An analysis by this newspaper of figures provided by the Road Safety Authority has found that while the number of people killed on the roads each year remains relatively stable at around 160, the number of serious injuries increased to 1,424 last year, from 508 in 2013.
The reason behind the rise in injuries remains unclear but when taken along with the relatively stable number of fatalities it suggests more people are surviving serious crashes. This seems to be borne out by figures from the Irish Road Traffic Collision Database, showing the number of incidents almost doubling between 2010 and 2019. The number of cars on the road has increased by 16 per cent during the period.
The stability of the fatality numbers inevitably raises the question as to whether there is more that can be done to reduce road deaths. Driving is inherently risky and as long as people drive there will be crashes and fatalities; eliminating them entirely is an unrealistic objective, but aiming to sharply reduce the figures is not.
It is worth putting Irish fatality figures in a European context. According to the European Road Safety Observatory, Ireland’s roads are amongst the safest in the EU. The number of road fatalities per million inhabitants was 31 in 2022. Only Sweden and Denmark had lower numbers, at 21 and 26 respectively. The EU average is 46.
These are crude figures but based on Swedish and Danish numbers it is clear that Ireland should aim to do better. And this is very much the view of the RSA, which has signed up to Vision Zero, the EU’s ambitious plan to halve fatal crashes by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050.
It is legitimate to ask whether the relentless focus on road fatalities remains appropriate, in the context of a significant rise in serious injuries. Given that the underlying causes of both are the same – road collisions – the powerful nature of road safety communications should also be harnessed to highlight the price of serious injuries, as well as the terrible loss from fatalities.
The separate but related question of what should be done is harder to answer. The relatively easy wins – a National Car Test system, mandatory roadside testing for intoxicants and penalty points – have already been implemented. Tougher sanctions and lower speed limits have been mooted by the RSA. Such measures and more rigorous enforcement of existing laws should produce results and new approaches based on emerging technologies can help. But ultimately the law of diminishing returns will apply. Road safety will always involve trying to find new ways to get people to pay attention and change their behaviour.
A commitment to accelerate improvements in public transport can also help. Cutting car journeys can reduce emissions, but it can also lead to fewer accidents.