Thursday 22 February 2018

Slowing down is hard to do -- but lives can be saved

Can I see your licence, please? American police are quick to pull over speeding drivers, as Hunter S Thompson (played by Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) found out
Can I see your licence, please? American police are quick to pull over speeding drivers, as Hunter S Thompson (played by Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) found out

You could not possibly guess, of course, but I am probably writing this more slowly than normal. Everything seems to have eased down a gear these past few days. No, I haven't had a 'turn' or a 'slow down' warning from the doctor. But I have been warned to go an awful lot easier -- on the road.

You see I've spent the best part of four days in an idyllic university town in the US where my daughter is studying for a year. And my visit just happened to coincide with another planned sortie so I was able to nip up for the few days.

But for weeks before I arrived and in the days immediately preceding it, my daughter sent me a stream of warnings: The police take no nonsense. They are not pervasive; it is not like they are visibly lurking to pounce. However, if the sign says 25mph (40kmh) on a dual carriageway they will stop and fine you if you are doing 26mph.

Indeed, I heard several stories over these past few days of people being stopped at 15mph (24kmh) in a 15mph zone and given a right old telling off.

Pedestrians are kings (and queens). They get priority. There are signs -- no flashing lights, just signs and a few ladders of white paint on the road surface -- telling you to stop to let them cross. If you don't you risk big, big trouble.

I'm lucky in that I didn't have to find out any of this the hard way. Yet scratch the surface in any conversations and it quickly became apparent that others have.

So I was well prepared for driving life in this oasis of academe where the flickering embers of autumn's blazing glory bear testament to just how beautiful this world can be.

Or thought I was well prepared.

Have you any idea how slow 15mph feels? It's like covering two miles every fortnight. It is as slow as a Dail debate on Belgian fiscal policy.

This has been a substantial culture shock to me. I can't overstate it really. For one who is used to 'low' 50kmh limits, I would go so far as to say it has taken the 'driving' out of driving and replaced it with laid-back patience, something I have had in short supply all my life, I suppose.

It has made me think quite deeply. Well, I've had plenty of time for that. I mean what else have you to do when the wheels on your car only revolve once an hour? Watch others breaking the limit? You must be joking. I drove a lot around the general area and not once did anyone pass me out.

Because they take it seriously here, because the police take it seriously, because someone, somewhere decided they would take 'Speed Kills' as their starting point and work back to the point where lack of speed saves lives and limbs.

The whole environment on the roads calms down as a consequence. The streets, boulevards, carriageways are almost eerily devoid of any rush or urgency. A steady stream of traffic flows on and on and feels almost peaceful. I know the roads are bigger and wider here. By the same token the vehicles are much larger and there are a lot more of them.

Anyone scorching up the tarmac is so obvious it would be a wonder if they were not immediately detected by the patrol cars.

It's as if people say to themselves when they climb into their trucks (they don't seem to bother with anything other than gas guzzlers) they are not even going to bother driving above the limit.

They know it is not worth their while. Because everybody (well, virtually everybody) else complies, they would stand out like a sore thumb.

So the culture is established, if you like. And for those who step outside, well there are no fudge zones. The police are not hunting people down. This is not a police state. But by golly are they observant and responsive.

You do not want to mess with this system, believe me. I've seen the blue lights flashing as drivers are pulled over.

Would it, or could it, ever work here? Do we even want a system that would impose, monitor and enforce such limits? Would everything grind to a halt? Would traffic become worse than it is? Most crucially of all, would it reduce road accidents, injuries and deaths?

I am not for a second suggesting that we impose the equivalent of 15mph as extensively as I've outlined for that lovely US town and it environs. But is 25mph (40kmh) that unrealistic? Are our speeds too high for dual carriageways?

Tough questions, and ones I never thought I'd find myself asking -- certainly not in public. But they are prompted by two things.

Firstly, I do not know when I felt as safe or less threatened on roads anywhere than in the course of those few days. There was not one instance of tailgating, even though I was hugely conscious of how 'slow' I was driving -- 45mph, 50mph, 60mph on many stretches of first-class dual carriageways.

Secondly, I have noticed how fast so many drivers whiz around provincial towns, back streets and residential areas in Ireland. And it has made me notice and contrast how few remarks or priority we give to pedestrians.

My experience these past few days has made me acutely aware of how towns in the US protect those who walk the footpaths and cross the roads.

We have made a lot of headway on reducing road deaths here. Are we to rest on those laurels? I don't think so, and I know those charged with safety on our roads don't either.

I feel the next step is going to involve a complete reassessment of what is safe driving and where and when. That is going to be extremely difficult because many road users are still only coming to terms with what we are already striving to ingrain.

It is a huge challenge and one that I think will go to the heart of everything we want to do on our roads.

Of course, I expect to take some criticism for painting such a black and white picture. I've done so to highlight what can be achieved rather than extol the virtues of another system.

I'm not saying that it is perfect. I'm not saying it is universally observed. But I am saying it has created an environment in which it feels safer to drive, and walk and cycle.

Achieving that here would take time, a lot of time. But that's what happens when you slow down.

Irish Independent

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