Dublin city speed limit needs to protect lives


Councillors must put safety ahead of the motoring lobby by holding their nerve with the new 30km/h limit

THERE IS is almost nothing quite so pathetic as the sight and sound of public representatives buckling under pressure from powerful lobbies or vested interests. We are seeing more of this shameful spectacle, as the elected members of Dublin City Council reconsider the 30km/h city centre speed limit – an initiative less than a month old.

The AA, Pat Kenny and disgruntled motorists generally have been railing against it, with Kenny characterising the restriction as “silly” and “ridiculous” in an interview with its prime mover, Labour councillor Andrew Montague, chair of the council’s transport committee; he was also behind the Dublin Bikes scheme and the College Green bus gate.

These two initiatives have been very successful. But despite cutting journey times on cross-city routes by up to 30 minutes, the bus gate was partly suspended for two months at the behest of “high-end” retailers and southside multistorey car park operators, who claimed it was hitting their trade; it was fully reinstated on January 18th.

In Sligo, democracy went down the drain. Last November, its borough councillors were panicked by pressure to “de-pedestrianise” O’Connell Street, the town’s principal shopping street – even after receiving 60 submissions signed by 2,850 people opposing the reintroduction of traffic and two submissions signed by 100 people supporting it.

Now Dublin’s councillors are having second thoughts on the 30km/h speed limit, which was adopted for the core of the city as recently as last October by 34 votes to three. The proposal had gone for public consultation six months earlier, generating just two submissions – both in favour; the AA had nothing to say then on behalf of motorists.

Among their number are many who think nothing about exceeding the more generally applied 50km/h speed limit, bombing along the Liffey quays at night at 80km/h when the road is clear before them. Or arrogantly expecting pedestrians on a main thoroughfare to give way when they’re swerving their cars or SUVs into side streets.

Day in, day out, motorists – including, it must be said, taxi and bus drivers – break red lights at the pedestrian crossing on Dame Street/South Great George’s Street. Last Saturday week, I saw two drivers who expected pedestrians to part like the Red Sea so that they could sail through, which they duly did – with not a garda in sight.

Not that the absence of gardaí matters much; as a regular user of this crossing, where pedestrians are crowded on narrow footpaths waiting patiently for the lights to change, I have never seen a garda stopping motorists who break through on the red; for the Garda Traffic Corps, maintaining the flow of traffic is obviously the primary objective.

The great benefit of the 30km/h speed limit is the calming effect it has on the city centre. It has markedly improved the urban environment, making the streets much safer and more attractive. That’s why it has been warmly welcomed by the Dublin Cycling Campaign and by the newly-formed Feachtas na gCoisithe/the Pedestrian Campaign.

Their most compelling argument is that lower traffic speeds save lives. Research published in 2003 by Sweden’s Vagverket (national road administration) showed that eight out of 10 pedestrians have a high probability of being killed if they’re hit by a vehicle travelling at 50km/h, whereas the fatality rate falls to one out of 10 at 30km/h.

“If government wants to develop a road transport system in which nobody is killed or permanently injured, speed is the most important factor to regulate,” the study said. “The need for such regulation is very widely recognised, as nearly all motorised countries have an extensive system of speed limits and a programme of enforcement.”

Neither is there anything novel about imposing lower speed limits. In many parts of London, the introduction of a 20mph (32km/h) limit has cut road accidents and injuries by 40 per cent and proven particularly useful in saving young children from death and injury, according to researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Over a 12-year period in the area covered by the 30km/h speed limit in Dublin, 25 people lost their lives and more than 200 were seriously injured due to road traffic accidents. Surely such findings are of the utmost importance? Doesn’t it matter whether vulnerable pedestrians live or die? Or that so many require lifelong care after crashes?

This overwhelming consideration must outweigh any perceived need to permit impatient motorists to travel at higher speeds through the heart of Dublin – to the next set of lights. After all, as former director of traffic Owen Keegan pointed out, at any given time of the day or night there are more pedestrians than cars on city centre streets.

It’s not as if the lower speed limit is a huge inconvenience to car drivers; it is estimated that the delay amounts to a mere 48 seconds per kilometre. Yet the very idea of having to slow down, to drive at what seems to be a strangely low speed, is interpreted by the AA and others as an unwarranted assault on the “rights” of motorists.

Next Monday, city councillors will vote on whether to put forward for public consultation proposals to scrap the 30km/h limit altogether or lift it on some streets. Then we will see who cracks the whip – the motoring lobby, which represents a minority viewpoint, or the silent, long-suffering majority of pedestrians, which all of us are in the end.

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