As we come to the end of a year when road deaths nationally reversed their downward trend, the families, friends and colleagues of the eight people who lost their lives in West Cork are still mourning their loss.
Inspector Ger Lacey, in charge of the West Cork Garda Division’s Traffic Unit and Garda Tommy Brosnan, the PSV inspector whose duties include examining cars after serious road collisions, speak to Sheila Mullins about how we can all contribute to a safer Christmas on West Cork’s roads.
Has West Cork followed the national trend of an increase in road deaths and injuries?
Insp. Lacey: Like the rest of the country our record was improving up until this year. Road deaths and serious injuries were quite low but they have unfortunately risen. Compared to last year when we had five deaths, in 2016 we’ve had eight deaths, including two pedestrians, a motorcyclist and a cyclist, and 15 serious injuries, and the year isn’t over yet.
Is there one major cause for those accidents?
Insp. Lacey: If you look at the fatal accidents we’ve had there isn’t one definitive cause but if I was to put my hand on my heart I’d say it’s driver error. And speed is a factor – driving too fast for conditions. When I say conditions I don’t necessarily mean road conditions, I’m talking about weather conditions, traffic conditions, their own driving ability.
We have four what we call ‘life-saver’ offenses – speed, drink driving, seatbelts and mobile phones. Don’t get me started on mobile phones! They are lethal and have no place in the car. Hands-free is usually ok but we are seeing people reading and sending texts, accessing email and social media, all whilst driving! Even trying to make or take a call if you haven’t got hands-free is a no-no. It’s an offence to touch your phone at all and that’s for a very good reason, your attention is off the road. I personally know of fatal accidents that I have gone to over the past couple of years where phones have been a major factor. Imagine you’re driving along at 80km/hr and a text or call comes in. You look down for a second or two and next thing you’re into a car, a pedestrian, a ditch. I’ve seen some rotten, horrible accidents that if people had not gone near the mobile phone the accident would not have happened.
A big issue of course at the moment is the unaccompanied Learner Driver. Remember a fully licensed driver, who has held a full licence for at least two years, not a Novice, must accompany a Learner Driver at all times. We saw the consequences of that horrific accident in East Cork last year during the recent court prosecution. Unfortunately, we have also seen some awful accidents in West Cork over the last few years involving young inexperienced drivers on learner permits. It maybe wasn’t enforced as much in the past but we are very focused on it now. If you are caught driving alone on a routine Garda stop you can be prosecuted, you don’t need to have been in an accident.
Gda Brosnan: People don’t realise that – and this is something for parents to think about – if a Learner Driver is in an accident whilst driving unaccompanied, insurance companies can actually take civil action against you to recoup the cost of the case.
Maybe don’t leave it until you are 18-19 years old to start learning – when you suddenly realise you need a car in two weeks time for college or a job. If you can, start at 17, take your lessons and pass your test so that you are ready when you need to become independent.
How is West Cork doing in terms of drink driving?
Insp. Lacey: The number of people arrested for drink driving in West Cork has not changed dramatically over the last few years. However, we have noticed a change in the age profile of persons arrested. Traditionally over the last few years, it tended to be more mature drivers taking a chance on driving while intoxicated but we have noticed an increase in the number of younger drivers being arrested for this offence.
Drink driving is not just about the person getting into a car and driving in a very drunk state – drink driving is driving a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant, be it alcohol or drugs. Statistics have shown that a small amount of alcohol can adversely affect your ability and judgement. The Road Traffic Act of 2010 significantly reduced the permitted alcohol levels for drivers and even further reduced those levels for professional drivers and learner drivers.
So the message is very clear, if you want to have a drink, leave the car at home or have a designated non-drinking driver. It’s also worth mentioning that driving while intoxicated includes drugs, be they prescription drugs or illegal substances. If you are taking prescribed medication, do check with your GP that your medication will not adversely affect your ability to drive. Any person driving under the influence of illegal substances is not only a serious danger on the road but also face very serious consequences if detected.
Gda Brosnan: Coming into the Christmas season I’d like to remind people of the morning after when we unfortunately still have a number of arrests and prosecutions. Right up until midday and beyond people can be significantly over the limit, more so than someone coming straight out of a pub at night. They probably honestly thought they were ok but if you are drinking for eight hours up to 3am in the morning you are going to be over the limit the next morning.
Insp. Lacey: Whilst you can get a fixed charge and penalty points for very low levels of alcohol in the blood, most of the drivers brought in are way past those levels; they’re going to court. Even if you take the road safety aspect out of it, the consequences of that are huge. Like many people I’m commuting to work. If I’m off the road how am I going to get to work? How am I going to support my family? Am I going to lose my job? We live in a rural area with no public transport. You can be off the road for anything from one to three years for your first offense, six years for a second offence. Getting caught will seriously affect your life and I think people tend to forget about that. We talk about the road deaths and the injuries, which are very real issues, but people forget about the consequences for their family life and their careers.
What checks should we do on our cars to make sure they’re road worthy?
Gda Brosnan: Whilst with fatal collisions the condition of the car isn’t as big a factor as human error, in minor collisions it can play a big part; and the big issue is tyres. Tyres are your only contact with the road; especially coming into the winter; we’ve frost, we’ve rain and people should be checking their tyre depths regularly, not just the outside of the tyre but the inside too. If you’re locking your tyres a lot or there is a defect in the tyre, they can actually be bald on the inside when the outside is fine and that will offer you no brake resistance. Many garages offer free checks so it’s worth taking the few minutes to do that.
Tyre pressure is another thing people forget to check. It will tell you in the manual, or on the door pillar there will be a manufacturer’s sticker with the specs for your particular car. The handling of a car on corners and in braking will differ a lot if tyres have the correct pressure. And finally bear in mind the age of the tyre. After five years the NCT will give you a pass/advisory and it’s time to change but I’ve seen cars with tyres that are 15-years-old! You mightn’t do much mileage, maybe the car is parked up half the year, and the thread depth is fine but that tyre can’t perform because actually it’s perished and cracked.
Following a crash, not only do I look at a car as an independent Garda –insurance companies are now often sending their own assessors. If your car is not road worthy it will cost you dearly. The NCT is only a snapshot of your car on any given day. Just because you passed your test today it’s still your responsibility to ensure your car is maintained. It’s no good to say it passed the test six months ago so it must be ok.
Insp. Lacey: Your car is your responsibility as a driver. Is it insured? Is it taxed? Does it have its NCT? Is it roadworthy at all times? Do you have the right licence to drive that vehicle? If you are stopped there are no excuses. There’s nobody will do these things for you.
What bad habits do you see in West Cork drivers?
Insp. Lacey: There are a number of people driving who don’t know the rules of the road. They think they do but maybe they’re using their own version! If we all drove in accordance with the rules we wouldn’t be having any accidents and that’s the truth of it. If there is anything you are unsure about, where you should be on a roundabout or at a junction for example, check the rules handbook or have a look at the RSA website.
Silly overtaking when you’re just going to save yourself 30 seconds. We’ve all been passed out and you come up behind that same driver several miles down the road and what time have they saved? If you’re seen passing on a white line – and remember a member of the public could report it too – at best it’s careless driving, which can earn you a penalty charge and points, but that can quickly become dangerous driving if there’s oncoming traffic or it’s at the crest of a hill, or coming into a blind corner.
And by the way speed limits are not targets! Slow down. De-stress. Allow time for your journey. If you’re collecting the kids from school or heading to work, allow yourself a few extra minutes. You could be held up with traffic, with road works, an accident. People do silly things when rushing.
Gda Brosnan: Distance between cars is a top bad habit. A tailgater is a poor driver. They’re only watching what’s right in front of them; they’re not looking at junctions, at signs, to see if someone steps out, if they’re coming up to a school.
If you are driving at a safe speed for the conditions, be aware that they are behind you but don’t be intimidated to speed up. If you are feeling uncomfortable pull in when you can safely do so and let them pass.
Insp. Lacey: Think of the hassle even a minor fender bender will cause you if you are at fault – insurance assessors, replacement cars, policy increases – it will be a big headache.
Have you any advice for driving in winter?
Insp. Lacey: Take a few minutes to prepare your car before you set off. Demisters, lights, wipers – are they all working? Simple things make such a difference. I keep a squeegee in the car for when the windows are fogged in the morning, a few seconds round the car clearing the windows, that’s all it takes and it’s amazing the difference.
Gda Brosnan: Even this morning I saw a driver peering out through a peephole on an iced window. At the same time you’ve kids getting ready to go to school, pedestrians going to work and you can’t see clearly for the first 2km of your drive?
What advice have you for pedestrians and cyclists?
Insp. Lacey: You can’t always put the blame for an accident on the car or truck driver. Pedestrians and cyclists have a responsibility too. It is very difficult to see a pedestrian in dark clothing on a dark road, particularly narrow West Cork roads, no matter how good a driver you are. They’re walking two foot out from the ditch and all of sudden they loom up in the headlights. The guards and the RSA are always giving out highvisibility-vests so make sure to wear one but also try to carry a small torch because then the driver can see there is something up ahead from a good distance away.
Gda Brosnan: Cyclists have the same right to the road but they are also subject to the same rules. A big bunch of cyclists out on the road, slowing down traffic when there is no need and they could move in to single file – it’s all about common sense.
The rules of the road do say cyclists can be two abreast but on some roads that is just not practical. You have a driver behind losing patience. They’ll overtake and next thing there’s a car or a tractor coming and the cyclist gets clipped. Just be aware of where you are and what’s sensible.
Have you a Christmas road safety campaign planned?
Insp. Lacey: We’ll be running the national Christmas safety campaign all through December, concentrating very much on those four lifesaver offences that I mentioned before. We will be out in force and you will see people being randomly breathalysed night and day. Remember though our main purpose is not to ‘catch people’, it’s to make people safer, to make them aware of speed and drink driving and to help safe lives. Unfortunately we can’t cover every inch of every road so the people out there are our eyes and ears. If you see dangerous driving don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to us. At the very least we can have a strong word with that driver and that could be the shock they needed.
How can we all contribute to making West Cork roads safer this Christmas?
Insp. Lacey: The Golden rule is ‘don’t drink and drive’. If you are going out have a designated driver or alternative means of getting home organised in advance. It’s not worth your life or somebody else’s life; it’s not worth your job. Don’t get distracted by the mobile phone and allow yourself plenty of time. Just a five per cent reduction in speed has been proven to vastly reduce your chances of being in an accident.
Gda Brosnan: Bear in mind driver fatigue, especially at Christmas if you’re travelling home or visiting relatives. If you feel tired, pull in and have a rest. Particularly now with so many people commuting, we are seeing more collisions caused by mistakes made through fatigue.
Also just on a final note I’d like to remind farmers of new regulations regarding flashing beacons on tractors on public roads. There have been a number of rear-enders with cars coming into the back of tractors, especially if they were pulling removable objects like ploughs. It’s important that all tractors are now fitted with these beacons.
Insp. Lacey: I’d like to wish everybody a happy and peaceful Christmas. If we can all keep road safety at the forefront of our minds it will be a safe one for all.