Road Safety Strategy  for Northern Ireland

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 15th March 2010.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 15th March 2010

The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

First, I offer my sincere condolences to the families and friends of two people who were killed on our roads at the weekend: Angela McKee from Lisburn; and Mavis Rolston from Garvary in Enniskillen, who died in County Cavan. Those tragedies continue to remind us, if a reminder were ever needed, of the importance of the issues that we are about to discuss.

I wish to make a statement to inform Members formally that I am launching the consultation on a new road safety strategy. As Members know, the current road safety strategy was originally designed to run until 2012. However, as most of the measures in the strategy have been completed and its targets achieved, it was decided that a new strategy should be introduced by the end of this year.

In January 2010, I circulated a draft consultation paper to ministerial colleagues for consideration. After the Executive agreed its contents, which included commitments for several other ministerial colleagues, I sent the paper to the Committee for the Environment on 4 March 2010, informing it of my desire to move quickly to begin public consultation and of my intention to make this statement today, in which I am announcing the start of public consultation on preparing a new road safety strategy. The consultation period will begin tomorrow and run until 15 June 2010

The consultation document that will be publicly available tomorrow represents the work of a road safety strategy project board that comprises representatives from the main statutory stakeholders. My Department took the lead on the project, supported by senior representatives from the Department for Regional Development, the Department of Education and the Police Service. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was represented by the Fire and Rescue Service and the Ambulance Service. I thank the project board and ministerial colleagues for their unanimous support of and interest in the issue, as well as others who contributed to and supported the work that has been done to date.

Before I get into the detail of the consultation, I should remind the House that when we are talking about casualties and statistics, each figure represents a life lost or a future damaged. Although I am sure that Members are only too aware of that, it is always important to keep it at the front of our minds.

The consultation starts tomorrow, but it is worth noting that considerable consultation has already gone into preparing the document. That fact is indicated in the document.

A number of workshops have been held with the statutory stakeholders and with other interested agencies and Departments to tap into the wide range of experience and expertise that is available and to consider as wide a range of ideas and proposals as possible. My officials also wrote to around 500 stakeholders and have received responses from, or engaged directly with, around 40 groups and organisations. We have spoken to 15 groups comprising 300 children and young people who are aged between five and 21, and we have issued over 2,000 questionnaires to those in the key 15- to 18-year-old age group. My Department’s road safety education officers are working to get those questionnaires completed, and we have already started to see responses come back from that exercise.

For those Members who have not yet seen the consultation document, I will provide a brief summary of its contents. A safe systems approach has been adopted to preparing the paper. That approach considers roads, vehicles and road users together and seeks to ensure that each element takes account of the limitations or potential weaknesses in the other two. The paper starts by looking back at where we have come from with road safety in Northern Ireland and turns to look at how we can move forward to improve it in the future.

The paper sets out the key road safety challenges to be addressed over the lifetime of the new strategy. Those include continuing to reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries; focusing specifically on improving safety on rural roads; working to protect young drivers and motorcyclists in particular; and reducing inappropriate and illegal road user behaviours, including speeding, drink- and drug-driving and careless and dangerous driving. Also included are improving our knowledge of road safety problems and of how to solve them, and working within funding constraints and future uncertainties.

The paper highlights the main evidence, statistical analysis and research that were used in its preparation. It also reflects other strategies and consultations in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The paper includes a vision for what I want to achieve, which is simply to position Northern Ireland among the safest countries in the world. Although Members may think that that is unrealistic or over-optimistic, I note that the document shows that in 2008, we would have been placed around sixth in the table of 27 EU countries ranked by fatalities for each million of the population. We should certainly be seeking to improve even further in the future.

It is important that we consider how we might most effectively deliver road safety in the future. For example, we should consider whether local authorities should become more involved and whether a strategy should be underpinned with lower-level local road safety plans. We should also ask whether we need wider involvement from stakeholders in both planning and advising on the way ahead for road safety. Those are important considerations.

The key road casualty reduction targets that are in the consultation paper will probably be of particular interest to Members and the public. The targets are due for achievement by 2020, and they will be measured against a baseline of average figures for the period from 2004 to 2008. As Members will be aware, such averages are used to prevent targets being based on a single particularly good or bad year.

The proposed targets are to reduce by at least 40% the numbers of people who are killed in road collisions; to reduce by at least 45% the number of people who are seriously injured in road collisions; to reduce by at least 55% the number of children aged between 0 and 15 who are killed or seriously injured in road collisions; and to reduce by at least 55% the number of young people aged between 16 and 24 who are killed or seriously injured in road collisions. The targets in the current strategy were to reduce road deaths and serious injuries by 33% and to reduce child road deaths and serious injuries by 50%.

The new targets are more challenging in two ways. First, the proposed actual percentage reductions are higher, and, secondly, we are starting from reduced baselines. The average number of deaths and serious injuries that was used as a baseline for targets in the 2002 strategy was 1,748. The equivalent baseline for the new strategy is 1,236. The baseline for child deaths and serious injuries was 250 in 2002 strategy, and the baseline in the new strategy will be 128. In summary, therefore, there will be lower baselines and higher targets.

The document proposes introducing separate targets for reducing overall deaths and serious injuries. A new target is proposed for people who are aged between 16 and 24, and it is worth noting that we will be among the first countries to have such a target. If it is adopted, we will be the first country in the UK to have it. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland does not have such a target.

I also propose to include a range of performance indicators in our strategy for the first time. Those will not be classed as targets but will be used to measure progress. It is recognised good practice to have such indicators, and they will be particularly useful in helping to recognise emerging issues and to monitor and to understand developments in more depth than might otherwise be possible.

As part of a new strategy, I propose that we consider measuring and reporting on certain matters on an ongoing basis. Those are: the number of people who are killed in road collisions in rural areas; novice driver casualties within six, 12 and 18 months of their passing their driving test; the number of car occupants killed who were not wearing a seat belt; and the rates of road users, including cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists, killed or seriously injured for each million kilometres travelled. The document includes more than 170 proposed action measures that will help us to achieve those challenging targets. The action measures have all been agreed by the road safety strategy project board and the Departments to which commitments will fall.

The measures that are proposed in the document include undertaking an audit of road safety education services and resources to ensure that they address today’s road safety issues appropriately; developing and implementing an updated and improved programme of measures to influence young people’s attitudes and behaviours; reassessing and improving the way that novice drivers first learn to drive and/or ride, are tested and continue to learn throughout their life; and extending the use of driver remedial courses and making greater use of educational interventions for errant road users.

The following measures have also been proposed: introducing graduated penalties for certain offences; undertaking a review of speed limits on upper-tier rural roads; considering the applicability of urban speed reduction initiatives and assessing the potential for wider introduction of 20 mph limits in residential and other urban areas where there is a significant presence of vulnerable road users. The proposals also include adopting the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) speed limit enforcement guidelines and setting up an active-travel forum that includes a range of stakeholders to consider a broad strategic approach to active travel; setting up a motorcycling forum that includes a range of stakeholders to consider an inclusive and strategic approach to motorcycling; and focusing on better retrieval and extrication of casualties based on collaborative working between the fire and rescue services on both sides of the border and the community and voluntary sector.

I should mention two issues in more detail, the first of which is graduated driver licensing (GDL). I remain very concerned about the unacceptably high number of young and novice drivers who are involved in fatal and serious collisions on our roads each year. We need to improve how we train and test drivers to ensure that they are safe and competent. Evidence of graduated driver licensing systems in other countries supports the view that moderating the risk exposure of novice drivers while they gain crucial additional experience can reduce the likelihood that they will be involved in a collision.

I will, therefore, shortly consult on detailed options for how we might amend the existing 45 mph speed restriction on learner and restricted drivers and introduce a new system of graduated driver licensing to replace the R-driver scheme. Such a GDL scheme may include measures such as raising or lowering the age of qualification for a provisional or full licence, setting minimum learning periods, allowing learner drivers to drive on motorways and/or dual carriageways and post-test restrictions on passengers. It may also include night-time curfews, increasing the duration of the current 12-month restricted period and introducing an offence-free period. I look forward to in-depth considerations of those issues at that time.

For the purposes of the consultation that we are discussing, I simply wish to seek views on the broad principles of improving the competencies of our novice drivers and of minimising the risks that they face. There has been much debate about drink driving and the blood:alcohol limit. Consultation on that has already been carried out. Work is progressing to allow for appropriate legislation to be made and for necessary equipment to be sourced and approved. That work will allow the limit to be reduced and random breath testing and appropriate new penalties to be introduced.

At the same time as the consultation paper is issued, I will make available a number of supporting documents. The research that was conducted to support the development of the new strategy will be available online, along with a profile of current road safety issues. Further research will be added as it is completed, and reports will be updated as appropriate throughout the consultation as new data becomes available.

Therefore, a toolkit will be available to help people to consider and comment on the proposals. The information will also help people to come up with new ideas and to propose and support any ideas that they already have.

We are all aware of the financial context in which the consultation will be issued and within which the strategy will be implemented in its early years. Although that should not be a block to saving lives, it cannot be ignored. We should always remember the human cost, but it is also worth reminding ourselves of the financial cost of road casualties. The consultation paper shows that over the life of the current strategy up until 2008, it is estimated that prevention of all road casualties in Northern Ireland would have saved around £2·9 billion. The financial value of the road casualties that were prevented was £951 million, and when figures are available for 2009, that figure will rise to well over £1 billion. That helps us to understand the quantum of possible savings that could be made in Northern Ireland in the future through the reduction of road casualties.

Every death and serious injury is one too many, and the only acceptable level of road accidents is none. I want the road safety strategy to drive society to do everything in its power to strive for that. Almost every day, I hear stories of devastation, lives lost and futures ruined. I listen to the grief borne by families, friends and communities. We must all do our very best to prevent more families from suffering the tragedy of such shattered lives.

I am happy to take Members’ questions.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 15th March 2010

I remind Members to ask questions to the Minister’s statement.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of the Committee, I welcome the Minister’s road safety strategy consultation and look forward to playing a full and constructive role in ensuring that the strategy delivers significant reductions in fatalities and casualties on the roads.

As the Committee awaited the strategy, it asked a range of stakeholders how road deaths and injuries could be reduced. Problems in rural areas were identified as a key concern, and, as we all know, many of the most horrific accidents occur on country roads. Therefore, I am pleased that the Minister has recognised the importance of addressing road safety in rural areas by including a number of measures that are aimed at improving the situation. However, does the Minister not think that if his actions in rural areas are to be taken seriously, there should be a target specifically focused on reducing road fatalities and casualties in rural areas?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for highlighting the issue of rural areas. Between 2003 and 2008, 560 deaths and 3,733 serious injuries occurred on rural roads, which account for 72% of deaths and 55% of serious injuries. The measures proposed in the new strategy will seek to address the behaviours that contribute to the high level of deaths and serious injuries in rural areas. In addition, measures will specifically target road safety in rural areas, not least the proposals to consider speed limits on upper-tier rural roads and to target road policing resources towards high-risk locations, particularly in rural areas.

We will also consider the erection of road safety cameras at locations in rural areas where a considerable number of accidents take place and, to that end, identify locations where there appears to be a build-up of accidents. Through such measures, we hope to drive down the awful statistics for rural road accidents, all of which involve a human life.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement on what is an important matter. The issue was originally raised by my colleague Mr Ross. The graduated driving licence, where it operates, tends to comprise a combination of measures. Will the consultation contain individual questions on each option or will a combination of measures be offered?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The consultation will contain individual questions. The information will be collated, and we will consider what can be delivered. We do not anticipate taking forward every issue, but we need to look at what we can bring together to greatest effect and introduce that at the earliest opportunity to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries that involve the 17-year-old to 24-year-old category, which accounts for 11% of drivers, but almost 40% of road deaths. We are deeply dissatisfied with those figures and will continue to seek to drive them down.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, offer my condolences to those who were killed over the weekend. Does the Minister intend to work with mobile phone and insurance companies to see what they can bring to the strategy, and to see what we can learn from other jurisdictions, particularly Sweden’s “Vision Zero” initiative?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am keen to work with insurance companies in particular. Monitors can be placed in cars to identify speed at all times. An insurance company could then quickly know whether someone was driving at inappropriate speeds, and withdraw the insurance. A series of steps can be taken to challenge driver behaviour. It is in the interest of insurance companies to work closely with us to deliver this strategy, because it will drive down their costs as well as drive down the awful record of road deaths and injuries.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I welcome the Minister’s decision to conduct the consultation earlier than anticipated. I declare an interest as a councillor, a member of Carrickfergus road safety committee, and a father of two teenage drivers. The Minister suggested that councils may have a role to play in road safety in the future. Does he agree that it is important that the community and voluntary sector, and individuals who show a commitment to road safety, are also kept on board so that their expertise can be used to improve road safety locally?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, absolutely. Many people are interested in road safety, and we want to encourage such interest further. We want to make full use of our resources, so the more voluntary assistance, the better. It is critical that we seek to get as many people as possible involved in getting the message out, and moving to local authority community planning will provide us with a significant opportunity to develop that.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I may be touching on the same point as Mr Beggs. The Minister mentioned a figure of £2·9 billion. That contrasts with the roughly £150,000 that it cost to run the Road Safety Council and the various road safety committees. Is there a place for such bodies, given that the actions of his Department, and, to be fair, more particularly his predecessor, have resulted in reducing the number of committees from 18 to about seven?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That issue was highlighted after several reports were critical of the value for money that was being delivered. Only 12% of the £170,000 was invested in the front line, and the rest was spent on administration. That money has not gone, and we want it to be delivered to front line services rather than to administration.

Over the lifetime of the strategy, some £2·9 billion could have been saved. That we saved £950 million demonstrates how other Departments can provide considerable help to, for example, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Better road safety measures resulted in more than £100 million of savings each year, much of which benefited the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Over the next several years, we can reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. On a human level, quite a number of families will avoid the grief that they would have experienced had those road accidents occurred. We can also save the Executive and some elements of the private sector, such as insurance companies, considerable amounts of money, because hospitals will not have to provide many months of treatment and rehabilitation to people who have been seriously injured on the roads. The cost of that treatment is huge, as are the benefits of reducing the number of injuries and deaths on our roads.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the progress that has been made on the drink-driving issue and graduated driver licensing. Areas in the world that operate GDL have already seen significant decreases in the number of road deaths. Although the system has been highly successful, it has not been particularly popular with younger drivers. What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that younger people are included in the consultation process and that the rationale for some of the measures that are being discussed are explained to them?

Although the Department of the Environment takes the lead role in road safety issues, has the Minister had any discussions with his Executive colleagues about speed limits? Has he had any discussions with the PSNI about average-speed cameras, which seem to have a dramatic impact?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We issued 2,000 questionnaires on GDL to young people. We also consulted directly with over 300 people in the children and young people’s unit. We will continue to seek information from young people and keep them as well informed as possible about our ideas to make the roads safer for them. This morning, I attended the launch of a PSNI scheme, in association with the colleges and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), on the modification of cars. Single accidents have resulted in multiple fatalities because of modifications that left vehicles in an unsafe and unroadworthy condition.

We must continue to work with our young people in all those areas. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a function in Dungannon, at which people from the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service, the PSNI, doctors and hospital staff explained what happened as a result of an accident. It was an extremely moving experience. A number of the individuals who spoke had lost loved ones in accidents. We must keep hammering through the message, particularly to our young people, that driving can present them with additional opportunities in life, but not driving safely may shorten their lives or leave them permanently injured. We must encourage our young people to heed that message.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 1:00 pm, 15th March 2010

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. I particularly welcome his focus on rural roads and his comments about road safety cameras. Does he agree that the Frosses Road in north Antrim should be considered for the installation of road safety cameras and average-speed cameras? What action is he considering to take to tackle the attitudes, behaviour and culture of people, particularly in rural areas, who drive to their local pubs and drive home again after consuming alcohol? Finally, does he commend rural pub owners who regularly organise transport for customers who are under the influence to ensure that they get home safely?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not decide where speed cameras are located. However, the Frosses Road has an appalling record. Indeed, at the weekend, members of my family were travelling to a sports event in Ballymoney, and I warned them about the number of incidents that have taken place on that road.

As regards people driving to and from pubs, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not consume alcohol at the pub. I welcome the designated driver initiative that was taken in association with Coca-Cola. That offered drivers up to three free soft drinks while they were out for the evening. However, we need to keep pressing home the message that the only level of alcohol that is truly acceptable in a person’s system is zero.

We are seeking to pursue new figures, and we need to have the technique, which the Department for Transport in the UK is delivering, for proper and appropriate testing. That will lead to the situation in which people will be unable to drink at all when they go out because the figures will be so low. We need to get to that stage, because drink driving is still one of the key factors in the number of incidents on our roads that lead to death or injury.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement and his commitment to reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads. The Minister referred to the launch of Project Evo, in which he took part this morning, and to the road safety event in Dungannon. Does he agree that the Police Service, the Fire and Rescue Service, the Ambulance Service and local doctors, are making a serious effort to tackle road safety and get the message across to young people about the effects that drink driving and driving at fast speeds can have on people’s lives?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

A whole series of things have led to a major contribution in the reduction of road deaths. In fact, in the 1970s, which coincided with the worst period of the Troubles, we had the highest number of road deaths on our roads. At one stage, more than 300 people were being killed on our roads every year, and those figures have been driven down to just over 100, which is still unacceptable.

There are a number of reasons involved. First, cars are much safer now; they have much better braking systems and impact systems, and they are being designed with accidents and road safety in mind. Secondly, roads have improved; and there can be no doubt that if the road between Ballymena and Ballymoney were entirely a motorway, it would be safer. The same case will apply when the Dungannon to Ballygawley road becomes a motorway. There will be fewer accidents involving loss of life on those roads. Improvements have been made, and we will also benefit from the road improvements that are being made.

The bottom line is that driver behaviour on our roads is crucial. It may be suitable to drive on a motorway at 70 mph, and it may be wholly unsuitable to drive on a rural road at 50 mph. It depends on the circumstances in which one is driving. People need to realise that it is not worth risking their lives or the lives of others by overtaking a row of vehicles that is sitting behind a slow-moving vehicle, or whatever. It is fundamentally important that people get the message that driver error is the cause of most accidents. The roads are not the cause, although better roads would lead to fewer crashes. Driver error is the single biggest component in all accidents that involve death and injury.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement. I see that many of the measures proposed are outside the control of the Minister of the Environment and within the remit of the Department for Regional Development (DRD) in particular. Will the Minister inform the House what discussions and guarantees he has received from Conor Murphy that those aspects of the new strategy will be delivered?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The strategy was not drawn up in isolation from other Departments. I have already put on record my appreciation for the work of senior officials in DRD who helped us to draw up the strategy, and I do so again. The strategy is about all of us working together to introduce measures that will help make Northern Ireland a better and safer place. We should seek to do that in all that we do, regardless of what Department is taking the lead, and we need to support other Departments that are delivering. In this instance, my Department has the lead on road safety and DRD has the lead on roads. We will work closely together to ensure that we can deliver on the strategy.

Last year, more than 100 people lost their lives on our roads. By the time that the new strategy is implemented, we want to see that number halved. More than 1,000 people were injured on our roads, and we want to see that number halved. We want to drive down the number of people who enter our hospitals from 1,000 to 450. A reduced requirement to provide long-term care and the associated savings that admitting 550 fewer people in hospital will bring will be a big help to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I have no doubt that all the Departments involved will work closely together to ensure that we can deliver on the strategy.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas sin, agus go n-éirí an bóthar leis an obair atá sé a dhéanamh. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I wish him well in his work on the strategy. The Committee for Regional Development, of which I am a member, has a particular interest in the strategy, and we will be supportive. I note that 2,000 questionnaires were issued to young people, and I particularly welcome the emphasis that has been placed on young people in the consultation. Will the Minister ensure that innovative media and fora are used to get the message across to young people? The TV advertisements are good and impressive, but young people may not be as switched on to television as they are to other media and fora. What consideration will he give to that? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is vital that we use every method at our disposal to get the message through to young people. We are, therefore, happy to use whatever medium that takes. We may advertise in cinemas or on the Internet. We will seek to get the message across and drive it home in a range of ways. We must encourage our young people to pay attention and heed advice.

The Department’s recent advertisements may not be as shocking as some previous advertisements, but they are driving home the message of mothers who have lost their child. That message is very powerful and emotive. Those mothers are real human beings who have gone through the tragedy of losing their son. I trust that, as they listen to that message, other young men will tell themselves that they do not want to put their mother through what those mothers on TV have gone through.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I welcome the Minister’s positive statement that the focus will be kept on drug-driving. Does he accept that there is a problem in Strangford with young people taking cocaine, ecstasy, the gateway drug cannabis and, worst of all, the death drug crystal meth?

Can the Minister ensure that the focus on drug-driving will be kept to the fore, just as the focus on drink-driving is to the fore, and that young people will be made aware in advance that if they drive to and from parties and take drugs and medications, such as Valium, illegally, they will face severe penalties with regard to their driving careers?

H

Get your facts right, cannabis is NOT a gateway drug.

Submitted by Harry McCulla

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Absolutely. Of course, alcohol is also a drug, although that is not talked about too much. Anything that either slows down or speeds up people’s system to an abnormal level will distort their ability to carry out functions such as driving. It is, therefore, critical that the focus continues to be kept on drug-driving, so that when police see someone who is driving erratically, but there is no evidence that that person has taken alcohol, they have a series of methods by which to ascertain whether the individual has taken drugs. That is more difficult to determine and, ultimately, it may require that the person is taken to the police station for a blood test.

I have no doubt that police are being trained well in that regard. That will continue to be the case. As technologies advance, we will be able to pursue that more vigorously. I am sure that the number of deaths that are caused by drug-driving will not be allowed to creep upwards. Indeed, that number must be driven downwards.