Jo Sachs Eldridge from Leitrim Cycling Campaign and Cyclist.ie’s Executive Committee has penned this piece on the proposed speed reductions announced by the Minister last week, and how in particular they relate to rural roads.
At Velo-city[i], the international cycling conference, some years ago I tracked down speakers of many nations to quiz them about their rural roads – did theirs look like ours, did they have similar widths, volumes of traffics, speeds, could they help me demonstrate that the concept of ‘Rothar Roads’[ii] could work. The Swiss said no, the Austrians said no, the Slovenians said no, the French said no…and then I spoke to the Danish and they said yes! They said ‘we have roads like that and it works’ but then she laughed and said ‘but of course we have a different culture of driving in Denmark’.
As she saw it, that difference in driving culture was a fact.
And she’s right but maybe it doesn’t always have to be that way.
I went to a school where kids were regularly hit by teachers. Not so long ago you might have found yourself in a restaurant with people smoking at the next table. And driving home after a few too many drinks down the pub was the norm. All of these are almost unthinkable now.
Although there are some things that seem to be sewn into the fabric of our damp souls, we in Ireland do culture change well. That’s one of the strengths of this country. We are willing to learn new behaviours, adopt new attitudes, change our perspective.
I have huge hopes for the reduction in speed limits on our urban areas and rural roads. We probably all instinctively know that 80kph is not the appropriate speed to travel on those narrow, bendy roads with limited visibility. We know this yet we are sometimes confused by the signs we see as we enter such a road environment – the 80kph speed limit standing proud. Somewhere in our brain we think maybe it is ok. Yet the collision rates and road death statistics tell a very different story. In 2022 73% of road fatalities occurred on a rural road[iii]. This is not acceptable. The numbers of road deaths in any rural or urban area are not acceptable.
The speed reductions are not the answer, of course. As with many complex problems there is no one answer. But this is one huge step towards creating a very different kind of public space.
Some years ago, as part of the ‘Vision for Cycling in Rural Ireland’[iv], the Rural Cycling Collective called for changes on our rural L roads, our “Rothar Roads” as we call them. We know that in many road and street environments we need new infrastructure to create safe, segregated spaces for people on bicycles. We also know that the creation of segregated spaces on our narrow rural roads is often not feasible. Yet we also know those same rural roads already create an almost perfect cycling network.
So often these L roads have low motor traffic volumes, have smooth running surfaces, are often lined with beautiful bio-diverse hedgerows and crucially already connect us to where we want to go. What makes them less than perfect is the culture of driving – inappropriate speeds, particularly on blind bends, overtaking without allowing for safe passing distances, driving with the assumption there will be no one else on the road.
The proposed speed reductions are, I believe, the start of a new culture of driving in Ireland. The start of the creation of an environment where people walking and cycling on our rural roads really are ‘expected and respected’.
And I say this, not just as an optimist but as someone who has observed so many changes in our culture over the years.
I know we can do this.
With thanks to Joan Swift, Sligo Cycling Campaign and Damien Ó Tuama, Cyclist.ie National Cycling Coordinator, for their inputs on an earlier draft.