Drug drivers face road ban for first time
Drivers will be checked for illegal drugs at the roadside as well as alcohol for the first time as gardaí take delivery of 150 testing machines early next year.
New laws will see motorists who get behind the wheel after taking drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy or cannabis prosecuted in a similar way to drink-drivers.
The roadside test will involve gardaí taking a swab of saliva from a driver's cheek which will be analysed for a variety of substances.
Although the final sanctions for the new drug-driving offences are still being finalised, it will be seen as an "equivalent offence" to drink-driving where a motorist can be fined €5,000 and jailed for up to six months.
Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe has promised that legislation to be introduced before the General Election will be "robust as possible" as he currently faces a massive challenge to tidy up six decades of road traffic law which is being challenged in the courts everyday.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mr Donohoe outlines:
■ How it will take five years to clampdown properly on loopholes in road traffic law.
■ Plans to changes speed limits on the M50.
■ That dealing with strike threats is now a daily job.
■ And the progress on Ireland's bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
Last year the Government introduced the Roadside Impairment Test which gave gardaí the power to ask motorists to stand on one leg or touch their nose with their finger to show their co-ordination was not diminished.
However, the new test machines purchased by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety will make the process far more sophisticated.
Mr Donohoe said the issue of what kind of drugs a driver may have taken will be left to criminal law.
"From a road traffic point of view the only thing we will focus on is 'are you impaired behind the wheel of a car'."
In recent months the minister's office has come under repeated pressure to clampdown on ambiguities in legislation that have allowed countless motorists escape penalty points and court convictions.
Earlier this month efforts to close off a loophole that has allowed more than 20,000 motorists to dodge penalty points fell at the first hurdle.
A judge dismissed a raft of cases taken against motorists who failed to produce their driving licences in court when convicted of a penalty points offence.
The Dublin Central TD said his officials are working to shut off the legal challenges but it will nearly five years just "to integrate everything together into a single piece of overall legislation" in order to "reduce the risk of one law talking about another law that doesn't exist or that was possibly drafted incorrectly".
"That is a piece of work that will take much of the next Dáil term to do, to draft, to put out to public consultation, let alone to implement.
"Even strengthened road traffic law will still be challenged every day in our courts," he said.
In relation to the most recent incident, Mr Donohoe said gardai and the Director of Public Prosecutions "are currently considering action in relation to that" and, as a result, he cannot comment.
The other big issue on his desk right now is the growing traffic congestion, particularly in Dublin.
Commuters have complained that their daily drive is taking longer as more people go back to work and on several occasions in recent weeks the M50 has come to a complete standstill as a result of traffic incidents.
Mr Donohoe acknowledged: "If something happens on the M50 it has an effect that is now nearly regional, as opposed to just on the M50."
However, he ruled out the idea of either adding more lanes to the road or building a new ring-road further out from the city.
Instead, he believes the answer lies with a better system for dealing with accidents and changes to the existing speed limits on the country's busiest road.
"This is a scale of congestion difficulty that has developed so quickly," he said, criticising the lack of investment in public transport during the boom years.
He wants to bring in a system similar to the M25 in the UK, where speed limits are adjusted according to traffic volumes.
"The speed limits that we have at the moment are determined purely by what the national speed limits are, which are 50, 80 and 100kmh.
"For a small number of roads, most notably the M50, we need to look at a different approach," he said.
"Given that the upper speed limit is 100kmh and the lower is 50kmh, in all the settings in between that, it should give us the ability to do what we want."
The minister said he also wants to look at how emergency situations are dealt with.
"That, for me, has two elements: first, how do we get the information out quicker when there are incidents so we can minimise the need for people to travel in the first place? And the second part is, when an incident happens, we then have to look at measures for how we can mitigate the impact," he said.
He also wants to set more orbital bus routes that avoid the city centre.
But Mr Donohoe accepted that the frequent threat of strikes in the public transport sector damages its image.
He is "continuously" trying to solve the issues.
"On the first day I got off the bus in Aras an Uachtaráin [to get the seal of office] I had my secretary general at the foot of the steps telling that the rail drivers had voted to go on strike," he recalled.
"As we move into the coming period, the message continues to be very, very clear: any changes to the wage level of our people working in public transport need to be affordable for the taxpayer and commuter and they have to be paid for out of productivity. They are the same demands that face any other worker."
With Ireland qualifying for the European Championships and the Olympics taking place next year, Mr Donohoe, who is also Tourism Minister, said his would be the "dream job" in 2016.
And next year will be a "crucial window" in Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. "We've now gone through all the work in relation to what the tendering process is going to be and attended all of the workshops that are taking place in the UK on that. That's all moving along."