Cabinet has been presented with a proposal that would impose a criminal offence on a vehicle owner who permits its use by an unaccompanied learner driver. This is the first time car owners would be held accountable in law for facilitating this practice. Under the new legislation, car owners would also be liable when they permit their car to be driven by someone who does not hold a driving licence. If prosecuted, vehicle owners could face up to a six-month prison sentence.
Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, also revealed his department was in talks with insurance providers about the “possibility of invalidating insurance for an unaccompanied learner driver involved in a collision”. At present, provisional drivers are statutorily obliged to be accompanied when driving by a person holding a full driving licence of at least two years’ standing.
The provision is one of a range of proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act (2016). The proposal was excluded from the Act when it was passed last year, due to a loophole in the wording which would have failed to create an offence where a person who does not possess a licence was permitted to drive a vehicle.
Dubbed the ‘Clancy Amendment,’ the proposed legislation arose from the tragic deaths of a Cork mother and daughter, Geraldine and Louise Clancy, who were involved in a collision three days before Christmas in 2015. The accident was caused by an unaccompanied learner driver. Minister Ross was petitioned by their husband and father, Noel Clancy, to implement the measure to reduce fatal road accidents caused by provisional motorists. There were 42 fatal collisions involving unaccompanied learners between 2012 and 2016.
The Minister also wants to empower Gardaí to seize cars driven by unaccompanied provisional licence holders on the spot, in another amendment to the Act. The new laws will apply to all motorists, including private, commercial and agricultural vehicles. Where a car owner alleges their vehicle was driven unaccompanied without their consent, the Minister indicated the Gardaí would have discretion to determine fault on a case by case basis.
Eight year old Zoe Scannell, of Abbeyfeale, Limerick, was fatally injured in a collision in June 2014 caused by an unaccompanied learner driver. Her mother, Alisha, welcomed any measure the Government could introduce to clamp down on such practice and make the roads safer. “Nobody deserves to lose a child, nobody deserves to lose anybody in a car accident,” she said. “Obviously the learner driver side affects me because if I hear of accidents involving learner drivers, I think that was our situation, that’s another family going through that.”
The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 would also strengthen the law regulating driving under intoxication. The new provisions would automatically disqualify a driver for three to six months if they test over the legal blood alcohol limit (currently 50mg, or 20mg for a learner driver), even if it is a first time offence.
The Minister for Transport declared the new penalties are aimed at dispelling the prevalent ‘nod and a wink’ attitude which may lead provisional licence holders to believe they are entitled to drive alone. Mr Ross stated learner drivers were up to five times more likely to be involved in a road accident. “I know [the new measures] will create difficulties for a lot of people, but the current situation is leading to deaths,” said the Minister. Under the proposed legislation, a learner driver will still receive the same amount of penalty points for driving unaccompanied (2, or 4 on conviction in court). A provisional motorist can receive a maximum of seven penalty points before facing disqualification and a six-month driving ban.
Noel Clancy was critical of delays in approving the new legislation, and called on Minister Ross to instill “a sense of urgency” in Government “before more people needlessly die at the hands of unaccompanied learner drivers.” The Bill is currently at Committee stage at the Oireachtas.
Kerry Independent T.D. Danny Healy Rae criticised the proposed measure, suggesting instead mandated ‘speed limiting devices’ for provisional drivers’ vehicles, like the kind currently used in trucks and buses. Healy Rae insisted that “a young fella” should be granted one chance before they were penalised.
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar encouraged the alternative, and reminded Healy-Rae he would have the chance to table the amendment to the Bill when it came before the house. However, Varadkar was insistent that the Dáil should not lose perspective. The Taoiseach underscored that since the 2016 Act amending driver legislation was passed thirteen learner drivers have died on Irish roads, eleven of whom were unaccompanied.
Government officials have also suggested Minister Ross will call for a minimum cycling distance to be introduced under the proposed amendments. If passed, motorists would be statutorily required to maintain a safe passing distance of at least 1.5 metres from cyclists on 50km/h or higher roads, or at least one metre where the speed limit is set under 50km/h. However, Department of Transport representatives have expressed doubts about the enforceability of the measure, maintaining it may be unworkable.