Donegal waits as Daìl debates mandatory breath testing

The introduction of compulsory breath-testing at road accidents is likely to move a step closer today with the expected passing of the Road Traffic Bill 2011 by the members of Dáil Eireann.

The introduction of compulsory breath-testing at road accidents is likely to move a step closer today with the expected passing of the Road Traffic Bill 2011 by the members of Dáil Eireann.

The move comes just days after gardaí warned that there has been a sharp increase in the number of road fatalities this year. To date, 55 people have died on Irish roads, 16 more than in the same period (January 1 to March 22) last year. The increase follows five years in which the number of road fatalities declined.

Eamonn Browne, of the Donegal Road Safety Working Group, said the move is needed to further curb drink driving.

“I meet with the traffic inspector the first Friday of every month and I am amazed that the number of drink driving detections in Donegal still stands at around 50 each month. There are still people out there who believe that drinking and driving is acceptable. Anything that makes these people think, or instills the fear that they will get caught, and helps to save lives, is welcome. The vast majority of people here have taken the drink driving message on board but there is no point in continuing to use the carrot approach to try to reach those who haven’t.

“It is disappointing to see an increase in the number of road deaths nationally. We need to retain our focus on road safety, our commitment to reducing road deaths, and ensure that resources are put in place to do this.

“Locally, our figures are down this year, which is welcome because Donegal would be one of the worst counties, certainly in the top five every years. It’s good that we seem to be bucking the trend. However, we are still only three months into the year, and there is no room for complacency.”

Susan Gray of Culdaff, founder of PARC, has campaigned tirelessly for mandatory breath testing since the death of her husband Steve in the early hours of St Stephen’s Day 2004. The cab driver was dropping customers off when he was hit by a learner driver, who was not breathalysed by gardaí.

She says she has some “serious concerns” about the way the legislation that was proposed last year “has been watered down”.

Speaking from the Dáil yesterday afternoon, just before debate on the issue was due to begin, she told the Democrat: “Sinn Féin are proposing amendments to the Bill to address our concerns. Our main worry is that the proposed Bill leaves a serious gap regarding what happens when a driver is injured or in shock. Gardaí cannot adminster a breath test if they think it might be “prejudicial to the driver’s health” but there is no provision that drivers in such cases be required to attend a doctor or hospital so that a blood test can be taken. Given that any driver involved in a serious accident is bound to be in shock to some extent, at least, it is vital that the legislation deals with this.”

Mary Clinton, the Letterkenny woman who founded A-CEART in 2004 to campaign for better road safety in Ireland, believes the legislation must be passed. She told the Democrat yesterday: “Mandatory breath-testing is a no-brainer, it has to be introduced, especially at the scene of accidents. This is something I’ve lobbied for since the beginning. A family relation of mine was killed by a driver who was not breathalysed and that is one of the reasons I have fought so hard for mandatory breath testing as part of my overall road safety campaign.”

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, who introduced the Bill, said the fact that this is the first piece of legislation before the Dáil shows the government is committed to improving road safety.

“Road safety is a key priority for the government. The Road Traffic Bill will require gardaí to conduct a preliminary breath test at the scene of a collision where someone has been injured. This is a significant step forward in terms of road safety legislation.

“The Bill will also require Gardaí to conduct a preliminary breath test if they believe alcohol has been consumed.”

The Bill passed all stages in the Seanad last January, was re-activated by the new government following the election, and is going through its Second Stage in the Dáil this week. It will then move onto Committee and Final Stage before it can be finalised and brought into law.