NI road deaths in 2015 were well below norm

Seat belts are one of the biggest factors in the long-term safety improvement on NI's roads
Seat belts are one of the biggest factors in the long-term safety improvement on NI's roads

The steady stream of road deaths through December included victims of all ages.

As happens each year, several families have been plunged into agony around Christmas.

It almost seems inappropriate in those circumstances to mention that last year was one of the safest years ever on Northern Ireland’s roads.

Stormont’s environment minister, Mark H Durkan, said yesterday any death is too many. How true: we would all be devastated if that one person was someone we loved.

But if we can understand the improving safety trend on our roads, we can more easily prevent further tragedy. Road deaths have relentlessly fallen since their peak in the 1970s.

From 1931, when records for NI began, to 2009 there was never less than 100 people killed in any one year, and typically far more than that.

From 2010 to 2013 fatalities plunged to around 55 each year, rising in 2014 to 79, and dipping last year to 74.

The abnormally low 2010-2013 rate may have been people driving less in the recession (and driving more slowly and efficiently amid punishingly high fuel costs).

But even 2014 and 2015, while notably up on the preceding four years, were far below the recent average, let alone the long-term one.

In the 1970s 300+ people died most years on the Province’s roads. Over the last 10 years the average has been 83.

Yet traffic levels have more than doubled in the period. If 1970s death rates combined with current traffic, 700+ people would die each year.

There are more than 600 people now alive in Northern Ireland who would have died last year at 1970s fatality rates. You could almost fill the Belfast Opera House with the people saved annually.

There are four main reasons for the stunning success:

• Road engineering: Better roads, particularly dual carriageways and motorways, save lives. But even better markings and signs save lives. In the 1970s a country crossroads might have been unmarked, and a car that did not see it could have driven through at the same time as another car.

• Car engineering: vehicles have better brakes and crumple zones, as well as features such as air bags. There are more rigorous MoT standards.

• Enforcement: Much stricter enforcement of drink, speed and carelessness.

• Education: Young drivers are better trained and the public is better informed of risk through graphic advertising.

Probably the biggest factor in cutting deaths is an enforcement matter: seat belts. They account for around a third of the long-term fall in fatalities.

But unpopular speed cameras are also critical. Consider the Bangor to Belfast road: the limit for most of the route is 50mph but cars often travelled at 60mph on those stretches. Now they rarely exceed the limit at all on that busy road, because of average speed cameras. The limit is the same but average speed is down.

A remaining danger is drivers under 25, in particular men. Their brains are not fully developed to comprehend risk. They need permanent policing such as a black box in their cars. It is not nice to think of being monitored in that way, but it could come for all drivers, not just the young.

It might be needed to reach the stage where annual NI deaths drop to single figures.


1970s: 3,148 dead, ave 315 per annum

1980s: 2,106 dead, ave 202 pa

1990s: 1,692 killed, ave 169 pa

2000-09: 1,362, ave 136 pa

Since 2006: 831, ave 83 pa

By year since 2000:

2000: 171

2001: 148

2002: 150

2003: 150

2004: 147

2005: 135

2006: 126

2007: 113

2008: 107

2009: 115

2010: 55

2011: 58

2012: 48

2013: 56

2014: 79

2015: 74