PAC Meeting | Thursday, 10 July 2014
An Garda Síochána: Road Traffic
Deputy John Deasy: I welcome the acting Garda Commissioner. My first question relates to notices issued for speeding offences which arrive in the post. In many of the cases that come before the courts, the reason for the summons is that no payment was received for the fine. In many cases, however, people state that they have not received the notice. Would it not be better for everyone involved if notices were sent by registered post, given that people take notice of registered post? This is a common sense measure which would save court time and has been suggested to me by serving gardaí several times in the past year.
Acting Garda Commissioner, Noirín O'Sullivan: This is one of the areas we are very conscious of. We mentioned it earlier when talking about the non-delivery of fixed charge notices. The criminal justice working group has been established to look at the recommendations from the fixed charge processing system inspectorate report, and that is a matter that has been prioritised by the working group in terms of the registered delivery of fixed charge notices. The change would be the introduction of a presumption of delivery via enactment of Part 3 of the 2010 Act. This would help address the issue and enable a speedier service.
John Deasy: Ms O'Sullivan expects that people will receive notices by registered post in the medium term.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Yes, I think so. Mr. O'Sullivan from the Department of Justice and Equality co-chairs the working group, so he could update the Deputy on the position in that regard.
Doncha O'Sullivan: The working group is looking at a provision in the 2010 Road Traffic Act which changes the presumption with regard to delivery. This would mean that if there was a certificate of delivery, the presumption in court would be that a person received it. He or she would then have to be able to provide active, positive evidence that he or she did not get it. The context is that at the moment the Garda must essentially prove that a person received the notice, which is impossible.
John Deasy: The working group is changing the burden of proof.
Doncha O'Sullivan: Yes; essentially, we are changing the burden of proof. The road tax office tells us that very few people contact it to say they did not receive a road tax disc in the post. It uses the same address that is used for serving fixed charge notices. The hope is that the burden will shift. The working group is looking at other reforms aimed at trying to address and improve this matter. The registered post issue can be considered in that context, but it is one of a number of issues that are being looked at.
John Deasy: What is the timeline for making this change?
Doncha O'Sullivan: The main timeline is linked to the introduction of what is known as the third payment option, an issue that will also be helped here. We hope we will be able to agree a plan to roll out the information technology required to implement the third payment option. While we might reach agreement on that this year - I hope it will be soon - there is a long lead time to deliver this IT plan. It would take at least a year to do that.
John Deasy: My next question relates to the number of road deaths, which are the main reason the witnesses are before the committee. The number of road deaths has increased in the past couple of years.
I want to bring the witnesses back a few weeks to when the Secretary General of the Department of the Transport, Tourism and Sport and representatives of the Road Safety Authority appeared before the committee. Perhaps this a question for the assistant Commissioner Mr. Twomey also. I asked a question about analysing causation and the reasons for road deaths. The example I used was the lowering of the maximum allowed blood alcohol level a couple of years ago in legislation. I was surprised that no analysis had been done by an organisation such as the Road Safety Authority when it comes to road fatalities. In the meantime, the committee has contacted the Road Safety Authority a few times. Given the increased number of checkpoints, more random breathalysing, more GoSafe cameras and the lowering of the blood alcohol limit, it seems obvious that one would analyse these measures and link them with road fatalities so that we can know what works and what does not. I am amazed that an organisation such as the Road Safety Authority does not conduct that kind of analysis on an ongoing basis. We pass legislation all the time, but in some cases I do not believe the evidence is behind it completely. I think the witnesses know where I am coming from. I wonder what kind of analysis the Garda Síochána conducts when it comes to an issue as serious as this.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Absolutely. There are a lot of complexities involved in the whole area of serious or fatal injuries in road collisions. If it would be helpful, I will invite Superintendent Con O'Donohue, who deals with the RSA on a regular basis in respect of this matter, to explain some of the issues I am raising.
Con O'Donohue: From 1 January 2014 we improved the data that is provided to the Road Safety Authority. A number of changes to the data that it had requested were rolled out as part of a project on 1 January 2014. This also means the RSA is getting the data in a more timely fashion than previously. Allied to that, on a regular basis, about every three or four years, the Road Safety Authority and its predecessors have come to look at a sample of Garda files. They get down and dirty in terms of the actual investigation files to see what they can elicit from those files in terms of the causation factors. Recently I met the RSA's research manager. There is a proposal to start another research project within the next couple of months. Our files are open at all times to the Road Safety Authority to come in and analyse them. It will be going to tender, as the RSA does not have the resources to carry out this significant job, which is exactly what the Deputy is saying - getting down and dirty into the files to see exactly what were the causation factors for particular accidents, whether it was a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol or drugs, speed, or the condition of vehicles. Currently, the RSA gets data from our PULSE system; essentially, the PULSE system records that a collision occurred and gives the headline issues. It always has that.
John Deasy: Let me break it down somewhat. Let us say there were 200 fatalities - I think the number was 190 in 2013. How many of those fatalities related to excessive blood alcohol? Is that information tracked by the organisation? It is fairly basic. I appreciate Mr. O'Donohue's response and what is being done. Of those 190 fatalities, how many of those were related to alcohol?
Con O'Donohue: Off-hand, I cannot tell the Deputy about the alcohol-----
John Deasy: Do you track that?
Con O'Donohue: It is recorded. In regard to seatbelts, I am aware that in 20% of the fatalities people were not wearing seatbelts.
Deputy John Deasy: Does Mr. O'Donohue know where I am coming from with this? This is basic stuff. I have been around here for 12 years, and I always think that some people legislate blindly because they do not have a clue. If the Garda Síochána and the Road Safety Authority do not know, how do legislators know what legislation to pass if it is not evidence-based in terms of what works and what does not work?
Con O'Donohue: I understand.
John Deasy: There is a big gap here.
Con O'Donohue: We certainly-----
John Deasy: It is clear from the number of road deaths ten years ago compared to the number today that there has been a massive drop, so some things definitely work and improvements have been made across the board. I still do not get why more analysis is not done when it comes to causation.
Noirín O'Sullivan: In terms of blood alcohol count, as I said at the outset, sometimes it can be difficult, particularly if people have been fatally injured in road collisions or require medical intervention very early on. That is a priority. Research is done by the Medical Research Bureau, also which has responsibility for analysing the blood alcohol content of samples. As Mr. O'Donohue has said, we see that speed is cause of many fatal road collisions and serious injury collisions; also, non-wearing of seat belts and the use of mobile phones. Coming into the autumn period, there is a lack of awareness by pedestrians in terms of dark clothing and stepping off footpaths. Sometimes cyclists wear earphones and iPods. There are many causation effects other than blood alcohol content, but that is being monitored.
John Deasy: I thank the acting Garda Commissioner for her response. Maybe I could ask Superintendent O'Donohue another obvious question. The number of road deaths increased from 162 in 2012 to 190 in 2013. What is the reason for the increase, given that we have made all these improvements? We are here to discuss the GoSafe system. More checkpoints have been put in place, as mentioned by the Road Safety Authority. What is the reason road deaths have increased by almost 30 in the year?
Con O'Donohue: There are a variety of contributing factors to most collisions, as alluded to by the acting Garda Commissioner. Some of them are very unusual. The Deputy mentioned that legislation was passed. The reduced blood alcohol limits, mandatory alcohol testing, the safety camera project and all the various initiatives taken in recent years have reduced the very high level of road deaths that obtained ten years ago.
John Deasy: I accept that.
Con O'Donohue: We are now at a stage at which the number of fatalities will bottom out. The best countries in the world, unfortunately, still have road fatalities. At some point the number will bottom out.
John Deasy: Fair enough.
Con O'Donohue: There will always be a blip. Sometimes they cannot be explained in terms of an overall trend. We were surprised that in 20% of the fatalities last year people were not wearing seatbelts. That is one that jumped off the page, with everyone asking, in this day and age, why 20% of people were not wearing seatbelts. Speed is still a factor. With the change in the economy, as things start to improve we are getting more vehicles on the road. I spoke to Road Safety Authority about that issue and asked if it is an issue we need to research. Would fuel sales indicate that we are getting more vehicles on the road and more mileage travelled? As a consequence, there is likely to be an increase in the number of deaths and serious injuries. The Road Safety Authority, which has a research function, has not come back to us on that yet, but it will. Certainly, we are working with the Road Safety Authority and the National Roads Authority on the engineering issues. All the time we are sharing and trying to get information. As to 2013, whether it was a blip or whether the number of fatalities is beginning to level out, we still have to keep striving the reduce the number. We are aware of the tragedy for families with one fatality, so we will never be satisfied. At the same time, we all know we will never reach zero, although that should be the ultimate aim.
John Deasy: I thank the superintendent.
The last set of crime figures showed that homicides had risen by 22.5%. The acting Garda Commissioner made a comment at the time in which she said the increase was not attributable to organised crime. Can she explain? To what does she attribute the increase?
Noirín O'Sullivan: Unfortunately, no more than for road deaths, any death is a death too many, no matter how it is caused. The increase in the homicides is not attributable to organised crime.
It is certainly attributable to a greater propensity to violence and "familial" interactions - I do not like using the term "domestic" - as opposed to other types of interactions such as organised crime. There is something to be done here in regard to responsible behaviour and awareness.
While the homicide rate is up this year, there is a detection rate of 67%, which I see as positive. I do not like to talk of homicide in these terms, because even one death is a death too many. We want to prevent deaths rather than detect them.
John Deasy: The acting Commissioner is basically making the case that society is becoming more violent.
Noirín O'Sullivan: Certainly there is more of a rush to violence not just in terms of deaths, but in terms of serious injury and people acting without thinking.