No return to dark old days on roads
Published 25/03/2013 | 05:00
Back in the 1970s we were killing as many as 600 people on Irish roads in a free-for-all of drink driving, bangers and accident blackspots.
Fast forward to 2008 and a total of 279 died in crashes and accidents. Last year, just 162 lives were lost, continuing a downward trend.
Put it another way: more than 100 lives a year were being saved – the equivalent of a small community.
The simple explanation: politicians finally awoke from decades of ignoring the awful carnage and put a plan in place.
And it worked. Gardai finally got the resources and manpower they needed to do the job. A dedicated Garda Traffic Corps was established; penalty points were introduced.
Privately operated GoSafe speed cameras, directed by gardai, started to patrol our roads.
Although a constant source of driver moans and groans, the NCT test for cars finally got rid of most bangers.
And US-style drugs-driving checks loom on the horizon.
The impact of all these initiatives saw Ireland moving from being among the worst countries in Europe for road safety to being among the best. And, in the process, hundreds of lives were saved.
The last government road safety strategy worked because successive ministers faced down publicans and others opposed to change.
It worked because it was being driven by the new Road Safety Authority, who put time and effort into understanding the scale of the problem and presenting the government with solutions.
It worked because under-resourced gardai were able to supply the "fear factor" through the Traffic Corps and targeted enforcement.
But just as we thought we had turned the corner on Ireland's unacceptably high death toll, there is again cause for real concern with 16 more deaths so far this year compared to the same time last year.
With gardai facing massive cutbacks in budgets and manpower in the Traffic Corps – now down to 800 officers from 1,200 – there is a very real danger that enforcement will be seriously affected. This will remove the "fear factor" and return the country to the dark old days of terrible overnight collisions with multiple fatalities.
The next strategy, being unveiled this week, will focus on reducing the high level of serious injuries.
It will do this with a range of measures including new powers to allow gardai to check whether a driver was on the phone at the time of a crash.
We hear about the road deaths, but crashes or accidents with horrific injuries rarely get mentioned.
A stark statistic. Only about one in 10 people seriously injured in road accidents who are admitted to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin are ever able to return to work.
This is the challenge for the next road safety blueprint, to reduce speed limits where they are inappropriate, and to protect vulnerable road users such as the elderly, children and cyclists.
But it is also vital that all of the good work is not undermined and reversed because of cutbacks in government spending.
No one wants to go back to the dark days.