I thank the Cathaoirleach and members of the committee for the opportunity to contribute today.
Individual human behavioural decisions are influenced by the physical and social environments around people, and also their own habits, norms and perspectives. Today, drawing on my professional experience as a civil engineer, transportation planner and behaviour scientist, I would like to discuss the importance of good street design practices for safe driving behaviour and how we can balance perspectives on what constitutes a safe street or road.
Substantial work has been done by the transportation agencies over the past three decades to make driving safer in Ireland. However, practices such as overdesigning roads to increase driver comfort and an emphasis on new car assessment programme, NCAP, ratings for cars which place an emphasis on the safety on those inside the vehicle have left communities dealing with an increased threat of larger and faster vehicles on their streets. This focus on driver safety has had unintended consequences. Residential streets used to be places to congregate and play and main streets used to be meeting places and commercial hubs. Both are now becoming devoid of human interactions because of the dominance of the private vehicle. This not only has implications for local commerce, but also the health and well-being of our population.
Posted speed limits are just one tool in a suite of measures that can be used to make our streets safer. However, without enforcement and changes to the physical infrastructure to bring the design speeds of roads or streets closer to the posted speed limit, little is going to change in driver behaviour. Life and time pressures as well as the sense that we can move faster, since our 21st century vehicles need little encouragement to move considerably faster than those driven in the 1970s and 1980s, increase the temptation to break a speed limit. Each individual will make their own decision, but if others around us are going faster than us, the temptation to press the pedal can be worth the personal risk. A favourite phrase of one of my school teachers comes to mind - "You are only sorry because you were caught.".
Our metric for safe streets should not be how many people have lost their lives or been injured but a multi-criteria assessment that includes the number of people walking and cycling in an area. Reported traffic speeds should be measured against the context of the street considering time-of-day metrics, for example. Are more people speeding in low traffic and how can this behaviour be designed out? We should conduct walk-in-time or drive-in-time interviews or other ethnographic-type data collection to understand what informs in-travel decision making. We need to listen to school children, but not exclusively. They are not the decision makers when it comes to household travel but alongside our elderly, they are the most vulnerable on our roads and they deserve our attention. We must also look at social exclusion and loneliness and other population health indicators, such as the work done by Professor Donald Appleyard in the USA.
The 2020 Stockholm declaration of the Third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety recognises the importance of this multi-perspective approach. It recognises:
... our shared responsibility between system designers and road users to move towards a world free from road traffic fatalities and serious injuries and that addressing road safety demands multi-stakeholder collaboration among the public and private sectors, academia, professional organizations, non-governmental organizations and the media.
The task force outlined in the RSA’s document, Our Journey Towards Vision Zero, Ireland's Government Road Safety Strategy, Phase 1 Action Plan 2021-2024, is a very welcome start.
The media has an important role to play in delivering a clear and balanced message around road safety. It can highlight the impact of individual and collective decision-making on population health and well-being and on the prevention of premature death from road traffic collisions, non-communicable or lifestyle diseases or from mental ill-health, compounded by social isolation and sedentary behaviours.
Why is a default 30 km/h for built up areas a good idea? A blanket change facilitates a clear communication to the population, which in turn gives it greater awareness of the changes. Default 30 km/h speeds will facilitate the roll out and a quick delivery of active travel infrastructure and the Town Centres First strategy as street design standards at this speed will facilitate safer design for a greater balance of movement and place. This in turn helps us meet our climate targets.
There is information available and learnings from other jurisdictions on policies to reduce traffic speeds that we can learn from. We will not be reinventing the wheel. At present, digital mapping and route-finding apps are directing drivers into residential areas for trip time savings based on current speed limits. Lower speed limits will discourage algorithms from directing traffic into these areas.
Research and evaluation is important, most especially so that we have an Irish evidence base to learn from and build upon. Multidisciplinary perspectives are important. This September, TU Dublin will be hosing the Walk21 international conference on walking and liveable communities where a special session will be held to address safety where we can learn from local players and international experts.