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'Austerity cost lives': Drink driving convictions in Ireland fell MASSIVELY in the last 10 years

The yearly rate has fallen by nearly 9,000 in fact. And counties with a lot of road deaths are not necessarily those with the most convictions.

Gardai Traffic Corps Source: Rollingnews.ie

THE RATE OF drink driving convictions in Ireland has been sliding dramatically for at least the last 10 years.

Figures released by the Courts Service of Ireland to Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín show that convictions for alcohol-related driving offences in the District Courts have been falling consistently since 2007.

That year there were 11,062 convictions around the country. In 2016 there were just 2,709, a fall of 76%.

Part of the drop may be explained by the introduction of separate penalty point regulations for those found to have blood alcohol content (BAC) levels of between 0.50mg and 0.80mg in October 2011.

That move came some five years after random breath testing was made law via the 2006 Road Traffic Act – with gardaí thus given the power to breathalyse any driver they saw fit, regardless of whether or not they had formed an opinion as to the sobriety of the individual in question.

However, the sheer scale of the drop seen would seem to suggest that blaming it entirely upon any one factor is illogical.

Not only this, but a further fall of 36% was seen in convictions in the years following October 2011, between 2012 and 2016.

Yet road deaths are on the increase. 2016 saw 15% more deaths on Irish roads than a year previously. Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2012 alcohol was a factor in 38% of the fatal collisions seen on the roads according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

“Either drink driving is disappearing from Ireland or its detection is,” says Tóibín, who suggests that the fall is directly related to the recent decline seen in Garda Traffic Corps members – from 1,200 in 2009 to just 738 in 2015 and 681 in 2016.

“In my view as a result driver behaviour has changed significantly. Drink driving is not the stigma it was 10 years ago. It’s not surprising that the great progress that had been achieved on the roads up until 2012 has been reversed and that road fatalities are on the increase.

In this situation it’s clear that austerity has cost lives.

20170728_Journal_DrunkDriving (1) Source: Statista

Click here to view a larger image

The news comes as the Government and Minister for Transport Shane Ross are attempting to bring in an amended Road Traffic Bill, which would see automatic bans introduced for all drivers testing over the 0.50mg limit, together with naming and shaming of all people convicted of alcohol-related offences.

While the number of convictions had fallen every year from 2007 until 2015, 2016 actually saw a slight jump of 11% – from 2,442 to 2,709 (there were 1,193 convictions in the first four months of 2017).

That trend is replicated in official Garda figures per the Central Statistics Office (CSO) – with recorded drink-driving crime falling from 2007 through 2015 before spiking slightly last year.

As an aside, the number of convictions for alcohol-related driving crime versus the number of arrests is 56% for the years 2007 through 2016 (60,120 convictions versus 106,494 recorded crimes).

Where are people drink-driving?

The released figures show that convictions are dominated by Ireland’s cities, with Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Galway topping the table overall between 2007 and 2017 with 13,667, 4,101, 2,155, and 1,800 convictions in that time respectively.

Looking outside the main cities, courts in the following towns represented the top ten in the country for alcohol-related driving convictions between 2007 and 2017:

1 Towns with most drink-driving convictions, 2007-2017 Source: Courts.ie

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In 2016, meanwhile, the top six district court areas/towns were Meath, Mullingar (Westmeath), Letterkenny (Donegal), Wexford, Ennis (Clare), and Naas (Kildare).

Taking the number of actual convictions by county, the population heavy areas like Dublin and Cork dominate as one might expect:

2 Counties ranked by number of drink-driving convictions, 2007-2017 Source: Courts.ie

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However, ranking counties by taking convictions as a percentage of the number of driving licences held there (per the RSA’s own official figures) tells a different story – with Monaghan, Cavan and Louth having the greatest proportional share of convictions in the last ten years:

20170728_Journal_DrunkDriving2 (2) Source: Statista

Click here to view a larger image

Donegal (a county which historically has incurred less penalty points than other counties despite showing higher statistics for road deaths) had the least convictions in that time, followed by Roscommon, Kilkenny, and Kildare.

In 2016, Westmeath, Longford, Monaghan, Cavan, and Galway were the worst offenders as far as successful convictions were concerned (Longford is the only variant in the top five from 2012 – having jumped 19 places).

However, the number of convictions in 2012 was also far higher – Monaghan for example, had 107 convictions in 2012, versus 61 in 2016 – yet still only slips two places in the rankings.

Conclusion? The number of convictions is falling. But the places where the most convictions tend to occur haven’t changed.

What’s the story?

So, what’s going on? The majority of vested interests in this story declined to comment, or said that they were not in a position to do so: the Department of Justice failed to respond, the Courts Service itself said it wasn’t in a position to comment, and the Department of Transport said simply: “We don’t comment on court or An Garda Síochána statistics.” The department’s minister, Shane Ross, likewise could not be reached for comment.

ALLIANCE 758A1233_90514190 Transport Minister Shane Ross Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Speaking for the gardaí, Assistant Commissioner for roads policing Michael Finn says the statistics are a sign of cultural change.

“If you’re seeing a drop in our arrests, then there is an opposite rise in compliance,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“It’s no longer socially acceptable to drink-drive in Ireland, the figures are a sign of a change of culture, which is a good thing.

But if enforcement drops, so too does compliance as people decide to take a chance again. We had a blitz last year and in the aftermath compliance was heightened. We upped our game and saw the results. Much the same was seen after the penalty points side of things came in in 2011. When you bring in something new, it affects people and increases compliance.

Which would seem to bode well for Shane Ross’s plan to name and shame drink drivers from later this year.

Finn adds that a recent low rate of convictions can in part be attributed to the High Court case of Mihai Avandenei in 2015, which saw the Romanian national’s case that he should have been given a readout of a failed breath test in both Irish and English, rather than just English as was the case.

Avandenei’s case was supported by a District Court judge, who referred it to the higher court. This in turn led to hundreds of similar cases being adjourned at District Court level, leading to a “whole stack of cases backlogged” according to Finn.

The RSA meanwhile said it has “noted the figures produced by the courts, and will certainly look into the trends depicted.”

Another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggests that “courts figures are always a minefield, it’s simply not possible to divine meaning from them”.

We couldn’t explain them if we tried.

The fact is, however, that alcohol-related driving convictions have dropped at a rate of almost 80% since 2007, which seems a tad unlikely for a country that purportedly continues to struggle with its drink-driving problem.

TheJournal.ie was warned off making comparisons between Garda crime statistics and the drop in convictions but the trends seen for both (per the graph above, a dramatic dropoff every year between 2007 and 2015) are broadly the same.

File Photo: The Cabinet has endorsed changes to drink-driving laws, which would see those detected over the blood alcohol limit being automatically disqualified Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

So, some possible reasons for a falloff in convictions:

  • A change in Ireland’s drink-driving culture with the introduction of random breath testing in 2006, and, as driving drunk became social taboo, a consequent drop in alcohol-related infractions
  • The aforementioned introduction of penalty point regulations for low-level offenders (something that will be done away with should Shane Ross’s new Road Traffic Bill pass the Oireachtas)
  • Less Garda enforcement following the economic crash, cutbacks, and years of austerity which saw the numerical strength of the Garda Traffic Corps reduced by almost half
  • Court cases taking years to process, or being held back pending appeals

Some of this makes intuitive sense – the doing-away with a freeze in Garda recruitment last year for example ties in with the first annual increase in convictions in a decade.

And certainly the introduction of penalty points has to have had an effect.

It has also been suggested that prior to 2007 Ireland went through its heaviest ever sustained campaign against drink-driving, and that afterwards both relevant Garda activity and unlawful behaviour on the part of citizens must have dropped.

“There was a general change in public attitude,” one source, who declined to speak on the record, told TheJournal.ie. “People finally got the message.”

But a reduction of 9,000 convictions over those 10 years?

And another fall of 36% (1,529 convictions less) between 2012 and 2016 (even this would be more severe if not for the slight bump in figures in 2016)?

Such a turnaround would surely represent a truly amazing result for law enforcement in this country.

Making sense of the figures

One recent scandal that cannot help but spring to mind in light of all this is the fact that, in March, gardaí admitted that the number of breath tests conducted between October 2011 and December 2016 was artificially inflated to the tune of nearly 940,000.

No satisfactory explanation for this discrepancy has ever been offered.

90401854_90401854 Sinn Féin TD for Meath West Peadar Tóibín Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

At the same time, the force revealed that 14,700 convictions for various (non-alcohol related) road traffic offences were to be quashed as a result of unlawful summonses being sent to drivers who had already paid a fine.

The fallout from that particular scandal is set to cost the Irish state millions of euro in administrative costs, not to mention the legal expenses involved.

Again, no explanation has been proffered (although an IT system to prevent a reoccurrence has apparently since been installed at Garda headquarters).

So the gardaí are not on the firmest of ground when it comes to statistics on the policing of Ireland’s roads at present.

“It’s important to look at the regional variability of these figures,” says Tóibín. “The 2016 RSA figures for where alcohol featured most as a contributory factor in collisions show counties Cork (10.6%), Galway (9.7%), Dublin (7.9%) and Donegal (7.6%) on top of the rankings.

However three of those four counties are in the bottom half of the conviction rate list. Donegal is the county in which you are least likely to be convicted for drink driving.
Resources need to be located to where the problem exists.

Perhaps Ireland has simply become a shining beacon of lawful obedience in the last 10 years. One way or the other, convictions have fallen at an astronomical rate.

“It’s important not to forget the almost-a-million fake drink-driving breath tests and 14,700 wrongful motoring convictions  - what effect have those factors had on the retrenchment of road traffic policing?” says Tóibín. “Falsified data confuses policy formation.”

At the moment, it seems there are more questions than answers.

You can download the data used in this report at this link

Read: So, what’s the deal with Ireland naming and shaming drink drivers?

Read: Ranked – the counties where you’re most likely to have received penalty points

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