Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Councillors with election to win complain about need to upgrade accident blackspots, but truth is much simpler

 

The majority of road traffic collisions could be avoided, the PSNI says
The majority of road traffic collisions could be avoided, the PSNI says
The majority of road traffic collisions could be avoided, the PSNI says
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Turning right at the roundabout, the long, straight A road to Belfast opened up ahead. Suddenly, coming in the other direction, an overtaking car sped straight towards me.

I managed to pull sharply to the left onto the hard shoulder. It's lucky there was enough room or it wouldn't have been possible to avoid a head-on collision.

I was shocked, but realised that I wasn't as shocked as I probably should have been, because it happens all the time. I've almost come to expect it.

A couple of days later it was a bus on a narrow, winding country road, rounding the bend on the wrong side and heading right at me.

The statistics tell their own story. Last year 55 people died on the roads in Northern Ireland.

The year before that it was 63.

This year another 18 people have already lost their lives.

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Countless verges and trees are dotted with floral tributes, marking the spots where people have been killed on the roads.

The total for 2018 was the lowest recorded since 2011 and marked the fourth year in a row that road deaths went down. But that's no consolation to the loved ones of victims.

As the PSNI points out, it's still an "appalling waste of life", not least because "many, if not the majority, of these deaths caused by collision could have been avoided".

It's not just deaths, either. In 2018 there were 5,748 collisions resulting in 8,720 casualties, of which 770 were serious injuries.

Without going into details (it's the job of inquests to allot individual blame where it's merited), I'm familiar with some of the roads where fatal accidents have occurred.

Passing the scene on a regular basis, it can be hard to understand why anyone should die there: they're wide enough, with good visibility; most people in the world would be grateful to have so many roads in good working order.

With the council elections coming up there'll be no end of candidates urging certain roads to be upgraded to avoid accident blackspots and no one is going to object to more money being spent on safety, because the potholes alone can cause huge damage and expense.

But while the state of the roads may be a contributory factor, it's not the cause of most crashes. That's entirely down to bad driving, not least excessive speed.

That's why men make up the lion's share of road fatalities in every age group. Men drive faster and more carelessly than women as a rule. They take more risks.

The younger they are, the more hazards they seem to embrace.

One in five of those killed or seriously injured on the roads here is aged between 16 and 24.

This epidemic of careless driving is particularly evident once you leave town. There are advantages to being stuck in traffic jams. Prangs are just that - minor bumps, not major incidents. Just four people died in collisions in the Belfast division last year despite the city having a quarter of the Northern Ireland population.

It's not that people in urban areas drive any better than those in the countryside. It's simply that they have fewer opportunities to put the pedal to the floor.

Rural drivers have more opportunities to drive badly. The roads are emptier, there are fewer police about and hardly any speed cameras, so there's much less chance of being caught.

They ought to drive slower, because of the added dangers of driving on uneven, less well-lit roads, but they don't.

When driving in the country I can't recall a single occasion when I haven't been passed at speed by another car.

They overtake on blind bends. They overtake when fifth in line behind a slow-moving tractor.

Frequently I'll be left far behind by some lunatic, only to find myself right behind them at a junction or traffic lights a few miles further on.

Even the most reckless gambler normally makes a basic profit-versus-loss calculation before deciding if the size of the win is worth the risk of losing.

What sort of advantage in distance or time can make it worth gambling one's life - or far worse - that of someone else?

According to PSNI figures, the most common causes of crashes are inattention, driving too close to the car in front, and emerging from minor roads without care.

Those three factors alone accounted for two-fifths of the total number of those killed or injured last year.

Excessive speed on its own comes lower on the list of factors.

But, of course, collisions are bound to be much worse when they happen at high speed.

It's also possible to stay within the speed limit and still be going much too fast for the conditions.

What can be done about this litany of unnecessary tragedies remains a mystery.

If I had a dash cam fitted to my car, I'd have sent the footage to the police so they could trace the driver and have a quiet word, but I don't even know if that's practical.

They might not have the time or manpower to follow up every report of dangerous driving, even if it does come backed up.

As for hard-hitting ad campaigns on TV, they only work so far.

The overtaking driver who hurtled towards me the other day probably wouldn't even recognise himself if he saw his behaviour depicted on screen.

The authorities, to their credit, are far from complacent. The Department for Infrastructure's road safety strategy aims to see a 60% reduction in fatalities from the 2004-2008 average of 126 deaths to fewer than 50 by 2020, and that's on target. But how much can statistics alone reveal?

There were 5,779 collisions in Northern Ireland in 1985, approximately the same as last year, but three times more deaths.

The uneasy truth may be that serious crashes are more survivable now thanks to advances in car technology, rather than it having anything to do with the standard of driving.

Nor has having more powerful cars sufficiently changed the way that we drive them.

Anyone's attention can be distracted momentarily, but one should always be aware when getting behind the wheel that you're in sole charge of a machine that can kill other people as well as oneself. That's a huge responsibility to take on - and it's accepted far too lightly.

The PSNI says: "All we ask is that drivers slow down, never drive after drinking or taking drugs, wear a seatbelt, drive with greater care and attention and don't use mobile phones while driving."

It really doesn't seem like much to ask.

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