The death toll on our roads thus far in 2015 has been lower than 2014 but higher than every other year this decade. Through 2013, Northern Ireland actually had the safest roads in the world this decade, but has fallen back to the pack over the past eighteen months or so.
Safe roads are about three ‘E’s – education, engineering and enforcement. There is no evidence the first two of these have changed; I would guess (but am happy to be corrected) that the education programmes are the same as they were when I was more directly involved in their design ten years ago; and engineering of roads continues to advance despite cutbacks – new expressways and dual carriageways have carried on at perhaps even an enhanced rate since 2012 or so, and basic additions such as safety barriers continue to be put in place.
That leaves enforcement. And it turns out, when it comes to enforcement, there has been a marked decline. I would prefer not to promote the numbers too specifically, but essentially the level of human resources for police enforcement of the rules of the road is now only two thirds of what it was.
The problem is that reducing enforcement by a third actually has a worse effect than just making our roads a third less safe. As Wesley Johnston has pointed out many times, it leads to a breakdown in the basic “social contract” whereby road users agree to stick by the rules (broadly) even when the odds are that they will not be caught breaking them.
The obvious example for many Belfast commuters will be the “urban clearway”. Every evening without exception it is quicker to walk countrybound along the Lisburn Road from City Hospital to Musgrave than drive (or arguably even cycle), because one of the two available vehicle lanes is blocked. It only takes one parked car to do this (although invariably there are more). People carelessly (and selfishly and dangerously) leave their cars in a location which will cause misery to hundreds of commuters (not least already vulnerable cyclists), knowing that they will never ever be caught because the clearway regulations are never enforced. Without any enforcement at all, the “social contract” whereby people agree to park sensibly is breached completely.
However, move this out to the country and I certainly do see, and hear anecdotally, that people are speeding up again and, specifically in my experience, that overtaking manoeuvres are becoming more ludicrous. As there develops a greater sense that the odds of being caught are receding towards absolute zero, this inevitably becomes more and more the case. With barely any enforcement at all, the “social contract” whereby people agree to drive at sensible speeds while not taking daft risks is breached completely.
The result of fewer resources is less enforcement; and the result of less enforcement is a demonstrably higher road casualty rate. This is a direct correlation and it is not good enough. Resources must be put pack to at least 90% of what they were without delay.
Firstly, the PSNI is to be commended for the highly professional way in which it has managed the reduction in available budget (it has done this far more effectively than government departments are doing it), but it should allocate resources more sensibly within traffic operations. A police presence is only evident on motorways (the safest roads, notwithstanding a tragic exception yesterday morning), where it is needed on rural single carriageways (the most dangerous). The occasional patrol car or even bike is all that is really necessary, but it is a long time since I saw any at all. It is easy and comfortable to stick a car on a motorway bridge or hard shoulder, but ineffective – putting them alongside rural single carriageways will maximise the effect on safety, renewing the “social contract” where it counts.
Secondly, specific resources should be made available from government departments, notably currently DoE which has responsibility for road safety (and very little else, post-local government reform), and whose resource-limited publicity campaigns are evidently having little effect. If that means taking budgets from anywhere else or raising rates, so be it – government’s first responsibility is to keep people safe and ineffective traffic enforcement makes them unsafe. Ministers tend to forget it, but departments have a responsibility for the “social contract”.
Thirdly, there should be targeted, visible use of cameras on notably high casualty routes. Lest anyone doubt these, the visibility alone on the Belfast-Bangor road reduced average speeds on it by 7mph – a road on which an average three people died every year became almost casualty-free. As long as there is reason given for the location, and the objective of reducing speed (rather than catching people) is clear, the “social contract” will be renewed.
Finally, there should be periodic blitzes at certain locations which even local communities could help to fund, for example to ensure clearways are adhered to. It would help traders on the Lisburn Road, for example, if it did not become a car park at 4pm every weekday evening. There is a “social contract” in all sorts of ways there!
Inadequate traffic enforcement is costing lives. It is time to act.