Stop Road Death Carnage

Stop Road Death Carnage – by Ciarán Cuffe, published in the Irish Independent 26th July 2001

“In 1999, 62,000 young people sat their Leaving Certificate. Unless attitude to speed, drink and unsafe driving change, over 1,000 of that figure will have been killed in car accidents by 2007. A further 4,000 will have suffered serious injuries.”

Strong words indeed. They were spoken by Ed Shaw, the Chairman of the National Safety Council, as he launched their last Annual Report almost a year ago. Since then over four hundred people have died in accidents on Irish roads. This year alone 219 people have been killed. Since Tuesday morning three children have lost their lives in County Monaghan, two teenagers died in Westmeath, and a man was killed on the roads of Carlow. It is likely by the time you read these words that the death toll will have risen. If you drive, cycle, walk, or are pushed in a pram you are at risk from the moment you leave your home. If a Jumbo Jet full of Irish people crashed every year it would be equivalent to the annual carnage on Irish roads. Perhaps it is the drip-by-drip nature of this tragedy that allows us to ignore its yearly impact. Road crashes do not come cheaply either. In 1996 the total economic loss resulting from deaths and injuries amounted to $452.8 billion, which is a remarkable 2% of GDP in many countries.

Noel Dempsey in his introduction to the Government’s Strategy for Road Safety points out that over 26,000 people have died on Irish Roads since the start of the twentieth century. The Strategy is good in theory, but has fallen behind in implementation. Legislation providing for penalty points for driving offences has yet to be approved by the Oireachtas. Fines for speeding are often less than the £65 charge for clamp removal if you park illegally. Despite the best efforts of the National Safety Council it appears that accidents and fatalities will remain at high levels.

Perhaps more draconian measures are needed. When penalty points are introduced they will lead eventually to a loss of driving license for repeat offenders. Maybe the State should confiscate the cars of those who break the law frequently. That would be a more effective message than the ‘Slow down boys’ message of a recent road safety campaign. The Gardaí must also be instructed to enforce road traffic laws more rigorously. In the UK up to 90% of front seat passengers wear a seat belt. Here, the figure is less than 50%. Although the graphic ads of recent weeks have encouraged back seat passengers to buckle up, less than 20% were reported as wearing seat belts in a recent survey. A fine of £1000 would ensure better compliance. We are still waiting for road cameras to catch speeding motorists. Perhaps we should privatise such a service and let the company keep half the profits. That might slow us down.

What is needed most is a change in attitude amongst road users. When was the last time you saw someone remove the car keys from a tipsy friend? In Sweden the blood alcohol limit is set so low that even one drink can put you over the limit. The speed limits are also strictly enforced. On a trip there a few years ago a Swedish friend politely reminded me when I exceeded the speed limit, and pointed out that their road manners were different from the Irish. There was also little evidence of road rage, even on congested roads. Here at home we seem to take it for granted that drivers make illegal turns through pedestrian crossings. Drivers also see the stretches of road between traffic calming humps as an opportunity to race from 0 to 60 mph.

In the Australian State of Victoria a radical road safety strategy has dramatically reduced deaths by 50%. Policies ranging from huge fines for drunk driving to reducing driver fatigue have achieved results. There car drivers don’t turn the ignition key until they have heard the click of all passengers’ seat belts being fastened.

Looking ahead we must consider lower speed limits of 20 mph in residential areas. We should provide refresher Driving Tests every ten years. Car advertisers who glamorise fast driving should be penalised. We require a ‘’Safe Routes to School” programme that creates a safer environment for children to walk or cycle to school. Public transport must be improved so that people have a reliable safe alternative to the car. The Government must make road safety a number one issue. If this doesn’t happen there will continue to be the equivalent of an Omagh bomb on our roads every month. ENDS