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Hats off to road users of 2010 -- you saved lives

'Ireland is now the seventh best performing country out of 27 EU member states in terms of road deaths.

In fact, many of our EU neighbours have come knocking on our door to ask how we did it'

DESPITE all the doom and gloom that's around at the moment -- the banking saga, the jobs crisis and thousands of people now in negative equity -- there is at least one success story that's come out of the past decade.

One thing each one of us can be proud of; something for which we can all say, 'I was a part of that.'

What is it? Lives saved on our roads.

Since 2001, Ireland has seen a rapid improvement in road safety.

Back then, 411 people died on the roads. At the end of 2010, if the figure hasn't changed in the past 24 hours, it stands at 212. Compared with last year, it's a saving of 26 lives. Compared to 2001, road deaths have been almost cut in half.

What a remarkable achievement. Your achievement. Well done and thank you.

The European Transport Safety Council recognised this achievement in June of this year. It presented Ireland with the '2010 Road Safety Performance Award' for the sustained efforts in reducing road deaths.

In the Government Road Safety Strategy 2007 to 2012, we set ourselves a target that no more than 21 lives would be lost on our roads each month by 2012. Ireland achieved this three years ahead of schedule in 2009, with an average of 20 deaths per month. This year, we did even better -- with an average of 17 per month.

Ireland is now the seventh best-performing country out of 27 EU member states in terms of road deaths.

It is one area where we can hold our heads up high at an EU level.

In fact, many of our EU neighbours have come knocking on our door to ask how we did it and what lessons they can learn from us to take back to their own countries.

This is a huge achievement, one that many never thought possible.

But what this really means is that you have contributed to saving many, many lives and sparing thousands of families the trauma of suffering the consequences of a moment's carelessness or madness on the roads.

We also have a great legacy in terms of our roads. The investment in our roads infrastructure means our main cities are now connected by a superior and much safer motorway network. However, I have to say that we need to do much better in terms of providing serviced rest areas on parts of that network.

It doesn't seem right to say how great it is that only 212 people died on our roads this year, particularly after the tragic events this week in Co Monaghan, in which three people, including a pregnant woman, died. I'm also reminded that 2010 saw a weekend in July in which 10 lives were lost, many of them young lives, and eight alone in a single collision in Co Donegal. The worst collision in the history of the State.

But the fact remains that when you compare this year to previous years, it is a significant improvement.

Success has been built largely on the creation, funding and effective implementation of three Government Road Safety Strategic Plans in the past decade. They included measures aimed at promoting greater awareness and education, engineering and, critically, enforcement.

In 2002, we saw the introduction of the penalty points system and the positive role it played in reducing road deaths. Later came the establishment of a dedicated Traffic Corps Division within the Garda Siochana.

One of the most important measures of the past decade, however, was the introduction of mandatory alcohol testing (MAT) in 2006. Its effect on road safety was profound.

In 2010, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey steered a bill into law to lower the drink-drive limit from 0.8g/l to 0.2 for learner, novice and professional drivers, and to 0.5 for all other drivers.

Strong legislation has also been underlined by mass media campaigns which have challenged us to think hard about our attitudes and behaviour. There is no doubt our attitudes toward road safety have been turned upside down over the past 10 years.

The old provisional licence has been replaced with a 'Learner Permit'. The driving instruction industry is now regulated. Unprecedented numbers of learner drivers have now passed their driving test.

There's tougher enforcement of the regulations that restrict the number of hours truck and bus drivers are allowed to drive, and of those that ensure their vehicles are maintained in a roadworthy condition. We will need to redouble the enforcement effort in 2011.

The rollout of the safety camera network in October 2010 was further proof that the Government is committed to tackling the serious problem of excessive speeding in this country. Excessive speed was directly responsible for 80 deaths on Irish roads last year. It was also a factor in the remaining 160 deaths and 1,000 serious injuries.

MUCH has been achieved over the past few years, but there is still work to be done and this work cannot be done without your help.

Today we look to the next 12 months with the hope we will save more lives and prevent further grief and suffering for families and communities across the country. But none of this is possible without the commitment and efforts of all of us who use the roads.

I am asking every road user to set their own personal target to keep up this life-saving behaviour and prevent needless deaths on our roads. It's not impossible -- if we continue the behaviour we have seen over the past number of months and years, we could save many more lives in 2011. And this time, it could be the life of someone close to you.

You know, the recent Artic conditions have been a real eyeopener into the mindset of Irish drivers. With roads in such a lethal and treacherous state, you would think that the resulting chaos would have led to an increase in fatalities and serious injuries on the roads.

Here's the thing -- it didn't. December has been the safest month this year -- and it may even turn out to be the safest month on record.

What this tells me is that over-familiarity with the roads has made us complacent and immune to the risks we face when using them.

Drop Artic conditions on to the roads and we can see clearly the risks we face and we drive accordingly. If we could apply a smidgen of this cautious mindset when using the roads in more normal conditions, how many lives and serious injuries do you think we could save or prevent?

Food for thought.

Gay Byrne is chairman of the Road Safety Authority

Irish Independent