A hit-and-run driver who knocked down and killed a jogger had been banned from getting behind the wheel, an inquest heard last week. The young man, Karl Robertson (28), was fatally struck in Artane, Dublin, on March 8, 2017. The driver, Patrick Morgan, had three driving bans and numerous convictions for road traffic offences. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In the past three years, accidents involving disqualified drivers have caused the death of 12 people on our roads. And it is not a recent problem; from previous studies by the Road Safety Authority (RSA), we know that between 2008 and 2012, disqualified drivers were responsible for 7% of fatal crashes – resulting in the loss of between 11 and 14 lives a year.
Why are disqualified drivers still on the road?
These are entirely preventable deaths, so why is it that disqualified does not actually mean disqualified from the road? The problem centres on two key issues, the first is the inability of gardai to determine whether a driver has a valid licence during roadside checks, the other is that only one in every six motorists disqualified from driving actually surrenders their licence.
On average, about 10,000 drivers are disqualified each year in Ireland, either because they have clocked up 12 penalty points, or seven in the case of a learner or novice driver, or they have been convicted of a serious road traffic offence for which the penalty involves disqualification from driving. In each instance, the driver is instructed to surrender their licence within 14 days of the disqualification taking effect.
When the licence is surrendered, the National Driver Licence Service updates the driver record to reflect that the licence has been received. If it is not received, no amendment is made and no meaningful further action is taken.
How big is the problem?
Last year, of the 9,449 disqualified drivers, only 1,289 surrendered their licence, that is less than 15pc who complied with the law. Given that there is an average of 20,000 disqualified drivers at any one time, that would equate to around 17,000 drivers who, despite being disqualified from driving, are still in possession of their driving licence. More alarmingly, the number that breach their driving ban is unknown.
Disqualified drivers should not be on our roads for good reason and the purpose of licence surrender is to prevent drivers from continuing to drive while disqualified – but is it any wonder so many continue to drive with impunity, knowing they can get away with it?
The issue is compounded by the fact that the process of convicting someone for non-surrender of their licence is both cumbersome and inefficient. To sustain a prosecution, evidence must be presented that the person held a valid driving licence, was disqualified, was aware of the disqualification and the requirement to surrender the licence and had failed to surrender it. Each prosecution requires the involvement of Garda personnel, along with evidence from RSA personnel and, possibly, Courts Service personnel. So, as it stands, significant resources are required to prosecute the thousands of cases.
What could be done?
According to the RSA, the best use of the limited resources available would be to equip gardai with the ability to make roadside checks on motorists’ driving records using technology. Gardai in Limerick are successfully trialling a smartphone app that allows them to check a driver’s record instantaneously, including motor tax and penalty points. They have reported an increase in detection rates for a host of offences.
That is good news from a road safety perspective, but in the first instance, the priority must be to ensure that disqualified drivers have their licence removed.
Instead of relying on better detection of unlicensed drivers, perhaps the focus could be on removing the possibility of retaining your licence after disqualification?
In this digital age, is it not possible to deploy technology to ensure that a licence is cancelled at the moment of disqualification and that all relevant authorities have immediate access to the record of this?
If enforcement has a critical role to play in encouraging greater compliance, then so too has deterrent measures, the automatic removal of a licence from disqualified drivers and the necessity to re-apply for a new licence, or even re-sit the driving test, would go far to reduce the high rates of non-compliance.
No more excuses, the current situation whereby 85% of disqualified drivers blatantly ignore the law is unacceptable, unsafe and untenable.
You can listen back here to Geraldine Herbert talking to Morning Ireland on RTE about calls for the roll-out of handheld devices for gardai which would help them to identify unqualified drivers
22th August 2018