Ireland made headlines around the globe in 2004 by becoming the first country in the world to ban smoking in all workplaces.
Here are some quotes from newspapers that covered the story in 2014, on the tenth anniversary of the ban; ‘the vintners went ballistic, because they were terribly concerned about their livelihoods’, ‘in Cork, they called for the minister to be sacked for "being a zealot"’, ‘no other country had gone so far in tackling cigarette addiction and there were doubts that Ireland would make it across the line either.’
As we all know, these fears were unfounded. Compliance rates were high from the get-go and the State was keen to ensure they remained so. From a public health perspective, the ban was a huge success. Scientists estimated that in the decade after the ban was introduced, over 3,500 deaths were avoided.
In 2022, I would like to think that the Government of Ireland could move with the same haste and conviction as it did to make our workplaces safe from smoke to make roads safer from vehicles.
Making our roads safer needs lots of solutions but one is staring us in the face. It involves slowing cars, vans, and trucks down to a level whereby a person is likely to survive a collision if they are knocked down. It’s generally accepted, internationally, that this level is 30km/h.
This is why you see those 30km/h signs on the entrance to some housing estates in Ireland. If ten people are knocked down by vehicles travelling at 30km/h, nine out of ten people can expect to survive. If the vehicles are travelling at 60km/h, nine out of ten people can expect to be killed.
While the lower risk of fatal injuries is enough in my book to adopt 30 zones, the benefits are not just limited to this. Streets with lower speed limits have the potential to change the entire dynamic of our streets and roads. Slower streets aren’t just safer streets, they are quieter streets, they are more sociable streets, they are less stressful streets.
If you are reading this and wondering why your neighbours estate has a 30km/h speed limit but your estate, or indeed the road connecting your two estates doesn’t, it’s because our current system for rolling our 30km/h zones is highly dysfunctional.
The only way I can compare the ‘methodology’ of Ireland’s 30 zone rollout would be to say it’s like going to every pub or café one by one, at random, and bringing in the smoking ban, but over a 20 year period. Can you imagine how painstakingly slow this would be? The confusion it would have created, and the difficulties with enforcement?
This is why major urban areas in Ireland, like Dublin for instance, currently have speed limits higher than 30km/h on over three-quarters of all roads. For the one-quarter of roads that are 30 zones, the RSA report that 67% of vehicles speed in residential areas and 97% in urban areas. To conclude, most roads don’t have safe speed limits and even when they do, most people don’t adhere to the limit.
Dublin City Council, to some degree of credit, tried to bring in a fairly comprehensive 30 zone in the city recently but got cold feet because their public consultation revealed a lack of support. Others, okay I, might say that a public consultation that brings in less than 5,000 responses in a local authority with a population of over 550,000 isn’t exactly the ‘pulse of the nation’ territory and was likely a battle between campaigners and interest groups.
Patrick Freyne wrote a great piece in 2014 for the Irish Times entitled ‘How the smoking ban was won’. Although researchers, policymakers, and health officials were working towards the ban for years, the main players all agree that Tom Power, a civil servant in the Department of Health, was instrumental in getting the ban over the line.
3,500 deaths avoided. Mull over that again for a second. It’s more than the population of Dingle. That’s a legacy. That’s something you can look back on thirty years later and think ‘we did a good thing’.
Most pedestrian deaths last year occurred on roads with a speed limit of 50km/h or less. Half of cyclist deaths last year occurred on roads with a speed limit of 50km/h. Fatal deaths tell only one part of the story. In the first half of 2021, vulnerable road users (people walking, cycling, scooting, etc) accounted for almost half of all serious injuries on the roads. For every pedestrian killed, 8 were seriously injured. For every cyclist killed, 42 were seriously injured. Deaths and injuries make the news and stats but death and disease related to our sedentary lifestyles rarely make the headlines. The British Medical Journal reported in 2020 that for every 1,000 people who take up cycling to work for ten years, 3 deaths are avoided.
Let’s scale this up. 20% of adults living in Dublin don’t cycle but want to. 1.4m people are living in Dublin, let’s say half are adults. 140,000 potential cyclists waiting for safer conditions. 400 deaths avoided in 10 years?
Not every street will have a cycle lane. Not every town will have a greenway. Widespread 30 zones along with graduated speeding fines and fixed speed cameras will make our roads safer for all. A smoking ban for our times.