Road deaths rose in Ireland despite drop in traffic during pandemic

‘Worrying’ evidence of increasing public acceptance of speeding and other behaviours

‘I would ask road users to slow down on this bank holiday weekend.’ Photograph: iStock

‘I would ask road users to slow down on this bank holiday weekend.’ Photograph: iStock


Ireland was among just six European countries to experience an increase in road deaths despite significantly reduced pandemic traffic volumes, new data has shown.

With 65 fatalities in the first half of this year, Irish roads have also slipped from second to fifth place in European safety rankings.

Illustration: Paul Scott
Illustration: Paul Scott

At a briefing on Monday, a rise in dangerous behaviour generally was highlighted by gardaí and the Road Safety Authority (RSA). Speeding has become more common alongside softening public attitudes towards it, while the most dangerous time to be on the roads has now shifted to the afternoon.

Although the death rate from January to mid-July is down 12 per cent on last year, authorities have highlighted several areas of concern across behaviour and attitudes as captured by an RSA survey.

The authority’s research manager, Velma Burns, noted the 147 deaths in 2020 marked a 5 per cent increase on the previous year and continued an upward trend.

“That was in the context of reduced traffic volumes on our roads so that was quite a disappointing performance,” she said. “2018 was our safest year on record, with 137 fatalities on Irish roads, so we are seeing a slight regression in our performance over the last two years or so.”

Last year, Ireland was one of just six countries, from 32 in total, to see an increase in deaths during the pandemic.

“It was an opportunity for us to reduce our fatalities, and unfortunately we were one of the few countries who didn’t,” Ms Burns said.

Rural speed limits

This year, 19 people died in April alone. Seven of those were motorcyclists, whose fatality rate has continued to climb over the past five years, reaching 12 so far this year. However, the number of cyclists and pedestrians killed appears to be falling.

Dublin has recorded the highest number of deaths this year at 11, but another emerging pattern is that rural roads with 80km/h or greater speed limits are the most dangerous, as are the hours of noon-4pm.

RSA survey data shows a “significant” increase in speeding admissions and “perceived acceptability”, alongside actual Garda detection numbers that show a 13 per cent increase to 88,327 offences in the first six months.

“We saw an increase in the perceived acceptability of speeding on these roads and a decline in the support for safety cameras. So some quite worrying findings in relation to speeding.”

Although intoxication detections have fallen overall by 8 per cent, drug driving has increased 13 per cent. The amount of people caught using mobile phones has increased 13 per cent, although levels of non-compliance on seatbelt use have fallen 7 per cent.

With traffic volumes virtually back to pre-pandemic levels, and ahead of an expected busy bank holiday weekend, gardaí will police the roads knowing so-called life-saver offences – speeding, intoxicated driving, mobile phone use and a lack of seatbelts – have increased 11 per cent this year.

Speeding behaviour

Chief Supt Michael Hennebry, recently appointed head of the Garda National Roads Policing Bureau, said they were concerned that people would now continue to drive faster “and we need to address that behaviour”.

Asked about any potential future increase in the size of the Roads Policing Unit, he said for now they were “focusing on the outcomes” of broader policing on the roads.

“We are trying to reduce the volume of fatalities and serious traffic collisions, and resources aren’t the only factor in that. I think the public have a huge part to play in this and, in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority, we are trying to address the behaviours that are causing all these accidents.”

RSA chief executive Sam Waide noted 75 per cent of fatalities were male; an issue that will continue to be central to forthcoming RSA campaigns. It expects to publish its updated Road Safety Strategy in September.

“I would ask road users to slow down on this bank holiday weekend, on staycations,” Mr Waide said. “[Our] research confirmed that one of the reasons for people speeding was because they were late.”