No sign of road safety on Frances Fitzgerald's list of Budget priorities
We all look at the Budget subjectively. For many parents of young children, this Budget will be remembered for a significant policy move to subsidise the cost of childcare.
For others, like aspiring first-time buyers, the tax break announced will make the difference between buying a home or continuing to rent and save. Even sheep farmers got their share. With so many challenges and finite resources, the Government will have struggled with priorities. And to be fair, prudence is the way to go mindful of the uncertainties of Brexit and the mistakes of the past.
Having said that, it is a regrettable omission that the social imperative of reducing deaths and serious injury on our roads appears to have been overlooked. Nowhere in the Budget priorities listed by the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is there any sign of enhanced Garda resources dedicated to road safety enforcement.
Amid a blizzard of political and media debate and questioning of both the Minister for Justice and Garda Commissioner about the governance of the force, treatment of whistleblowers, wage demands, organised crime, etc, enforcement of road traffic laws barely gets a look-in. Responding to organised crime is legitimately hoovering up huge amounts of resources, including a massive overtime bill (€71.5m). And it is understandable that people demand protection from such gangs and from criminal activity in general. But if you look at the statistics, more people are dying on our roads in crashes than are killed as a result of organised crime.
These deaths are avoidable and deserve equal government attention and resources. Why are they viewed as less important? How many of next year's 800 Garda recruits will be dedicated to road policing?
The sad fact is that, day in day out, road deaths are managed privately by heart-broken families. So far this year, 146 people have died on the roads, up 25 on the same time last year. The circumstances of each crash involving death and serious injury is investigated by gardaí. But not enough attention is given to measures which would have prevented so many crashes, such as tackling drink driving or reckless disregard of the speed limits. If we had more road traffic enforcement, the death toll on the roads would be considerably less.
Drink driving and excessive speed are by far the biggest factor in fatal crashes. Both are detectable and preventable by effective enforcement.
Over the past decade and a half our roads have become much safer. In 2006 there were 365 road deaths. Last year there were 162. This has been achieved through the strategic implementation of a number of road safety measures and laws. Each strategy is founded on the three Es of Engineering, Education and Enforcement. Unfortunately, our efforts to make roads safer were hit by the recession. But enforcement has taken the greatest hit. Pre-recession, the Traffic Corps stood at 1,200 strong. Now it effectively doesn't exist at all, or is much diminished, as road traffic policing has been subsumed into the main duties of all gardaí. As the economy has picked up, so too has the number of vehicles, piling more pressure on the roads.
It's almost impossible to tell what effect all of this has had on actual enforcement levels. But a recently published European Survey of Road Users' Attitudes (ESRA) goes some way towards answering the question. It finds that drivers in Ireland are half as likely to experience road policing compared to the average European driver.
The ESRA project is a joint initiative of research institutes in 17 European countries, aimed at collecting comparable national data on road users' opinions, attitudes and behaviour with respect to road traffic risks. Some of the themes covered in the survey are: attitudes towards unsafe traffic behaviour, behaviour of other road users, subjective safety and risk perception, reported police checks and perceived likelihood of getting caught for traffic offences.
On the positive side, the ESRA report shows that people in Ireland treat the issue of road safety very seriously. In fact, Irish people rate road safety second only to the healthcare system in terms of priority social issues. Notably, they rate road safety higher than crime and unemployment. Compared to the average European, fewer people here believe it is acceptable to speed, drink drive or use a mobile phone while driving or to not wear a seatbelt. And these attitudes are evidence of the effectiveness of education and awareness-raising programmes and campaigns.
On the negative side, and this is where we are falling down and probably contributing to the regression in road safety over the last number of years, the likelihood of Irish drivers being checked by the police is lower than the average European. When asked how likely one was to be breathalysed by the police on a typical journey, 9.5pc of drivers here said it was likely compared to 18.2pc of European drivers. You are twice as likely to be checked for drink driving in the rest of Europe than in Ireland.
Some 26.6pc of drivers here reported they were likely to encounter a speed check compared to 36.2pc for the average European; 10.7pc said there was a likelihood of being checked for wearing a seatbelt on a typical journey here compared to 18.8pc for the average European. Should we be surprised by a rise in road deaths when self-reported enforcement levels are much lower than the European average for drink driving and speeding?
There is huge public support in this country for high levels of enforcement to tackle dangerous behaviour such as drink driving. Attitudes have changed fundamentally and there is zero tolerance for reckless driver behaviour. Increasingly, drivers are taking responsibility for their own actions.
But policing and enforcement really is the key and is the main deterrent. Ensuring drivers believe they are likely to be detected and face penalties if they break the rules is critical.
Human nature is such that the frequency and likelihood of encountering checks determines road users' behaviour. Unless we have highly visible and dedicated officers enforcing road traffic laws, the death toll on our roads will continue to rise, reversing all the progress made to date.