February 19, 2006
If an Aer Lingus jumbo was blown out of the sky in the morning, how would you react? How would we expect the government to react? We would expect leadership of the Rudolph Giuliani kind, as seen in the days after 9/11, wouldnï¿½t we? We would expect to see all the powers of the state come down on the terrorists, both for justice and to prevent it happening again.
Even civil libertarians would probably not flinch at emergency legislation being pushed through the Dail to combat such a threat to our citizens.
Last year 399 people, the equivalent of a packed Jumbo, died on the roads. So far this year, 55 of our sisters, brothers, children, infants and parents have perished.
Apart from a carefully-constructed PR exercise – centred on more penalty points – nothing has been done. No emergency has been declared. There has been no leadership.
Why do we tolerate this? Why do we never think ï¿½ï¿½it could be me nextï¿½ï¿½? Why do we allow people ï¿½ who we deem not fit to drive – to speed away from driving tests, having failed? This is bonkers. What is the point of the test in the first place? And yet, this happens here every day.
Why do we allow roadworks to start without any proper signage, creating death-traps? Why do we allow huge, deadly craters to be dug and then signalled by a few askew plastic cones without any warning? Anyone who has travelled down the Naas Road in the past few months will know what I am talking about.
Why do we allow drunken killers off with lenient sentences? Why do we re-elect politicians who have been convicted of drunken driving? Why do the gardai not wait outside the jammed car parks of our suburban pubs at closing time and nick everyone?
Why, when a National Roads Authority (NRA) survey tells us that 94 per cent of all HGVs break the speed limit, do we do nothing?
Why, when it is the ambition of most teenagers to drive as soon as they are old enough, do we have no driving education in school? Is it because the state does not care about the security of its citizens?
Thatï¿½s not what it says in the Constitution – the document that so many of our politicians feign to hold dear, when it suits them.
The government does not care a jot about road deaths because we, not they, are the killers and we donï¿½t seem to care either. We all think we are great drivers. A Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) survey last year suggested that 86 per cent of us think we are competent.
Yet Garda stats reveal that 88 per cent of crashes are caused by driver error. Over one third of fatalities involve single car collision, suggesting that speeding and boozing are to blame. On top of this, 35 per cent of all fatalities happen between 9pm and 6am, when only a tiny proportion of traffic is on the roads. Over one in four deaths are on Saturday and Sunday, and 70 per cent of these are on country roads.
In addition, 21 per cent of casualties are under 25, but they only account for 9 per cent of drivers.
Now do we get the picture?
If we focus on weekend nights, on younger drivers and on areas that are not built up, we could begin to reduce road deaths. In Canada, New Zealand, America and Australia, the statistics are remarkably similar. So, logically, these countries have put a curfew on young and learner drivers driving between 9pm and 6am.
These drivers are also restricted from carrying other teenagers.
According to an Irish motor insurance company, XSdirect, these moves have reduced road deaths by up to 30 per cent among the under-25s.The system is very simple ï¿½ the Americans and others have concluded that, as well as speeding and drink, peer pressure is forcing normally sensible young people to take risks they otherwise would not.
XSdirect argue that we should bring in a graduated licence approach whereby young drivers have their driving licences delayed until they get sufficient driving hours under their belt in less pressurised situations (these ideas are presented in more detail onwww.xsdirect.ie).
Other countries have figured out that the crucial attributes for safe driving are driving skill and social maturity, and have changed the law accordingly. Why donï¿½t we?
Because, it appears that the government is afraid of ruffling feathers. The reaction to the XSdirect suggestion last week was very illuminating. A member of the National Safety Council responded by saying more or less ï¿½ï¿½yes, very interesting, but it would be politically impossibleï¿½ï¿½. He indicated that young drivers voted and this change would be unpopular, so it would not be done.
This reaction echoes Sean Haugheyï¿½s observation in the past few days when he said that ï¿½ï¿½there is sometimes more to politics than electoral advantageï¿½ï¿½. But the reality is that this government is not prepared to do anything to jolt us out of our misguided complacency.
So the carnage will go unchecked because, first, we do not want to blame ourselves and, second, the government is petrified of being accused of presiding over a nanny state. It will limit itself to only the gentlest of nudges in the direction of changing our behaviour.
The second issue – the idea that the government is afraid to govern – is well worth exploring a little more. In the years ahead, mainstream politics is likely to focus on the politics of behaviour. In the past, the state felt it could dictate the economy, reduce social inequalities and engineer ideological solutions by using taxation and spending. This was the period of hydraulic governance and it was about pulling this lever and that to make things happen. That era is over.
At some stage in the 1980s, all over the western world, the levers stopped working.
From Moscow to Macroom, the ability of the government to wave a magic wand and cure the ills of society diminished, and with it the electoratesï¿½ faith. Electoral campaigns are now more Friar Tuck than Robin Hood. They are less about taking from the rich and giving to the poor and more about trying to persuade the fat, lazy, badly behaved and unhealthy to change their ways. Politics today is more centred on heightening individual responsibility to achieve the common good than about communal initiatives aimed at creating a better life for the individual. Therefore, the distinction in governance is not between left and right in economic terms, but between those who interfere and try to regulate behaviour, and those who believe in individual sovereignty and self-control.
Governments want to be seen as responsible but not controlling. We see this in every area of behaviour, from the smoking ban, to penalty points and information campaigns about obesity and diabetes.
Anti-social behaviour banning orders (ASBOs) are the exemplar of such policies.
But the question is how far can any government push the behaviour agenda without being accused of treating adults like children?
To find answers to this, our politicians rely on polls and surveys. They consult the electorate every week via a myriad of straw polls, the results of which are fed back to cabinet. Policy is framed on the basis of what is most popular or least problematic.
This creates inertia.
On the issue of road deaths, for example, the curfew idea is worthy of consideration but will not be touched because it might not be popular, although eminently sensible.
Nothing is done and the carnage continues.
This government is particularly weak and appears to find it impossible to make any decisions that contain even the slightest risk of unpopularity.
In short, this government is afraid to govern. It is an enormous abdication of responsibility. It leaves the rest of us living in a false paradise, driving around oblivious in dangerous machines, on lethal roads until two uniformed guards knock on the door in the middle of the night bearing horrific news.