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Surge in road deaths is due to epidemic of driver distraction

Newton Emerson: Only better design and engineering can reverse road deaths

Road deaths in the Republic increased by 13 per cent last year to 155, the highest total since 2017. Northern Ireland had 55 deaths, up 10 per cent. Pedestrian fatalities doubled, north and south.

Figures in Britain were more stable but only after rising the year before to the highest since 2011. Across the developed world, three decades of steadily improving road safety ground to a halt a decade ago and has gone into reverse. In the United States, an unprecedented surge in deaths since 2019 has been described by Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, as a “crisis”.

Mobile phone use had been the standard explanation until research and policy funding was poured into the problem by the US government and others.

This has shown mobile phones are just part of an epidemic of driver distraction caused by new technology inside the car, visual clutter outside, design mistakes with roads and vehicles, plus wider social issues from stress to demography.


Although inattention is the most common cause of crashes, speed is the deadliest factor. Jack Chambers, the new Minister of State at the Department of Transport, responded to the latest figures by saying his main priority will be reducing speed. Chambers told The Irish Times he will review the Government’s ten-year road safety strategy, introduced in 2021, to see what more can be done.

The technological solution to speeding already exists. Intelligent speed limiters have been mandatory in the EU on new models of cars since last July and will be required on all new cars sold from 2024. The UK is also adopting these regulations in full. However, drivers must always be able to override the equipment as it is not yet sufficiently accurate or flexible in all circumstances. Drivers are also allowed to permanently switch limiters off. So it will take 10 years for most cars on the road to have limiters, plus further advances to make them dependable, plus further regulation to make their use compulsory.

Insurance companies may do more than politicians to compel use of limiters in the short to medium term. Ministers in EU countries cannot stretch the regulations too far. The UK is copying EU law partly because it has no choice and partly because it wants to go further, tightening regulations to become a leader in driverless technology. But the Conservatives are terrified of antagonising the motorist, so they are unlikely to focus on forcing people to slow down.

Roads are constantly improved in ways that encourage us to drive faster, then cluttered with distracting signs ordering us to drive more carefully

Politicians everywhere might consider how road deaths will be perceived as vehicles are increasingly equipped with a device that could have saved lives if it had been used.

Many of the design and distraction issues linked to rising crash figures are effectively beyond the remit of Irish and British ministers. Touchscreen controls, heads-up displays, projections on to windscreens and voice commands have been termed “distraction on steroids” by a US academic. Such equipment is regulated globally, to the extent it is regulated at all, mainly by EU and US safety agencies negotiating voluntary guidelines with manufacturers. There is currently an argument over where to show speed limiter warnings on dashboards.

The increasing size and weight of cars and the faster acceleration of electric cars have been identified as particular problems in the United States, although they are causing more fatalities everywhere. Governments can try taxing the use or registration of these vehicles but international trade and politics make it is extremely difficult for any one country to ban them or force their redesign.

Governments are completely free to redesign the roads, however. The paradoxical problem identified by researchers is that roads are constantly improved in ways that encourage us to drive faster, then cluttered with distracting signs ordering us to drive more carefully. Visual clutter has been proven to lengthen driver response times, especially in older drivers.

Helpfully, speed limiters could require the clutter to be removed. Limiters work by reading signs and combing that information with a GPS location. Too many signs confuse them.

Re-engineering the roads for safety need not be as expensive as ministers and officials tend to fear. More vegetation along roadsides can reduce driver stress. Designing centre lines and other simple features to stop drivers focusing on the horizon improves attention and cuts speed. Dramatic safety improvements can be achieved in urban and residential areas by spending trivial sums on basic traffic calming measures.

While much of this is recognised in the Government’s road safety strategy, delivery has so far concentrated on creating new offences and enforcing traffic legislation.

There needs to be realism about the resource constraints of this approach. We cannot police our way out of problem we have designed and engineered ourselves into – only better design and engineering can fix it.

But at least the Republic can enact a policy. Stormont is stuck on cruise control.