Attwood’s laws will make roads no safer

I have long suspected the Department of the Environment’s proposed various legal changes – particularly around “graduated driver licensing” and reducing the drink-drive limit – were a complete waste of time.

Wesley Johnston is too polite to say it directly, but his excellent analysis confirms my suspicion.

Yet again, as in yesterday’s post, we have: a) a misreading of the evidence; and b) proposed solutions which are neither practical nor viable.

Firstly, proposals were brought forward by the previous DUP Minister for “graduated driver licensing”, because obviously young people are at more risk on our roads.

Or are they…?

2012 NI road fatalities per billion km travelled (Credit: Wesley Johnston)

2012 NI road fatalities per billion km travelled (Credit: Wesley Johnston)

Well, er, no, not any more. In fact, males over 60 are by far the most likely group to be killed on our roads. That is not to say that the bleedin’ obvious does not apply at all – young drivers are marginally more likely to cause accidents than the above would indicate. However, what was once a clear case of young and inexperienced drivers causing significant numbers of casualties no longer applies anything like as markedly as it once did – and that, with no change in the law.

Secondly, my particular bugbear is the proposal to reduce the current drink-driving limit to, in effect, half its current rate – effectively from typically two glasses of wine to typically one glass of wine. Let us ask the simple question: why?

We do not yet have the figures for 2012 but we can reliably predict them: the total number of fatalities on Northern Ireland’s roads where drugs or alcohol was a prime factor was, in all probability, just two. Two more than the objective, of course. But still two. They were a significant factor, in all likelihood, in six or seven. Now, let us ask another question: how many of those were caused by someone having had two glasses of wine rather than one? And how many were caused by someone completely ignoring the law and driving way over the existing limit and/or with drugs in their system?

Even recently, tens of people were being killed each year on Northern Ireland’s roads by drunk drivers alone. That is now single figures, and probably low single figures – tragic, of course, but a vast, vast improvement. And this, with no change in the law.

As I noted last week, Northern Ireland’s road fatality rate has dropped dramatically – much faster than in neighbouring jurisdictions and to a level which may be the lowest anywhere in the world. And this, with no change in the law.

Too many politicians are inclined to come up with changes in the law for the sake of change. In fact, Northern Ireland’s relative success in this area – and in others, frankly – was down to a change in attitude brought about by campaigns and, frankly, civic common sense. There were changes to enforcement (the police have moved more to enforcement on more dangerous single carriageways, which have become comparatively safer than any other road type as a result), and even changes to departmental policy (albeit in DRD, not DoE, through the adoption of a policy where possible to build all new major dual carriageways “left exit only”, i.e. with no turns across traffic and thus no risk of head-on collision – such as already on the A1 Newry Bypass and A4 Ballygawley extension, and soon on the A8 Belfast-Larne and A5 through Tyrone). But there was no change in the law.

We often see politicians as needing legal skills. In fact, what they maybe need most prominently are leadership and management skills. There are other areas where this applies too – tackling binge drinking, for example. Subtle changes in priority or policy can often achieve much… with no change in the law.


One thought on “Attwood’s laws will make roads no safer

  1. Couldn’t agree more on the point re production of legislation. I note that many commentators have said that Stormont’s failing is that it doesn’t produce enough legislation, to which I ask, well, what would you like to be legislated? Lo and behold, silence.

    IMHO, most departments have sufficient powers at their disposal to do a lot of work or effect a lot of policy, legislation is cumbersome, time consuming and costly and should be the last resort, much like the use of lawyers in disputes, and this is coming from a lawyer.

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