Given the stress of city driving and the high speeds on motorways, you might think driving in the countryside would be safer. But this simply isn’t true. I n fact, more than four-fifths of all road deaths this year have taken place on rural roads. This is not an isolated case. I n 2015, an EU report on road safety concluded fatalities in rural areas were highly over-represented in Ireland compared with the EU average. Since 2017, the proportion of deaths on rural roads has risen from 74pc to 82pc this year.
hy are so many road deaths occurring on rural roads and, in particular, roads with an 80kmh speed limit? Most collisions are due to driver error, and it is most likely that common causes are drivers losing control of their car when overtaking or driving too fast. However, when collisions are not evenly spread throughout the road network and specific types of roads record significantly higher rates, clearly there are other factors involved. Rural roads have higher average speeds than urban roads and are often narrower, with sharp corners and blind bends.
Road user behaviour is a major factor in crashes, and countless studies demonstrate that drivers modify their behaviour according to the risk they perceive. Risk comes in many forms, from getting caught speeding to being injured and/or injuring others. Risk perception has been the subject of much research in Australia, where more than 70pc of the population live in major cities but over 50pc of road deaths occur on rural roads. Studies highlight the disparity in attitude and behaviour between driving on rural and city roads. Generally, drivers not only believe rural roads are safer, but often claim more road fatalities occur in city areas. Could this be the case in Ireland? Do drivers perceive rural roads to be safer?
It is likely that one of the key components in risk assessment is the speed limit. Driving speeds directly impact the risk of being involved in a crash and the severity of an injury. A reduction in speed is associated with a decrease in the collision rate. An often-quoted variable is that a reduction of 1mph (1.6kmh) in speed leads to a 5pc reduction in the accident rate. So would lower speed limits make rural roads safer?
A 2018 Swedish study found that when speed limits decreased by 10kmh, the average speed on roads decreased by around 2 to 3kmh, but an increase of 10kmh resulted in an average increase in speed of 3kmh. The most compelling aspect of the study was that where speed limits on rural roads were reduced from 90 to 80kmh, the number of fatalities decreased by 14pc per year. This is equivalent to about 17 lives saved per year due to the changed speed limits. If this is the impact of reducing speed limits, what are we waiting for?
Local authorities are currently in the process of reviewing and updating their speed limit bye-laws. Given the unique dangers posed by rural roads, surely many will be considering lowering limits. However, in direct contrast to this, Kildare County Council proposes to alter many of the speed limits across the county and, in some cases, increase them.
These proposals are now at a public consultation stage, but it is unlikely the concerns of the public will be heeded. Councillors in Naas made 56 submissions highlighting issues such as the capacity of the road to cater for the recommended speed safely. Forty-eight were rejected, including a call for a 30kmh limit on the Naas Canal Road, a route favoured by walkers, cyclists and children and one the council has made a car-free zone on Sundays.
The request was denied on the basis that as the road was not designed for shared use by pedestrians, cyclists and cars in compliance with the speed limit guidelines, the default 50kmh limit was appropriate. The actual risk is ignored to comply with the advisory guidelines. Meanwhile, objections were also raised about a proposal to increase the limit from 60 to 80kmh on a road frequently used as a “rat-run” to avoid congestion in Naas.
Again, this change was deemed in compliance with speed limit guidelines. What are these guidelines that recommend a road popular with walkers and children going to the local rugby club should have an 80kmh speed limit?
The Guidelines for Setting and Managing Speed Limits in Ireland provides guidance for local councils when setting speed limits on rural roads. One of the recommendations is that “lower speed limits on their own without supporting physical measures, driver information and publicity will not necessarily change driver behaviour. The driver will therefore continue to drive at inappropriate and excessive speeds. This may lead to significant enforcement costs”.
This is an extraordinary recommendation from a government department with responsibility for road safety and a commitment to reducing road deaths. The dangers of driving on our rural roads cannot be ignored any longer; such roads have proved to be consistently more dangerous than their urban counterparts. Nor can we lose sight of the fact that more than four-fifths of the nation’s road fatalities occur on these roads. Tougher enforcement would most certainly make rural roads safer, but it is not an either-or-situation. Lower speed limits would also reduce serious injuries and deaths.
It seems extraordinary that a review of rural road speed limits is not a matter of urgency if we are serious about reducing the number of people killed or injured. Instead, local authorities risk many lives by proposing to increase speed limits.