Covid, it seems, has saved many lives. It kept drunk drivers, drugged drivers and dangerous drivers off the roads. Now that we’re pretending the pandemic is over, normal crazy driving is back. And many more people die at the wheel.
Shocking numbers were released last week. Traffic fatalities shoot up like mushrooms from the ground. After the numbers 2021 flattered to deceive, politicians patted themselves on the back. The death toll had fallen to a record low.
Unfortunately the improvement was illusory as the cause of the good numbers was Covid, not policy measures to promote road safety. There were fewer people about at night; Pubs and restaurants were closed; the weekend economy of nightclubs and celebrations did not exist; impaired drivers had left the roads. Traffic volume fell by 20 to 30 per cent as Covid surged.
This year the Covid restrictions were lifted. Suddenly the traffic fatality figures for the first quarter of 2022 are downright frightening. Fifty-one people have already died. Last year there were 21 in the same period. According to Sam Waide, chief of transportation safety, given current trends, we’re heading for a total of 180 deaths by 2022. This is absolute carnage, the highest number in a decade and far worse than our pre-Covid levels.
The political response was weak. Given the shocking extent of the death toll, the Deputy Minister for Transport and Galway West said, Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, issued a hand-wringing appeal last week. Noting that it’s the Easter weekend notorious for tragedy on the streets, she was startled by the numbers and found the spike “deeply concerning”. This is ministerial speech for doing nothing.
The minister passed the death packet on to motorists: “We all need to take action to reverse this trend by being more careful on the road, especially during the high-risk Easter holidays.” That means, she stressed, “we as drivers [presumably she has a ministerial driver] We have a responsibility to slow down, never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, never use our phones or drive tired, and always make sure everyone in our vehicle wears their seat belts.”
The diagnosis is correct, but the gentle, gentle cure has already failed. She begs repeat offenders — and in some cases, felons — to behave. It doesn’t work
Hildegarde sounds more like an elementary school teacher (which she is) asking her students not to break the school rules than indeed a politician sharing with her prime minister, Eamon RyanResponsibility for the stalled program of life-saving driving laws.
To be fair to Hildegarde, she offers a fig leaf of cover, claiming that the government “continues to prioritize life-saving legislation, such as the current Road Traffic and Roads Act, and invests in infrastructure to enable safe active travel initiatives.” Of course, she provides absolutely no details of “life-saving” legislation because there is so little. In any case, she gets bogged down in a Dáil committee, where even the introduction of safer e-scooters is being delayed. Ryan’s indecisiveness has meant that unregulated private e-scooters are now running an e-scooter wild west at will, but e-scooter companies – with their far stricter standards – are frustrated. Security suffers again.
Hildegarde’s statement is lip service to the need for motorists (not lawmakers!) to “slow down”, but the bill she mentions scrapped her most radical life-saving measure – graduated speed limits – under pressure from her Fine Gael backbenchers and Independent TD Michael Healy -Rae.
In January 2021, the current government gave in to constant backbench whining about graduated penalties for speeding. As Minister for Transport, I had a personal interest in this bill. It was accepted by the last Fine Gael-Independent Alliance government after a powerful cabinet scandal. The new coalition, crammed with opponents of Highway Code reform, has scrapped stricter speed limits, to the delight of TDs Michael Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath and other like-minded MPs. They were assisted by a few Fianna Fail TDs and several Fine Gael TDs led by Michael Ring, a Minister I served with in Government.
One of the skeptics of the 2017 drink-driving bill was none other than backbencher Hildegarde Naughton. She wanted a free vote – code for dumping the measures. Today she will learn with interest that speeding deaths are even higher than last year and that drunk driving arrests have increased in 2022. She contributed significantly to the 51 deaths.
Expressing “deep concern” in a meaningless press release will not reduce the number of bodies going to the cemetery.
Current statistics clearly show that speeding is by far the most common cause of road fatalities. But where is Prime Minister Eamon Ryan in this debacle? Hiding somewhere in his urban ivory tower, Ryan tries to save lives from the seemingly deadlier threat of lawnmowers eking out a modest life in the swamps. It seems he believes sober lawnmowers pose a greater threat to innocent lives than drunk, drugged, or dangerous drivers.
The prospects of reducing road deaths in line with current targets are now imploding. Two years ago, starting from a baseline of 144 deaths per year, Ireland set a target of reaching half that figure – 72 – by 2030. As far as we know, the lack of political will has pushed us in the opposite direction.
The solution to the bloodshed in the streets lies in politicians’ action, not in lazy rhetoric, nor in begging for “ownership” from the demonstrably reckless. It is successive governments of all stripes that have refused to give the gardaí the resources they need to implement policies that cannot be enforced due to a lack of manpower or technology funding.
Funnily enough, these are the only political parties that are consistently principled on the drunk driving issue sense fine, the social democrats and the hard left. Social Democrat leader Catherine Murphy boldly introduced the guillotine to prevent the Dáil lobby from thwarting drink-driving legislation. Sinn Féin voted rigorously in favor of the bill at every stage. Members of the older parties disappeared or lobbied from the smoky rooms to defeat them on behalf of the winemakers.
I never thought that I would find myself by the way with such bedfellows.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/nice-and-polite-hildegarde-is-no-answer-to-rising-toll-of-road-deaths-41560036.html The nice and polite Hildegarde is not an answer to the increasing number of road deaths