Crashes that left seven people dead over the June bank holiday weekend are a throwback to the bad old days on the State’s roads.
Gardaí described the toll of seven deaths and eight serious injuries as a “bleak” and “dark” start to the summer. But they also noted a mass movement of people countrywide, and increased socialising, during a bank holiday weekend that has often resulted in higher road deaths.
At the end of May, 70 people had lost their lives on the Republic’s roads. This compared to 59 deaths in the first five months of last year and in the same period in 2020. There were 44 deaths by the end of May 2019.
With the first days in June now passed, the death toll has increased to 77. A number of gardaí said, while the trends this year were a real cause for concern, it was still too early to extrapolate long-term patterns. They believed the events of the next couple of months would reveal whether road deaths were set to exceed 200 this year for the first time since 2010.
However, even those Garda members urging caution on worst-case projections said more road-policing resources — and a more aggressive, prosecutorial approach — were required so the progress of recent years does not begin to slip.
“What you find is that, the minute something happens, the roads policing [gardaí] are drawn into day-to-day work. They’re used to secure a crime scene overnight or to work at big GAA or rugby matches, that sort of thing,” said one source.
Another source believed many drivers who should be incurring penalty points were still going to court and claiming they never received notification in the post. They also claim in court they had lost the opportunity to pay the fine and accept the points and were instead, they say, unfairly summonsed to the courts because the original notice never reached them.
“If someone is detected speeding, or whatever, and then they get away with it, that just reinforces their behaviour,” said one Garda member.
Another Garda member — who like the others was speaking generally and not about any specific collision — said he had often checked the Pulse record for drivers killed in crashes and had found many of them had a record of being detected breaking the road traffic laws. “But there is a history there in many of these cases of not paying the fine and never getting the points. And so they never felt the need to modify their behaviour,” he said.
Other Garda members believed road policing needed to be better resourced so that the force’s visibility on the roads was high enough to act as a deterrent to drivers who break the law. Another Garda source said while gardai were legally obliged to test drivers in fatal crashes for drinking and drug-taking, they were concerned this was not happening.
However, those concerns must be seen in the context of historically low fatalities; the last five years witnessed the lowest number of deaths on the roads in 60 years.
In the 1970s, road deaths exceeded 500 for the first time and by the end of that decade were above 600. They then settled down in the 1980s and 1990s, when fatalities annually were in the 400s. In 2008 deaths dropped below 300 in a year for the first time since 1961, when modern records begin. In 2011 they dropped below 200 per year and have remained there ever since.
The pandemic, surprisingly, made no difference to the fatality numbers. There were 138 road deaths in 2018 followed by 140 in 2019. During the pandemic years — 2020 and 2021 — there were 146 and 137 deaths respectively. If the death rate so far this year was maintained it would reach between 165 and 170 by year-end, still low in the context of recent decades.
In reply to queries, Garda Headquarters, Phoenix Park, Dublin, said approximately 750 Garda members were now permanently assigned to Roads Policing Units. The force had also rolled out a range of drink and drug driving detection equipment. In addition, some 4,846 handheld devices had been distributed to gardaí to aid detection and streamline the prosecution of motoring offences.
As well as personnel permanently assigned to roads policing, other Garda members were deployed to manage traffic volume at major events and issued fixed-charge notices, attended crash scenes and arrested and prosecuted intoxicated drivers. However, local Garda management was required to make decisions about the deployment of personnel to meet specific policing demands.
The Garda added in the first four months of this year, some 16,500 mandatory intoxicant checkpoints had been conducted, up 69 per cent. There had also been an increase of 23 per cent in the number of drink-drivers prosecuted, or more than 2,700 cases. The Garda added the manner in which cases were handled once they reached the courts was a matter for the courts.