AS many as 200 people will be killed on the roads this year because of a lack of enforcement by cash-strapped gardai, road safety officials fear.
Road safety bosses have issued a stark warning to motorists and predict the number killed will rise by 25pc this year, ending seven years of successive reductions in fatalities.
Chairman of the Road Safety Authority (RSA) Gay Byrne said falling garda numbers and cuts in budgets have resulted in a sea change in attitudes among motorists who are no longer afraid of being caught speeding or drink-driving.
He also accused Justice Minister Alan Shatter of not being as committed to road safety as his predecessors, which prompted an angry response from the Department of Justice.
"The department regrets the comments attributed to Mr Byrne, which are both inaccurate and offensive," it said.
It added that Mr Shatter had outlined his commitment to roads policing in a letter to the RSA, which had not been responded to.
So far this year, the number of people killed on the roads is up 17 to 146. A total of 161 people lost their lives in 2012.
An RSA survey obtained by the Irish Independent also shows that 70pc of the motoring public believe enforcement has dropped.
And an analysis of Garda activities so far this year shows a drop of 50pc in the detection of some of the most dangerous driving offences.
The figures show that fewer people have been caught drink-driving, driving dangerously, not wearing seatbelts, speeding or using a mobile phone so far this year compared with the same period in 2012. Worryingly, fewer than 330,000 breath tests have been carried out on the roadside, compared with a total of 470,000 during 2012.
If this trend continues, about 30,000 fewer tests will be conducted in 2013 compared with 2012, hampering efforts to reduce the carnage on our roads.
Last year was the seventh year in a row that the number of people killed on the roads fell. Ireland is the fifth-safest country in the EU in which to drive. But Mr Byrne fears that the progress made during recent years is about to be reversed.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Byrne said he was not criticising gardai but the lack of resources: "It's very frustrating to realise that having come down to 161 deaths on the road in 2012, we're looking at reaching over 200 this year.
"I think we all felt that having reached the magical 161 figure, the best in years, we thought we had an entitlement to see that figure going down further. But it's gone up on last year and 200 deaths will be a depressing fact.
"Once the perception grows that the possibility of you meeting a yellow jacket goes, the bad behaviour goes up, including speeding. The only thing that keeps people behaving well is the risk of being caught and getting penalty points."
Mr Byrne said the "simple reality" was that only the gardai could enforce the law, but that it was being hampered in its efforts by a lack of resources.
"The (Garda) traffic corps has been reduced to 800 from around 1,250. In criticising enforcement, we are not criticising An Garda Siochana, we have great admiration for them, but the commissioner will say he's using other ways (to enforce the law). We are all suffering from deficits and a shortage of money. I just want everybody to know what's going to happen."