Northern Ireland’s roads remain safe: possibly not at 111mph

Some good news was published by both the BBC and News Letter yesterday. There were 59 deaths on the roads in Northern Ireland last year, a rise from 55 the year before, but still vastly lower than in the past. Prior to 2010 the lowest number of deaths was in 2008 at 107. As the News Letter notes it is sometimes seen as distasteful to celebrate a reduction in deaths when people are still being killed but the reality is that the significant reduction in deaths must be noted, recognised and, yes; celebrated. To put it in context road deaths have been falling since the 1970s and are now about one seventh of what they were then despite a doubling of traffic volumes.

A number of reasons have been advanced for the reduction in road deaths over the past number of years but as I have mentioned before more important than enforcement etc. (important as that is) has been the improvements in road design: removing dangerous bends, junctions etc and major upgrading of dangerous roads such as the A4. The other huge improvement has been in car design: both passive safety with air bags, increasingly complex crumple zones etc. which help the occupants, those in other cars and even pedestrians; and also active safety. Modern cars have vastly better road holding and braking performance than those of even a few years ago often along with stability management programmes which can intervene to help rescue a motorist from an accident.

Accidents will continue to happen and human error is inevitable and not necessarily criminal. There is always the worry that sometimes in the case of accidents, motoring offences etc. some people are treated more harshly than others. A hypothetical young man in a “souped up” Corsa might receive a more serious punishment than a middle aged, middle class professional woman in a Range Rover. The young man’s accident might well be seen as careless, dangerous or reckless driving whereas the woman’s might be seen as merely momentary inattentiveness.

In this context a truly bizarre example is mentioned in the Impartial Reporter this week. Marco Pagni, Chief Administrative Officer of Alliance Boots (originally from Northern Ireland) was detected by the police doing 111mph at Lisbellaw on the A4 in a Porsche 911 GT3. Mr. Pagni is no doubt a competent driver and a GT3 is a very fast car which can be driven safely at high speed in the correct circumstances: The correct circumstances very clearly not being on the A4 at Lisbellaw. Mr. Pagni who already has 6 points on his licence for speeding and for using a mobile whilst driving was given 5 more points and a £500 fine (he apparently earns £1 million per year). According to the Belfast Telegraph:

The judiciary in Fermanagh has warned in the past that anyone exceeding 100mph would automatically lose their licence for a period.

From the Impartial:

Defence barrister, Mr. Brian Fee, described Pagni as a “very successful businessman” who was born and brought up in Northern Ireland. He now lives at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England.
Handing in a letter from Boots, Mr. Fee told District Judge Mervyn Bates that the company has a very significant number of branches and Pagni’s job requires him to undertake a very substantial amount of travel each year.
He submitted that the gravity of the case could be marked by a significant financial penalty rather than a driving disqualification, pointing out the Pagni already has six penalty points endorsed on his licence: three for a previous speeding offence and three for using a mobile phone while driving.

Had Mr. Pagni been a 22 year old driving a Corsa at 100mph on the A4 who had previous penalty points would he have avoided a ban? Had the hypothetical 22 year old been liable to lose his job in Tescos if he lost his licence would the judge have been willing to let him keep his licence? Consistency in applying the law need not be absolute – discretion is important- but there are limits and this case seems problematic in that regard.

When we are rightly celebrating reductions in road deaths, allowing an individual to keep driving despite doing almost double the national speed limit on a single carriageway road, risks sending out highly conflicting messages.

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  • Drumlins Rock

    This may sound stupid, but on a million a year surely he could afford to pay a driver, that would also free up his time to make phone calls?

    I would go for the liberal application of penalties normally, as I believe for the reasons stated excessive speed isn’t as dangerous as protrayed, ie. over 100 on a Motorway in light traffic and good conditions should not be an automatic ban, but the A4 ain’t a motorway at Lisnaskea!

  • Turgon

    Also worth noting that Porsche 911s usually have hands free car phones. That even includes the current and previous GT3 models (which are lightened sporty models) which have them as an option.

  • Rory Carr

    One law for the rich and another for the poor. Most unusual.

    Hanging’s too good for ’em, I say. (The bleedin’ judges that is.) I had that Lord Denham in the back of…

  • Drumlins Rock

    will take your word for it Turgon!

    Back to the main point and the reduced road deaths, ( this will probably be as popular as saying politicians should get paid more) should road safety issues now be given a lower priority in term of publicity and resources? If you reduced traffic enfocements by 50% and diverted the savings to suicide prevention would more lives be saved? or freed up police time to tackle criminals rather than motorists reduce stress induced illness?

  • Turgon

    The Porsche website has much useful information (trivia) like that.

    The evidence for improving roads and improving cars producing safety gains is pretty unequivocal. However, the evidence for enforcement is less so. The evidence for speed cameras is controversial at best.

    The enforcement of drink driving laws has been a success but much of it is due to a cultural shift which makes drink driving socially unacceptable.

    One could argue that tough enforcement of the speed limits and a cultural shift to making speeding socially unacceptable would help and to an extent that is what is being tried. However, there are dangers in this. If too low speed limits are enforced the whole thing becomes a laughing stock and the police would end up looking foolish and losing public support. Unenforcable laws without public concsent do not work.

    The current compromises work fairly well though speed cameras and enforcement especially in parts of mainland GB (particulalry North Wales) are now highly unpopular due to what one might consider over-enforcement. I have said before 80mph on motorways is probably reasonable (it is standard on the continent).

    Somewhat liberal enforcement on main roads is probably reasonable: the police might reasonably not give points to someone who reaches 75 briefly on the passing lane outside Lisbellaw especially if the road is quiet. A verbal warning / advice might be more effective and leave the motorist feeling grateful rather than antagonistic towards the police.

    The above, however, is where this decision re Mr. Pagni is problematic. The police arranged for prosecution and this individual will be seen by most in Fermanagh (and further afield) as having got away with 111mph (he still has his licence and £500 will not be much to him) which sends out very problematic messages especially next time a “normal” person loses their licence for doing 100mph.

    All this leaves aside one of the major problems on our roads which is that of elderly motorists driving very badly, almost randomly at times (Brownian motion?) and in addition driving much too slowly. This causes accidents as reasonable people get fed up being unable to pass (because they are not driving Porsche 911s) and making dangerous passing attempts. Then it is the person passing who is at fault and at times prosecuted. In contrast the dangerously slow elderly person continues blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake. One thing which politicians never seem to be willing to address (not just here) is driving tests for the elderly: remember there are quite a number still on our roads who have never passed a driving test. That said such is the complexity of the current driving test I do not know if I would pass it now: I am forever crossing my hands when parking / 3 point turning.

  • Los Lobos

    I would hazzard a guess that the price of fuel, coupled with a reduction in car journeys and the recession could well be a reason for the reduction in deaths on the roads. Speed does kill, thats just a fact. If anything we would need to be reducing the speed limit to 50 mph as they do in many parts of America. I know that a suggestion like that will go down like a lead balloon, however if you factor in fuel consumption whilst driving at under 50 mph, you begin to see the benifits of slowing down, it suits the character of Northern Irish people as well!

  • Turgon

    Los Lobos,
    “Speed does kill, thats just a fact.”
    You are of course completely correct. The problem is that if we want zero deaths then we need to have a speed limit of 20mph everywhere and even that is too fast. All speed limits are a compromise between allowing people to get to where they want to go and safety. Then there are the factors I mentioned above such a public acceptability of speed limits etc. Also of course motorways, our fastest roads are also our safest; and cars have got much faster yet road deaths have gone down.

    The death rates have been going down progressively for more than three decades now and that is not related to the cost of fuel but rather engineering of roads and cars.

    The whole thing is an extremely complex equation and does not lend itself well to sound bites. Personally I am a tediously law abiding motorist and only do 60-65 even on motorways party because (and I do mean it) I am extremely tight and resent spending money on petrol.

    Overall the compromise we currently have with moderately high speed limits is reasonable as is the current level of enforcement. My main complaints are the motorway speed limit (I think 80 is more sensible though I would not go at that speed) and mainly the way in which certain groups (mainly young men) tend to get much stiffer penalites than others- middle aged middle class women – and it seems millionaire businessmen in serious sports cars.

  • Turgon,
    Interesting that young men get hit harder. I have driven a lot in my career and I have always noticed over here that young women are the most aggressive drivers.

  • Skinner

    I hear you on the point of slow drivers causing frustration in other drivers and thus accidents. I can never understand why people are content to have a huge queue of traffic build up behind them without pulling over. Pulling over would take about 20 seconds even for a large number of cars to pass. But some people just carry on for miles, content to hold many people up when they wouldn’t be so rude in other walks of life.

  • Skinner

    And by the way, speed on its own doesn’t kill. It is inappropriate speed that kills. That is why I hate speed cameras – in some circumstances it is perfectly safe to do a speed that gets you 3 points and ends up costing you about £400 in fines and insurance premium rises. In such circumstances a policeman would recognise that you weren’t be unsafe and would probably give you a warning at the very most.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Skinner, I’ve yet to find a speed camera that seemed to be unjustified. It’s very easy to avoid speeding tickets – learn to drive properly.

    I agree though, it is inappropriate speed, rather than simply speed, which kills. As the autobahns show.

  • Skinner

    Comrade – I know of many that are unjustified. Take for example a speed camera placed outside a school that is designed to protect school children and where there is no other reason why the speed limit should be as low as 30 mph. Say for example I drive through at 2 O’Clock in the morning, in August, on a dry, straight road with not a soul anywhere to be seen. I am doing what appears in the circumstances to be an entirely appropriate, even slow, speed of 35mph. No police officer in his right mind would pull you up on it because he would use his discretion and determine that you were doing no harm at all. However the result of the robocop speed camera is that I am penalised to the tune of around £400 in total, which is more than I might suffer for randomly attacking someone in the street.

  • Comrade Stalin

    What’s the £400 thing ? Last time I checked you’d get £60 and three points.

    I’d say putting a speed camera outside a school in order to discourage people from speeding past at any time is justified.

  • Are there any laws in the UK regarding passing a school bus?

  • Skinner

    Comrade – £400 is a conservative estimate of the fine + 5 years’ worth of hike in insurance premium I had to pay for the wife’s 3 points.

    It’s very easy to say in the case of schools cameras are always justified. But consider it rationally and it wouldn’t be hard to be a bit more sophisticated in our application of justice. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to turn the cameras off at certain times of the night/year or just apply certain rules e.g don’t process any hits between 12am and 6am, or only those over 50mph or whatever. To say ‘it’s always justified’ just because the word school is in there is so crude it erodes people’s faith in the system.

  • We have some crossing traffic lights here which just operate at school entering and leaving times. A flashing light prior to these lights warn you that they are in operation.

  • Barry the Blender

    I do love these discussions Turgon raises about driving laws, but never seem to get in early enough to contribute.

    The £400 thing is a good point (possibly a conservative estimate). £60 is the upfront fine, but they stay on the licence for 4 years, increasing the driver’s perceived risk with insurers, although some will cease to take them into account after 3 years.

    The age old argument of speed =bad=death continues, and I might even throw in my own tuppence later, but I’ll leave everyone with a little snippet: in Derry there is a dual carriageway which is in a 30mph zone. If you know any others answers on a postcard.

  • Comrade Stalin


    What are you suggesting here, that they put a sign up saying “the speed limit won’t be enforced during off peak times” ? This is ridiculous.

    Why is it so hard for people to not speed ? If you sped during your driving test you’d have failed. If you can’t be bothered driving in a properly attentive manner then don’t complain about the consequences.

    Barry, what’s the dual carriageway called ?

  • Turgon

    Variable speed limits already exist. They have them on the M1 leaving Belfast and there are signposts to that effect. Furthermore they are common on the M4 in Wales and M6 in England (two mainland GB motorways I know well). It would be pretty straightforward to have variable speed limit signs outside schools and speed cameras which could respond appropriately.

    Take Groggan Primary school on the B52 from Randalstown to Portglenone. It is outside the new 40mph zone at Groggan. It would be entirely sensible to have a variable 30mph speed limit outside that school (complete with speed camera) at the times when the school is operating. Otherwise it is a straight road with good sight lines and 60mph is an entirely reasonable speed limit.

    Modern technology could easily achieve this and as skinner says public acceptance of laws is vital.

  • Barry the Blender

    CS, I had to get the map out. It appears to be a small section of the A2, between Ebrington Barracks and the Craigavon Bridge. It’s right in the middle of a 30mph and there are no signs at either end to indicate that it ever changes.

    But seriously 30 on a dual carriageway. That’s dangerous

  • Skinner

    CS – “If you can’t be bothered driving in a properly attentive manner then don’t complain about the consequences.”

    You’re missing the point. It’s precisely because I drive in a properly attentive manner than I object to the way some speed cameras are used. I can be technically exceeding the speed limit and be extremely attentive and of no unacceptable risk to anyone. I am fallible like anyone else but I do try to judge what’s ahead of me and adjust my speed accordingly. That means sometimes I deem it unsafe to do the full 60mph I am allowed to do on a B-road. Likewise I deem it safe to do 35mph in a 30 limit where the circumstances allow it. The modern use of speed cameras requires me to divert my attention from the road ahead and instead constantly scan for signs telling me the speed limit, then look down at my speedometer, then back for more signs. All of which makes me more likely to have an accident than if I just used my judgment.

    I understand there is a balance to be struck – we have learnt to our cost that we can’t trust everyone to decide what speed is appropriate. But we should try to avoid penalising those who do so correctly.

    (And don’t get me started on the driving test – the ability to pass it is a very poor barometer of competency.)

  • Turgon

    Your point from the last time we discussed this is also relevant. The 60mph speed limit was introduced about 40 years ago when cars were colossally less good than they are now in almost all regards. Although reaction times have not changed stopping times, road holding , active and passive safety have all come on massively.

    The 30mph speed limits always seem to be expanding. Clearly towns and villages tend to grow but equally some roads become less populated or additional measures to keep predestrians and cars apart are introduced yet it seems very seldom do 30mph zone contract of become 40 instead of 30.

  • babyface finlayson

    I would guess that for most people here, our regular journey (daily commute say) would be less than 50 miles. For that distance the difference between driving at 70 mph and 80 mph would be roughly 5 minutes, if my maths is right. Not a big saving.
    For urban journeys the time saved by breaking the speed limit would be even more negligible. So what’s the hurry?
    If you don’t like the speed limits, and I agree there are certain stretches of road where it could safely be raised, then write to your MLA.
    In the meantime just stick to it. It won’t affect your life greatly, but it might save someone elses.