look at your tax but they never ask you about insurance. There is only one way to check insurance, that is, when the person is stopped he should be asked to produce it and if he has not got it with him he should be allowed ten days to produce it in the Garda station. I would hope that the disc system would not be used unless there is a different type of disc that can meet all these points. Then that would cover the whole windscreen.

Senator O'Toole raised a point about seat belts and the fine. Sometimes he wears it and sometimes he does not. He suffers from claustrophobia or something like that when he has the belt on him. I am a person who suffers from claustrophobia and I would not wear a seat belt because if I had been wearing a seat belt when I was in a certain accident I would not be here talking to you this evening — I might be talking from below or above, but not from where I am. I would like to say to Senator O'Toole, and for the benefit of many other people who may not be aware of it, that there is provision in the Act for people who want exemptions under the Act to get a doctor's certificate. Then they are free to drive without their belts. It need not inhibit anybody who feels he should not wear a seat belt.

If I had a choice of wearing a seat belt or not being allowed to drive I would not drive. But then there are other statistics that will show in other cases that if people had been wearing belts they would not have been killed. It is something that should be left to the people themselves. It is strange to have an Act which compels you to wear a seat belt in [847] a car. Look at all the people who have been burned to death in motor cars. Why is there not a provision about having a fire extinguisher in every car? It would be a lot nearer to the necessity than the seat belts.

I should like to reply to Senator Ryan's statement about stolen cars. He seemed to think that those people should be dealt with in a special way because they are deprived or come from certain areas. He gave the impression that because of that they were free to take a car and go out and not only have a good time in the car but frighten the hearts out of people or kill the breadwinner of a family. At the end of their drive those people burn the stolen car. On average 100 cars are stolen each night in Dublin. Although two of the leading hotels have security, on average two to three cars are stolen each night. There must be severe penalties for the stealing of cars. Those involved are a danger to themselves and to other road users. They may mow down the breadwinner of a family. The fact that there is an insurance bureau to provide some compensation does not mean anything because nobody can replace a life or bring back the person killed by those people. They have now devised another accident, the bumper accident, whereby they crash into a police car and not being satisfied with crashing into the front of it turn around and crash into the back of it. Most of those involved are under 16 years of age and are well known to the Garda. The same fellows steal the cars but nothing can be done about them under our laws. It is a very serious state of affairs that such people have more or less a licence to steal cars and get away with it. I will have an opportunity to raise the other points, particularly the MOT and dangerous vehicles, on Committee Stage.

Mr. Mullooly: Information on Brian Mullooly  Zoom on Brian Mullooly  The purpose of the Bill is to update the penalties for a wide range of road traffic offences, mainly by increasing the maximum fines which may be imposed by a court. As Senator O'Toole said, the direct result will be an increase in the amount of revenue accruing to the Exchequer from fines imposed [848] for road traffic offences but if I felt this will be the only effect the Bill will have I would be very reluctant to support it. I hope, however, that an indirect and more important consequence of this legislation will be a reduction in the number of offences under the Road Traffic Acts, because I believe the increased penalties will act as an effective deterrent in the case of those contemplating road traffic offences.

In my view road traffic offences can be separated into three categories. In the first category I would put what could be described as premeditated offences while the second category would include all offences resulting from carelessness or a deliberate ignoring of the rules of the road. I would see category three taking in all unpremeditated and trivial offences. At the top of the list of premeditated offences, as the most serious road traffic offences of all, I would put driving without insurance. In the vast majority of cases the person who drives without insurance does so fully realising the seriousness of the offence he is committing and the risk he is taking. All available evidence and statistics seem to indicate that the number of uninsured drivers on our roads is increasing all the time. In the other House the figure of 150,000 uninsured drivers was mentioned. It is high time that a concerted drive was made to stamp out this problem once and for all.

It should be obligatory on the insurance companies to issue a current insurance disc for windscreen display with every certificate of insurance issued. I would not agree with the suggestion made by Senator Daly that the display of such a disc would not lead to a reduction in the number of uninsured drivers on the road. While the display of a disc might not indicate with absolute certainty that the driver was insured, at least it would indicate that there was insurance on the car involved. In addition to the issue of the disc every certificate of insurance should be issued in duplicate. One portion of the certificate of insurance should be retained by the motor taxation authority when the vehicle is being taxed. I do not think that the Garda would accept the fact that once a car had an insurance [849] disc on display on the windscreen that everything was in order as far as the insurance of that vehicle was concerned and the insurance relating to the driver of the vehicle. It would be a very easy matter to check with the motor taxation authorities whether the certificate of insurance was in order as far as that vehicle and driver were concerned.

The display of insurance discs should be made compulsory in the same way as the display of tax discs is compulsory. One of the chief reasons for the proliferation of the problem of uninsured drivers is the high cost of motor insurance especially in the case of young people and first time drivers. The insurance companies may argue — Senator Eoin Ryan has already made the case — that the reason for the high cost of motor insurance for young people and first time drivers is the high accident rate of this category of motorists. However, I believe there is no justification for the level of premiums such people must pay if they want to get insurance. I have heard of many cases in which premiums well in excess of £1,000 were quoted to such young persons. For many of those young people a car is an absolute necessity for them to get to their places of employment. It is time pressure was put on the insurance companies to devise some system of giving such young people insurance at a reasonable cost. No young person today starting off in employment can afford to pay £1,000 or more for insurance but, worse still, many of them have great difficulty in even getting a quotation.

Every insurance company should be forced to carry a certain percentage of drivers under 25 years of age. There should be a fixed maximum charge for third party insurance for such a person, at least until such time as he or she is unfortunate enough to have an accident. It is time enough then to start imposing the penalties and the loadings. It is most unfair that all young people should be penalised to the extent that obtains at the moment because of the irresponsibility of a minority. In the eyes of many people the insurance companies here are a law [850] unto themselves and are doing exactly as they please. They are picking and choosing those whom they will or will not insure. They are deciding the type of cover they will give to any particular driver or category of drivers. People are afraid to question their rules and conditions and the validity of their actions for fear of being told, “We do not want your business”. As everybody knows, a driver who is refused insurance by one company has a poor case when he or she goes elsewhere for cover. It is wrong that any insurance company should be allowed to demand that it be given a person's other insurance business before it will consider giving a quotation to that person for motor cover. It is high time that the motor insurance industry became a bit more responsive to the needs of the motoring public. The prevailing attitude in the industry, especially as far as the young driver is concerned, is a significant contributory factor to the problem of uninsured drivers.

The number of defective vehicles on our roads is another serious problem and this has been mentioned by previous speakers. Vehicles with defective lights, tyres and brakes are a positive hazard to all road users and the owners of such vehicles when apprehended should be dealt with accordingly. I agree with other speakers that there should be a requirement that every vehicle over a certain age should have to undergo a roadworthiness test at regular intervals. The cost of such a test and the issuing of certificates in this respect would have to be very strictly controlled. If we had such a system I believe it would lead to a significant reduction in the number of defective vehicles on our roads. The important thing is that the cost of such a test to the motorist must not be prohibitive and I would like to see the test being carried out only by reputable garages which would be licensed for that purpose.

Another category of traffic offence which seems to be on the increase is the hit-and-run accident. In the vast majority of cases hit-and-run accidents arise because the driver involved is either uninsured or has taken drink. If the problem of uninsured drivers and drunken [851] drivers could be eliminated I believe that the incidence of hit-and-run accidents would almost disappear.

While I agree that the penalties for drunken driving should be commensurate with the seriousness of the offience, just as in the case of the uninsured driver or the hit-and-run driver, I have serious reservations about automatic disqualification in the case of every person convicted. This is an extremely serious penalty in the case of a person whose livelihood and work depends on driving. For the vast majority of people it is no more than a considerable inconvenience but in the case of a person who earns his living from driving a vehicle or a truck the imposition of that penalty is tantamount to taking away that person's livelihood. I have reservations about the mandatory disqualification which follows a conviction for drunken driving.

It is time that the blanket speed limit of 55 miles an hour was reviewed, certainly as far as our major roads are concerned. Everybody realises that those speed limits are not being observed, certainly on our main roads. The maximum speed limit was introduced originally for the purpose, we are told, of saving energy. In view of the overall improvement of our major roads it is time to review that speed limit.

A serious problem on our major roads is the number of truck drivers who exceed the speed limit very considerably. Instead of driving as near as practicable to the left hand side of the road they drive as near as possible to the centre of the road and they cause a build up of traffic behind them. This can be a particular problem during the winter when roads are wet and when the spray that is sent up by the wheels of those vehicles can reduce the visibility for the drivers who are caught in the build-up of traffic behind them. This is a problem to which the Garda traffic corps should certainly address themselves.

Parking was also referred to. Most parking offences are of a relatively minor nature. However, carelessness in relation to the parking of vehicles and double parking can seriously interfere with the free flow of traffic, especially in built-up [852] areas. One of the reasons for the huge number of parking violations is that sufficient parking accommodation is not available near centres of business, not alone here in Dublin but in most towns throughout the country. I believe that parking offences can be divided into two categories, careless parking and positively dangerous parking offences and I believe that very severe penalties should be imposed for dangerous parking. I am thinking in particular of heavy vehicles parked in unlit or poorly lit areas and the non-use of advance warning signs and of reflectorised strips on the sides of vehicles. There could be a much greater use of those reflectorised strips. They could be very effective if used on the bumpers of cars as well as on heavy vehicles.

I believe there is an increasing use of seat belts and an increasing awareness of the protection that they provide for drivers and for front seat passengers in an accident situation. In the case of drivers or front seat passengers undertaking long journeys, I believe that the percentage using seat belts is fairly high. I agree that a major problem probably does exist in the case of motorists undertaking what are regarded as short journeys.

The Department of the Environment should in the very near future, if possible before the coming winter, organise an intensive publicity campaign to bring home to people the importance of wearing seat belts. During the course of that campaign there should be supportive action from the Garda, and all persons in breach of the seat belt law should be gently but firmly reminded of the importance of wearing seat belts and of the law in that regard. My idea would be that during the course of that campaign there would be no prosecutions for seat belt offences but at the end of the campaign I believe that the law in relation to seat belts should be strictly enforced and appropriate penalties imposed. I believe that such a campaign would be a very effective exercise and it would be a very good public relations exercise as far as gardaí are concerned. There are times when people must be protected from themselves and the situation in relation [853] to the reluctance of some people to wear seat belts is an example of those times.

Pedestrians who go out at night often wearing dark clothing and without reflective arm bands are another category of people who must be protected from themselves. The same applies to people who travel as pillion passengers on motor cycles. I believe that the carrying of a pillion passenger on a motor cycle should be outlawed. In the vast majority of cases no insurance obtains as far as these people are concerned.

The final point is in relation to the lack of uniformity on the part of the courts in the imposition of penalties for road traffic offences. I agree that the circumstances in no two cases will be exactly similar but there should be the greatest possible uniformity in the imposition of penalties. The situation at the moment leaves a lot to be desired. I hope the Minister will look at ways of achieving a greater degree of uniformity than exists at present and consider the other points I have made.

Mr. Fitzsimons: Information on Jack Fitzsimons  Zoom on Jack Fitzsimons  I realise that this debate has gone considerably beyond the time, and my contribution will not delay the House. I welcome the Bill. There should be provision by statute for a multiplier whereby fines could be brought up-to-date from time to time in accordance with the cost of living index. I am not too sure that heavy fines will be sufficient to deal with all the problems that arise regarding traffic laws or that if prison sentences are increased, or are made penal, that would have any significant effect. When I am asked what would have effect, I am at a loss because, in the ordinary sense, I would say education. Yet it appears to me that many of the people responsible for these crimes and indiscretions are educated people. Historically in our society the wild man has been revered and this practice unfortunately has been perpetuated in many areas.

The Minister said he is concerned that infrastructural costs should not be increased because of damage to the road network caused by the failure of heavy goods vehicle drivers to observe the [854] revised regulations. I notice from time to time in my native town of Kells that heavily-laden articulated trucks are driven on to the footpath or parked completely on the footpath. It is fair to say that our footpaths were never intended for that kind of traffic or loading. This is happening all over the country and something will have to be done about it urgently. Otherwise the load bearing capacity of our footpaths would have to match that of our roads.

I have no sympathy with people who park illegally or with those who drive their cars to the shop or office door. At the same time, there are insufficient parking places in our cities. The result of this is that people seeking a parking space must drive around and it would be interesting at any time to ascertain the percentage of people so doing.

Another problem we experience in my native town of Kells is the parking of articulated trucks in housing estates, not a problem peculiar to Kells. It happens all over the country. Apparently it is not illegal but it should be remembered that roads in housing estates were not designed for that kind of usage. I can understand that the drivers of these trucks would want to have them within view. For that reason the provision of parking places for them in remote areas might not be successful. But it is something that should be investigated.

Consistency of sentencing is important. While I agree that our laws should not be interpreted too rigidly, as in Victorian times, at the same time some of the sentences meted out in our courts in recent times are very difficult to understand, causing some unease and disquiet.

I am glad to note from the Minister's introductory remarks that he will be proceeding with a programme of road improvements. This is most important because the road I drive almost daily from Kells to Dublin and indeed the same road from Donegal to Virginia to Kells, Navan, Dunshaughlin and Clonee is a first-class road. Then, when I reach Clonee, I find that from there to Blanchardstown is a bottleneck; there is not even a grass margin on the road on one side. It seems extraordinary that traffic in the [855] mornings can be held up by a JCB or bulldozer travelling perhaps at five or ten miles an hour. It seems strange also that, with all the improvements that have been effected on our roads, this considerable section was left with nothing whatever having been done to it. It is a narrow road where it is almost impossible to pass slower-moving traffic.

I note what the Minister has said about the problem of alcohol. Recent statistics show that 46 per cent of drivers killed in road accidents had a high blood alcohol level compared with 20 per cent of drivers in Britain. I made the case before that I believe alcohol plays too high a part in our society and that many of our ills can be traced thereto. I have said on many occasions, alcohol solves no problem but often occasions many more. I wonder what effect the breathalyser had on the situation with regard to drunken driving? I agree with the compulsory display of the insurance disc which seems to be working satisfactorily in other countries.

Many drivers feel that it is not worth while using a seat belt on short journeys. I believe it is most important that seat belts be used on all occasions. Many people do not realise that the maximum speed limit is 55 miles per hour. In my travels to and from Dublin and throughout the country I am not a fast driver and probably would be regarded as a slow driver by all passing traffic. It is important that people adhere to speed limits particularly in urban areas. Perhaps more signs should be erected. A few years ago we had different signs at various places along our roads which were meant to catch the motorist's eye. For example, read: “You have more than a wheel in your hands”. Such signs played a part in educating drivers.

With regard to enforcement and “on-the-spot” payment of fines, Senator Durcan has said that this might very well reduce the number of court hearings. Perhaps it would not constitute a sufficient deterrent for well-off people. With regard to court proceedings it must be said that there are anomalies. For example, recently a constituent of mine had sold his car. Unfortunately he did not have its transfer of ownership registered [856] with the relevant local authority. Apparently the new owner received many fines for illegal parking and the young man who sold the car concerned had to attend court on each such occasion. There should be some method devised whereby somebody having explained the situation in court on the first occasion should be able to have a letter sent to the court and so avoid this time-consuming exercise.

Reference was made by Senator Durcan to pedestrians and joggers. My sympathy is with the pedestrian. I read in the newspapers recently that England has a problem with pretty female joggers on the roads causing many accidents. I am not sure how we would deal with that problem if we had it here. Perhaps we are better able to concentrate on the job in hand than the British are. Perhaps the answer is education and road manners as we were taught at school. Manners maketh man. If courtesy does not motivate us in driving then the arm of the law should be used.

Professor Hillery: Information on Brian J. Hillery  Zoom on Brian J. Hillery  Conscious of the hour and of our agreement to complete Second Stage tonight I will curtail my remarks to the minimum. The first point I want to refer to is enforcement. The persistence of road traffic offences is due, in part at least, to inadequate enforcement. Despite the very large number of prosecutions taken by the Garda for road traffic offences, enforcement remains a problem. Compared with other countries, we in Ireland have less respect for the law. This seems to be an inherent problem. The increased penalties in this Bill allied to vigorous and extensive Garda enforcement should contribute to greater order on our roads. We are all aware of the enormous demands placed on the Garda force, but I would ask the Minister whether he considers the number of gardaí assigned to traffic duties is adequate.

We hear frequent criticisms of the high levels of premiums for car insurance, especially from insured persons with clean records. The main factor in determining the level of premiums is the cost of claims. The central problem in this respect is the jury system. It is not that [857] all jury awards are excessive. Rather the kernel of the problem lies in the unpredictability of the levels of jury awards. Jury members are infrequently called upon to serve perhaps only every 12 years. Consequently there is no precedent and no logical pattern in the levels of awards. This total unpredictability in the level of jury awards tempts both lawyears and plaintiffs to have a go at getting the maximum from this unpredictable system. Therefore, I put it to the Minister that the jury system in road traffic accident cases should be abolished. The jury system for such cases has been abolished in Britain where judges only decide on the levels of claims. In sharp contrast with our jury system here, in Britain the judges sitting alone have built up precedents on the level of damages. The British experience also shows that without juries there are fewer and quicker trials and quicker settlements of claims. Judges sitting alone would bring a degree of logic and realism to the levels of awards in injury cases and this, I suggest, would reduce premiums to more acceptable levels. There is a very compelling case for the abolition of juries in High Court accident cases, and I would ask the Minister to respond to this suggestion when replying to Second Stage.

With regard to legal costs, a further contributory factor to the very high cost of car insurance premiums is the outrageous cost of legal fees in accident cases before the High Court. It takes eight lawyers to run a High Court action, one solicitor, one junior counsel and two senior counsel on each side. This is one big racket in which eight lawyers charge fees and expenses of up to £14,000 per day. Some of these High Court actions run for several days. There is an urgent need to streamline legal procedures so that the cost of the legal process to monitor insurance can be reduced.

Finally, I wish to refer to uninsured drivers. In his response on Second Stage in the Dáil the Minister reckoned that 25 per cent of drivers are uninsured. Under the Bill the monetary penalty is being increased from £100 to £1,000. The scale of the problem is underlined when we see [858] that the Motor Insurers' Bureau in 1982 received claims in respect of accidents caused by uninsured drivers to the tune of £13 million. In the present economic climate many drivers just cannot afford to pay high premiums. Therefore they take risks and hope that they will not be caught. There may be a case for some leniency in the first offence, and this is recognised in the Bill, but I urge that in the case of second or subsequent offences of uninsured driving the penalty should be the forfeiture of the vehicle.

I have curtailed my remarks to the minimum as promised. I welcome the Bill and would suggest that in future the penalties for road traffic offences be amended by ministerial order rather than by legislation, following a review, say, every three years.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. F. O'Brien): Information on Fergus O'Brien  Zoom on Fergus O'Brien  First of all, I thank all the Senators who contributed. They were very helpful and supportive. If I have just one little black mark to give I would give it to Senator O'Toole. His opening remarks, if we were to take them on board, would be a recipe for traffic anarchy. He more or less gave the impression that all the traffic regulations and rules did not seem to matter and really if they did not suit should not be taken on board. Other Senators who contributed took into account, generally speaking, what this Bill is about. Lest it be interpreted that the House might favour some of Senator O'Toole's remarks, I refute his suggestion that the purpose of the Bill is another form of tax-gathering. I do not think that anybody could take that seriously. The intention of the Bill is to raise penalties to a realistic limit so that they will become a real determent. As they are now, people — we are all human — will consider them and wonder if it is worth taking a chance. We cannot allow that. We must ensure that our laws have weight and merit. That is why the penalties have increased. It is not to harass drivers or people generally but to make the free flow of traffic easier and better and, more important, to bring about road safety. We see illegal parking, trucks parked in dangerous spots, loss of [859] life. We see cars taken for joyriding resulting in loss of life. We want to minimise tragedy on the road. That is what we all wish.

Senator O'Toole referred to heavy goods vehicles, the weighing of them and the harassment of hauliers. There is no question of harassment. The law states quite clearly that the trucks must be brought to a weighing area within five miles. That is reasonable. Apart from the road safety factor, there is the question of the damage to infrastructure by allowing unauthorised and overweight trucks to use our roads. We are putting considerable sums of money into the maintenance of our roads. This year it was of the order of £127 million. If we were to close our eyes to our roads being abused by these hauliers, we would be giving an advantage to those who break the law in terms of over-weighting their trucks vis-à-vis the person who is conscientious and weights his trucks properly. I am not prepared to allow such a situation.

Many Senators raised the question of insurance. The availability of insurance is a matter for the Minister for Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism and I will bring the views of Senators to the Minister and make him aware of the fears that have been expressed in this regard. As Senators Fitzsimons and Mullooly made clear, we must not countenance people not insuring their cars. There is a lot of tragedy as a result of people being injured by cars that are not insured. Although there is an insurance bureau to help in such cases, there is still a lot of tragey caused. Last year 91,147 people were apprehended on offences relating to insurance. That gives a clear indication of the action being taken.

The matter of seat belts was raised also. It is important to recognise that all the medical evidence available to us indicates the safety and protection that seat belts afford drivers in serious accidents and the loss of life and serious injury that result from failure to wear seat belts. We must ensure that we enforce the law relating to the wearing of safety belts. We are rather slow to take the law on board. In Britain there was [860] prolonged opposition to the introduction of seat belts but once the legislation was enacted it was implemented. Where people have medical or psychological problems regarding the wearing of seat belts, they can be exempted by way of a medical certificate from a doctor. That is a reasonable approach.

Senator FitzGerald expressed views in relation to the enforcement of road traffic regulations regarding cyclists, particularly with regard to inadequate lighting. There is no intention of harassing the cyclist. We are merely trying to protect him. The Senator made the point about protecting cyclists from heavy vehicles. We will certainly look at that matter.

The question of insurance discs was raised by a number of Senators. We have had a look at this matter. We are having further discussions on it and hope to finalise the details with regard to the introduction of these discs but there are some problems. Senator Daly indicated that while a car may have an insurance disc on the windscreen the insured person may not be driving the car, but the use of a disc is important and will help in ensuring that cars are insured.

Senator O'Toole raised the problem of parking facilities. With regard to Dublin city there are two car park complexes under construction. In Cork city there is a parking complex under constrution. The private sector is involved with this in conjunction with the local authority. Therefore there is a private input and also a local authority input in Cork and Dublin. So we are moving in that direction. I welcome this development.

Senator FitzGerald raised the question of the testing of passenger vehicles. Passenger vehicles with more than eight passenger seats have been subject to compulsory annual roadworthiness tests since 1 January 1983. With regard to the annual testing of smaller passenger vehicles, including private motor cars, it is not possible at this stage to indicate the likely date for the introduction of such testing. I need further time to guage the practical experience of the operation of the existing scheme for the testing of commercial vehicles but the Garda intend to introduce on a pilot basis a scheme whereby [861] they would advise motorists of defects in their cars and instruct them to remedy such defects within a given period.

Senator Brendan Ryan was very concerned about joyriders in the sense of the penalty that might be imposed on them — a five-year jail sentence and a £2,000 fine. The Senator seems to misunderstand the position because a joyrider arrested by the police and brought to the District Court may be fined £1,000 or be sentenced to 12 months imprisonment or both. So it is not necessarily a question of joyriders being fined £2,000. However, if the Garda believe there are serious offences being committed by a joyrider or if someone is taking cars frequently, they may refer the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions who may pass it on for trial by jury where the accused would be liable to a five-year sentence or to a fine of £2,000 or both. I should like to make it clear to Senator Ryan that there is no question of an automatic five-years sentence. It will arise only in the event of a habitual offender coming before the courts.

The question of enforcement was raised by a number of Senators. It is a matter which will be brought to the attention of the Minister for Justice when the Bill is finally enacted. We intend to have consultations with the relevent authorities as to the priorities for action in relation to enforcement. As I have indicated, I intend to have consultations with the Garda in relation to heavy duty vehicles. I intended to review the on-the-spot fine offences which should be dealt with under the system when the Bill is enacted.

The question of a speed limit of 55 miles per hour is at present being reviewed in conjunction with An Foras Forbartha. This review is taking into account such questions as whether the former limit of 60 miles per hour, which was reduced to 55 miles per hour in 1970 as part of the emergence of the conservation packet, should be restored. An Foras Forbartha will submit its recommendations as soon as the speed measurements at three locations on the national road system have been completed. [862] We are looking at that and as soon as we get the recommendations from An Foras Forthbartha we will look at them.

The question of hit and run drivers was mentioned. They are subject to the maximum penalty of £1,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment where injury to a person is involved. There is a fairly severe line taken there.

Senator Hillery mentioned the question of jury awards. This is a civil matter and a matter for another Minister which I will bring to his attention. Basically this legislation is, as I mentioned in my opening speech, a review of the whole question of fines. The Bill is about penalties and I believe we have to review them and make them realistic. Somebody said that they were not deterrents but I do not accept that. If a fine is £5 people will play the course but if it is £50 they will not. If they do it once, they certainly will not do it again. We should look at it in that light. It is the protection of the person that is important. It is also to protect the very costly infrastructure, our roads, and also to have a freer flow of traffic, particularly in urban areas. If you look out from this House at Molesworth Street time after time there are cars double parked and sometimes treble parked. People seem to think that when they put on their hazard lights that gives them leave and licence to double park where they like. They think they are doing somebody a favour because they put their hazard lights on and are, therefore, observing the law. However, they are not. They are causing obstruction.

We must ensure that we have a better attitude towards laws. If people do not respond to the laws in the normal way for the common good then we have an obligation as legislators to put a little pressure on them and make them feel a little pain so that when they break the law it will cost them. It is important that we, as Members of the Oireachtas, observe the law and that when we speak about it, we should encourage people to observe it and not break it.

I thank the Senators for their very constructive contributions and I will take on [863] board all the remarks that were made and incorporate what is useful.

Question put and agreed to.

Professor Dooge: Information on James CI Dooge  Zoom on James CI Dooge  I understand that Fianna Fáil have about four amendments and Senator Brendan Ryan has an [864] amendment, so I suggest that we take Committee Stage this day week.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 July 1984.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4th July 1984.


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