Garda chief urges public compliance on roads during festive season

It’s no secret that Christmas can be a dangerous time on the roads – weather, relaxed attitudes and drink can all play a part.

It’s no secret that Christmas can be a dangerous time on the roads – weather, relaxed attitudes and drink can all play a part.

It’s also a good time to take stock on what sort of a year it has been for local road users. In Kilkenny and Carlow, we have had six deaths on the roads this year – one more than 2012. That extra one was in Kilkenny.

So far, in the south east this year 26 people have been killed on the roads so far. That’s up five, from 21 during the same period last year.

Of those 26 who lost their lives in traffic accidents in the south-east this year, 18 were drivers, and three were passengers. Four were motorcyclists, one was a cyclist; there were no pedestrian fatalities.

But the message from An Garda Siochana, according to superintendent Paschal Connolly, is that we have come a long way. Last year was exceptionally good – 10 fatalities fewer than in 2011. Still room to improve.

There have been several historic milestones in recent years, including mandatory random breath-testing, the extension of the penalty points scheme, the introduction of safety camera vans, and lower blood alcohol limits. There has also been, since the beginning of this year, a special Garda road safety project, ‘Operation Focus’.

“These things have brought us to a good point,” says Supt Connolly.

“We are trying to change the behaviour of the general public through three different ways: Engineering, education, and enforcement.

“We need the voluntary compliance on behalf of the public. That really is the model we are working on. And it ties in with our robust policy over the Christmas period. It focuses mainly on speed, drink-driving, mobile phone use and seatbelts.”

And then Supt Connolly reveals the facts and figures.

Some of what he says is expected: The younger motorists are still the more vulnerable road users. Approximately 30% of our road fatalities are under the age of 30.

Some of what he says is worrying – we are back using our mobile phones while driving. Over 2,000 people in the south-east have been detected using mobile phones while driving so far this year.

It’s particulalry disappointing, he says , given the widespread availability of preventative technology – bluetooth, handsfree kits.

We also seem to still be drinking and driving. When I interviewed Supt Connolly on December 17, Gardai in Kilkenny had arrested 17 people so far in the month for drink driving – a rate of one per day.

There has been a huge number of mandatory alcohol checkpoints in the south east this year to date– over 11,200. But Supt Connolly is confident that drink drivers remain a dwindling group.

Some of what he reveals is unexpected. For example, Thursday and Friday appear to be the most dangerous times on Kilkenny roads, particularly in the late afternoon period.

Some of his revealations are bewildering – things most people would imagine are way in the past, such as not wearing seatbelts. Of the 26 deaths this year, four of those killed were not wearing seatbelts. It’s generally people in the backseats of cars, or in some cases, over-occupancy of cars where four or more people cram into a backseat meant for three.

The Garda superintendent also emphasises a distinction between ‘speed’ and ‘inappropriate speed’. Three in four of all fatal collisions in the south-east occur in 80km or slower zones. Not on the fast motorway networks.

Some motorists believe that in an ‘80km’ zone, they should do 80km/ph. However, that is dependent on a variety of different things such as road and weather conditions, the time of day, other traffic, and even the individual vehicle.

A review of speed limits is taking place over the next two years, but in many cases, people need to use their own judgement better.

Ultimately, we are depending on everybody else to co-operate with the National Roads Authority, the Road Safety Authority and the Gardai. Generally, we have year-on-year declines in fatalities, and this year should be taken in that context.

“In 2006, for example, we had 70 road deaths in the region,” he says.

“So 26 this year is a big improvement in that context.”

But it the figure is down almost every year and that is a great return for all the stakeholders. Likewise with detections for the various offenses.

“Our utopian situation is to not have any detections at all,” says Supt Connolly.

“We don’t catch people who aren’t over the speed limit, or the drink limit. We are out there to stop a small minority of people, who are endangering other road users who are compliant. We are asking for people’s support in making our and our roads safer.”