Breath test data issue apparent in 2015, documents reveal
State bureau did not formally notify Garda as it was told audit was already under way
The disparity between the published and actual breath tests was identified by the bureau after it carried out an internal examination of a sample of breath test devices in 2015. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
A State body knew two years ago that the level of breath tests being carried out by the Garda annually was roughly half what the force was claiming at the time.
The Medical Bureau of Road Safety did not formally notify the Garda of this because it was told the force was carrying out an audit into the veracity of its MAT checkpoint and breath test data.
The disparity between the published and actual breath tests was identified by the bureau after it carried out an internal examination of a sample of breath test devices.
This was almost two years before An Garda Síochána revealed in March this year that almost a million of the two million breath tests recorded on Pulse as being performed between late 2011 and 2016 did not in fact take place.
There are a number of investigations into the “fake breath test”’ issue but as yet no “one single cause” has been identified.
The discrepancy between the reported and actual level of breath tests only came to light after the Garda published a report in March, after it has contacted the bureau seeking information they held from the devices used to carry out breath tests.
The information was sought after The Irish Times reported in February that a national Garda audit was under way due to concerns that the published breath test figures were inaccurate.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show the head of the bureau became concerned in 2014 about a mismatch between the number of mouthpieces – a small single-use plastic device used for each breath test for hygiene reasons – being ordered by gardaí and the number of tests being reported as carried out.
This “mismatch” continued into 2015 at which stage the bureau decided to carry out an internal survey of 200 devices from the Dublin and Leinster region.
This survey showed that, if the test totals on these devices extrapolated across the 1,200 devices across the State, the number of breath tests annually was about 200,000 a year, not the 400,000 being reported by gardaí.
In percentage terms this was almost exactly the same level of overstatement revealed by the force in March.
The bureau informed a superintendent from the Garda National Traffic Bureau in September 2015 of its serious concerns about the apparent discrepancy and the continuing difference between the number of mouthpieces ordered and reported test levels.
However, it did not give gardaí the 100 per cent figure from its survey due to concerns it might be inaccurate given the relatively small number of devices examined.
The conversation took place in the context of the planned procurement of mouthpieces for 2016, and the bureau was assured by gardaí that the issue was being addressed by way of an audit.
In a letter to the chair of the Oireachtas justice committee, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, in April, bureau head Prof Denis Cusack said the mismatch between the mouthpieces supplied and the number of Garda breath tests reported as being carried out was conveyed to gardaí in September 2015.
“Critically, the related issue of the number of breathalyser tests carried out by An Garda Síochána, which was entirely a matter within the legal and functional remit of Garda operations, the bureau was told was being addressed by gardaí by way of an audit in 2015,” Prof Cusack said.
In August 2015, gardaí were already carrying out an initial audit into breath test figures in the southern division on foot of an anonymous letter from a Garda reservist in April 2014. In 2015, the bureau took the view that this was the only definitive way to address the issue.
This initial Garda audit found the published breath test figures for Cork and Kerry were 17 per cent higher than those actually carried out and prompted the national audit of Mandatory Alcohol Testing checkpoints which began in June 2016.
Separately, other correspondence released under the FoI Act showed that in July 2016 the Garda suddenly changed its requirements for the procurement of next-generation breath test devices to replace the Drager 6510 devices.
In a July 2016 letter, the bureau told the Department of Transport that the current process was about 80 per cent complete and if it were to be halted and begin again with different requirements “there would be budgetary, financial cost, resource, time, legislative and data protection issues arising”.
Gardaí in the same month changed their requirements and said the new breath test devices should be able to capture time, date and location data, the details of the person conducting the test and an allowance for a direct upload of the data on to the Garda’s Pulse system.
It is believed a combination of concern over the accuracy of the breath tests coupled with an allegation from one person that they witnessed a Garda self-administering a breath test was behind the change in requirements.
To date the bureau has supplied gardaí with 3.4 million mouthpieces for breath tests including 800,000 in 2006, none in 2007, 600,000 in 2008, 400,000 in 2009, 600,00 in 2010, 400,000 in 2011, none in 2012, 400,000 in 2013 and 200,000 in 2014.
No mouthpieces were ordered by gardaí in either 2015 or 2016. The overall cost of the mouthpieces was €675,000.