Since 1959, more than 23,000 people have been killed on Irish roads. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Carlow town.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter and journalist and author, Eoghan Corry are here to trace the history of road safety and deaths in this country.
Our first road sign and safety regulations were introduced in 1903. The first speed limit (5mph) was introduced later that decade.
In 1914, there were 20,000 motor vehicles registered in Ireland and this rose to 34,000 a decade later. And in the late 1920s, a proposal to have penalties for drink driving was dropped as it were regarded by the government of the day as being a “mischievous” proposal.
We had one tenth of the vehicles on the road 75 years ago, yet 228 people were killed in accidents in 1938.
Owing to the effect of war-time rationing of petrol, there were only 8,000 licensed private cars in 1945. Six years later, this figure had risen to 156,000.
The worst decade for road deaths was the 1970s - the decade of the breathalyser and seat belt legislation.
Our highest road fatalities were recorded in 1978 with 928 people being killed on the island of Ireland. In 1979, an amnesty resulted in an estimated 45,000 drivers being handed licences without passing a test.
In February 1972, Bobby Molloy, the Minister for Local Government (whose department had responsibility for roads) wrote a heartfelt letter to Jack Lynch about this issue. He wanted more Gardai to be assigned to traffic duty.
Bobby Molloy letter:
‘The road deaths figures issued by the Gardaí for January show another shocking increase to 62 deaths- 22 more than in January 1971. It looks as if we must expect 700 road deaths this year and at least 25,000 people injured unless we can take some drastic action to prevent it…the big gap I see in the whole organisational approach is the low level of traffic supervision and enforcement of statutory requirements by the Gardaí. It is commonly accepted that speed limits and road signs can virtually be ignored, as long as one gets away with it. There is a plethora of “bangers” on the road with bald tyres, defective steering and little or no brakes. Cars are more frequently not taxed or insured. Above all, there is frightening (though confidential) evidence of the level of alcohol in the bodies of accident victims, while drivers under the influence are a common sight after closing hours…I don’t think we can be morally justified in not assigning men and equipment to the protection of road users…in most countries the correctness of devoting police resources to road accident prevention is accepted as a proper and necessary part of upholding a code of civic behaviour. The establishment of a special traffic corps within the force has been talked about for years and seems as far away as ever…drunk driving and excessive speed should be eliminated or reduced to a “tolerable level”.’
He finished by writing of the ‘despair which I feel. I even thought of asking for a day of national mourning for the 600 dead last year and making it an annual event.’
Since records began more than 50 years ago, the number of cars on the road has more than trebled from about 700,000 to some 2.5 million. Yet the numbers dying in car accidents is falling steadily. Last year we had our lowest number of fatalities ever with 161 deaths.