No gardaí set out to inflate breath test figures, superintendents say

‘Decent’ machines to handle data should have been provided if records the priority

Garda superintendents have insisted that no members of the force set out to deliberately inflate drink driving test breath test data. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire.

Garda superintendents have insisted that no members of the force set out to deliberately inflate drink driving test breath test data. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire.

 

Garda superintendents have insisted that no members of the force set out to deliberately inflate drink driving test breath test data.

The Association of Garda Superintendents said if recording data was so relevant, it should have been prioritised and equipment suited to that priority provided.

It said the period in which the one million tests carried out were inflated to two million, from 2012 to 2016, was characterised by cutbacks and simultaneous increased oversight.

Members of the Garda were under pressure to maintain enforcement on roads. However, the detection of drink drivers was the priority, rather than counting the number of tests completed.

Association president Noel Cunningham did not believe some Garda members had falsified testing rates deliberately.

“I don’t think anybody was setting out to say I did X, when they did Y,” he said. “I believe members were acting in a responsible manner. They were doing these checkpoints, they were trying to identify drunk drivers.

“They were trying to make the roads safer and that’s what our function was, what we were trying to do, it wasn’t about numbers.”

Checkpoint

He said some gardaí believed they had tested a motorist in some cases where a breath sample was not taken. This included cases where motorists went through a checkpoint and were spoken to but it was determined they had not been drinking and no breath test was required.

However, Supt Cunningham added the outcome of the investigations into the controversy would be needed before clarity would emerge around how and why the figures had been inflated. In that regard, the superintendents have echoed the stance taken by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors and the Garda Representative Association.

Mr Cunningham was speaking at his association’s annual conference in Naas, Co Kildare. It takes place in closed session, though some members speak to the media.

Debilitating

Separately, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald denied cutbacks accounted for the exaggeration in drink-driving breath tests.

“We wait with interest the findings in relation to what precisely happened, how it could happen and who was responsible,” she said in Dublin.

However, Ms Fitzgerald said she accepted that cutbacks in the force over recent years had a “very debilitating impact” on services.

“That’s why in both the last government and in this, I have prioritised investment in An Garda Siochana,” she said.

She said that revolves around recruits and investment in technology.

Ms Fitzgerald added investment in IT for An Garda Siochana is “absolutely essential both at a national level and at an international level to fight terrorism”.

“We have to invest in IT, we are investing over €200 million and if the economy wasn’t improving, we wouldn’t be in a position where we can do that, so it’s very important, this investment,” she said.

Speaking at the conference, Mr Cunningham pointed out when breath testing was introduced the ‘blow in the bag’ kit used was disposable.

Later, when hand held Drager devices replaced the ‘blow in bag’ system, there was no emphasis put on creating records around their use.

“It was for the same purpose, to assist us in identifying people who were possibly intoxicated while driving,” he said of the repeat use Drager device replacing the disposable blow in the bag system.

“It was never designed or believed to have been used for a counting process.”

Piece of kit

If records, rather than catching drink drivers, was of such importance “a decent piece of machinery” should have been introduced.

A piece of kit should have been sourced that counted each test with a geolocation capability. In that way, the location of all tests and the Garda member involved would automatically upload onto electronic records at the end of a shift.

“You have to remember this occurred at a time when resources were hugely depleted,” he said.

Road traffic enforcement was increasingly being performed by regular Garda units rather than members of the depleting Traffic Corps.

“(Gardaí) were going from breath tests to assaults, to domestic disputes, to road traffic accidents, to anything they could be called to,” he said.

“They then had to go back at the end of their tour and record all of their functions, all of their duties. And the important thing was the breath test was done; that’s what was important.”

Data compiled in an interim report on the inflated breath testing controversy by Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan has revealed very significant differences in the margin of error breath test records.

For example, some Garda divisions had inflated their numbers by around five per cent, which is regarded within a regular margin of error. But other regions have inflated testing activity by 495 per cent.

However, Mr Cunningham did not believe local management in Garda divisions or senior management in Garda Headquarters, Phoenix Park, Dublin, were pursuing quotas of tests performed.

Away from the breath testing issue, Mr Cunningham called for the great resourcing of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, saying it was referring a lot of complaints to his members for investigation.

This meant the public was not being afforded an independent inquiry into the complains they were making against gardaí.

He also said assaults of Garda members were a concern, as was the as yet unknown impact of Brexit on policing, especially border policing. He also believed while Ireland was not immune from the threat of terror groups like Isis, they were well-trained to respond.