North/South Ministerial Council:  Transport

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:45 pm on 29th April 2002.

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Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 12:45 pm, 29th April 2002

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on transport that took place on 17 April 2002 in Dublin. I remind Members again of the time that has been set for the statement. I would like brief questions and answers, please.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. What time have you allocated for the statement?

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I cannot take that point of order. I gave the advice that the Member is seeking at the beginning of the sitting.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Monday morning blues.

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the second transport sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in Dublin on Wednesday 17 April 2002. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Denis Haughey and I attended the meeting, which was chaired by the representative of the Irish Government, Mr Noel Dempsey, Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been agreed by Mr Haughey and is also made on his behalf.

The agenda for the meeting focused exclusively on the programme for the enhancement of North/South co-operation on road safety, which was agreed at the Council’s first meeting in transport sector format in December 2000. The programme includes several commitments, on which progress was reported at the meeting. The meeting began with the Council’s endorsement of the existing level of road safety education activity on both sides of the border. In confirming its continued commitment to co-operation on that important activity, the Council approved a proposal to hold a North/South joint road safety conference and to consider holding an annual conference of that nature to allow for the development of a network of road safety professionals.

The Council considered progress on, and approved, the further development of a proposed new joint road safety campaign on pedestrian safety. The campaign, whose launch is proposed to take place in Belfast in early September 2002, will aim to raise people’s awareness of the number of pedestrians being killed and seriously injured on the roads in the island of Ireland. It will also seek to make pedestrians and drivers more aware of their personal responsibility for avoiding road traffic collisions involving pedestrians.

Statistical data for 1996 to 2000 indicates clearly that pedestrian safety warrants attention. Pedestrians account for around one quarter of road fatalities, North and South. Since 1996, both Administrations have co-operated on the development of joint road safety awareness campaigns. Those campaigns can be especially effective on a North/ South basis due to the similarities of the jurisdictions’ road safety records and their common causes of fatalities and serious injuries. Sharing the cost of the development of campaigns between my Department and the National Safety Council in Dublin provides better value for money for each body. In addition, joint campaigns have been effective in attracting greater private sector sponsorship.

The Council considered the scope for the development of a common basis for the reporting of data on road traffic collisions. Ministers acknowledged the merit in having a definitive database to enable comparisons between countries. The Council welcomed the proposal to progress the sharing of information between the two jurisdictions on the databases and to explore the potential for reporting commonly held data. Relevant agencies were encouraged to investigate the similarities and differences in the characteristics of collisions that occur in border areas. The provision of such information may help to identify what measures could be taken in both jurisdictions to address the causes of collisions in border counties.

The Council reviewed the extent of the exchange of information on road safety awareness between the two Administrations. Arrangements are in place, through the exchange of key strategic documents and regular meetings between officials, for the Administrations to keep each other informed of significant road safety developments, North and South.

The Council took note of the position on the introduction of a penalty points system in the South, on the existing penalty points system in Northern Ireland and on developments in Europe as regards disqualification from driving and traffic fines. Ministers were pleased to note that the United Kingdom and Irish Governments are proceeding towards the ratification of the European Convention on Driving Disqualifications. They are also participating in a European Union initiative to facilitate the pursuit of the payment of traffic fines on a cross-border basis. Ministers also agreed that the mutual recognition of penalty points between the two jurisdictions remains a desirable objective. It may be possible to introduce such a measure when the system in the South becomes fully operational.

Finally, Ministers agreed the text of the joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting, and a copy has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on transport will take place in the autumn in Northern Ireland.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

In July 2001, the Department of the Environment completed an extensive public consultation exercise on the Northern Ireland road safety strategy for 2002-12. The Environment Committee has yet to see the finished document. When will that important document be available? Unlike the situation with his Department’s recent publication of the key planning policy statement, PPS 10, will the Minister confirm that he will afford the Committee sufficient time for proper and effective final consultation before publication of the road safety strategy?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

That is an interesting question because there was an additional point, which I noted and will refer to. Undoubtedly, the Chairperson awaits my comments with interest.

He is correct in saying that the consultation document on the road safety strategy was published in May 2001. It is anticipated that the strategy will be published in June 2002.

I have already referred to consultation with the Environment Committee. I have already referred to the general point, which since I became Minister I wish to subscribe to, and it is that the Committee should be consulted, fully and frankly, on all issues when it is possible to do so. I recognise — [Interruption].

I am not sure what that was, but it was probably of no consequence.

I recognise that the Committee performs a function, which is to challenge the Administration. I also recognise that the Committee, in performing its role, makes a vital contribution to the final piece of legislation or policy planning statement being produced.

I noted with interest that the Chairperson asked:

"Unlike the situation with his Department’s recent publication of the key planning policy statement, PPS 10, will the Minister confirm that he will afford the Committee sufficient time for proper and effective final consultation before publication of the road safety strategy?"

I presume that he was referring to the recent policy planning statement on telecommunications masts — and I see him nodding in agreement. The Department had full and lengthy consultation with the Committee on the statement. The Department also gave the Committee a full and detailed response. Following that full discourse between officials and the Committee, and before I had made any decision on the policy planning statement, I was made aware of further nuances and comments that had arisen between officials and the Committee. Before I decided to publish the statement, notice was given to the Committee on 9 April that I intended to publish the statement on 11 April. I was satisfied that all consultation had been exhausted during both the oral and written communications with the Committee.

I accept that there can be further discussion when Departments and Committees are not in agreement. However, at some point the time for decision and publication is reached.

My Department consults widely with the Environment Committee, and I wish to have positive engagement with the Committee. However, after full deliberation, there comes a time when publication has to take place. That point was reached on 9 April.

That does not preclude me from issuing a further policy planning statement on the matter. If there are further elements that must be dealt with, a new policy planning statement can be issued. It is not like creating primary or secondary legislation, which, once passed, must be followed for two or three years. The Department issues policy planning statements after consultation, and it can issue further ones.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:00 pm, 29th April 2002

I welcome the Minister’s statement and the fact that there is better co-operation on road safety education across the whole island. Has the Minister set a date for the road safety conference? He mentioned that it might occur annually. Can he outline in more detail the plans for cross-border co-operation on the payment of traffic fines? Will that money be earmarked for particular road safety projects?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Does Ms Lewsley want clarification on the road safety conference?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

The conference will take place, although a date has not yet been set. The Council recognises the benefits of having a conference to bring road safety practitioners together to exchange views. Therefore, that will become a focus. If a date has been set, I have been remiss, and I will ensure that the Member and the Committee are informed of the date forthwith.

The Council is considering holding an annual conference, but it will wait to see how the first one goes. There is merit in bringing practitioners together to discuss ideas and exchange views in any discipline.

The Member also mentioned traffic fines. As I said, the North/South Ministerial Council is trying to ensure that the policy is operable in all jurisdictions in the European Union. If the system were fully operable, the authorities in the state where the offence occurs would be entitled to seek information from the vehicle registration authority in the offender’s home state. Having obtained that information, they could write to the offender to demand payment of the fine. That would be the first stage. If the offender did not pay the fine within a stated period, the responsibility for enforcing the fine would be transferred to the authorities in his or her home state. It is hoped that such measures will ensure the payment of fines.

The United Kingdom and Ireland support, in principle, the implementation of that initiative. The Member asked what the revenue from such fines would be used for. Fines are not there solely to raise revenue. It is to be hoped that few fines and penalties will be required. On Sunday I met a man who spoke to me about the launch of the fixed speed cameras. He said that he would ensure that none of his money would go on a resulting fine. I said, "Well done, let’s hope there are no fines, because that will mean people are abiding by the law."

Photo of Mr Ivan Davis Mr Ivan Davis UUP

Can the Minister provide the House with the relevant road safety statistics relating to the Committee for the Environment’s recent report on school transport?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

I think that that is a double question — the road safety statistics and the Committee for the Environment’s report on school transport.

The statistics for road deaths are emotional. So far this year over 40 people have been killed on the roads. The exact figure was 43 on 23 April, and I heard yesterday that another person has died. That compares with 36 deaths in the same period last year and 49 in 2000. We must not be complacent. However, road safety statistics show that there has been a significant reduction in the number of deaths on the roads, compared with the 1970s.

Statistics can be beguiling and simple and yet convey no message; their use can be dubious. However, if the death and injury rates of 1989 had prevailed until 2000, 4,000 more people would have been killed or injured — that is the magnitude of the reduction over that period. The number of children killed or injured has fallen by 31%, and that is to be welcomed.

The situation, however, is still bad. On average 150 people die, 1,500 are seriously injured and 11,000 are slightly injured each year. The main causes are speed, drink and a failure to wear seat belts, and those factors have been the focus of our advertising campaign. Two statistics about seat belts are particularly important. A person not wearing a seat belt is reckoned to be twice as likely to be killed as a person who is wearing one. That is a stark statistic — you are twice as likely to be killed if you are not wearing a seat belt. Indeed, if you are in an accident and you are seriously injured, you are six times more likely to survive if you are wearing a seat belt. Seat belts are important. It is estimated that, each year, 20 deaths and 250 injuries would not occur if people wore their seat belts. Too few wear their seat belts.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

The safety of pedestrians is referred to in the statement . It might have been useful if the Minister of the Environment had invited the Minister with responsibility for roads to travel to Dublin to hear the discussions. I do not know when Mr Peter Robinson was last in Dublin, but it would have been useful had he been there, because we are talking about pedestrians. As the Minister said, they account for a quarter of road fatalities, North and South.

Every effort must be made to eradicate this unnecessary waste of human life. Was there any discussion about a possible legal requirement to wear bright clothing being placed on pedestrians using roads at night, thereby making them easily identified by drivers and preventing fatalities? Was there any discussion about a possible reduction in the criteria that exist in Northern Ireland before the roads authorities will provide crossings on busy main streets or roads? Anything that would reduce the number of pedestrians killed on our roads would be welcome.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

I am not sure that my ministerial Colleague would permit me to call him "Colleague". However, I will do so for the record. I am sure that he can, in his own inimitable way, tell us why he is not involved in North/South co-operation, which is to the benefit of all on the island of Ireland. I must stress that. Pedestrian crossings are not within my remit; therefore I leave them to the appropriate Minister.

The wearing of bright clothing was not raised at the meeting. However, I am sure that some Members are old enough — or young enough — to remember the UTV advertisement that urged us to wear something light and bright at night. That has featured in advertisements for many years. Mr McCarthy is correct to say that pedestrians should wear something light at night. The Department will address the safety of pedestrians in its campaign to be launched in September.

All the campaigns have aimed at social and personal responsibility. If the people are not involved and do not understand what must be done, even the best measures will not work. The Department is trying to ensure that people are socially and personally responsible. Previous campaigns raised awareness. Likewise, the Department is certain that the latest campaign will raise awareness of the vulnerability of pedestrians. Everyone has seen the advert on national television about a person being hit by a car. However, awareness must be increased — not only that of pedestrians, but also that of drivers.

The campaign will challenge youth, those who drink and those who do not wear seat belts. The Department can change people’s attitudes to pedestrians by challenging them and by raising awareness. By changing attitudes we change behaviour. Pedestrians are important, and a campaign will be directed at them. I will ensure that the matter of wearing something light and bright at night will be considered.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I am delighted that the Council meeting focused on road safety — not before time. Although I welcome decisions to hold conferences, form networks and exchange valuable information, I must ask the Minister whether he agrees that actions speak much louder than words. He quoted statistics today which referred to the possibility that 4,000 lives were saved in Northern Ireland over the past 10 to 15 years. I remind the Minister that twice as many people died on Northern Ireland’s roads over the past 30 years than died in the troubles. There is still not enough being done about that. In addition to those awareness programmes, concrete measures must be taken, such as traffic calming, reduced speed limits, greater enforcement by the police and the authorities and much more severe penalties so that we can save more lives, instead of waiting for the date of a conference to discuss it.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Traffic-calming measures are not within the remit of the Department of the Environment. However, the Member also mentioned penalties —

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

What about joined-up government?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP 1:15 pm, 29th April 2002

Yes. Peter Robinson and I are working on that through joined-up government between our respective Departments. That will be wonderful when it arrives. I am glad that Mr Robinson was present to hear that.

From 2000 to 2001 there has been a 30% increase in the number of fixed penalty notices that have been meted out. I agree entirely with what Jane Morrice said. It is to receive publicity, but enforcement is also needed, as it helps to make the publicity more effective.

I said earlier that the three campaigns aimed to raise awareness and change people’s attitudes. Ms Morrice said that such action is needed, but enforcement is also important. It is difficult to assess the impact of what we have done to reduce casualties. Levels have been reduced, but far too many people are still being killed or seriously injured.

What has been the outcome of the three campaigns? I shall provide some statistics. More than 90% of those surveyed — both North and South — are now aware of the message, contained in the advertisement, to encourage the wearing of seat belts. The message that we have a social responsibility to wear a seat belt has hit home, as has the message of how a back-seat passenger who does not wear a seat belt can injure or kill a front-seat passenger.

The number of people surveyed who, as a result of the advertisement, view it as irresponsible not to wear a seat belt has increased by 8%, from 63% to 71%. I hope that people see that as action. The survey found that 33% of drivers — 44% of 16- to 34-year olds — are more conscious of wearing seat belts than they were before the advertisement was first shown.

My next point is both positive and negative. As a result of the seat belt campaign, the number of six- to nine-year olds who wear seat belts has increased from 65% to 75%. It is good that the numbers have increased; it is action. However, the downside is that 25% of children are still not wearing seat belts. There is a lesson to be learned.

The Department endeavours to take appropriate action, but our responsibility is road safety and the mechanisms for it — not the legal implementation of the mechanisms, which is the police’s responsibility. We are working on it as best as we can.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

One is tempted to say: "Come back, Sam. All is forgiven."

Mr Nesbitt stuck solely to road safety issues at the meeting; no other transport issues were discussed. Is that an indication that the DUP Ministers’ boycott of the North/South Ministerial Council, a body that he seems so keen to pursue, is stifling its work?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

I looked to see whether my Colleague and Friend Mr Foster was present for Mr Poots’s comment. I am trying to interpret it. Perhaps in the margins I shall be enlightened as to what he meant.

Road safety is the Department of the Environment’s responsibility. It was the only issue that I could deal with at the meeting. One aspect of road safety is to deal with deaths and injuries. Is Mr Poots trying to say that that is unimportant? It is not unimportant. To ensure that lives are saved is singularly one of the most important issues.

I am concerned because I have a youngish family. When my daughter qualified as a driver and went out on the road for the first time, I said: "Oh, help." My gravest concern is that something might happen to her or to my son. Every week we hear of young people being killed on the roads, and every week there are parents who suffer the traumatic experience of losing their children in such a way.

In focusing on road safety, I say to Mr Poots that — by gum! — it is important, and I hope that he does not take away from that.

Photo of Mr Arthur Doherty Mr Arthur Doherty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Pedestrians account for approximately one quarter of road fatalities. Has that figure been broken down to identify locations of particular danger and of a higher-than-average incidence of fatality? In that context, particular danger points are approach roads to built-up rural areas, such as housing estates, where there are no footpaths and which are perhaps poorly lit. I refer to those to make the further point that, as Jane Morrice said, it is fine to raise awareness of the dangers and the need for safety. However, there is also an urgent need to take practical steps to eradicate accident black spots, especially in places which seem to be unfairly neglected in contrast to other areas which are more than adequately supplied with footpaths and good lighting.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Mr Doherty made an important point. It is not enough to say that we want to reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries. We must identify the particular circumstances which cause them. In a previous debate we tried to make that clear from a pedestrian’s point of view. The Committee for the Environment investigated school transport and found that the danger was not in a pedestrian’s travelling on a bus but in his alighting from or boarding a bus. We therefore focused on educating young people by providing material amounting to £650,000 and increasing the numbers of road safety education officers by almost 50% so that twice-yearly visits can be made to each school. That means more than 4,000 visits to educate the young about when and where they are most at risk.

Mr Doherty is right to say that the statistics should be used to show the danger points. North/South co-operation provides a road safety reporting mechanism. The Garda Siochána and the National Roads Authority are jointly responsible for the statistics in the South, and in the North the Police Service has sole responsibility. We are beginning to share data not simply for the sake of sharing but to examine similarities and differences and to identify the key problems which cause accidents and where they occur. That will show the necessary measures that must be taken by the Department of the Environment alone, or with other Departments, to improve the situation.

To return to road safety and school buses, £161 million capital and £63 million annually will be needed to implement key aspects, and it will mostly be for other Departments such as Education and Regional Development to decide whether to allocate the necessary funds — this is not just a matter for the Department of the Environment.

I thank Mr Doherty for asking that important question.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Would road safety be improved by seeking enforcement across borders, whether North/South, UK-wide or even across the European Union?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Enforcement would be improved if it were on a cross-border basis, because people travel across the border on the island of Ireland. If people felt that their penalty would stand, regardless of where they committed an offence, enforcement would improve. That is why I referred to the implementation of the new European Convention on Driving Disqualifications. If a driver has been fined in another country, the state in which the offence occurred can ask for the fine to be enforced in the person’s home state, and it is important that that should happen.

There has been an interesting development in the penalty point system concerning discrimination. The EU has deemed it discriminatory that non-UK residents committing an offence in the UK are not subject to penalty points but to prosecution through the courts. The EU has requested that the penalty point system in the UK apply to everyone in the UK — UK citizen or not — so that all are treated equally in the EU.

Legislation will be introduced as soon as possible to bring non-UK driving licence holders in the EU within the scope of the penalty point system. This is an example of why we must have fair and equitable enforcement to ensure that all are equal before the law, regardless of where misdemeanours occur.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

Road safety is important, and I particularly welcome the analysis of road traffic accidents in the border area. Could the topic of different North/South trunk-road widths be included in the agenda for the next transport sectoral meeting in the autumn? The maximum trunk-road width in Northern Ireland is 7·7 metres, whereas in the Republic it can be up to 11·5 metres. I contend that narrowing roads at the border, from a broad trunk-road width in the South to a narrow trunk-road width in the North, adds to the number of accidents. I witnessed one this morning on the A5 in west Tyrone, which is part of the main arterial Dublin to Derry road. A Donegal-registered car was at the side of the road having been involved in yet another smash on the stretch between Omagh and Ballygawley.

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

The North/South difference in trunk-road width may be between seven metres and 11 metres, but the matter is not within my remit. Therefore it would not be for me to raise it at a North/South Ministerial Council meeting. However, the Department for Regional Development may have some input from a road safety point of view. If the Member were to write to the Minister for Regional Development, he might provide an appropriate answer.

It could be argued that wider roads are safer roads. When I was a district councillor I tried to prevent cars from parking on a village street by having double yellow lines painted. However, the council was advised that it was better to allow the cars to park there; they made the street narrower, which in turn forced other cars to travel more slowly. If the road were widened, cars would speed and perhaps cause more accidents.

I am not sure what the position on that is today. Widening a road can cause people to speed, and speeding is one of the primary causes of death and injury on the roads. After failure to wear to a seat belt and drink-driving, speed is the third most important element in road accidents. A balance must be struck between the width of roads and the speed at which people drive. It is an interesting question.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP 1:30 pm, 29th April 2002

I call Mr Dallat. It would be helpful if the Member could be concise when asking his question and if the Minister could be concise when answering.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Are there any plans to publish details of the economic and social cost of road traffic accidents on an all-Ireland basis, including not only deaths and injuries but also the cost to the emergency services and to health and social services and the cost of days lost at work, insurance claims, and so on?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am glad that you asked the Member to be brief when asking his question, and I am even more glad that you asked that I be brief in my answer.

I cannot give a detailed answer on the economic and social costs of traffic-safety management. It is not easy to identify the terms of economic appraisals. The upfront financial costs can be identified, but what price do we put on a life or on the effect on the families of those who are seriously injured? What price can be put on the effect on the life of someone I know who was seriously injured years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since? That is difficult to do.

One approach involves identifying two options. For example, one option might cost £20 million and another might cost £30 million, so we know the difference to be £10 million. We may not be able to quantify the benefit of the £30 million spent, but at least we know that the benefit is worth more than £10 million, so we would choose the option that cost £30 million instead of the option that cost £20 million. This is like shadow pricing — we do not know the actual price so we identify some other price. That is a complicated way of analysing the economic and social cost of traffic accidents. It is a fascinating, but complicated and intricate problem.