Liz O’Don­nell: Our roads are as lethal as crime gangs

Irish Independent - - NEWS - Liz O’Don­nell

W E all look at the Bud­get sub­jec­tively. For many par­ents of young chil­dren, this Bud­get will be re­mem­bered for a sig­nif­i­cant pol­icy move to sub­sidise the cost of child­care.

For oth­ers, like as­pir­ing first-time buy­ers, the tax break an­nounced will make the dif­fer­ence be­tween buy­ing a home or con­tin­u­ing to rent and save. Even sheep farm­ers got their share. With so many chal­lenges and fi­nite re­sources, the Gov­ern­ment will have strug­gled with pri­or­i­ties. And to be fair, pru­dence is the way to go mind­ful of the un­cer­tain­ties of Brexit and the mis­takes of the past.

Hav­ing said that, it is a re­gret­table omis­sion that the so­cial im­per­a­tive of re­duc­ing deaths and se­ri­ous in­jury on our roads ap­pears to have been over­looked. Nowhere in the Bud­get pri­or­i­ties listed by the Min­is­ter for Jus­tice Frances Fitzger­ald is there any sign of en­hanced Garda re­sources ded­i­cated to road safety en­force­ment.

Amid a bliz­zard of po­lit­i­cal and me­dia de­bate and ques­tion­ing of both the Min­is­ter for Jus­tice and Garda Com­mis­sioner about the gov­er­nance of the force, treat­ment of whistle­blow­ers, wage de­mands, or­gan­ised crime, etc, en­force­ment of road traf­fic laws barely gets a look-in. Re­spond­ing to or­gan­ised crime is le­git­i­mately hoover­ing up huge amounts of re­sources, in­clud­ing a mas­sive over­time bill (€71.5m). And it is un­der­stand­able that peo­ple demand pro­tec­tion from such gangs and from crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in gen­eral. But if you look at the statis­tics, more peo­ple are dy­ing on our roads in crashes than are killed as a re­sult of or­gan­ised crime.

These deaths are avoid­able and de­serve equal gov­ern­ment at­ten­tion and re­sources. Why are they viewed as less im­por­tant? How many of next year’s 800 Garda re­cruits will be ded­i­cated to road policing?

The sad fact is that, day in day out, road deaths are man­aged pri­vately by heart-bro­ken fam­i­lies. So far this year, 146 peo­ple have died on the roads, up 25 on the same time last year. The cir­cum­stances of each crash in­volv­ing death and se­ri­ous in­jury is in­ves­ti­gated by gar­daí. But not enough at­ten­tion is given to mea­sures which would have pre­vented so many crashes, such as tackling drink driv­ing or reck­less dis­re­gard of the speed lim­its. If we had more road traf­fic en­force­ment, the death toll on the roads would be con­sid­er­ably less.

Drink driv­ing and ex­ces­sive speed are by far the big­gest fac­tor in fa­tal crashes. Both are de­tectable and pre­ventable by ef­fec­tive en­force­ment.

Over the past decade and a half our roads have be­come much safer. In 2006 there were 365 road deaths. Last year there were 162. This has been achieved through the strate­gic im­ple­men­ta­tion of a num­ber of road safety mea­sures and laws. Each strat­egy is founded on the three Es of Engi­neer­ing, Ed­u­ca­tion and En­force­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, our ef­forts to make roads safer were hit by the re­ces­sion. But en­force­ment has taken the great­est hit. Pre-re­ces­sion, the Traf­fic Corps stood at 1,200 strong. Now it ef­fec­tively doesn’t ex­ist at all, or is much di­min­ished, as road traf­fic policing has been sub­sumed into the main du­ties of all gar­daí. As the econ­omy has picked up, so too has the num­ber of ve­hi­cles, pil­ing more pres­sure on the roads.

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to tell what ef­fect all of this has had on ac­tual en­force­ment lev­els. But a re­cently pub­lished Euro­pean Sur­vey of Road Users’ At­ti­tudes (ESRA) goes some way to­wards an­swer­ing the ques­tion. It finds that driv­ers in Ire­land are half as likely to ex­pe­ri­ence road policing com­pared to the av­er­age Euro­pean driver.

The ESRA pro­ject is a joint ini­tia­tive of research in­sti­tutes in 17 Euro­pean coun­tries, aimed at col­lect­ing com­pa­ra­ble na­tional data on road users’ opin­ions, at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iour with re­spect to road traf­fic risks. Some of the themes cov­ered in the sur­vey are: at­ti­tudes to­wards un­safe traf­fic be­hav­iour, be­hav­iour of other road users, sub­jec­tive safety and risk per­cep­tion, re­ported po­lice checks and per­ceived like­li­hood of get­ting caught for traf­fic of­fences.

On the pos­i­tive side, the ESRA report shows that peo­ple in Ire­land treat the is­sue of road safety very se­ri­ously. In fact, Ir­ish peo­ple rate road safety sec­ond only to the health­care system in terms of pri­or­ity so­cial is­sues. Notably, they rate road safety higher than crime and un­em­ploy­ment. Com­pared to the av­er­age Euro­pean, fewer peo­ple here be­lieve it is ac­cept­able to speed, drink drive or use a mo­bile phone while driv­ing or to not wear a seat­belt. And these at­ti­tudes are ev­i­dence of the ef­fec­tive­ness of ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness-rais­ing pro­grammes and cam­paigns.

On the neg­a­tive side, and this is where we are fall­ing down and prob­a­bly con­tribut­ing to the re­gres­sion in road safety over the last num­ber of years, the like­li­hood of Ir­ish driv­ers be­ing checked by the po­lice is lower than the av­er­age Euro­pean. When asked how likely one was to be breathal­ysed by the po­lice on a typ­i­cal jour­ney, 9.5pc of driv­ers here said it was likely com­pared to 18.2pc of Euro­pean driv­ers. You are twice as likely to be checked for drink driv­ing in the rest of Europe than in Ire­land.

Some 26.6pc of driv­ers here re­ported they were likely to en­counter a speed check com­pared to 36.2pc for the av­er­age Euro­pean; 10.7pc said there was a like­li­hood of be­ing checked for wear­ing a seat­belt on a typ­i­cal jour­ney here com­pared to 18.8pc for the av­er­age Euro­pean. Should we be sur­prised by a rise in road deaths when self-re­ported en­force­ment lev­els are much lower than the Euro­pean av­er­age for drink driv­ing and speed­ing?

There is huge pub­lic sup­port in this coun­try for high lev­els of en­force­ment to tackle dan­ger­ous be­hav­iour such as drink driv­ing. At­ti­tudes have changed fun­da­men­tally and there is zero tol­er­ance for reck­less driver be­hav­iour. In­creas­ingly, driv­ers are tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own ac­tions.

But policing and en­force­ment re­ally is the key and is the main de­ter­rent. En­sur­ing driv­ers be­lieve they are likely to be de­tected and face penal­ties if they break the rules is crit­i­cal.

Hu­man na­ture is such that the fre­quency and like­li­hood of en­coun­ter­ing checks de­ter­mines road users’ be­hav­iour. Un­less we have highly vis­i­ble and ded­i­cated of­fi­cers en­forc­ing road traf­fic laws, the death toll on our roads will con­tinue to rise, re­vers­ing all the progress made to date.

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