Time for a Vision Zero Approach to Road Safety

Why extending 30km/h speed limit zones in Dublin will save lives. First published on TheJournal.ie, 29th May 2016

Speed limits have been in the news a lot lately. In Dublin City the Council is proposing 30 km/h on many of the residential streets and roads in the inner city. The Department of Transport Tourism and Sport issued Guidelines for Setting and Managing Speed Limits in March 2015 and we are acting to implement these.  However we’re not alone in proposing lower speed limits. All around Europe municipalities are calming traffic in their cities and towns. In London many areas have adopted 20 m/h as a default speed limit. In addition to saving lives this reduces noise pollution and particulate emissions from diesel engines.

The main reason for doing this is to save lives. Twenty-nine people died on the roads in Dublin City over the last three years. Over half of these were pedestrians or cyclists. For these vulnerable road users the chances of surviving a crash are dramatically reduced at lower speeds. Half the pedestrians hit by a car travelling at 50 km/h will die. At 30 km/h 90% will survive. However lowering speed limits is only part of the solution. We must also persuade people to drive more carefully, we must continue to tackle those who drive while drunk or drugged, and we also need to make physical changes to streets in order to encourage drivers to keep to the speed limits. We know that speed kills: the Road Safety Authority tells us that excessive speed was a factor in 15% of fatal collisions.  The tragic death of Jake Brennan outside his home in Kilkenny City almost two years ago has focused attention on the role of speed limits in tackling road safety and his family have been lobbying Government for lower speed limits in urban areas.

30 km/h speed limits are not proposed for most of the arterial roads that serve as commuter routes in and out of the city centre. The current 50 km/h speed limit is proposed to remain. However there is merit in proposing 40 km/h speed limits on these streets as is the case on similar streets in Copenhagen to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Such a change would shave less than thirty seconds off a car journey between Phibsborough and Harold’s Cross, but would improve safety on such routes. In addition pollutants from diesel cars are generally lower at 30 km/h than at higher speeds, and there is a reduction in stop-start driving.

Road safety requires more than changing the speed limits. Hard engineering is also needed to encourage safer behaviour. In the past speed bumps were seen as crucial. Nowadays new traffic calming measures such as carriageway narrowing; chicanes, entrance treatment and tree planting can achieve the same result and build more pleasant neighbourhoods. Some measures such as zebra crossings that fell out of favour such as zebra crossings are now making a comeback as they put the pedestrian in charge. When roads become places, people slow down and safety improves. This requires funding, and our new Minister for Transport Shane Ross could do well to divert some funding to traffic calming from over-engineered town bypass schemes.

Ireland’s road safety has improved dramatically in recent years, but our vision should emulate that of Sweden: Vision Zero. That strategy states that no loss of life is acceptable, and this should also be our aim. In addition we should also ensure that more children and older people have independent spatial mobility. This means allowing kids to travel by themselves to school or around their neighbourhood, and allow older people to walk and cycle later in life. We can help tackle the growing obesity crisis by encouraging people to take exercise rather than drive or be driven. Lower speed limits can help achieve this. 150,000 people live in and around Dublin’s inner city. 20,000 of these are children and 12,000 are aged 65 and over. The city belongs to them as well as to car drivers: pedestrians, older people and children have a right to the city. If we don’t allow our children to walk or cycle while young they will run the risk of being driven or driving for their entire lives.

Back in 1967 UK Planner Myles Wright stated ‘Ireland is coming late into the age of a car for most families. There is every sign that Irishmen, as sturdy individualists and democrats, will wish to use cars fully.” Half a century later as many of the millennial generation choose not to drive and to embrace more sustainable transport methods we now must facilitate and encourage this change.

On the international stage cities are undergoing a renaissance based around walkability, bikeability and liveability. Rather than letting traffic dominate we need to focus on mixed-use neighbourhoods with integrated traffic calming. This can help Dublin’s health, environment and economy to thrive. If the City Council adopts the report the Council will initiate a period of public consultation prior to implementing a final decision later this year. I believe it is a progressive and positive proposal.

Ciarán Cuffe chairs Dublin City Council Transportation Committee and lectures in the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Transport Engineering, Environment and Planning

Published on TheJournal.ie on 29th May 2016, this page published 9th January 2018