Contrarians like Conor Skehan need to keep their hands and fact-twisting away from road safety

Comment & Analysis: Conor ‘the Contrarian’ Skehan has been previously being dismissive of making streets safer for cycling, and, only a few weeks ago, argued against making streets outside schools safer for children. Today he’s back targeting road safety.

Skehan — as is the case in the past — claims to be fact-based but is anything but in most of his Sunday Independent columns which I have read. I mean he includes some facts, but he uses such to draw the wrong conclusions or completely out of context or to lead into things which are not factual.

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He butters the reader up first with a bit of apparent common sense and plain speaking, but it’s full of the usual devices used by his kind of contrarian — for example, saying the topic is “highly emotional” but we need a “rational examination” of the issue without bothering to say straight what has not been rational to date.

Skehan then tries to “rationalise” road deaths by saying the “155 deaths in 2022 underline the 184 deaths recorded in 1931 when Ireland had over two million fewer people and only a very small number of cars” — comparing deaths last year to the wild-west years of road safety to undermining efforts to reduce deaths nearly 100 years later is gobsmackingly bizarre.

Just before mentioning 1931, he said that “Irish road accident numbers have been consistently falling, despite our ever-increasing population and number of journeys” — which actually makes very little sense without any kind of reference point of when he thinks road deaths have been “consistently falling”.

Mentioning the 1930s in nearly the same breath as claiming deaths have been “consistently falling” makes no sense at all. While road deaths fell for a few years in the 1940s, the number of deaths rose from then to the 1980s, nearly consistently. Even after that, it has been a bumpy ride of ups and downs and some rough plateaus.

It’s worth saying that we’re talking about human death here. Skehan kind of indicates that he knows this, while being dismissive measures designed to reduce deaths. Like an android trying to smile reassuringly, but not knowing quite how.

He also rants on about road deaths in recent years without outlining how easily accessible Garda stats showed that road traffic deaths on Friday morning (ie before his article) were already 25 more than at the same time in 2022 and 35 more than in 2019. The day ended with yet another death.

We have the potential to reduce the spike but dismissiveness of the problem fuels the likelihood of pushing road deaths this year to numbers not seen in over a decade.

Then Skehan claims that “there is the reality that Ireland’s speed limits of 30kmh–50kmh in towns already rank among the lower tier in international comparisons” — but that’s just not factual. A mix of 30km/h and 50km/h is standard across Europe, with some counties having at least some residential areas and streets outside schools signposted at lower limits of 15-20km/h. So, as usual, Skehan talks about facts but is so wrong.

Skehan said: “…Less attention is given to the fact that driver and passenger deaths have fallen from 88 in 2021 to 82 in 2022”

But Skehan is quite frankly bizarrely not looking at this year’s data. The number of driver and passenger deaths this year so-far has been 74. That’s an average of around 7.8 per month. It’s not far-fetched to estimate a range of driver and passenger deaths this year to include a number above 100 of such deaths this year.

Skehan — the sick puppy he is — was bending the use of limited stats to his own ends or failing to do his research. The reality as the above chart shows, there is no downward trend in driver or passenger, the numbers are in flux. But his narrative using just two years of data is because his next move was to try to whitewash motorists’ involvement in the deaths of people on foot or bicycles.

“It is not car crashes that are the cause of increasing deaths. Cyclist and pedestrian deaths have increased from 27 to 49 over the past year — with pedestrian deaths more than doubling,” he said.

The vast majority of collisions where people cycling and on foot are killed on our roads involved motorists driving. These were not only not driverless cars but included more than just car drivers. Just like Skehan cannot help himself and further tries to underplay the danger of driving by comparing only driver and passenger deaths to drownings. This is not factual but a cold twisting of facts. In fact, he also wrongly puts drownings down to just people swimming — again a basic fact is being twisted by him to try to make a point.

The mention of cyclists deaths when there was no increase in cyclist deaths and no firm increase yet apparent this year is telling. Cycling is one of Skehan’s pet topics, but — again — the data doesn’t fit his narrative. Twisting facts or limited research just to make a point.

He then mentions Vision Zero, which has a target of zero road deaths, and asks: “How can we have a policy that aims to achieve targets that have never happened anywhere?” There is a hint of sociopath behaviour in this question and sprinkled across the article — I mean, if you’re not a sociopath, why would you not target zero road deaths? Why not have that vision?

“Current proposals only concentrate on cars” he writes — this is incorrect, the measures are targeted at motorists because motorists are involved with killing so many people across all road user types. Cars don’t drive themselves in Ireland, yet.

The article is peppered with lines such as “Evidence does not support the proposed new traffic speed laws” but that’s contradicted by another of his own lines: “Speed limits are a recognised way of modifying behaviour to reduce road deaths.”

I know columnists like to add in a bit of colour writing but I’m not sure how reducing speed limits can “….penalise an already exemplary record of road traffic safety….”. Road safety records are not something that can be penalised and the idea is for them to be bettered.

Lines like that make no sense. What Skehan was doing was dressing up the second part of the sentence: “….reducing the economic efficiency of society at large.” This is added to with more flair like the line “…punish the whole of society for the sins of a few…”

But strip away the flair and it’s nonsensical — the likely reduction in speed limits makes very little difference in travel times in the vast majority of cases. National secondary routes are where the most km travelled would likely be impacted but some local authorities have already reduced the limits on these down from 100km/h to 80km/h and there’s very little difference in travel time unless you had previously been driving recklessly on these roads.

One of the key problems in the whole article is this paragraph:

“The top speed on national secondary roads will be 80kmh, compared with the current 100kmh. On local and rural roads, limits would drop from 80kmh to 60kmh, falling to 50kmh in urban fringe areas. Within urban areas, the limit would be 30kmh, while roads on the fringes of urban areas would be capped at 50kmh.”

It’s still not fully clear how the Government is to set limits but the wording above does not match with comments made by Ministers or even Government sources, official or unofficial — so-far we have been told that the changes are around the default speeds, not the “top speeds” and not “capped at” speeds. Councils will be able to set higher limits where they can justify such (as is the case now where 50km/h is the urban default).

Within the above, the phrase “On local and rural roads, limits would drop from 80kmh to 60kmh” might include a typo or poor editing in the word “and”, but “local and rural roads” would include regional roads which are reported to stay unchanged at 80km/h.

The claim that “Within urban areas, the limit would be 30kmh” does not correspond to comments from Minister for State Jack Chambers who said on national radio that such would include “keeping the arterial and radial routes in urban areas at 50km/hr”… so, the only question remaining is if Skehan half read something or did he bother to do any research before writing his column?

One of Skehan’s final lines is asking: “Where are the equivalent measures to address the behaviours by pedestrians and cyclists that lead to deaths?”

But he provides no facts or evidence to support such. Maybe a further rant from Skehan will include a justification of how yet unnamed measures aimed at pedestrians and cyclists will not “punish the whole of society for the sins of a few” or “penalise an already exemplary record of road traffic safety while reducing the economic efficiency of society at large”, and will not “disproportionately affect the majority on the basis of a few tragic and highly emotional cases”.

Facts or evidence don’t seem to be Skehan’s strong point and he should be kept well away from road safety policy.

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