On the Road Safety Authority’s website, there are detailed monthly “penalty point statistics”. These include figures for the number of speeding offences by county for each month, for example. 

But a search for an answer to a question about these statistics led to the RSA referring queries to the Gardaí, which pointed back at the RSA, which directed queries then to the Department of Transport, which gave two possible answers – while the RSA also eventually also gave another, different, possible answer.

“This is exactly the problem,” said Fine Gael TD Ciarán Cannon, by phone on Tuesday morning, after hearing about this wild answer chase.

“If you are looking to implement solutions that actually work, they need to be data driven,” Cannon said. “But there is no one central repository for all the data we need to make our roads safer.” 

He has called for the establishment of a Road Safety Commissioner, saying that a single body needs to assume responsibility for an overarching road-safety strategy given the trend of increasing fatalities on the roads.

At the moment, the minister of state with responsibility for road safety engages with the RSA, the Gardaí, two different departments, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, and local authorities, among others – all of which have different functions related to road safety, Cannon said. 

Origins of a question

A survey in Dublin in March documented 181 cases of red-light breaking by road users, and zero enforcement. 

This was a relatively small sample though, and the RSA keeps county-wide and national data on penalty point statistics. 

The RSA’s most recent penalty point statistics available at that time, for December, showed there had been some enforcement.

It showed 17 notices issued for “driving past a red light” in County Dublin, and 5,634 for “Fail to obey traffic lights”. 

But what is the difference between these two offences? 

An RSA spokesperson said by email on 3 April that “The statistics mentioned below come from An Garda Síochána. I would suggest reaching out to their press office to obtain this information.” 

A spokesperson for the guards said, “An Garda Síochána does not comment on statistics from third parties. However if you wish you could resubmit your query  seeking relevant Garda figures.”

When told about this response from the Gardaí, and also asked again the difference between the two figures, that RSA spokesperson never responded again. 

He also did not respond to a query about how to interpret the figures. Was 17 the number of notices issued in December for “driving past red light”, or was it the number of penalty points that were current in December, issued at various points in time?

Having statistics on road-traffic offences, and being able to understand them is important, says Jason Cullen, spokesperson for the Dublin Commuter Coalition. 

“That kind of info is essential to track if Vision Zero is actually working (which it’s not),” Cullen said, referring to the government’s commitment to reach zero road deaths or serious injuries on Irish roads by 2050.

The search continues

A follow-up email sent on 11 October to the RSA produced a prompt phone call from another spokesperson there.

In fact, the query should have been referred to the Department of Transport, not the Gardaí, he said. The department provides the data to the RSA, which simply posts it on the RSA website, he said.

In response to a series of queries sent on 12 October, the Department of Transport on 17 October explained how the data in the monthly penalty point statistics reports is gathered and disseminated, and how to read the figures. 

Data on offences resulting from paid fixed-charge notices come from the Gardaí, and data on offences resulting from court appearances comes from the Courts Service, the department spokesperson said. 

All this is sent electronically to the National Vehicle and Driver File (NVDF), he said. “The resulting offence statistics are collated and made available to the RSA and other invested stakeholders.”

The figures in the report on the RSA website are “cumulative figures which are rolling over a 3 year period. Penalty Points which have expired are removed and Points which have been acquired are added to these cumulative figures,” the department spokesperson said.

And what is the difference between the offence “driving past a red light” and the offence “Fail to obey traffic lights”? 

“The Department cannot comment on the text of the RSA website,” he said. “However, we can confirm that as per Part 4 of Schedule 1 of the Road Traffic Act 2002, it is an offence to disobey traffic lights or not to halt at a traffic sign adjacent to such lights.”

Answer(s) at last

Asked why no clear answer was still available, both the department and the RSA soon responded with more answers. 

“While driving past a red traffic light is an offence, it is not the only type of traffic light offence,” a department spokesperson said. “Regulation 30 of SI 182/1997 sets out traffic light offences and specifies that drivers shall not drive through a non-flashing amber light aside from when the vehicle is so close to the light that it cannot be stopped safely.”

The RSA spokesperson, meanwhile, rang to say they’d looked into the issue more deeply and “Fail to obey traffic lights” might refer to something else: a situation when a vehicle stops at a red light – but stops beyond the white line where it was supposed to.

What do the department and the RSA use this data for, and how can they use it effectively if they aren’t don’t know exactly what it means? 

“The figures are used to influence road safety policy, answer numerous statistical queries such as PQs [parliamentary questions], FOIs [requests under the Freedom of Information Act], press queries and various statistical reports,” the department spokesperson said.

The department has established a new data and analytics division “as it wishes to increase its use of data for policy evaluation and creation”, he said. 

Not only that, but there’s a plan to empower the Minister for Transport to set and vary penalty points without the need for new legislation, “which will allow penalties to be updated in a more timely manner in response to emerging trends in the data”, he said. 

The department spokesperson did not directly respond to a query on how it can effectively use the data if it doesn’t know exactly what it means. Nor did the RSA spokesperson.

A muddle

Mike McKillen, who campaigns for road safety, said last week that this muddled situation is not likely to produce good results.

“If you want to be a road safety body, you need to have accurate information to make your decision making,” McKillen said.

Cannon, the Fine Gael TD, said by phone Tuesday that he’s been asked – as he campaigns for the establishment of a Road Safety Commissioner – whether he’d like to see the RSA “stood down completely”.

“Maybe it needs to have someone at the helm, a Road Safety Commissioner”, Cannon said. 

That person could have the power to go out and gather data they needed from various sources, and keep it in a standardised way, and understand and use it to direct policy to help make the roads safer, he said. 

“We must examine all options to reverse the current trend of increasing fatalities and injuries with a single, all-encompassing response with the sole responsibility of road safety,” Cannon said in an emailed statement Monday.

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