Covid-19: Lockdowns saw change in pattern of deaths on Irish roads

Driver deaths declined, numbers of pedestrians killed increased between 2020 and 2021

21/07/2017 -- Generic Garda traffic accident road signs search words crash collision Gardai road block
Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

The rapid onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement saw Ireland turn into a ghost town almost overnight.

From mid-March 2020, people were asked to stay at and work from home except for essential purposes.

With most workplaces, schools and colleges closed, thousands of privately owned cars sat in driveways for months on end, save for a weekly run to the nearest shop.

Significantly quieter roads, however, did not lead to to a sharp a fall in road deaths. Quite the contrary. Although there were 140 deaths on Irish roads in 2019, this figure rose to 147 in 2020 before falling again to 137 in 2021.

The impact of the restrictions can been seen from comparing the 47,072,000km clocked up by Irish road vehicles in 2019 compared to the 36,237,000kms in 2020, data from the CSO shows.

Overall deaths remained broadly stable during the pandemic, but there were changes in the pattern of deaths among different road users.

Data shows there was a fall in car users killed in 2020, down 12 at 69, compared to 81 in 2019. More goods-vehicle users were killed on the roads in 2020, however, at 13 deaths, compared to 2019, when there were five deaths.

Although deaths by drivers declined during the period of restrictions, pedestrian deaths increased, potentially as a result of more people using public roads as a place to walk or exercise during lockdown. There were 27 pedestrian deaths in 2019, which increased to 32 in 2020. Cyclist fatalities also increased slightly — up two to 10 in 2020 versus eight in 2019.

There was a slight increase in the deaths among motorcycle users, up by one from 16 in 2019 to 17 in 2020.

According to Road Safety Authority (RSA) data, only one group of users remained unchanged (at zero deaths) in both years; public service vehicle (PSV) users. PSVs include coaches, taxis and limousines. Full data on fatalities by road user type for 2021 is not yet available.

From lockdown to lockdown

The first Covid-19 restrictions in the State were introduced by then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar on March 12th, 2020. These measures included closing schools, colleges and cultural institutions, and limiting crowd sizes at indoor and outdoor gatherings. These measures were initially planned to last for two weeks before a full-scale lockdown was implemented on March 27th that year. At that stage all non-essential travel was cut and people were asked to stay within 2km of their homes while exercising outdoors.

With so few vehicles now on the roads, there was a sharp drop in road deaths from February 2020 (19) to the lowest figure of the year in May of six deaths. On May 5th, some restrictions began to be eased. The summer saw an increase in deaths on the roads during a summer of relative freedom, when many chose to holiday in the State. June saw 12 deaths, August had 15, and September had 18. Only July saw a slight buck of the trend when 10 deaths were reported.

Kildare, Laois and Offaly were all under lockdown restrictions from August 8th, 2020, due to a spike in the virus in these counties. Under these restrictions, travel in those counties was again limited to essential reasons only, as per the previous national lockdown.

The State’s living with Covid-19 plan was introduced in September 2020, where restrictions were grouped by severity and labelled between Level 1 and Level 5. The subsequent winter saw the country return to a full lockdown save for a brief two-week respite in the run-up to Christ. Deaths fell month-on-month in the final quarter of 2020 as these restrictions were in place through to the new year.

In December 2020, the country was once again placed under severe Covid restrictions from Christmas Eve and then placed into a full Level 5 lockdown from December 30th. There were eight road deaths in this month.

In comparison, December of 2019 saw the second-highest number of road fatalities (15) in a single month for that year. December 2021 saw the second-highest monthly tally for national road deaths at 19.

Given the former month was still living in a pre-Covid world, the unrestricted festive period would have seen higher numbers of people on the move.

Just three counties in the country saw no change in their number of road fatalities between 2019 and 2020 — Kildare (4), Leitrim (1) and Wexford (7). The remaining 23 counties were almost evenly split between increases and decreases in fatalities. A county-by-county breakdown for 2021 is not yet available from the CSO.

Twelve counties saw increases, while 11 saw their figure drop by varying degrees. Cork saw the biggest increase with eight more fatalities recorded during 2020, 22 in total, compared to 2019, 14 in total. Dublin, the most populous county, saw an increase of just one, up from 19 in 2019 to 20 in all of 2020.

In terms of decreases, seven counties saw one less fatality in 2020 than in 2019 — Cavan, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Offaly, Waterford and Wicklow. The remaining counties mostly saw smaller increases of between one and three.

In 2021, restrictions remained in place well into the spring before beginning to lift from April 12th, before Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced a further reopening of society at the end of May. April saw 18 deaths on the roads, the same month the 5km travel limit was lifted. As the country again enjoyed a relatively restriction-free summer, deaths once again crept up during the season. The autumn and winter saw a slowdown in this trend before deaths dropped to just four in November 2021.

This article was produced in conjunction with UCD Data Journalism

Glen Murphy

Glen Murphy

Glen Murphy is an Irish Times journalist