Statement from AA Ireland to Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht

Statement from AA Ireland to Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht

19th September 2012

AA Ireland

AA Ireland has grown from being Ireland’s premier motoring organisation into one of its leading Consumer services businesses. We provide emergency rescue for people in the Home and on the road, as well as providing insurance for over 200,000 Irish customers. We specialise in Home, Motor and Travel Insurance, and we attend in the region of 140,000 car break downs every year, 80% of which are fixed on-the-spot.

The AA puts information into the consumer’s hands. Our AA Roadwatch service provides up to the minute traffic and travel data through live broadcasts, online and social media. Our website is packed with consumer information about the Home, the Car and Travel matters. Our online RoutePlanner provides over 12 million detailed routes per year for Irish users. 

The AA is also a campaigning organisation. From our heritage representing motorists to our 21st century role, the AA researches consumer needs and champions those needs. The AA employs 480 people across Ireland in its growing team.

Introduction

Ireland’s penalty points system has been a success story. Since it was introduced in October of 2002 it has enjoyed widespread support from motorists and has been one of the key policies, along with improvements in enforcement, engineering and social attitudes, which has underscored the remarkable progress that we have made as a nation in improving road safety.

I had been personally very involved in the AA’s campaign to have a points system introduced and we had a number of meetings with the then-Minister Seamus Brennan to persuade him of the idea. I think it appropriate in this forum to pay tribute once again to the late Seamus Brennan. He was terrific, and pushed through their introduction when lots of others wanted to delay.

We are so used to the system now that it is hard to remember what it was like beforehand. Now that it has been ten years the current Minister Leo Varadkar, helped by this committee, is conducting a review and is proposing some changes.

If agreed these would make the punishment more severe for common offences like speeding or phone use. Does this make sense and should motorists support it?

Success of the current system

As I said, the points system has been a success story. In fact it has worked brilliantly. Road deaths have halved in the last decade. We also know from the data that when a driver gets 2 penalty points it changes their behaviour.

A driver with 4 points is statistically less likely to get caught again than someone who is points-free. Only 3 per cent will go on to get 6 or more points, and the number who have chalked up 12 points and a disqualification is tiny – only about 200.

The ‘yellow card’ system works. So it begs the question, if it is not broken why fix it?

One reason is that it would make our system look very similar to the one that exists in the UK.  There is some merit to this. Moving a speeding offence up to three points would make our system the same as the one in Northern Ireland which will help towards future mutual recognition.

Motorists support penalty points but often feel hard-done by when they receive them

The AA talks to motorists more than any other organisation in Ireland. We have nearly 200,000 members and we deal with them daily. In addition to caring for their cars the AA also engages with the motoring public to get their views on matters related to motoring, transport, safety, taxation and a range of other motoring consumer issues.

The AA carries out regular opinion surveys by email via our AA Motorists Panel. These surveys provide a key insight into what ordinary drivers feel about the issues. Our survey regularly yields more than 12,000 completed questionnaires, with detailed comments from participants.

When asked about Penalty Points there is very widespread public support. Nearly 17% of Irish drivers have penalty points on their record currently*. The vast majority of those have only 1 or 2 points on their licence. This would seem to indicate a penalty points system that is working effectively. Drivers who have received one warning are far more likely to moderate their behaviour. The numbers of drivers with multiple points incidents is extremely small, and the RSA reports that only 162 drivers (out of a licensed population of 2.6 million) are actually off the road at the moment with a points total exceeding 12.

Fig. 1 Considering the last occasion on which you received penalty points, if ever, to what extent did you consider the circumstances to be fair? (Based on 4,081 responses from motorists who had received penalty points from the total sample of 22,015 responses, February 2011)

Perfectly fair 23.5%
Reasonably fair 22.9%
Neutral 5.2%
Somewhat unfair 28.7%
Very unfair 19.7%

The AA Motorists’ Panel survey of March 2010 showed that Motorists who receive penalty points are often inclined to be unhappy with the circumstances. Slightly more than half of the 4,000 who responded to the question (50.6%) felt that the circumstances in which they had been given penalty points were either somewhat unfair or very unfair. Females seem more likely to regard themselves as having been caught fairly than their male counterparts. Only 41% of females, as opposed to 55.5% of males, felt that they had been given points in unfair circumstances.

The AA also received nearly 400 individual comments by respondents about penalty points. Analysis shows that while motorists are generally supportive there is cynicism about penalty points and often believe they are merely a source of revenue rather than a road safety measure. Poorly set Speed Limits appears to still remain the biggest issue for penalty points. Also complained of were Roadworks, unclear signs catching motorists out and hidden Garda check points.

This unfairness may be in the eye of the beholder, but this is still a concern. We cannot have a motoring population that is too cynical about road safety enforcement and it is clear that there is a big ongoing communication challenge for the Garda, the RSA and the Government in this regard.

* This only applies to holders of Irish Driving licences. Published RSA data shows that in approximately 1/3 of all cases, penalty points cannot be applied to the licence because it is not an Irish licence or because a Driver Number is not available. This is an ongoing concern that the AA has raised with government.

Speeding – Bad Speed Limits must be fixed before speeding sanctions can be increased

The Department is suggesting that speeding should become more than one offence. Exceed the limit by a small margin and you will be in a different category to the driver that hurtles through a 60kph zone doing a 100.

While this is a reasonable proposal the AA believes that cannot be done yet. Before any change can be contemplated we have to make sure that speed limits are set properly and we are a long way from that. The country is littered with limits that are too high, too low or just plain ridiculous.

This has got to be fixed, once and for all, before we can increase the punishment for drivers. This point is accepted by the current Minister and by his department.

The AA carried out a survey of poorly set speed limits earlier this year and at our prompting the Department is reviewing speed limits as we speak. The AA is taking part in that process and it is accepted that they cannot make speeding punishments worse before that task is complete.

Other offences might seem more straightforward. Using a mobile phone could get you four points, not wearing a seatbelt could get you six.

Phone use – an intractable behaviour which most motorists want to see severely punished

Motorists support tougher penalties for mobile phone use. In fact car users state when asked that they favour very severe punishments for the offence. Over 60% believe it should attract a higher number of penalty points and a higher fine.

Fig 2: AA Motorists Panel Survey May 2011:  Whether or not AA Poll respondents would be in favour of any of the following penalties being introduced to penalize those caught using their mobile phones while driving.   (Based on 16,114 responses).

  Agree completely Agree somewhat Neutral Disagree somewhat Disagree completely
I believe phone use should incur more than 2 penalty points 40.7% 17.7% 14.7% 14.3% 13.1%
I believe phone use should incur a higher fine that the current €60 47.1% 18.9% 12.4% 10.7% 11.3%
I believe the current punishment to be sufficient 19.5% 20.0% 14.7% 20.8% 25.8%
I believe that drivers who are caught using a mobile phone should be put off the road 8.0% 9.5% 11.5% 24.7% 46.8%

Despite this hostility towards those who use their phones while driving, it is clear that it is an ingrained habit for many of us.  53.8% of motorists surveyed in the AA’s Poll of January 2011 admitted to using a handheld mobile phone at least occasionally while driving.  This figure represents an increase of 3.4% since May 2009 when the AA last posed the question to motorists.  

Following this upward trend, the number of motorists’ texting while driving also appears to have risen.  40.7% of the 22,000 motorists who participated in the AA Motor Insurance last January said they at least occasionally text while driving, up 8.4% since May 2009.  9.3% of drivers surveyed also admitted to surfing the web via their Smartphone while in charge of a vehicle. 

Fig. 3 – Frequency with which motorists surveyed admitted to doing the following activities while driving (based on 22,015 responses, February 2011)

  Daily Regularly Seldom Occasionally Never
Use a handheld mobile phone 1.6% 5.9% 10.7% 35.6% 41.1%
Send a text 1.3% 4.4% 8.7% 26.3% 53.6%
Use a Smartphone to look up the internet 0.5% 1.2% 2.2% 5.4% 73.5%

Texting while driving is slightly more common among female motorists, with 43.3% saying they commit the offence at least occasionally compared with 38.9% of men.  Inversely, male motorists are more likely to go online via their Smartphone.  11.2% of men surveyed said they were guilty of this compared with 6.5% of women.   

So while drivers engage in the practice very commonly it is almost universally accepted that it should attract a harsh punishment. Indeed, 17.5% of drivers say that they would favour a driving ban for those who are caught.

This does seem a little severe to the AA. I have said before that we have to be very careful interfering with the points system because Insurance companies use penalty points to decide how much to charge motorists. We have to make sure that points remain directly related to accident risk.

It would not make sense to be so harsh that a single, simple offence puts any driver into the ‘high risk’ insurance category. For the public to continue to support the system it has to stay fair and proportionate.

Recognising this, the AA would recommend that the sanction for phone use should move to 3 points, not 4, and that consideration should be given to more severe sanctions for second and subsequent offences.

Points-swapping

Something that the AA has also observed both its role of motoring advocate and motor insurance provider is the illegal practice of swopping penalty points.   

While not a huge percentage, 2% of the motorists polled by AA Motor Insurance indicated that they have been asked by another driver, typically a close friend or family member, to accept penalty points on their behalf.   Of this group, a number of people said they’d obliged for various reasons including preventing that person from being disqualified from driving, helping them to avoid the knock on effects it would have on their livelihood or to simply help them to avoid increased motor insurance premiums.

Penalty Points must be for Road Safety purposes only

The AA believes that the penalty points system should not be used for any purpose other than road safety. One of the problems with penalty points is in a sense that they work so well and hence the temptation to miss-use them. The system enjoys very widespread public support at least in part because it concentrates exclusively on road safety.

No doubt penalty points would be very effective for enforcing other things. I would imagine that if you could get points for smoking, littering, or other non-safety related behaviours it would be a great incentive.

However if road safety law is hi-jacked for other purposes then it will very soon lose both its effectiveness and its public support.

Penalty points are used by insurers as a method to assess each driver’s risk and charge accordingly which is fair to all motorists, at least in principle.

Adding non-safety related offences would over time lead to a disconnect between points status and collision risk. This would dilute the effectiveness of penalty points for insurers, and that would mean less fairness in the way that motorists are charged.

Conclusion

The penalty points system is currently working effectively and any changes to it should be incremental and evolutionary rather than a whole-sale redesign. While motorists broadly support increased sanctions for key offences, especially phone use, we would advise against making penalties disproportionately severe even where such a move would find favour with drivers.

Penalty points must remain proportionate to the safety risk presented by the behavior in order to retain long-term relevance for insurers and long-term public support.

The AA is happy to support adjustments to the system that reflect these concerns.

ENDS