The Irish Times view on the drink-driving laws: gaming the system

New legislation that imposes an automatic three-month driving ban for an infringement, rather than penalty points, is likely to make matters worse

The ability of persons found guilty of drink-driving to avoid being put off the road by engaging in legal challenges has been an open secret for years. Photograph: Frank Miller

The ability of persons found guilty of drink-driving to avoid being put off the road by engaging in legal challenges has been an open secret for years. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

The ability of persons found guilty of drink-driving to avoid being put off the road by engaging in legal challenges has been an open secret for years. Stephanie O’Brien from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions exposed he extent of the activity recently when she said a “huge number” of cases were being fought through the courts, some going back more than 15 years.

This is unacceptable. It erodes the social compact by creating the impression that those able to fund legal challenges can avoid or defer penalties laid down by the Oireachtas. It causes congestion and delay within the courts system and it generates avoidable public expense. In effect, it involves gaming the system. Unfortunately, the political appetite required to deal with the situation has been lacking.

New drink-driving laws that impose an automatic three-month driving ban for an infringement, rather than penalty points, are likely to make matters worse. If drivers found to be over the limit do not accept their automatic suspension when fixed-charge notices are sent to them in the post, their cases will be referred to the courts. This will take time. Once there, if convicted and sentenced, they can appeal on technical or procedural grounds – a process likely to take several years. During all of that time, their licences remain valid and they can continue to drive.

In the past, judges tolerated arcane legal arguments, even when the guilt of the individual, based on incriminating blood and alcohol samples, was beyond doubt. That is changing, however, and recent judgments found that technical or procedural shortcomings had not undermined the rights of the accused. The consolidation of traffic laws to address such loopholes has been suggested.

That could take years. One simple change might help. On being found guilty in the District Court and banned from driving, licences should be confiscated immediately, to be returned in the event of a successful appeal. That way, time considerations would trump deliberate legal delay.

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