Last week business and pleasure coincided for me nicely: I found myself in Co. Sligo, where I have roots and relatives aplenty. I was giving an address to the annual conference of the National Irish Safety Organisation at the Radisson Blu hotel so I was able to spend part of my afternoon looking out at the magnificent view across the harbour. It’s never a hardship to go West.
And I found myself among well informed friends. The NISO is a not-for-profit body that helps professionals and workplaces with advice, training and support to continually improve safety.
I was there to give my tuppence worth on how the road safety landscape in Ireland has changed over the last decade or so and what was likely to happen next.
Even though there is a great deal still to be done in terms of making roads safe we have come a hell of a distance in recent times. Last year Ireland lost 186 people to road death. It seems obscene to refer to a figure like that as if it was good news but it is much better than it used to be.
Ten years earlier in 2001 there were 411 deaths. Surprisingly the very worst period in our history for road death was the early 1970s, where despite having a third the number of cars on the road there were nearly 650 deaths a year.
While Ireland’s progress looks great we need to see it in context. Every developed country is making similar gains. Car technology, better roads, more policing and much more social support and understanding about the issues have all helped.
Even so, our achievements have been notable. We have gone from being one of the sick men of Europe in terms of road death to becoming one of the star pupils. We currently rank 7th of 27 EU countries and our profile is now a lot closer to Sweden and Holland rather than Portugal and Greece. If only sorting out the money was that easy.
Doing it was not rocket science. In fact there was not a single original idea or policy in what Ireland did; all had been tried successfully in other countries before.
In 1997 the then-government was the first to put in place a five-year strategy. The key elements of that strategy are now familiar to us all. A penalty points system, a proper traffic corps of the Garda, speed cameras, investment in roads, reform of driver training and testing, tougher alcohol laws.
A key reason why it has worked as well as it has so far has been the active support of the Irish public. Irish motorists have been brilliant.
I remember that when the drink drive limit was lowered from 100 milligrams to 80 milligrams back in 1994 it was hugely controversial. The then Minister, Michael Smyth, was besieged and even I, fresh faced youth that I was, found myself getting angry phone calls at home because the AA had supported the move.
Wind the clock forward to last year and the limit was lowered again to 50 milligrams. There was barely a whisper and in fact the great majority of drivers were all for it according to AA research.
This is all good; something that has gone well for us. But it is in danger of falling down the priority list for resources (and already Garda resources are under serious pressure ). If we allow the government to look on this as a problem solved we will slip backwards very quickly.
Irish people still die on the roads. Young males especially, rural people especially, late night drivers especially. There are new challenges to face like drug driving.
We have not won yet. I like the Swedish ‘vision zero’ philosophy, adopted by their government in the late 1990s. There is no such thing as an acceptable road death and we are not finished with road safety policy until the annual total is zero.
Needless to say, we are not there yet.