A matter of life and death

With road fatalities rising for the first time in eight years, Grainne Loughran takes an in-depth look at the complacency that has set in among Irish road usersBreathalysers, penalty points, designated drivers, NCTs: in less than fifteen years, the language as well as the landscape of Irish motoring has been altered irreversibly. It wasn’t long ago that having a few drinks before sitting at the wheel of a car was commonplace, and seatbelts were more of an optional extra than a safety essential.Despite this increased awareness of the dangers of the road, the number of fatalities on Irish roads is on the rise again for the first time since 2005, increasing by 17.5% from 162 in 2012 to 190 in 2013.Although numbers are not nearly as high as the 279 killed in 2005, the question of complacency among Irish motorists must be interrogated. For the past number of years the people of Ireland need only turn on the television to be immersed in images of destruction on our roads and crashed lives. Is it possible that we are finally becoming desensitized to images of carnage on our roads? Or is it that the cracks in the implementation of Gardaí forces are just beginning to show?It appears that everybody is somewhat in the dark as to the reasons behind the surprising increase in road fatalities, following a steady decline for many years. No particularly severe weather conditions occurred throughout 2013 that could impact road traffic accidents.While the number of drivers who were breathalysed in 2013 decreased, the number of Garda MAT random breath test checkpoints up until December actually increased, indicating that drivers appear less likely to be drinking and driving.“We can’t put our finger on it,” says Arwen Foley of AA Roadwatch. “Ireland has been improving for the past couple of years. In 2012, Dublin was named the safest of all EU cities for road deaths. But there are a number of factors that could be having an impact.”Gay Byrne, Chairman of the Road Safety Authority, highlighted complacency as the cause. “We have consistently warned that the greatest danger we face on the roads is complacency and unfortunately in 2013 we have, as a society, dropped our guard.“As a result we have managed to kill 27 more people this year compared to last. It’s a stark way to put it but it’s the truth. It represents a very worrying development and highlights the need for all road users to be more vigilant.”Foley also noted a sense of complacency among road users. “The AA ran a poll last year which showed that around 72% of the 26,000 people surveyed believed that there were less Gardaí on the roads in 2012 than 2011.“If people believe there are less Gardaí present, they are less worried about there being a speed camera around the next bend. People will be more complacent if they think there are less Gardaí on the roads.”Cuts in Garda resources, funding and numbers appear to impact the mentality of road users more so than the increase in advertising campaigns and education with regard to both positive and negative behaviour on the road. However, there are other issues that could have an effect on the number of road fatalities.According to Foley: “Irish cars on the road are getting older, the sales of new cars are getting smaller and the number of second hand cars is increasing. People are tight for money, they might not be looking after their cars as well as they were.”She also noted that the deterioration of Irish roads over the past few years may be a possible factor. Though a stimulus package proposed in October’s budget will allow some maintenance to be carried out on Irish roads, the cut of €66 million to the roads capital budget will undoubtedly be a blow to the Road Safety Authority.The government’s Road Safety Strategy 2013-2020, which is currently being implemented, aims to reduce road deaths to 25 per million of the population or less by 2020. This will hopefully result in a final figure of 124 or fewer deaths per year. A larger than expected 2013 fatality number will result in a more difficult challenge for those working to implement this strategy.Byrne says that, “we must get back on track and reverse the increase in deaths. This means all agencies responsible for road safety must push harder to implement all 144 actions contained in the new Government Road Safety Strategy, which was launched earlier in 2013. But critically it means that all of us must accept greater responsibility by becoming custodians and champions for safety on the road. By doing this we can save lives and prevent injuries.”It appears that 2014 will only bring further challenges to the Road Safety Strategy’s aim of reducing the number of fatalities on Irish roads. With little or no increase on spending and no precise trend for the increase in deaths in 2013, responsibility must lie with the motorists and road users to change their behaviour.Chief Superintendent of the Gardaí, Michael O’Sullivan said, “We know from our analysis that 4 out of 5 fatal road traffic collisions are occurring on roads with a speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour or more. Reducing your speed and ensuring you and all your passengers wear a seatbelt could be the difference between life and death.”A lack of policing can only be blamed to a certain extent for the increase in road fatalities this year. Rather, Irish drivers became comfortable in our decreasing death toll and complacent that our current efforts could maintain the trend. In 2014, with continued effort on the part of all road users, we will hopefully see our fatality numbers begin to fall once more.