New attitude and laws behind fall in road deaths
I: Key factors that led to the decrease in road deaths over the last six years
Some 161 people died on Irish roads last year, 25 fewer than in 2011 and 51 fewer than in 2010. Road deaths have fallen every year since 2006, and it is the fifth year in a row that a record low has been achieved. Why?
The short answer from road safety chiefs is “behavioural change”. Or as Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar maintains, it “really comes down to the efforts of every single road user”.
But people don’t tend to change their behaviour unless there is a large stick being wielded in their direction, and in this case three initiatives stand out.
First, mandatory alcohol testing, which was introduced in 2007 after a series of delays, mainly focused on legal concerns, and despite complaints from publicans.
Second, lowering blood alcohol limits from 80mg to 50mg, which came into force in 2010 despite a rear-guard action against the plan from some backbench TDs from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Third, speed cameras, which were introduced in 2011 despite grumbling from sections of the motoring lobby and subsequent vigilante attacks.
There is a pattern here: nothing has happened without a struggle.
On the plus side, Noel Brett, chief executive of the Road Safety Authority, says the “ambivalent attitude which applied for decades” has been replaced with a “much more sophisticated” one. Recent road safety measures have had cross-party support, and public attitudes have changed dramatically – right down to the use of high-visibility vests.
“When I was in college you would have been laughed out of it if you wore one.”
As well as the three enforcement initiatives above, Brett cites at least 10 other factors behind the downward trend in fatalities. The rising price of fuel and a reduction in the national car fleet in the recession can’t be discounted as factors but he does not believe they have had a “significant” influence as “we still have one of the highest dependencies on the use of cars”.
Rather, he cites the rolling out of road safety education programmes; regulation of the driving instruction industry; stricter rules around trainee drivers, including a provision from April 2011 that all learners have a minimum of 12 taught hours; engineering improvements to the road network; the opening of the Dublin Port Tunnel in 2006 and the diversion of trucks from the capital; reduced speed limits; compulsory seat belts on buses; and improved roadworthiness of vehicles in the wake of the National Car Test which began in 2000.
The introduction of penalty points in November 2002 has also helped, and the scheme is being expanded further under a planned new Bill from Varadkar’s department. As well as increasing the penalty for seat belt, mobile phone and speeding offences, the Bill will halve from 12 to six the number of penalty points learner motorists can accumulate before losing their licence. “That will focus minds,” says Brett.
Other planned initiatives are the extension of speed cameras to further zones, roadside drug impairment testing and improved assessment of motorists’ fitness to drive.
A new, eight-year road safety strategy is due to be published in March, replacing the 2007-2012 strategy.