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New laws to cut road deaths welcome but more can be done, says campaigners

By Linda Stewart

Published 14/01/2016

Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan who has released the findings of the Christopher Mills Report into waste disposal at Campsie and Mobuoy outside Derry. Picture Martin McKeown. 18.12.68
Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan who has released the findings of the Christopher Mills Report into waste disposal at Campsie and Mobuoy outside Derry. Picture Martin McKeown. 18.12.68

New laws aimed at cutting deaths on Northern Ireland's roads do not go far enough, campaigners have warned.

The new legislation, which has passed its final stage at the Assembly, will tackle drink-driving by cutting the blood alcohol limit from its current level of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. Instead, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has announced there will be two new lower limits - 50mg for most drivers and 20mg for learner and novice drivers and professional drivers.

The new Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill will introduce tougher drink driving laws, stronger police powers for breath tests, night restrictions on young drivers carrying passengers and a minimum period for learning to drive before taking the test.

It brings in a new graduated penalty scheme where the penalty for an individual offence reflects the amount of alcohol involved. It also gives the police powers to establish roadside checkpoints to provide for more routine breath checking.

Drink-driving offenders will automatically be referred onto an approved course unless a District Judge decides attendance would be inappropriate.

However, attendance will remain voluntary.

The Bill also removes the right of the driver to ask for a blood or urine sample to replace a breath sample in cases where the breath sample is marginally above the prescribed limit.

It introduces a mandatory six-month minimum learning period for learner drivers and the introduction of a programme of training, to be evidenced by a logbook.

It removes the current 45mph restriction for learner and restricted drivers, allowing lessons to be taken on motorways for the first time when accompanied by an approved driving instructor in a dual-controlled car.

The Bill also introduces a time-bound passenger restriction for new young drivers for the first six months after they pass their test. The restriction of being able to carry only one young passenger aged 14 to 20 will apply between the hours of 11pm and 6am.

Road safety charity Brake welcomed the changes, but said it would prefer the lower 20mg/100ml blood alcohol limit to be introduced for all drivers.

The group says 74 people lost their lives on Northern Ireland's roads last year and the new legislation is a vital tool as the region strives for the goal of not one person killed on its roads.

Brake's director of campaigns and communications Gary Rae said: "This is a Bill designed to save lives and we welcome it. The reduction of the drink drive alcohol limit to 50mg/100ml for all drivers and 20mg/100ml for those newly qualified will help save more lives.

"We would prefer the lower limit to be enforced for all drivers, but this is a step in the right direction."

Young drivers are three times more likely to be killed on the roads in Northern Ireland and four times more likely to be responsible for fatal crashes than drivers over 25. The Bill has passed its final stage at the Assembly and is expected to become law within weeks.

Mr Durkan said: "Last year 74 people lost their lives on our roads. We cannot, if at all possible, let this carnage continue.

"What I have done in this Bill is to get to the root causes of the problem. That means tougher drink drive laws. That means ensuring our new drivers are better drivers. That means putting less young people at risk in the hands of novice drivers.

"It remains an unfortunate fact that some people think that they can continue to drink and drive. I believe that the introduction of lower limits, more routine checking and proportionate penalties represents an effective deterrent."

The minister said a person will now need to be at least 17-and-a-half before getting a full driving licence.

"They will also have to demonstrate that they have undertaken driving on a range of road types, coping with different speed limits and at different times of the day. The objective is to prepare new drivers to become a safe driver for life - rather than simply pass their test," he said.

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