Road deaths at record low: but will they stay there?

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

If I had to point to one factor which most influences road safety, it is driver behaviour and attitudes

NOT SINCE records began, more than 50 years ago, have there been fewer deaths on Irish roads. Fatalities have fallen from a peak of 640 in 1972 to just 186 last year, yet over the same period the number of cars on the road has more than trebled from about 700,000 to some 2.5 million.

The remarkable success in reducing fatalities during a time of increasing car ownership cannot be attributed to any one factor but is down to a combination of measures, according to the Road Safety Authority chief executive, Noel Brett. “There is no one silver bullet,” he says. “It’s like putting together a complex jigsaw; you need to have all the pieces.”

This combination of measures, 126 in all, is the core of the authority’s Road Safety Strategy, introduced in 2007 and based on what Brett calls “the four Es”: education, enforcement, engineering and evaluation.

In addition to regularly updated and often graphic road-safety advertising on television, in cinemas and online, one of the most important recent developments in driver education has been the introduction of compulsory lessons for drivers.

From a situation, in 1979, when an amnesty resulted in an estimated 45,000 drivers being handed licences without passing a test, things have improved to the point that, since last year, new learner drivers must complete 12 hours of tuition with a qualified instructor before they can take a test. Instructors must also teach a set syllabus.

“The whole system has massively changed,” says Brett. “Where, before, we were behind the UK in terms of driver training, we’ve now passed them out and have much stricter regulations. But it’s not before time.”

Driver education has to be backed up by enforcement, he adds. The penalty-points system has been a great success, he believes, with the threat of losing one’s licence proving more of a deterrent to speeding than paying a fine. But the recent reduction in Garda Traffic Corps numbers, from 1,250 personnel to about 900, is worrying, Brett says. “It is absolutely critical that the level of enforcement is sustained by the Garda­ so that the deterrent is maintained, so I would be concerned about the reduction. While I would expect all gardaí­ to be involved in road safety, I would personally hope that the traffic bureau would remain to the forefront, because of their skills.”

Brett also believes that the benefits to road safety secured through improvements in vehicle standards and the road network – the engineering element of “the four Es” – cannot be overestimated. The introduction of the National Car Test in 2000 and the construction, over the past decade, of inter-city motorways and bypasses, which have taken trucks and buses out of towns and villages, have coincided with the decline in the number of annual fatalities, a figure that still stood at 415 at the start of this century.

Engineering advances have “radically reduced” numbers of crashes in the past 10 to 15 years and will be the key factor in further reducing road deaths, says the managing director of Volvo Ireland, David Baddeley.

While major advances have been made in the past 50 years in “passive safety”, ensuring that the structure of cars is as robust as possible through the use of laminated windscreens, safety cages and crumple zones, future advances will be in the area of “active safety”, which involves designing cars to avoid crashes.

“In terms of passive safety, the industry has really gone as far as it is likely to go, in that it has passed the 80/20 rule, where 80 per cent of what can be done has been done,” says Baddeley. “Reducing the likelihood of an accident is very much more sophisticated.”

Much has already been achieved in this area, he adds, such as the introduction of anti-lock braking systems and stability-control devices, but the technology is constantly progressing. “Everything is moving towards stopping the driver getting into difficulty in the first place, such as devices that will alert someone when they are getting tired, or sensors that will stop the car if a pedestrian walks out in front and the driver doesn’t react. Most accidents are down to driver error, so we want to reduce that.”

While car manufacturers may be constantly improving the safety of new vehicles, Brett says he is concerned that people might begin to neglect their older vehicles in an attempt to save money. “The tyre market is way down, which is very worrying – and vehicle lubricant sales are down by about 60 per cent. That is really shocking, because it indicates that people aren’t getting cars serviced.”

Keeping the numbers of fatalities at their current low levels will be difficult, he believes. “We’ll be desperately trying to maintain the reduction. Even to hold on to what was achieved in 2011 will be very difficult.”

Evaluation of what has been achieved will be the final piece of the puzzle, he adds. “We have to make sure that what we are doing is evidence-based. Everyone thinks it’s someone else who is a danger on the roads. Older people think it’s younger people, people who want to take a drink think it’s speeding, and so on, but there has to be a proper evaluation of every decision we make.”

The next road strategy, which will come into force towards the end of this year, will focus on deterring drug-driving and reducing the number of severe injuries, Brett says. “While the strategy is very much a combination of factors, if I had to point to one single factor which most influences road safety, it is driver behaviour and driver attitudes. And that change, particularly in relation to drink-driving, is what has made the difference.”