COMMENT & ANALYSIS | LONG READ: To some people, 30km/h speed limits are like dark magic set against the hardworking, tax paying motorist who are just trying to go about their business. So, clearly daft things are said by some objectors to the limit (like saying people can walk faster), but not Conor Faughnan of the AA. He’s smarter than that.
Faughnan, the AA’s head of communications, says 30km/h is proven to be effective… Dublin is just doing it wrong is the message.
Mix reasonable words with silliness, and common sense with nonsense, and many people will get quickly lose track — most people won’t be giving their full attention to the radio and will only skim articles. If the audience is prone to siding against change, you’ll add to that.
In the words of one road safety campaigner, Faughnan is trying to engineer a backlash. We’ll go further and contend he has done a great job at this so-far. So, it is vital that the AA’s PR drive is seen for what it is.
The AA is a lobby group for motorists, as well as an insurance company with a breakdown service. The Irish AA was recently sold off from the UK group, but the UK website gives a history of how the overall organisation was set up to “overcome the perceived police oppression of early motorists and their use of speed-traps”.
Faughnan is a very skilled media handler who is liked by broadcasters and journalists as he’s able and available to talk about a range of issues relating to motoring and road safety. He comes across as smart, widely-briefed (with a motoring bias as per his job), and willing to take on other’s views.
He’s also liked by the public for pointing out things like the fact that speed enforcement nationally is all too often focused on wide, straight sections of roads outside our urban areas. Meanwhile there’s little or no enforcement around schools or where most people live.
If you track his media appearances over time (helps when you’re a media junky), you’ll see that Faughnan is great at playing the long game and getting his message across repetitively.
His message includes that on-street bicycle lockers — which aim to provide secure bicycle parking to residents of inner city Dublin who have little storage space — are “an excuse to sabotage car use” and he’s make similar claims about motives of those behind the Liffey Cycle Route. He also claimed that a plan for that route came out of nowhere, when he should have known it was planned for years.
The AA’s attack on 30km/h speed limit on residential streets, and areas of high pedestrian and cyclist activity is more of the same of trying to muddy the waters in the debate about sustainable transport and liveable cities.
AA Ireland tweeted last week: “Dublin City Council are proposing to bring in a 30km/h speed limit across the whole of Dublin city”. But there’s no such plan.
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It was not just a Tweet, it linked to a statement by Faughnan. In the statement — which was used by a number of local and national media outlets — he said that the council is “to bring in a 30km/h speed limit across the whole of Dublin city between the canals” and “extend this even further to include places like Ringsend, Sandymount, Crumlin, Drimnagh & Phibsboro.”
Faughnan claims: “This is clumsy and unnecessary and will do more harm than good for road safety. It is being sold as a road safety measure but it is not…. the Council have essentially coloured in the whole of the city centre.”
Dublin City Council has come out stronger than is typical of them and called Faughnan’s coloured comments a “total misrepresentation of the facts”. Faughnan, it seems, found it hard to say that the plan mainly covers residential streets or that the vast bulk of main or arterial roads and streets will remain at 50km/h. We cover this in another article titled: Is Dublin really planning a blanket 30km/h speed limit?
There is a promise to review all roads and streets in phase 3, but this is unlikely to change many main roads from 50km/h to 30km/h and, indeed, it could do the reverse and include removing some 30km/h streets. There’s certainly no plan to do so in the short term and the the review will include the potential to change roads to other speed limits (ie 40km/h, 50km/h).
We have focused on the AA and Conor Faughnan more than any media outlet because the AA have far more reach than any one media outlet — AA spokespeople or their statements have featured in national broadcasts and on print and online article. RTE.ie, RTE TV news, on Morning Ireland, The Irish Times, dublinlive.ie, businesspost.ie, the Herald, UTV and radio news reports. The AA are the main opposition to the rollout of 30km/h on residential streets.
Many media outlets were also hardly blameless in their reporting last week. Standing out was The Irish Times running an online poll with the simplistic and misleading question: “Do you agree with cutting the speed limit to 30km/h in Dublin?” — no indication it did not include main routes. The poll was in an article which only manages to mention the exclusion of arterial roads in the 6th paragraph, after the poll.
The Irish Times also mentions areas which will be covered by 30km/h next year, but does it not fully qualify this. For example, the light blue shaded area below is the only planned area to be covered in Drumcondra. It’s so small and confined to estates, it’s hardly worth mentioning:
Faughnan also highlighted how “The AA lobbied strongly, and successfully, to get rid of ridiculous 80km/h signs on country boreens with grass growing up the middle. We did this not because anyone was trying to do 80km/h on them but because they brought the whole system into disrepute.” This is just more PR fluff.
His lobbying did not result in the removal of 80km/h limits from narrow country roads, it was purely a branding exercise which changed the design of the signs used but kept the exact same legal meaning of those signs and kept 80km/h as the limit on narrow country roads, ones with grass strips running down the middle.
It’s also amazing how the AA has an issue with 80km/h on grassy a rural roads but has not pushed the issue of 50km/h on narrow residential streets. Maybe if we could see signs on more of these streets, the AA would have a different view? Would it then be a PR problem worth solving?
Faughnan also made a massive factual error on 30km/h in Dublin when he claimed: “This is why none of the bodies with any road safety expertise are asking for this measure – the RSA, Gardai, the Department of the Environment, the AA.” In an article in the Irish Independent about two months ago (ie well before the latest AA PR push), an RSA spokesman is quoted as stating: “We very much welcome this proposal. In fact, Ireland is lagging behind the rest of Europe when it comes to the issue. If you look at Edinburgh, they have 20mph across the city…”. It’s surprising that Faughnan missed this as he’s mentioned in the article and media tracking is a core tool of mainstream PR.
The RSA has also called for 30km/h ‘default’ speed limit on urban roads — on 30km/h the RSA has moved away from the position of motoring groups towards the stance taken by road safety groups and countries across Europe.
Both Faughnan and the RSA do agree on one thing: both said that there must be local community support for 30km/h — and there is! Dublin City Council have already said that requests from locals was a determining factor in which areas they chose for the first of the planned phases of 30km/h speed limit.
With its current approach, the AA should be seen as lacking any credibility on the issue of speed limits. Their attempt at muckraking should be seen for what it is and rejected.
To find out more and take part in the public consultation for Dublin’s 30km/h plans, visit http://www.dublincity.ie/speedreview
MORE: Is Dublin really planning a blanket 30km/h speed limit?
IMAGES: All photographs by IrishCycle.com; map from Dublin City Council public consultation.