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C’mon: Are “average speed” checks on motorways really necessary?

The Departments of Justice and Transport are very, very proud indeed of their latest innovation in the constant fight to detect criminally fast motorists. Very shortly, an end will be put to the days when some crook travelling at 130kph on the motorway could spot a garda car up ahead and gently ease on the brakes as they passed by. Now, they’ll be subject to average speed monitoring. Michael Brennan at the Sunday Business Post has the scoop:

Drivers will face automatic penalty points one of the country’s busiest roads next week due to the introduction of new average speed cameras.

The new average speed cameras have been tested on a stretch of the M7 motorway between Dublin and Limerick for more than a year.

They are able to determine if motorists have maintained an average speed of 120 kilometres per hour or less when they drive through a 15km section of the motorway in Tipperary.

Drivers who are found to have exceeded the speed limit over that distance will receive three penalty points and an €80 speeding fine. They will be notified in the post.

There is something more than a little vindictive about all of this. And there are legitimate questions to be asked about the use of resources, and the policing strategy in the round.

For starters, Irish motorways are incredibly safe: Though they are by far our busiest, highest speed roads, they also have comfortably the lowest rate of fatal accidents. That is for good reason: Motorways tend to be mostly straight, with great surfaces, good visibility, and a lack of oncoming traffic, because everybody is driving in the same direction. Modern cars on that kind of surface are designed to cruise (indeed, most are equipped with cruise control) at high speed and low revs. The speed limit is, of course, 120kph, but it there is a strong case to be made that that limit could comfortably increase to 140kph without a significant reduction in safety.

In other words, the question is this: What is the overwhelming public safety benefit to this expenditure on monitoring average speeds on a very safe stretch of road?

A cynic, of course, might suggest that the aim of this policy is less about increasing road safety, and more about increasing the Gardai’s number of issued speeding fines in a calendar year. Nabbing a few hundred motorists a week for the offence of averaging 126kph on a 15km stretch of road will make pleasant reading for a bureaucracy which measures its success, at least in part, on activity more than it measures its success in terms of outcomes. And the extra cash from the fines will not go to waste, of course.

But surely there are other roads more deserving of attention? As any resident of rural Ireland knows, the country is littered with small, dangerous roads where the speed limits are a frankly implausible 80kph or 100kph – roads where the bends are blind, the road surfaces are questionable, and the chance of encountering pedestrians or cyclists is much, much, higher than it is on a motorway. These roads, oddly, seem to receive very little attention for speed limit policing. Whereas it is almost traditional these days to find a garda car parked 100 meters past a spot where the speed limit drops – on a main road – from 100 to 80.

The net outcome, of course, is predictable: Our worst accidents almost always happen on bad roads. That is where speed really does kill, and where the Gardai are almost entirely absent.

It is very hard to look at the country’s speed policing policies, then, and conclude that they really are designed to save lives.

Talk to most politicians – and almost all regular motorists – and none of this will be controversial. They’ll admit it. But the issue, as always, in Ireland, is one of courage. A politician who openly says that the new average motorway speed policy is a lot of nonsense will immediately and predictably be savaged by any one of about 20 NGOs – from the road safety people, to the climate change people, both of whom seem to hate cars in their own way, but for different reasons.

It is not a coincidence that politicians like, for example, Michael Healy Rae, who speak out against this kind of thing are reliably re-elected. It is because the average person knows full well that the policy makes no sense, and tend to react well to politicians who say things that they know to be true. It’s an awful pity that some Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians lack the courage to join them. These people are supposed to represent the ordinary working people of Ireland who, once again, are being targeted by a vindictive policy drawn up by ideologues in the civil service. Just once – just once – it would be nice to see them doing their jobs.

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