There is a particular heartbreak to the family that is awoken by a late night knock on the door. The flashing blue lights on a dark road lighting up the carnage of a collision are a grim sight for any loved one to bear. The shock and horror of such fatal road accidents have haunted innumerable families across Ireland. After the media reports disappear and funerals fade away they are left with the searing memory of abrupt loss.

This type of tragedy is rendered all the more devastating by the knowledge that perhaps they could have been saved or that they spent their last moments alone. There is a unique grief wrought by the fact that their son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father has the victim of a hit and run incident where, regardless of the fault involved the driver compounded one mistake with an even worse one.

The Road Traffic Amendment Bill 2013 aims to build on the work done so far to make Irish roads safer over the past 15 years. It specifically enhances the deterrent measures available to the judicial system to send out a clear and unambiguous message that leaving the scene of an accident is completely and utterly unacceptable. In conjunction with this it also strengthens the capacity of the Gardaí to test for alcohol or drug abuse over an expanded 24 period to ensure that individuals suspected of being involved with a hit and run accident do not evade justice. The overarching aim of the bill is to directly tackle hit and run incidents and make Irish roads safer for all users.

Significant progress has already been achieved in this aim since Ireland first began to vigorously pursue a strategic approach to road safety in 1998. Roads deaths are down by 65.7% (1997-2012) and Ireland is now the fifth safest country in the European Union for road collision fatalities per million population. This achievement may be set against an increase in the number of cars of 66% over that same time frame.

Steps forward in the area are a testament to the vastly improved legal sanctions, alcohol testing and the commitment of the Gardaí and Road Safety Authority under the auspices of government policy targeting the area. However the creeping rise in road deaths this year even before we move into the Christmas period which is fraught with danger is a stark reminder of the persistent menace on routes across Ireland. We have already seen a greater number of road deaths than last year marking a reversal in the consistent decline in fatalities over the past number of years.

Today’s bill is a measure to help restore momentum in challenging the traumatic impact that road accidents inflict on grieving families and to ensure that the vital arteries that connect the nation are as safe as possible.

The bill is designed to help ensure that the countless families across the country that have had their loved ones cruelly taken from them can draw some comfort in the knowledge that steps are being taken to ensure other families do not have to share that deep sense of loss. In particular I would like to pay tribute to the O’Farrell family who have worked towards legislative provisions to draw a line under hit and run incidents. The tragic story of Shane O’Farrell a talented young law student who died in a hit and run incident shines a sharp spotlight on the need to tighten the legal framework in the area. I hope that they and the other families their sad experience represents can take some comfort in knowing that something positive may come from their loss.

In essence the bill is divided into two separate parts.

Essentially the first part of the bill which Minister Varadkar has signalled he will accept makes sure that this offence would carry a punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to €5,000. That’s up from the current maximum jail sentence of 6 months. These measures are drawn from similar provisions in Canadian and Australian legislation.

The second part of the bill deals with the powers of the Gardaí to test for suspected offenders for drink and drugs. The Gardaí currently only have 3 hours to find the alleged offenders and test them for drugs and alcohol. This Bill extends that period to 24 hours – giving the Gardaí far more scope to track down those involved, test for intoxicating substances and ensure that the appropriate charges are brought forward.

First Half of the Bill

Fianna Fáil welcomes the government’s decision signalled at Cabinet this week to accept the first part of this bill. It is a victory for constructive politics and we look forward to the opportunity to work with Minister Varadkar in strengthening the bill.

I understand that the government will put forward this section as an amendment to the Road Traffic Amendment Bill (No.2) at committee stage in the coming months and we can co-operate on strengthening it at that point.

This section of the bill deals with making leaving the scene of accident causing bodily harm, a hit and run, an indictable offence. An indictable offence is a more serious legal issue than a summary offence. Indictable offences are those which may or must be tried on indictment before a judge and jury, that is, in the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court.

The bill amends Section 106 of the original Road Traffic Act 1961 and the subsequent Road Traffic Act 2006. Under current legislation there is a 6 month maximum sentence for individuals who leave the scene of an accident and it is considered to be only a summary offence.

In light of the devastating repercussions it can have on victims of such incidents it is absolutely critical that strong deterrent measures are put in place to underline the gravity of these crimes. The lives of innocent people are at stake.

The bill imposes enhanced punishments on those offenders who leave the scene of an accident where somebody has been injured. Instead of the miniscule 6 month sentence we advocate a ten year maximum sentence in the case of accidents causing death and a 7 year sentence in cases of serious injury.

The ten year sentence in relation to leaving the scene of an accident where a death has occurred would of course be in addition to the current maximum ten year sentence for dangerous driving causing death as applicable.

The bill recognises the devastating impact that such accidents have on the families affected and sends out a clear, unambiguous message to drivers that there are obliged to stay at the scene of an accident. The current law also incentivises people who may be inebriated or abusing substances to leave the scene in order to avoid the harsher consequences of drunk driving. These measures change that by heightening the punishment.

The provisions in the bill are based on best practise internationally as exhibited in Canada. It is primarily drawn from the even more stringent Section 252 of the Canadian Criminal Code. Our bill is adjusted in light of the demands of Irish law.

The Canadian Criminal Code states that the failure to stop at scene of accident with involving bodily harm is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

In the case of failure to stop at the scene of an accident involving bodily harm or death is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life.

The provisions are also drawn from Crimes Amendment (Roads Accidents) Act 2005 in Australia also known as “Brendan’s law”. This legislation introduces a similar ten maximum sentence for hit and runs causing death and 7 years for hit and runs causing serious injury.

Second Half of the Bill

Moving to the second half of the bill.

The second part of the bill which has not been accepted by the government expands the amount of time from 3 hours to 24 hours after an accident available to the Gardaí to test suspects for alcohol and drug use.

This part of the bill amends Section 12 of the Road Traffic Act 1994 (inserted by section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 2003 and section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 2011).

This significant expansion of the ability of the Gardaí to test suspects is a further discouragement to drivers for leaving the scene of an accident. By allowing the test to be submitted as admissible evidence it enables the jury to decide whether or not the substance was taken before or after the accident in the context of the trial.

Currently drivers can simply drive away from the scene of an accident and evade testing after just three hours. This allows serious offences to be avoided by reckless drivers. 

In the US State of Illinois for example this period is significantly longer with an 12 hour testing period. Our bill aims to expand it out to 24 hours and allow it as admissible evidence in the Court. This enables the judge and jury to decide on whether the evidence is justifiable on the balance of probabilities. This involves weighing up the likely rate of alcohol processing by the individual based on weight, metabolism etc.

This measure is only applicable in the serious cases where a hit and run has occurred rather than other road offences. I trust that the Minister will view this aspect of the bill in the same co-operative spirit he has approach the first half of the legislation.

Conclusion

This bill is ultimately about giving the victims of hit and run incidents a fighting chance for survival by sending out a clear message that motorist cannot leave the scene of an accident. It underlines that hit and runs are a serious crime and sends out that message to all motorists. I trust that it will offer some hope to families who have endured grievous loss and help ensure other families are spared in future.