Monday 22 October 2018

Blaming foreign drivers won't stop the carnage

Scapegoating non-Irish drivers for our road toll is an insult to all who have died, writes John O'Keeffe

Sergei Tsevan and Anton Pavlov were Ukrainian nationals living in Naas. Jean de Quatrebarbes was a French national living in Caragh, also in Co Kildare. All three men worked in the horse-racing industry. On the night of May 8, 2006, while travelling in a left-hand drive Ford Mondeo, they collided with a Mercedes on the N9 road to Castledermot. No one survived. Gardai said weather and road conditions were poor at the time of the crash due to heavy rain.

Along with more recent tragedies, these are yet another forgotten group of foreign nationals killed on our roads, yet another set of names added to the list of those slaughtered every year. Our new immigrants figure disproportionately higher on the road table of death, and non-Irish nationals have been involved in up to a quarter of fatal road accidents during certain periods over the last five years.

When one considers that only 10 per cent of our population is non-Irish, it is perhaps not surprising that alarm bells have sounded amongst those looking to apportion blame.

Just what is going on? Can we simply say that all those who are non-Irish are more likely to drink and/or to speed when driving and so be involved in accidents?

Certain news stories appear to back such a theory. The Road Safety Authority, too, has heard complaints about a prevalence of drink driving among some nationalities. The authority's chairman, Gay Byrne, has stated that "the suggestion has been made that they tend not only to drink before driving but they actually drink while driving. They like to have drink with them when they're driving," he is on record as saying.

It is also certainly true that foreign car drivers in non-Irish registered cars may currently operate outside the law as they cannot be given penalty points and are not subject to fines. It is difficult to see where the incentive is for them to obey the rules of the road, one could argue.

This is by no means the full picture, however. Recent Automobile Association figures seem to suggest that when taken over a longer time period, foreign nationals account for just 10 per cent of road deaths which is in keeping with their percentage of the population. Secondly, when one considers that foreign national drivers in Ireland are, by definition, in the main young and male, the highest-risk group, we may reasonably conclude that most immigrants are in fact less likely to become a road fatality compared with their Irish counterparts.

Nor do we allow for the fact that foreign nationals, virtually to a man and woman, are used to driving on the right-hand side of the road. In a moment where a split second decision must be made, it is inevitable that the choice may be a fatal one.

Close to three quarters of the world's population drive on the right hand side of the road. In Europe, only ourselves and Britain continue to drive on the left hand side of the road. Most of the countries who remain left-driving countries are former British colonies and are largely those with small populations.

There are, of course, notable exceptions. India, Japan and Australia immediately spring to mind but nonetheless, while there is an argument to say that we should not change our traffic directionality simply to suit others, this becomes less persuasive when those "others" happen to be the majority of the rest of the world.

We have two choices if we are serious about cutting road deaths as they relate to foreigners. We can either step into line with most countries across the globe and set a date for Ireland to drive on the right. A big decision but many countries have made such a switch and there is a persuasive view that says in the long term, such uniformity would work to reduce fatalities.

Alternatively, we could ensure that foreign drivers sit a test when they come here and so are subject to all road regulations and sanctions like the rest of us. Of course, as we're all in the EU now, we couldn't dream of asking people to take a driving test on the other side of the road to save their own and other's lives -- that might be racism.

The bottom line is that we don't seem to care as much that a large number of non-Irish people are being killed on our roads. We glaze over these statistics as if it were somehow their own country's problem and nothing to do with us.

It is true that the personal responsibility is the only true weapon in cutting our road carnage. Don't speed and don't drink or drug drive -- if you do, expect the worst whether you are from Latvia or Limerick. However, let's get one thing straight. Using foreign nationals as a scapegoat for our road deaths is an insult to all of those who have died in our towns, cities and countryside.

We are either serious about ending the road carnage or we are not. Scapegoating Eastern Europeans or Nigerians is missing the point. Along with personal responsibility, we need a government who will make the big decisions without fear or favour. It is the least we can do so that the lives of Sergei Tsevan, Anton Pavlov and Jean De Quatrebarbes, along with all other road fatalities, have not been lost in vain.

John O'Keeffe is Dean of the Law School at Dublin Business School.

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