Integrated road safety
From the time of writing this column to the time of publication several people will have died on Irish roads. The carnage continues amidst a growing cacophony of blame-game tactics. Politicians who are in the best position to do something about our increasing road deaths are the quietest. Those who have not had an unpublished thought are available for any sound-byte solutions.
The only certain reality is that every death reverberates like ever-widening concentric circles. Immediate family members, relatives, friends and work colleagues all take the long walk of the funeral home, shaking hands, drying tears and telling stories. A person’s goodness is always remembered at a time like this. In the end, after the supporting hands have returned to work and other homes, the questions start formulating. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Could it have been prevented? The stages of grief are criss-crossed like an emotional roller-coaster - disbelief, anger, blame, depression and acceptance. Oh, that one would follow the other. Not so. We do not live in a perfect world where emotions, feelings and thoughts wait their turn. Instead, they battle for supremacy at the most inopportune times.
Those men and women in authority need to act and need to be seen to act, quickly and decisively. The carnage cannot be allowed to continue. Speed, drink, souped-up cars, testosterone and showmanship all play a part in, what is fast becoming an intolerable aspect of Irish society. The affluence of the young, which still appears bewildering to many older people, is often only matched by their arrogance. How to tackle the ongoing curse of that cocktail of death and destruction is the question everyone is attempting to answer.
The Department of Transport
Four press releases on road safety have emanated from the Minister for Transport, Martin Cullen, in as many months. While the previous Minister for Transport, Seamus Brennan, can take credit for introducing the penalty points system, Minister Cullen’s press releases deal with ‘More powers given to Gardaí to help make our roads safer,’ on July 19, ‘Rules of the Road – Draft Version for Public Consultation,’ on June 2, ‘Cullen announces details of new Fixed Charge Driving Offence System’ on March 30 and also on the same day, ‘31 New Offences that will incur Penalty Points Effective from April 3, 2006’.
There is no talk of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of young drivers with provisional licences who career around our roads at will. Ireland is a place of contradiction when a person who fails a driving test can drive away afterwards. There does not appear to be the political will to tackle road deaths seriously.
Some people argue that the road death figures were much higher 20 years ago. That is not the point. A death a day is a death a day too many. Our tolerance of road deaths is not the same as it was 20 years ago. The only thing that has remained the same, by and large, is the state of the roads. Apart from a few major road re-alignments, upgrades and new stretches, there has been a minimal improvement in the quality of the roads. Legislation surrounding car ownership has tightened up with the requirement for three discs – tax, insurance and NCT. Unfortunately, there is no standard for road quality. What citizens of a country that has enjoyed the so-called Celtic Tiger boom would accept the road standards we have? Most roads are like patchwork quilts, designed by council staff, ESB, Eircom, contractors and developers who each leave their tarmac signature at odds and ends when their work is done. Is it too much to insist that all road-digs are returned to an acceptable standard? Why such shoddy workmanship is tolerated is strange, especially when it poses a traffic danger and takes a huge toll on cars. The West Road out of Westport was always cited as a prime example of what was going to be a great road. It had been hollered for by all political parties. It eventually passed the ‘Seven Stages of Political Announcements’ and was open to the public. There was no cycle lane. There was no pedestrian way. Within a year it was hoked up. Over the past few years it has been hoked up more often than the Tricolour on the Dáil. Driving towards Belclare one will feel many a bump roller-coasting along its uneven surface. There seems to be unwillingness, or an inability, to ensure that standards are maintained. Taxpayers’ money is too easily collected and too readily spent.
The Aussie way
The Village magazine recently highlighted the road carnage issue. It cited the experience of motorists in Victoria State in Australia. Down under, they have an integrated approach, where all ‘partners’ in road safety have an input and a responsibility. Road ‘black spots’ are upgraded. Why do we still wear our ‘Accident Black Spot’ signs like a badge of honour? They are more akin to mourning bands. In Victoria, random breath testing was introduced (as it was here, last Friday), drug testing is carried out and the countryside was blitzed by the police with ‘booze buses’, set up at checkpoints where random testing was carried out.
Victoria has a population of just over five million. In the 1970s almost 1,000 people died on the roads annually. It was here that compulsory seat belts were first introduced. New laws and deterrent legislation were introduced. The death rate dropped, only to rise again by the end of the 1980s. The Village reports: “This is when the Government first united the roads, transport and justice departments with a government-owned monopoly insurance provider – the Transport Accident Commission (TAC). A ministerial road safety council, headed by the transport department, police and TAC, was also set up….The system forced a level of integration and accountability between the Government, research bodies, policymakers and CEOs to come up with a safety strategy that worked.” The strategy also needed the support of the community alongside enforcement. Both were delivered.
The four Es
The four Es were used – Evaluation and research; Engineering; Education and Enforcement. Road deaths were reduced by 46% by 2000. Since then new laws and programmes have been introduced. From next year all learner drivers will have to do 120 supervised hours in different road conditions, an extra one-year probationary licence for drivers under 25 will be introduced and a zero alcohol tolerance is the only permitted level for the first four years of driving! Even the use of hands-free mobile phones will be outlawed!
Already, licences are lost automatically when drivers reach a certain limit or for driving 25 kilometres over the speed limit. The integrated approach allows for such a structure. In Ireland everything is piecemeal. We hear (valid) arguments that Gardaí are under-resourced or that machinery they are asked to use is faulty. Councils blame the National Roads Authority over the roads while the NRA cries poor mouth to the politicians who in turn want the NRA to prioritise the roads in certain constituencies. The only surety is the queues from the funeral homes, until an integrated approach to road safety is forthcoming. It is called political will.