Penalty points system to change
In a few months the penalty points system will be ten years old. What a quick decade that was. The system was launched in a fanfare by the late Seamus Brennan back in October of 2002. At the risk of sounding old, I remember it well.
I had been personally very involved in the AA’s campaign to have a points system introduced and we had a number of meetings with Minister Brennan to persuade him of the idea. He was terrific, and pushed through their introduction when lots of others wanted to delay.
We are so used to the system now that it is hard to remember what it was like beforehand. Now that it has been ten years Seamus’s successor Leo Varadkar has announced a major review and is proposing some changes.
If agreed these would make the punishment more severe for common offences like speeding or phone use. Does this make sense and should we support it?
The points system has been a success story. In fact it has worked brilliantly. Road deaths have halved in the last decade. We also know from the data that when a driver gets two penalty points it changes their behaviour.
A driver with four points is statistically less likely to get caught again than someone who is points-free. Only three per cent will go on to get six or more points, and the number who have chalked up 12 points and a disqualification is tiny – only about 200.
The ‘yellow card’ system works. So it begs the question, if it ain’t broke why fix it?
Well for a start it would make our system look very similar to the one that exists in the UK. There is some merit to this. Moving a speeding offence up to three points would make our system the same as the one in Northern Ireland which will help towards future mutual recognition.
The Department is also suggesting that speeding should become more than one offence. Exceed the limit by a small margin and you will be in a different category to the driver that hurtles through a 60kph zone doing a 100.
However we cannot do this yet. Before any change can be contemplated we have to make sure that speed limits are set properly and we are a long way from that. The country is littered with limits that are too high, too low or just plain ridiculous.
This has got to be fixed, once and for all, before we can increase the punishment for drivers. To be fair the Minister did explicitly agree with this point when I put it to him directly on the AA’s behalf recently.
The AA carried out a survey of poorly set speed limits earlier this year and at our prompting the Department is reviewing speed limits as we speak. The AA is taking part in that process and it is accepted that they cannot make speeding punishments worse before that task is complete.
Other offences might seem more straightforward. Using a mobile phone could get you four points, not wearing a seatbelt could get you six.
This does seem a little severe to me. I have said before that we have to be very careful interfering with the points system because Insurance companies use penalty points to decide how much to charge motorists. We have to make sure that points remain directly related to accident risk.
It would not make sense to be so harsh that a single, simple offence puts any driver into the ‘high risk’ insurance category. For the public to continue to support the system it has to stay fair and proportionate.
Having said that, using a phone while driving must be the daftest way to get points and it is hard to be very sympathetic. Phone use really seems to be an Irish problem. We are a nation of phone junkies and we can’t seem to leave the thing alone while we are driving.
So if you want to stay points free, turn the thing off, put on your seatbelt and keep the speed down. Hard to argue against that really.