Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Wednesday, 25 Jan 2006

Road Safety: Presentation.

I welcome the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Noel Conroy, the assistant commissioner, Mr. Eddie Rock, and Superintendent Declan O'Brien. A statement from the Commissioner, including information on drink driving cases, has been circulated.

I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but that this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are also reminded that members of the Garda Síochána, while giving evidence to a committee, may not question or express an opinion on the merits of any Government policy or policy objectives and may not produce or send to a committee any document in which a civil servant, member of the Defence Forces or member of the Garda Síochána questions or expresses an opinion on the merits of any Government policy or policy objectives.

I propose that we hear a short presentation from the Commissioner and that this be followed by a question and answer session. On behalf of the committee, I sincerely thank the Commissioner for coming before us at relatively short notice. In light of the extent of the problem with road fatalities, the committee is anxious to hear the position of the Garda Síochána at this time, although we recognise that members of the public will often criticise politicians, gardaí and others for their own wrongdoing.

Commissioner Noel Conroy

I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to attend this meeting, which I was happy to accept.

For some time, in furtherance of Government policy, road safety has been a priority for the Garda Síochána. Two of our strategic goals identified for critical action in the period 2005-07 are to achieve a reduction in the incidence of fatal and serious injury collisions and an improvement in traffic flow. Road traffic enforcement is one of the specific policing priorities for 2006, underpinned in the current Garda Síochána policing plan. This policing plan sets challenging targets, including the following: the traffic corps will spend 20% of duty time patrolling single lane carriages at collision prone locations; the force will increase arrest rates for driving while intoxicated by 15% in 2006; the traffic corps will spend 30% of duty time on speed enforcement; and the Garda Síochána will spend 20% of duty time on static, high visibility vehicle checkpoints. The policing plan also includes the following goals: the Garda Síochána will educate road users through radio and television broadcasts and roadshows; traffic corps units will spend 10% of duty time on covert road traffic policing; the force will establish a benchmark for each division regarding the time spent by gardaí dealing with traffic management; and the strength of the traffic corps will be increased by 244, with a proportionate increase in transport allocated.

Under current legislation there are three situations in which members of the Garda Síochána may demand that a person in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place provide a roadside specimen of his or her breath and all members of the force are fully conversant with the legislative provisions. The recent advice from the Attorney General regarding random breath testing is very helpful to the Garda Síochána, in that it clearly sets out the extensive powers available to stop vehicles for the purpose of detecting drunk drivers. The Attorney General advises that gardaí can stop vehicles by way of random road traffic checkpoints for the purpose of detecting drink driving and can establish such checkpoints in the vicinity of licensed premises in order to identify persons who may be committing breaches of the law relating to driving while under the influence of intoxicants. A garda at a checkpoint is entitled, where the circumstances so warrant, to form a reasonable suspicion that a driver has consumed alcohol. A garda is further entitled to administer a breath test to such a driver, in accordance with the current statutory regime. A garda is not required, as a matter of law, to form an opinion that the driver has exceeded the prescribed alcohol limits but is required to have a reasonable suspicion that this is the case. There must be an individualised suspicion before a demand is made to administer a breath test.

The Government's high level group on road safety recognises that no single organisation has the capacity, on its own, to solve the problem of deaths and serious injuries on our national roads. It places an onus on organisations with road safety responsibilities to communicate with their stakeholders. The Garda strategic review of traffic, published in October 2004, places an emphasis on communications and co-operation with the general public with regard to the promotion of road safety. It advocates the development of an educational policy to achieve a more responsible public attitude and to heighten the awareness of factors contributing to collisions. It further emphasises involvement in preventative schemes such as traffic watch. Accordingly, Garda enforcement fora are now being organised on a divisional basis in the assembly halls of secondary schools and third level colleges. Fora aimed at the younger population take place during the day, while those aimed at the broader population take place in the evenings. These enforcement fora provide question and answer sessions for the public, information stands and road safety presentations.

The statistics on drink driving prosecutions for the years 2003 and 2004 have been reviewed but some of the cases initiated during those years are still before the courts. The statistical data provided with my submission outlines the detailed information relating to those years. I conclude my short presentation on that note.

I thank the Commissioner for his presentation. The recent advice from the Attorney General clarifies a number of issues with regard to drink driving and the prosecution of cases relating thereto. Does the Commissioner believe that the powers the Attorney General says are available to the Garda Síochána are sufficient for members of the force to be able to carry out random breath testing as is deemed necessary? Each member of the Garda Síochána has the power to set up a checkpoint to check all passing motorists and, if he or she forms a suspicion about a particular individual, to breath test him or her. Does the Commissioner believe the powers available to the Garda Síochána are sufficient to enable it to enforce random breath testing? I do not understand the furore surrounding random breath testing which already occurs. Most accept the law currently allow for it. Does the Commissioner believe extra powers are required to allow for its enforcement?

Commissioner Conroy

Advice recently received from the Attorney General improves our position on enforcement. However, it would be foolish of me, as Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, to suggest further powers would not assist in making our roads safer. There is no doubt in my mind that the problem lies in the way existing legislation is challenged day in and day out in the courts. There are 25 cases currently before the High Court. There has been a significant number of High Court challenges by persons arrested for drink driving. We must ensure people recognise they are taking on a responsibility when they get behind the wheel of a car. Unfortunately, even when it is proved they were over the limit following an intoxiliser test, people will take the route of challenging the law. It is up to society in general to decide how best we can inform people about their responsibilities when driving. The question that arises is whether we should allow them to use loopholes in the law to avoid conviction.

I understand and sympathise with the Commissioner's position on the issue. However, another question that arises is whether members of the force receive sufficient training to ensure they will be able to prosecute cases through the courts? Does the Commissioner believe such cases should be prosecuted by State solicitors rather than by gardaí?

Commissioner Conroy

If one looks at the statistics, one will appreciate that in the main cases throughout county divisions are prosecuted by superintendents and inspectors. In Dublin, for instance, cases are not prosecuted by members of the Garda Síochána. I am not suggesting State solicitors are not professionals, they are. They are competent and capable of doing their business in court. However, statistics countrywide illustrate that conviction rates throughout the country are far superior to those in the Dublin metropolitan area where there is no doubt that there is a problem, of which I am aware. For some time the Garda Síochána has been taking corrective measures.

I have discussed the reasons, of which there are several, we are losing so many cases in the Dublin metropolitan area with Assistant Commissioner Rock of the traffic department and Assistant Commissioner Alan McHugh. For instance, a garda may form an opinion about a driver before arresting him or her. He or she will then take him or her to the Garda station and must wait 20 minutes before bringing him or her to the intoxiliser room. Many cases have been challenged and won in situations where a garda waited one minute more than the 20 provided for before bringing the individual concerned to the intoxiliser room. Even where the opinion of the garda is corroborated by an intoxiliser test result, a case is often won or lost on the garda's explanation of how he or she arrived at his or her opinion. It is hard for a lay person to understand that, when a garda forms an opinion about an individual and subsequently takes that person to the Garda station where his or her opinion is confirmed, following several hours of questioning in the witness box a problem may arise about how he or she formed his or her opinion which results in the case being lost. This type of problem does not arise in other countries which operate the 20 minute provision. In other countries, when a person is breathalysed and brought to a police station where it is confirmed that he or she is over the legal limit, that persons accepts he or she has been caught and will face the consequences in court.

Does the Garda Síochána provide training courses on how cases should be prosecuted? I am aware that the legal profession operates a type of tick box system in relation to cases which are being defended. To counter such activities, does the Garda Síochána provide refresher courses on how cases should be prosecuted? While I can understand the adversarial position in which a garda might find himself or herself vis-a-vis a leading senior counsel in terms of intimidation and so on, I am trying to find out, given the number of failed prosecutions, what the Garda authorities are doing to ensure cases taken to court by gardaí are not thrown out of court on a technicality. We all accept most cases are lost on a technicality.

Commissioner Conroy

Yes, but the matter rests with the judge hearing the case. We must look at the percentage of convictions achieved in some of our courts. All gardaí receive the same training. Those who fail to obtain a prosecution attend in-service training courses.

A garda who attends court with a check list is bound by the rules of discovery and may be challenged as to his or her reasons for taking a particular route. Each case is dealt with on its merits. Unfortunately, that is how technical things have become. A detailed document prepared some years ago in Templemore for use by gardaí in court was challenged and resulted in much suffering for the Garda Síochána. I am not suggesting the Garda Síochána does not make mistakes; we do and we make them often and time and again. However, as managers of the organisation, we have a duty to ensure we address these problems. I do not wish to be critical of the way in which prosecutions are brought in Dublin. However, inspectors and superintendents in other counties go through statements line by line.

That is my understanding of the way things are done.

Commissioner Conroy

They present witnesses in court. If a case is lost based on the statement of a particular witness, the inspector or superintendent will deal with the issue that evening.

I understand that and acknowledge the Commissioner's remarks about statistics for the Dublin region. I note that last year in Dublin there were 763 convictions, 496 dismissal orders and 121 strike-out orders. Dublin has the highest failure rate for prosecutions as compared with County Mayo where the authorities failed to obtain a prosecution in only 18 of 70 cases.

What are the figures for Cork?

The figures for Cork city are 385 convictions, 340 dismissal orders and 64 strike-out orders. Clearly, much needs to be done.

Before I call the various spokespersons, does the Commissioner believe the clarification recently provided by the Attorney General makes his job easier?

Commissioner Conroy

There is no doubt that the advice is very helpful to us in so far as there was a reluctance heretofore to set up a checkpoint outside licensed premises and we received complaints from certain individuals when this occurred. Unfortunately, some courts dislike that approach. While the Garda Síochána is not in the business of trying to catch people in any sneaky way, if we set up a checkpoint outside a public house, at least one can hope cars will remain in the car park of the premises and drivers will find another way to get home. This is preferable to persons being brought to court where one does not know what will be the outcome. We will approach enforcement differently in the near future.

The Garda Síochána already had the power to set up a checkpoint anywhere, if it had chosen to use it. I can see from where the Commissioner is coming to the extent that the approach he describes would be regarded as an attack on the areas concerned.

Commissioner Conroy

We will warn the public accordingly in the near future.

Since Christmas, a significant number of non-nationals have been killed on our roads. As public representatives we receive repeated complaints about non-nationals driving cars which are not taxed or insured and do not conform to the NCT regulations. Will action be taken to ensure such cars are impounded on detection, rather than being allowed to remain on the roads? The favourite trick of many non-national drivers when stopped by a garda is to state they have no English, although they will have excellent English on the building site the following morning should they come to grips with the foreman over something. What does the Commissioner propose to do about the major problem of non-nationals driving vehicles which do not conform to road standards and are not, in many cases, taxed or insured?

Another issue is the practice by which cars are sold at auction and then driven by the new owners out of the auction premises without insurance. Can anything be done about this problem, either by means of legislation or with the Garda assistance, to ensure persons driving vehicles from car auctions are at least insured to drive them on the roads?

Commissioner Conroy

The Garda Síochána seizes approximately 10,000 vehicles every year under section 41 of the Road Traffic Act. Generally, the reason is there is no insurance or the road licence has expired for a period in excess of three months.

The Chairman referred to non-nationals driving cars registered in their home country. There is a lacuna in the law in this respect in so far as the individuals concerned are not residents of Ireland and, as such, the Garda has no right to seize their cars even though they may not be taxed or insured. This is a problem. The Garda Síochána has discussed the matter with the Minister and I have no doubt he will take our concerns on board and take action on the issue in the near future.

I raise this issue because it is a serious problem, as I believe the Commissioner accepts. It is clear, however, that his hands are tied. The joint committee should seek to have legislation drafted as soon as possible to provide the Garda Síochána with the power to seize any vehicle which does not conform to road standards.

Commissioner Conroy

We would like to have such a power.

The joint committee should seek such a legislative change and I have no doubt the Minister would be willing to do so, given the seriousness of the matter. In light of the number of non-nationals who have been killed in road traffic accidents, are there steps the Commissioner could take to address the problem? Most of these accidents appear to be alcohol related.

Commissioner Conroy

We note that a major problem arises in this area because some residents from the countries in question drink significant amounts of alcohol at weekends. While I do not wish to elaborate on specific cases, we know that a substantial amount of alcohol was consumed in a private house prior to a recent road traffic accident which resulted in three fatalities. The Garda Síochána is encountering an increasing number of difficulties in dealing with non-nationals. Citizens of certain countries cause more problems than citizens of other countries.

I welcome Commissioner Conroy and thank him for his presentation. All the issues I propose to raise have a common thread, namely, the lack of firm information in this area. The Commissioner was invited before the joint committee to discuss random breath testing but the scope of the discussion has broadened to cover the wider issue of road safety. On the one hand, the Commissioner appeared to indicate that random breath testing is not really necessary because the Garda has sufficient powers while, on the other, he appeared in a follow-up reply to indicate it is necessary.

Firm information and statistics appear to be absent in this area. On the one hand, we hear we need random breath testing because clever lawyers will find a way around it unless the Garda has a clear right to stop and randomly breath test drivers while, on the other, the clever lawyers tell us that careless police work is responsible when cases fall. How many cases fall as a result of the absence of random breath testing? For what other reasons do cases fall? Is firm information available on these issues? Is random breath testing as significant an issue as it is portrayed or are other, more important issues responsible for the failure to secure convictions? Hard information appears to be completely lacking.

As regards the issue of non-nationals raised by the Chairman, while it is certainly the case that we had a recent cluster of accidents involving non-nationals, an increase in such accidents is to be expected given that non-nationals account for a significant proportion of the population. What firm information is available to suggest non-nationals drink more and have a lower proportion of insured cars than Irish people?

Does the Commissioner have any suggestions on how to collect, collate, analyse and use information on road safety issues to inform future policy? For instance, it appears to be the accepted wisdom that driver behaviour, that is, speed and alcohol, are the principal causes of road traffic accidents. When we examine the statistics on road traffic accidents supplied to the National Roads Authority by, I presume, the Garda Síochána, cases in which fatal accidents were attributed to exceeding the safe speed accounted for 9.4% of accidents in 2003 and 9.9% of accidents in 2004, yet we are told speed is the single biggest contributory factor in road deaths. Is speed the main contributory factor? I suspect alcohol is the main killer but information in this regard does not appear to be automatically collected in respect of fatal accidents. It seems only to be collected in cases where a prosecution is likely and possibly for insurance purposes. It is certainly not collected for use in informing future road safety policy.

One in seven road deaths in England, where best practice is said to be in place, is alcohol related. The coroner in County Louth, who published a report in January examining the incidence of alcohol in deaths over the past six years, maintains that two thirds of road traffic deaths in the county were attributable to alcohol over that period. If he is correct, we have a long way to go before we achieve best practice. It means this should be our biggest target and that we should ignore almost everything else and pursue this particular problem if we are serious about reducing the number of deaths on our roads.

I welcome the Minister's recent announcement that the penalty points system is to be extended to cover 33 new areas. The legislation dealing with penalty points was introduced some years ago and it is essential that its provisions be implemented. If it is true that two thirds of the deaths on our roads are alcohol related, why then are we diverting Garda resources into relatively minor areas such as driving on a hard shoulder, an offence which will soon attract penalty points? One wonders if that is a matter of priority.

What resources will the Garda Síochána receive to assist it in enforcing the additional 33 penalty point offences? I am aware of the proposal to appoint 200 new gardaí to the traffic corps this year. I hope they will be better trained than those appointed last year. Of the 40 gardaí currently assigned to the traffic corps, how many are out on the nation's roads at any one time? I understand that approximately one fifth of gardaí are on duty at any given time. Is it realistic to expect that this type of input will have any impact on road safety?

My final question relates to the road safety strategy in general. I congratulate the Garda in Dublin on the significant and notable increase in its checkpoints. I was stopped at a checkpoint last night. There have also been a notable number of roadblocks throughout the city during the past couple of weeks. The recently published Garda Síochána policing plan for this year sets certain targets in that regard. How do those targets marry with the road safety strategy targets that are supposed to be achieved by the end of December 2006, namely, the speed testing of 11.1 million vehicles per year and the stopping of 25% of vehicles by way of Garda intervention in respect of possible alcohol consumption by drivers? Is it possible that those targets can be met in the context of the policing plan or is that aspirational? What would it take, in terms of resources, to meet the targets set by the strategy?

Commissioner Conroy

The Deputy asked a number of questions. I will try to explain the use of the alcoliser in simple terms. A garda who sets up a checkpoint and who, having stopped a number of vehicles, smells alcohol cannot form the opinion that the individual behind the wheel has consumed so much alcohol that he or she is incapable of driving the car. In those circumstances, the garda will ask the individual to blow into the alcoliser. If the apparatus gives a positive result, the garda will then form the opinion that the individual is incapable of maintaining proper control of the vehicle as a result of the intake of too much alcohol.

Does that mean the alcoliser supersedes the need for random breath testing?

Commissioner Conroy

No. The intoxiliser apparatus is located at the Garda station. The alcoliser is used by gardaí on the roads.

I understand that.

Commissioner Conroy

The difference is that a garda, having stopped an individual in a line of traffic, may smell alcohol and form the opinion that he or she has consumed alcohol but the officer cannot form the opinion that the person is incapable of maintaining proper control of his or her vehicle.

The garda is not obliged to form such an opinion.

Commissioner Conroy

No, but a person cannot be arrested until a garda forms such an opinion. When the individual has completed the breath test and a positive result has been obtained, a garda then forms the opinion that he or she is incapable of maintaining control of the vehicle. We then come to the issue of whether the alcoliser is important. In some instances, it is not that important. For example, a garda driving down a main street who witnesses a car swaying from side to side may form the suspicion that the driver of the car is incapable of maintaining proper control of his or her vehicle. Having stopped the vehicle, the garda may then form an opinion — based on his or her observation of the person's driving, the smell of alcohol and the person's bodily actions — and arrest that person and take him or her to the Garda station and, having waited the required 20 minutes, subject him or her to an intoxiliser test. They are the procedures in terms of forming an opinion in respect of an individual. It is difficult for a garda operating at a checkpoint to form an opinion that an individual is incapable of maintaining proper control of his or her vehicle in view of the fact that the officer did not witness the individual driving in any erratic manner. A garda requires assistance in supporting the first opinion that the individual had consumed alcohol. The intoxiliser allows him or her to form the second opinion which subsequently leads to the arrest of the individual. I hope that explains the situation for the Deputy.

I understand how the system works. I am asking how many cases fall because we do not have legislation that allows for random breath testing. Is this a big issue? How many cases are involved?

Commissioner Conroy

I do not know.

Therefore, it may not be a critical issue.

Commissioner Conroy

It is a critical issue. Many dismissals are based on the opinion formed by the garda.

We have been told by the legal adviser that this is no longer the case and that dismissals occur for other reasons.

Commissioner Conroy

I would like to have such legal opinion on our side in terms of prosecuting cases.

It is a case of the clever lawyer versus lazy police work.

Commissioner Conroy

The Deputy inquired about the checks in place. It is hoped that the privatisation of the speed camera system will result in an increase in the number of checks conducted on vehicles. At present, the Garda Síochána operates its own camera system, though it is not very extensive. In addition, GATSOs located in many divisions are used on a daily basis throughout the country in the detection of speeding vehicles.

The Deputy also referred to the statement by the coroner in County Louth that two thirds of fatalities are alcohol related. The statistics available to me from the Garda national traffic bureau suggest that one third of those killed on our roads had consumed alcohol above the legal limit. That information is based on details available to coroners throughout the country. It is an inspector or superintendent who presents a case at the coroner's court. The information gathered by Assistant Commissioner Rock and his team is high quality in nature. High quality information is required on accident prone areas to ensure enforcement levels — despite the number of gardaí we now have, although we do not have as many as we might like to have — can in some way be matched to the areas in which the offences are being committed.

Is it true such information is not readily available and not obtained in all cases involving road deaths?

Commissioner Conroy

For foreign drivers, I fully agree we do not have that information——

I am referring not just to foreign drivers. Information on whether the driver's blood contained alcohol is not obtained in all road accident cases. If a prosecution is not pending, the matter is at the discretion of the coroner.

Commissioner Conroy

However, the toxicology reports are available to us.

The point is that as such reports are not automatically collated, they are not fed into and do not inform the safety strategy. For instance, how could the coroner who examined all the cases available to him countrywide in the past six years say alcohol was implicated in two thirds of road deaths — albeit that the person intoxicated was not necessarily the driver but perhaps the pedestrian — yet the Garda's figures suggest alcohol is involved in only one third of cases? My worry is that we are hopping from one policy agenda to another without any firm information.

Commissioner Conroy

Any breach of road traffic law, whether trivial or not, is an enforcement problem for us. I do not say every breach of road traffic law should end up in court, but my strongly held view is and always has been that anyone who is observed breaking the law must be spoken to, regardless of how minor the offence may be. If someone continually gets away with minor offences, the issue might grow and the person concerned might commit more serious offences. I always tell our people that any offence they observe, whether it is riding down the hard shoulder or crossing a white line, should be brought to the notice of the individual concerned, perhaps by issuing a caution. I do not say every individual should be prosecuted for every minor offence, but if people get away with driving offences, that is a major problem. I always tell our young attested members from Templemore that when they go to an area, they should get to know it and its offenders. I also tell them that, just as we give preventive advice to property owners on how to protect their property, we have an onus to tell young and old people who drive recklessly that if they think they will get away with breaking the law, they will end up on the wrong side in court. There is an onus on all our people to do this.

Traffic Watch is also a help. Responsible persons who do not want to go to court may nevertheless make the effort by making a report. If their telephone call is followed up, at least the individual involved will know that somebody has made a report. It is in the interests of every citizen to get involved by reporting road traffic infringements. We need to ensure something is always done about such offences rather than letting them grow and grow.

I have one further quick question. Does the Garda collect statistics on how many drivers involved in fatal accidents held a provisional or full licence and how many were disqualified from driving and had no licence? Is such information automatically collected for all road accidents?

Commissioner Conroy

All information on accidents is passed on regularly to the National Roads Authority by a very detailed process.

Is that kind of information collected?

Commissioner Conroy

Not every detail that the Deputy mentioned is collected.

Assistant Commissioner Eddie Rock

We give access to all our files to the National Roads Authority which prepares detailed research and analysis on our behalf that are made available to the public and us. However, we do not keep the information to which the Deputy referred.

Is that kind of information not vital for the Garda to do its job? As things stand, we do not know whether driver instruction or testing is significant. In effect, we do not have any hard information.

Perhaps the committee should write to the NRA to ask it for the relevant information.

The NRA does not have that information. If the Garda does not have it, the NRA certainly will not have it.

The Garda has informed us that it gives the information to the NRA.

That is not what the Commissioner said.

Assistant Commissioner Rock

I suggest information might be available from the courts system on prosecutions for driving offences.

That applies only to cases prosecuted. Again, the information is bitty.

I welcome the Commissioner and his colleagues. I hope this is the first of a number of meetings with them, as the committee intends to pay a lot of attention to road safety in the coming year.

I start with a question on the difficulty of comparing the figures. The Garda's submission gives figures for the cases taken in 2003 and 2004. Having done some work on this recently, I am confused that the submission gives a figure of 5,600 drink driving convictions in 2003, whereas the Garda's annual report for that year gives a figure of only 3,060. Equally, there is a significant discrepancy in the figures for 2004. Can the Commissioner explain this? Another issue is that the Courts Service figures showing the outcome of all drink driving cases taken in 2005 — these figures are more up to date than those made available by the Garda — indicate the total number of cases as 6,400. How does this tally with the Garda's figures for the previous year, given that the Garda's figure for 2004 was almost 11,000? Why is the Courts Service figure for 2005 nearly half that amount? Will the Commissioner explain this discrepancy, as it is hard to make sense of and compare the figures from the Garda, the Courts Service and the Medical Bureau of Road Safety?

In the figures the Garda has provided for us today, a significant number of cases — some 440 in 2003 and almost 600 in 2004 — come under the heading of non-appearance. What happened to those people who did not appear in court for drink driving cases? Does the Garda have an analysis of the outcome of these cases? Were warrants issued and, if so, were they implemented?

The Commissioner mentioned the difficulties gardaí had in proving they had grounds for forming their opinion. I accept that is a problem in court, but the committee's legal advice suggests the most significant ground on which cases failed was not that problem but inadequate Garda procedures. Does the Commissioner agree with this view which is based on a detailed analysis of drink driving cases from the past two years? Do the majority of cases fail because gardaí have not complied with proper procedures? Can the Commissioner give us a breakdown of the percentage of cases which fail due to inadequate procedures and tell us what percentage fail because of the grounds on which gardaí form their opinion?

I also ask about the helpful advice the Commissioner received from the Attorney General. What was that advice? Was it requested by the Commissioner? Is it the same as that on random breath testing the Minister received recently? The Attorney General seems to have clarified the powers of the Garda under existing laws. His advice appears to indicate that the Garda has substantial scope to clamp down properly on the problem of drink driving and tackle our drink driving culture. However, for some reason these powers are not being used. Why did the Garda not enforce the law adequately prior to receiving the Attorney General's advice? The majority of those who leave large pubs and get into their cars in the pub car park have not been drinking lemonade. As such, one has a target audience. I have often wondered why the Garda does not set up checkpoints close to pubs and nab a significant number of those who break the law weekend after weekend. Why has nothing been done to clamp down on this practice?

The Garda has no difficulty setting up checkpoints to check tax and insurance and we see such checkpoints from time to time. I disagree with Deputy Mitchell in this regard because one rarely sees them on the northside of Dublin. Given that there is no difficulty in randomly setting up this type of checkpoint, I fail to understand how the Commissioner arrived at the view that difficulties would arise if the Garda decided to set up checkpoints near pubs to speak to drivers of cars leaving the premises and ask those who smelled of alcohol, were seen leaving the pub or whose behaviour merited attention to take a breathalyser test. From the clarification provided by the Attorney General, it appears the Garda is perfectly entitled to do this but the Commissioner is free to correct me if I am wrong. Why, in such circumstances, does the Garda not set up checkpoints?

Recently I tabled a parliamentary question requesting information on the number of breathalyser bags used in each Garda station in the past three years. The response indicated that the use of such bags had declined over this period. It is extraordinary that the number of breathalyser bags used in some stations last year could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Given that drink driving is a major factor in our high road fatality statistics, why is the Garda not clamping down on the problem, especially in the light of the clarification that it has the power to do so?

On the question of reasonable suspicion, will the Commissioner clarify whether, in the event of a garda smelling alcohol while questioning a driver at a checkpoint, this is considered a reasonable ground to bag the person concerned? If so, why is this practice not being followed?

The Commissioner suggested the Garda would receive complaints from members of the public if it was to set up a checkpoint near a pub. Who advised the Garda that it could not do so? Was this a semi-political issue in so far as complaints may have been made and checkpoints were not acceptable to local publicans? In the road safety strategy for the period from 1998 to 2004 the Garda Síochána expressed the view that random breath testing would negatively impact on the relationship between gardaí and the community. This concern has been removed from the current strategy. I sometimes wonder about the Garda's commitment to tackling drink driving. Does it come under pressure from politicians or any other interests, specifically vintners, when it actively enforces the law on drink driving?

Before the Commissioner replies, as I am required to leave the meeting, I propose that the Vice Chairman, Deputy Peter Power, take the Chair. As the Deputy is listed as the next member to ask questions, I presume it will be appropriate for him to ask his questions from the Chair. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Commissioner Conroy

With regard to detection, the figures for 2003 and 2004 will continue to change due to the number of cases still before the courts. The Garda Síochána has encountered problems in this regard, particularly arising from challenges made on points of law. Some courts decided to put back drink driving cases for a period and not hear any of them. This created a major problem in so far as the Garda was unable to secure any convictions, even though charges had been brought.

Someone, not the Garda Síochána, raised a case stated in the 1970s which clearly indicated that if something was being challenged by way of case stated, it did not prevent current cases going before the courts or being processed. This has been the position in different courts. The complexity of the law has created a major problem, with the result that we are now back at the position that judges are now dealing with all cases coming before the courts. That is the reason the figures for 2003 and 2004 will continue to change. The conviction rate for drink driving of approximately 67% will change. While one would expect all cases dating from 2003 to have been dealt with by now, some are still before the courts.

I telephoned the assistant commissioner in Cork to express my astonishment at the figures for Cork. I have not received a full explanation for them due to time constraints and would like more time to obtain one. Although I cannot back up this statement, the position, as verbally outlined to me at 11 a.m. this morning, is that the conviction rate in the courts in Cork is up to90%. The figures available to the joint committee are frightening because they appear to indicate a conviction rate of 48% or 49%. I understand the explanation for these figures is that different charges may have been preferred against individuals who were then found guilty on a particular charge which covered disqualification. I am not fully informed on the matter but I can write to the Chairman providing further information, if required.

The figures provided by the Courts Service indicate a dismissal or failure rate of more than 40% in Cork. They are the actual figures.

Commissioner Conroy

Yes, but I am informed that if a second charge is preferred in connection with the same offence and a conviction is secured on one offence, the second offence will be regarded as failing. I cannot state this as a definite fact until I see it in writing. The figures are frightening. I can understand the position in Dublin which the Garda is trying to rectify. We are working to try to improve the way in which gardaí give evidence and the way in which evidence is presented in the court in order that we will, I hope, get a fair adjudication on the cases presented in the courts.

I am not sure of the reason the figures in Dublin should differ from those elsewhere.

Commissioner Conroy

As I stated, in the country the gardaí prosecuting cases in the courts will be inspectors and superintendents who come from the district. He or she will go through the file bit by bit before entering the court because he or she will have to deal with the various challenges made in the court. It may well be that the evidence presented by the arresting garda to the superintendent may not be up to the standard required by the latter. The superintendent may want to question the garda about the matter in order that the existence of flaws in the case can be determined before going to court. I am not sure whether the same obtains in Dublin but it is a matter we intend to address. Superintendents and inspectors are not prosecuting in courts in Dublin.

Warrants are issued to the station in the area in which the individual concerned resides and those on the early morning, 6 a.m., shift normally execute them. While I cannot give members reasons for the non-execution of warrants, that is the process we use in dealing with individuals who do not turn up in court. In some case people are no longer residing at the address given. A sizeable number of those summoned to court may no longer be living in the country. The mixture appearing in the District Court throughout the country is different now from what it was five years ago. That is why judges have difficulties, for example, with interpretation.

On case failures and practices, the same training is provided for gardaí working in the country as for those in the city. We take cognisance of any problems that arise in a particular court area. When superintendents and chief superintendents carry out an audit in their stations, they examine conviction rates and, if they find problems, they have to do something about them.

On the targeting of pubs, complaints have from time to time been received from publicans about squad cars parked outside their premises. However, I have never heard of political pressure being exerted about the matter.

Did the Commissioner ask for the Attorney General's advice?

Commissioner Conroy

The Attorney General's advice came through the Minister who made it available to me.

Is this the same advice recently received by the Minister for Transport?

Commissioner Conroy

I take that to be the case.

Why, before receiving the advice, did the Commissioner take the view that the Garda's powers were not sufficiently wide?

Commissioner Conroy

We are always conscious of the courts' interpretation of such matters. We never wanted to give the impression that we were entrapping people and this advice makes the law of the State clear to us. We can now enter court and confidently say we have received advice from our legal officer and will enforce the law accordingly.

In practice, what difference will that make in terms of targeting drink driving?

Commissioner Conroy

I would like to see pub car parks, an issue upon which the Deputy spoke, still full the following morning when nobody is in the pub. The more we arrest for drink driving, the fewer gardaí we have on the street. We have hugely increased our rate of detection in the past three months but by the time cases are processed in court a significant number of man hours will have been lost because of challenges.

We all want to see a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths associated with drink driving but, given that the Garda's powers have been clarified by the Attorney General, will the Commissioner tell us what the difference will be in tackling the problem? He accepts gardaí can set up checkpoints anywhere they wish and that, on the basis of smelling somebody's breath or seeing him or her leave a pub, a garda can form the view that drink has been consumed.

Commissioner Conroy

If we actually see a person leaving a pub, a different problem arises. It is fine if we see an individual staggering around before entering a car because we can form an opinion without using the intoxiliser. However, if we form an opinion that the person concerned has consumed alcohol but cannot be sure that he or she is incapable of maintaining proper control of a vehicle, we will introduce the intoxiliser. However, in such circumstances we must wait 20 minutes because he or she may have consumed alcohol. We could ask the individual concerned whether he or she had consumed in the past 15 or 20 minutes and, if the answer was in the negative, the intoxiliser could be used. There is, however, no requirement to answer the question and we do not have the power to hold a suspect. Where somebody leaves a pub and staggers around before getting into his or her car and a garda forms an opinion that the individual concerned is unfit to maintain proper control of the vehicle, the arrest can be made without recourse to an intoxiliser. The individual concerned can be arrested, taken to the station and, after 20 minutes, the intoxiliser room.

Is that more difficult to do? A garda can form the view that the individual has been drinking, whether he or she is over the limit, because it is easy to form such a view by, for example, smelling alcohol on the breath. In such circumstances, why are intoxilisers not being used more widely?

Commissioner Conroy

Before Christmas, we set up super checkpoints, at which a lot of gardaí were stationed on the road. We did so because the minute an individual was arrested, the arresting garda was taken off the street for the best part of an hour. Upon arriving at the station a garda cannot use the intoxiliser but must wait for a trained person to corroborate the opinion. This reveals the complications of the law and the way we operate. For example, if a large number of cars were stopped and five or six people tested positive after blowing into the intoxiliser, the checkpoint would be emptied. I would prefer to work on the basis of prevention rather than see people driving while drunk.

Arising from the points made by the Deputy Shortall and armed for the first time with the clear advice that there are no difficulties with random breath testing, should we now publicly announce——

To ensure clarity, the issue concerns random checkpoints.

Should we not instigate a major publicity campaign similar to the one for penalty points to say that we will be introducing, from 1 March, a significant level of random checkpoints throughout the country? We should state that we have received unequivocal advice to the effect that we can carry out such checks and that we intend to implement them. The Commissioner stated earlier that society in general has a responsibility to act. Mr. Eddie Shaw told the joint committee recently that as society had failed to take on the responsibility, it was up to the institutions of the State, especially the Garda, to enforce the responsibility on the people by properly enforcing the law.

Commissioner Conroy

We have a roadshow up and running, the first event of which took place in Letterkenny recently. During the day, the event took place in a secondary school and was aimed at fourth and fifth year students. It was put on in the evening in the local community hall to inform the general public. Frightening footage of accidents was shown to demonstrate how people had died and been maimed. This was followed by a question and answer forum. Every Garda division will operate two roadshows this year.

Local radio is vital in any campaign. It is important to consider that the people who are killed on our roads come from homes within a short radius of their place of death. They come from local communities rather than from outside. I ask my superintendents to remember that the people who will be killed in their areas in the coming months reside there now.

Will the message from this meeting be that the Garda, armed with the knowledge that there is no legal difficulty in this area, will operate random road checkpoints with a view to clamping down on drink driving? Will that message be made clear today or will there be an announcement at a later stage?

Commissioner Conroy

I will sponsor anything that decreases the number of road deaths. One need only look at the number of personnel to be deployed in various areas in the next 12 months. In the Dublin Metropolitan area we will increase personnel engaged on these duties from 248 to 295. In the eastern region numbers will increase from 77 to 130, from 48 to 91 in the south east, from 80 to 126 in the southern region, from 57 to 85 in the western region and from 53 to 78 in the northern region. This represents an increase from the current total of 563 to 805. That will permit our officers nationally to improve enforcement through the provision of checkpoints and covert detection to deal with the boy racers that are a problem in certain areas.

I welcome Commissioner Conroy and his colleagues. As I am conscious that Deputy Connaughton is waiting to speak, I will be relatively brief. If I can be forgiven for being parochial, my points relate to the Dublin region, especially north County Dublin in which resides a large immigrant population. I am anxious to know whether language is a problem for the Garda in addressing, among other things, road traffic offences committed by members of the immigrant community. It strikes me that while the recent level of immigration has represented a culture shock for the country in general, the Garda must experience particular difficulties in operating its existing system in this context. I refer here to the problem of interpretation of different languages, particularly as the policy of recruiting non-nationals has not yet borne fruit.

A rough calculation I have made on foot of an examination of offences, convictions and dismissals in the Dublin area indicates that 45% of cases brought were unsuccessful. This compares to 52% in Cork city, 30% in Limerick city and only 10% in Galway city. There is a significant divergence among the major urban centres. The Commissioner expressed some concern about the prosecution process in Dublin relative to other parts of the country. Will he clarify whether the prosecution process in Cork city is the same as those which operates in Dublin or other parts of the country? Rather than emphasising the nature of the work carried out by his officers in other parts of the country, will the Commissioner elaborate on the system in place in Dublin and explain how cases are processed and prosecuted? Is there a briefing system for solicitors and barristers and do accused persons go to specific firms of solicitors that specialise in the area or are they spread among a number of barristers? The Commissioner referred earlier to the system outside Dublin whereby a superintendent in an area deals with his or her own gardaí in processing a case. It seems that a completely different system operates in Dublin.

On what I suspect is an issue that is not unrelated, the Commissioner seems to feel a degree of frustration with the legal system generally, especially as regards the openness of the road traffic legislation to challenge and the facility with which such challenges are upheld by our courts. Has the Commissioner compared the Irish system to comparable systems in other jurisdictions? A group from the committee will travel to Australia shortly to examine road traffic issues there on the recommendation of Mr. Shaw, the recently retired chairman of the National Safety Council.

Commissioner Conroy

Language is a difficulty for members of the force on the ground. We have translated quite a number of documents to ensure that arrested persons receive the documentation on their custody and treatment while in custody for any offence in a form they can understand. Last year, we spent almost €1 million on interpreters to deal with problems in this area. It is a heavy burden on taxpayers to make that commitment to deal with those individuals who are being taken to Garda stations.

Does the Commissioner envisage that as an ongoing cost or was there a once-off establishment cost for interpreting systems?

Commissioner Conroy

It will definitely not prove to be a once-off cost, although it may reduce in future. The new recruitment campaign for the Garda has provided us with a certain number of candidates from the communities in question. When they come through the training system — this will take two years — we will see changes. We are working on this. The new recruitment campaign is a good way to go. We are recruiting from minority communities and perhaps in a few years' time will be self-sufficient in languages and be able to deal with people from other countries.

The situation in Cork is that drink driving cases are prosecuted by superintendents and inspectors. That is why I made the call before I came here to the effect that I could not understand the reason the detection rate was so low. As I said to Deputy Shortall, I cannot stand over the answer I gave regarding the situation where two charges were preferred and an individual was acquitted of one and convicted on the other. I would like to see it on paper and, if required, I will write to the Chairman of the committee.

Regarding legal practice in other jurisdictions, my colleague, Superintendent Declan O'Brien, has been with the PSNI for a period of two months in an exchange programme. His specialist area is traffic. He looked at the traffic problems in Northern Ireland and how the law was enforced there. If the committee agrees, Superintendent O'Brien will deal with that matter.

Superintendent Declan O’Brien

In comparing our criminal justice system, our legal system, to those in other common law jurisdiction systems such as the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, it must be remembered that although they are common law jurisdictions, some have random breath testing and some do not. Great Britain and Northern Ireland do not have random breath testing. In the United Kingdom approximately 800,000 persons are arrested for drink driving every year. Of these, 100,000 are found to be over the legal limit. There are no major problems with the process in the courts. It is based primarily on the observations of the police officer at the time, the exercise of his or her power of arrest and the result of any test, whether on blood, urine or evidential breath testing. The procedures in the court centre around these issues and are not about the intricacies of forming an opinion. There is no major difficulty in securing convictions, although I do not have the figures.

Australia, in particular Victoria, and New Zealand have random breath testing. In Victoria there is a system of so-called booze buses which we could never introduce here. There is a totally different approach within the common law jurisdiction and everybody comes on board. It is a joint process in the road safety strategy. The judiciary comes on board and decides with the police force and local authorities that there will be a singular approach to dealing with the issue of drink driving. It is never looked at independently but part of an overall process.

The difficulty is that there are two systems. Some common law jurisdiction systems have random breath testing and some do not. The issue is where the attention is centred. The process is based primarily on the opinion and evidence of the police officer, together with the result of whatever tests are carried out. That is what determines whether there will be a conviction.

In a nutshell, is Superintendent O'Brien saying that in other jurisdictions there is less emphasis on the technicalities and more on the hard facts?

Superintendent O’Brien


I welcome the Commissioner and his staff. I will be brief because most of the issues have been addressed. As the Commissioner is aware, this is a political forum that takes soundings from all the interest groups involved in what has now become a major issue for the community, that of traffic, safety and deaths on the roads. I understood that today we would be given a clear view of the attitude of the Garda Síochána to random breath testing. I have listened carefully and noted the very measured tones the Commissioner used but I am still not sure. If the Garda Síochána had the power, backed by legislation, to carry out random breath testing, would there be fewer deaths on the road as a result of drink driving? I would like the Commissioner's considered opinion. That is central to what we are about today.

Commissioner Conroy

I understand where the Deputy is coming from. There probably would. However, in view of what I said about the forming of an opinion and the complications, can the conviction rate be improved in any away?

As the highest officer in the land, is it the Commissioner's professional opinion that it would or that it would not?

Commissioner Conroy

It would, if the facts were dealt with rather than looking for loopholes.

Is the Commissioner saying he would like the requirement for the opinion to be formed by the garda to be legally removed?

Commissioner Conroy

If a garda formed an opinion which could be corroborated by the use of an intoxiliser, we would have a level playing field. That is what I want.

That makes great sense. However, there must be many in the legal profession to whom it does not make sense. I was astonished by what Mr. Eddie Shaw had to say when he was here. It made great sense. His main theme was that none of the various entities with a vested interest in road safety was singing from the same hymn sheet or knew what the others were doing. Could the Commissioner go a step further? I am aware he is responsible only for the Garda Síochána. However, he plays a pivotal role in anything connected with road safety. Does he agree with Mr. Shaw that the various factions are not singing from the same hymn sheet?

Commissioner Conroy

All I can say from my perspective is that the Garda Síochána co-operates fully with any agency involved in road safety. We very much appreciate the support we receive, whether from organisations involved in road safety or the public. What is important is getting the message across to the public and that they take notice of it.

That is not exactly what I had in mind. It would have to run deeper than this. The various entities could speak to each other over a cup of tea at a conference and be happy and in agreement but I am talking about the in-depth research that must be done. There are many factors and many players in the field. If the Commissioner was sitting where we are listening to this every day, he would have to accept that while many policies are being formulated, there is no joined-up thinking. That being the case, is it not time to weld the pieces together, as Superintendent O'Brien said, regarding Northern Ireland and Australia? Does the Commissioner see it in that light?

Commissioner Conroy

There is no doubt that there is room for improvement. Any citizen would agree there is plenty of room in that regard. I touched on a number of areas in respect of which, if improvements were implemented, we would see major change. There will be no change until people who drive cars feel there is no getting away from sanctions. If people sit behind the wheel of a car in an intoxicated state so that they are not in full possession of their faculties and are incapable of controlling it in a way that does not endanger other road users, and if they think that even if they are arrested they will eventually get away with it, then no matter what anybody does we have a major problem. There is room for improvement. However, my job is to enforce the law as it stands. It is up to the legislators to legislate and we will enforce whatever laws they introduce.

The Commissioner is aware that is a two-way matter. Regarding random checkpoints, which Deputy Peter Power mentioned earlier, I fully subscribe to the Commissioner's view that it would be better if cars belonging to people who drive late at night in an intoxicated state were impounded. I did not know it was national Garda policy, particularly in light of the Attorney General's advice, to ensure that checkpoints are mounted. Are we to take it that, after today, this will be a major plank in Garda policy? The Commissioner referred to the education process and what could or could not be done. Is there a message going out from this meeting that the Garda will use a facility which, prior to today, it did not believe it could use? Could we have some indication of how the Garda will use the power that, up to now, it believed it did not possess?

Commissioner Conroy

The first thing we will do is educate members of the public through local radio to make them aware that they can expect this. I must also be honest and say that I only have a certain amount of resources available. I could not, tomorrow morning, direct that checkpoints be set up on every road.

We accept that.

Commissioner Conroy

Superintendents have a role to play in their districts. The victims in most accidents are from within those districts. There is an onus on superintendents to ask whether they are playing their role. I want them to be out interacting with the public. I want community gardaí and gardaí who are not specifically employed on traffic control to make their presence felt in their districts. I am not saying that they should be charging and arresting people. They should, however, get the message across that people who offend will eventually be prosecuted and brought to court.

I have a final question. The knock-on effects of the penalty points system were quite dramatic but they are wearing off. In the Commissioner's opinion, why are members of the public taking no notice of the penalty points system?

Commissioner Conroy

That is a difficult question to answer. I hope, however, that from 1 April onwards there will be changes. We will have more personnel enforcing the law. The new penalty points system will be up and running. Traffic personnel will operate in a totally new way. They will have hand-held devices into which they will enter the details of offences. When they have finished duty, they will return to the Garda station, dock their hand-held device and the information in it will be downloaded to a computer and sent to a central location in Dublin, thereby reducing the time spent on administration.

Is the computer system capable of that?

Commissioner Conroy


I ask because committees have been told on many occasions that the world would change overnight were it not for computers collapsing. The PULSE system did not exactly cover itself in glory. Have all the problems with new technology been solved?

Commissioner Conroy

The Deputy may take it that they have been solved. To be fair and in regard to the PULSE project, many people have had difficulty with IT systems. Before we embarked on the IT-PULSE project, we sent people to other countries and took on board what they had done. By the time PULSE was up and running, their systems had collapsed and this cost millions.

It is good to hear that we will not be able to blame the computer system in future.

I welcome the Commissioner and his delegation. As much of the ground has already been covered I will try not to repeat any of what has been said. There has been much discussion regarding what happens in the courts. Everybody is entitled to put forward their best defence in whatever way they can, regardless of whether we believe it is appropriate. Is it not clear, however, that the problem is with the decision-making process in the courts? I do not want to draw the Judiciary into this because it would not be appropriate to do so. However, we have the judges' interpretation of the law and of the facts put before them, giving credibility to what we believe is an inappropriate use of the law. Will the Commissioner state whether a forum for discussion could be established in which the Judiciary could be involved, not in respect of individual cases but in regard to policy?

Legislators are clearly frustrated with the capacity of people to wangle their way out of trouble despite evidence that they were so intoxicated as to be incapable of being in proper control of a vehicle. They can convince a judge on what appears to be a technicality and succeed in getting off. This is frustrating for politicians. It is obviously frustrating for the Garda Síochána. Can anything be done? Perhaps the Commissioner does not want to delve into that area. I will understand if that is the case. However, if he has any views on the possibility of setting up some kind of forum for discussion that would involve all the stakeholders and people responsible for administering justice, I would like to hear them.

On road safety, we constantly talk about the number of deaths on the roads. However, if they are examined in the context of the increase in the number of vehicles on the roads, the figures might look better. It might be appropriate for the Commissioner to comment on that.

Regarding checkpoints outside pubs and on roads, I have for some time held the view that greater community policing late at night in towns and villages, particularly at weekends, would be very beneficial. I am very taken by the point the Commissioner made that people who are killed on the roads have not travelled 50 miles. Accidents usually happen on the way from a local disco, nightclub or pub, particularly in the case of younger people. Tragically and, unfortunately, such accidents happen within close proximity to their home. Would greater presence or a higher visibility of Garda Síochána outside such venues at closing times be helpful? I am aware that issues arise in that regard in terms of resources and so on. I would like to hear the Commissioner's views on that matter.

My final point relates to the analysis of accidents as referred to by Deputy Olivia Mitchell. While the matter may not be one for the Garda Síochána, perhaps the Commissioner could comment on it. There is an air accident investigation unit within the Department of Transport. A massive investigation is undertaken following a crash involving a light aircraft or helicopter with one or more passengers on board. The investigation is detailed and involves the sealing off of the site of the crash, etc. In addition, reports of the accident are published at a later stage. Multiple car accidents on a weekly basis are resulting in the loss of five, six or seven lives, yet there does not appear to be the same focus of attention in this area in terms of investigating the cause of such accidents. A Garda investigation is, if I am correct, carried out solely for the purposes of future prosecution of any person found guilty of causing an accident. Air traffic accidents are investigated from the point of view of determining cause to ensure that a similar accident does not occur again. It is often road surfaces — not particular individuals — that are to blame for accidents. An accident may also be caused by a person not involved in the accident. An investigation is currently under way in respect of the surfaces on the roads that have led to a number of accidents in a number of counties. Perhaps the Commissioner would comment on those points.

Commissioner Conroy

I cannot comment on the interpretation of facts by various members of the Judiciary. The Garda Síochána present the facts as gathered by it in the line of evidence, although we may often fall a little short in that regard. I cannot deny that some of the blame rests with the Garda Síochána — of course it does, we do not always get it right. However, new measures such as the introduction of legislation or the collection of evidence are regularly challenged by legal teams appearing on behalf of individuals brought before the courts. There are difficulties in this area. Until such time as we receive a final ruling on this matter, it will continue to obstruct the administration of justice.

As regards deaths on our roads, the Garda Síochána collects detailed information which it then makes available to others to assist them in determining the cause of a particular accident. If, for example, the matter is relevant to the local authorities, they may have to take action in terms of road structures and so on. Currently, there are in the region of 2.4 million vehicles on our roads as compared to approximately 600,000 in the late 1960s. Prosperity has brought many good things but it has also given rise to many problems. I am not suggesting that the increase in the number of vehicles is the cause of many accidents. Accidents are, at the end of the day, caused by human beings.

On community policing, the Garda Síochána intends to ensure that members on community policing in particular areas continue to liaise with people about crime prevention, road safety, drug abuse, etc., in an effort to bring about change. I agree with the Senator that many fatal accidents occur in the early hours of the morning, particularly at weekends. We try our best to increase enforcement during those periods. However, many other problems, such as public order issues, occur during the early hours of the morning. We must try to ensure that we deal with both areas adequately within the resources available to us. I am not saying that we are dealing with all issues adequately. Members of the public are not always happy with the response they receive. However, we try in every way possible to meet public demands and will continue to do so.

On accident investigations, the Garda Síochána trains and will continue to train forensic accident investigators. If, for example, a fatal accident occurs in a county wherein a trained person is not available, we send one to the scene. We carry out detailed investigations in an effort to determine the cause of an accident. The statistics in regard to the number of fatalities and of people being prosecuted in the courts are improving. However, a problem also arises in this area. The accident site of an aircraft is usually a field. Closing a public road for a number of hours may discommode many people but that is something we are often obliged to do. We are striving to find new ways — we will do so — which will enable us to carry out detailed investigations of accident scenes much quicker and this will result in fewer problems for commuters on the roads. We are working towards that and it is hoped there will be changes in this area within the next six to nine months.

I thank Commissioner Conroy and his colleagues for their replies to the many questions asked. Listening to today's debate, I am more convinced that enforcement is the last line of defence in terms of trying to overcome problems in this area. I fear that the Commissioner may have the information that I will now request, particularly in light of the information he provided on the cost of interpretation. How many thousands of man hours are spent in successfully prosecuting cases throughout the country?

Public debate appears to be moving in the direction of the introduction of random breath testing. I do not know how many thousands of breath tests the Garda Síochána will conduct in the future. The more I listen to this debate, the more I am convinced that we must focus on removing the impediments on the Garda Síochána following such tests to ensure the prosecutions are not challenged. I fear that we may shortly have to go down the road of holding a referendum in regard to the introduction of random breath testing. If it is to be introduced, it must be enforced. The introduction of random breath testing may also be subject to challenge in terms of its definition. For example, will its introduction allow the Garda Síochána to stop outside pub X more often than pub Y or pub Z? It may perhaps be possible to challenge it in terms of why pub X rather than pub Y in a particular district was monitored and so on. I believe legal challenges in this area will continue.

The introduction of random breath testing will, according to the Commissioner, ensure that more people are stopped and checked for alcohol consumption. If the resultant cases are not to become caught up in legal mechanisms, we must focus on how to address that problem rather than concentrating on the public debate that occurred in recent months with regard to random breath testing. The Garda Commissioner stated that his organisation has a role to play in educating people, through the media and so on, in respect of road safety. Would such education be paid for from the Garda Síochána's budget, the Department of Transport's budget or the Department of Health and Children's budget, particularly as most accident victims are dealt with by the health services? Should it be paid for from the budget of the successor to the National Safety Council? At the end of the day, the Garda Síochána has only a specified amount in its envelope each year.

Having listened to the debate, I certainly do not think the booze bus that is used in parts of Australia will be the solution to the problem. The solution must be personal responsibility, education and community involvement.

Like Senator Dooley, I think all accidents, whether they occur in Donegal, Carlow or Longford, should be the subject of published accident investigations, which might deal with road conditions and so on. A court case two years later might then be able to take into account that, in a certain location, there had been an accident or an incident of dangerous driving. We should at least require publication of details such as who was liable and factors such as road conditions. I believe that would help.

The more I consider the issue, however, the more I think random checks will be challenged. At present, people can listen to the radio or television to find out that gardaí are stationed under a bridge on the Navan Road or under a dual carriageway bridge on Donnybrook Road. I fear it will not suffice for gardaí to be in the same location if they need to confirm that a check was random. The term "random" will be taken to mean that the check must be on a random day or night, at a random time of day and in a random location. I think the Garda might have a bigger problem.

Commissioner Conroy

How would we prove that a check was random?

I think we might have a bigger problem if the Garda is given a blank cheque tomorrow for random breath tests and the public then think the problem is solved. I think it might not be.

Commissioner Conroy

On the last issue, I totally agree in so far as I believe we need to streamline the current legislation. If we could streamline the requirements in respect of a garda's opinion so that it could be corroborated by some apparatus rather than by how he or she formed that opinion, we might find that we would not need to stay in the witness box for an hour or an hour and a half until, having wilted in some way or another, we find the judge decides the opinion was faulty even though, had the case continued, it would have become clear that the individual was way over the limit. As the Senator pointed out, streamlining those requirements would be much more advantageous than all this business of random breath checks. We would then have a higher rate of convictions, we would have true justice and we would still be able to stop people. We need to deal with that.

On the question of budgets for radio advertising, local radio is free for us. Local radio stations around the country are very good as they have no problem in allowing a garda to speak on radio shows. Of course, in Dublin radio stations are a different kettle of fish, but local radio advertising generally definitely does not cost us anything.

On the issue of man hours, I will ask Superintendent Declan O'Brien to respond. He is on a working party dealing with that issue.

The reason I ask is that, as the Commissioner said, a successful enforcement on the street might result in three or four people being caught. If the people need to be taken away, that might mean a whole unit is off the street and tied up for hours afterwards.

Commissioner Conroy

The gardaí would also be tied up in the courts afterwards.

That is my point.

Superintendent O’Brien

I currently chair a Garda internal working group that is examining all the processes involved in drink driving cases from the roadside to the courtroom via the Garda station. We are looking at the amount of man hours that are expended in taking statements and in waiting for cases in court. We want to measure those against the number of hours that are spent giving evidence in drink driving cases. We are considering those issues at present.

The second meeting of the working group took place today. We hope to be in a position to publish a report but I will not be able to say when this will happen until I meet the sub-group that is attending to a task for me. I hope we will have a report or draft report in the next couple of months about what changes might be made to what we do.

Will that report be for the Minister or will it be purely to provide the Garda with better management of operations?

Superintendent O’Brien

The report is for better management. It was instituted at the behest of the Commissioner.

Might the report be made available to the committee? It would assist us greatly.

Commissioner Conroy


I thank the Chairman for allowing me to participate in the meeting. Although I am not a member of the committee, I have huge interest in road safety. Therefore, I thank the Commissioner for taking time to attend today's meeting. I have a number of questions that I think have not been covered. As I was watching the meeting on the monitor in my office, I apologise if these points have already been raised.

On the penalty points system, although the use of mobile phones and illegal tyres may seem small items to a garda, I think they cause an awful lot of accidents. I know that checking tyres used to be a major thing for gardaí but I have never heard of a garda checking a motorist's tyres in recent years. The need for such checks should be highlighted within the force.

Another issue, which I know has been raised, concerns drivers who are foreign nationals. In my county, we have had a number of accidents involving foreign nationals who have then fled the scene of the accident. Those include two quite serious accidents in which several cars were involved. In one instance, when the driver of one car went to see whether the other person was safe, the foreign national pretended to be unable to talk and hardly able to move. However, when the first driver then moved away from the car, the foreign national all of a sudden went into a ditch and across fields and has not been seen since. In fairness, the local gardaí searched most of the rural area in which the incident occurred but foreign nationals fleeing the scene of accidents is a huge issue.

Checkpoints late at night are another major issue on which, as others may have mentioned, we need education. Perhaps we need to encourage road cops to go into primary schools and, especially, into secondary schools. I know the Garda might not have the resources or man hours to do that but it would be good if they could spend even one or two hours once a year showing pupils a video to highlight the need for road safety.

Further to the Commissioner's reference to the local media, I must say that my local radio station is very good to the local gardaí. I know our local radio station does a special three or four hour programme once or twice a year on life in the Gorey Garda station. The reporter goes out live in the car with the gardaí, which is absolutely brilliant for people who are sitting at home sitting listening as it gives them details on what is happening and it highlights what the gardaí are doing on road safety.

I see from the document that 244 gardaí will be going into the road corps. I refer to page 4 of the document, which mentions the challenging targets that are set in the policing plan. Is that the figure for the whole country in 2006?

Commissioner Conroy

Yes. For example, in the south-eastern area that the Deputy represents, the total will go from 48 to 91.

I would love to see more but, unfortunately, the Garda does not have the resources.

Commissioner Conroy

In 2007, the total will go from 126 to 170.

Will the total continue to rise over the next few years?

Commissioner Conroy

Yes. By 2008, the total will increase to more than 200. That is quite a lot of people going into the traffic corps.

That is really all I wanted to ask, as I feel strongly about the issue. I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to raise those points.

Deputy Kehoe is welcome. Does the Commissioner want to respond or to comment further?

Commissioner Conroy

On the penalty points issue, many new offences will come on stream from April. We are prepared for those and our people are trained. Training is ongoing at present. Fines will be paid through local post offices. This has started in the Louth-Meath division. By the end of March all districts will have a nominated post office where individuals will be able to pay their on-the-spot fine. Thereafter, once the money has been posted, penalty points will kick in through another agency. Checkpoints will continue and, I hope, increase in number as we get more officers involved in the traffic corps.

We have a roadshow that visits secondary schools. This initiative started in County Donegal and we now have another one in Cork. Every division will arrange two roadshow visits per year for transition year and fifth year students. On the evening of the roadshow adults will be invited to attend. We have trained personnel locally to deal with the presentations. We thank local media for the help we receive in this regard.

I thank Commissioner Conroy, Assistant Commissioner Rock and Superintendent O'Brien for their attendance. We appreciate their assistance and assure them the issues they have raised will be incorporated in our reports and deliberations in due course.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.55 p.m. sine die.