Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht DebatePage of 4
Chairman: I welcome Mr. Gay Byrne, chairperson designate of the Road Safety Authority, and thank him for his attendance. I draw his attention to that the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Gay Byrne: I thank the Chairman and committee members for affording me the opportunity to attend for a discussion on my nomination as chairman of the Road Safety Authority, RSA. As requested, I have set out details, background and an overview of my vision for the next board term for the RSA and I would of course be pleased to answer any questions which may occur to members from time to time.
I was born in Dublin in 1934 and started my broadcasting career in 1958 or thereabouts. I continue to present a live radio show each Sunday on Lyric FM. I am involved, as we speak, in a range of television and radio projects. I was appointed as the non-executive chairman of the first board of the RSA in September 2006 and chaired the authority through its establishment and first five years of operation. I also serve as a board member at Crumlin children’s hospital medical research foundation.
The board of the RSA is reasonably proud of its achievements in its first five years and I would like to continue my involvement with the authority for the next term. The next period is critical for the RSA as we are consolidating as a new organisation, completing the current Government road safety strategy, which ends in 2012, and preparing the next strategy to present to Government for the years 2013 to 2020. My role as non-executive chairman is to oversee the effective functioning of the board and to ensure the required corporate governance standards are in place and functioning to the highest standard.
Road fatality data have been collected systemically in Ireland since 1959 and since that date a total of 23,046 people have been killed on our roads. With dramatic increases in population and vehicle ownership in the intervening years we have seen Ireland’s road death rate improve from the worst year in 1972, when 640 people were killed, to 2010, when 212 people were killed, the lowest number of people killed since records began in 1959. The number killed to date in 2011 is even lower with 31 fewer road deaths than the same day last year. This represents Ireland’s sixth successive year with a reducing road death rate. The submission has an illustration regarding road death numbers from 1959 to the end of October 2011.
Internationally, a country’s road safety performance is measured in terms of fatalities and injuries per million of population and per million registered vehicles. The second table in the submission shows that Ireland has significantly improved its international road safety ranking in the past six years. We are currently the sixth safest country in the EU, up from 27th, and Dublin is the safest capital city in the EU. Ireland now has a reputation as one of the best practice countries and we are increasingly looked upon as a high achiever with sustained results in reducing road deaths. The next table shows that there were 384 fewer fatal collisions and 445 fewer fatalities between 2007 and 2010 in comparison with the baseline using the average for the period between 2004 and 2006.
Committee members may find it interesting that the RSA is a statutory body established by the Oireachtas on the commencement of the Road Safety Authority Act 2006. The following functions have been assigned by the Minister under the functions procedure. They are: preparation of and reporting on implementation of road safety strategy; road safety education and promotion; driver vocational training or CPC; research and evaluation; driver theory test service; driver testing service; driving instructor regulation; digital tachograph card issuing; road haulage enforcement; driver licensing, including the new plastic card driver licence from 2013; vehicle standards; national car test service; vehicle inspectorate, including roadside checking with the Garda; commercial vehicle testing reform project; and carriage of dangerous goods.
The RSA made substantial progress in reducing the Exchequer funding requirements by rationalising services, increasing efficiency and by cost recovery. Table 4 illustrates the funding structure and demonstrates the funding split between the Exchequer and fee income. The board is keen to consolidate this position in 2012 and is particularly focused on enhancing public service levels while reducing the Exchequer funding requirement.
The immediate challenge is to finish the current Government road safety strategy to the end of 2012 and maintain the reduction in deaths and injuries achieved to date. We need a concerted effort across agencies and Departments to consolidate the reduction in road fatalities. The biggest risk we face is complacency. Ireland is currently the sixth safest country in the EU and there is no reason we cannot be the safest. The next road safety strategy will need to be developed in partnership with agencies, the committee and the public and be presented to Government by late 2012, which will give us the road map for the next seven years up to 2020. The new strategy will need to have a strong focus on reducing the number and severity of injuries as a result of collisions on the roads. In one sense, the heavy lifting has now been done in terms of the major policy interventions which include drinking and driving, safety cameras, driver training, driver licensing reform, schools-based education, service delivery capability and quality, vehicle standards and public awareness and behavioural change.
The key policy challenges under the new strategy will be to tackle drug driving, in that I include prescription and over-the-counter drugs as well as illegal drugs. We want to complete the graduated driver licensing programme, implement the new plastic card driver licence, enhance novice driver training and implement the commercial vehicle roadworthiness testing reform programme which has as its genesis the Kentstown bus tragedy. There will be an overriding requirement for high volumes of road traffic legislation enforcement. Enforcement is a key pillar in our success to date and its role in maintaining behavioural change and road user compliance cannot be under estimated. There will also be challenges facing local authorities in terms of maintenance of the built infrastructure and ensuring that road factors in collisions are addressed and eliminated.
In terms of the board’s corporate governance, my role will be to ensure full compliance with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies, the highest standards of probity, the proactive management of risk and oversight of the authority’s financial controls. We are reasonably satisfied with the Road Safety Authority’s, RSA’s achievements to date and of the public service commitment made by board members who bring essential competencies to the board. I would like to continue my involvement as board chairman. I am happy to answer any questions the committee may choose to put to me.
Chairman: I thank Mr. Byrne for his opening address. I now invite committee members to engage with him. Many members are indicating and I will call them in sequence. I urge all members to summarise their questions to accommodate everyone.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: I welcome Mr. Byrne. The purpose of the encounter is to assess his suitability to retain the position of chairman. I and my party, Fianna Fáil, wholeheartedly support his continuation in that role. He has done an outstanding job in the period of his stewardship, through the establishment of the board of the Road Safety Authority. He deserves to be complimented in a real and meaningful way for that. Often, the work of people such as he who are involved in State boards never receives the recognition it deserves. It is a public service he provides. We owe him a great debt of gratitude in that regard. I also pay tribute to the board, the executive and the staff of the RSA. The RSA has been successful in terms of the reduction in fatalities on the road, and as Mr. Byrne has highlighted, the necessity to reduce the level of injuries as a result of incidents on the road network.
Mr. Byrne identified a number of areas on which he wants to concentrate in the strategy from 2012 to 2020. Does he have any concerns about the level of capital investment now being taken out of the roads programme? It is clear that in part the reduction in deaths on the road has been due to driver behaviour and education but coupled with that is the level of investment in the road network, the improvement in many of the regional and national roads and to some extent some of the minor roads where many accidents occur. Is there a concern that the reduction in spending on the road network will reduce the capacity of the authority to continue the good work in terms of reducing fatalities and injuries on the road?
Mr. Gay Byrne: I am much more concerned at the moment about the level of enforcement by the Garda Síochána. As members are aware, the budget of the Garda Síochána has been vastly reduced and to a great extent, a great part of the resources were spent on the Queen’s visit and that of President Barack Obama. We know that the traffic corps has now been reduced from approximately 1,200 to just over 900. As soon as the word gets around the country that the enforcement level has dropped the bad behaviour will start almost immediately. The two lines on the graph cross very quickly. From earlier in the year the word did get around the country that enforcement was down because of the inability of the Garda Síochána to pay overtime, expenses, mileage and subsistence. Therefore, the bad behaviour has started again, which is a pity. The Garda complaint would be that it was promised additional resources to cover the costs of the Queen’s visit and that of President Obama and that has not been forthcoming. It has been held back. That is a concern to us at the moment. It is a concern to the Garda Commissioner, the traffic corps and every member of the Garda Síochána. The drop in enforcement does not only apply to road traffic; it applies right across the board. That is my major concern.
With regard to investment in roads and road improvements, there is constant confusion about the subject. Most of the complaints which the Road Safety Authority gets relate to speed limits around the country which, in the opinion of many, are daft. When the Road Safety Authority was set up, part of the unfortunate aspect of it is that we have no control or input into the issue, nor do we have any input into the maintenance of roads. People constantly confuse us with the National Roads Authority. Perhaps I should say for the purposes of clarity that the speed limits here for motorway and major roads are set by the National Roads Authority. The speed limits for all the other roads - secondary and tertiary ones and what we might describe as little country roads - are set by county councils. I am sure members are familiar with the situation. It is a function which councillors guard rather jealously. We are told that in many cases the limits are set not by the engineering department of the county council but by individual county councillors. They like to do it. Therefore, we have very little input into it. We constantly receive complaints about the state of hedgerows which obscure road signs, including those indicating danger. We also constantly receive complaints about county council workmen who have to carry out necessary repairs to the road and put up danger signs and then forget to take them away so that they are there up to five years later. They bring all signage into disrepute by doing that. That is the problem.
I have no comment to make about the investment in road repairs and road maintenance except to air the general view that we would appreciate anything done in that regard. It is all a contributory factor to road safety.
Deputy Dessie Ellis: I thank Mr. Byrne. He has done a great job. He and his staff have been very good. The figures are there to show it. There has been a significant drop in road fatalities between 1972 and 2010. That is fantastic. The work seems to be continuing.
New road traffic legislation is due. There is a reduction in the amount of alcohol that can be consumed. Are the provisions in the Bill sufficient to provide for adequate testing for drugs? Have we checked out best practice in other European countries to see how they test for drugs at the side of the road? The issue does not seem to be covered very well in the new Bill. Does Mr. Byrne have any input in that regard?
We have seen recent controversy over one test centre. What action has the RSA taken to address the anomalies found whereby testers let cars through the system without proper testing? What representation has the RSA made or what action has been taken in that regard? The new card driving licence is welcome. I am curious about the section that asks whether a driver wears glasses. I am baffled by it. Would it be seen as an offence not to wear glasses if a driver’s licence says he or she normally wears them? Why is this question included? Perhaps Mr. Byrne could help us on this.
I have always felt we should have done something more about people using cars or vehicles for illegal dumping. We should impose penalty points for illegal dumping if we can prove that a car has been used for illegal dumping. This would discourage illegal dumping and would have a huge impact. Has the Road Safety Authority, RSA, looked at this area? This has been a pet project of mine for many years. Could this measure be introduced?
There has been a huge improvement in our approach to the use of bicycles. We have seen the Dublin City Council initiative which established one of the best schemes in Europe. Does the RSA have a role in encouraging similar schemes in other cities, such as Cork or Limerick? Does the RSA help in pushing such schemes to local authorities or encouraging them to introduce such a scheme? It is one of the biggest successes in Dublin City Council.
We are behind other countries with regard to motorbike safety and the recommendations from some of the motorcycle groups. Have we considered those recommendations such as wearing fluorescent tops and so on? I would be interested to hear Mr. Byrne’s opinions on these points.
Mr. Gay Byrne: With regard to the NCT and the uproar caused by the television programme, the board of the RSA know there was fraud. We have been responsible for firing five people as a result of what happened and seven people were suspended. We have had robust conversations with Applus+, the organisation responsible for the NCT, the Automobile Association and the auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and we have made our position perfectly clear to them. Since that happened we have put in extra CCTV on each channel of testing. Everyone presenting a car for the NCT is now required to establish his or her identity with either a driving licence or a passport. Furthermore, when one places one’s car in for the NCT one is now required to agree that even if the car is passed one may be asked, on a purely random occasional basis, to put it back through again on a different channel to double check the results with another supervisor. These are stringent measures, given the fact that wherever there is a temptation for people to make illicit money, in any organisation or situation, they will probably take advantage of that and try to do it. Apart from what we have done, I cannot think of any more stringent methods we can use, because everyone is now on high alert.
A Garda investigation of the occurrence is ongoing, as members know, and various inputs are being recorded and questions asked. I am, therefore, constrained in what I can say about the matter. We certainly have treated it extremely seriously. We have jumped on it and we hope we have taken maximum security measures.
Deputy Dessie Ellis: Yes. I have always believed that if a vehicle is used for illegal dumping and we can tie the incident to the actual vehicle, we should impose penalty points on the driving licence to deter the driver from such activity in the future. That would have a massive impact and would remove the temptation to do so again. Illegal dumping is a major problem throughout the country. I believe it would be a huge deterrent.
Mr. Gay Byrne: I cannot think how we would become involved in something like that. It would require legislation, obviously, to impose penalty points on someone’s driving licence if they were caught dumping illegally. In the general field of legislation going through the Oireachtas I feel there are more important matters, and we have to prioritise. However, I would be open about all of that.
With regard to motorbikes, up to a year ago it was the appalling situation that any young man - and the vast majority of them were young men, as distinct from young women - could go into a motorbike shop, if he happened to have enough for the deposit, and buy a powerful motorbike. Wearing a helmet is mandatory and has been for some time, so he would buy himself a helmet and maybe a jacket and a pair of gloves and off he would go on the high-powered motorbike. Generally speaking, five miles down the road he would go into a bend too fast, lose the bike and be killed. That was an outrageous situation. Luckily, that does not happen any longer because the Road Safety Authority has initiated compulsory basic training. Before getting one’s hands on a motorbike one must now go to a designated area with an authorised driving instructor and start by just wheeling the motorbike along. One is then required to get on the bike and ride at walking pace, to demonstrate co-ordination between throttle, clutch, brake, babbitts and so on. Only then is one taken out on the road, on an earphone and microphone basis. All of that is to build up confidence, but also respect for what one is doing and for the dangers of what one is entering on.
Motorbikes - and I speak as a rider - are inherently dangerous things. Until we brought in compulsory basic training, young people, being young people, had no respect for them. One of the biggest dangers was the born again motorcyclist who, having left it in his youth, came back to motorcycling when things got good at 40 or 45 years of age as a last gasp effort at reclaiming his youth. They were among the most dangerous people on the road.
We are entirely in favour of high visibility vests. We recommend them for pedestrians, cyclists, motorbike riders and so on. There is a hard core of motorbike riders who regard any proposed legislation as interfering with their freedom, but they are a hard core. Most intelligent riders understand perfectly well that one must work to retain any vestige of visibility while riding this inherently dangerous machine. Most responsible riders have been through a training process and have gone further with the training process than they are required to do by law. They respect what they are doing and are entirely in favour of high visibility vests and of as much visibility as one can possibly get. I am in favour of that for cyclists and pedestrians. In the past year, the Road Safety Authority has given away the best part of a million high visibility vests free through pharmacies. We asked people to come in and take the vests and, for God’s sake, to use them, especially when walking on country roads or anywhere it is dark, or even ordinarily.
With regard to drugs, members should be aware of two things. One is that we intend, as soon as possible, to include per se ruling in legislation. At present, the presence of alcohol in the blood stream is sufficient indication of impairment. That is not so with other drugs. I am talking about illicit drugs, prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, pills, tablets and all sorts of things. The establishing by the Garda Síochána of the presence of that drug in one’s bloodstream is not enough to prove impairment. We are trying to bring that legislation into co-ordination with the alcohol legislation, whereby the presence of a drug in one’s bloodstream is evidence of impairment per se. Furthermore, I believe the Minister has promised this Bill will be brought forward before Christmas. A garda does not currently have the right to stop a motorist on suspicion of having drugs in his or her system and ask him or her to perform physical tests by the side of the road. This legislation will entitle a garda to do that. When it comes to drugs, unfortunately, we do not have a handy little machine like the breathalyser to establish the presence of drugs in one’s bloodstream by the side of the road, the evidence derived from which will stand up in court, which is important. There is only one molecule in alcohol, which the breathalyser recognises straight away, but there are thousands of molecules in drugs, which the machine cannot recognise.
In this context, we are back to where the legislation was in regard to alcohol when a garda had to form an opinion as to whether a person had drugs in his or her system. How he or she does that has to be explained. The garda then has to test the motorist at the side of the road by making him or her do physical tests such as standing on one leg, walking a straight line and tipping one’s nose. The garda then has to take the motorist to the station to establish, by way of a urine test or blood test, whether there are drugs present in his or her system. We are trying to bring that legislation into co-ordination with the alcohol legislation and we have been promised that Bill will be brought forward before Christmas. That is a priority. Does that answer the Deputy’s question?
Deputy Dessie Ellis: I do not understand the reasoning for that. There could be various reasons that would prompt a motorist to lay down his or her glasses. I was puzzled by the inclusion of that information.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I, too, would like to acknowledge the work of the Road Safety Authority. The reduction in the number of fatalities and the increase in the level of road safety here compared with other countries is proof of the positive work done by the authority.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: It has been my experience since the national guidelines were introduced that this tends to be done very much on a technical basis and that is only right and proper. However, there are still great inconsistencies in that high spec roads have lower speed limits than those that apply on some poor back roads that are barely wide enough to accommodate two cars travelling in opposite directions. These roads tend not to be subject to any detailed enforcement of the speed limit.
I represent an area of County Kildare and it had the terrible distinction of having had the highest number of penalty points per head of population up to recent years, mostly gained for speeding. That high level of penalty points did not compare with the level of fatalities or injuries on the roads in the county. Some counties that had much higher levels of fatalities and injuries had lower levels of enforcement. I have obtained figures and compared them nationally. While that trend seems to be changing a little, the level of speed enforcement on the roads in counties such as Donegal, which has had a very high accident rate, still continues to be lower than that in other counties that have better roads where it is easier to enforce the speed limit, in that a Garda vehicle or a camera vehicle, so to speak, could be parked in a location that is safe for that vehicle rather than the road user. Has the authority examined that aspect in terms of the distribution of speed cameras?
I do not believe any motorist has a difficulty with the use of speed cameras if they are used for road safety purposes but people have a problem with them if they are seen to be used to shoot fish in a barrel, so to speak, with speed penalties being imposed on motorists travelling on a road that has a very good safety standard. For example, a high level of penalty points has been imposed on motorists travelling on the stretch of road from the Red Cow roundabout to the county boundary in Kildare. It is a three lane carriageway in each direction and there is no explanation as to why that stretch of road would be more policed than an area that has a higher profile of accidents. That question relates to the distribution of the cameras.
Local authorities used to collect and map data when an accident occurred involving a fatality or injury. They filled out a CT68 form. It covered every detail from the weather conditions and vehicles involved to where the impact occurred, and that information was mapped. The Road Safety Authority has taken on that function but it seems the data on its website are a few years out of date. If a number of fatalities have occurred on a stretch of road, road conditions may have played a part in those. If up-to-date information is not available, matters cannot be speedily rectified in that significant factors will not have been identified and remediation works that could have been funded by a grant or some other means will not have been sought to be carried out to address the issue that is presenting as a problem on that stretch of road. Is it planned to have a more up-to-date set of statistics on the authority’s website? It is a good site but the statistics are a few years out of date and up-to-date statistics could make a sizeable difference in the context of a reduced maintenance budget for local authorities. The issue that may cause a risk may be something as simple as poor road markings, and it would not be possible to identify that in statistical sense for some time if the data are not up to date. Those are my two main issues.
Mr. Gay Byrne: I thank Deputy Murphy and Deputies Dooley and Ellis for their kind remarks about the Road Safety Authority. I should have said that earlier. I believe that thanks for the improvement in the figures goes first to the people of Ireland who have taken on our message of road safety. We have reached the position where, by far and away, most people in Ireland are doing their best to improve their driving. Most people in Ireland do not drink and drive, they wear safety belts, they do not use a mobile phone while driving and they try to observe the speed limits and to do better. The first round of thanks must go to them and, second, the staff of the Road Safety Authority. We are blessed with our chief executive, Noel Brett, who is an outstanding chief executive and person and he deserves a huge amount of credit for his dedication and enthusiasm for the job in hand and for the people he has gathered around him and the general staff of the Road Safety Authority. Both they and I appreciate the members’ kind comments and thanks.
On Deputy Murphy’s point regarding speed limits, I said that in some county council areas the speed limits are set by the members of the county councils, not by the engineering department. That is my knowledge of the position. It is worthwhile pointing out that we get complaint after complaint about the speed limit that applies on a main road as compared with that which applies on a narrow donkey cart laneway. It is perfectly clear to us from the letters we receive that many people regard the speed limit as a target speed to hit. They are convinced that when it reads 60 km/h, this is the speed they are required to do on this piece of road, when of course it is merely the highest permissible speed on that road. Whatever the speed limit is, the driver should drive and use the road in accordance with the conditions as well as the capability and experience of the driver. It is clear to us that many people think it is a target speed they must aim for, which gives rise to confusion.
I agree with the Deputy that either the Road Safety Authority or the NRA should set the speed limits countrywide in order to get some sort of consistency and uniformity into the system. At present, it seems to be all over the place and is generally a breeding ground for dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As to what we can do about that, it is not on our top list of priorities but it will be at some stage.
I was astonished when I first became chairman of the Road Safety Authority to discover that the members of the Garda Síochána know a lot more than I ever thought they knew in so far as most of the roads in this country are mapped by the Garda Síochána and divided into red, orange and green. The red parts of the roads are where most fatalities occur, the orange parts are in-between and the green parts are the safer roads, where there are no fatalities or serious collisions. The gardaí target the roads which are red and, like fish in a barrel, they treat those roads severely and enforce the law on them until the roads move to orange status due to the diminution or lessening of fatalities and injuries. Eventually, they hope that by continuing enforcement, a road will become green and they can then move somewhere else. This is the system they operate. According to gardaí, they would not be in any situation if that situation did not warrant their presence from previous experience, and that is about as far as we are going to get with that.
The additional point I would make in connection with reduced levels of enforcement is that the Garda Síochána has found out, like the police in most other jurisdictions, as reported through our sister organisations across Europe, that enforcement of the traffic laws extends far beyond the enforcement of those traffic laws in the sense that the amount of additional intelligence and information which the police collect at what is ostensibly a checkpoint for drink driving, or simply a checkpoint for insurance, tax or mechanical data, severely curtails the activities of people who would rather not be curtailed, to put it nicely, due to the mere fact of there being a road check in the area. Therefore, the enforcement of traffic regulations extends far beyond just that purpose, which should be borne in mind at a time when enforcement is reduced because of financial strictures.
The Garda has six vans in operation as well as hand-held guns and so on, and the other firm has 45 vans in operation, which are committed to us simply to provide 6,000 hours of surveillance per month. How they do that, where they do it, when they do it and why they do it is entirely up to that firm in conjunction with the Garda Síochána, and we have no particular daily function in that regard.
With regard to the statistics which members see on our website, I suspect the problem with them being out of date is that the information simply is not there. In many cases of a fatality on the roads, the scene is immediately designated a crime scene, as members know - the ropes are put around it, traffic is stopped and all of that sort of thing - and it must be investigated in great detail. The time taken to correlate and co-ordinate the intelligence and information in any given situation may sometimes be short in straightforward cases but in other cases can often be long and involved, and we simply do not have the information on time. That is the only explanation I can give the Deputy for the disparity in the figures or the comprehensive nature of the reports.
Chairman: Before I call Deputy Seán Kenny, I would like to acknowledge the members of the Scottish Parliament who are visiting the Oireachtas. I welcome them to today’s committee meeting. I hope their stay is a memorable, enjoyable and fruitful one. I call Deputy Seán Kenny.
Deputy Seán Kenny: I join with previous speakers in welcoming Mr. Byrne to the committee. I pay tribute to his exemplary record as chairman of the RSA and wish him all success in his next term. For a while, we thought Mr. Byrne was going to run for the office of President. I would like to say I think he would have been a very suitable candidate for that office.
Deputy Seán Kenny: Most of the questions I intended to ask have already been asked. Mr. Byrne made a very powerful case at the outset for better funding for the Garda Síochána and for improved traffic corps numbers. I want to concentrate on the alternative to that, namely, speed cameras. How effective is a speed camera as an alternative to having police on the roads with flash-lamps at night? How cost effective are they as a deterrent to the breaking of speed limits, drink driving and so on? Is there a need for more cameras and are they in the correct locations? I would like to hear Mr. Byrne’s views.
Mr. Gay Byrne: I agree with the Deputy that any presence of the Garda Síochána is good. It does not matter where they are, whether they are traffic cops, people on the beat, gardaí on bicycles or motorcycles or just in a prowling patrol car. Wherever they are, it is a good thing, it gives a sense of comfort and security to people and it also puts a brake on general bad behaviour. I am entirely in agreement with the Deputy on that.
With regard to speed cameras, as I said, the firm which is responsible for the speed cameras has 46 of them located throughout the country. It is paid a flat rate by the Department of Justice and Equality to provide 6,000 hours per month of surveillance. The firm’s operators first introduce an investigative presence in any given area, without being operational, to establish to their own satisfaction the behavioural patterns of traffic in that area before they actually start taking photographs. They can establish a general mean speed limit and the average speed of people travelling in any particular area, and then start operating proper surveillance. They work in conjunction with the Garda Síochána and are employed and paid for by the Department of Justice and Equality, so their operational procedures are entirely up to them. We have no direct, immediate input into what they do and the way they do it.
I thought of a particular point before I came into the meeting. Mr. Jimmy Savile, who died recently, first came to major prominence more than 40 years ago when he was involved in the advertising campaign on the use of seat-belts - the “clunk, click” campaign. It is amazing to us in the Road Safety Authority and presumably to committee members that more than 40 years later we are still trying to prevail upon people to use their seat-belts. It is particularly depressing to me to tell the Deputy that there were 142 crashes so far this year, giving rise to 158 fatalities. Of that number, 19 were not wearing seat-belts and died as a result. Of that 19, seven were ejected from the car because they were not wearing seat belts, either through the windscreen or through the back or side window, if the car rolled, and they ended up a considerable distance from the scene. Is it not extraordinary that all these years later, there are still people who resist the wearing of a seat belt on some spurious basis? It is a sad fact that some people do not, unfortunately, get the message or in getting the message, they refuse to take it.
I am not sure I can satisfy the Deputy about the presence of speed cameras because they are a function of the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda. They are enforcing the law or are supposed to be doing so.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: I thank Mr. Byrne for his excellent presentation. I congratulate him and the RSA on the excellent work they have conducted over the past five years in reducing road deaths. With regard to driver fatigue, tachographs are used to measure the hours driven by professional drivers. Some European countries are examining a new geolocation system. Is that being examined by the authority? There seems to be resistance to using this in Europe because of potential breaches of data protection.
With regard to driver fatigue for ordinary drivers, I know that if I do significant mileage or have a few late nights of driving, I do not drive as well as I could and I am conscious I must pull in to the side of the road and have a rest. Is the issue highlighted enough? While we should focus on speeding, some people do not acknowledge that driver fatigue contributes to more accidents than previously thought.
Mr. Gay Byrne: Driver fatigue is a very real problem. We have advertised fatigue fairly considerably up to the present date and we warn people, particularly on bank holiday weekends with all the other warnings, to watch out for fatigue. We have gone through a long list of things people do to fight fatigue at the wheel. For example, they open the window to let fresh air in or they turn up the volume on the radio. There was one case where a woman attached her hair to the sliding roof of the car so that any time her head went forward in a sleep, she woke up because the hair was caught on the sliding roof. People do the most extraordinary things to fight fatigue and we have advertised again and again that the only thing one can do is pull in and take a snooze. People are reluctant to do this. If possible and if one has coffee in the car, one should drink it because it kicks in after 15 minutes. When one wakes up after the snooze, one should walk up and down for a little while, have the coffee and then drive. That is the only action one can take against fatigue; nothing else works.
With regard to professional drivers of articulated lorries and so on, we regularly mount roadside checks for tachograph compliance because the tachograph registers to what extent the driver of the truck has complied with the regulations regarding periods of rest, sleep, not driving and so on. That is why we take it seriously. It is interesting that when the RSA started to get involved in the tachograph regulations, we discovered that nobody had done anything about them for the previous ten years at least. We are tackling that issue.
I remind members that mounting a roadside check of HGVs is a dangerous undertaking. We do it in conjunction with the Garda and the Revenue. If one truck is in a line, they all have to be checked and, therefore, they all pull in together. Our engineering people check them for linkages, brakes, tachographs and so on, the Garda checks for tax, insurance and so on while the Customs and Excise officials check them for what they are carrying. It is a big check and as far as we are concerned, driver fatigue is a real and constant danger. We are introducing a certificate of professional competence for drivers at the behest of the EU. We are processing that at the moment and people are taking tuition in it. Part of the certificate involves teaching professional drivers, no matter whether they are taxi drivers, chauffeurs, bus drivers, van drivers or HGV drivers, how to cope in all kinds of situations, including dealing with fatigue. Unless Irish drivers have their CPC, they cannot drive in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. It is a tight operation.
We warn people about the only thing one can do in the case of fatigue. I suspect the Deputy is asking the question because there is a deep suspicion that many of the early morning single occupant crashes are caused by fatigue. We do not know in the case of the more recent ones whether it was fatigue or fatigue coupled with speed or whether those two coupled with alcohol was the reason. However, we believe that in many cases, fatigue coupled with speed is the cause. We treat this seriously and we have advertised about it.
A driver must display an R sign for the first two years after he gets his licence because in the past the most dangerous day in the life of a young male driver was the day after he got his own licence because he had confirmed in his own estimation that he was a terrific driver and tended to be careless. That is why we brought in the compulsory basic training and the accompanied hours of driving before sitting the test, which is logged in and signed for so that when they come to taking their test, they are more conscious of road safety than anybody of our generation was. The reserve sign will be a help in achieving what the Deputy is talking about.
Chairman: Like other members, I welcome Mr. Byrne. I note, in particular, the decrease in deaths on our roads, with 2010 resulting in the greatest decrease since figures were first compiled in 1959, which is a testament to him and the other members of the RSA. I refer to his comments on speed limits and how they set a threshold for driver behaviour. My parents drove on country bóithríns whereas now people drive on motorways and dual carriageways. Driver experience has broadened and, for example, slow lanes and fast lanes have been introduced. I regularly witness, as I drive to Dublin, people driving in the fast lane for the entire journey between Cork and Dublin. Should there be greater enforcement to deal with this aspect of driver behaviour? Perhaps we need to redefine those lanes as a driving lane and an overtaking lane rather than a fast and a slow lane.
The job of this House is to introduce legislation for the gardaí, local authorities and other bodies to enforce. Driver behaviour is a further issue. Have we arrived at a balance where enough legislation has been introduced and we now need to see greater driver behaviour or is there specific legislation that should be introduced? What single behaviour should be changed to reduce the numbers of road fatalities?
Given the RSA has an educational role, would Mr. Byrne be of the view that structures in transition year should be more proactive, with driver safety and driving lessons? My young son complains morning, noon and night that the cost of getting a driving licence is very expensive. It is a valid argument, although there is a safety element to it, but ten lessons at €60 each is a significant amount for an 18 year old. Perhaps a programme in transition year could facilitate good driving practice, where kids are with their peer group in a more structured environment as opposed to learning from a friend or on an individual basis.
Mr. Gay Byrne: With regard to the figures so far, 165 people have died on Irish roads this year, 31 fewer than the same time last year. When I made my opening statement, the figure was 35 fewer, but we have had a bad November so far with more fatalities in the last few days. There is no pattern to this; it is totally random. Yesterday in Blessington a little girl of nine ran outside her home and was killed. Two young men of 25 were killed in the previous two days. Last November the figure was better because the weather was so bad; the snow and ice curtailed people and those who were on the road were driving slowly so that worked to our benefit.
There is no pattern to this. We saw what happened on the M25 in Taunton in England last week, which was completely out of the blue. Such horror can happen at any time. Provided nothing like that happens, by 31 December we will probably be under 200 road deaths for the first time in more than 50 years. That would be a major departure for us. I hesitate to talk in such times because two days ago we were 35 fatalities fewer and now we are only 31 fewer. We have no control; we do not even know what has happened since we met today. It is conditional that the number will be below the magic figure of 200.
I completely agree about the fast lane on motorways. It is misnamed the fast lane, it should be called the outside lane or the overtaking lane. There are people who never get the message who take to the outside and barrel along suiting themselves, not caring about anyone else. The only thing that will stop that is enforcement; either the cops are there to get these people or they are not.
When we opened our website this year and invited submissions from the interested parties such as the AA, the gardaí, or the ambulance service, we also opened it to the public to make submissions on what they would like us to do about various areas, such as learner drivers. We found to our astonishment that the constraints people want were far more draconian than anything we had in mind. People take a severe attitude to road behaviour. As soon as enforcement decreases, however, bad behaviour goes up. It is interesting that people are far more severe than we imagined.
We are now working on education for road safety and we start at age five. I was recently in an infants’ school and they were riding their tricycles wearing their helmets. We are going right through primary and secondary school into third level. In transition year there is a module on road safety. It is now possible in transition year to do the theory test. The cumulative effect of this, starting at age five and continuing to third level, must be that in years to come people sitting their driving test will know more about road safety and that it will have a benign effect on them.
That is why we start at such an early age and why we take our shuttle around the country to public gatherings. It seems like fun that people can sit and play a video game where they appear to drive a car or motorbike but we are engaging kids in road safety and they show an extraordinary interest when they are presented with the shuttle. They come in and have fun but behind that fun there is real purpose. Anything that promotes road safety is a good thing.
One of the things we do on our excursions which might be seen as a gimmick but that has an effect is that we have a roll-over car and let people sit in it. It is complete except it has no engine. We put someone in the driver seat, the passenger seat and two people in the back and we turn the car over. We tell them in detail before we start what will happen. They wear their seatbelts and we turn the car over as it would turn over in a major smash except we point out that in a real case it would happen 20 times faster and with 20 times more violence. We turn them upside down and upright again and no one gets out of that car saying they would like to do it again because they are so chastened by the experience. We force them to acknowledge that in a real case it happens 20 times faster and with a great deal more violence. Even in slow motion, the experience of a car rolling over is enough to make our point. We are doing our best with education.
I do not know the answer to the question about expense. I am contradicting myself but we should not assume all people taking the driving test are young. There are people of 20, 30, 40 or 50 taking their driving test and most of these people have never had a driving licence. They have driven safely for the last 30 years completely unconcerned. They are now thinking it is time to do the test and get their licence. The vast majority of those involved are young people and it is an expensive process. I do not know how we can lessen the expense because driving instructors must be paid. The instructors are not employees of the authority, they are contract staff. Up to a year or so ago - before we put the register in place - anyone could set himself or herself up as a driving instructor. There was no test of any kind for instructors. People could purchase cars, put “L” plates on them and state that they were driving instructors. No one ever bothered to ask whether instructors could actually drive or if they could do so, whether they had the ability to pass on their expertise to others. There were no restrictions whatsoever.
When the Road Safety Authority began to investigate this matter, it discovered that some extremely strange individuals were acting as driving instructors. We now test instructors’ ability to drive and to pass on their expertise to other people. As a result, these people are now authorised driving instructors, ADIs, but they are not members of staff of the Road Safety Authority. They are freelance individuals who are authorised by us. If one is not an ADI, it is a crime to offer one’s services, for money, in the context of teaching people how to drive. This does not mean that a person cannot go out onto Dollymount Strand with his or her Aunt Julia in order to learn how to drive. That is perfectly all right because, presumably, Aunt Julia would not be taking money from her niece or nephew. As already stated, however, it is a crime to hold oneself out as a driving instructor if one is not authorised by the Road Safety Authority.
I have already noted that having to pay driving instructors is what gives rise to the expense relating to learning how to drive. Concomitant to this is the fact that if one can get across to young people the fact that their driving licences have cost them a great deal of money, time and effort, they will realise that they would want to be complete fools to do anything which would lead to their losing them. In this regard, I refer to people breaking the speed limit, drink driving, not wearing seat belts, using mobile phones while driving, etc. One would want to be very foolish to surrender one’s driving licence on foot of disregarding the rules, not being interested enough to know them or whatever. Anything that comes cheap tends not to be held in high regard. If one pays a great deal of money to obtain something, however, one’s conscience will tell one that one had better not lose it because it will cost much more money to get it back - that is, if one ever gets it back.
Mr. Gay Byrne: The single biggest change required relates to speed. We have a culture of speed in this country. I do not know what gave rise to this. I am not referring to people speeding in order to get to hospitals in emergency situations or to get to a particular destination because a relative or friend may be dying. The speed to which I refer does not serve any purpose. We just do not pay attention to the speed at which we drive. The vast majority of people have no idea what happens to a car in a major crash. Neither do they have any idea regarding how long it takes to stop a car in full braking mode. If people experimented by driving fast and then hitting the brakes full on, they would be chastened by the experience. If there is one matter over which I would like to exercise control, it would be that relating to excessive speed. I refer, of course, to excessive speed for prevailing road and weather conditions. One can see people driving at speeds which are quite clearly excessive on small country roads and on others which are the most dangerous in Ireland. The latter are, of course, those with a continuous white line down the middle. In general and unless something terrible occurs, one is far safer on motorways and duel carriageways.
Deputy James Bannon: I welcome Mr. Byrne and I compliment him on his presentation, on the informative manner in which he addressed previous questions and on his great passion for road safety. The Road Safety Authority’s television advertising campaign has proved extremely effective in the past. The dreadful images of road accidents and the havoc caused to families, individuals, etc., in the authority’s advertisements have a great impact on younger people. It is intended to continue to broadcast such advertisements. Even though some of the imagery employed in these advertisements has been criticised for being excessive, I am of the view that they are effective. When one hears people complaining, that is usually proof that what one is doing is working.
Will Mr. Byrne outline the Road Safety Authority’s plans in respect of the upgrading of roads in County Longford, some of which are recognised as being among the worst in the country? Reference is continually made to the dangerous state of certain roads across the midlands.
Mr. Byrne referred to provisional statistics for road fatalities this year. He indicated that the current figure for such fatalities is 165, which is 31 fewer than last year. This remains a staggering number of senseless deaths and it shows that a huge amount of work remains to be done. What specific safety measures does the Road Safety Authority plan to implement in 2012? I am of the view that more must be done in this area.
We have had a major problem for many years with regard to road accident blackspots. The Garda Síochána and others put signage in place in respect of these blackspots but this does not address the problem. There is a need to straighten roads and take other measures in order to make them less dangerous. Local authorities require additional funding in order that they might deal with this issue. From a rural perspective, I wish to emphasise that safety must be our main concern. However, we must improve our roads and also public transport. In that context, there must be public transport available to service remote areas at night. This matter must be addressed. When they meet him, do Mr. Byrne and his colleagues from the Road Safety Authority discuss with the Minister the lack of a quality rural transport service? One often hears about people in rural areas leaving pubs at 11.30 p.m. or midnight and taking the chance of walking home in conditions of poor visibility. If a proper nighttime public transport system to service rural areas were in place, this would be of assistance in preventing some of the deaths which occur on our roads.
I would like us to eliminate the spectre of death from our roads. That is the purpose of Mr. Byrne’s presence at this meeting. I am of the view that more must be done and that there should not be any cutbacks in the area of road safety. In fact, road safety should be given priority by the Government. I have emphasised that fact to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Serious accidents occur on many of our county and secondary roads as a result of the quality of the surfaces on those roads. I have no doubt that Mr. Byrne and I are as one in respect of this matter.
Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan: I thank Mr. Byrne for everything he has said up to now. He has already answered many of the questions which arise. I wish to extend my congratulations to the authority with which he works. Everyone knows Mr. Byrne and that has been a big help because the authority needed a big name to publicise its work. I do not know whether he likes to be called a big name but he certainly is one. Someone with his profile was required in order to attract attention in respect of this issue. A person who is completely and utterly obscure but who is just as competent and has just as many good ideas as Mr. Byrne could have been employed by the authority but people might not have listened to him or her.
The Road Safety Authority has gone much further in respect of this matter than I would ever have thought possible. I was of the view that it was pie in the sky to think that the figure for road fatalities would ever drop below 300. Now that it has decreased way below that figure, we should keep going and try to improve matters further.
Mr. Byrne referred to speed. There are two reasons people use cars and other vehicles, namely, to travel from A to B and - many individuals are wrong in respect of this one - to show have fast they can drive. When one looks at advertisements paid for by car manufacturers, one would get the impression that the primary reasons for buying a car is in order that one can drive fast and see, in view of advances in braking technology, how well one’s car can take a corner or hold the road. We must also consider the influence of television programmes such as “Top Gear” and also coverage of Formula 1 racing. Basically, there are many motor racing programmes on television categorised as sport. No matter how often the Road Safety Authority says one should not speed, if there is a contrary message being given out, one will inevitably speed. Accepting that fact, what would Mr. Byrne think of the idea of oval racing tracks for young people to satisfy their desire for speed, which is their main desire? Also, they drive fast for the adulation of their peers and for competition reasons. What would he think of the idea, which we tried to implement in my town but for which we could not get funding, of putting in place an oval racing track where young people can go to drive a car fast in a safe environment? Not only would they be doing that, they also would learn how a car works. No more than the simulator in which one is turned upside down which he provided as an example, in some cases they would end up turned upside down but they would be well strapped-in, and so on. The authority might look at accepting that some people like driving fast and giving them an environment in which to do that in order to get rid of that urge. One of the ideas we had for the track that I would like to have seen set up in my town was that we would not allow anyone to participate on it once they accumulated more than six penalty points to send out the message that not only is it bad to drive fast but it would not be acceptable among one’s peers, even if one reached half of the penalty points limit.
Those with whom I worked at the time to try to make this happen suggested that one of the big benefits related to the ability of a driver to deal with a crisis. I am not suggesting everyone should go out there and learn how to be a motor racing driver, but in motor racing one learns how to deal with extreme circumstances as the norm. I wonder what Mr. Byrne would think of this idea to satisfy that urge for speed, accepting that there will always be “Top Gear” and Formula 1 racing.
On drink driving, the one frustrating aspect of the new limits is, not how low they are but that one does not know. If I go out for a couple of pints with my father, for example, the following morning I do not know whether I am over the limit. I wonder what Mr. Byrne would think of the following idea. How legitimate are the breathalysers that can be purchased? I would like to be in a position on a Sunday morning to know that, if I blew into this and I was over the limit, I should not drive. The vast majority do not want to drink and drive. They would never drink and drive and it would only be by accident that they would do it, and it brings the law into disrepute. What would Mr. Byrne think of the idea of selling a breathalyser over which the State would stand so that at least one would know whether one was over the limit?
Deputy Brian Stanley: I say “Well done” to Mr. Byrne, representing National Roads Authority. There is much criticism of public bodies, particularly what are termed “quangos”, but here is a public body that is working and being effective, and the results are in front of us.
There is a couple of issues I want to ask Mr. Byrne about. One relates to those texting while driving. In a previous incarnation as a county councillor and as a town councillor, I started observing this when the issue was raised with me. For example, if I am on the footpath walking along in a town, at times I will keep my eye on motorists to see how many do it. Many young people do it. About seven years ago, I was in a passenger seat beside one young driver who started texting. I argued with him to stop it, and he eventually stopped when I told him to stop the car and let me out. I have been told by a woman that women can do it because they can multi-task. Mr. Byrne and I know that one cannot text and drive. I am extremely concerned about the number of accidents that may happen as a result of texting, but maybe it does not come out because the mobile phone is found on the floor of the car or whatever. It happens. Anybody, a member of the committee or a representative of the Road Safety Authority, who wants to stand on the footpath in any provincial town, will see how many are texting. It is very dangerous. I wonder is there anything the Road Safety Authority can do to highlight that issue.
The next issue I want to raise with the Road Safety Authority relates to safe loads. In a previous incarnation a number of years ago, I made my living as a lorry driver. I did it for a few years and I know a little about it. There are two points I want to make about safe loads. Recently, at a roundabout near my house in Portlaoise, I came across big chunks of timber that are used as skids under loads so that fork-lifts can get in under them. After the driver has his load taken off, the timbers used for decking it out are not secured in the truck when they drive off and these fall off. One of these will hit somebody. A pedestrian or a cyclist, or a motorist, will be killed by this. The truck looks empty but when one looks in the body of it, there are pieces of timber unsecured or badly secured.
Another issue with loads is one for which I invite members of the committee to keep an eye out. The curtains on the sides of the big articulated trucks are not used to keep the load on. Those curtains are simply for screening purposes. They are not to secure the load and the pallets inside are supposed to be tied. If one goes to any hardware shop where they are unloading these trucks and pulls back the curtains, there is nothing secured.
Furthermore, driving along the motorways one will see big bulges in the curtains where one of the pallets, perhaps on the top deck of pallets, are tilted out and the curtain is holding it. Mr. Byrne mentioned earlier, “Bar a major catastrophe”. This is a major catastrophe waiting to happen where one of these falls over on to the outside lane of a motorway in front of the traffic. I have brought this up previously at joint policing committees and I have raised it with members of the Garda. It would please me to see the Road Safety Authority and the Garda, and employers and employees, zooming in on this. Many of these drivers are under serious pressure. The rates in the haulage industry are low, margins are tight and there is considerable pressure to get loads from here to there as soon as possible, but there is a terrible catastrophe waiting to happen here, particularly with those bulging loads.
Lane changing in the context of motorway discipline was mentioned by the Chairman. I drive up from Portlaoise and I did not do so much motorway driving until I got elected here in March last. Since I am doing more motorway driving, I started observing this. There are two problems with it. The first is drivers hog the middle lane, they think they must drive in the middle lane or the outside lane, and the inside line is empty by comparison. If one really wants to get moving, much of the time one goes into the inside lane. I saw some of the advertisements which the Road Safety Authority runs about it over the past year or two, but there is a serious education issue in that regard.
The other problem, particularly in Dublin city, is with motorists changing lanes. They decide to veer out into the right-hand lane and when they are halfway out, they give one or two flashes of their indicator or do not indicate. There is a serious educational issue. For example, a fellow came off a slip-road in front of me the other morning and crossed over in front of me. I was driving at 70 mph, within the limit. He went across in front of me, crossed over the vehicle beside me as well - without indicating - into the outside lane, put his foot down and went out of sight at approximately 100 mph. He came off the slip-road across three lanes without using an indicator. Maybe Mr. Byrne can tell me something can be done about that.
On quads and small scooters, some parents have it in their heads that it is acceptable for their children to drive on the roads on small quads in rural areas and, in housing estates in urban areas, on the tiny motorcycles. Such motorcycles are less than one half horsepower and I am not sure what way the legislation on this works. This has become a problem and I would be interested in Mr. Byrne’s views on that also.
Mr. Gay Byrne: I am afraid we have nothing to do with road conditions. They are the responsibility of either the NRA in the case of motorways and major roads, or the responsibility of individual local authorities in the case of secondary, tertiary and small roads. I completely agree with Deputy Bannon with regard to the condition of the roads and the danger with regard to subsidence, potholes and dangerous bends. That said, I constantly see a contradiction in the television coverage of an awful fatality when we are told the people in the car who were killed had lived in the area all their lives and know the area, and that everybody knows it is a dangerous road where ten people had been killed in the previous five years. Therefore, one would think that at two or three o’clock in the morning a local who knows the road would know to slacken off, but apparently so often this does not happen. A crash occurs and the person is killed or he or she kills someone else. This seems to be a contradiction.
We are speaking about the state of the roads and this is not the business of the Road Safety Authority. We have very little input if anything. We can only do what committee members and everybody else does, which is that we write to local authorities and complain bitterly about it. It is over to them and sometimes they pay attention and sometimes they do not because there is no basic legal requirement for them to pay any attention to the Road Safety Authority.
This comes back to enforcement. We cannot enforce the law; only the Garda Síochána can do this and if its numbers are cut because of a lack of funds then the bad behaviour starts again. With regard to public transport, I completely agree with Deputy Bannon’s remarks that there should be better public transport, but again this is not our business and we cannot get into it. With regard to pubs and people’s socialising activities being reduced, the Road Safety Authority awarded one of its leading lights awards for initiatives to a chap on Achill Island who is a publican - oddly enough a lifelong non-drinker himself as are his entire family and no wonder they are successful publicans - who decided to overcome this problem by buying a small bus. It is now known as the pub bus and if one wants to visit the pub one calls him. He collects people from anywhere on Achill Island and takes them to the pub where they can drink their heart out after which he will bring them home at no charge. One may snigger and laugh at this but it is an initiative and as far as he is concerned it is well worth his while to do so. This is one way of attacking the lack of public transport.
Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is quite right that “Top Gear” is one of the most fantastically, amazingly and astoundingly successful television franchises ever. It runs a close second to “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and is shown worldwide. Whether one likes it or not it is an expertly, superbly and magnificently well done programme. It captures the imagination of people throughout the world particularly in our jurisdiction and in the UK and it costs a huge amount of money.
The basic theory about the programme is speed and who can complete the circuit fastest and who has the edge of 1.52 seconds, 1.43 seconds or 1.32 seconds. It is all about speed. It is dressed up as concern for cars and design but what it is about is speed. We have this magnificently admirable programme, which is hugely attractive to so many people, up against the Road Safety Authority’s meagre tiny advertising budget, and unfortunately we represent dullness because all road safety advertising has to do with constraints, slowing down, taking it easy and being careful as opposed to the adventurous romantic picture conjured up by “Top Gear”. This is a real problem. Can we do anything about it? No, because I am not so old that I do not remember how it was when I was a young fellow and wanted to get my hands on cars and drive them. This is what we are up against and there is not very much one can do about it.
We in the Road Safety Authority go out of our way not to scapegoat young people. One of the many problems with road safety is that everybody has a solution and it is usually one of those magnificently simple solutions which does not work. The grey-haired old loons like me blame the young fellows; the young fellows blame the old fellows; the men blame the women; the women blame the men; and everybody blames everybody else. Everybody thinks he or she is an expert driver and that everyone else is terrible, and this is how they go through life. It is very difficult to get across to people that they are not very good. The most vulnerable people and the worst drivers are young men. It is quintessentially a young man’s problem concerning those aged between 17 and 25. No matter that we go out of our way not to victimise them or scapegoat them, nonetheless statistics from throughout the world prove it is the same problem. It is not a young woman problem but a young man problem.
Young men aged between 17 and 25 are the most dangerous people on the road. This is because young people have four delusions when they get behind the wheel of a car and, if I may be personal, the Chairman has probably experienced this with his sons. We and our sister organisations throughout the world have tested this and the four delusions are: “I am immortal”, “I am invincible”, “Bad things happen to other people and not to me” and “When it comes to driving a car I am every bit as good as the guys on Top Gear and Schumacher, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton or, if actually put to the trial, I am probably a bit better”. Nothing one says will eradicate these delusions as they are simply convinced of these things. While this is amusing and funny because we are all delusional to some degree, the problem is the combination of total lack of experience with a huge over-estimation of one’s ability. I underline the fact that this is a young man problem and not a young woman problem.
At the same time, many young men love their cars and spend a great deal of money on them. They save up to get their cars and if they had their way they would not let a drop of rain fall on them and they treat them with huge respect. Therefore, one must not lump in all young men together. Some young fellows are just prey to being young fellows; it is a disease in itself.
The issue of oval racing tracks has arisen repeatedly, and according to our sister organisations what happens is that young people love a day out in a place such as Mondello where they race their cars and have a terrific time. Unfortunately, the effect it generally has is the opposite to that which is desired, which is that if the person in charge of Mondello tells someone he is a terrific young fellow, a great young driver, fantastic and better than all the others it confirms in him that he is a terrific driver and unfortunately it does not stop at the gate of Mondello. Now that he has been told by the experts that he is a terrific driver he takes advantage of this and drives madly. So often, this has been the experience.
I go along with the Deputy’s thinking that there must be something in taking young people to such a place to let them go mad and drive the way they want to. The problem is that with the first fatality the idea will bite the dust because parents will put a stop to it immediately. I like the idea very much that if in the ordinary way of driving on the open road he or she incurs six penalty points he or she will not be allowed on the track. This might work but so far the evidence seems to be against it as it merely reinforces the young person’s idea that he is a fantastic driver and as good as anybody on “Top Gear”. There are breathalysers on the market which are advertised left, right and centre. They are all over the place. The problem is that the breathalysers used by the Garda Síochána are desperately finicky yokes. They have to be recalibrated regularly by Professor Denis Cusack in Trinity College so that they will stand up in court. It is a great idea to have one’s own breathalyser so that one can blow into it and feel one is in the clear, but is it accurate?
I should not really say this, but it seems to me that one would need to drink an awful lot to be still over the limit at 10 o’clock the next morning. The general rule of thumb is that any unit of drink in a reasonably healthy body is processed in an hour at the most. Therefore, one would really need to have been at it the night before in order to be still over the limit. Do not quote me, however, when one is stopped by the cops on that because I cannot stand over it. There is more argument about how much drink one can have because we have tried out the experiment again and again. I have done it several times on the Late Late Show, as have Mr. Pat Kenny, Mr. Ryan Tubridy and Ms Marian Finucane. We have brought a selection of people of both genders and various ages out for dinner, wine and a drink afterwards, before breathalysing them. There is no pattern to it. It depends on one’s age and weight, whether one is fat or skinny, tall or dumpy, a couch potato, young or old, as well as attitudes, mood and all of those things. There is no pattern whatsoever, so it is a totally pointless exercise to say “I can have three or four pints and it doesn’t have any effect on me”. Most people caught at the checkpoints are middle-aged Irish men who are over the limit. They are all Irish men who have regularly been drinking and driving, and see no reason - because of Gay Byrne, the Road Safety Authority or anybody else says so - they should stop drinking and driving. They are men who are utterly convinced that they can drink seven pints and it has no effect on them. They go through life telling their friends, “If I drink eight it begins to have an effect and if I have nine I really am over the top. But I can have seven and it doesn’t affect me”. They are then stopped at the checkpoint and cannot believe that they are over the limit. They are the most surprised people in the world. There is therefore no pattern or index concerning drink driving. The dull, boring and constraining message that we keep on repeating is: “If you’re going to drink, don’t drive; and if you’re going to drive, don’t drink”. Forget about 20s, 50s or 80s, because it does not work. That is the only safe thing to do, although it is a dull message.
Texting while driving is absolutely appalling. The awful thing about it is the difficulty of enforcement because a cop has to eye a person doing it, and he must be either on a motorbike or in a car. It is extremely rare that a cop walking on the beat will approach a driver if he or she sees a person using a mobile phone. They think: “That’s the traffic corps’ job. I’m just a policeman on the beat and I’ve nothing to do with that.” It tends to irritate me. The difficulty is in spotting people in the act. One can be lucky or unlucky, it is purely random. I quite agree with the Deputy that it is absolutely appalling. UK records show that people have been caught repeatedly and have been involved in appalling smashes, including fatalities, because they are texting as they drive. It is just awful.
I completely agree about the dangers of unsecured timber. A relative of mine was killed, while stationary at the traffic lights on Clontarf Road, by a pile of timber coming off a truck because the rope straps were not secure. The certificate of professional competence, or CPC, encapsulates that in so far as it includes all aspects of road safety for professional drivers. Every single thing appertaining to one’s professional driving career is included in the tuition for the CPC. Therefore we are telling people in the position described by the Deputy, to ensure their load is tied down and absolutely safe. It should be checked and re-checked because all sorts of things can happen out on the road. By enforcing the CPC, and as more and more professional drivers take it and pass it, we hope to cover such aspects of driving. As the committee will appreciate, it is purely negligence and a lack of training, tuition and thought which leads to the situation as has been described. The Deputy is quite right that it is just awful.
We did a check in Hollywood with our sister organisation on articulated trucks. As an ex-articulated truck driver, even Deputy Stanley’s hair would stand on end if he knew what we found. There was one case - and we have colour pictures of it - where a break-line from the tractor to the trailer was held together with two universal clips. This was a remarkably good solution to a temporary problem. Somewhere the pipe had gone, so they were joined together by two universal clips. Except that when we discovered it, clearly the two universal clips - and this is a truck that travelled right through the roads of Ireland, the UK and Europe - had probably been in place for three years and were rusted so badly that they were about to go at any point. The guy driving the truck was not the one who did the two clips. The guy who did the two clips had emigrated to Canada or Australia, but the driver knew nothing about this. That is just one example of the things we discovered whereby people are taking risks in huge trucks. That is why one has accidents like the recent one on the M25 near Taunton. Deputy Stanley is obviously speaking from experience when he recounts those details, but that is the sort of thing we encountered - extraordinary things wrong with trucks that are using our roads every day of the week. It comes down to Garda checkpoints and enforcement.
I completely agree with the points made about indicators. In our day, we were trained to check the side-mirror to see if it was clear to pull out. One then indicated, having confirmed that it was clear to pull. One then pulled out and, if necessary, one indicated to go back in. Now, it is just a case of pulling out anyway and it seems to me that taxi drivers are the worst offenders. It has caught on because, I believe, we have so many non-nationals driving cars in our country. They are driving according to their standards, not according to ours. That is why this thing is creeping in. It does not seem to matter to them; they pull out and indicate so that they can claim they indicated, and the devil take the hindmost. I agree with the Deputy and I deplore it. It is a question of enforcement again.
Deputy Brian Stanley: Would it be possible for the Road Safety Authority to highlight that issue to the Garda Síochána? My suspicion is that if lorries were stopped at checkpoints and had their loads checked, a high percentage of them would not be properly secured. Perhaps that could be highlighted to avert a tragedy.
Mr. Gay Byrne: That is what we check. That is exactly why we are there, to check that and the various other things. The gardaí are the only people who can stop traffic and enforce the law. They are checking for one thing, while the Customs and Excise service checks for another. The Road Safety Authority’s engineers check for precisely that kind of thing.
Chairman: To expand on the point Deputy Stanley made about phone usage, with smart phones in particular it is not just texting, it can also be e-mailing or looking at RTE. As with the gardaí when they arrive on the scene of a serious accident, will the Road Safety Authority also look at the evidence to see if the mobile phone was in use at the time?
Mr. Gay Byrne: I do not think I have that information to hand, but anecdotally there have been reports of mobile phones found in the car and around the place. They can then check on the records to establish whether the phone was being used. There was one dreadful case of a young woman who was on the mobile phone and whoever she was speaking to heard her scream before the impact. She was killed, overtaking in the rain.
Deputy Noel Coonan: I join with other speakers in welcoming Mr. Byrne and I compliment him on his presentation. I hope his enthusiasm is infectious. It is a joy to make representations to Mr. Noel Brett and the Road Safety Authority. One receives a prompt, professional and courteous response. That organisation is extraordinary, and I find the response is wonderful.
I was intrigued by Mr. Byrne’s earlier comment when he said that speed limits are daft. Will he enlarge on that statement? The NRA sets the speed limits on the motorways and dual carriageways but the local authorities set the others. I travel on the M7 and when one arrives at Naas, one goes from a two lane motorway on to a three lane carriageway but one automatically must reduce speed from 120 km/h to 100 km/h. That does not make sense to me. I gather from his comments that his answer will be in the negative, but does he think it is time to review the national speed limit on motorways? Is there a case for increasing or decreasing them? One of the benefits of the Celtic tiger is the fabulous roadway from Dublin to Cork, for example. Many people are of the opinion that with new and higher standard cars, the speed limit should be increased on the motorway. Has the Road Safety Authority a view of that?
I think the county councils play a very important role in setting speed limits. The reason I think that is the case is that the national speed limit on a national secondary road is 100 km/h but on a regional road is 80km/h. Many of the regional roads are far superior to many of the national secondary roads. Some of these national secondary roads are very dangerous. As a result of the works that are carried out on the national secondary roads by the NRA or the local authority, they are even more dangerous, because they are partially aligned and entrances and exists are particularly dangerous for people who live on these roads. We are then told there is no money to carry out works to correct these dangerous spots.
I invite Mr. Byrne to take a look at junctions 22 and 23 on the M7, the Dublin to Limerick road, at a place called Moneygall. If Mr. Byrne has not been there, we will invite him to come and have a look at Moneygall. A great number of accidents have taken place at this point. These are the only two compact junctions that I know of on the M7 and M8, or on motorways in Ireland. There is a short lead in to them. Junction 22 takes a person off the Dublin to Limerick road to Roscrea, Templemore, Thurles and junction 23 a person into Moneygall and Toomevara.
Deputy Noel Coonan: The problem is with the design. There is a short lead in to them off the motorway and there is an immediate arrow sign warning about a left hand 90° bend. People are often not able to take it and hit the sign. After that it is goes around sharply and steeply, with some trucks having either overturned or gone off sideways. We brought this to the attention of the NRA who have told us it meets the road safety audit. I am sure Mr. Byrne may be able to have some input. They have carried out some repairs in terms of alterations which have improved it slightly. There is also a danger of exiting off the N62 on to the motorway. It is anything but safe and numerous accidents happen at this point. People are very concerned about the design of this exit and I ask Mr. Byrne to look at it. I ask that something be done before there is a major accident.
Nobody mentioned road manners, for example, if somebody is speeding behind me, I should let him or her off. She or he may have a genuine case for speeding. If somebody wants to get into the lane, why not let him or her in? Courtesy would go an awful long way on the road. It is possible that I am at times lacking in that regard. We should all strive to be more courteous.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: I take the opportunity to welcome Mr. Byrne. I can see he is very passionate about the work he does. I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to discuss these issues which I have found very informative.
Most of my questions have been addressed but I have some more. I believe that the current advertising campaigns are very effective. Does the RSA have plans for similar online campaigns, given that many young people use social media sites? Has the RSA new strategies for influencing driver behaviour? With further expected cutbacks in the budget, what impact will this have on road safety, in particular in terms of engineering with no new roads being built? Are the mobile speed and static cameras a sufficient deterrent, given that the prosecution rate is quite low? I tabled a parliamentary question on this recently and between January and October, more than 200 cases were dismissed because of insufficient evidence. Deputy Stanley asked about the quad bikes and the junior motorcycles on the road, but I do not think Mr. Byrne answered it and I would like to hear his reply to the question.
Mr. Gay Byrne: My quick answer to the Deputy is that quad bikes and small motorcycles should not be on the public road, but again the issue is enforcement. I think there is probably a difficulty with local gardaí not wanting to hound people in their local area. There is a strong feeling in the Garda Síochána that they want to enforce the law but they do not want to victimise people or to be seen as draconian. Stopping a kid on a quad bike and making a big song and dance about it would seem to be slightly off key. I do not quite understand the attitude, but of course I agree with the Deputy that they are dangerous bikes. Invariably with young kids, they will be driven too fast and the next thing is they overturn. There are countless examples of people on them being killed. That is the only answer I can give. If they are not taxed and insured, they should not be on the road because everybody has to be recognised in some way. With regard to the court convictions, will the Deputy restate the question?
Deputy Sandra McLellan: The question raised the effectiveness of the speed and static cameras as a deterrent, given that prosecution rates are low and more than 200 cases were dismissed between January and October owing to insufficient evidence.
Mr. Gay Byrne: The collection of evidence is the business of the Garda Síochána. If the case is badly presented, the judge will administer the law as she or he sees it. The vans are definitely a deterrent. The sheer statistics right across the world, particularly right across Europe establishes the fact that they are a deterrent. There is no doubt about that.
The question of engineering is not our business. We have an input into it, but in the heel of the hunt, it is the business of the local county councils and the NRA. This comes back to manners. Of course, if we all had manners we would treat people with respect. However, as well as an underlying culture of speed in this country, there is an underlying current of hostility, aggression and bad behaviour and of people who are simply selfish. Even standing outside the RDS in Ballsbridge at the Anglesea Road junction, I am constantly filled with wonder at rush hour at the way people drive around that area. There does not seem to be any particular reason to drive at that speed but they duck in and out of the bus lane and the impatience, intolerance, aggression and hostility is wondrous to behold. I feel like stopping them and saying: “You will save yourself four minutes getting home to Foxrock or Stillorgan or wherever. What are you going to do with those four minutes when you get there? Are you doing something amazing?” The answer is probably that they have nothing in mind. The Deputy is quite right. If we had a little more manners and tolerance, we would all be terrific in many aspects of our lives.
We do a lot of online advertising because young people only watch RTE One and RTE Two for selected programmes such as “Top Gear”. Most of their viewing is done online and that is where we are advertising to them.
The speed limit leaving a motorway is an interesting issue. I have learned from motorbike riding that people forget that on the motorway they are travelling at a minimum of 70 mph. Suddenly they are confronted with a slip road and they are unaware of the speed they are doing and how long it will take to slow from 70 mph to a stop at the top of the slip road. The problem is they forget they are travelling so fast and they recover too slowly. It may be a good reason that the design of the slip road is wrong. On the advanced driver’s course one starts to slow down from the 300 metre sign and one has slowed down considerably on joining the slip road. People do not realise the speed they are doing on the motorway when they hit the slip road.
There is a strong movement to increase the motorway speed limit in the UK from 70 mph to 80 mph. This is based on the fact that most people travel at more than 80 mph anyway. What is the point in trying to enforce a speed limit of 70 mph when most people travel at 80 mph and it is perfectly safe to do so in the outside lane of the motorway? If that happens, it will apply in Northern Ireland and we will have to comply with that. I would not be against that. One is safest of all on motorways and safer than on all our other roads. I would not object to an increased speed limit on the motorway.
Mr. Gay Byrne: That is only a theory; it is only anecdotal and not official. I will pass that on to Noel Brett. I completely agree with the Deputy’s comments about him and I am grateful for them. We are lucky to have him. He is a great CEO and long may he reign.
Chairman: I thank Mr. Byrne for attending. Is it agreed that the committee will inform the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that we have concluded our discussion with Mr. Byrne and that we will forward a copy of the transcript of the meeting to the Minister? Agreed. I also thank him for his co-operation and his frankness with the committee.
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