I have recently had some correspondence with the anti-smoking group ASH looking for the AA to support a ban on smoking in cars. It is an interesting debate and not just for obvious reasons.
Minister Reilly has indicated that he is in favour of a ban when there are children in the car. In fact in a rare move he said recently that he ‘would not oppose’ a bill brought forward in the Seanad to introduce just such a law. Ministers tend to shoot down any proposals that have not been initiated by government in favour of their own alternatives.
AA members broadly support this idea. 85 per cent of respondents to an AA poll carried out last year were in favour of a ban to protect children from second-hand smoke.
Banning smoking in cars entirely is a little different. It is a broader debate and touches on issues like personal freedoms versus responsibilities. What means freedom for one person means higher taxes to pay the costs for someone else.
Reflecting that complexity, AA members were more divided on an absolute ban. 42 per cent favoured it but 47 per cent were opposed. So if a measure like that is seriously contemplated the AA itself would be neutral.
But where we do have a strong view, and one that could lead us into this row, is that we do not believe that any such ban should use road safety law for enforcement. Penalty points for smokers would be a really bad idea.
One of the problems with penalty points is in a sense that they work so well and hence the temptation to miss-use them. The system enjoys very widespread public support at least in part because it concentrates exclusively on road safety.
I have no doubt that penalty points would be very effective for enforcing other things. I would imagine that if you could get points for smoking, littering, or other non-safety related behaviours it would be a great incentive.
For that matter it would probably work for making people put their bins out. Or paying their TV licence, or the household charge, or making sure they remembered their mother on mother’s day.
But none of these things – worthy, unworthy or debatable – have anything to do with road safety.
If road safety law is hi-jacked for other purposes then it will very soon lose both its effectiveness and its public support.
Penalty points are used by insurers as a method to assess each driver’s risk and charge accordingly which is fair to all motorists, at least in principle.
Throwing in non-safety related offences would over time lead to a disconnect between points status and collision risk. This would dilute the effectiveness of penalty points for insurers, and that would mean less fairness in the way that they charge us.
It has been suggested that smoking is a road safety risk. This is true in theory. A foolish driver fumbling with a cigarette or with matches is indeed a hazard. But then there is effectively no limit to the number of silly distracted things that a driver might do while driving; far more than could ever be listed in legislation. There are Sat-navs, CD players, coffee cups - even razors and make-up.
All of these are covered by a provision that makes it an offence to drive a vehicle ‘without reasonable consideration’. Fall foul of that and you could get two or four points, and serves you right if you get them by fumbling with a fag-box.
But on the broader point I’m sticking to my guns. Smoking is a public health issue not a road safety one.