No place for complacency as road deaths fall

 

Random breath-testing, improving roads and a rise in speed checks are reducing road fatalities, writes DAVID LABANYI

BARRING A series of crashes with significant fatalities in coming days, 2009 looks set to be the year with the lowest road fatalities since records began 50 years ago.

The total is also likely to be below the 250 target set in the Road Safety Target (2007 to 2012), and if it is, Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey says the “big job will be maintaining it”.

He cites the example of Northern Ireland, where up until last year road deaths were falling, as was the case in the Republic. This year, road deaths in the North have risen by up to 20 per cent. “If we get to 250 [deaths] this year there might be a tendency to say ‘job done’, and enforcement eases up. That is a mistake we cannot afford.”

A number of factors have contributed to the fall in road deaths, including random breath-testing, improving roads and a rise in speed enforcement by gardaí.

The number of penalty points handed out for speeding is going to rise by the middle of next year when a network of 45 speed cameras operated by a private company is introduced. The cameras were first promised by the then government in 1998, and the project followed a tortuous course until November, when the contract was signed.

Mr Dempsey does not expect significant public opposition to the cameras, despite the frustration of many motorists over what they see as inconsistent and inappropriate limits. His ability to win the moral argument on cameras is undermined by the fact that two department projects to address inconsistent limits are almost a year behind schedule.

The Road Safety Strategy required the department to develop guidelines for setting of speed limits and to audit the appropriateness of existing speed limits.

Mr Dempsey said the projects were now a priority, but he is unsure whether they will be complete by the time the speed cameras are installed.

One area where he faced opposition this year was over his proposals to reduce the drink drive limits from 80mg/ml to 50mg, with a limit of 20mg for inexperienced and professional drivers. Emotion had got the better of logic, he said.

Mr Dempsey said he wanted the new lower limit of 50mg to carry a disqualification. “My original intent was to have a disqualification. But there was not a chance I would have got it through with that. I wouldn’t have got it through politically.”

In the face of opposition from some 20 Fianna Fáil TDs, the Minister was forced to water down the punishment for the offence from six penalty points to just three.

Improvements in the road network have made driving safer, but the road budget for 2010 was cut by 14.6 per cent to €1.6 billion, with €1.1 billion of this earmarked for national routes. Reduced funding means few new projects are starting, and the National Roads Authority has been told to suspend nine of the 12 proposed service areas on the inter-urban motorway network.

Mr Dempsey said the cost of the first three service areas was very high. The only option to generate additional income was to place tolls on roads not already tolled. One area where the Minister believes charging is feasible is in Dublin, and he said congestion charges in the capital are “inevitable” within two to three years. There is a “reasonably good public transport alternative” with unused capacity in Dublin, and he said the goal was to get 500,000 people to switch from their cars to public transport, walking or cycling.