Is reducing speed enough to reduce road deaths?

Authorities have announced anti-speed measures to improve road safety. Critics say they aren’t enough

We seem to be slipping back into the bad old days of the early 2000s. Ireland has had, at times, a staggeringly poor record when it comes to road safety. In 1972, when there were far fewer cars than there are today, a record 640 people died on Irish roads. The numbers fell for a time after that, but rose sharply again in the early 2000s when the number of cars on the road swelled, yet infrastructural improvements and public attitudes to things such as seat belts and drink driving failed to advance.

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, road deaths hovered at about 400 annually until improvements in vehicle safety and road design helped reduce the toll.

In 2012, the numbers killed on our roads fell to 165 — that’s still 165 awful tragedies, but it was a far lower figure than 10 years previously. The numbers killed on our roads have risen again, and spiked this year. So far in 2022, 94 deaths and 674 serious injuries have been recorded on Irish roads, a rise of 42 per cent in the number of fatalities compared with 2021.

To combat this, the Department of Transport, the Garda and the Road Safety Authority (RSA) have launched a campaign to get people to reduce their speed this weekend. Deaths and injuries on the road rise at major holiday times — more people are taking longer journeys, and public holidays in particular seem to be a major trigger for tragedy.

Speaking at the launch of the Road Safety Appeal at Atlantic Technological University in Donegal, Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton said: “I am gravely concerned about the high number of deaths on our roads this year. We need to act now to stem this increase. Accordingly, I intend to double the fines for key road traffic offences which are putting drivers, pedestrians and cyclists at most risk of death on our roads.

“For example, the fine for speeding will soon increase from €80 to €160 and the fine for using a mobile phone while driving or for not wearing a seat belt will double to €120... Increasing fines for these offences will act as a stronger deterrent to those who break our life-saving rules of the road.”

At the same event, the Garda confirmed that 61 new potential locations for speed camera vans had been identified and activated. Assistant commissioner Paula Hilman, the roads policing and community engagement officer for An Garda Síochána, said this would bring the total number of safety camera zones nationwide to 1,373. “Between January and mid-July this year a total of 88,368 motorists have been detected speeding, I would appeal to all motorists to slow down.”

The focus on speed is a constant in road safety messaging. According to the RSA’s figures: “Twenty-four per cent of the 344 driver and motorcycle-driver fatalities with a record of their actions available were exceeding a safe speed. This refers to driving above the speed limit and/or driving at an unsafe speed for the road/conditions.”

However, while speed is undoubtedly a cause of some incidents, these figures suggest that three-quarters of fatal accidents had other significant contributing factors. Is there a danger that the focus on speed may not be as productive as some people hope?

Susan Gray, chairperson of road safety campaign group Parc (Promoting Awareness, Responsibility and Care on our roads), feels that the latest round of warnings and fine increases are paying mere lip service to road safety.

“What’s being done is not near enough” she says. “The problem is that there’s nothing as good, in terms of enforcement, as actually seeing gardaí out on the road. Cameras can’t combat drink driving, nor drug driving, nor using a phone behind the wheel. The only real fear amongst drivers is of being actually caught by a guard, or of being stopped at a checkpoint.

“We always see that when the road fatality figures come down, gardaí are taken off road policing and assigned to other areas. And then, when the figures go back up again, it’s too late to have officers redeployed — people have already been killed, people have already been maimed.”

She says the Minister for Justice has confirmed that the numbers on traffic policing duty have fallen from 736 in 2021, to 696 at the end of June 2022.

Gray has seen the tragedy of road deaths all too closely; her own husband Steve was knocked down and killed, and that is what moved her to establish Parc as both a campaigning organisation and a support service for bereaved families. It was Parc’s campaign that saw mandatory intoxication testing at the scene of a fatal crash for all involved and the organisation has been mounting similar campaigns in recent years to have road safety legislation and enforcement tightened up.

“You can see the extent of the problem — why are so many people not listening? They’re certainly not listening to the RSA campaigns. They’re not listening to fines. Many simply don’t seem to care. But there are very few people who would say they don’t care if they’re stopped at a Garda checkpoint. Very few.

“In the meantime... drivers are getting disqualified but they’re holding on to their licences and they’re heading back out on the roads again. Now that’s the kind of thing that Eamon Ryan, and the RSA, and the Garda Commissioner should be looking at, should be discussing in meetings. But instead they’re raising the fines for speeding, or for not wearing a seat belt. We don’t see that people would be too upset about simply paying a higher fine. It’s just so heartbreaking.”

Gray describes a sclerotic relationship between the RSA, the gardaí and the courts service, whereby penalty points and disqualifications are frequently not properly handed out because, in a significant percentage of cases, driving licence numbers cannot be corroborated with driver identities.

According to Parc, the vast majority of drivers disqualified in court are not surrendering their licence to the RSA as required by law. Parc was previously told by former head of the RSA, Moyagh Murdock, that it was “unacceptable” that a fully automated system was not in place. It was promised for 2019; in 2022, we are still waiting. The RSA blames a sluggish courts system. The courts service says it’s waiting for a response from the RSA to implement an automated system.

The RSA responds that “the NVDF database contains a full record of all Irish driving licence holders and therefore, even though these records do not have a licence linked to them, it does not mean they do not hold a driving licence as they may hold a foreign driving licence”. According to the RSA’s own figures, 47 disqualifications have been issued in 2022 to drivers with no driving licence recorded.

Stephen Doyle is another who has had too close a brush with tragedy on the roads — three of his brothers were killed in a road traffic collision, and he now works with the Irish Road Victims’ Association, a group that supports those bereaved or injured by road collisions and campaigns for justice, rights and recognition for road crash victims.

“As you can imagine, for a family like ours, having lost three people at such a young age, you never feel that enough is being done,” Doyle says. “We do feel that laws on road safety should be passed through the Dáil as quickly as possible, and [road safety] needs to be made more of a priority. As someone who lost three siblings in one incident, I feel that it shouldn’t be that we only get this message out at Christmas or on bank holidays. It should be consistent. It shouldn’t be that people are only thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the bank holiday, I should be a bit more careful.’ It should be all year round. This is something that’s happening every day. One death on the road is too many.”

Speaking to The Irish Times, Paddy Comyn, head of communications for AA Ireland, says that, as well as enforcement, more needs to be done to inculcate good driving habits in Ireland: “We very much welcome the new measures, as there appeared to be an apathy setting in, in relation to certain road behaviours, with the consequences becoming literally deadly,” says Comyn.

“The modern Irish driver might be driving on safer roads, in safer cars, but they are also more distracted than ever before. Phone use, increased drug use and a more relaxed approach to speeding would appear to be at fault. Introducing driver training at a younger age, specifically in our school system, would help instil better values earlier.”

If you have been affected by a death or injury on the roads, contact the Irish Road Victims’ Association helpline on 086 8634194, or you can contact Parc’s victim support line on 086 3773784. Both organisations can be found online at irva.ie and parcroadsafety.ie

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring