As the year comes to a close, road safety campaigners can be grateful that fatalities and serious injuries on our roads have decreased over the previous year. This reverses a worrying trend for the two previous years, 2013 and 2014, which showed an increase in fatal road crashes. Really significant and measurable progress has been achieved in making Irish roads safer since the late nineties and, in particular, since the setting up of the Road Safety Authority in 2006.
This new authority brought together all the relevant agencies and stakeholders in road safety so as to develop a coherent and strategic approach. And this approach has worked. In 1998, for example, there were 458 fatalities on Irish roads; last year there were 193. As I write this, there are over 30 fewer fatalities on the roads, compared to last year. There may even be an opportunity for us all to make it the safest on record.
While we can welcome that reduction in fatalities, it is no comfort to the families who are mourning the loss of a loved one in a car crash this Christmas. Or indeed, for hundreds of people who have suffered serious life-altering injuries and must endure pain discomfort and disability facing into a New Year.
Looking back on the year and the efforts of the RSA to raise awareness and keep the message of safe driving on the roads, we can see some patterns and trends emerging. All of this pre and post-crash analysis is carefully recorded by the gardaí and the Road Safety Authority, which in turn feeds into our plans for communications, education and media strategy. The Road Safety Authority has one of the biggest media budgets in any state agency. We spend over €3m on getting across our key messages and education about road safety. But not as much as the many multiples of this figure spent by the automotive or drinks industries. Our ads are impactful and are proven to change behaviour.
This year, we decided to highlight the dangers of distraction as a cause of road crashes. This includes being distracted by using a mobile phone or other device while driving, a dangerous and unlawful practice which is unfortunately widespread in Ireland and a significant contributor to crashes. Our ad, which has been running over the last month, outlines the split-second chronology of how using a mobile phone while driving can cause a crash. You are four times more likely to crash while using a mobile phone, 23 times more likely if texting. This is why it is an offence attracting three penalty points and a fine.
Yet large numbers of people, addicted to their phones and iPads, persist in putting themselves and others in mortal danger by checking their inbox or going on social media and having lengthy phone conversations while driving. Why not make it a New Year resolution to give this one practice up? As our ad said: "It won't kill you to put it away". This ad, called 'Anatomy of a Split Second', won the award for best Public Service Announcement in the world for 2015 at a prestigious annual global advertising awards in Berlin.
Earlier in the year, another of our TV advertisements focussed on the distraction caused by children to parents when they are driving. It was called 'Look Back' and it showed a mother being distracted from the road by looking back at her children in the back seat, with calamitous consequences. This ad went viral almost as soon as it was aired, which is just the sort of reaction we wanted. It had almost a million views. The Road Safety Authority relies on the media, too, to cover road crashes and highlight the dangers. The print media plays an essential part communicating key messages on the causes and consequences of crashes.
At the beginning of 2015, Peter Murtagh did a series of articles entitled the anatomy of a car crash. The article won the best overall award in the RSA's annual 'Leading Lights for Road Safety' awards at a ceremony in Farmleigh House this month. Ironically, another journalist, RTÉ reporter Teresa Mannion, who was MC for the awards that very day, was herself in the eye of a media scrum for her unforgettable broadcast from Salthill during the recent severe storms. Her plucky and passionate report from the windswept coast went viral around the world, much to the reporter's surprise and mortification. However, she quickly realised, as we did, that she had inadvertently made a huge contribution to road safety, as part of her report contained an appeal to people "not to make unnecessary journeys" during the severe weather. A timeless message.
Another award that day, in Farmleigh, was given to retired nurse Philomena Wallace, who intervened to take car keys from an inebriated young woman she encountered in Tesco in the early hours of the morning. Philomena took it upon herself to take the keys from the young woman, who was none too pleased, and arranged with Tesco management for her to rest and drink coffee until she sobered up. Philomena sent me an email, having heard me on the Marian Finucane show talking about drink-driving, and I nominated her for an award. Road safety needs citizens to get involved and influence family and friends who may be tempted to drink and drive. Philomena, who has spent her life saving the lives of people in hospital, could not stand by and allow this girl to possibly kill herself or others by drink-driving.
All of us have a role as road users to change behaviour. Small changes can make a huge difference. For example, if we all drove 5 km/h slower, it would greatly reduce fatalities and the severity of collisions. This year, 31 pedestrians and nine cyclists were knocked down on Irish roads. High-viz clothing is essential while walking or cycling on these dark mornings and evenings, particularly in rural areas.
And don't forget that New Year's resolution to put the phone away. Give up your aul sins.
Liz O'Donnell is Chairman of the Road Safety Authority