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Road deaths are increasing again this year. Alamy Stock Photo
THE MORNING LEAD

What’s driving the surge in road deaths?

Answers are beginning to emerge on what’s behind the deadly trend on Irish roads.

WHAT’S BEHIND THE rise in road deaths?

For Frank O’Connell, coroner for South Cork, it’s a question with a simple answer.

“Number one: speed,” O’Connell says.

“Number two: alcohol. Number three: cocaine. If we could eliminate those, we’d be down to 50 or 60 road deaths per year.”

Fifty or 60 road deaths would represent a sea change from where we are now.

Last year, 184 people lost their lives on Irish roads, up almost 20% in a year and 33% higher than before the pandemic. 

This year will probably be worse again. Fifty-five people had been killed on Irish roads by the middle of this week, 13 more than in the same period of 2023 – each death leaving a family devastated and a community reeling.

Where did it all go wrong? Just a few years ago, Ireland was a road safety success story, having slashed the annual number of fatalities by two thirds between 2006 and 2018, saving hundreds of lives.

Now, we’ve not only diverged from the European norm of falling numbers of road deaths but fatalities are rising faster here than almost anywhere else in Europe.

Why?

The Journal spoke to coroners – who examine the facts relating to individual road deaths in the course of inquests – and people working in road safety to find anwers.

Pressed for his hypothesis on what might have changed, Minister of State responsible for road safety Jack Chambers points to a growing drug driving problem as one crucial development.

“There is a very worrying, increased trend of drug driving that we’re seeing with [garda] checkpoints,” Chamber said.

“If people are under the influence of any substance, that increases the likelihood of speeding, distracted driving and a risk of a very serious collision,” he adds.

The pandemic piece of the puzzle

Chambers also suggests the increase in road deaths since the pandemic is not a coincidence. Rather, the minister thinks it’s likely there’s a direct link between the “quieter roads” of 2020 and 2021, and the situation we find ourselves in today.

This is also the working theory within the RSA.

Sarah O’Connor, the RSA’s director of external affairs, says people’s behaviour on the roads and their self-reported behaviour as recorded in RSA tracking surveys underwent “wholescale” change during the pandemic.

Across the gamut of dangerous driving – including driving over the speed limit – behaviour deteriorated on the deserted roads of 2020 and 2021.

There is evidence that the stigma of drink driving has lessened while, anecdotally, the RSA received a message “loud and clear” from the public that there was an increase in the incidence of running red lights, O’Connor said. The RSA does not have formal tracking data on red light breaking.

The RSA also gathered self-reported evidence from drivers of more distraction from phones “whether that was taking more calls, holding the phone more, reading notifications or even making videos and taking photos while driving”, O’Connor said.

Despite behaviour getting worse, road deaths did not spike during the pandemic – we undertook too few journeys for that to happen. In 2020, there was an uptick with eight more deaths than in 2019, while in 2021, there were four fewer.

It’s likely that the increase in bad behaviours such as running red lights, speeding and phone use at the wheel couldn’t fully filter through to a surge in fatality numbers while so few vehicles were out and about. That happened when traffic came back.

The RSA’s behavioural tracking data indicates that over the course of the past two or three years our bad behaviour has somewhat corrected “but never back to pre-Covid levels”, O’Connor explains.

“And so what we have seen now is the lack of correction meeting increased traffic volumes, and that’s what we think is causing an increase in serious injuries, and the increase in fatalities.”

What role are phones and ‘smart’ dashboards playing?

Peep into the windows of cars idling at many, if not most, red lights in Ireland and you’ll quickly spy drivers checking their phones. Worrying research by the RSA in 2022 found almost 10% of heavy goods vehicle drivers were using their phones while driving. 

As our phones become ever more central to our lives – and newer cars are fitted with more and more complex touchscreen dashboards – is driver distraction playing a role in the increase in road deaths in Ireland since the pandemic? Right now, this is the least well understood factor among risky driver behaviours.

Denis Cusack, head of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety (MBRS) and a coroner since 1991, said: “We’re still trying to see does the use of a mobile phone configure to any significant number of serious crashes causing death and injury, or is it for minor crashes.” 

“I think the coroners would say it is very unusual to find that there is evidence of a driver being distracted on the phone at the time of the crash,” Cusack added.

O’Connell, in North Cork, agreed, saying he could think of only one fatal accident he had worked on where distraction with a phone was established as a definite factor.

Patrick O’Connor, Mayo coroner, said a link with phone use was “very difficult to establish”, though over the past decade gardaí have routinely tested the mobile phones of drivers in fatal accidents and sometimes found evidence of use.

Eleanor Fitzgerald, North Mayo coroner, said she had heard evidence at one recent inquest that indicated a young woman who lost her life may have been texting while driving. Alcohol was also a factor in the case.

“I think texting is something understated. I think mobile phone usage is becoming an increasingly significant factor,” Fitzgerald said.

Recent research by the RSA, not yet published, indicates a compulsion to check the phone is a problem for younger drivers.

Asked about the high proportion of young people losing their lives on the roads, Sam Waide, chief executive of the RSA points to mobile phone use as a risk factor for this age group.

“We interviewed young persons and young persons admitted to that temptation to look at their mobile phone while driving,” Waide said.

“But it’s not only the driver: other people in the car and particularly in this [younger] age group, have to not distract each other with mobile phone use in the car.”

Distracted driving and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol are “underlying causal factors” in many road deaths among young people, Waide said.

But he cautioned that “at the top of those underlying causal factors is speed”.

“Young people who are less experienced and have fewer driving hours on the road – it’s even more important for them to drive at a safe speed,” Waide said.

Alcohol

While something may have shifted in the way Irish drivers approach road safety in the past three or four years, the same handful of factors remain at play in many fatal accidents – and they tend to compound.

Denis Cusack explains: “If someone’s intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, they are more likely to be speeding, not to be wearing seatbelts, to be misjudging, and so on. So they are factors that add together.”

Cusack adds that drivers who are getting behind the wheel after drinking are not typically just a little over the legal limit. 

His analysis of garda checkpoint data for 2023 showed the median breathalyser reading among drivers detected for alcohol was 163g. By comparison, the legal blood alcohol level limit is 50g, and just 20g for professional, learner and novice drivers.

Cusack also found that the median blood alcohol level detected last year was no lower than that a decade ago. Some of the samples the MBRS analysed last year were astonishingly high.

“In 2023, the highest alcohol level we got in here in blood was 439g. I know, as a coroner, that if a person who wasn’t used to drinking had a level of 439g, they would be dead. Not comatose, dead,” Cusack said.

Fitzgerald, coroner for North Mayo, said she would carry out inquests for two or three fatal road traffic collisions per year.

“Alcohol is a significant factor in most of the cases,” Fitzgerald said.

Sometimes, the driver’s blood alcohol level is “not very high – but enough to disinhibit or reduce concentration”, she added.

O’Connell, the North Cork coroner, adds a caveat that “even people who are dead sober will make mistakes”.

“Making u-turns on roads is another very dangerous thing. But the cause of multiple road deaths is speeding: either just simply plain speeding or speeding because of drink and drugs, or a combination of all three.”

Turning the tide

It’s not clear yet whether or how the government can reverse the deadly trend on Irish roads.

New measures are planned, chief among them a new Road Traffic Bill which Chambers said this week is still on track through the Oireachtas to bring lower speed limits later this year. 

One of the most significant measures here may be the reduction in the standard speed limit on rural roads from 80km/hr to 60km/hr.  About 70% of deaths last year occurred on fast rural roads – those with a speed limit of 80km/hr or higher. The bill also provides for mandatory drug testing at the scene of serious collions.

O’Connor, the Mayo coroner, believes the quality of main roads must be maintained and improved by transport authorities, while bigger and better designed signage would help to keep drivers’ attention on the road.

He added that drivers, not just in cars but also those in lorries and other types of vehicles, must show greater consideration to other road users. He instanced ignoring stop signs when turning onto national roads as a particularly prevalent and dangerous problem in rural areas.

Meanwhile, the RSA is scrambling to drive home its message to drivers.

As well as its usual Bank Holiday weekend appeals and awareness campaigns, it’s been lobbying for greater funding for road safety advertisements, having already spent as much between November and now as it previously has in a year, according to one official.

In recent weeks and months the RSA has particularly targeted its advertising on radio and podcasts towards the worst affected counties: Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Mayo and Dublin. At Christmas, it reran one of its hardest hitting campaigns, featuring mum Gillian whose four-year-old son Ciarán was killed by a drunk driver

While stronger laws may be on the way, if the main problem behind the increase in road deaths is a deterioration in drivers’ obedience to the laws already in place – on speeding, on drinking, on using a phone at the wheel and so on – it’s likely that stronger enforcement will have to play a role in breaking the cycle.

Chambers said this week that as Garda recruitment ramps up he wants to see “strengthened enforcement and deployment to road policing units”, adding that this would play “a really important role in trying to break the current trend”.

Coroner O’Connor said: “Speeding has increased and the trouble is there isn’t enough detection. I know the gardaí can’t be everywhere but there should be greater visibility.”

Cusack agreed that garda visibility, while it was not the cause of the problem or its only answer, has to be part of the solution.

“An increased garda presence on the road is not going to be the panacea,” he said. “But human nature is such that we all change our behaviour if we believe there is a chance of getting caught.”

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