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Drunk Driving

Here's what we know so far about the garda breath test scandal

Almost one million tests that were never actually carried out were recorded on the system.

THIS WEEK SENIOR gardaí revealed a baffling discovery – that almost one million roadside breath tests that never happened had been recorded on their system over the last five years.

At a press briefing in Dublin, Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn held his hands up and told reporters: “The numbers don’t add up – that’s a fact.”

An internal investigation has begun to determine how this happened, but here’s what we know so far:

How did garda management discover this error?

Assistant Commissioner Finn on Thursday said a review was conducted into breath tests at traffic collisions and as a result of that another review took place in the southern region in 2015.

Discrepancies were discovered during that process and a nationwide audit was launched in early 2016.

Finn did not disclose what prompted these reviews, but The Irish Times revealed earlier this year that the audit began after the Medical Bureau of Road Safety (MBRS) noticed a discrepancy in the number of disposable mouth pieces being ordered compared to the number of tests recorded on Pulse.

How bad is it?

The MBRS, which calibrates the garda breath test devices and so has access to the data, shared its figures with An Garda Síochána for comparison.

On the Pulse system, the number of recorded tests between October 2011 and December 2016 was 1,996,365.

The Medical Bureau of Road Safety’s figure was 1,058,157 for that same period.

What explanation did garda management provide?

Finn told reporters that there is no one single reason that may account for this discrepancy.

Before the beginning of last year, a garda would leave the station to conduct a checkpoint and return that day or the following day to update the Pulse system. They would then input the number of people they checked.

At the time, no one was required to record the specific device used or the start and end numbers on the breathalyser (which would indicate how many tests had been carried out).

“That is one of the reasons that account for it,” Finn explained.

As time went on the importance of recording that data was lost to us, or we didn’t appreciate it. People weren’t doing that, they weren’t updating that database at the particular time.

Asked whether gardaí had been making up figures, Assistant Commissioner Michael Finn said: “I don’t know. Certainly they weren’t recording them correctly”.

Who’s to blame?

At Thursday’s briefing, Finn was asked whether it will be possible to pinpoint which gardaí were responsible for these errors.

“The short answer is no,” he replied.

You’re talking about devices that were shared between multiple users, say it was in a patrol car, who had access to it. We don’t have the paper records going back to 2011 to say who did what checkpoint and if we did we didn’t even record the device number on those records going back then.

Essentially, the lax system that allowed for almost a million phantom tests to be counted is also likely to prevent management from identifying who logged the tests.

Could someone who was convicted of a drink-driving charge get off scot-free because of this?

One of the first comments Finn made in relation to this revelation was that “no prosecutions or court outcomes would be impacted by this”.

However, a person who was convicted could technically attempt to use this in an appeal. It is unlikely to be successful, as the roadside test would not be used as evidence in a case.

A subsequent test to provide a specific blood-alcohol level reading is always conducted after a failure in a roadside test. This is the evidence that would have to be disputed in an appeal.

This was happening for (at least) five years – why are we only hearing about it now?

That’s exactly what the Policing Authority wanted to know after the Irish Times story. It had not even been informed that a review was taking place or that discrepancies of any kind had been discovered.

Finn did not respond to suggestions that the information was only put into the public domain this week because it had already broken in the media. He said he had himself briefed the Policing Authority this week about the error.

In a statement this week, the authority referenced its “disappointment” at not being advised at the time that an audit was underway.

The authority said that the situation also raises widespread concern about the way gardaí go about their daily work and about management and supervision. The scale of the discrepancy is “further evidence of deep cultural problems” within the service, it added.”

What is An Garda Síochána doing about it now?

In 2016, a new system was introduced which required gardaí who conducted checkpoints to fill out a paper form with the data from each device, including their name, the device number and the reading from it.

In November last year, a new specific data-recording IT upgrade was also installed on the Pulse system. On this system officers have to record the serial number of the device used plus the meter reading before and after the checkpoint was concluded.

The data since then has been compared to MBRS data and Finn said he believes it is accurate. However gardaí are removing breath test data from their website and will not be publishing further data on checkpoints until they are certain they can stand over them.

New devices are currently being sourced for the organisation, which will record GPS location and the start and end readings for each checkpoint.

And an internal investigation has been launched, led by Superintendent Pat Murray, to try to determine how this happened and who may have been responsible.

However, as already stated, due to the lack of detailed information on the Pulse system for that five-year period, it is unlikely that there will be consequences for anyone who logged a test that did not actually happen.

Read: Gardaí recorded almost one million more breath tests than they actually carried out>

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