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14 cyclist deaths in 2017 'Yet we victim blame cyclists who don’t opt for DayGlo clothing'

An Garda Síochána need to focus more on cars illegally parking in bike lanes and on footpaths, driving over the speed limit, and breaking traffic signals, writes Ciarán Cuffe.

WE ARE ALL complicit in the death of cyclists on our roads. As a fourteenth cyclist dies this year it is time to ask whether we are taking the right approach to road safety, and whether a new radical approach is needed.

We’re already half-way through the period covered by the Road Safety Strategy 2013—2020, and yet the mid-term review has yet to be published, and many measures contained within the strategy are unimplemented, or in need of revision.

The Strategy did not anticipate the increase in cycling in Dublin in recent years, and the design and layout of many of our streets and roads reflect a time when the car was king, and pedestrians and cyclists were discouraged or side-lined in the planning process.

Victim-blaming cyclists

Since the car was invented over one hundred years ago engineers have focused too much on speed and convenience for car users rather than on the safety of the most vulnerable, particularly in urban areas. The bright clothing and high-viz approach of the Road Safety Authority can lead to victim-blaming, where pedestrians or cyclists who don’t opt for DayGlo clothing are seen as culpable if an accident occurs.

Instead we should look to countries such as Sweden where for the last twenty years a ‘Vision Zero’ approach has led to a dramatic reduction in road injuries. Sweden set a target of no deaths or serious injuries on its roads and does not seek to merely reducing accidents to an economically manageable level. It models its road safety strategy on a Vision Zero approach.

That country focuses on the freedom to move and seeks to encourage more walking and cycling, especially for school children. To achieve this it and many other countries have moved away from a 50 km/h speed limit in urban areas, and introduced 40 km/h, 30 km/h or lower limits where people live. In Ireland, higher speeds are seen as the norm and vulnerable road users are seen as contributing to accident.

Under the ‘Vision Zero approach Sweden’s Senior Advisor on road safety Matts-Åke Belin argues that the system’s designers or road engineers must be accountable, and recognises that humans are fragile and make mistakes.

Smarter Travel Policy

Nine years ago the Fianna Fáil/ Green Party government published the Smarter Travel Policy and the National Cycle Policy Framework. These policies committed to radical measures to support healthy travel options in safety, and yet many of the recommendations such as the appointment of Local Authority Cycling Officers at a senior level have not been realised.

Without an advocate for cycling within all local authorities the status quo continues to sideline cyclists and pedestrians in policy and decision-making. The Cycling Policy stipulated that all local authority roads engineers and any engineer wishing to tender for government road contracts should be required to have taken an approved cycling skills course, together with a course on cycling friendly infrastructure design. This has not occurred.

As the State’s emerges from recession, more journeys are being made by car, and the overall proportion of journeys made by walking and cycling actually declined from 16.4% to 16.3% last year. Outside of Dublin people are taking to their cars in greater numbers. This must surely be a wake-up call for Minister Shane Ross to provide greater funding for cycling and walking infrastructure, and safety improvements. Such a move could help target the growing obesity challenge in Ireland, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

When we rolled out more 30 km/h speed zones in Dublin City earlier this year we had the budget to put up the signs, but not to introduce the engineering measure such as carriage way narrowing, zebra crossings, and planting that can help ensure drivers keep to lower speeds on residential streets.

Vulnerable road users need a stronger voice

And yet the need for speed permeates decision-making at all levels. It was extraordinary that when the Automobile Association lobbied the then Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe back in 2015 seeking higher speed limits on several urban roads (including outside schools on the Ballymun Road), the Department’s response was to issue a Circular Letter to local authorities instructing them to pay due regard to the AA’s list.

The National Transport Authority’s Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016 – 2035 lays out great plans for cycling over a twenty-year period, but without adequate funding from central government the ambitious plans for a safe cycle network in the greater Dublin Area will not be realised.

Far too often cyclists are left sharing a bus lane with buses and taxis, and fighting for space at traffic lights and street corners. Local authorities must devote more of their own resources to cycling and must devote more of their staff resources and spending on safe cycling. Dublin City Council’s Road Safety Officer retired several years ago, and the post has been vacant since. A stronger voice for vulnerable road users is needed.

An Garda Síochána also have a crucial role, and yet the Traffic Corps appear to focus unduly on keeping cars moving rather than on the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. They need to focus more on cars illegally parking in bike lanes and on footpaths, driving over the speed limit, and breaking traffic signals.

Finally Engineers Ireland could also lead the charge on hardwiring road safety into the design and upgrading of our roads. The Irish Design Manual for Urban Streets and Roads should be the bible for new road layouts in urban areas, and yet too many residential road layouts are following older guidance that allow for wide roads and corners that speed up, rather than slow down traffic at dangerous junctions.

There’s lots of good people with the right ideas for improving safety, and but unless we adopt a Vision Zero approach, the level of casualties will remain too high, and needless deaths and injuries will continue on our roads.

Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party City Councillor and chairs Dublin City Council’s Transportation Strategic Policy Committee.

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