We need to shift gear and lower the national speed limit to save lives

Safer roads enable children to play, encourage people to cycle and walk and reduced speed limits would decrease the number of fatalities on Irish roads, writes Fergus Finlay.

Have you ever been in a roll-over simulator?

I was strapped into one last week, at the National Road Safety Conference. Sure, I said, when I was offered the chance. No problem. That was a misjudgement – it was just about the most disconcerting experience I’ve had in a long time.

You’re belted in as normal, with an extra belt around your waist, and then turned upside down in a stationery car. That’s all. But you hang there, trying desperately not to panic, while a 1g force pulls you down to the upturned roof of the car.

The technicians running the demonstration explained that the force exerted was 1g only because the car was stationary when it was turned over.

At speed the force on your body (and therefore on the belt that’s supposed to keep you safe) can increase up to 12g. Remembering the effect of 1g, I found that almost unimaginable.

In the process of taking part in the demonstration, I learned something else. I’ve never tied my safety belt properly. You’re not just supposed to just loop the belt around your body and click it into place.

Once you’ve done that, you should give it a good pull upwards from the buckle, to draw it in snug around your waist. That prevents you moving too far forward or sideways in a collision, and allows the belt to do its work.

That’s only one of the things I learned at the conference, whose theme this year was children and road safety, with a strong emphasis on training and education.

The Road Safety Authority has teams on the road involved in developing better attitudes towards road safety. They play a huge role in education and training, along with their other functions. And they play a role in opening people’s eyes too.

For example, their testers have discovered that four out of every child safety seats and restraints are incorrectly fitted, leaving children in danger when their parents think they’re safe.

Their researchers have discovered that children do as their parents do when it comes to road safety – not as their parents say. Every time you nip across a road in a dangerous spot, you’re teaching your kids to do exactly the same thing.

In fact a lot of the things I learned at the conference, where I was asked to be MC, resonated with another topic I’m involved with at the moment, the campaign to stop out of control drinking. In both areas, road safety and alcohol abuse, change depends in the first instance on regulation and enforcement.

But it also needs education and training and a high level of public awareness. And in both areas the real struggle is to create a behavioural shift across the generations – to try to ensure that our children are more aware, and more responsible, than we were in our time.

If there was one theme that dominated the conference, though, it was speed. It wasn’t intended that way, because speed is just one of the subjects that add up to safer roads. But it was the determination of two women that set speed as the priority.

They came to talk about speed, and to demand change, and they weren’t going to be deflected by anyone else’s agenda.

Again and again during the question and answers sessions they had their hands up. Again and again they made it clear that education was all very well, and good example to children was all very well, but what about car owners who drove too fast for their surroundings?

They were about the most effective hijackers of a conference agenda I’ve ever met. And when I got to know them, I realised why – and every delegate at the conference found it impossible to do anything other than respect their determination to see their concerns dominate discussion.

Their names are Roseann Brennan and Rita Malone. Roseann lost her son Jake – he would have been 7 last Thursday when the conference took place – when he was hit by a car in the housing estate in which he lived. Rita’s son Oran was seriously injured in a similar accident, and hasn’t recovered yet.

Both women feature in a powerfully moving short video on the Road Safety Authority website (you’ll find it if you hit any of the YouTube icons on the RSA.ie homepage). It is four and a half minutes long, and I guarantee you won’t be able to watch it without beginning to think seriously about the speed at which cars drive.

Roseann and her supporters are passionate advocates for what they call “Jake’s Law” – a nationally imposed speed limit of 30km per hour. They have spoken to every political party, maintained all-night vigils outside the Dáil, and argued in every forum they can about the lives that would be saved if we compulsorily lowered speed.

Driving at 30km per hour might seem outlandish to some, and others have argued that the investment in signage alone makes it prohibitive, apart from other economic costs.

But Roseann and Rita have allies in the Road Safety Authority, who agree with their basic demand and are helping to publicise it now. And at the conference another powerful ally emerged.

Rod King began a campaign for lower speed limits in his home town of Warrington about 10 years ago, after visiting a town in Germany called Hilden, with which Warrington is twinned.

Hilden set out to build a pedestrian and cycling strategy for the town, with spectacular results in terms of amenity and safety. The basis of the entire strategy was a 30km speed limit throughout the town.

Now, Rod King’s “20’s Plenty for Us” organisation has more than 200 campaigns going throughout Britain, all of them demanding one thing – a default speed limit of 20mph on residential and urban streets.

Towns and cities all over the UK have already adopted the default speed limit, to the extent that 14 million people are living on streets where cars cannot by law exceed 20mph (which is, of course, their equivalent of 30kph).

The campaign quotes the Transport Research Laboratory to assert that lowering urban and residential speed limits to 20mph has been found to decrease child pedestrian accidents by up to 70%.

In one example they give on their website, Portsmouth, the 20mph limit on all residential roads has reduced casualties by 22%.

At the conference, Rod King spoke cogently and persuasively about the benefits of slower roads. Safety – fewer casualties – is the primary one, of course. But safer roads enable children to play, and encourage people to cycle and walk.

Safer roads are safer for elderly and more vulnerable people too. And there’s little evidence of increased cost – King estimates that lowering urban and residential speed limits to 20mph has been found to increase urban journeys by just 40 seconds maximum.

Our default speed limit in Ireland is 50kph. A child hit by a vehicle travelling legally at that speed is five times more likely to be killed or injured than if the vehicle is travelling at 30kph. That alone is an unanswerable argument for change. Roseann Brennan calls that change Jake’s legacy.

But wouldn’t it change all our lives for the better?

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