Puzzling penalty points

The penalty point systems for driving offences punishes both bad behaviour and bad driving. The expansion planned for April – with the introduction of another 31 offences for which points can be awarded in addition to the existing serious four – may not prove successful in its aim of improving driving – and reducing crashes – if enough Garda are not available to enforce it. Past experience suggests that is likely, notwithstanding the establishment of a traffic core, the addition of resources and the long awaited introduction of a functioning computer system.
Equally important, however, it may not prove popular with the public if it is felt to be unfair in how it distributes points. Some of the offences are not clear-cut and will depend on the subjective assessment of a Garda. Others would not put anyone's lives at risk. Why should somebody lose their licence for six months for accumulating points because of a series of relatively innocuous offences, that harm nobody, when others seem to get relatively light punishment for far more serious breaches of the motoring law?

Consider the sentencing last week of a man called Geoffrey Cotter, a 35 year old from Lucan in Dublin. His dangerous driving on the M50 in November 2003 caused the death of his fiance's brother, 24-year-old David Noonan, himself the father of a young child.

David Noonan unfortunately was not wearing a seat-belt when Cotter crashed the car. Geoffrey Cotter was driving at 77 miles per hour when he lost control of the car in trying to overtake another vehicle on a wet road. The car mounted an embankment, struck a pole and a tree, overturned and landed upside down.

Geoffrey Cotter was convicted of dangerous driving causing death, failing to report an accident to gardai in a timely fashion, driving without insurance or licence and fraudulent use of insurance and road tax discs.

These weren't his first convictions. He had been convicted of dangerous driving in 1986 and of driving without a licence or insurance in 1988. Last March he was disqualified for three years for drunk driving and driving without insurance. Wait for this: when he was caught he was returning home from a benefit party held to raise funds for the late David Noonan's family.

Last week Geoffrey Cotter was sentenced at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. He received a three year suspended sentence and was disqualified for driving for seven years. Would you like to meet Geoffrey Cotter on the road when he has his licence returned to him? That he is now helping to raise David Noonan's own child, and that David Noonan's family pleaded that a custodial sentence would do no good, stands to him. But given his record should he ever be allowed to drive again?

Also last Thursday Galway District Court heard how Peter Maher, a 30 year old from Oranmore in Galway, drove a ten-year-old red Ferrari at speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour along a Galway dual carriageway in a race against a motorbike driven by one Kieran Flaherty. This happened on a wet night last January with poor visibility.

When a Garda car chased the pair the red Ferrari disappeared into the distance. It wasn't hard for the Gardai to identify such a distinctive car, however, and the owner was arrested the following day. Last week Peter Maher was fined €500 for dangerous driving and disqualified for six months. The motorcyclist got the same treatment.

Sorry to pick on these individuals, who both featured in court reports in last Friday's Irish Examiner, but their offences were clearly serious and highly dangerous (and in Geoffrey Cotter's case, fatal). But was the punishment appropriate to the new regime of penalty points that will potentially deprive people of their licences for a series of technical offences? Shouldn't those who cause death by reason of their behaviour, or who seriously threaten the safety of others, suffer more than the mere inconvenience of the temporary loss of their licence?