Paul Hopkins: When life in the fast lane can be a killer

Irish roads have witnessed an inordinate number of tragedies this summer, to such a degree that Junior Transport Minister Jack Chambers will bring a comprehensive speed-limit review to Cabinet within weeks. The Government hopes this review will make roads safer and reduce deaths and injuries.

This year 127 people have died on our roads, a 25 per cent increase on the same time last year. August was a wicked month with 26 people killed on our roads, the highest in years.

On top of those tragedies, there were more than 600 'serious' road collisions by the end of August, in effect people suffering life-changing injuries.

Assistant Commissioner for Roads Policing, Paula Hilman, says speed is a factor in the rising death rates. More than 1,700 people were detected speeding over the August bank holiday weekend, "with one person doing more than 200kmh”.

Also cited for the ongoing carnage are drink or drug driving, failure to wear seat belts and drivers being distracted by their smartphones.

As a motorist of some 45 years, I have only run foul of the law twice, and both while I was working and living in Belfast from 2007 to 2013. In one instance I was pulled over and got just a good ticking off because my car tax was a week out of date.

Then there was the time I was caught speeding – and, yes, I'm as guilty as the next person of speeding on many an occasion. The time I was caught I was barely in excess of the 60mph limit.

There was, however, according to the police officer who had copped me, a ‘get out' clause. I had a choice. Had I contested the matter and proceeded to court I could have faced up to a £1,000 fine if found culpable. At the least it was going to be a 60 quid fine and three points on my unblemished licence, or I could opt for the ‘get out' clause, which was to sign up for a four-hour course – run by the Automobile Association and the PSNI – on the inevitable dangers of ‘speeding' and all at a one-time only, never, hopefully, (honest, from here on, I was going to be the slow guy in the hard shoulder making the 39mph trek home) to-be-repeated sum of £86.81 pence.

And I thought of all the times I had put the boot down driving in to and out of Belfast those six years and had got away with it and what would I learn from just a quick fine and penalty points? Nothing.

And, so, perhaps this four-hour course might teach me something. Life should always be something of a learning curve and so I opted to sign up for the course.

On the day there were about 25 of us in a room in a building somewhere in Bangor, somewhere I cannot now recall. This I do recall, however. The women there that day outnumbered us males by about two to one. I make no further comment on this fact.

My recall of the four-hour 'lesson' by a burly PSNI officer is one that was fascinating and hugely informative. One lesson I took away from the gathering was to always use your peripheral eyesight and anticipate the unexpected – the child with the football on the footpath and the ball rolling out on the road and the child running out in front of you; the unattended dog that may just wander onto the road. The main thing, however, I learnt was about speeding and it was this: hit someone at 30kph and they have a 90 per cent chance of living through the ordeal. Hit them at just 38kpm and their chance of survival is just 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, Barry Aldworth of AA Ireland says 30kmh zones need to be implemented properly. "It's very easy to change a speed limit or change a signpost – changing behaviour is much harder,” he says.

EU legislation requiring all new vehicles sold from July 2022 to have built-in speedometers is a positive step. Such new cars will react to the driver exceeding the limit – which it knows from 'reading' road signs or GPS data – and then takes steps to slow down the car.

The evidence is clear. Higher speeds are known to make car crashes more likely because they reduce the time a driver has to react, increase the distance required to stop the vehicle, and increase the energy involved in a crash, raising the odds of fatality.

Speed kills. Period.