MATT COOPER: TDs’ concerns over penalty point issue need to be addressed

WELL done to Independent TDs Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, and Joan Collins for trying to perform a public service in the Dáil this week.

The four tried as best they could to highlight what seems to be a scandal, on the basis of the information available to date: The “termination” or quashing of penalty points delivered to errant motorists, apparently on the basis of who they are or the power or influence that they hold over senior members of the gardaí.

The four are in possession of information that suggests that as many as tens of thousands of people have benefited from having such penalty points terminated. The benefits are many; among other things it prevents an increase in the price of insurance and reduces the chances of accumulating sufficient points to lose a driving licence for a period of time. Those who get penalty points have good reason to want to be rid of them.

The information that the four have tried to introduce into the public domain has been available to the Department of Justice, the Road Safety Authority, and gardaí for some months now, having been presented by two whistleblowers from within the force, who were outraged by what they say as an abuse of power. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has asked a senior colleague, his assistant John O’Mahoney, to conduct an investigation. An interim report has been prepared and sent to Alan Shatter, the justice minister.

And yet the four politicians were shut down in the Dáil on Tuesday, apparently because they were not “in order” in how they tried to raise the issue. They were warned not to name names, for fear of defamation, but that didn’t stop them getting Judge Mary Devin’s name into the public record.

It should be noted that there are reports that a number of judges have been beneficiaries of such Garda generosity.

According to one report, one judge has had penalty points terminated three times. However, there is nothing to suggest that the judge in question got in touch with gardaí to ask for the points to be removed, and it is possible that somebody else was driving that judge’s car. The records, which have been seen by one newspaper which has declined to name the miscreant, show that the judge’s car was recorded speeding two days in succession this year, once at twice the legal speed limit — 101km/h in a 50km/h zone — and the following day at 90km/h in the same location. On another occasion the car was detected apparently doing 74km/h in a 60km/h zone.

It has been reported that the comment section to explain why the offence has been terminated has been left blank in the records for two offences. In the third incident, the words “discretionary other” were entered on the computerised records. And

It has been alleged also that a “high-profile GAA figure” had his points terminated three times this year, and four times in all, including two offences recorded in a three-day period. A former Irish rugby international has been fingered as well, apparently, along with a prominent journalist and a well-known broadcast figure from RTÉ and a former Fine Gael councillor. The RTÉ figure and the rugby player were both were reportedly both recorded at speeds of 150km/h in a 120km/h zone.

It has been suggested that the investigation may be relatively easy for the gardaí to conduct, although you might think that it was a case immediately for the Ombudsman to investigate where it not for the allegation by Daly that members of that office may have also benefited from the terminations. The beauty of computers is that they often leave a comprehensive trail of evidence for investigation; there is good reasons to believe that not just details of those who benefited from the terminations exist, but that in many cases the reasons have been logged and the identity of the gardaí who took the action. The much criticised Garda Pulse computer system may have had some virtues after all.

It has to be feared, however, that the investigation will be limited, that an attempt will be made to imply that it has happened only in one part of the country and with just one garda responsible. Attention has focused on a superintendent in a rural district of the country. You would have to suspect that such behaviour has been going on for years and in all parts of the country, among a relatively large number of gardaí.

Penalty points were introduced 10 years ago and now cover 48 offences. It is an excellent system that forces drivers to engage in better behaviour on the roads. Unfortunately, education campaigns simply do not work as they should in persuading people to slow down, paying more attention to what they are doing, and keeping their cars in roadworthy shape. The stick of penalty points is needed.

There are times, of course, when a garda might exercise common sense and discretion to strike out points. For example, a friend of mine this week needed to drive in a manner that defied many rules of the road. His infant daughter had stopped breathing as he rushed her to a hospital. As it happens nobody in authority stopped him, but if they had, they would surely have provided him with an escort.

Thankfully, the & baby has since recovered. And for that very reason it is allowed for gardaí at superintendent rank and above to delete points if they are satisfied that the offence was committed for a good reason. But there is a way to do this, through official channels. There should be a written request or it should be done in open court. It does not seem that this happened in some of the cases under investigation or that the excuses given were legitimate.

DALY’S intention on Tuesday was to name public officials and celebrities who allegedly had points erased from their driving records. The only criticism I would make of that approach is to note that others who she did not plan to name may have been equally guilty of leaning on gardaí and of benefiting for all sorts of local and family reasons. Getting off the hook because you are the brother-in-law of a garda, for example, is no better than doing so because you are a well-known sportsman.

The reaction to Daly’s efforts has been interesting. Some have condemned her for doing this while being silent on the issue of Mick Wallace’s Vat returns. While she should have been vocal in her condemnation of that, she should not be stopped from raising other important issues. (Wallace, for his part, is pushing his luck a bit by shouting about corruption and demanding investigations and claiming that honest gardaí are being undermined).

Others have argued that the penalty points system itself is not fit for purpose, particularly when there is what is described as a crazy system of setting road speed limits across the country. My problem with many of those speed limits is that they are too high so I have no sympathy for those who incur points by going even faster.

We need to trust our gardaí to act properly, not to abuse their authority, and to treat everyone equally when it comes to enforcement of the law. I look forward to hearing from the garda commissioner as to what he intends doing to support Daly and her colleagues.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm


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