Seanad debates

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

8:00 pm

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State has some details of this case before him. It concerns two South African doctors who are in practice together in South Africa. They rotate through this country, alternating between South Africa and Ireland where they provide an out-of-hours service for Caredoc in County Wexford. They have been providing a fantastic service with Caredoc in the county for the past five or six years. While working in Ireland they also share a car which is registered in one doctor's name. When one doctor was in South Africa, however, the other doctor - who is also insured to drive the car - incurred penalty points. When the notice regarding penalty points was sent, it was addressed to the doctor who had gone back to South Africa. As the Minister of State may be aware, the envelope that arrived to the house gave no indication to the other doctor that this was an urgent matter that required immediate attention. When the doctor who was the registered owner of the car came back from South Africa six to eight weeks later, he had clearly gone beyond the period during which he could change the fixed penalty points to the person who had been driving the car. In the intervening period, he incurred a significant fine for not paying the initial fixed charge.

Is there some process whereby the actual driver of the car can take the penalty points and pay the initial fine rather than the onus being put on the doctor who had returned to South Africa and was completely unaware that such a fine was in his post back in Ireland?

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Twomey for raising this matter on the Adjournment. First, I apologise for the fact that the Minister cannot be here to answer the question, although I hope I can bring some clarity to it.

Road traffic legislation is the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, and the Garda Síochána enforces the legislation. The Road Traffic Act 2002 introduced a system of fixed charges and penalty points for specific traffic offences. The legislation has been amended on a number of occasions subsequently. It provides a choice to any person accused of committing an offence to which the system applies and who has consequently received a fixed charge notice. The person can either pay the fixed charge and incur a number of penalty points on his or her driving licence or he or she may decide to allow the matter to proceed to court. If the person is convicted, the legislation provides that the court will impose a penalty which can be higher than the fixed charge and the person will incur a higher number of penalty points than would have been the case if he or she had paid the fixed charge notice. This system has a number of advantages, both for the recipient and the justice system.

When a fixed charge offence is detected, the fixed charge notice, which is issued by the Garda, sets out the amount of the fixed charge that may be paid. The recipient of the notice has a period of 28 days from the date of the notice to pay this amount. If that period of 28 days has passed and the recipient has not paid the amount, he or she has a further 28 days in which he or she can pay the original amount plus 50%. If, after that second period of 28 days has passed and the recipient has still not paid the amount, court proceedings are initiated by the issue of a summons.

The legislation provides for the situation where the driver of a vehicle is not the registered owner of the vehicle. Where a registered owner receives a fixed charge notice and was not the driver at the time the offence was committed, he or she is accorded a period of 28 days from the date of issue of the notice to nominate the person who was driving the vehicle at the time of the alleged offence. A fixed charge notice is then issued to that driver. The nominated driver then has the two periods of 28 days to pay the fixed charge if he or she so wishes. The legislation regards non-payment of a fixed charge as an indication that the alleged offender has opted to go to court.

Senator Twomey has set out the facts of this particular case. It would appear than in this case the registered owner became aware of the fixed charge notice only after the period of 28 days had expired, during which he could have nominated the person driving his car. The owner's wish to have the facility of doing so, even after the period stipulated in the legislation had expired, is understandable. However, the legislation does not allow for that to be done. Legislation has to operate on the basis of certainty. It would not be possible to have open-ended periods within which registered owners and drivers could avail of the options provided for.

Owners of vehicles are responsible for their vehicles even when they are not themselves driving them. On the assumption that the owner concerned has received a summons, he will have the opportunity of making his case in court.

The fixed charge and penalty points system was introduced under a previous Government road safety strategy. The current Road Safety Strategy 2007-2012 continues to bring about a significant reduction in deaths and injuries on the roads and to bring road safety in line with best international standards. Ireland's road safety record has improved dramatically in recent years and the number of deaths on our roads has reduced significantly. The road safety strategy's target is to reduce the number of road deaths to 252 per annum by the end of 2012. In 2009, there were 240 road deaths, the lowest annual total since records began in 1959. We are on target to achieve a further reduction in 2010. As of today, there have been 22 fewer fatalities this year compared with the same period in 2009.

We cannot afford to be complacent. In particular, excessive speed is one of the most significant causes of road deaths, and the enforcement of speed limits is prioritised by the Garda Síochána. The outsourced network of mobile safety cameras, which was launched last month, is an additional means of encouraging drivers to slow down. The aim of these cameras is to help gardaí change driver behaviour, reduce speed and as a result improve road safety.

I am not sure if I have been in any way helpful to the Senator regarding the specific case he has raised.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is correct in that it seems there is no recourse except for the doctors to make their case before the court.