Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Questions (5)

Thomas P. Broughan


5. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport when the section of the Road Traffic Act 2016 will be commenced which makes vehicle owners liable if they allow an unaccompanied learner to drive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42236/17]

View answer

(Question to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport)

Last week was road safety week but up to a few days ago 118 citizens had, tragically, died on the roads. Before last Christmas we passed the Road Traffic Act. Section 35A specifically said it shall be an offence for the owner of a vehicle to allow it to be driven by a learner driver driving unaccompanied. In the past ten months the Minister has done absolutely nothing to commence the section. As he is aware, the provision came forward in response to calls from the PARC road safety group and also Mr. Noel Clancy, a farmer from north Cork, who tragically lost his wife Geraldine and daughter Louise in a road traffic crash involving an unaccompanied learner driver. The Minister promised just after Christmas that the relevant section would come into force as soon as possible and that he would check with the Attorney General. He also told RTÉ on 6 January last, in response to the Clancy family's demands, that this would be done, but it still has not been done ten months later.

Everything the Deputy said is correct. I am, as I suspect some of those who are present in the House know, totally behind this amendment. I accepted it from the Opposition on the day it was moved and I am still supportive of it. Let me explain what has happened in the meantime. I think Members will probably understand it. Deputy Munster, who proposed the amendment, is in the House.

It is an offence for learner drivers to drive unaccompanied under the Road Traffic Acts and enforcement of this requirement is a matter for An Garda Síochána. During the debate on the Road Traffic Bill 2016, to which Deputy Broughan rightly referred, several Deputies raised the case of Geraldine and Louise Clancy, who had been tragically killed in December 2015 in a collision with an unaccompanied learner driver. The Clancy family asked that owners of cars who allowed learners to drive them unaccompanied would be held accountable. Amendments to give effect to that were proposed at the time, and I accepted an amendment proposed by Deputy Munster. Under the amendment it is to be an offence for a vehicle owner to allow a learner to driver to drive their vehicle unaccompanied, with the penalty on conviction of a fine up to a maximum of €2,000 and-or imprisonment up to a maximum of six months. As I stated in the debate, in accepting this amendment, learners who drive unaccompanied are committing an offence, and it is very reasonable that people who knowingly facilitate this offence share responsibility for it. As a result, section 39 of the Road Traffic Act 2016 provides for the offence where the owner of a vehicle allows it to be driven by a learner driver driving unaccompanied.

As there was, unfortunately, no opportunity for full proper legal scrutiny of the text in advance of its adoption, I indicated that the amendment would need such scrutiny before commencement. Preliminary legal advice has been obtained and has outlined a number of issues which would need to be addressed prior to commencement. These include drafting and definitions, the question of strict liability and interaction with other road traffic legislative provisions. However, I am anxious to address this issue and I have asked my officials to look at amending section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994, to give power to An Garda Síochána to detain vehicles driven by an unaccompanied learner driver, which they do not currently have.

Everyone needs to be aware that a learner permit is not a licence to drive but a permit allowing somebody to drive without a licence for the purpose of learning. It is not to be treated as a licence, nor do we want to go back to the old culture whereby some people were happy to remain learners for decades. I want to enact this measure and I assure both Deputy Broughan and Deputy Munster that I will do everything to see that this measure is enacted.

The Minister's reply is very disappointing. There does not seem to be any sense of urgency. The previous Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, gave me some very stark figures a few months ago on the number of fatal and serious collisions involving unaccompanied learner drivers between 2012 and the end of November 2016. In 2012 unaccompanied learner drivers were involved in seven fatal collisions and 22 very serious traffic collisions. In 2013 they were involved in four fatal collisions and two unspecified fatal collisions and ten were involved in serious traffic collisions. In 2014 eight learner drivers were involved in fatal traffic collisions and 32 in serious traffic collisions. In 2015 a total of 16 learner drivers were involved in fatal traffic collisions and 24 in serious traffic collisions. Up to November 2016, seven unaccompanied learner drivers were involved in fatal traffic collisions and 24 in serious traffic collisions. Those are very stark figures. I expect Deputy Munster would feel exactly as I do that the Minister is not acting with the sense of urgency that the situation demands. He told us he would get legal advice and he could come forward with whatever amendment is necessary to the 1961 Act or the 1994 Act but he simply has not done so.

Other sections of the 2016 Act have not been commenced, for example, the rickshaw provision. What is the point in coming into the House when the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is not acting? Looking at the Estimates for the Department I also feel he was shafted in the budget negotiations. We came into the House and spent hours talking about legislation, we passed the legislation and did our legislative job-----

Could Deputy Broughan allow the Minister to respond please?

-----yet the Minister failed to commence it or implement it. He is not doing his job.

I am being too lenient. The Minister has one minute.

Deputy Broughan referred to the Estimates. We will come to that under another heading some other day.

What he said is just not true as we got the most enormous injection of money, which I suspect is more than any transport Minister has ever had in terms of capital investment. I will address the point about rickshaws. That was the subject of another amendment I accepted in this House. I referred it to the people who know about it, namely, the NTA, and it is coming forward with proposals to amend the rickshaw legislation and that will be done. The issue is being addressed directly as a result of exchanges in this House and by virtue of the fact that I accepted the proposed amendment.

The reason we are having a debate on this issue is because I accepted Deputy Broughan's amendment. It is not very often that amendments get accepted on the floor of this House. The difficulty is not in the content but in the drafting. The difficulty is in the definitions. That is what I have got to clear up. It would be madness for me to go ahead with this particular amendment, laudable and all as it is, if it was to land in the courts on day one. What I want to do is make sure it is robust, bullet proof and that we do save lives when we introduce the measure. The last thing I want to do is to complicate the law on unaccompanied drivers by accepting an amendment which is flawed. My ambition is to see it through but to see it through as good law.

The Minister has had an opportunity to do something in conjunction with his staff in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have had incredible gaps over the years between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Justice and Equality. The upshot of it is that we still have horrendous lists of tragedies year in and year out on Irish roads.

The Minister referred also to a related matter. I proposed an amendment to the Road Traffic Act 2016 to strengthen the powers of An Garda Síochána where an unaccompanied learner driver is stopped. The Minister accepts that there is still a lacuna in the legislation in that the Garda cannot simply seize the car or ask for somebody with a driving licence to take the car back to where it is based.

The PARC road safety group stated at the time that when a garda stops a learner driver and charges him or her with driving unaccompanied, it certainly makes no sense whatever for the garda to allow the driver to continue driving unaccompanied. The Minister has acknowledged that it needs to be changed but once again we do not seem to have a sense of urgency from him in amending section 41 of the Road Traffic Act 1994. There are also matters relating to the non-payment of fines or fixed-charge notices with regard to unaccompanied drivers. It is a major area of the Minister's brief. President Higgins signed the Act into law before Christmas last year, including provisions for unaccompanied learner drivers, but the bottom line is that we are here, ten months later, still begging the Minister to take action on this. He is still dragging his heels.

I share the Deputy's frustration, and I would say, and I am saying, the same things in many ways. The problem arises if the Deputy wants me simply to defy advice on matters of this sort, as it would probably be grossly irresponsible, particularly where human lives are at stake. We are all on the same side. I want to make sure human lives are saved. I have spent a large amount of time this year on these matters and the signs and statistics are encouraging; they are nothing like good enough but we seem to have made some progress in the area. It is not enough and there is more to do. The Deputy may be right in saying there is need for a greater urgency but we are tackling this in a multifaceted way, with the simple objective of saving lives. I know that is the Deputy's interest. I can guarantee him this will be pursued.