If we don't halt the rising carnage on our roads now, we will lose all the gains made in 10 years
It seems not a day passes without a fatal crash featuring on our news headlines. Already this year, 130 people have died violently on our roads; 18 more than for the same period last year.
So what's going on this year that is different to last year and in previous years? What has disrupted the downward trajectory in fatal crashes witnessed since the establishment of the Road Safety Authority (RSA) 10 years ago? At that time in 2006, there were 365 road deaths, a state of affairs which was intolerable. The Government intervened to stem the carnage.
When the RSA was established, the aim was to bring together all the players with influence in road safety to collaborate on a coherent strategy to reduce road deaths. Local authorities, An Garda Síochána, Transport Infrastructure Ireland (formerly the National Roads Authority), and the Emergency Services would work with the RSA to improve roads, toughen laws, increase enforcement, ensure better driving standards, safer vehicles and increase public awareness and education. Through all these combined forces, Ireland has succeeded in reducing fatalities from 365 to 164 last year. Our strategic aim is to reduce the number of deaths from road crashes down to 124 deaths per year or fewer by 2020. That's 10 deaths or fewer per month.
The researchers in the RSA work closely with the gardaí on detailed post-crash forensic reports. It is grim work, poring over the files of horrific crashes, examining the injuries to victims, toxicology results, pre-crash evidence and witness statements seeking to understand what factors contributed most, or in some cases entirely, to the crash. The main offenders are excessive speed, alcohol and not wearing seat belts.
An analysis of forensic investigations conducted on fatal collisions in the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 showed that 322 people died in accidents where excessive speed was a contributory factor; 91pc of culpable drivers were male; 84pc of drivers involved in speed-related single-vehicle crashes were under 34 years of age. Counties where speed featured most as a factor were Donegal, Cork, Wexford, Cavan and Galway.
Alcohol was a contributory factor in 38pc of driver deaths, 47pc of pedestrian deaths, 42pc of passenger deaths and 30pc of motorcyclist deaths in this period; 86pc of drivers and 51pc of passengers not wearing a seatbelt and who had consumed alcohol were killed.
Of the 858 fatal collisions in those five years, motor vehicle factors contributed to 101 collisions (12pc) Of these, defective tyres were the main contributor factor, accounting for 8pc. On average, 14 people die each year where defective tyres were the main contributory factor.
The facts don't lie. Irish society has a problem with alcohol and it is manifesting itself ultimately on our road death figures as well as playing havoc with the nation's mental and physical health. I am concerned that if we do not address this malaise in our society and communities, we will not make progress in road safety.
The gardaí are at the front line in enforcing our drink-driving laws. They are tough and the roadside mandatory testing for alcohol serves as a real deterrent. Yet there are people who continue to flout the law. On average, 150 drivers are arrested each week on suspicion of driving under the influence, and the rates of detection are going up. This is disgraceful given all we know about the dangers of alcohol and how even one drink impairs driving capacity, rendering a driver inherently dangerous. Of course, these prosecutions for drunk driving, carrying with them heavy penalties including disqualification from driving, are the most fiercely contested in our courts. People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid conviction and disqualification using every and any technicality. Unbelievably, even when disqualified, some offenders continue to drive and regularly are involved in fatal crashes. This is when bad behaviour moves to criminality on a serious scale.
The RSA is now of the belief that people who are disqualified from driving for alcohol or other breaches of the law should be on a data base so that they can be detected when driving while disqualified.
Thankfully, the previous Minister for Transport changed the law last year to allow for the immediate arrest of drivers found driving while disqualified. They can now be immediately brought before the courts, where they could face a €5,000 fine and or six months in prison, instead of having to wait months to get them before a judge. These are without doubt the most high risk drivers on our roads and it is vital that they are stopped from getting into a car and endangering public safety.
Enforcement and tough laws can only do so much. We as individuals and communities can really make a difference to road safety by making small changes to our driving behaviour. Driving cars has become so essential a part of our lives, so habitual, that we all have become complacent. Complacent about speeding, using mobile phones, allowing ourselves to be distracted while driving, seat belt compliance, defective tyres, watching out for pedestrians and cyclists.
We are seeing an increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Children need to be safe going to and from school and wear high-visibility clothing in these dark evenings whether cycling or walking. Cyclists too must play their part in their own safety by wearing high-vis and reflective clothing and not being cavalier in their interaction with cars. The increased numbers of cyclists is a challenge for motorists as the local authorities play catch-up in making our roads safer environments for cycling.
All of us must share the roads without resentment or recrimination. We are all parents, brothers, sisters or loving partners. Each of us experiences devastation when a loved one is killed or seriously injured. Too much grief is being caused by road trauma. If we do not halt the rising carnage on our roads now, we will be losing many of the gains in road safety achieved over the last decade.
We can all make a difference by making small changes to our daily journeys. Concentrate more. Be mindful of how easily you could kill or injure a pedestrian or cyclist - somebody's child. These are tragedies that cannot be undone, but can be avoided.