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A ‘perfect storm’ that will lead to more road deaths

By Dr Catherine Conlon - 18th Feb 2024

road deaths

The Government needs to look at the evidence and revise the Sale of Alcohol Bill

New speed limits are being introduced on Irish roads in 2024 with all local authorities being told to review the streets in their area by the end of the summer to ensure the measures can be enforced. Under new laws, speed limits will be lowered to 80km/h on national secondary roads, 60km/h on local and rural roads, and 30km/h in town centres and housing estates.

Plans to introduce these new restrictions follow a year of appalling road fatalities with 184 deaths in 2023. Of those, 69 were drivers, 44 were pedestrians, 34 were passengers, eight were cyclists and three were e-scooter users. In addition, there were 1,250 serious injuries by the middle of December.

With 18 road deaths on national roads already this year (as of 31 January), there is no sign of any let up in the litany of tragedy – these new speed limits cannot be introduced soon enough.

Speed limits, however, have little impact on intoxicated drivers. And planned legislation is likely to increase the problem of drink driving. The Government’s Sale of Alcohol Bill proposes to increase trading hours of all bars and restaurants from 11.30pm to 12.30am and facilitate late-night opening of bars to 2.30am.

Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) is concerned that increased opening hours for pubs and clubs will further impact on road safety. In a recent letter in the Irish Examiner, CEO of AAI, Dr Sheila Gilheany pointed out over a third (37 per cent) of driver fatalities in Ireland have a positive toxicology for alcohol and almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of these fatalities occur on rural roads.

A Norwegian report published in Health Economics in 2022 added to mounting evidence that when opening hours are extended in areas where there is limited public transport, more drink driving incidents will occur.

Recent data from Ireland is concerning. Figures released by the Garda National Roads Policing Bureau early in January revealed that one person every hour was, on average, arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol in the run up to and during the Christmas period.

RSA data

Research presented by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) at a ‘Safe and Sober’ seminar in January also show that one-in-10 Irish motorists have driven after consuming alcohol in the last 12 months. The seminar was hosted by the European Transport Safety Council in association with the Medical Bureau of Road Safety (MBRS) and the RSA.

Of those who admitted consuming alcohol, the incidence was higher among male drivers (14 per cent), those who drive for work (14 per cent), and those with a history of collision involvement (24 per cent).

Almost one-in-three (28 per cent) of this group admitted to consuming two or more drinks on the last occasion they drove after consuming alcohol in the last 12 months.

Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of motorists surveyed agreed that “most of my acquaintances/friends think driving under the influence of alcohol is unacceptable”. However, in comparison, 85 per cent of drivers surveyed agreed with this statement in 2019, which the RSA said was “a disturbing decline”.

The data was contained in a 2023 Behaviour and Attitudes survey of over 1,200 drivers, which was commissioned by the RSA.

Also presented at the seminar was the latest analysis from the MBRS. This revealed that while the legal limit for the ordinary driver is 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, the average blood level remains extremely high at 160 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. The highest recorded blood alcohol level was 415 milligrams. These high levels are found in both younger and older drivers and in both men and women.

Isn’t it time we recognised these road deaths as predictable and preventable rather than just
tragic accidents?


There is cross-Government concern about the increase in road deaths in Ireland in the past year. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, recently convened a meeting of the Ministerial road safety committee. It was attended by key Ministers, Chairperson of the Road Safety Authority, Ms Liz O’Donnell; Assistant Commissioner of Garda Roads Policing, Ms Paula Hilman; key civil servants; and Ms Susan Gray, founder of the PARC road safety group. AAI pointed out that entirely absent from the committee’s discussion was consideration of the likely impact of the Sale of Alcohol Bill on road safety.

Data compiled by the PARC road safety group indicates Garda roads policing numbers continued to fall during 2023, with 47 fewer officers than at the beginning of the year. The proposals in the Bill will not only put increased pressure on policing resources around late night venues for public safety management, it will further deplete the numbers available for traffic duty. Concomitantly, robust international evidence tells us there will be a predictable increase in drink driving in rural areas.

All of this points to a ‘perfect storm’ that will lead to more road deaths – particularly on rural roads with an absence of both public transport and a dearth of policing.

The physician Dr William Haddon, the first administrator of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, suggested that the idea that accidents were random and unpredictable was “the last folklore subscribed by rational men”. In his Washington DC office he kept a swear jar – anyone who excused a traffic crash as an accident had to forfeit a dime.

US writer Jessie Singer, in There are no Accidents (2022), suggests that to call something an accident means that you know it is a risk and that it is out of your control.

“Around 40,000 people will die in car accidents in the United States in 2022 and I can predict this because it happens every year. But we would consider each of these accidents as an unpredictable event.”

When I was 10 one of my brothers was knocked off his bike by a car. He was cycling home from school when a car came down the wrong side of the road and smacked into him. My brother was in a coma for two days and hospitalised for weeks. Eventually, he made a full recovery. The driver was drunk and very lucky he didn’t kill him.

My brother escaped fatal injury by a whisker decades ago after colliding with a drunk driver. In 2023, almost 200 people in Ireland were not so lucky and sadly lost their lives on Irish roads.

Isn’t it time we recognised these road deaths as predictable and preventable rather than just tragic accidents?

The Minister for Justice and Minister for Transport must take this evidence seriously and look at this Bill again. If this is not done, it is families across Ireland who will be left carrying the burden.

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