In-depth: Northern Ireland’s new Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill

12.00 | 20 January 2016 | | 5 comments

Tougher drink driving laws and a focus on newly qualified young drivers are the main features of a new Bill designed to improve road safety in Northern Ireland.

Last week (14 Jan), Road Safety News reported the passing of the new Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly, outlining in brief the measures included in the legislation.

The Bill, described as a “comprehensive package”, will see the introduction of lower drink drive limits and greater police powers for breath tests; and added restrictions on younger drivers, including night driving, longer learning periods and a new Graduated Driver Licensing scheme (GDL).

The implementation of the new arrangements will require further public consultation and an extensive programme of subordinate legislation.


Commenting on drink-driving, Mark Durkan, Northern Ireland’s environment minister, said: “What I have done in this Bill is to get to the root causes of the problem. That means tougher drink drive laws. It remains an unfortunate fact that some people think that they can continue to drink and drive.”

In relation to drink driving, the Bill provides for:

  • Two new Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limits: 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (i.e. 50mg/100ml) for most drivers and 20mg/100ml for learner and novice drivers and professional drivers.

  • The current drink drive limit in Northern Ireland is 80mg/100mls. This is a common limit applicable to all drivers, regardless of their licence status.

  • A new graduated penalty regime that will provide for fixed penalties for first offences at lower limits and continued court prosecution for high level first offences, or any second or subsequent offences.

  • Removal of the right for a driver to opt for a blood or urine sample to replace a breath sample in cases where the breath sample is marginally above the prescribed limit (commonly referred to as ‘the statutory option’).

  • Powers to enable police to establish, under “controlled circumstances”, roadside check-points where an officer can require a driver to take a breath test.

  • Automatic referral of offenders to a course for drink drive offenders unless a District Judge decides that attendance would be inappropriate. While an offender may be referred automatically, attendance will remain voluntary.

Young drivers

Young drivers have long been flagged up as a cause for concern as they are over represented in casualty statistics. Mr Durkan said: “The objective is to prepare new drivers to become a safe driver for life – rather than simply pass their test.”

The Bill provides for:

  • A six-month mandatory minimum learning period; the provisional licensing age will remain at 17yrs but combined with the six-month minimum period, the full licensing age will effectively rise to 17½yrs.

  • The completion of a programme of training, to be evidenced by an Approved Driving Instructor (ADI)/ supervising driver via a compulsory student logbook.

  • Removal of the 45mph restriction on learner and restricted drivers – which will enable learner drivers to take lessons on motorways when accompanied by an ADI in a dual-controlled car.

  • The introduction of time-bound restrictions (between the hours of 11pm and 6am) on carrying more than one young passenger (aged 14 to 20yrs) for drivers under the age of 24yrs during the first six-months post-test.

  • The passenger restriction does not apply to immediate family members (of any age) or to passengers for whom the driver is entitled to receive carer’s allowance.

  • The passenger restriction will also not apply if an accompanying person is present in the front passenger seat aged 21yrs or older, who has held a full licence for three years or more; or if the vehicle is being “used for emergency purposes” such as fire and rescue, ambulance and police.

Reaction from stakeholders

Road Safety GB described the Bill as ‘encouraging’.

Honor Byford, chair of Road Safety GB, said: “As road safety professionals we are aware that to continue with the reduction of casualties we will need to be evidence led, flexible and innovative.

“It is encouraging to see that this new set of legislation is all of those and we will be watching with interest for positive outcomes over future months. We particularly support the lowering of the drink drive limit, with a lower threshold for professional and novice drivers.”

RoSPA welcomed the Bill, and in particular the measures to improve the safety of young drivers.

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety for RoSPA, said: “Young drivers are more likely to be involved in road accidents than experienced drivers, and yet they drive fewer miles.

“We commend the government in Northern Ireland for taking this important step in trying to save lives on the road, and we would like to see similar measures introduced across the UK. There is scope to reduce, significantly, the number of casualties caused by new and inexperienced drivers.”

The RAC has also welcomed the new road safety measures, focusing on the reduced drink drive limit.

David Bizley, RAC chief engineer, said: “The RAC warmly welcomes news that new road safety measures have been passed today by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Northern Ireland will now follow Scotland, which reduced its drink drive limit in December 2014 in having a drink drive level more on par with countries in Europe.

"If the lower limits in Northern Ireland and Scotland result in fewer road traffic accident casualties, the UK Government should follow suit and adopt the lower limit across the England and Wales."
He added: “The introduction of a new Graduated Driver Licensing Scheme is also a positive move in an effort to improve the skills of young drivers and to cut the number of young drivers involved in road traffic collisions."


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    The proposed lowering of the BAC limit to 50mg will not address the problem without appropriate year round enforcement by PSNI.

    Peter Morrtis Wilson Northern Ireland
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Legislators won’t be happy with the new lower limit of 50 no doubt they will in time push to drop everyone to 20. Alcohol affects different people in different ways and a sobriety test would in my opinion make more sense.

    Simon Cooke
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Some interesting ideas here. Let’s hope that some of the changes are being tested in NI prior to an appearance in the rest of the UK.

    David, Suffolk
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Another main feature of the bill is that Quad (quadricycles) bike users will have to wear helmets on the public roads.

    Trevor Baird – France
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Road Zero Group Ltd. totally support this bill. Rather than just changing laws it has attempted to address the main problems on N.I. roads. Hopefully we will see a reduction in accidents and fatalities on the roads, a strong step towards Road to Zero.

    Gordon Finlay, Co. Down N.I.
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

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