Gay Byrne: A road safety activist unafraid of challenging ministers

Broadcaster revelled in role of RSA chairman where he fought to change driver behaviour

Shortly before he stepped down as Road Safety Authority chairman in 2014 after an eight-year stint, Gay Byrne told a colleague people would remember him for his broadcasting, but his legacy was his road safety work.

The sentiment highlights how seriously he took his RSA role.

At his appointment as RSA chair in 2006, Byrne described himself as a reluctant campaigner, saying he needed the extra work “like a hole in the head”. He planned to stay for three years and at the time was 71.

His appointment was a public relations coup for the Department of Transport. It also marked a sharp policy change, with more responsibility being demanded of drivers to change their behaviour. Byrne had an unparalleled ability to deliver this “cop on” message to motorists.

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But it was also a political risk. Ministers, civil servants or the media held no fear for Byrne. He despised bureaucracy and could go off script to chastise a minister or anyone else he saw as impeding a road safety initiative.

It was also a risk for Byrne, who did not want to be a flak jacket for the department.

Eddie Shaw, who chaired the RSA’s predecessor, the National Safety Council – had resigned in bitter frustration at the lack of political commitment to road safety in the face of a stubbornly high annual death toll.

So at the press conference to announce his appointment, Byrne went off script and warned if he encountered the same red tape and lack of political will he would resign and call the media back to tell them why. But he didn’t resign.

Revelled

Instead, he stayed as chair of the RSA for eight years and revelled in the role he was given “out of the blue” during a call by then minister for transport Martin Cullen.

It was not the first time a minister called to offer Byrne a position. His response on this occasion was: “Okay, I’ll give it a whack.”

Speaking to The Irish Times shortly after his appointment Byrne said: "Most people who have had a fairly good innings, like I have, want to give something back through public service."

After his appointment, people began writing to him suggesting ideas to improve road safety. The preceding year, in 2005, 396 people had died on the roads.

Byrne says he got “dozens and dozens of letters every day” containing good, bad and bonkers suggestions.

He recounted “one of the most delightful suggestions was that every driver at the end of every month – every month mind you – who remained penalty-point free, should receive €500 from the Government, tax free.”

He gave this idea to Cullen.

“I thought Cullen was going to faint in front of my eyes. But he suddenly cheered up and said: ‘Jeez, wait till I tell Cowen about this’ and off he went with a merry lilt in his footsteps.”

While this idea was mad, Byrne’s highlighting of it reveals his road safety philosophy: part carrot, part stick. Every letter was responded to.

While Byrne’s broadcasting skills were the major factor in his appointment, behind the scenes, he was a diligent and efficient chair and generous with his time to a part-time role.

By his own admission, Byrne hated administration but was well briefed and had an impressive grasp of detail in a complex area with a large volume of law.

He also informed himself. While riding his motorcycle Byrne would frequently stop to talk to a garda on patrol to find out what was happening on the frontline of roads policing.

But he was frustrated by Garda management who he viewed as being hamstrung by their concern with trying to please their political masters.

Byrne was comfortable confronting and disagreeing with politicians and in 2013 wrote to then minister for transport Leo Varadkar warning that Garda enforcement levels were deteriorating and of the knock-on impact for road deaths and serious injuries.

The letter drew a sharp response from then minister for justice Alan Shatter, who said Byrne’s logic when it came to traffic law enforcement levels was wrong.

Byrne responded that while he did not want to argue about “whether this is fact or not . . . the dogs on the street have a perception for the last year at least that enforcement was down”.

In 2017, it emerged that during this period gardaí were significantly inflating the number of breath tests.

You can only pray that if they are driving towards you at breakneck speed, bouncing off the ground, that when they go out of control they kill themselves and not you.

One RSA colleague recalled how Byrne loved the “driver training” stuff and finding ways to improve the skills and knowledge of motorists. During his tenure, the RSA significantly changed the driver training regime and also removed the glaring loopholes which allowed motorists on a provisional licence to drive unaccompanied for many years after failing their test multiple times.

The RSA’s first attempt to address this issue led to one of its most difficult periods when it was heavily criticised for too swiftly changing the rules allowing drivers on a second provisional licence drive unaccompanied.

During the ensuing media storm, Byrne remained calm and measured, confident the RSA was on the right track albeit recognising the initial timeframe was too short.

Byrne was criticised by some for being too old to relate to young drivers and he admitted struggling with this aspect.

‘Gangsters and thugs’

He told The Irish Times he despaired of “18- to 26-year-old male drivers acting like gangsters and thugs” and confessed he had no idea how to change the behaviour of this group.

“There are idiots out there to whom the message will never get through.

“In the Rosses in Donegal, they drive like lunatics. I use this as an example, but I believe it is the same across the country. There is a coterie of 18- to 24-year-olds with 10-year-old Golf GTIs driving with the baseball caps back to front barely able to see over the steering wheel driving like certifiable lunatics.

“You can only pray that if they are driving towards you at breakneck speed, bouncing off the ground, that when they go out of control they kill themselves and not you.”

Byrne was appointed by Cullen and reappointed by his successors in the department Noel Dempsey and Leo Varadkar.

By 2014, Byrne had had enough. Varadkar tried to persuade him to remain but after eight years and close to 80, his mind was made up.

His departure followed shortly after that of the first RSA chief executive Noel Brett, with whom Byrne had a very close working relationship.

He did not live to see it but Byrne believed Ireland’s drink-driving laws were archaic and the limit had to fall to zero eventually.

He believed attitudes to drink-driving could change in the same way as those towards smoking in public places, if a “shocking lack of political willpower” could be overcome.

“Years ago, if I said I had 17 brandies last night and drove home you might have said ‘fair play to you Gay’. Now you would say I was a bloody idiot and ought to be damn well ashamed of myself.

“And it only requires a wistful dream to get from that stage to it being socially unacceptable.

“Of course the limit will drop to zero. That is best practice all over the world. As far as I can see it only requires a ministerial order and that takes no time.”