Driving home the road safety message saved up to 39 lives
In 2008, a total of 279 people were killed on our roads, yet it was the safest year since we began recording road deaths in 1959. Around this time last year, I said that despite this achievement there were still too many people dying needlessly on our roads.
I asked everyone to please, please continue their life-saving behaviour into 2009 so we could spare more families the grief of losing a brother, sister, child, father or mother.
Well, thankfully you have done just that. Twelve months later, 39 lives have been saved and 39 families spared the grief of losing a loved one.
We don't know who these people are. We cannot print their photographs or names in the paper. But they did get to celebrate Christmas and they saw in the New Year.
They may be living in your community. Maybe it's a friend or a relative. Maybe it's you, and the only reason you are reading this now is because someone made a decision on a Saturday night months ago to get a taxi home instead of chancing a drive home after drinking? We will never know.
One thing is for certain, there are 39 people alive and well today because we made better choices in 2009. Choices not to speed, not to drive while tired, and to wear a high-visibility jacket when walking.
Of course, it's not all good news, certainly not for the 240 families who have lost a family member or those who suffered a terrible injury. To these families I pledge to continue working to save lives so that others will never have to feel the pain and heartbreak you now cope with every day.
Success is measured in statistics, numbers killed and injured, but let's not forget these are our people; real people who did not need to die or be injured. The figure for 2009 is the lowest since records began and is in stark contrast to the worst year for road deaths ever recorded. In 1972, a total of 640 people were killed in collisions.
Some will say what has happened this year is down to the recession. And I would agree that this is partly true. But the overall picture is that road deaths have been dropping consistently for the last four years, by a quarter, in fact. There are many factors but the chief ones are our changing attitudes and driver behaviour.
I want to pay tribute to the decent people of this country who have changed their attitudes and their behaviour for the better. Thank you everyone, you are saving lives. But let's keep it up.
Remarkably, in 2009, Ireland achieved the targeted reduction in road deaths identified in the Government's Road Safety Strategy, a full three years ahead of schedule. This strategy aimed to have no more than 252 deaths per annum by the end of 2012.
I truly didn't think that after just three years of hard graft by all of the agencies involved in road safety that I would be saying Ireland is now the sixth safest country in Europe, having started from 11th position in 2005. We truly have an emerging culture of road safety in Ireland.
The practical demonstration of this was the display of 'people power' during the recent debate on the lowering of the drink-drive limit. People in Ireland demonstrated that they expect our government to show leadership.
Our legislative representatives have learned that supporting narrow sectional interest, to the detriment of the common good, will not succeed.
The Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, faced with fierce opposition from his own backbenches and very powerful vested interests, held his nerve. The people of Ireland had sent him the very clear message that they strongly supported the life- saving measures he was proposing. He should be thanked for pressing ahead.
People now expect that, where the common good is clear and compelling, our legislators and elected representatives must put aside any parochial or sectional bias and serve the best interests of the country.
People in this country have collectively shown what can be achieved if we all work together to a common plan. The introduction of the penalty points system, mandatory alcohol testing, the Garda Traffic Corps, the motorway building programme and the reform of the driver licensing system are just some of the parts of the Government's road safety strategy that have had a dramatic and positive effect on road safety.
But the improvements we have made will not be sustained if we don't continue to introduce the other vital measures contained in the strategy.
The risks that people face, on a daily basis, on the roads will not disappear just because the country is in a recession. Death and injury on the roads do not discriminate.
The greatest threat we now face is complacency.
If we start thinking that we can sit back and relax, or that the job is done, we will slide back to those dark days when a life was lost every single day. More lives will have been lost because we failed to act.
While major progress has been made in addressing Ireland's chronic drink-driving problem, speed remains the biggest contributory factor to road deaths and injuries.
The biggest challenge facing us today is to change this culture of speeding, through enforcement and educational campaigns.
The signing by An Garda Siochana of the contract to introduce a network of safety cameras across the country means that we will see the full rollout of the programme by mid-2010.
With continued commitment and leadership there is absolutely no reason why Ireland cannot be the very best in Europe.
Thank you for playing your part in reducing death, injury and devastation. Please redouble your efforts in 2010.
Gay Byrne is chairman of the Road Safety Authority