What other EU state would build schools on roads with 80km/h speeds and no footpaths?

Road safety caught in vicious circle of car dependency and sprawl

After a horrendous period for road fatalities, the next few weeks will be marked by a flurry of public meetings and Dáil debates calling for a renewed focus on road safety. But the public discourse is not always well-informed. A view which sees pedestrians and cyclists as “hazards” to be dealt with is unfortunately widespread. Senator Eugene Murphy’s contribution to the recent Seanad debate on the Government’s Road Traffic Bill for instance focused on speeding motorists, but he also recommended that wearing lights or reflector jackets be made a legal requirement for pedestrians. “It is a nightmare for motorists when, unfortunately, somebody is knocked down and killed,” he said.

However the real issue is that speeding, illegal parking and dangerous driving are commonplace on Irish roads. The gardaí's enforcement efforts are not always consistent, particularly in urban areas.

Between 2018 and 2022, 89 per cent of seriously injured pedestrians and 81 per cent of seriously injured cyclists were injured on an urban road. In 2022, the number of pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries were the highest in the past five years. However, local authorities are not being given access to collision data which would help to make road safety interventions at dangerous spots in the road network, despite a clear statement from the Data Protection Commission that anonymised data presents no legal difficulty.

Meanwhile, the Road Safety Authority (RSA) distributes 40,000 hi-vis vests to pre-school and schoolchildren annually. In my view, it is a mistake to give the message to children that hi-vis will protect them, when the responsibility for road safety lies with adults driving ever-larger motor vehicles such as SUVs recklessly and flouting road traffic laws. What is needed are more interventions to deal with driver behaviour around schools, sports grounds and playgrounds.


We need to address the paradigm of ‘motornormativity’ – societal acceptance of risks and harms from motor vehicles we would not accept in other parts of life. This is shaping the attitudes and behaviours of drivers, policymakers and legislators

Drivers are frequently distracted by mobile phones and other in-car technology. Many drivers – and it only takes a few – appear to have a poor understanding of how to accommodate cyclists at junctions and roundabouts.

However, the biggest road safety issue of all perhaps is the very design of our transport system, which gives priority to cars and other motorised vehicles by default, and which permits legal traffic speeds that are unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists in urban areas. What other EU member state would allow new schools to be built on roads with speed limits of 80km/hr and no footpath?

Rising road deaths: What will it take to make Irish roads safer?

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Road safety is a key ingredient for effective climate action in the transport sector and sustainable mobility. Our dispersed settlement patterns, poor public transport services and car-oriented infrastructure have created a vicious cycle of car-dependency and sprawl.

Layered on top of this infrastructural bias towards road transport is a car culture normalised by the very large advertising budgets and reach of the motor industry. There are questions too about whether it is appropriate for the RSA to collaborate on initiatives with motor industry groups – this is something that the Department of Transport’s review of the RSA’s functions may look at.

Climate policies may well serve to phase out petrol and diesel cars and replace them with EVs, but this will do nothing to address congestion, safety or encourage healthy lifestyles unless radical demand management measures are introduced to lower speeds and increase the priority given to cycling and walking.

The RSA’s own website is clear: if hit at 60km/h five out of 10 pedestrians will be killed, at 50km/h three out of 10 pedestrians will be killed, at 30km/h nine out of 10 will survive. Many cities are now setting 30km/h speed limits. In other countries, low emission zones and congestion charges have resulted in dramatic reductions in road accidents. Scandinavian countries already have a de-facto 30km/h limit for most urban roads. Oslo and Helsinki recorded zero pedestrian deaths last year, with a 30km/h limit seen as a key reason.

We also need to address the paradigm of “motornormativity” – defined as a societal acceptance of risks and harms from motor vehicles that we would not accept in other parts of life – which is shaping the attitudes and behaviours of not just drivers, but policymakers and legislators. Reports suggest that even when drivers are disqualified, they don’t always surrender their licence.

Motorists convicted of a first traffic offence are likely to receive fines as low as €100, which is barely higher than a fixed-penalty notice. The entitlement to drive a motorised vehicle should be regarded as a privilege, based on proper training and safe driving behaviour, not an automatic right. Life-changing punishments should be issued to those who drive while speeding, under the influence or distracted. Pleas to people to slow down, and hi-vis jackets for schoolchildren, will not eliminate dangerous or careless driving.

Sadhbh O’Neill is the senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth Ireland