Slow down, speed up or pull over?
The problems that slow driving can cause were recently highlighted by a district court judge in Mayo. We examine the extent of the issue.
When Judge Mary Devins recently dismissed a charge of careless driving against Kiltimagh resident Philip Storey, she made her feelings quite clear on slow drivers.
Mr Storey was charged with careless driving for undertaking three cars on the N5 in Bohola. Storey claimed he grew impatient as the cars in front were driving slowly. No evidence was given by Gardaí about what speeds any of the cars were travelling at, but for Judge Devins, who would frequently travel this stretch of road on her way to courts in Mayo, it was an all-too-frequent example of slow drivers hindering the progress of other motorists.
Judge Devins said she could not understand how some cars drive at only 40 miles per hour along the stretch when it ‘is the best road in the county’. Judge Devins added that driving at such speeds caused tailbacks which can result in incidents like those involving Philip Storey. She added that she wished the Gardaí would ‘come out after’ slow-moving cars that cause such tailbacks.
The judge’s comments and her decision to dismiss the case have been a lightning rod for debate since. The story has attracted hundreds of comments on leading discussion board Politics.ie and has been one of the most viewed stories this week on mayonews.ie. It has led to nodding agreement, passionate rebuttals but little indifference.
Coincidentally, days after Judge Devins’s comments, Road Safety Officer with Mayo County Council Noel Gibbons initiated a campaign targeting the dangers that slow drivers can cause.
According to Mr Gibbons, almost 7 per cent of accidents in the county in the period 1996-2010 were caused by improper overtaking. Some of these accidents were caused by reckless overtaking, but many resulted from a driver passing particularly slow vehicles.
Five of the ‘overtaking’ accidents resulted in fatalities. Speeding accounted for 41 of the 124 road deaths in Mayo in the period of the survey, debunking the myth often perpetuated that slow drivers are as dangerous as speeding drivers. However, it shows that Judge Devins’s comments in general, whatever about the specifics of the Philip Storey case, have plenty of merit too.
For Noel Gibbons, he must approach the campaign with the caution of a careful driver. It is very easy to send out a mixed message, particularly at a time when the Road Safety Authority launched a campaign entitled Operation Slow Down at the start of July. Consideration for all other road users is the central tenet of Gibbons’s message.
“We’re asking people to pull in if there is a tailback of cars behind them, not to speed up. We don’t want people driving at speeds they are not comfortable with,” Gibbons told The Mayo News.
“What we would ask people to do is regularly check their mirrors, and if there is a tailback, pull over when possible to do so. It is all about people sharing the road and realising that other people are there too. Drivers must be aware of the tail of vehicles behind them … By ignoring that, they’re actually driving without due care and attention.
“And that goes both ways. The person behind cannot intimidate the slow moving driver by tailgating them. You can also be pulled over for tailgating. And if you are too close to the car in front it is harder for you to overtake as your vision is impaired,” added Mr Gibbons.
He did criticise the undertaking manoeuvre performed by Philip Storey, however. “There was undertaking involved [in that case], which is very dangerous. There could have been pedestrians or cyclists on the inside lane, or [a driver in] a car in front could have turned left and not looked in their mirrors because they wouldn’t be expecting a car to be passing on the inside,” said Mr Gibbons.
Another recent local court case has also caused debate. Judge Devins was also presiding. The judge disqualified a Newport farmer, Michael Nevin, from driving for one year when he failed to pull in to let a backlog of cars pass his tractor, which he was driving home from Balla Mart. He was fined on the spot by a Garda, but non-payment of that fine led him to court, where Judge Devins accused him of ‘arrogance’.
Garda John Daly told the court that he was stuck behind traffic doing approximately 20km/h on July 18, 2008. Up to 20 vehicles were held up by Mr Nevin, he said, who had five or six opportunities to pull over but did not. Mr Nevin told Garda Daly that he had the same right to be on the road as anyone else.
The driving disqualification was mitigated on appeal to just a disqualification from driving his tractor, but the original disqualification was believed to be a landmark decision. As far as Noel Gibbons is concerned, it goes back to consideration for all users of the road.
“I have received a complaint that we’re targeting older drivers with this [lastest] campaign. We’re not. There are many different types of drivers who may have reason to go slower. It might be a driver unfamiliar with the road, an uncomfortable driver, a tractor driver or a truck driver with a full load. In fairness, professional drivers are the most obliging and most tractor drivers do pull in – but a minority don’t,” he said,
In America there are minimum driving limits in most states, as well as maximum limits. As far back as 1964, a US government researcher named David Solomon wrote a paper on the subject of speed and crashes. He found that drivers going the median speed of traffic – that is with the general traffic flow – had the lowest risk of collision.
Noel Gibbons said such minimum limits in Ireland might cause people to drive at speeds they are not comfortable at, stressing that ‘common sense’ on behalf of drivers was all that was required: Don’t drive too fast or, if driving at a slow speed relative to the traffic flow, pull over and let other vehicles pass.
The above breaches are, he points out, covered by the Rules of the Road in Ireland. That was the response of the Road Safety Authority when contacted by The Mayo News.
“The Rules of the Road states that you must keep up with the pace of traffic flow, while obeying the speed limit. It also says that while you must keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front, you should not drive so slowly that your vehicle unnecessarily blocks other road users. If you drive too slowly, you risk frustrating other drivers, which could lead to dangerous overtaking,” a spokesperson said.
Judge Mary Devins might say that she rarely sees prosecutions for slower driving behaviour but Noel Gibbons would argue she wouldn’t have to see any if people drive with common sense and consideration for other road users.