By MICHAEL PATTWELL
I AM very grateful to the chairman of the Road Safety Authority (RSA), Dr Gay Byrne, to the board of the RSA and the CEO, Mr Noel Brett, for asking me to chair the conference held at Dublin Castle last week on ‘Recidivist Behaviour and Driver Rehabilitation Programmes’.
About 150 people from various interest groups, including An Gárda Siochana, were present to hear thought-provoking presentations from the keynote speaker, Sir Peter North, and various other experts in their fields.
During my 21 years as a District Court Judge I frequently felt frustrated and limited because of the lack of effective orders I could make, other than imposing fines or, in relatively rare cases, imposing short prison sentences on road traffic offenders. Though it is too late now for me in my working life, it is still of interest to me as a person, a parent and a citizen that our roads should be safer and how this can be achieved.
Some people may not be aware of what ‘recidivism’ or a ‘recidivist’ is. A ‘recidivist’ is, simply, a criminal who offends repeatedly.
People love statistics. One can do anything with them. For instance, I was reading recently the results of a research project on speeding recidivism in Queensland, Australia, in 2004. From the large sample of drivers surveyed, it appears that only 18% were young drivers — that is, aged 18 to 25.
Not bad, I thought, I expected it to be more. Why then are they penalised so much by insurance companies?
Then, further down, I read that of all the drivers licensed in Queensland only 10% were 25 or under. Do the math yourselves. It paints a wholly different picture and young drivers come back into focus.
What was of particular interest in that survey is that when it comes to recidivism 74% of males caught in 2003 re-offended and 60% of females. Assuming males and females in Queensland are split 50/50 that makes an average recidivism rate of 67%. That I found surprising. I wonder what the figures would be here. Perhaps they are easily available. For instance, how many people who got two penalty points for the first time in 2010 had four or more points by the end of 2011?
What all of this adds up to is very simple. Countries generally, including ours, have a problem and we had better do something about it. And that is why we were at that conference; to get some answers that would help us to tackle the problem.
There is, however, really only one statistic that matters: 184 people were killed on our roads last year. Multiply that by at least 100 for close family, cousins, friends, neighbours and colleagues of each person killed and suddenly you have 20,000 people, at the very least, deeply affected, grieving and traumatised. Add to that the number affected by severe or indeed any injury and the final number is colossal. The problem for me, when I was working and for my colleagues still, is what is to be done with road traffic offenders.
In only a relatively small number of cases would imprisonment be appropriate, and even in those cases there is a debate as to whether it is even a sufficient deterrent for either the person charged or for other road users.
Usually we were left with fining offenders. There are so many things to be considered before imposing a fine that when we got to the bottom line it would be only a light punishment at best and certainly not a deterrent.
Endorsements and disqualifications are regarded by society generally as punishments but officially, they are not punishment; they are consequences. Community Service Orders could not be imposed in lieu of a fine; they could only follow from prison sentences.
Penalty points in themselves aren’t punishment either, at least not until we get to the magic number of 12, though some would say that increased insurance premiums that may follow from penalty points are a severe punishment. Should we, however, leave punishment in the hands of profit-motivated insurance companies? I think not.
I have ideas about things that could be done and I will deal with them in this column another day. Sometimes when I was working I would try to do something that I considered might be more effective, though how I would do it would have to be carefully structured. For instance, I did not have the power to order people to take driving lessons or courses and if I made such an order it wouldn’t last thirty seconds if challenged by Judicial Review in the High Court. What I would do, however, is say to the offender that I would adjourn the case for a certain number of months, that a possible prison sentence hung over him/her but that when the case came back to me I would be IMPRESSED and maybe not inclined to impose a sentence if he/she had taken a certain number of driving lessons from a competent driving instructor.
That was a loose arrangement. I could not ask the Gardaí or the Probation Officers to monitor it as they did not have either the personnel or the jurisdiction to do so. I would have to take on face value what was presented to me as evidence of the lessons having been taken.
I’m not sure how effective that was in any case where I tried it. I can only hope that it saved somebody in the future from injury or even death. Just like the work of the Road Safety Association, positive results are not seen. We can’t have statistics for things that never happened; for accidents that were prevented by good teaching or by effective law enforcement; for death or for injuries that might have but never happened.
I am confident there are many hundreds, even thousands, every year who have been saved from the terrible consequences of bad driving, driving with drink taken, carelessness and inattention because of the work of the RSA.
Think of the positive possibilities if we learn to modify our speed and our driving generally. There is a young woman somewhere out there who will live to cuddle her grandchildren. A young apprentice, putting on his overalls for the first time, who will one day be the head of a huge industrial enterprise. A child, playing the first notes on a musical instrument, who will one day sell a million discs (or more likely get several million ‘hits’ on a music website). All these people and countless others we can only imagine, will, however, only reach these goals if we change and improve our driving habits and practices.