Garda have to judge the line between sympathy and responsibility

Last week saw the Garda engaged in one of their periodic road safety ‘blitzes’, this time concentrating on poor maintenance and cars with defective lights.

As you may know it was ourselves who first called attention to this. We had been receiving a lot of emails and anecdotes from drivers telling us that they were seeing more and more of these ‘one eyed monsters’.  So much so that we decided to include it in our January poll of motorists nationwide. You may remember that I wrote about it in these pages at the time.

 Pat Kenny was interested for his radio show, and I appeared on air twice to talk about it. The results from the AA poll were rather shocking. We asked people how often they witnessed cars that have a defective headlight and whether they thought the problem was getting better or worse.

 Overall, 80 per cent said that they see cars in this condition on either a daily or regular basis, as opposed to only 5 per cent who said that they rarely or never saw them. Two thirds of drivers polled said that at least once during the past year they had had a near miss or fright because of one of these cars. Scary stuff.

 The AA poll had just over 19,000 completed questionnaires in total so it provides a fairly comprehensive picture of the problem country wide. In addition to the numbers we also had many thousands of individual comments and observations which give a real flavour of what is going on out there.

 Not entirely surprisingly, the problem was worse in some counties than others. Roughly speaking, the bigger the pothole problem in a given county the more likely there was to be a problem with faulty lights.

 You can easily see why when you think about it. If your car spends its entire life rattling and banging its way along dilapidated roads then it is much more likely to shake its bulbs loose than if it spends its time gently pottering around an urban area.

 It appears as if the Garda and the Road Safety Authority were convinced. On foot of the research they carried out an initiative last week called ‘Operation Light Up’. They warned people in advance as much as possible, and then they carried out checkpoints over a 48 hour period specifically looking for defective lights.

 In a sense the Garda are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. One the one hand, surely no one can seriously argue that cars in this condition are not dangerous. Allowing people to drive through an Irish winter in that state very clearly puts lives in danger so it can’t be ignored.

 On the other hand, the facts of modern life cannot be ignored either. Keeping cars in good condition, taxed and full of fuel is no easy thing. Fuel alone sets most of us back nearly €250 per month. That’s €3,000 a year and you will need to earn €6,000 to bring that home. And that’s only the fuel.

 Servicing, parts and maintenance cost a fortune as well and of course we are all paying road tax (at least we all should be – there are artful dodgers out there too who we are all subsidising ).

 A blown light bulb is not the cheap fix that it once was. Nowadays in modern cars you may have to remove the bumper or the whole light cluster and you need to make sure that the beam is properly aligned afterwards. That normally means a garage job, and that in turn means money that people genuinely do not have.

 During the 48 hours of the campaign we got quite a few contacts from people who felt hard done by. Many people felt that it was very harsh of the Garda to hand out €60 fines for this. I sympathise, and individual Gardai will sympathise as well. Add to that the fact that a bulb can go on you without warning and without your realising it.

 And yet we can’t ignore an obviously dangerous fault on the car. I don’t envy the Garda enforcing this but I do accept the need for it.

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