Number of penalty points fell in 2012

The total number of penalty point incidents fell last year compared to 2011. In all there were just over 239,000 cases, down by 7.2 per cent annually. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view.

The official line from the Garda and the Road Safety Authority is that drivers are getting the message and behaving themselves better. That may well be true and of course the most important statistic of all – the number of road deaths – also fell which would tend to support it.

I don’t think we should kid ourselves though. There are other factors at play. There has been a general reduction in traffic volumes because of the ongoing recession. This is visible on a daily basis when you look at traffic in the larger cities like Dublin and Cork, and also at the volumes on the motorways.

Last year was also the first full year with the network of speed cameras in operation and that may have had a significant influence.

I worry though that there might also be a general reduction in the visibility of Gardai on the roads. We know that Garda budgets are under pressure and there are not the same resources. While there are more cameras out there the number of traffic Gardai is down from a peak of 1,200 to just over 850 now.

Looking at what we are receiving points for is interesting in itself. Speeding is out on its own as our number one misdemeanour, accounting for 184,000 cases or 77 per cent of the total. Not a huge surprise.

For the first few years of the penalty points system the number two offence was not wearing a seatbelt, either by the driver or by a passenger under 18 years old (for which the driver, rightly, gets points ).

That still accounted for 8,858 offences last year but that only qualifies it for the number three spot. Number two, accounting for 25,640 cases, was the offence that seems to annoy other motorists more than all the others put together: using a mobile phone.

It really does drive people demented when they see other motorists doing it. Judging by the correspondence that we receive nothing pleases a motorist more than seeing someone else getting caught phone-handed.

It is hard to feel much sympathy and yet at the same time there are a huge number of us who have done it ourselves from time to time. Most people will tell you anecdotally that the problem seems to be getting worse, or at least is not getting any better.

Strangely though the Garda stats seem to say different. The number of people caught using a phone while driving actually fell by 5 per cent last year. It is one of those quirks in the data that makes me wonder if we are actually seeing an improvement in driver behaviour or a reduction in enforcement levels and hence more people getting away with it.

I can’t be sure of the answer but again there might be other factors at play. Phones these days will connect to modern cars via Bluetooth, so you no longer need to invest in having a hands-free kit installed.

At the same time more people have smartphones, which are both a blessing and a curse. As a nation we seem to have a tremendous habit of fiddling with them when we are stuck in traffic. If you are jammed solid on the way home it is tempting to pick it up.

Start daydreaming and before you know it you can find yourself looking at a hilarious picture of a kitten when you are shocked back to reality by the sound of the driver’s horn behind you or worse, the tapping of a Garda’s knuckles on your driver’s window.

Other offences that happen in reasonable numbers include failure to obey traffic lights (4,659 people last year ) and the catch-all provision that is used to cover all sorts of silly and careless things, from lipstick to shavers to bad manners, which is termed ‘Driving without reasonable consideration’. That meant points for 3,757 drivers last year.

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