Road deaths are rising - we need to talk about young men and alcohol
A distressing feature of being chairperson of the Road Safety Authority is that each day I receive an email updating me on fatal crashes. Our role as the lead agency in road safety is to monitor deaths and serious injuries on Irish roads. So the figures matter. It is the only way we can measure how successful or otherwise we are in reducing the number and severity of crashes.
We have come a long way in road safety. I can remember clearly even 10 years ago, when we had 365 deaths - one a day - on our roads.
Through concerted efforts, we have brought those figures down by more than 50pc. Last year was the second-safest year for road safety, with 166 deaths.
But a worrying trend is developing. This year, there have been 105 fatalities so far - an 18pc increase on the figures for the same period last year. Already in July alone, 18 people have died, seven in a 48-hour period.
The figures are clearly going in the wrong direction. The RSA has made a chilling prediction in our half-year figures: that up to 80 more people will die on our roads before the year's end if the current trend continues.
It's a terrifying prospect that any one of us could be among the 80. And with a bank holiday this weekend, it is probable that tragedy will be visited on several families in the next two days.
Each road death is a devastation, for the individual and for those left behind to grieve a sudden and violent death. Or to sit by the bedside of a seriously injured loved one, knowing that life is forever changed.
By now, most of us realise that we are the only ones with control over how we use the roads. We take every precaution we can to ensure our own and our family's safety. We consciously make smart choices when we sit behind the wheel, go out on the bike or for a walk.
Yet the inconvenient truth is that in Ireland our research is clear.
There are still people who are reckless to the safety of others, who ignore the rules and who behave in a criminal way.
And this cohort is among the most terrifying and dangerous of people on our roads.
Take drink-driving, for example, which has been found to be a factor in 38pc of fatal crashes between 2008 and 2012; 246 people died in alcohol-related crashes. Most of them were men and almost half of the drivers killed who had consumed alcohol were aged between 16 and 24. Earlier this week, An Garda Síochána revealed that it had arrested 543 people on suspicion of drink-driving since the beginning of July. Drink-driving has not gone away; in fact it is on the increase. And the age profile of drunk drivers is also a matter of extreme concern.
Young males, biologically, are high-risk drivers. Their emotional immaturity and inexperience of driving makes them more likely to engage in what can only be called delinquent criminal behaviour.
They feature statistically in all of our research into fatal crashes when it comes to driving impaired by drink and drugs and the use of excessive speed.
Alcohol and speed are the two of the biggest factors in road deaths. The fact is that some young males are killing themselves and others by drinking and driving and speeding.
The second of the RSA landmark reports into the causes of collisions showed that 322 people were killed in speed-related collisions between 2008 and 2012. That is a wanton loss of life and is ongoing.
We witness people speeding every day. It is far more common and more culturally acceptable than drink-driving.
More than half of the drivers killed in speed-related crashes were aged between 16 and 24. Young people, some still in school, some attending college - their lives over in a split second. Excessive speed was found to be a factor in 32pc of fatal crashes. More than half of the crashes involving excessive speed involved a single vehicle only. Forty-six per cent of the speeding-related fatalities happened in the early hours of Saturday or Sunday.
Driving is, of course, a mix of accredited competence and taking personal responsibility. But looking at that age profile of drivers, there are clear parental-control issues at play. In my view, too many parents are ambivalent and negligent about their young adult children's driving and drinking habits.
In many of the cases our researcher looked at, the young drivers were uninsured, were involved in other petty criminality and were engaging in reckless, rallying-type boy racing.
In some parts of the country, there is a culture of reckless car racing at high speeds on rural roads. The pattern for high road deaths is consistent. Donegal, Cork, Galway and Cavan are consistently high for road crashes. Already this year, there have been 17 deaths on Cork roads, double that of other counties.
The RSA carries out in-depth analysis of Garda forensic investigations into the causes of crashes. We don't do this in the interests of science. We do it to feed into enforcement and operational measures to address risk. Drink is looming large again in our findings, despite all the advocacy and education. This suggests we have to go back to basics with the message, particularly to young drivers. It is a heinous crime to drink and drive.
Each of us as individuals must embrace this credo and the law must be better at detecting and punishing drunk drivers.
Yet despite this proven link between alcohol and death, in Ireland the topic is bathed in ambivalence. I was informed this week that the so-called advice on the ticket of those attending a forthcoming music festival for young people states that there is an allowance of up to 48 cans of beer per person. And that is just the camp site, not the concert venue, where more and stronger drink can be bought. Are we as a society OK with that level of alcohol abuse?
Pub owners too must take more responsibility for selling alcohol to the point of customers being a danger to themselves and others.
With better roads, fewer defective cars, better enforcement and tougher penalties for offences, we have reduced the carnage.
But each life is precious. The prediction of 80 more deaths before the year is out need not come to pass if each of us has a conversation this weekend with our families.
We need to talk about alcohol.