It has occurred slowly and without fanfare, but the significant reduction in the number of people dying on Irish roads over the past two decades has been an important achievement. At the turn of the century, more than 400 people were killed every year in crashes in the Republic – a death toll that had been close to constant for decades. By 2018, the annual figure had fallen to 137, putting Ireland in second place in European road safety rankings.
Many factors contributed to that progress, including vital public policy decisions – often taken in the face of hostile opposition from the drinks lobby and its supporters in the Oireachtas – that sought to deter people from drinking and driving and to enforce stricter laws against those who did. Better roads and safer vehicles also helped. But a critical force behind the changes was a shift in public attitudes; increasingly it became socially unacceptable to drink and drive.
That progress cannot be taken for granted, however, and new figures suggesting a reversal of the trend underline the dangers of complacency. The statistics, highlighted this week by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) and An Garda Síochána, show that Ireland was among just six European countries to experience a rise in road deaths last year, in spite of significantly lower volumes of traffic due to the pandemic. A total of 147 people were killed on the State's roads in 2020, a 5 per cent increase on the previous year. A further 65 people have died on the roads in the first half of this year.
Garda detection numbers and survey data gathered by the RSA point to a worrying increase in speeding admissions and in the “perceived acceptability” of speeding. While intoxication detections have fallen overall by 8 per cent, drug driving has risen by 13 per cent and the number of people caught using mobile phones while driving has increased at the same rate.
With traffic virtually back to pre-pandemic levels and a busy summer bank holiday approaching, the warning is timely. The Garda must continue to prioritise enforcement, and drivers must take responsibility for slowing down.