The news at the end of 2012 that the number of road deaths in County Meath had surged to a three-year high is extremely disappointing and concerning in the context of continuing reductions in fatalities nationally.
The number of people killed in road crashes in Ireland fell to a record low last year, with 161 fatalities being reported, compared to 186 in 2011 and 212 in 2010. Road deaths nationally have now fallen every year since 2006, and this was the fifth year in a row that a new record low for fatalities in Ireland has been achieved. There has been a 56 per cent decrease in road deaths and a 51 per cent reduction in serious injuries since the third road national safety strategy was launched in 2007.
However, this news will come as cold comfort to County Meath families who have lost loved ones on local roads during the past 12 months when a total of 14 people died.
Just four people died in crashes in 2011 while six people lost their lives in 2010. Why there has been such a dramatic increase in the numbers killed in County Meath in the past year is mystifying and a cause of great concern to the authorities locally who have been working assiduously to make Meath safer for all road-users.
Sadly, this year also has begun on a depressing note with the first death in the county occurring on the M2 motorway near Ashbourne on Friday 4th January when a motorcyclist in his 20s was killed following a collision with another vehicle.
Meath County Council road safety officer Michael Finnegan has admitted the number of fatalities in 2012 is very disappointing but added that there was no one particular explanation for the steep rise in deaths following an encouraging two-year period when it seemed like the trend in road crash deaths was going in the right direction.
From an all-time high of 30 fatalities in 2005, deaths in Meath fell to low single figures in 2011, and much of the credit for this had gone to Meath County Council, which won a major safety award from the Road Safety Authority (RSA) last year for its significant contribution to road safety in its community. The council produced two road safety plans in the past number of years and says it will produce a new four-year plan early this year which will continue to build on the work that has already been carried out around education, enforcement and engineering in partnership with other local and national agencies such as An Garda Siochana. Nationally, a new road safety strategy will also be published this year by the government.
The council says it is fully committed to making local roads safer for everyone in the coming year and, crucially, it has managed to hold onto its road safety budget for the coming year, which will help improve local road safety infrastructure, as well as continuing education programmes for members of the public and young people in schools.
Last year's tragic deaths highlight in the starkest way possible the ongoing need for our roads to be made safer. However, while more high-profile enforcement of the road traffic laws has been a major help in reducing serious collisions, safety chiefs still say "behavioural change" among drivers is key - or as Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said, it simply comes down to the efforts of every single road-user.
Key elements of the new national road safety plan will focus on serious injury reduction, tackling repeat road traffic offenders and developing more forgiving roads. The number of pedestrians killed on Irish roads last year fell by 40 per cent. Factors credited include drivers slowing down due to speed cameras and the wearing of high-visibility vests by pedestrians and cyclists. The number of drink-driving arrests is also down for the fifth year in a row, despite an increase in garda mandatory alcohol checkpoints.
In the 1970s, when attitudes towards drink-driving were far more casual, more than 600 people were killed annually on Irish roads, a truly appalling statistic. As recently as a decade ago, 411 road deaths were recorded. The country has certainly come a long way since then.
The most recent national strategy set a target of reducing road deaths to no more than 252 deaths per annum by the end of 2012. Not only was this target achieved ahead of schedule in 2009, it was significantly surpassed. The new local strategy for Meath for the coming years will need to be as ambitious if fatalities in this county are to fall in line with the national figures. Equally, the ambivalent attitude among some road-users which has prevailed for decades will also need to undergo a radical change.