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Garda drink-driving statistics 'may have been deliberately exaggerated'

Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has said officers may have deliberately exaggerated drink-driving statistics.

In a week when the Government said it was considering a "Patten-style commission" to overhaul the scandal-ridden Garda, the country's top officer apologised for failures, mistakes and wrongdoings in traffic policing over the last decade.

"Those mistakes and wrongdoings are unacceptable in policing terms, unacceptable in ethical terms, unacceptable in terms of public trust and, most critically, unacceptable to the advocacy and support groups involved in road safety and to those who were wrongly brought to court," she said.

Last week an audit revealed almost one million fewer drink-driving breath tests were carried out from 2012 to 2016 than gardai had claimed.

It was also admitted that 146,000 people were taken to court and 14,700 people were wrongly convicted of motoring offences because of issues with the fixed penalty system.

Some of those had not paid fines but were prosecuted even though they had not received the fixed charge notice in the post, while others were taken to court even though they had received the penalty and paid it.

Ms O'Sullivan told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that the issue of breath testing numbers was "at worst deception and at best incompetence".

In an intense four hours of questioning by politicians, which elicited many new questions as well as attempted explanations, the Commissioner conceded that the falsification of breath test data may have been deliberate.

"It's either deceptive insofar that somebody picked a number and just entered a number, or it was a complete error and miscount of the number," she told politicians.

"It may well be the case that ... members, individual members, deliberately put figures into the system that were not correct figures."

The Commissioner also suggested that another reason for the gross exaggeration of breath test data was "preventative" checkpoints were not considered as important as catching drink-drivers.

The committee was told that the information on checkpoints, the number of breathalyser tests, vehicle numbers and drink-drivers caught may only have been filed with the Garda's data centre in Castlebar 24 or 48 hours later.

The Commissioner said: "Perhaps it wasn't as valued as important as it was in terms of detections.

"It doesn't lessen it, it doesn't diminish it, but the hypothesis may well be that it was not seen as important as actually being accurate in terms of the detection of offences."

Ms O'Sullivan said officers may have been unable to remember numbers from a checkpoint and "made it up".

The Commissioner said there was a "real fear" that the falsification of data was not confined to breath test numbers.

She also said it was an "oversight" that the watchdog was not briefed on the breath test and summonses controversy, even though an internal audit had been launched.

Other questions raised at the committee remain unanswered.

:: Garda records claimed there were more than 373,000 road traffic checkpoints, yet one million breath tests - an average of 2.5 motorists breathalysed at every checkpoint.

:: The Commissioner is to send a report to the committee on a bonus system worked for senior gardai up to 2009, including assistant commissioners, and whether it was linked to performance statistics, drink-driving preventions and reductions in road deaths.

:: Clare Daly, Independent TD, questioned whether motorists were still being sent summonses either after not being given an option to pay a fine or after paying a fine, as she was ordered to Naas court in December despite not getting a fixed charge notice in the post and met others in the same boat.

:: The committee also questioned whether there was competition between divisions to improve road safety numbers, detections and to cut road deaths.

An interim report on the issues - the scale of them and potential insight as to how and why they occurred - will be completed in a month and a final report will be sent to the Policing Authority by the end of June.

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