Oireachtas committee hears benefit of lower speeds and concerns on slow action

— Over half of drivers on urban roads are speeding according to RSA free speed surveys.

There is a strong case for having a default 30km/h speed limit in urban areas — it would mean that councils would have to justify having higher limits on some roads rather than justifying low limits as in the current case — the Oireachtas Committee on Transport was told last week.

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Dr Lorraine D’Arcy, senior lecturer and co-chair of the multidisciplinary MSc in Sustainable Transport and Mobility at TU Dublin, said that the process of lowering speeding will not require reinventing the wheel.

D’Arcy said: “Posted speed limits are just one tool in a suite of measures that can be used to make our streets safer. However, without enforcement and changes to the physical infrastructure to bring the design speeds of roads or streets closer to the posted speed limit, little is going to change in driver behaviour.”

“Life and time pressures as well as the sense that we can move faster, since our 21st century vehicles need little encouragement to move considerably faster than those driven in the 1970s and 1980s, increase the temptation to break a speed limit. Each individual will make their own decision, but if others around us are going faster than us, the temptation to press the pedal can be worth the personal risk. A favourite phrase of one of my school teachers comes to mind – ‘You are only sorry because you were caught,'” she said.

She said: “Our metric for safe streets should not be how many people have lost their lives or been injured but a multi-criteria assessment that includes the number of people walking and cycling in an area.”

D’Arcy said: “Is a default 30 km/h for built up areas a good idea? A blanket change facilitates a clear communication to the population, which in turn gives it greater awareness of the changes. Default 30 km/h speeds will facilitate the roll out and a quick delivery of active travel infrastructure and the Town Centres First strategy as street design standards at this speed will facilitate safer design for a greater balance of movement and place. This in turn helps us meet our climate targets.”

Muireann O’Dea, a spokesperson with Love 30, a road safety campaign group, said that with lower speeds children can play in their streets; enables healthy and active travel habits, and benefits for elderly people and people with disabilities making it easier for them to cross.

She said the group was looking for a national default urban speed limit of 30 km/h.

O’Dea said: “There is very little impact on journey times. Much of the travel time in urban areas is spent at traffic lights or stuck in traffic. On a typical 20-minute journey, travelling at 30 km/h instead of 50 km/h will add between 20 seconds to a minute to the journey time. Local and international experience shows that drivers quickly acclimatise to lower speed limits in built-up areas.”

She added: “I fully agree with all the points made on designing roads that have a natural traffic-calming effect, but designs should not be a reason to delay the introduction of 30 km/h speed limits.”

She said Edinburgh is a good example of a sign-only wide-area 20 mph scheme, with no physical traffic calming at first. A modest average speed reduction of about 2 km/h was linked there to a 38% reduction in road traffic collisions. “It can be built upon with design and enforcement,” she said.

Sam Waide, CEO of the Road Safety Authority, said reducing speeding was a key part of the Government’s recently revised Road Safety Strategy.

Waide said: “It has been estimated that 10% to 15% of all collisions and 30% of fatal collisions are the result of speeding or inappropriate speed. Implementing lower speed limits, for example 30 km/h limits in urban areas, will have significant safety benefits, particularly for cyclists and pedestrians.”

He said: “Evidence shows that many drivers are choosing to speed in our towns and villages. The RSA’s free speed observational study [which measures speeding at uncongested times] conducted in 2018 found that over half of cars observed on urban roads were speeding.”

“Our attitudinal survey conducted last year found that a third of drivers exceed 50 km/h limits by more than 10 km/h at least sometimes. To put this in context, if pedestrians or cyclists are hit by a vehicle at 60 km/h, 90% of them will die, but if they are hit at 30 km/h, 90% of them will live,” Waide said.

The free speed surveys are measured by recording speeds at uncongested times.

Louth TD Ruairí Ó Murchú TD (Sinn Féin) said used a local example of a town centre street redesign where he hasn’t seen “uplift in the number of people cycling” but it has slowed down traffic. He indicated there was opposition to the project but he said it has not been “the disaster” or the “armageddon” people might have thought it would be.

However, Deputy Ó Murchú said: “I suppose it is about how one builds in that level of planning. On a personal basis, sometimes I see a 30 km/h limit and think it is incredibly slow. You would not even realise you had gone over the limit. I suppose it would take a huge shift change to get people to that point.”

He said: “I do not believe we are in a place where tomorrow one could bring this into Leinster House, propose it and get it accepted.” But added that “cultural transformation is possible” and agreed that there is a “moral obligation” for lower speed.

Wicklow TD Steven Matthews (Green Party) said that when he was a councillor that council officials claimed to councillors that the speed limit guidelines stopped them from rolling out 30km/h limits on residential streets that were not enclosed housing estates.

Deputy Matthews said: “If we had slower speeds in our towns, not only would they be safer, they would also become quieter. A road with a 30 km/h speed limit is much quieter than a road with a 50 km/h, 60 km/h or 80 km/h speed limit. The noise where there are higher speed limits creates an unpleasant, unwelcoming place for people to go.”

He added: “If our streets are not welcoming, it is bad for local business, which is bad for a town and eventually sucks the life out of it. As we become more car-dependent, we end up in a negative loop where we all get in our cars to drive out of town, which sucks the life out of our towns. This is primarily about road safety for everybody.”

Senator Marie Sherlock (Labour) praised attendees for the work on safer speeds, particularly to the Love 30 campaign who have undertaken “enormous work over many years and the use of data and evidence to persuade people of the need to reduce speed limits have been critical to bringing us to where we are now and where we need to go.”

Joan Swift of Love 30 said: “Not everybody was happy a few years ago when the drink driving legislation was tightened. Nonetheless, it happened. People still drink and drive but that is not a reason not to have the legislation. There will have to be a cultural shift. The Garda Síochána would have to answer regarding its resources for enforcement.”

She added: “However, some of it is that we do not really see or have not fully grasped how dangerous the speed is. People might say: ‘Sure, he is only doing 55 km/h, so why bother?’ A national change countrywide would make a difference because if it is only in this little estate or that little estate, it will not be seen or taken seriously enough.”

Committee chairperson, Limerick City TD, Kieran O’Donnell (Fine Gael) said that the committee wants to see Love 30 added to a recently set up working group on speed.

 He said: “The situation seems straightforward. We are going to write to the Department to find out where the working group is at and inquire as to its membership. We will be encouraging the Department to bring in Love 30 as part of that membership because it has a role to play. The fact that there is now a definitive structure in place and a reporting date by the end of the year is welcome. The devil is always in the detail and the terms of reference will be hugely important.”

Waide said that the working group is looking at all issues around speed, just urban speeds. It is due to issue a report at the end of 2022.

Waide said: “I need to manage the committee’s expectations. We have 50 high-impact actions over the next four years with 136 actions [in the Road Safety Strategy}. If there is no money forthcoming this year, we will be squeezing all of those actions into years two, three and four, which will take us up to 2024.”

Deputy Matthews said: “I am just concerned we will talk about this for a long time and not implement these measures.”

Waide said: “The sooner we deliver, the sooner we will see reduced collisions, serious injuries and fatalities but it is complex. Some things are more complex than others but data and legislation are two massive challenges that I expect I and others will be back to discuss with the committee.”

Video of committee meeting (skip forward to the starting point):

The full text of the committee meeting can also be read at oireachtas.ie.

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