NORTHERN Ireland has had another exceptionally safe year on the roads, with the second lowest number of road deaths ever.
The figures confirm a trend in recent years in which the carnage on Ulster’s roads has been slashed.
Fatalities in 2011 were fractionally up on 2010, but that year was itself by far the safest ever year, with barely half the previous lowest.
A total of 59 people died on the province’s roads last year, up from 55 in the previous 12 months.
Prior to these two years, the safest year was 2008 with 107 deaths.
One of Britain’s foremost experts on reducing crashes said that while any road death was a tragedy, it was appropriate to hail the progress in reducing fatalities in Northern Ireland, which reflected trends across Britain and Ireland.
Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA, told the News Letter: “It is wonderful that they are coming down so much. We have to make sure it keeps falling.
“We must make sure that as a result of the successes the expenditure in road safety doesn’t get cut.”
A number of theories have been advanced for the plunging number of deaths, such as the severe weather in 2010 and the ongoing recession causing people to motor less.
But no single recent factor adequately explains the extraordinary extent of the fall, which is in line with a long-term trend going back to the 1970s when road deaths peaked.
Experts such as Mr Howard cite seven broad reasons why road deaths have been falling relentlessly since they peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, despite a doubling in traffic since that time:
Seat belt laws; greater drink-drive and speed enforcement; better designed roads; better road markings; better driver training; better designed cars (with air bags, etc); and better enforced car safety (rigorous and regular MOT tests).
Some experts have been reluctant to highlight the reduction in road deaths, because it can seem distasteful when many people are still dying. Mr Howard said: “There are still many people getting killed, which is a tragedy, but if we are to keep reducing deaths it is vital that we recognise we are doing things right.”
To put the scale of the reduction in deaths into perspective, almost seven times more people were killed in the worst year — 1972 — than in either 2010 or 2011.
But road traffic levels have more than doubled in the meantime, which means that the improvement is even more stark when measured per mile travelled.
This means that the chance of being killed was perhaps 15 times greater then than now.
If 1972 levels of road traffic deaths had been maintained perhaps 900 people would have been killed in Northern Ireland last year.
In simple terms, more than 800 people are alive in the province who would have been killed last year at 1972 levels — enough almost to fill the Ulster Hall.
Over the last five years, 449 people were killed on Northern Ireland’s roads but the figure would have been around 4,000 at 1972 levels.
Mr Howard said: “It is quite incredible, and it reflects all sorts of things such as seat belt laws and better designed cars.”
He added: “Speed cameras have played a significant role in this. They are a deterrent. We must be sure that level of deterrent remains.”
Mr Howard pointed out that high fuel prices had caused many people to vow to drive less and more economically, and this was likely to be a factor in death rates.
But traffic levels have dropped by less than five per cent since pre-recession times, so this cannot explain the bulk of the falls.
Another factor is that 2010 had two months of severe winter weather across the UK, at the beginning and end of the year.
But even if road deaths for 2010 or 2011 are conservatively worked out on a 10-monthly basis, and then multiplied by 12 to estimate what the death toll might have been for the year, the fatality totals increase by less than a dozen and remain the smallest ever.