Traffic corps to be scaled back despite role in cutting road deaths
THE number of gardai enforcing road traffic laws will be scaled back dramatically in the new year despite Gay Byrne's warning that we cannot go back "to the old days".
The increased strength of the traffic corps was a key factor in reducing the number of fatalities from 372 in 2002 to what is expected to be less than 200 this year.
But the number of gardai in the traffic corps has been allowed to fall from 1,200 to just 950 presently, and is set to fall further next year.
Meanwhile, some 70 garda squad cars have been taken off the road this year because they have reached their limit of 300,000km.
The cars cannot be kept in operation because the manufacturers are refusing to certify their roadworthiness beyond 300,000km -- and there is no money to replace them.
The cuts are backed by the Department of Justice, which has proposed a U-turn on the current traffic strategy, despite an incredible success rate over the past decade.
Mr Byrne, the chairman of the Road Safety Authority, said last night that while the country was almost bankrupt, ways had to be found to invest in garda enforcement of the law.
"Lives are quite literally at stake and we need the high level of garda enforcement back on our roads", Mr Byrne said.
As part of a major drive to reduce the number of fatalities on Irish roads, the number in the traffic corps eventually hit a target figure of 1,200.
The aim was to keep the annual death toll below 250 by the end of next year, compared with 640 four decades ago.
And a major contributory factor, according to the European Transport Safety Council, was the roll-out of a dedicated garda traffic corps, backed up by the introduction of penalty points, mandatory alcohol checks, a new lower drink drive limit and compulsory training for young drivers.
The council recently ranked Ireland as sixth safest in the EU, a jump of 11 places in three years.
Only Sweden and Ireland currently have a road death toll below 200.
However, in the past couple of months the number of dedicated traffic gardai has started to fall again and is now down to around 950.
A further drop is likely in the new year as more members opt to retire early before changes in their pension arrangements at the end of February.
The size of the garda fleet has also fallen from 2,740 at the end of 2010 to around 2,670 at present.
It's estimated that the force is losing one patrol car per week as a result of vehicles reaching the maximum mileage limit, crashes or mechanical problems.
In its submission to the government's comprehensive spending review, the Department of Justice supported a reduction.
The department acknowledged that the drop was "likely to attract negative criticism from agencies with a vested interest in road safety".
But it added: "However, a measured reduction could be publicly justified with an appropriate communications strategy."
The department also argued that efficiency savings could be generated from the redeployment of gardai to other operational duties.
And there are no plans to replace cars removed from the garda fleet because they have reached the maximum mileage limit of 300,000km.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter warned that the funding available for the purchase of new cars would be "extraordinarily limited".
He acknowledged there was a need to ensure that the force had the vehicles it required but he pointed out there was an insurance issue with cars that had exceeded 300,000km.
"Even if they have been well maintained and parts replaced, it is a major problem", the minister admitted. "I will consider the issue but I am not sure if we can resolve it."
But the department submission suggested that money could be saved from a reduced need to purchase traffic corps vehicles, speed detection equipment and other operational gear associated with that section of the force.