The stark admission by Road Safety Authority chairperson Liz O’Donnell that ‘2016 has been a very bad year for road safety in Ireland’ gives cause for concern that the RSA’s campaign messages are not hitting home as well as they should be and that there are not enough Garda Traffic Corps personnel available to enforce the laws. Provisional statistics for 2016 show a 15% increase in road traffic-related fatalities over the previous year – up to 187 for this past twelve months with Cork and Dublin having the joint top number of fatalities at 21 each.
This increase is relative to a joint record low of 162 deaths in 2015, which had emulated the figure from 2012 – the first time the number of fatalities had fallen below the 200 mark since they started compiling such statistics over 55 years ago. While the numbers in the past five years have remained below 200, there were increases in the numbers killed in three of these years, including 2016, and this needs to be addressed with a greater urgency both by the authorities and by road users generally taking more responsibility for their behaviour.
In fairness to the RSA and An Garda Síochána, the work that has been done in recent years to try to reduce the number of fatalities on our roads has seen steady progress, but obviously not quickly enough for everybody. To put this in context, the worst year ever for deaths in road traffic collisions was 1972 when 640 people were killed in the Republic of Ireland – almost two a day on average and greater than the 497 who died as a result of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland that year.
Since then, roads have improved and safety features in vehicles are far superior nowadays, but it has still taken too many years to get the number of fatalities on our roads down from those awful days of carnage. It took until 1984 to get below the 500 mark and it wasn’t until 2002 that the numbers fell below 400 annually and it was only in the current decade that they came in under 300 in 2010 and then 200 in 2012.
However, all of this is cold comfort for the families of the people who have been killed and every death on our roads is one too many. There is an additional, perhaps even worse legacy for people whose lives have been changed by serious injuries incurred in road traffic collisions.
RSA chief executive Moyagh Murdock expressed her concern that we are still seeing ‘the same three killer behaviours’ of alcohol, speed and non-seatbelt wearing – or more commonly a combination of all three – having a devastating effect on innocent lives. She is most particularly concerned about the role of alcohol in crashes because it seems that there is a hard-core of people out there who wilfully ignore all warnings not to drink and then drive, and she claims that their actions are having a disproportionate impact on road safety.
Enforcement of the laws against drink-driving, speeding, not wearing seatbelts and holding mobile phones while driving has been hindered by a decrease in Garda Traffic Corps personnel from 1,200 before the recession to just 600 last year. The government commitment to increase the numbers by 10% is a welcome first step and should allow for necessary more visible policing, as is the appointment of an Assistant Commissioner for Roads Policing, former Cork West Division Chief Supt Michael Finn.
The new Road Traffic Act 2016, signed into law at year-end, introduces a series of reforms to deal with drug driving, written-off vehicles, mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the UK, uninsured drivers and a new optional 20km/h speed limit in built-up areas. This will give the new Garda Roads Policing Unit more offences to detect, but they can only do so much.
As Minister for Transport Shane Ross commented, when giving a commitment last week that the government will do all it can to reverse the increase in road casualties witnessed this year and to improve safety overall on our roads, ‘the road is a shared space and we have a duty of care towards each other every time we use the road.’ The theme of taking personal responsibility was echoed by the RSA’s Liz O’Donnell and Moyagh Murdock, who pointed out that this extends, not only to those thinking of drink-driving, but also to those who knowingly turn a blind eye to it happening in our community.
NOT taking unnecessary risks also plays a vital role in farm safety and the importance of this is once again highlighted in provisional figures for workplace accident fatalities made available at the end of 2016 by the Health & Safety Authority. They confirmed once again what was already known – that farming is the most dangerous occupation in Ireland with 21 people having died while working in the sector last year.
Three of these were in County Cork, which was joint highest with Kerry for the number of farm fatalities. Farming accounted for almost half of all work-related fatalities (44) recorded in 2016, even though the sector employs only 6% of the country’s workforce, so people are eight times more likely to die working on a farm in Ireland than in the general working population.
The overall number of workplace fatalities was reduced last year, but as with road safety figures, the numbers who died in farm accidents increased once again by three on 2015 – although still well below the record number of 30 the previous year – despite all the messages urging care constantly being reinforced in many different ways by the HSA, Teagasc, the farmers’ organisations and several other agencies. On average, 19 people are killed each year in farm-related workplace incidents and there have been 194 farming fatalities in the last decade, so this year’s figure of 21 is above the average number.
HSA research shows that similar accidents occur each year and also indicates that, in general, farmers’ attitudes to safety only change after serious injury occurs. Those most vulnerable to death and injury on Irish farms are older and younger people and the HSA has described this as worrying, which it undoubtedly is, especially where children are concerned as farms are primarily workplaces rather than playgrounds.
Going in to 2017, the most important message that farmers should heed and put into practice is the necessity to take some time to consider the risks in every job they do and to work out a plan to manage the hazards before they start work. This is a good time of year for farmers to reflect and plan for a safer future for themselves and their families.