ON FIRST IMPRESSION, Noel Brett is the epitome of the generation that defines the so-called Celtic Tiger. The Road Safety Authority’s (RSA) Chief Executive is suave, talks fast, is impeccably dressed and oozes confidence. At 38, his career rise has been meteoric.
Castlebar native, Noel Brett, was one of the thousands of third level-educated Irish forced to emigrate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He had attended St Patrick’s National School and St Gerald’s Secondary School in the county town, before completing a Social Science degree in UCD.
After emigrating, he undertook a postgraduate degree in Social Work at Christchurch University, Canterbury, and worked in the childcare sector with Kent County Council for the following nine years. It was during his subsequent tenure as Assistant Director of Services in the London Borough of Newham that he came across an advertisement for ‘General Manager’ of Mayo General Hospital.
“It felt like a good time to come home. The Celtic Tiger was lifting and all of my friends were coming back,” said Noel Brett. “I’d been gone for eleven years and returned to a markedly different country. The quality of life was much better in Mayo and the posting at the hospital was good.”
Noel Brett was quickly promoted to the position of Assistant Chief Executive of the Western Health Board and by 2004 was seconded to Dublin to join their management team, overseeing the transition to what was to become the Health Services Executive.
“I had already been commuting to Galway from Belcarra [outside Castlebar] and proceeded then to commute to and from Dublin,” explained Mr Brett, who confided that one of his passions is vintage cars.
“I’m a member of the Connaught Veteran Vintage Car Club and own a 1967 Ford Anglia. I suppose having such a pastime reveals a tendency towards nostalgia,” he added.
The RSA was formally established by Minister for Transport, Martin Cullen, on September 1 last. Its investiture entailed the transfer of a number of the statutory functions of the department and the subsuming of the National Safety Council under its remit. The authority is an autonomous service delivery agency, accountable to the Oireachtas, and with the power to engage with all Government departments.
Its establishment is viewed as ‘a significant milestone’ in the Government’s Road Safety Strategy. Since May last, the RSA’s interim board has been working on a number of key areas, including regulation of driving instruction; reviewing commercial vehicles road worthiness testing systems; developing road safety promotion materials in partnership with the Department of Education and Science; reviewing and publishing a new ‘Rules of the Road’, and, centrally, developing a new road safety strategy for 2007 onwards.
Mr Brett is sitting in his expansive office in the top floor of the Department of Environment buildings in Ballina. He has already forewarned ‘apologetically’ that the interview may be interrupted by an important phone call. It is not only the local media that want an inside track on a new initiative that is using the non-executive appeal of retired broadcaster, Gay Byrne.
”I see the RSA as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve something in road safety and public safety that will have a massive impact on the number of fatalities and serious injuries,” he says.
He is passionate, however, in his belief that none of the initiatives will work unless the RSA reaches ‘the hearts and minds of the Irish people’.
“The success of the smoking ban is a case in point. While we resisted it for some time, once we embraced it, we achieved such a level of success that we are now leaders for its implementation throughout Europe,” said Mr Brett.
“We know what works as best practice in countries like Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands and Finland. They have managed to cut the numbers of people killed on their roads by putting the right strategy in place,” he argued.
“Everybody has a view about road safety. How to improve it. How to reduce deaths and injuries,” continued Noel Brett. He stressed the statistical and stark reality that ‘getting into our cars is the most dangerous activity we do on a daily basis’.
“There has been a 100 per cent increase in the number of cars on our roads, or, more specifically, there has been an increase of 41 per cent more cars on our roads since 1996.”
Bringing about a change in the shocking litany of road fatality statistics that is blighting the country will, however, require a specific action being taken.
“It is time to move beyond outrage, sympathy and disbelief. That’s where we are right now when it comes to road safety. Every weekend delivers its horror pictures. Every Saturday night produces its tragedies. Every week some road in Ireland is grimly decorated with flowers commemorating a life lost.
“Bringing about a culture change in road behaviour will require us to deploy our resources effectively across a number of key interventions. We are all familiar with the Three Es -enforcement, engineering and education,” he explained.
Noel Brett’s sincerity is palpable. His commitment to his five-year contract means he has become a zealot in the cause of rendering road carnage negligible.
But, these key factors are rendered useless, ineffectual, if people do not take primary responsibility. Ireland’s recent affluence has meant the purchase of cars has become increasingly commonplace, particularly by parents for their young adult children. This wealth, coupled with peer pressure, and the easy allure and availability of recreational drugs, provides a potentially lethal cocktail.
“While education and enforcement may be key variables, they only make the message more compelling. It is through simple habits that we adopt - car pooling - for example, that the culture and attitudes will be changed.”
Last month the RSA invited the Irish public to submit its ideas on a new road safety strategy for the country. Noel Brett’s rationale is that if the agency is to try and save lives and prevent injury from road collisions, ‘it’s imperative that we harvest every idea, every insight, every observation’.
Within hours of making the announcement, the RSA had been overwhelmed by the response from the general public By 10am on the first morning, there were dozens of helpful and innovative submissions. The closing date for submissions is next Monday, November 27. (Further details are provided on: www.rsa.ie).
A core and major problem in perceptions of road safety is ‘externalisation’, contends Noel Brett.
“People who are involved in an accident, it’s never their fault. Blame the Minister. Blame the Gardaí. Blame the other driver,” he stresses. He clearly realises that in his central role in implementing a new strategy in 2007, he must be open-minded and patient.
There is a need for constant re-evaluation of interventions to ensure their appropriateness and effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes. He concedes, though, that he is realistic and knows that change will take time.
“Nonetheless, every positive step we take will play a part in resolving the issues along the way,” he adds.
There is a certain, quiet reflectiveness in his voice. It’s undoubtedly a quality he indulges in when trout fishing on Lough Carra. The neolithic echoes from Church Island, the mesmerising eddies and currents around his small craft provide a welcome respite from the responsibility and expectation he carries in his working life.