Ben Lowry: The long-term plunge in NI road deaths is cause for celebration yet we are too shy to do so

Belfast's Grand Opera House could be filled with people who are being saved on Northern Ireland's roads compared to 1970s death rates. A staggering 870 people are alive this January who might otherwise have died  on roads last year if 1972 levels had kept pace with traffic increases
Belfast's Grand Opera House could be filled with people who are being saved on Northern Ireland's roads compared to 1970s death rates. A staggering 870 people are alive this January who might otherwise have died on roads last year if 1972 levels had kept pace with traffic increases

Imagine the Grand Opera House in Belfast, filled with people of all ages.

Old folk, middle aged people, teenagers, young children, all laughing, clapping and enjoying a show, and filling the auditorium with happiness and noise.

Then imagine that they are all people who are celebrating being alive, people who in other circumstances would be dead.

Roughly that number of lives – a figure in the high hundreds – are saved each year on Northern Ireland’s roads today compared to 40 or 50 years ago.

That is my rough estimate of the stunning progress that has been made in road safety since the 1970s.

I work it out in the following way.

The most dangerous year ever recorded in Northern Ireland was 1972, when 372 people died. Last year, only 63 people died – the fifth safest year on record.

But the drop in fatalities is much more impressive even than that fall of 309 deaths suggests.

Road traffic has soared since 1972. The number of deaths ought to have soared too.

In 1972 there were 304,000 licensed cars in Northern Ireland. Last year there were 900,000+.

The number of cars on the roads has trebled and the number of miles driven by motorists has risen by a similar magnitude.

But let’s be conservative and say that traffic levels have risen by a multiple of 2.5 since 1972.

If deaths had continued at that rate, 930 would have been killed on the roads instead of 63.

A staggering 870 or so people are alive this January who might otherwise have died last year –almost enough people to fill the Opera House’s 1,000 seats.

It could have been you who was killed last year, but wasn’t due to improved safety, or it could have been me. We will never know.

While 1972 was a particularly bad year, in the whole 1970s an average of 315 people died each year.

Again, by a conservative estimate more than 600 people would be dying on NI’s roads each years now if death rates had kept pace with that decade.

If you look at the table below you will see the gradual but relentless falls over the last 40 years.

Even in the last decade the fall is stark. In every year since records began in 1931 more than 100 people died, often over 200, yet since 2009 the total has always been below 100.

With the recent revival of cold war fears of nuclear war, it can seem as if there is no such thing as human progress.

But the improvement in road safety is one of the advances in human affairs that give grounds for optimism. Another is the medical knowledge that is helping people to lead longer and healthier lives.

Replicate the fall in NI deaths globally and millions of lives could be saved on the roads.

Successes in road deaths are not a triumph that is unique to the Province. Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland also saw road deaths peak in the 1960s and 70s, before commencing a long decline.

The reasons for are many:

Improvements in car design (better brakes, tyres, car frames)

Improvements in road design

More motorway/dual carriageway (the safest road types)

Better road marking/signage

Stricter road laws (such as compulsory seat belts)

Stricter enforcement of existing laws (such as on drink driving)

Better driver training

Greater road awareness (such as graphic adverts).

There has been a radical shift in our cultural attitude to road deaths. Consider the recent controversial court cases in which the public has complained about lenient jail terms for killer drivers.

Fifty years ago many such cases would not even have been prosecuted, let alone got prison sentences.

I think some of the graphic road deaths commercials on TV are so lacking in subtlety as to be almost embarrassing (including the recent one in which a cool, knowing young woman talks down towards boy racers as if she has a mother’s understanding of their immaturity).

But as a general principle, explicit TV ads have a role to play in explaining to young drivers that they might actually die, something a teenager never really believes.

Akin with many men, I drove far, far faster in my teens than I do now.

Each year when road death statistics show another relatively safe year on our roads, officials who work in traffic safety trot out the true but ultimately inadequate line: ‘one death on the roads is too many’.

They say this because they do not want to sound insensitive to the recently bereaved. But it means that they are not emphasising the remarkable successes that have been made over the decades.

We can learn so much from those successes to help us to continue to drive down deaths.

The progress on our roads is also a reminder that regulation, against which we often rail, is often there for good reason.

Some spheres of law and business are over regulated. But in other areas tight regulation has saved life.

In road safety, strict regulation of driving, of car design and of road design has been behind the dramatic drop in fatalities.

And people we love might be alive because of it.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2 is News Letter deputy editor

• Annual road deaths in NI since 1931

1931 114

1932 119

1933 141

1934 132

1935 123

1936 127

1937 130

1938 118

1939 147

1940 181

1941 275

1942 233

1943 155

1944 154

1945 124

1946 115

1947 112

1948 127

1949 147

1950 144

1951 167

1952 133

1953 163

1954 159

1955 160

1956 144

1957 169

1958 141

1959 156

1960 172

1961 169

1962 156

1963 176

1964 219

1965 191

1966 248

1967 217

1968 216

1969 257

1970 272

1971 304

1972 372

1973 335

1974 316

1975 313

1976 300

1977 355

1978 288

1979 293

1980 229

1981 223

1982 216

1983 173

1984 189

1985 177

1986 236

1987 214

1988 178

1989 181

1990 185

1991 185

1992 150

1993 143

1994 157

1995 144

1996 142

1997 144

1998 160

1999 141

2000 171

2001 148

2002 150

2003 150

2004 147

2005 135

2006 126

2007 113

2008 107

2009 115

2010 55

2011 59

2012 48

2013 57

2014 79

2015 74

2016 68

2017 63