‘Us and them’ bravado no good for safety on roads

Flashing cars to warn them of speed traps is just one of the many seemingly harmless actions that can endanger other drivers. Road safety campaigns work, but we all have a responsibility to listen, writes Clodagh Finn

HERE’S one scenario that is almost certain to play out at some point over the festive period. You’ll be driving along at an indeterminate speed when an oncoming driver flashes you — motorist-speak that means “be careful, there’s a speed camera or a garda checkpoint up ahead”.

I’ve done it myself, just as I’ve found myself putting a foot to the brake when someone does the same for me. And that’s just it. We see the warning as a favour, or some sort of unspoken complicity between road users. It’s considered collegial, a good turn, yet the truth is far more ambiguous.

What are we really saying when we warn oncoming motorists that they might be monitored: Slow down and belt up, not because you might kill someone — or yourself — but because you might get caught?

People will continue to warn fellow motorists, though, because nobody likes to get caught or, worse still, appear sanctimonious or preachy when it comes to road safety.

Despite all the campaigns, there is still a lingering bravado that comes with driving and a sort of ‘us and them’ attitude when it comes to the gardaí enforcing the law.

Having said that, Irish driving culture has changed radically, and for the better, over the last two decades. We are light years away from the days when even the health authorities were telling us that “just two [drinks] will do”.

How many of us, though, have really absorbed the equally important message that safety belts really do save lives? Or that speeding kills, not to mention text-driving?

What is it about cars that make us feel invincible — and invisible? Have you ever taken a moment to observe what people do in the ‘privacy’ of their cars at traffic lights: apply make-up, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, cut their nose hairs (I’m not joking), coif their hair, dress, undress?

That’s not even mentioning mobile phones, which will be lighting up with all kinds of vital messages over the coming weeks — “I’m on the way”; “I’m picking up the turkey”; “What size shirt will I buy grandda?”

Add to that a distracting conversation on the car radio, a fight in the back- eat, a quick glance backwards to make sure the mince pies are still balanced in their tray, and you’d wonder why those tiny acts of carelessness — and we’re all guilty of one or more — don’t cause more accidents.

There is also a feeling that we are entering some sort of private, inviolate bubble when we sit behind the wheel of our own car? It’s that sense of protection and apartness that can turn gentle, law-abiding citizens into crazed demons who turn the air blue out on the open road. Or more likely, when they are caught behind an L-driver who is taking more than a second to get going when the lights go green.

True, we live in a fast world but there is something about the inherent power and speed of a car that makes us want to go faster. The head of the Road Safety Authority (RSA), Moyagh Murdock, made that very point when she said an increase in economic activity and the congestion that comes with it have made people speed up rather than slow down.

“What we are seeing out there is people becoming more impatient and taking unnecessary risks. They don’t see a clear road ahead of them and they decide to go for it,” she said.

Speaking of those risks, it is incredible and profoundly sad to hear that one in five people killed on Irish roads this year was not wearing a seatbelt.

The RSA released the figures this week along with a reminder that speed and alcohol are still the biggest factors involved in traffic accidents.

At the time of writing, 175 people had died on our roads in 2016, 32 more than the same period last year.

Unfortunately, that number can change at any moment as last weekend’s terrible death toll illustrates starkly. Five people died and nine others were injured in two separate accidents.

It is hard to imagine the grief that will slice through those households this Christmas, though parents Gillian and Ronan Treacy give a chilling account of the lasting devastation caused by road accidents in this year’s harrowing ‘crashed lives’ campaign.

The couple’s son Ciaran, aged four , was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in April 2014.

The awfulness of that day is described by the bereft parents, the emergency services, and medical staff, but it is the home videos showing a laughing, smiling Ciaran playing in the garden that are absolutely heart-wrenching.

The ‘don’t drink and drive’ message doesn’t get more crystal-clear than that, yet Garda forensic investigations into fatal crashes between 2008 and 2012 show that alcohol was a factor in 38% of all fatal collisions. In the same period, speed was a factor in one in three fatal collisions.

I can’t helping feeling for the people who cause accidents too.

Some of them have done so in a moment of carelessness, others because they had been drinking or were under the influence of drugs. Many of them, though, must feel the most awful remorse and guilt.

The encouraging news in all of this is that road safety campaigns do actually work. Coupled with enforcement and education, they can change driver attitudes and behaviour. Though that change can’t come quickly enough.

While writing this piece, news broke of yet another fatality; a pedestrian in his mid-50s died after being struck by a lorry in Co Limerick on Wednesday evening. It’s not clear yet what caused that accident but words can’t describe what that family will go through in the coming weeks.

When you put the key in the ignition, spare a thought for the families of the 176 people killed on our roads this year.


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