Breathalysers not ready to enforce new drink-driving laws in Northern Ireland
New plans to tackle drink-driving in Northern Ireland are being delayed by a year - because new breathalyser units are not ready yet.
It will mean an almost two-year gap between new drink-drive limits being agreed by the Assembly and finally being implemented on the roads.
A senior Stormont official said: "It is fair to say that we had hoped that there would not be this delay; we hoped that the devices would be available.
"Realistically, it could be 12 months, but we are looking at ways of accelerating that."
Top civil servant Donald Starritt was responding to questions from Ulster Unionist MLA Jenny Palmer and Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong and said his office had been in contact with the Department of Justice and the Home Office in London.
"They hope to be fairly close to getting an approved device quite soon, but it needs to be tested. Their testing process is about six or seven months. We need to be 100% sure that the equipment and processes we use are defensible and reliable," he added.
Mrs Armstrong, who had a 26-year-old cousin killed by a drunk driver on the Ards Peninsula in June 2012, said: "It is disappointing that there is going to be this delay. I would have liked to see these devices come on stream earlier."
Danielle McKenna was knocked down in the early hours between Kircubbin and Portaferry by a driver who was three times over the limit and had known her at school.
Mrs Armstrong, standing for election again in the Strangford constituency, said: "It devastated her mum and dad. She was an only child. It devastated the whole family. It certainly has meant I have no tolerance for drink driving. But it is important the tests are reliable so that no one is prosecuted unfairly."
Last night the Ulster Unionists called on Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard to take urgent action.
Mrs Palmer, who is standing again in Lagan Valley, said: "I am deeply anxious by the long delay in developing and putting into service the new breathalysers.
"These devices are vital in putting the new drink driving legislation into place. This delay is extraordinarily serious - every single day delays is another potential offender who goes unpunished. Every single individual who gets away with drink driving is another potential fatality.
"I appreciate there are technical and material concerns regarding these breathalysers. However, I believe that the minister needs to urgently prioritise this.
"In the meantime, I wish to reiterate in the strongest possible terms to everyone, never drink and drive."
The proposals include a new graduated penalty regime, with new fixed penalties for lower-level offences.
There will be two new lower drink-drive limits: 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood for the typical driver and a lower limit of 20mg for learner and novice drivers and some professional drivers. But new police powers for dedicated drink-drive checkpoints, introduced just before Christmas, are to continue during this entire year.
A Departmental statement said: "The current breath testing equipment used by the PSNI is not suitable for testing at the new lower limits.
"New equipment is therefore needed and this requires 'type approval' from the Home Office. At this stage, however, a date for the introduction of the new arrangements cannot be confirmed."