State of Clare roads highlighted in a major speech in Dáil Éireann on the introduction of the Road Traffic Bill, 2009.

We know that 72% of road fatalities occur on rural roads, and recent adverse weather has had a serious impact on road quality.

Minister Dempsey’s decision to let local authorities fend for themselves when it comes to tackling the exceptional circumstances in relation to road quality

The damage bill for Clare roads alone is estimated at €11 million. In the past two years the road budget for County Clare was cut by 33%. A serious situation now exists on many roads which could lead to injury and fatalities.

There is blatant under-funding of County Clare’s road network and stated that lack of resources would undermine Clare County Council’s five-year roads programme and pose serious risks for motorists.

I’d like to pay tribute to Clare Accessible Transport, for the valuable work it does in providing a transport system to the many people who use its service in County Clare.

Full Dáil Speech from Wednesday March 3rd on Road Traffic Bill, 2009 is below.

I welcome the thrust of the Road Traffic Bill 2009 introduced by the Minister, Deputy Dempsey. The cornerstone principle of reducing road fatalities must be supported by everyone in society, not least Members of the Oireachtas. That the fatality rate in road traffic accidents was 63 per million of population in 2008, which represents a decrease of 19% from the 2007 rate of 78 fatalities per million of population, is a significant move in the right direction. When one takes account of the facts that, since 1998, our population has increased by 19%, the number of registered motor vehicles has increased by 65%, the number of full and provisional driver licences has increased by 35% and the number of road fatalities has decreased by 39%, one can say that something is working. However, this progress is little comfort to the 279 families that lost loved ones in 2008 through road traffic accidents.

The conventional wisdom, as published by the Road Safety Authority, RSA, is that one in three road fatalities involves alcohol. The proposed reduction in the allowable blood alcohol level is an effort to address this matter. International research, as presented by the RSA, shows a reduction of up to 18% in fatalities when going from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg per 100 ml. This could mean the saving of 20 lives on Irish roads every year.

Will the Minister examine the reasons for the other 200 deaths? If the RSA could produce the same types of data and awareness campaign and alter public opinion on what is acceptable in society in respect of the factors that cause the remaining two thirds of road fatalities, we could dramatically reduce the numbers dying on our roads every year. One death is one too many. The Minister must consider this angle.

The debate on the reduction of blood alcohol levels from 80 mg to 50 mg has been held in the House and everywhere else, but this debate and the pursuit of reduced road fatalities should not centre on the contentious and emotive drink driving aspect. It seems that two out of every three road fatalities are not alcohol-related. I hope that the Minister does not forget this and I await with interest his proposals to deal with the other factors that result in 66% of road fatalities.

I have no doubt that, given the nature of modern life, fatigue is and will become an even greater contributory factor in road fatalities. We travel long distances to work, work longer hours because of our economic situation and cannot avail of an adequate public transport system. We have a new motorway network with no rest facilities. It is of deep concern that one will soon be able to travel from Dublin to Limerick on the M7 without being able to stop. As there will be nowhere to stop along the road, one will need to veer off to avail of services in towns. This is nonsensical. This week, it was disappointing to learn about the suspension of the provision of motorway stops.

The UK at 80 mg and Malta at 90 mg are the only other European countries with the same or higher drink driving levels compared with Ireland. This fact has often been quoted in the debate for moving our rate to the European average of 50 mg. However, the road fatalities per million figure throws up some interesting facts. Ireland’s figure is 63, the UK’s is 43 and Malta’s is 37. I use these figures to underline my point that the Minister, if serious about reducing road fatalities, must examine the other 66% of road fatalities.

In 2008, the percentage of fatal collisions occurring on rural roads was 72%. This is definitely disproportionate and is another prime example of the urban-rural divide. The weather we have experienced since last November, with rain and severe frost and snow, has had a serious impact on the quality of our road network, particularly rural roads. Some of our tertiary, local and regional roads, along with our national, secondary and even some national primary roads, are in an appalling state. It is disappointing that the Minister for Transport has not chosen to address the fundamental problem. His recent roadworks allocations have made no effort to deal with the destruction of part of our national infrastructure in a meaningful manner. It is fine for him to state that he is allowing county councils complete discretion in how they spend their allocations, but there is a touch of Henry Ford selling his Model T car in the Minister’s allocations, that is, “You can have any colour as long as it is black”. Our local authorities have no choice where their 2010 funding is concerned.

Clare County Council recently completed an audit of the damage caused to that county’s roads. On completion of this audit, Mr. Tom Tiernan, the senior engineer, submitted a claim for damages to County Clare’s roads totalling €11 million. This year, the Minister’s total allocation for Clare’s roads is €15.6 million. This allocation represents a decrease of approximately 3% on last year’s figure. In a two-year period, Clare has suffered a cut of 33% in road funding allocations.

This problem will not go away if the Minister does not provide funding. Our road network will continue to fall into disrepair. Roads that required attention long before the extreme weather struck have been left in dangerous conditions. For example, the main road through Clarecastle, the former N18 and now known as the R485, and the R473 Kildysart Road in Clarecastle are in a particularly bad condition and need immediate attention. I refer to roads throughout east County Clare, particularly in Tulla, Feakle, Whitegate and Mountshannon. In south-east Clare, I refer to roads like the R465 Broadford-Limerick route and roads around Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus. In north Clare the N67 Ennistymon to Lahinch road, the R481 Ennistymon to Kilfenora road and roads in Connolly and Kilmaley and right across to west Clare around Kilrush and Kilkee are screaming out for urgent attention. They need attention. County Clare’s roads desperately require investment. Filling potholes simply will not suffice. In many instances it is a waste of money and resources as whole sections of road surfaces need to be rebuilt, surface-dressed and re-laid.

The blatant under-funding of County Clare’s road network will undermine Clare County Council’s five year roads programme. Roads which were scheduled to receive attention this year, will now be ignored and placed on the long finger. The Claremont road in Clarecastle, which is near to my home, was due to be upgraded this year. The road was upgraded to a very high standard five years ago but within months it was torn up for the installation of a gas mains. It was then torn up to install telecom lines. There was no liaison between the various utility suppliers and the local authority. Five years later, the road is in a treacherous condition. It is now thought that because of cuts in funding, the five year rolling maintenance programme has been shelved and the upgrading will not be completed. The road will fall apart if it does not receive the attention it requires.

If roads are not maintained at a safe standard and potholes are allowed to develop accidents will occur. We know that poor road surfaces are linked to increases in accidents and fatalities. I urge the Minister for Transport to revisit this issue and allocate additional funding to repair and improve County Clare’s roads.

The Bill presents an opportunity to deal with rural isolation. There is a link between rural isolation and the reduction in the legal alcohol driving limit along with the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing. This is something the Minister must acknowledge and do something about. The Minister must ensure that schemes such as the rural transport initiative are maintained and not scrapped as proposed in the McCarthy report.

I pay tribute to Clare Accessible Transport for the wonderful work it does in providing a valuable transport system to the many people who use its service in County Clare. The company provides a service on a daily basis, enabling people to shop, go to mass and meet neighbours. The service is part of these people’s daily lives and it should be supported. It allows people to access transport and prevents them falling into the trap of rural isolation.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for drugs testing. I recently met a group of teachers in County Clare to discuss the issue of head shops and of people driving under the influence of the products sold in them. I heard of a young man who was involved in an accident and admitted to having taken a product sold in a head shop. Because the product was not illegal, he could not be prosecuted. I ask the Minister to consider this issue. The question of illegal drugs is mentioned in the Bill. The Garda no longer need to suspect a driver of being over the alcohol limit or of using illegal drugs to carry out a preliminary impairment test. This should be extended to products currently sold in head shops.

I welcome the Bill and urge the Minister to apply the same rigour shown here to all elements of causes of road fatalities.