If you’re sending thoughts and prayers without supporting firm action, you’re part of our road safety problem

Comment & Analysis: “A tragic accident” — that kind of thinking is among the strongest that hinders greater road safety. The attitude helps to block society-level or governmental-level action that can have a sustained impact.

The attitude was very apparent last week after the spike in road deaths kept increasing. One example was the responses to Vincent Browne’s mild tweet on speed limiters (which by the way, are on their way for all new cars from July 2024). A number of people calling for action were faced with similar dismissive responses which were stuck in the mentality that road deaths are a result of “accidents”.

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An accident is something like spilling milk or bumping into someone on a busy street. Road safety experts have long stressed that the word should be avoided when talking about car crashes.

I can already hear some people think “But, but, but you cannot be blaming the motorists involved until there’s an investigation.’ This is total nonsense — there are well-established, evidence-based ways of making our roads safer. We don’t need to focus too much on blaming people in individual cases.

Last year I wrote how it’s time for Irish journalists to follow the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines. I’m mentioning this now because our current situation is that our policing and media reporting generally shies away from even mentioning the driver’s involvement in collisions. It is not blaming a motorist to mention them prominently, it is factual and contextual.

The removal of motorists from a prime position in reporting helps a mentality where society brushes over the involvement of drivers. Blame is a different thing. When something goes wrong on our railways — even where nobody is injured — there’s an independent investigation by incident experts that look at all factors, including human actions, and engineering. A report is then issued with the focus of avoiding repeating the mistakes.

If we were to apply railway safety standards to roads, our roads would have all been shut down years ago. Condemned as too dangerous. But while that would be a step too far, we need some of the railway safety thinking applied to roads.

One of the most common things some people do regarding road safety is trying to downplay speeding and inappropriate speed as a factor. The fact is that tackling the issue of speed will reduce the chances of fatal and serious collisions and, where crashes happen, reduce the severity of such collisions.

But what about mobile phone use and distraction? Just as with speeding, more enforcement is needed, but reducing speed will reduce the likelihood of collisions relating to distracted driving and will also reduce the severity of these collisions.

Both urban and rural default speed limits should be reduced to 30km/h for urban areas and 60km/h for local roads in rural areas. That doesn’t mean there will not be roads with higher speeds but the higher speed should need to be justified (and not lower speeds as is now the case).

This needs to be backed by physical measures to reduce speeding, including reducing traffic lane widths (including wider footpaths and segregated cycle paths), raised crossings, raised ‘tables’ at junctions, speed ramps, junction tightening, chicanes, continuous footpaths at side roads etc can and should be rolled out faster.

Some of these measures will be more likely to be implemented in urban areas but traffic calming in rural areas and in villages is far more common in other countries. This has to be questioned.

One of the most common reactions when these measures are implemented is for motorists to call them dangerous — this is actually a sign of them being challenged to change their behaviour as a direct result of the traffic calming which does not allow them to speed like they previously did.

Camera enforcement is also needed — internationally it now includes not just speed cameras, and red light cameras but also newer tech that can detect phone use, and even a lack of seat belt use — Ireland could do well at least catching up with speed and red light camera use first. Last year this website reported how

Fixed average speed cameras can be seen as a fairer and more effective method of speed control as it is calculated by an average over a distance between cameras. These are already working on motorways in Ireland. But there’s no reason the technology cannot be deployed on main rural routes or within urban areas.

Camera enforcement should be seen as complementing Garda enforcement — freeing up Garda resources for things that cameras cannot detect.

Camera enforcement is also much needed for parking offences which often makes our roads more dangerous for people walking and cycling. This should be automated on buses and in parking enforcement cars (driven by traffic wardens or similar, not Gardaí).

While there is too much of the use of the word “urging motorists” to drive safely, there also needs to be some work done into why motorists act in different ways in different parts of the county. For example, in some parts of the country, motorists are more likely to yield to pedestrians at ambiguous crossings and more willing to give cyclists space when overtaking.

Have advertising campaigns reached a greater percentage of people outside of cities? Or is it just different mentalities in cities vs towns? There are communications/education and enforcement implications for these differences which are hardly ever acknowledged.

Progress will also require a focus on action that is evidence-based and targets the main sources of danger. That means we cannot get misguided by following some people’s pet hates when engineering, education and enforcement resources could be better used. 

I could go on and list 100 more actions needed but I’d mostly just be repeating what’s in Ireland’s Government Road Safety Strategy 2021 – 2030 — it even has an Action Plan.

Everyone has their own few ideas about what will make our roads safer, but the Action Plan has 50 high-impact actions and 136 support actions. The focus now should be on delivering those actions.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there’s a lot of naysayers and little evidence of urgency or widespread strong leadership at the national or local level. The increase in deaths was a clear trend months ago but — even with warning from the Road Safety Authority and advocates — it’s apparently only become an issue for the media and the Government in the last few weeks.

Progress requires pushing past the naysayers, those with a conflict of interest and populists who are set on protecting the status quo for various reasons.

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  1. The point about cities and towns is interesting. I was on holidays in the West last month and we were in Ballina a good bit. It has lots of pedestrian crossings and was nice to navigate on foot as a result. There wasn’t all the waiting ages for green men to cross. The motorists seemed way more considerate than in Dublin. They observed the pedestrian crossings and they even stopped to let me cross when there wasn’t a pedestrian crossing. There didn’t seem to be as much aggression as in Dublin. Maybe it’s that you are more likely to know the other road users in towns outside Dublin so you behave better.

    • That’s an interesting observation Helen – “Maybe it’s that you are more likely to know the other road users in towns outside Dublin so you behave better”.

    • Yes, great comment. I think one of the issues with cycling – possibly especially in big cities – is that drivers see only ‘cyclist’ – a Thing in hi-vis and helmet, like a beetle or machine. They don’t see the person. I try to make eye contact if I’m turning right before I turn (tricky) and I also always try to give a thumbs-up/wave if the driver has slowed down to let me take the lane for a right turn or to avoid cars parked on cycle-paths. I shouldn’t have to say Thanks, but it feels pleasant to do (warm fuzzies). That human interaction is so important. I remember when I went back in the car after Covid I was gobsmacked by how insulating driving is. No wonder people love it, I used to love it. Not just for the comfort & speed, but because you’re sitting in this fortified, walled, protected space, with a massive engine powering you, cool sounds on the radio/player – like an extension of your sitting-room. But it becomes very easy to feel that capsule is all that matters, and then, hey presto. trouble.

  2. Mia you describe modern driving perfectly.
    I have termed it as ‘driving in an extension of your living room’.
    Totally cocooned from the external environment and those fellow human beings out there.


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