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99% of road safety stats are bullshit

Shane O' Donoghue

Words: Shane O' Donoghue - @Shane_O_D

Published on: January 25, 2023

Words: Shane O' Donoghue - @Shane_O_D

Published on: January 25, 2023

Ignore the stats and instead focus on how road users feel - and road design - to enhance Ireland's road safety.

Our title for this article may come across as jocular and facetious, in a bid to grab your attention, but I assure you that what you are about to read is anything but. The play on words is a good introduction to a discussion on our overreliance on statistics and headline-grabbing numbers, specifically when it comes to road safety.

In recent years, the subject, and indeed the success of us as a society to improve road safety, has been distilled down to bitesize chunks of digestible information. The RSA's (Road Safety Authority) figures for 2022, for example, tell us for a start that of the 156 fatalities on Irish roads in 2022 - a worrying increase of 14 per cent on 2021's numbers, admittedly - 38 per cent were drivers and 27 per cent were pedestrians, while 73 per cent of fatalities occurred on a rural road (defined as one with a speed limit of greater than 80km/h) against 27 per cent on urban roads.

There are 11 pages in the 'Provisional Review of Fatalities' document crammed with data and statistics if you're interested. However, it takes little expertise to gather and present the data that is contained in this summary and the media at large tend to report the same without too much commentary or expert analysis. (I did read one good article calling for drivers to take responsibility, and it's a commendable idea, but I don't think we can rely on that to reverse the trend and enhance safety.)

Now, while I obviously believe that every road death or injury is one too many, I also wonder if we're missing less tangible information in the discussion, subtleties that have a disproportionate effect on the overall safety of all road users, but are not so easy to shepherd into an easy-to-understand bar chart.

I don't pretend to be an expert in road safety, though I do think about it all the time, and I am in a position at least to start a conversation about it. Unfortunately, I don't believe that articles such as this one are always read by those we need to reach the most. Anyway, as part of my job, I spend a lot of time driving, in Ireland and abroad, on all types of roads, in all types of vehicles, which perhaps encourages more thinking about the act of driving than if I used the same roads day in, day out. I cycle a moderate amount (less than I'd like to, in truth) and walk my kids to school on a daily basis.

It's in this latter role that the seeds of this article were born. The walk to school is less than a kilometre, but it's beside a very busy road and it makes me feel like the 'vulnerable road user' my children and I are classed as, with cars speeding by only tens of centimetres away. That phrase - vulnerable road user - is quite factual and it refers as much to cyclists and those on e-scooters as it does pedestrians.

Thankfully, the vast majority of journeys across Ireland are uneventful and safe, but that doesn't help alleviate the feeling that a given road is unsafe. And that's the crux of what I want to explore - the feeling of safety, not the statistic that tells us that most roads are mostly safe.

In a car (or van or truck or bus) you feel very safe, and vehicles are getting safer every day. Countless studies have shown that this has the opposite effect on a driver's behaviour, meaning that they will take more chances if they feel safer. I believe Peter Wheeler, once the owner of the British sports car maker, TVR, suggested that cars should have a spike in the steering wheel instead of an airbag - as that would certainly improve driver behaviour.

I'm not for a second proposing that we make cars less safe. However, stop for a moment and think about what causes a crash. It is usually due to someone making a mistake or an unwise decision. Sure, inappropriate speed makes for a worse outcome, but a crash generally starts with human error. If a pedestrian slips up, for the most part, they're putting only themselves at risk. Same for cyclists and e-scooter riders in the majority of situations (I don't want to go off on a tangent discussing their use on footpaths and those that break red lights and other rules of the road - most are law-abiding, but all are more vulnerable than those in a vehicle, which is my point here). If a driver of a vehicle does something wrong, however, it can instantly have a fatal outcome for other road users.

In short, drivers have more responsibility than any other road user to keep others safe. What's more, they also have the responsibility to help make vulnerable road users feel safe. That doesn't only extend to keeping a safe distance from cyclists and e-scooter riders, but also to considering how fast they are driving in a situation where there are pedestrians in close proximity to the road, something that is seemingly never discussed. A speed of 50km/h feels like nothing inside a modern car isolated from the outside world, but when said car goes past a pedestrian less than a metre away at that speed, it feels dangerous from their point of view.

Imagine how it feels to a small kid. And if they stumbled accidentally onto the road in that situation (easily done when children are playing together, for example), a driver may not have time to react - and it doesn't matter if they're driving a city car, a huge SUV or a double-decker bus at that speed, as the result is likely to be a dead child and destroyed lives.

Sadly, it's been proven repeatedly that Irish drivers can't be trusted to keep to posted speed limits out of the goodness of their hearts - and that's before I mention "appropriate" speeds again, as the limits are not a target, but the maximum anyone should be driving in a given scenario.

So how do we ensure that drivers stick - at the least - to posted speed limits? The first thing that comes to mind is enforcement and I'm not alone in feeling that Ireland's roads are seriously lacking consistent enforcement today. Apparently, last August, just a few months before doubling of speeding (and other) fines were introduced, the RSA submitted research to the Department of Transport indicating that the move might not have any effect on road safety as there was a perception in the wider population that there was insufficient enforcement of the rules of the road.

Officially, there has been a small reduction of Gardaí patrolling our roads, but anecdotally it feels like there is a lot less Garda presence on our roads than ever before. The Go Safe speeding vans have a specific job to do, in bringing down speeds in known danger areas, but we need more Gardaí on the road looking out for other infringements that are potentially just as dangerous - every day I witness people openly driving while holding and speaking into mobile phones (or worse, looking at the screen and messaging), and several times a day I see drivers running red lights, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to do anything about it. There's plenty more bad driving not covered by those infringements and my focus here is not solely speeding.

The problem with enforcement, no matter how good it is, no matter how widespread, is that it can't be everywhere at all times. I'd suggest we divert all the money the RSA currently spends on pointless ad campaigns (I feel they only serve to upset people that have lost loved ones rather than having any useful impact on the behaviour of a small number of drivers we need to address) into rethinking road design.

An example close to my own heart is the road that leads from the N4 in the west of Dublin, through the Chapelizod village and out the other side toward the boat clubs across from Phoenix Park. The N4 is ostensibly a 60km/h dual-carriageway and drivers leave it via a relatively narrow slip road where the limit drops to 50km/h. Years ago it was deemed necessary to add speed bumps here to slow people down (which perhaps reveals that few were doing as low as 60km/h to begin with - but that's a different story).

The speedbumps, much as I dislike the concept, do their job well, and everyone is usually at a sensible pace by the time they reach a set of traffic lights on the Lucan Road. Then, mysteriously, there are no more speedbumps, while the road widens a little and the surface is particularly good. Note: there is no change in the posted speed limit. The result? Whether people have stopped at a red light or were lucky to get a green, they all accelerate. The road design encourages such behaviour.

Unfortunately, within a hundred metres or so, the bus lane merges with the main traffic lane and the whole road narrows. As does the footpath, just where cars are at their fastest. Some slow down a little as they feel uncomfortable with the pinch point in the road, but those that are familiar with the topography don't and it's those walking on the narrow footpath that instead feel uncomfortable. I'm one of them, more so when I have a couple of kids with me.

All of this has been conveyed to Dublin City Council by residents in the area and it says it conducted its own speed survey, showing that the "85th percentile of vehicles" were travelling at 47.8km/h - i.e. below the posted speed limit. I don't know where on the road it measured speeds and at what time of the day, but it doesn't really matter if it feels unsafe to those on either side of the road. And anyway, issues aren't caused by the 85th percentile road user, are they?

We as a society want more people to use active travel such as walking and cycling. If vulnerable road users don't feel safe, then it's more likely they'll take the car option when it's available and that's to the detriment of everyone. Some in the area are campaigning to have the speed limit reduced to 30km/h (as is mooted to be the norm across our nation's urban centres in the future), which would be great, but without changes to the road layout it won't have any effect whatsoever. I'm sure our readers can give me hundreds of other examples, in towns and in the countryside. Someone recently remarked to me: "Germany doesn't put up 'Danger, Black Spot' signs; it fixes the road.

Following on from the above, the Transport Advisory Group recommended the painting of "SLOW" markings on the road. Now that is a joke.

But this is no laughing matter; we have to start listening and considering the views of people that use our roads, focusing on making them feel safe, and stop making decisions about our road safety based purely on statistics. The whole ecosystem needs revisiting, starting with the needs of vulnerable road users. Until they/we feel safe on all roads, statistics will continue to be shocking and useless in equal measure and money will continue to be spent on telling us about the problem instead of getting out there and doing something about it.