Western People 19.9.2023
The memory of the summer months of 2023 could be summarised as a sandwich of two heatwaves interspersed with what seems in retrospect like an almost constant deluge of rain. To compound the misery a series of mind-numbing road accidents at the end of August, accompanied by the unimaginable suffering of parents for the tragic loss of their teenage and other children hung like a damp cloud over the tail-end of summer.
A demand that ‘something needed to be done’ to stem the increasing toll of accidents and the ongoing nightmare of grieving families has prompted the government to introduce some changes to the speed limits on Irish roads. The recommendation to local authorities is to revisit the present limits : 100km, 80km, 60 km and 30 kms.
It’s not before time. Apart from the series of accidents and the consequent funerals in late August and early September, the current 2023 statistics deserved attention.
To date this year, 127 people have lost their lives on Irish roads, an increase of 25% on last year. In August alone 25 people lost their lives (the highest in years) and by the end of that month, this year there were more than 600 ‘serious’ road collisions with the result that an unknown number of people suffered life-changing injuries.
It took a deluge of grief over the deaths of Leaving Cert students, the terrible distress of their parents, siblings and friends and the panic it engendered among parents generally and in communities to bounce this issue into the public consciousness.
That said, the jury is still out about whether anything of substance will be done: whether the behaviour of drivers will change one whit as a result; if the new regulations will be even enforced; and even if anyone actually believes that the present interest in safety on the roads will not have disappeared by Christmas.
The difficult truth seems to be that such is the embedded nature of irresponsible driving in our society and our consistent refusal to moderate our behaviour that what is obvious to everyone is ritually swept aside, led by the Healy-Rae brothers and others. Shame on politicians who will play the populist card with people’s lives in the run-up to elections for a few miserable votes.
One argument for not moderating speed is that there are other considerations that influence the present death toll: the condition of roads; drink and drugs driving; the behaviour of young drivers; the inability of older drivers; using the phone while driving; not using safety belts; the weather; and so on.
All of that is true but it doesn’t change statistics that are confirmed in surveys internationally: (i) that speed has a direct connection to safety on the roads in that surveys clearly indicate that for every 1% increase in speed there is a 2% increase in accidents; that (ii) introducing lower speed limits on roads results in a substantial drop in road deaths; and (iii) that technology like speed cameras can be a real deterrent if they are used as part of a vigorous policy of implementation.
The real issue is whether we – that’s me, you, and the rest of us – are prepared to moderate our driving. But, I fear, the prospect of that happening seems slight.
Here are two telling indicators. One, on a well-publicised National Go Slow Day, despite the presence of high visibility Go Safe vans monitoring the speed of motorists, 300 drivers were caught speeding – including one motorist doing 161km per hour! Two, in another scenario – but without prior warning of monitoring speed levels – of 45,000 vehicles entering a 60km zone 84% registered an average speed of 88km per hour with one person clocking more than 200km per hour.
Five clear lessons can be drawn from the two examples, above: one, that most Irish drivers, even with speed vans monitoring their speed, chance their luck most of the time; two, without speed monitoring Irish drivers can be grossly irresponsible; three, present speed levels are in drastic need of reform; four, present fines have little or no deterrent value; and, five, policing our roads is spectacularly below an acceptable levels.
There are two main problems: behaviour and attitude. Question: What will change our behaviour on the roads? Answer: Real deterrents and real policing. If you drive a BMW and you have money in the bank, the present level of fines is a joke. In Finland, speeding fines depend on the value of the car and the income of the driver.
Drivers – like the one mentioned above who drove at 200km per hour in a 60km zone – need to be taken off the road as soon as possible and this should be treated as much a Garda priority as a gangster carrying a loaded gun or a drug baron distributing cocaine. Both use lethal weapons and those who wield them deserve to be given special Garda attention.
Behaviour can change under the duress of increased hefty fines and penalties but attitude is a different matter. Take the obvious practice on Irish roads of the widespread compulsion of some (or many) drivers flashing their lights to warn other drivers about the presence of a speed van. Effectively, it represents an effort to undermine a state-sponsored strategy to improve public safety on the roads with Irish citizens conspiring to protect irresponsible drivers. How many Irish motorists who indulge in this thoughtless and reckless practice ever ask themselves about the consequences of their actions? Does it ever strike them that they are putting innocent road-users in danger in the future, including possibly members of their own families?
For me the most frightening statistic of all is that 75% of deaths are on rural and local roads – where most of the headlight flashing takes place. When will we get it into our heads that protecting irresponsible drivers is cutting off our noses to spite our face?