Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Questions (60)

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

60. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if there has been an improvement in disqualified drivers sending their licences to the RSA during the first two quarters of 2019; the measures he is undertaking to improve compliance and awareness of the role of the RSA in driver licences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29119/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Transport)

In my earlier question, I referred to information that came to me from the Courts Service regarding people in court for non-payment of fixed-charge notices for speeding, drink-driving and holding a mobile phone. The figures provided show that large numbers of drivers still do not have their drivers' licences recorded in court. For example, this year, 1,628 speeding offences were convicted, while the number of drivers' licences recorded upon conviction was only 566. The picture is similar for 2017 and 2018. When will the information flow between the courts, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and An Garda Síochána, become streamlined and efficient in order that An Garda Síochána will know who is disqualified?

Pretty soon. I am optimistic that it will not be too long.

There has not been an improvement in the number of disqualified drivers surrendering their licences to the Road Safety Authority during the first two quarters of 2019. Of the drivers with a court disqualification, the surrender rate is between 18% and 20%. Of the number of drivers with penalty point disqualifications, the surrender rate is 35%.

The requirement for a disqualified driver to surrender his or her licence is set out in the Road Traffic (Licensing of Drivers) Regulations 2006. Failure to comply with the requirement to surrender the licence is an offence in itself and enforcement of the law is a matter for An Garda Síochána.

I do not believe that the non-return of licences, unacceptable and illegal though it is, is the central issue. The number of disqualified drivers not returning their licences is not a proxy for the number of people who drive while disqualified. Some people will return their licences and still drive, others will not return their licences but will not drive. Therefore awareness of the role of the RSA is not the issue.

What we need to achieve compliance with the law is strong enforcement of the law against people driving while disqualified. In this context, the crucial legislative step was taken in the Road Traffic Act 2014, which empowered An Garda Síochána to arrest a person where it has reason to believe the person is driving while disqualified. The penalty for driving while disqualified is a fine of up to a maximum of €5,000 or a prison term of up to six months or both. The penalty for non-return of a driving licence is the general penalty under the Road Traffic Acts, namely, a fine of up to €1,000 for a first offence, up to €2,000 for a second offence, and up to €2,000 or up to three months in prison or both for a third or subsequent offence in a 12-month period.

I am aware that Garda authorities are working in order that details of specific drivers who are disqualified are readily available to members of the Garda on the ground. I understand that an initiative to that effect will be rolled out under the Garda modernisation and renewal programme 2016-2021. That programme sets out a pathway so that each member of the Garda has the technical tools that will give him or her direct access to all the information he or she needs as he or she interacts with the public on the ground.

The figures are pretty shocking. The Minister quoted the Road Traffic (Licensing of Drivers) Regulation 2006, which is SI 537 of 2006. It is quite clear what the penalties are. When I asked the Courts Service the number of disqualified drivers who were taken to court for not surrendering their licences during 2018, given that it is a criminal offence, I was informed that just eight were taken to court. I then asked about the sanctions handed down and was told most people were summonsed but no convictions are recorded of those eight. It is something that the Minister's Department, the Department of Justice and Equality the Courts Service do not seem to take seriously enough. We constantly hear these promises of action and that it will be clarified, the Commissioner reporting to the Committee on Public Accounts and to the Policing Authority. We are still waiting and there can be no argument that the number of those failing to comply with the surrender of licences is shocking. The Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality urgently need to address this issue.

I accept what the Deputy says; the figures are pretty awful. There is room for improvement and that is coming pretty rapidly. It is taking longer than I would have hoped to get all the information together so that the Garda can have immediate access to this information but I think it is coming very shortly. Drivers who are disqualified are required to return their licences to the RSA.

That is the first action they have to take. Some simply ignore that and many are not being pursued, as the Deputy correctly noted. The Department understands that the Garda initiative is at an advanced stage and that it will extract details of any drivers who have been disqualified and fail to surrender their licence for dissemination to local gardaí. As of 2014, gardaí have the power to arrest those suspected of driving while disqualified, which is an important tool in dealing with the dangerous behaviour of driving while disqualified. The Department is satisfied that current legislation is adequate, both in creating the offences along with the penalties prescribed therein, and that the necessary powers have been given to the Garda to deal effectively with the issue. The Garda mobility programme is within the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. I understand that the hand-held devices, which are the key to solving the problem, are at testing phase and, subject to satisfactory appraisal, are to be rolled out later this year. I agree with the Deputy that it cannot happen soon enough.

As we were told at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, An Garda Síochána is preparing a series of actions to address the non-surrender of licences, which, we have been told, will cover enforcement and public awareness. The Minister for Justice and Equality asked that a Garda report be provided on the matter. Is the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport involved in that? Is a collaborative report being done to ensure there will be a programme of action in that regard as soon as possible? As the Minister will know, part of the problem is that, due to the impact of the economic policies of the Government and the previous Government, only 704 members of An Garda Síochána were assigned to road policing at the end of March this year. Before the economic crash, as the Acting Chairman will recall, almost double that number of gardaí carried out this critical function.

I welcome the Minister's comments, given that we have heard that the hand-held devices work brilliantly in the Limerick Garda division. People are waiting. The Government spent an extra €342 million this year on Garda information and communications technology. We want to see those devices used by An Garda Síochána throughout the country as soon as possible.

I agree with the Deputy about that. I, too, want to see the devices working as soon as possible because I do not want to have to come before the House again and produce figures of that sort. I do not take direct responsibility for the figures but I am unhappy to have to give them to the House, although I will do so whenever Deputies want them. The figures indicate that drivers who do not hand in their licence while disqualified are, on the whole, not prosecuted. I do not know what the effect of that is but some of those people are still driving around. Handing in their licences might not make a blind bit of difference and they might continue to drive around, but they are committing an offence by not handing in the licence, which is in itself unacceptable. If people felt there was a certainty of being prosecuted, it might deter them.

I accept the Deputy's criticisms and that the initiative cannot come a day too early. There are additional gardaí in the traffic corps but not as many as we would like there to be. As he noted, 84 people have died on the roads this year. We should take any measures of the sort he mentioned that contribute towards saving the lives of people. The Deputy's pursuit of the issue is worthwhile and I hope it will bear fruit in the near future.

Question No. 61 replied to with Written Answers.