Comment & Analysis: The recent brutal assault of an American tourist has resulted in a massive media and political focus on policing in Dublin City Centre. What would it take for the same thing to happen with road deaths and injuries?
Since the tourist was assaulted we have had what has felt like endless coverage of the issue — front pages of newspapers, hours of debate on radio programmes, newspaper columns and a blitz of reader’s letters.
Last Wednesday an 8-year-old died in hospital after a collision involving a car driver in Carrigaline, Co Cork: and a 14-year-old girl was killed in Limerick in a collision involving another car driver.
Garda stats, last updated at 9am last Friday, showed 14 extra deaths this year to date compared to the same time in 2022 and 24 more than in 2019. A few more people have lost their lives since and more again could have been killed on our roads by the time you read this.
Two children died in a single day and the news seems to have only made the front page as a secondary story on the Irish Independent’s cover and, besides that, very little extra coverage above the normal attention on single incidents or calls to action.
The one exception might be Minister for Finance Michael McGrath’s comments reported in The Irish Times yesterday. He said: “It is a wake-up call for all of us to realise that when we are in charge of a vehicle it is a great privilege. It is a huge asset. But it is also a potential weapon. We all just have to reflect on our own driving behaviour and to protect and safeguard those around us and that is not to pass comment on any individual incident, which will continue to be investigated over the period ahead.”
Before Minister McGrath’s comments were reported, in a draft of this article, I had written: I’m calling for us to collectively wake up to the issue, yet, while writing this, I’m hyper-aware that all too many people see it as a problem to mention individual cases to say this road violence has to stop. But we need to go beyond legal liability — we need an evidence-based systematic approach which looks at engineering, enforcement and education.
This approach lowers the chances of collisions and, when collisions happen, the approach lowers the likelihood of serious injuries or death.
While the Minister’s comments are to be welcomed, we need more than individual action. A change of mindset and approach is needed also at Government-level, as well as by transport authorities, local councils, the Gardaí, the Judiciary and Road Safety Authority.
Minister McGrath’s comments are being made as one of the children killed last week lived in his community. The Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) movement started in the Netherlands in the 1970s with a front-page editorial from a journalist who was personally affected by the tragedy. We shouldn’t all be waiting for that personal connection to road death or 1970s-level of carnage before demanding change.
First, we need to admit what we’re doing now isn’t working. And, even before road deaths started to increase in recent years, the decline in deaths wasn’t happening fast enough. And also that — over decades — there was a transfer from road deaths and injuries to inactivity deaths and medical issues.
You're read this much of the article... if you value our journalism, please subscribe today.
That last part might sound strange to some readers but our increase in car ownership and use has been tied to scaring people away from roads and streets — especially, scaring vulnerable groups such as children and elderly people from walking and cycling.
We — as a society — have to collectively admit that road deaths and serious injuries aren’t an acceptable price to pay because it’s difficult or inconvenient to make roads safer.
And we have to stand up to the psychopaths, sociopaths, NIMBYs, those who have a personal or business conflict of interest in maintaining the status quo, and just those — for whatever reason — who are happy to go along with the others.
We — again, collectively — have to accept that speeding at around 60km/h in a 50km/h zone increases the risk to all road users. The science has been firm on this for decades but the dental and show of exceptionalism is stark (‘I can stop if I need to’, ‘my new car has better brakes than the average car’ etc).
The reality in villages, towns and cities is that many 60km/h roads should be 50km/h and many 50km/h should be 40-30km/h. Again, the science on this is clear but councillors and officials are not just slow to implement lower speed limits followed by design to support such, there are examples in different parts of the country where councillors and officials are increasing the speed limit on what are already dangerous roads where a mix of redesigns and enforcement is needed.
Exceptionalism is a huge part of the problem and that stretches from an average driver (ie ‘going a few KMs over the limit is ok’, or ‘I’m a safe driver, so, I can hold my phone’) to the Minister of Transport Eamon Ryan and the Minister For Justice Helen McEntee who have joint responsibility but don’t seem to be acting with any urgency.
Motorists’ exceptionalism is well documented with most drivers ranking themselves above average (an impossibility), but the effect of exceptionalism on road safety is far more wide-ranging.
Exceptionalism is also highly apparent in the plans for our streets and roads — councils officials wanting to unrealistically apply 30km/h to multi-lane roads while refusing to narrow traffic lanes (which is a proven way to reduce speeding), BusConnects adding traffic calming to cycle paths but none to the carriageway where motorists are; and narrowing footpaths and removing cycling space to provide bus lanes rather than using more bus gates or looking at one-way systems for cars.
Then there’s the exceptionalism of the people and councillors who object to road safety changes — often proposals which are rather minor changes get watered down further when what’s needed is substantial improvements on plans. “We’re all for walking, cycling and safety,” they say while blankly objecting to projects, or suggesting “alternatives” which are watered down by the tanker load.
There’s also exceptionalism in policing — a mix of individual officers and senior officers who seem to consider anything from parking enforcement to close passing of cyclists to be below them. There are fantastic officers out who are proactive on road policing, but people reporting offences are left with the luck of a postcode lottery. As IrishCycle has reported on extensively, officers often try to dissuade people from reporting road traffic offences — this extends to threatening people reporting crimes with being fined or prosscuted themselves.
Exceptionalism also extends to the judiciary. Where Garda officers or GoSafe operators put the work in, District Court Judges are all too often willing to let motorists off scot-free because they didn’t like the placement of a speed van or because the motorist was in a hurry somewhere.
It will take a lot to break this exceptionalism. We first need to snap collectively out of accepting the status quo. If we’re serious about reducing road deaths to zero the change would need to be systematic and the effort would need to be sustained over years.