Road Safety Authority should be given role to audit routes to schools

— New role would be more meaningful than handing out high-vis and hoping for the best.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Transport Minister Eamon Ryan should give Ireland’s Road Safety Authority new responsivities to audit the safety of routes to schools and the safety around school gates.

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Just days after the Road Safety Authority (RSA) was heavily criticised for promoting what many see as ineffective victim-blaming (see replies and quote tweets on this RSA tweet) high-vis gear aimed at school children, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said yesterday that children need more to make them safe on their way to school.

Minister Ryan said: “Schoolchildren need more than hi-vis vests to get to schools safely. They need proper infrastructure to make walking cycling and scooting a practical choice for families. The first phase of Safe Routes to School will help deliver these facilities by fast tracking segregated infrastructure and providing front of school treatments to improve access and prevent congestion. Helping children get to school safely under their own steam is better for their health and development and better for the environment.”

He said this in a press release announcing that over €15 million of walking and cycling funding will be allocated to a new Safe Routes to School Programme in 2021. The funding will be split between over 100 schools around the country and includes 7 what are termed as additional jobs in the NTA and An Taisce, which run the Green Schools programme and who will play a central roll in Safe Routes to School.

So, it wasn’t an off the cuff comment to a journalist, Minister Ryan must have known his comments would be seen in the context of the RSA’s latest high-vis promotion.

There are thousands of schools in Ireland and monitoring them all might seem like an impossible task, but there’s a number of ways the Road Safety Authority could evaluate the safety outside school gates and routes to schools. It could involve a mix of methods, including surveys filled out by children and parents; desktop reviews of speed limits and other measures outside schools; and more in-depth research.

In the same press release which quoted Minister Ryan, Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton, said: “My hope is that in time, through continued investment and cooperation arising from the Safe Routes to School programme, every student in every village, town and city, can safely travel to and from school be it by foot/scooter or bike.”

Including but also going beyond the schools projects, the Government is to spend just under €1 million a day on walking and cycling. But schools — and more importantly children — will be left behind if there isn’t some kind of evaluation of their situations. That’s where more in-depth research on a limited number of schools per year could come into play. It could follow the approach of Whole School Evaluations, these Department of Education evaluations look at what happens inside schools and it’s accepted that nowhere near all schools are covered each year.

A number of the evaluation locations per year could be random, while some account should be taken of evaluating locations at the request of schools or parents.

Evaluations could measure walking and cycling safety including recording the speed of motorists outside of schools, looking at the setup for parking and access by foot and bicycle to the school. There are many schools in Ireland still lacking basics outside them including no cycle or footpaths despite being in or just outside urban areas and no crossings across busy roads.

The RSA evaluations could look at outside schools and the main routes to schools say within 2km of primary schools and  5km of secondary schools.

Some people think that the Road Safety Authority is beyond saving when it comes to making walking and cycling not just safe but also the normal and everyday thing to do. But no minister is going to scrap the quango that is the RSA. Eamon Ryan however has the chance within his grasp to start to refocus the RSA at least a little bit away from it’s current over-focus on education of road users.

Putting the Road Safety Authority in charge of evaluating all schools — those in the routes to schools programme and also those outside of it — will push councils to change their focus using their own funds and making them more eager seek funding to make rural areas, villages, towns and cities safer for walking and cycling.

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