Acceleration is the key to road safety

11th August 2000

ANOTHER 12 people lost their lives over the Bank Holiday weekend on the South’s roads. A total of 252 people have been killed so far this year, an increase of 15 over the same period last year.

A figure of 200 or so more will be killed before the end of the year. The word here is will because nothing can save them and the who is mainly a lottery.

Worldwide, some 250,000 people are killed in road accidents each year. No, an extra nought didn’t creep in there by mistake. A quarter of a million people lose their lives due to crashing in, or being hit by, moving vehicles.

What are we going to do about it?

Other countries have a better safety record than Ireland, like the UK. Even there the numbers killed run into many thousands each year.

It has been achieved by strict policing. However, an ageing population and a very congested driving environment has also helped.

Huge advances in safety have been made over the years. Roads have been subjected to traffic calming, alignments have been improved and surface conditions are better now than ever.

There has been a crackdown on drinking and driving and cars themselves have undergone significant changes.

But all this has only served to slow down the growth in accidents. Almost no inroads have been made into overall accident rates. Why is this?

Well, firstly to look at cars. Some of the improvements in car safety have led to a dis-improvement in safe driving.

Airbags, ABS braking and crumple zones have made car accidents more survivable. But there is evidence that they have also led to over-confidence.

Coupled with that is the emphasis that is placed on driver comfort. Road noise has been reduced and even with some cars ACR (Active Noise Reduction) means that no noise can be heard by the driver. State-of-the-art shock absorption systems smooths over the roughest bump on the road.

This puts drivers in a state of relaxation, completely at variance with their reality.

I think it’s fair to say that car design has not added significantly to safety.

The biggest culprit is, of course, the driver. Most attempts at accident reduction has concentrated on getting people to slow down. If recent figures are to be believed, Irish drivers have absolutely no respect for the speed laws.

There may be a very good reason for this.

Speed itself is not the problem. It’s where and when you speed that is the problem.

So drivers get very frustrated when they find gardai doing speed checks on wide safe stretches of road and close to 30mph zones.

Every schoolboy knows that motorways are the safest and fastest types of roads. Every schoolboy also knows that being struck at 40mph is far more likely to kill than at 20mph.

The problem for the authorities is that they can’t be there all the time exercising judgement in every single situation. Hence the crude absolute speed laws.

There is something that could be done that would have a major effect on driving habits, albeit in the longer term. Acceleration rates could be reduced.

If 0-60 in six seconds became 0-60 in 12 seconds the driving environment would be transformed.

Inappropriate speeds depend largely on the ability of the car to produce them. Therefore, in built-up areas where cars have to stop within short distances, overall speeds would be greatly reduced.

Drivers speeding along country roads wouldn’t be able to recover speed as fast after cornering. The usual mad overtaking manoeuvres would be impossible.

Cars would still be able to cruise at high speeds on motorways.

New regulations on acceleration could be enforced by simply changing the design of gear boxes. The overall power of engines wouldn’t have to be affected.

There would be downsides, of course, environmental and so on, but not a quarter of a million downsides every year.


As well as that…

Right on

Staying on the subject of road safety I see that the numbers of tourists from Britain are down and the numbers from America and Europe are up.

This means more people driving on the wrong side of the road. Apparently there are a number of fatal accidents here every year due to motorists used to left-hand drives.

I hired a car a couple of years back in Spain and the first day or so were a bit hairy, to say the least.

It can’t be right that people are let out in a car they don’t know how to drive. Perhaps the hire companies would be better supplying visitors with left-hand drive cars.

Babies & Airbags don’t mix

Finally on road safety comes the surprising news that an airbag can kill a baby.

Now, airbags have a mixed reputation and the earlier versions actually killed a lot of people. Popular Science magazine reported last year that a large number of people suffer serious neck injuries after airbag deployment.

The new information came in the form of a letter to the Irish Times from a car industry executive who warned that babies held in front seat carriers are a serious risk in the event of an airbag going off.