— Move branded as “reckless”, “deeply concerning”, and “replacing rest with resilience”.
Just 29 days after the Government launched its new “Zero Vision” Road Safety Strategy, Hildegarde Naughton, the Minister for State for road safety, has defended a temporary relaxation of EU working hour rules for truck drivers as a “balance between driver welfare, operator flexibility, road safety and minimising disruption to supply chains”.
A Professor of sleep research at Maynooth University, Prof Andrew Coogan said: “This is a reckless move as sleep deprivation significantly impairs driving performance, even in a pandemic.”
He highlighted research that shows that the sleep deprivation effect is worse than drink driving on driver impairment.
Prof Coogan questioned: “If you are providing a derogation from the EU driver protection measures, are you inferring that they are not protective or evidence-based and so can simply be derogated away with no increase in risk to hauliers and other road users?”
According to the Road Safety Authority (RSA) booklet named ‘Driver Tiredness: The Facts’: “Research indicates that driver fatigue could be a contributory factor in 1 in 5 driver deaths in Ireland”. The RSA added: “Tiredness-related collisions are three times more likely to result in death or serious injury because of the high impact speed and lack of avoiding action.”
But the Minister for State, the RSA and the Gardai have been involved in publishing clearly contradictory statements by claiming that road safety must not be compromised while they are involved in or endorsing the relaxing a road safety measure.
An RSA press release said that the derogation will apply retrospectively from January 9 to 30, 2022 and “will be reviewed every week as regards application and scope.”
The relaxation of the rules applies to truck drivers involved with the carriage of goods. It includes lifting the fortnightly driving limit from 90 hours to one hundred and 112 hours, the maximum of ‘reduced daily rest periods’ which are a flexibility allowance between weekly rest periods is being increased from 3 to 5, and the weekly rest periods are also being relaxed.
Minister of State, Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael), said, “We have granted a temporary relaxation of the EU driving time and resting time rules due to the impact the COVID-19 Omicron variant is having on HGV operations. Crucially, these relaxation measures maintain a balance between driver welfare, operator flexibility, road safety and minimising disruption to supply chains.”
“These arrangements will be kept under continual review. These steps are being taken to ensure key supply chains for food and essential goods are kept open. I want to stress however, that driver safety and other road users’ safety must not be compromised at any stage,” she said.
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She added: “I want to thank all in our haulage and logistics sector for their continued hard work during this challenging period. Their resilience and commitment ensures that our shelves remain stocked and our chains of supply for food and essential goods keep moving.”
The move was also criticised by politicians and campaign groups. Irish Road Victims, a national charity for road victims, said that move was “deeply concerning”.
The group said: “Rules and EU directives are there for the safety of all road users. HGV drivers are involved in far too many fatal and very serious injury crashes already. Tiredness kills and too many lives have already been destroyed in preventable crashes.
Dublin TD Louise O’Reilly (Sinn Féin) said: “I would very much like to see the science behind replacing rest with resilience”
Fingal Cllr Karen Power (Green Party) said: “Such a dangerous decision. Surely we can manage without our first second or third choice product being on the shelf for the sake of peoples lives?”
The Dublin Cycling Campaign said: “This worries us deeply. Tired drivers are dangerous drivers and as advocates for vulnerable roads users, this increased risk is not acceptable.”
The RSA booklet on tiredness starts with an apparent first-hand account from a driver: “It was early evening and I’d been on the road for a couple of hours. I was due a rest break… My eyes started to close and I had to struggle to keep them open. So, I wound down the window and turned up the radio to wake myself up a bit. The next thing I knew I was in hospital — I’d fallen asleep at the wheel and ended up in a field. Luckily no one was seriously injured, but it could have been so much worse.”
But despite the EU rules being in place to tackle the issue of tiredness, the RSA and Department of Transport statement this week claimed: “While the current situation may impact on driving time, driver safety or other road user’s safety must not be compromised. Drivers should not deviate from the rules if it jeopardises road safety nor should they be expected to drive whilst tired. Employers remain responsible for the health and safety of their employees and other road users.”
The Garda Traffic Twitter account also claimed “safety is paramount at all times” before outlining details o the temporary derogation.