I thank the House for facilitating the introduction of this Bill at such short notice. Let me provide the rationale for introducing it.
The Bill involves technical amendments to existing road traffic legislation to close off issues relating to the endorsement of penalty points on driver licence records and contains a provision to address the implications of doing so.
While we will consider the very important matter of the implementation of the law and how it will work, first and foremost, the Bill deals with road safety. We want to build on the progress we have made in making our roads safer in recent years. While we have reduced the level of injury and loss of life, every life lost is one too many. Crucial to our efforts to reduce this loss of life and to make our roads safer is the integrity of the fixed charge notice and penalty points system. This is a core issue of the Bill.
Senators will recall that, in the Road Traffic Act 2014, which was passed by the Seanad earlier this year, we made provision for the adjustment of penalty points for certain offences. These included the endorsement of penalty points on the record of foreign driver licence holders and for the reduction of the disqualification threshold for learner and novice drivers from 12 to seven penalty points. As is normal with road traffic legislation, different sections of the Act were commenced at different times. Among the penalty points adjustments in the 2014 Act were provisions for bringing in the offences of using a vehicle without a valid NCT certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position into the fixed charge notice system, with the consequent endorsement of three penalty points on the person's licence record. I commenced the relevant sections of the 2014 Act for these and other adjusted penalty point offences with effect from 8 December 2014. Prior to commencement, these were straight to court offences attracting five penalty points on conviction. In other words, people who committed these offences could not avoid a court appearance by paying a fixed charge. This is an important point because some of the commentary on it could have created the impression that we were bringing in entirely new offences. In fact what we were doing was changing the penalty point regime in respect of those offences, to give people the option of paying a fixed charge notice and avoiding a court appearance.
When preparing the commencement order, an oversight in the legislation was detected in my Department. The 2002 Road Traffic Act, which first established the fixed charge notice and penalty points system, provided for the endorsement of the relevant number of penalty points on the records of those who made payment on foot of fixed charge notices for offences listed in the Schedule to the Act. It excluded from this provision the offences which were straight to court offences including using a vehicle without a valid NCT certificate and parking a vehicle in a dangerous position. When the 2014 Act was being drafted, these two offences should have been removed from the exclusions contained in the 2002 Act. If the Senators were to look at the table of offences in the 2002 Act, they would see in the section of the table that refers to these two offences a blank space. That is at the heart of the challenge we faced with this provision. When the 2014 Act was being drafted, these two offences should have been removed from the exclusions in the 2002 Act. Due to an oversight, this did not happen and I am proposing to rectify the position in this Bill. There are no implications from this oversight so long as it is closed by the provisions of this Bill. The other issue the Bill addresses also relates to the endorsement of penalty points.
Section 2 of the 2002 Road Traffic Act provides the basis on which penalty points can be endorsed on a person's record following the payment of a fixed charge under section 103 of the Road Traffic Act 1961. Section 8 of the 2014 Act amends section 2 of the 2002 Act by substituting a reference to section 37 or 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 for section 103 of the 1961 Act. So the 2014 Act anchored reference to the implementation of penalty points for fixed-charge notices in sections 37 or 44 of the 2010 Act. So the 2014 Act made direct reference to those two sections in the 2010 Act.
In other words, with the enactment of the 2014 Act, penalty points would be endorsed on payment of the fixed charge under those sections of the 2010 Act. Section 8 of the 2014 Act was commenced with effect from 1 August. Unfortunately, because sections 37 and 44 of the 2010 Act have not yet been commenced, the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act removes the power to endorse points on the licence record. That is the heart of the difficulty. The 2014 Act made reference to sections in the 2010 Act which actually had not been commenced.
Section 2 of the Bill seeks to address both of the issues to which I referred. The section also provides clarity where an offence has been committed but the appropriate penalty points associated with the offence have been increased before the fixed charge is paid. The section reflects the current practice of endorsing the number of penalty points that were applicable on the date the alleged offence took place.
The concern that arose when this error was detected was that there might be a question mark over the penalty points endorsed since 1 August following the payment of a fixed charge. I contacted the Office of the Attorney General on this point and have received comprehensive advice. The advice points out that the legal vacuum caused by the commencement of section 8 of the 2014 Act cannot be said to reflect the intention of the Oireachtas, which can be taken to have been that there would, at all points, be some mechanism for endorsing penalty points on the driving licences of persons choosing to make a fixed-charge payment in lieu of potential prosecution.
On the basis of the advice, I am satisfied that it is appropriate to provide that those penalty points that have been endorsed following the payment of fixed charges should be retained on licence records. The effect of section 3 of the Bill is that penalty points endorsed since 1 August following payment of a fixed charge are deemed to have been lawfully endorsed. I believe this is appropriate. The drivers involved will have received a fixed-charge notice for the alleged offences and will have made payment on foot of it.
The fixed-charge notice will also have advised the person of the number of penalty points that would be endorsed on their licence following payment. By paying the charge involved, therefore, the person accepted that penalty points would be endorsed on their licence. This concern applied only to drivers who had paid the fixed charge. The penalty points applied to drivers convicted by the courts were not affected as endorsement in these circumstances is provided for in a separate section of the 2002 Act.
For the information of the Senators, I propose to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage in section 3 on page 4 between lines 23 and 24. I will elaborate on it then, but the purpose of the amendment is to clarify that the section is not intended to infringe the constitutional rights of individuals.
When the fault in legislation was detected on the week before last, I instructed my Department immediately to cease issuing to drivers who had paid the fixed charge notifications that their licences would be endorsed. With the enactment of this Bill, endorsement of licences will recommence. However, in order to remove any doubt that the penalty points that were not endorsed in the two and a half week intervening period may be now applied, the Bill provides in section 3(b) for the endorsement of these points.
The fixed-charge notice and penalty-points system has played an important part in enhancing road safety and has been very effective, since its introduction in 2002, as part of a suite of measures in addressing safety concerns on our roads. The main objective of the penalty-points system is not to penalise but to raise awareness of unsafe practices, improve driver behaviour and, as a result, reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. The system is widely accepted by the public, as evidenced by the fact that over 70% of those served with a fixed-charge notice pay the stipulated amount without recourse to the courts.
The Bill I am presenting today provides a means of addressing inadvertent errors that took place in recent months. I am satisfied that enactment of the Bill will correct these errors and will provide, as is the previously stated will of the Oireachtas, a clear legal basis for the endorsement of penalty points when a fixed-charge payment has been made following a road traffic offence.
The provisions of the Bill will also ensure that penalty points endorsed following the payment of a fixed charge since 1 August will remain on the licence record. I again thank the Seanad for facilitating the Bill. I am sure Senators will appreciate the urgency of the matter and I commend the Bill to the House.