Nothing new about failure to convict drink drivers

Analysis: Clampdown on Garda overtime negatively impacts number of convictions

Between January 2013 and May 2015, 20,830 drink-driver cases were listed before District Courts and there were 8,391 convictions, 40 per cent. File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

There is nothing new about drink-drivers not being held to account for their actions.

In 2004, writing in the Medico-Legal Journal of Ireland, Prof Denis Cusack, director of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, and Dr Cliona McGovern, of UCD, said "weak enforcement of existing road traffic legislation" was failing to save lives.

The pair had found that of 44,260 charged for being over the alcohol limit between 1999 and 2003, only 51 per cent got a conviction.

They said there was no real incentive for people to modify their behaviour.


At the time, gardaí argued assumptions made about conviction rates were simplistic, given some cases were adjourned from one year into the next, and challenges to legislation had resulted in a large number of adjournments.

The public was assured that, once a High Court challenge was out of the way, there would be a greater number of convictions.

But more than 10 years on, conviction rates seem even worse. Between January 2013 and May 2015, 20,830 drink-driver cases were listed before District Courts and there were 8,391 convictions, 40 per cent.

Since it began, in late 2014, another High Court challenge has had an effect on the conviction rate. Drink-driving cases that relied on the results of an Evidenzer Irl Breathalyser instrument, used in Garda stations to test breath alcohol, were adjourned pending the ruling.

In September, that ruling was delivered by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan. He found the defendant, Mihai Avadenei (29), of Swords, Co Dublin, should have been provided with test results in both English and Irish, as stipulated in legislation. Similar cases continue to be adjourned pending an appeal of that decision.

But even taking into account those adjournments, the rate of conviction still seems very low.

It compares poorly to our neighbours in England and Wales, where 97 per cent of proceedings before magistrates’ courts result in conviction.

Convoluted laws

Garda sources say drink-driving laws are “convoluted” and perhaps the most challenged legislation in our courts.

They say if the defendant can afford to pay for good representation there are many opportunities for a solicitor to “get someone off on a technicality” .

There are also suggestions that a clampdown on Garda overtime has resulted in gardaí no longer attending courts on their day off to give evidence, and cases being adjourned or struck out as a result.

To complicate the picture, even if a driver is convicted, there is only a one in five chance he will have his licence number recorded by the court, potentially allowing him to go on driving when a court has ordered he should not.

It is an offence not to provide licence details to the court when found guilty of a road traffic offence.

The State moved to begin prosecuting people for that offence in September when 21 motorists were brought before Dublin District Court. The cases were adjourned to mid-November, pending clarification on the retrospective effect of some of the legislation.

A failure to secure road traffic convictions is not limited to drink-driving cases; as figures supplied to Deputy Tommy Broughan and road safety group Parc show, more than three-quarters of drivers summonsed on penalty point offences were not convicted. And of those convicted, more than 70 per cent did not present their licence in court and were not given the penalty points due to them.

Penalty points

Just over 70 per cent of drivers using mobile phones while driving were not convicted, and of those who were convicted, just over 40 per cent didn’t get penalty points because their licence numbers were not recorded.

A working group was set up in early 2014 to examine the penalty point system, but there appears to have been no improvements so far as a result and there seems to be a lack of urgency about making changes.

As Susan Gray, founder of Parc, says, "the system is broken and the sad fact remains that many more lives will be lost and many others will be horribly injured as a result of the foot-dragging".

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist