Thousands of drivers escape conviction for phone offences

Safety campaigners rail over numbers getting away without a fine or penalty points

 Many drivers have also been able to avoid penalty points in court by making contributions to the poor box, despite a High Court ruling stating the practice was “incorrect”.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Many drivers have also been able to avoid penalty points in court by making contributions to the poor box, despite a High Court ruling stating the practice was “incorrect”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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More than 10,000 drivers who have been summonsed to court for using mobile phones while driving have escaped conviction, new figures show.

Road safety campaigners say the volume of drivers getting away without a fine or penalty points is “making a mockery” of the system.

Courts Service figures show more than 15,000 drivers were ordered to appear in court between January 2013 and March 2015 after failing to pay fines for mobile phone offences.

Some 71 per cent of these drivers – or just over 11,000 – were not convicted for reasons including not being served with a summons at the correct address, or claiming to have never received a fixed-charge notice in the post.

Over recent months a series of revelations have shown that tens of thousands of drivers are escaping convictions for a range of driving offences, including drink-driving and speeding.

Many drivers have also been able to avoid penalty points in court by making contributions to the poor box, despite a High Court ruling stating the practice was “incorrect”.

Susan Gray, chair of the Parc road safety campaign, said the numbers who were able to escape conviction was underminding confidence in the penalty points system. “Any one of these issues on its own is very serious and has major consequences for all road users,” Ms Gray said. “They all add up to a very bleak picture and make us wonder if stakeholders are really serious about sanctioning drivers for breaches of the law.”

Mobile phone offences: non-conviction rates

Click on map to see conviction rates by district courts

Penalty points

The Government, however, says the penalty points system has gained widespread acceptance and payment rates for fixed-charge notices have almost hit 80 per cent.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said recently that the minority of people who do not pay their fines have the option of appearing in court and responding to the charge.

“It is a matter for the Courts to determine whether the charge against the person is proven. It is to be expected that, as for any offence, in certain cases the court will decide that a conviction is not warranted.”

New figures over conviction rates for mobile phone use show significant variations around the country.

The highest non-conviction rates were recorded in district courts in Co Leitrim (86 per cent) and Co Kerry (84 per cent). The lowest non-conviction rate was in Co Offaly (54 per cent).

Road safety campaigners, however, say use of the regular post for fixed-charge fines , rather than registered post, is allowing drivers to claim they never received the notice.

In addition, the Garda has reported difficulties serving summonses due to inaccurate address data, people moving house or living in apartments which make access to properties difficult.

Independent Tommy Broughan TD said the figures were alarming and called for a root-and-branch review of the penalty points system.

“The system needs to be water-tight. We have to ensure that it works and that drivers pay their fixed charge notices,” he said. “We need a complete review. Few other pieces of legislation have involved such widespread failure to apply he law.”

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, however, has said a criminal justice working group is considering reforms aimed at making more drivers pay fines and reducing summons activity.

This includes plans to attach a “third payment option” to a court summons, which is provided for under Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 2010.

The Garda has said it is also working on reforming a number of issues over fixed charges for penalty points.

Drivers are currently required to pay a fixed-charge notice for penalty points within 28 days or face an increased fine within 56 days of the offence.

A failure to pay within this timeframe results in a court summons.

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