“There is no doubt in my mind that for a lot of drivers the first instinct when they receive a penalty points notice in the post is to contact a lawyer,” says Conor Faughnan, AA Director of Consumer Affairs.
Comedian Dara O’Brian does a good routine on explaining Irish laws to the British. He tells of three categories: “You’re grand”, “Ah now don’t push it” and finally, “You’re taking the p**s!” – which is where the law starts to care.
Like most satire it works as humour because there is more than a grain of truth in it. For road traffic offences, it is far too often the case that a loop hole or a sob story can see you walk out of court unpunished for offences that are supposed to be very clear in law.
Ireland introduced penalty points for driving offences in 2002. I remember it well because the AA had lobbied very strongly for it. We knew that it was supported by motorists and we knew that it was system that would save lives.
Before I start giving out about the parts that don’t work properly, I would acknowledge the parts that do. There is no doubt that the system overall has contributed to a better driving culture and that we have made major progress since then.
In 2001 there were 411 people killed on the roads. Last year the number was 166. No matter how cynical you are those are convincing numbers. We also know that a driver who has been given penalty points once is less likely to get them again so the ‘yellow card’ system works.
When you ask drivers if they support measures like the use of speed cameras a large majority report that they do. There are people who believe that it’s just a money-making racket but for the most part drivers are in favour.
Until of course you are the one that is caught.
If you are detected speeding, using a phone or not wearing a seat-belt the most honest thing that you can do is ‘fess up and take your punishment on the chin. The other option though is to deny it and take your chance in court.
The AA certainly accepts that there are mistakes made, there are drivers who are accused in the wrong and there absolutely must be a court option in the interests of natural justice.
But there are also those who reckon they have goods odds is if they roll the dice and go to court.
In a lot of cases road traffic offences are pretty clear. For speeding for example unless it actually is mistaken identity and the wrong driver summonsed you would think that it should be open and shut.
There is no doubt in my mind that for a lot of drivers the first instinct when they receive a penalty points notice in the post is to contact a lawyer. They are not asking or even thinking about whether or not they were actually guilty of the offence; they are thinking only about how to avoid getting points.
In 2014 there were over 65,000 penalty point offences that came before the District Court. Over 26,000 of them were struck out.
In a lot of cases the reasons seem to be quite arbitrary. We hear stories of drivers who turn up to plead all sorts of excuses with varying and apparently random degrees of success. If the number of penalty points notices that got lost in the post is actually true then an post has a lot to answer for.
Will you be lucky or will you not? It can be very arbitrary, the mood of the judge on the day has a big effect. Is he grumpy this morning, is she handing out fines, left right and centre?
There are counties where you get to pay a few bob into the poor box (even though the High Court recently stated this should not be done) and counties where that is never an option.
It all feels there is an element of the dog ate my homework.
That is a huge amount of wasted effort and cost in the systems – enough to pay for a lot of extra Gardaí for example.