We must curb one-off housing to make our rural roads safe
There are many arguments both for and against one-off housing, but one aspect of the debate that gets little attention is the road safety implications in a country where speeding is an endemic problem.
Countries that urbanise early tend to romanticise their rural landscape. They idealise it, protect it, and have strict policies restricting inappropriate development. The UK excels at this, and its countryside is a well-signposted, well-organised and safe pleasure to visit. Countries that urbanise late - like Ireland - tend to have a more pragmatic relationship with the countryside, where it is a place of work, a resource, and somewhere to live.
For both the romantics and the pragmatics, it is this 'somewhere to live' aspect that causes most problems. For the romantics, it is mostly about visual impact on the landscape; for the pragmatists, it is about the social and economic costs of living in such a dispersed, non-nucleated fashion.
Last year, about half of all new houses built were one-off and most of these were in rural areas. Whatever the social and economic arguments for or against this type of development, what is often overlooked is how dangerous this is in a country that has the second largest road network per person in the EU (after Sweden).
Living beside high-speed rural roads brings with it significantly increased road safety risks, for both the risk of a crash and the severity of the injuries that result. For car occupants in a crash at 80kph, the likelihood of death is 20 times greater than an impact speed of 30kph.
Speeding is part of the problem, and European statistics shows that after Greece, Ireland as the country in which you are least likely to be caught speeding. In 2013, nine per cent of Irish drivers said they had received a fine or other penalty for speeding in the previous three years. In the Netherlands, that figure was 53pc.
There is a prevalent attitude among drivers acknowledging that speeding is wrong, but not believing they themselves are at risk or are part of the problem. About half of all Irish drivers believe other motorists regularly speed on country roads and nearly three-quarters are rarely or never checked for speeding.
Although fewer crashes take place overall in rural areas, the outcomes are almost twice as likely to be fatal or serious - 70-80pc of all fatal crashes take place on rural roads.
Levels of cycling and walking are low in rural areas, mostly due to the distances involved and lack of facilities, but when they do happen, collisions with cyclists or pedestrians are often fatal or involve life-changing injuries.
Most drivers have encountered pedestrians or cyclists on the hard shoulder (if there is one) on roads with 80-100kph speed limits, and it's unnerving for all parties.
Pedestrians have a 90pc chance of being killed when struck at 80kph, and the elderly have an even lower survival rate due to frailty and likelihood of other underlying illnesses.
While speed affects the outcome of a collision, rural development patterns affect the amount of risk, which is then compounded by speed. Our local, regional and national secondary roads are heavily developed with one-off single dwellings.
It is not uncommon to drive a stretch of rural road with a speed limit of 80kph or more, and encounter multiple house accesses, only 50 metres apart and stretching for kilometres at a time. The road from Galway city to Spiddal is a classic example.
The effect on road safety is this: each connection on to the main road is a potential conflict point. It only takes a minor error or lapse judgment from someone either entering or exiting a house - or another driver on the road - to cause a serious accident.
Collision rates increase with the number of access points along a road. Studies suggest that these access points could account for 15pc of fatal and serious collisions. So, for rural roads to perform safely, the numbers of connections and direct access must be limited and controlled.
The solution is a simple one: cluster the houses and use a single shared access on to the main road. Reducing the number of access points is reducing the risk of fatal collisions. While we have the same planning guidance as the UK in this regard, amazingly we don't seem willing or able to follow our own advice.
Figures for the last quarter of 2014 show that nearly 1,000 new one-off houses were granted planning permission across the country. While one house on its own does not increase road safety risk significantly, continually adding new connections over time will exacerbate a legacy of dangerous roads and poor safety.
This is a potential road safety risk in rural areas that could be prevented though better thinking about where we want to build.
Changing patterns of driver behaviour is a longer-term project: changing where we locate our houses in order to prevent more road accidents is something we could do overnight.
Dr Lorcan Sirr is a lecturer in housing at DIT, and is currently Visiting Professor of Housing at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, in Tarragona, Spain.