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House of Lords

Friday, 3rd November 1995.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th July be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 seeks broadly to harmonise Northern Ireland's road traffic laws with regard to road safety and the regulation of motor vehicles with those in force in Great Britain under the Road Traffic Act 1988.

In brief, this order has four main parts. Part II deals with road safety and introduces a number of new offences which are similar to those introduced in Great Britain by the Road Traffic Act 1991.

First, the order creates offences involving dangerous driving. These replace the existing bad driving offences, which relate to reckless driving, with dangerous driving offences based more firmly on the offender's actual standard of driving than on his state of mind. The present maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment, where death or grievous bodily injury is involved in such offences, is increased to 10 years.

Secondly, a new offence of causing death or grievous bodily injury by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs is introduced. This will enable courts to respond more effectively to driver behaviour which concurrently involves the three elements of the death or serious injury of another person, driving without due care and attention, and driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. The penalty would also be a maximum 10 years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both.

A further new offence of causing danger to road-users is created. This would involve intentional and unlawful obstruction of a road or interference with vehicles, traffic signs or equipment in such a way as to cause danger of injury to a person or serious damage to property. The gravity of such action is reflected in the penalty of up to seven years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both.

The opportunity has also been taken to revise the law in relation to cycling, including the introduction of a new dangerous cycling offence. Other new measures include provision concerning the safety of children in motor vehicles in the event of an accident.

Part III of the order deals primarily with the construction and use of vehicles and their equipment and creates new offences, the most important of which concerns the use of vehicles which present a danger of injury to any person.

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Part IV makes miscellaneous amendments to the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981. The most significant of these relates to disqualification and includes a revision of the disqualification provisions for dangerous driving. Offences involving dangerous driving will carry 12 months' minimum disqualification but this increases to two years where they involve death or grievous bodily injury.

Courts are also being given the power when convicting a person of a dangerous driving offence, or of any drink or drugs related offence, to order a shorter period of disqualification or no disqualification where satisfied that special reasons exist. This is in line with Great Britain's corresponding law.

No one can be proud of the casualties from road accidents in Northern Ireland. The order is designed to increase the part which road traffic law can play in seeking to reduce the number of those casualties on Northern Ireland's roads. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th July be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order with her usual clarity. The purpose of harmonising legislation in Northern Ireland is, of course, one we support. Perhaps one or two questions may be appropriate. Is there to be the penalty point system in Northern Ireland which most magistrates in this country seem to think works quite well? Why is it necessary to have in Northern Ireland an offence of causing grievous bodily harm by dangerous driving when none exists in England and Wales? Has not the opportunity been missed to insist on seat belts in minibuses? Finally, I believe that it is a reasonable criticism from our friends and colleagues in Northern Ireland that it has taken so long—four years after its implementation in England and Wales—for the Road Traffic Act to be introduced with modifications in Northern Ireland.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, I shall not speak for long but I cannot allow the opportunity to pass without making a few broad observations. Noble Lords have their own individual interests, but road safety is something which affects all of us whether we are pedestrians, cyclists, passengers in motor vehicles or drivers. The subject is diverse and the regulations to be complied with are numerous. Any new measures introduced to reduce so-called accidents must be welcomed. For that reason, I congratulate the Government on introducing the order today. It indicates a commitment to improving road safety and to punishing or removing from the roads those who fall foul of the law.

After saying that, I hope that noble Lords will not think me churlish if I observe that the number of speakers today does not truly represent the importance of the subject before us. Statistics for injury and death due to road traffic accidents in Northern Ireland show that the record is absolutely appalling—even worse than that of the Italians, which is really saying something bad! It can, of course, be partly explained by the policing priority during the disturbances which are now,

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we hope, a thing of the past. However, the matter is being addressed. If the effect of the order is to reduce accidents, I applaud it.

It is now almost 10 years since the system of penalty points was introduced on the mainland for offences relating to accidents, driving, construction and use of vehicles, drink or drugs, traffic direction and signs, theft and other categories. It is surprising that the points system was not introduced into Northern Ireland at the same time and that it still awaits introduction. I understand that the matter is now being addressed and that a draft road traffic offenders order for Northern Ireland should be before Parliament in May next year. I feel that until the points system has been in force for some time, habitual offenders will not be taken off the road and, consequently, the figures for related injury and death will not be dramatically affected for some time.

The official report of the first Standing Committee on the order in another place makes interesting reading, as does the order itself. Some useful contributions and suggestions were made which I hope are being addressed. I do not propose to repeat what was said in that committee.

It appears that a step in the right direction is being taken. More steps are needed, but a good start has been made. I should be delighted if, as a result of this order and the introduction of a penalty points system, road-attributed deaths and injury were reduced considerably. That must be the objective; I hope that it will be achieved.

11.15 a.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we broadly welcome the order which should make a contribution to tackling the disgraceful road accident situation in Northern Ireland. If the rate of accidents were reduced to the rate operating in this country, there would be 30 more people alive every year in Northern Ireland. That is quite a large total taken over a period of time in a relatively small population.

The Chief Constable of the RUC has said that in the past he was not able to pay the attention to those matters that he would have wished. We hope that the more peaceful situation will contribute to bringing down the accident figure. We are glad that the draft order was subjected to wide consultation and that it seems to have general support. I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister's answers to the first two questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn.

Lord McConnell: My Lords, I give a general welcome to the order. There are, however, one or two points I wish to make. Article 79 prohibits the overloading of a lorry or a wrong weight distribution. In the committee in another place, a question was raised about coalmen. Lorries have a load of coal, go round various doors and leave one or two bags at different houses. That alters the weight distribution and can lead to prosecution. The same happens to suppliers of fertiliser to small farms. Drivers leave small loads at different farms and once again the weight distribution is altered and causes liability to prosecution. The process

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is carried out pretty rigorously. In the one case of which I have knowledge where the weight was found to be wrongly distributed because some bags had been removed, there was an immediate prosecution with no question of advice, a warning or anything else being given. It was slap, bang, prosecute!

I notice that in Article 57 there is some mitigation: an error of 5 per cent. in the overall weight distribution is permitted. In another place the question was raised regarding coalmen. The Minister promised to send a letter to the Member concerned. I have been unable to obtain a copy. Perhaps the noble Baroness can say what was in it or what should have been in it if no letter was sent.

I support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. The order was an obvious opportunity to let Northern Ireland for once take the lead and make provisions for seat belts for children where they are carried in minibuses and coaches. When the opportunity presents itself, it seems needless to wait until something is done in other parts of the kingdom.

I am glad to see various measures on road safety. One that must receive attention is the question of speed. There are many speed limits, some of 30 miles an hour in town and in built-up areas, some of 40 miles an hour outside the towns. I frequently watch cars travelling at more than 70 mph in areas with a 40 mph limit. Very seldom does there appear to be any prosecution. I know that for many years the RUC has had many more important matters to attend to. Perhaps now, when there is more opportunity, it might pay a little more attention to the question of excessive speed. It contributes substantially to death and injury on the roads.

With those few remarks, I welcome the introduction of this draft order.

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