An Irishman's Diary


I suppose it had to come to this - that the European Union might soon send in officials to cut our road deaths - because it's quite clear that our political establishment is not going to do much about it; except, of course, blame motorists. In no area in Irish life, absolutely none, is the failure of the State of such delinquent proportions; and in no area, absolutely none, is that failure masked by frivolous pretend-solutions, while the failure itself is concealed.

The Eurocommissioners for traffic will scarcely believe the evidence of their eyes when they see such pretend-solutions as speed limits of 40 m.p.h. on dual-carriageways which are capable of sustaining speeds of 70 m.p.h or more - though traffic going at 40 m.p.h. on such roads itself constitutes a hazard.

Speed limits

What will our Eurocommissioners make of artificially low speed limits, which at times are almost sinisterly invisible? Unless you know, for example, that a there is a single, tiny roundel-shaped sign on your left-hand side as you enter the Tallaght bypass indicating that the speed limit is 40 m.p.h., you have no way of knowing that the general speed limit does not apply.

Huge numbers of motorists are radar-netted breaking such 40-m.p.h. speed limits on good modern roads, thus enabling An Garda S∅ochβna to trumpet loudly the success of its "crackdown on speed". This delinquency reaches epic proportions when one leaves these stretches of newly built dual-carriageways capable of sustaining high-speed traffic, but which have absurdly low speed limits; for when one is back to the old roads, often uncambered, single-carriageway, tarmacked versions of ancient cattle drovers' routes or coachroads, the general limit of 60 m.p.h. then applies. Thus the State has an official policy of "New, good road, low speed limit; bad, old road, high speed limit". And this would be almost entertaining if people were not dying by the score, every year, because of the State's disgusting failure to attend to its bounden legal and moral duty.

What will the Eurocommissioners make of Sylvester Barrett's decision 20 years ago to allow learner drivers who had repeatedly failed their tests, proving how incompetent they were, to have licences, thus unleashing a flood-tide of unqualified motorists onto our roads who are with us yet? Or of the decision nine years ago yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Michael Smith, to raise the general speed limit from 55 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h? In an observation of crass and gibbering imbecility, he remarked that this limit would bring Ireland more into line with the speed limits in other EU States.

European roads

Faced with this kind of inanity, I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, you cannot compare mainland European roads with Irish roads. Secondly, right across the EU, there are differential speed limits to allow for conditions. No other state in Europe would allow a broad speed limit of 60 m.p.h. on the tiny roads around my part of Kildare. Uncambered, winding, often one-vehicle wide, 30 m.p.h. would be the maximum safe speed on them - which of course, doesn't stop lots of people trying to reach the legal and quite idiotic Smith limit.

What will the Eurocommissioners make of the fact that it is State "policy" - if that is the correct word to describe the mixture of ineptitude, torpor and bone-headed stupidity behind it - to have two entirely different measurement systems on our roads? This column has been writing about this for years and years and years, and nothing has changed; new roads are still mixing metric with imperial, with distances being measured in kilometres and speeds in miles per hour.

And possibly two systems of measurement are proof of what a quirky, idiosyncratic and cheerfully anarchic people we are. But how many people die every year because of the confusion caused by our appalling and confusing road signs? And is that quirky? Is that idiosyncratic? Is it cheerfully anarchic? Or is it simply bureaucratic bungling of homicidal cold-bloodedness? Naturally, the quick-fix merchants talk about lowering the drink-driving limit. There is no evidence, none whatever, that people who are on the 80-ml mark are the cause of crashes. Since over 90 per cent of the 10,000 who were breath-tested by An Garda S∅ochβna last year were over the limit, clearly their behaviour had caused garda∅ to test them in the first place. And the numbers are tiny: 10,000 a year yields 27 daily - that is, just one person tested per county per day.

Radar traps

More interesting still, two thirds of drink-drivers had consumed twice the legal amount of alcohol. So lowering the permitted amount of alcohol for drivers will not merely criminalise the relatively innocent, which is the tactic employed in the much-loved dual-carriageway radar traps, but will fail to touch that recidivist lunatic core which ignored the old law, ignores the present one, and presumably will ignore any future law.

Only a fool would deny that most crashes are caused by bad driving; but how much driver error is allowed, caused or even encouraged by bad law, bad signs and by bad roads? How many of the annual dead can be attributed to the criminal stupidity, arrogant incompetence, homicidal inertia and plain brutal indifference of so many Government Departments? We will only get an answer when our friends in the EU move in, and the sooner the better; till then, stand back, take a deep breath and count the needless, Government-assisted butchery.