Just one in four people brought to court for driving while using their mobile phones are being convicted.
New data shows that between 2018 and 2020, more than 15,000 such cases were listed in the District Court but conviction rates ranges from 14 per cent in Co Sligo and Co Meath to 36 per cent in Co Wicklow. The average across 83 district courts in 26 counties was just under 25 per cent.
The highest number of prosecutions outside the four major cities – although not adjusted for population densities – was recorded in Co Kildare where 835 people were brought before three courts over the three-year period. The county had a 19 per cent conviction rate.
Courts in Co Leitrim dealt with 78 prosecutions in total, or an average of 26 cases per year.
Use of mobile phones behind the wheel has become of increasing concern in terms of road safety. "It's up there with drink-driving because you aren't concentrating on the road," said Susan Gray of the road safety advocacy group Parc who, having analysed the data, believes there should be a greater crackdown on such behaviour.
“We have said it all in every sense we can; we are disappointed that even after years of our analysis of court figures, and sending report after report to the relevant agencies, that we still see problems with so many drivers caught using their mobile phones and getting away without convictions.”
The penalty for using a phone while driving – either having it in hand or cradled on a shoulder – is a fixed charge of €60 and three penalty points. That increases to €90 and five penalty points if it goes to court due to non-payment of the fixed-charge penalty.
According to data seen by The Irish Times, the vast majority of court sanctions imposed on conviction were fines although there were also 58 disqualifications and four were linked to custodial sentences (two of which were suspended).
Conviction rates fell considerably in 2020, a pattern that has been attributed to Covid-19 and the consequent reduction in sittings and the prioritisation of facilities for more serious cases such as sexual offences and murder, rather than a decline in the detection or prosecution of road traffic offences.
In 2020, there were 3,635 prosecutions for driving while using a mobile phone, which was 35 per cent less than in 2018 (5,612) and 40 per cent less than in 2019 (6,081).
Over that three-year period, large numbers of people had their cases either dismissed or struck out by judges (the vast majority struck out) – 965 cases in 2018, 854 in 2019 and 805 in 2020. That amounts to about one in every five prosecutions (17 per cent), although no details are provided as to why cases were thrown out. In such instances, drivers avoid all penalties.
The data was sourced from the Courts Service via the Minister for Justice by Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy.
“People shouldn’t be holding a mobile phone and driving, and the law is very clear on that,” she said.
“There are plenty of different devices that you can pop into your car . . . The whole idea of these laws is to keep people safe on the roads.”
Whatever the prosecution levels, the recently published Road Safety Strategy 2021-2030 noted market research that showed 14 per cent of drivers admit to using their devices behind the wheel. The strategy document committed to monthly publication of various enforcement activities including on mobile phone use while driving.
Data for prosecutions to the end of September 2021 shows prosecution rates (standing at 4,335) had already surpassed the 2020 total which, hampered by pandemic restrictions, reached 3,635 for the full year.