Road safety in crisis

It is often the case in business that the time when you should be worried about something is not when it is in a crisis. The worries tend to be obvious at that stage, and everyone is focussed.

The more dangerous phase can often be when things appear to be going well. You start to look at past successes as if they were your birth-right and you tend to forget how hard-won they were.

On the face of it our road safety strategy is very successful. As I have noted before we have more than halved the numbers of people killed. We have gone from being the sick man of Europe to one of the star pupils.

But that success is now in jeopardy. Standards are starting to slip and if we allow them to worsen we will have no-one but ourselves to blame.

The Road Safety Authority has been in existence since 2006. While no institution is perfect I believe that even its harshest critics would accept that much good work has been done.

The RSA’s chief executive Noel Brett has become very well known and it is sad to say that he is now leaving the post and taking up a completely different role. From my selfish point of view I can only regret that he is lost not just to the RSA but to the road safety community.

For the first time in many years it looks as if the numbers of people killed is on the increase again. Deaths are up by four per cent since the start of the year. If we are serious about the issue then this has to be a major concern.

There are some factors to look at. Irish cars are getting a little older, our roads are under-funded and that is starting to show. But to my mind a much bigger factor is the apparent priority with which road safety is being treated by the government.

There just is not the sense in the last couple of years of the matter being taken seriously. Most motorists will tell you that they just are not encountering checkpoints as much these days. The Garda themselves will tell you the same privately even if they must toe the line in any public statements.

To be clear, this is not the fault of the Garda. I know myself that the ordinary Gardai out and about are very passionate and dedicated to what they are doing. This is hardly surprising since it has been proved to save lives.

This is partly why it is so maddening when they are not given the resources that they need. I’m perfectly happy to have historical events like a visit from Barack Obama or Queen Elizabeth, or to have all the world’s leaders assembled just across the border in Co Fermanagh.

But why is it that every time something like this happens it is the life-saving traffic function that has to cough up the resources? Garda budgets get blown and there is nothing that they can do about it.

You don’t hear that there will be no heart operations this week because of the cost of security for Barack Obama, or that everyone has to do without their old age pension this week because it cost so much to host the EU Presidency.

Yet Garda resources regularly disappear of our roads for reasons like these.

Gay Byrne had no doubt about it and he came out very strongly last weekend. His frustration was palpable as he described what he felt was an ongoing process of allowing road safety to fall down the list of government priorities.

Gay feels that the budget should be controlled by Leo Varadkar in the Department of Transport rather than Alan Shatter in the Department of Justice.

I’m not entirely sure about that but his bigger point is undoubtedly true. To me it does not matter so much which Minister it is provided that we have a strong voice and champion at cabinet to make sure that those life-saving functions are not the ones that are lost whenever something needs to be paid for.

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