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John O'Brien We had a road safety policing model that worked, what went wrong?

The former Detective Chief Superintendent says there was a plan that worked in the past on road safety, we need something similar again.


IN 1997 I led a small team to Victoria Police in Australia to study their Road Safety Model. Their demographics were broadly similar to Ireland but their road safety record was infinitely better. So, the task was basically simple, find out what they did, replicate it in Ireland and modify it where necessary.

Together with partners and with strong financial support, I led this initiative on behalf of the Garda Síochána. Slowly but surely the dreadful road casualties began to decline (from 472 deaths in 1997 to 134 deaths in 2018).

This initiative had a number of key components – a resourced and realistic enforcement model, concentration on the key lifesaving offences, interconnectivity with good IT support, integration with the courts system and progress on re-engineering the roads.

Central to that approach was a “Hearts and Minds” philosophy which respected the public and was based on the realisation that public support was essential. It was vital that this detection system would also be seen as a fair, no question of shooting fish in a barrel. This approach was conditional on the realistic probability of dangerous drivers being “caught” rather than a dim and distant possibility of detection, which is the current situation.

This was also a time for realising the Peace Dividend. Cooperation was achieved with the then RUC (now PSNI) on one of the most dangerous roads in the country, the North/South road through County Louth. Cooperation was also achieved with many international partners. A new model was discovered, so what happened to it?

What went wrong?

Roll on ten years and at this stage an unlearning process had taken root. The system had becomes bloated, with hundreds of new offences being added to the penalty points systems. The gardaí were being withdrawn from an active detection input. The system was creaking and the most destructive idea was that the revenue from fines would pay for the detection process.

I did an analysis report for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) which outlined all of these features and much more. In 2014 I did a submission to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) again using my knowledge of best practices and pointing out that the privatised speed detection vans were not fit for purpose on operational grounds (inflexibility) or on economic grounds. It should be understood that the contract for this system is signed by the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner.

Road Safety Garda and RUC 1998 Garda/RUC cooperation in Road Safety - The Peace Dividend John O'Brien John O'Brien

Roll on a further 10 years (2024) and the unlearning continues. The road deaths are rising again. The RTÉ Prime Time programme examined this situation on Thursday night and while important questions were raised one was left with the distinct impression that an opportunity was missed. There was no representative from the Department of Justice on the programme and Justice is a key player because it is the lead Department for the Garda Síochána.

Not a solution

Then in an unbelievably cynical attempt to steer the debate away from the lack of enforcement the Garda Commissioner announced that all uniformed gardaí would have to do a mandatory 30 minutes of road safety policing per shift. This was no more than an attempt to manipulate the narrative and protect his Assistant Commissioner who had the unenviable task of explaining the lack of enforcement to the nation. Minister Jack Chambers was cut short at the end of the programme when he plainly said, “enforcement levels have collapsed”. The programme was out of time and no debate was possible, an opportunity was missed where solutions should have been explored with the minister.

The key question for An Garda Síochána is to describe what its enforcement and deterrence model actually is? How do they go about this task, what are the metrics and the modalities? It is most essential for the Commissioner to explain why the Privatised Speed Detection System is fit for purpose. This is based on presumptions which simply aren’t correct. These assumptions were that privatised speed detection systems would be self-financing, this is demonstrably wrong. It was assumed that there would be a drop in road casualties. This was also wrong. It was assumed that detections would be based on black spot areas, this is also wrong. Most significantly, the superior detection capacity of the Garda Síochána has been stood down because of a creeping policy of disengagement.

The uniform component of the Force is under severe pressure, through a lack of personnel, overweening bureaucracy and recording systems which remove front-line officers for many hours from active patrolling. Gardaí from the provinces are being sent to perform duty in Dublin because of the obvious deficit in the capital, despite previous assurances to the contrary. This duty is performed on overtime as is the travelling time from their home bases.

What should be done?

It is high time that the Government and the Commissioner acknowledge this situation and recognise the consequences which flow from it. The commissioner is out of touch with the road safety situation as he has been for many other key issues during his tenure.

A popular mantra is that Road safety is approached from a “Whole of Government” perspective. This is a non-persuasive proposition because it means everyone is in charge which of course means no one is in charge.

I don’t doubt for a second that the key entities involved mean well and that they hope to make a difference. Reality requires a far more agile approach. One government department should have overall direct responsibility for gathering the many disparate elements. Enforcement and deterrence are the keys to the future.

The best detection systems provide for the fast deployment of additional temporary resources to the areas of emerging road fatalities. A pin map of the fatalities self-selects the locations and this is a real time exercise. Such a map was displayed on the Prime Time programme and logically the Assistant Commissioner should have been able to say, “We have recognised this clustering and we have taken the direct action by increasing our detection capacity and visibility in those areas”. No such assurance was given or could be given.

John O’Brien is a former Detective Chief Superintendent, in An Garda Síochána. He is formerly head of the International Liaison Protection section in Garda HQ, National Head of Interpol and Europol. He was Divisional Chief Superintendent in the Louth/Meath and Laois/Offaly Divisions. A former Superintendent, Detective Inspector, Uniform Inspector and Sergeant. He is the holder of an MSc in Public Order Studies. He is the author of three books, A Question of Honour, Politics and Policing (2020) and Securing the Irish State (2022). The Troubles Come South 2023. 

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