Just after lunch, three days into 2013, two vehicles collided on the Old Dublin Road at Lisnagry, about five miles outside Limerick city.
Three men were rushed to hospital but just after midnight, 77-year-old Richard Hourigan succumbed to his injuries, becoming the first road fatality of the year. His brother Michael, two years his junior and travelling in the same car, died a number of days later.
Garda forensic teams sealed off the road to gather evidence. About six hours before the first victim died, it reopened and traffic once more spilled back and forth.
In the ten years that followed Richard Hourigan’s death, 1,592 more men, women and children perished on Irish roads. Added to that, almost 11,000 suffered serious, often life changing injuries. This includes drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Fifteen years before that Limerick crash, the first ever national road safety strategy was launched at a time when deaths were at far greater levels. These were the days before the National Car Test (NCT) service, mandatory roadside testing for intoxicants, penalty points and other mechanisms designed to reduce carnage.
Since then, the numbers of fatalities have plummeted by 70 per cent but in the last ten years, they appear to have plateaued at an annual average of 159 deaths – but fluctuated between 192 deaths in 2014 and 135 in 2018.
Despite this apparent stagnation (deaths rose in 2022 to their highest level in seven years to 157), Government and the Road Safety Authority (RSA) are attempting to deliver on European-level ambitions to eliminate fatal crashes altogether by 2050 and halve them to about 72 in seven years’ time.
Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, has said this “Vision Zero” is about ensuring the right of vulnerable road users to be safe. “It is ambitious,” he said, with more than a note of understatement.
RSA chief executive, Sam Waide, said even a 35 per cent reduction in road deaths, to below 100 per year, would mark a “paradigm shift”.
A detailed analysis of ten years of road deaths and serious injury in collisions from 2013 to 2022 gives some insight into the nature of the most serious crashes and their effects.
In that time, there have been 1,593 fatalities in the Republic, peaking at 21 in a single month (August) in 2021.
The figures indicate the most likely person to be killed in Ireland is a male car driver or passenger, aged between 16 and 25, and travelling between 4 and 8pm in December. Children up to 15 years have accounted for 4 per cent of total deaths (64).
Although the vast majority of fatalities have occurred in counties with large urban concentrations (197 in Dublin and 159 in Cork), several others have recorded more than 80 over the decade (Donegal, Kerry, Meath, Tipperary).
When the data is adjusted for population size, Monaghan have proved the most deadly county over the ten year period with 0.78 deaths per 1,000 of population (based on 2022 Census data). That was followed by Tipperary (0.57), Roscommon (0.555) and Donegal (0.551).
“You have to see where we’ve come from,” said RSA chairwoman, Liz O’Donnell, cautiously noting an 18 per cent drop since she took up her role in 2014 and 2022.
“[But] this year, now, it looks as if we’re going up and that’s not good. We need to change that trajectory.”
As of June 1st, there had been 77 deaths compared with 64 at the end of May last year.
Mr Waide said most other European countries have experienced similar increases in recent times, some of it down to higher traffic volumes. Understanding road safety performance is not an exact science. Investment in Ireland’s network of single carriage rural roads, further reliance on emerging technology and a need to crack down on poor driver behaviour are crucial moves in cutting death rates, he said.
Worryingly, serious injuries have been rising at a considerable rate. With 10,906 recorded over ten years, rates have been on a steady trajectory from 508 in 2013 to 1,424 last year, an increase of 180 per cent. Serious injuries include fractures, concussions, internal injuries, crushing, severe cuts or shock serious enough to require medical attention.
Even if garda reporting methods have improved, leading to an increase in recorded incidents, it is internationally acknowledged that data based on police sourcing still underestimates the reality. A study by the RSA in conjunction with the HSE is currently being prepared and will attempt to shift reliance more toward hospital-led data.
Most serious injuries were suffered by males between the ages of 16 and 25 and during the summer months, particularly July. As with fatal crashes, injuries are most often seen in afternoon and evening hours (4pm to 8pm) collisions and occur, on average, at a rate of about three incidents per day.
On a per capita basis, most people who suffer serious injury on the roads do so in Co Leitrim, at a rate of 3.63 per 1,000 of population (based on 2022 Census data), followed by Monaghan (3.10), Cavan (2.8) and Donegal (2.78).
Outside of car drivers and passengers (accounting for 42 per cent), most serious injuries are inflicted upon pedestrians (21 per cent), while cyclists account for 18 per cent, motorbike riders for 13 per cent and “other” unspecified road users for the remaining 6 per cent.
Children suffer about 8 per cent of all serious injuries. While that is twice the proportion for fatalities, Dr Suzanne Crowe, consultant in paediatric intensive care at Crumlin Children’s Hospital, said car crashes still account for a very small proportion of their trauma patients.
“We have seen the same changes that have been seen in the adult population where the numbers have improved,” she said. “And, that’s largely due to children being restrained in the back of cars.”
There are also, however, fatalities related to children not being secured in their seats. Relatively few toddlers and younger children find their way into emergency departments from serious car crashes simply because their bodies are too weak to survive.
“If you think of your average family car – an SUV – if it hits a toddler, the bonnet is at the perfect level for hitting a two or three-year-old’s head and so the mortality at the scene is very high,” said Dr Crowe.
Children hit while on bicycles at road junctions are among the more common emergency department cases, particularly in urban areas.
People suffering and living with serious injuries can be a shadow reality of road crashes, often overlooked. Later this year, the RSA intends to campaign for greater awareness, with injury reduction a key target of Vision Zero.
This year and next, the RSA will concentrate on speed as a principal contributor to crashes, an issue Ms O’Donnell says has reached “epidemic levels”.
Now approaching the end of her ten-year appointment, she says a focus on youth – “major victims”, dying in large numbers – will be imperative for her successor. Despite gains, reducing fatalities to annual numbers closer to 100 appears elusive.
“In my mind, I always go back to 2006 which is when my own son [Darren] was killed and when the RSA was set up,” said Donna Price, founder of the Irish Road Victims Association. “That year we had 365 killed on our roads so one for every day of the week.
“This year, the figures are going up again. It’s heartbreaking. It’s soul-destroying to see it. But, we still look at the bigger picture and can see that we are getting there. The numbers are coming down.”