The new cleaned-up penalty point regime has passed its first test. Yesterday, the Department of Justice published the first report from the Independent Oversight Authority, which is charged with keeping an eye on the system. The report finds that much has improved, but a couple of areas still require attention if the penalty points system is to obtain the confidence of all citizens.
Some senior public figures such as Alan Shatter and former garda commissioner must wish they’d never heard of penalty points, such was the impact of the story on their respective careers. But it is now obvious that, but for the work of Sergeant Maurice McCabe and former garda John Wilson, the system would continue to be abused, roads rendered less safe, and revenue lost to the State.
The oversight authority was one of a number of measures introduced in 2014 to clean up the system. This followed revelations over two years that showed senior gardaí were having fixed charge notices (FCN) wiped on a whim and many a dodgy excuse.
Appointing an oversight authority was an admission that somebody outside the force was now required to ensure that the dodgy stuff came to a halt. The office of the authority is occupied by Judge Matthew Deery. His report finds that there is now “substantial compliance” with policy. In other words, some senior gardaí are no longer diving into Pulse to wipe choice notices from the system.
The report does state that there remains two areas of concern. The first is a “substantial number of FCNs returned ‘undelivered An Post’ . This is of some concern and has already been highlighted by the Professional Standards Unit,” the report states.
It beggars belief that the addresses of vehicle owners cannot be located in this day and age. One possibility is that a friendly postman here and there might recognise the notice from the envelope, tip off the addressee, and quietly bring the offending document back to base, undelivered.
When an individual officer issues the notice and it is returned he reissues it, which often makes it through the letterbox second time round. When it is issued after a detection by the Go Safe vans, which now account for a major component of speed detection, it would appear that the returned notice sits on a shelf. Some who know their way around the system may be relying on such an eventuality.
The other outstanding issue is the one discovered during the investigations in 2014. Gardaí detected for penalty points while driving their personal vehicle accounted for a large proportion of the cancelled notices.
Now all such detections must be referred to the DPP. The DPP, in turn, must be satisfied that the incident occurred when the driver was performing his duties and that his actions did not endanger life.
According to Judge Deery: “This procedure was followed in each case reviewed by me.”
Questions remain. For instance, why does the officer not have to demonstrate that he was responding to an emergency when detected speeding? If a garda speeds down to the shop for a sandwich, he is on duty and therefore qualifies for a cancellation. Why does the offender not have to demonstrate that he was actually responding to some form of an emergency, which would be the only occasion on which it would be necessary to break the speed limit?
This issue was raised in the Dáil recently by Sinn Féin justice spokesman Pádraig MacLochlainn. He referred to information in his possession which showed that a garda superintendent had nine FCN cancelled over a period of two years, all on the basis that he was driving his own car while on duty.
An officer of the rank of superintendent is rarely required to respond to an emergency. That one apparently found himself in that situation nine times in two years, all while he was driving his own vehicle, sounds pretty far-fetched.
Mr MacLochlainn has informed the Garda Inspectorate of what he sees as an anomaly in policy.
“My concern is that we have a situation where some gardaí are availing of a loophole in the law,” he said. “It’s particularly audacious that a superintendent could get nine fixed charge notices and end up with no penalty points. Unless he was driving to work and saw a crime being committed how would he have been responding to an emergency?” MacLochlainn intends to raise the matter with the Garda Authority.
Apart from that, the system is working much better than it was before the whole controversy blew up.