Using satellites against speed

Despite proof of its value, satellite-based GPS is being overlooked by the Department of Transport

The Department of Transport's Road Safety Strategy 2004-2006 (RSS), aimed at reducing road accidents in Ireland, overlooks a proven deterrent to irresponsible driving – speed surveillance through the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS).

Traksure, an inexpensive motor insurance policy devised by O'Reilly Cullen Insurers, uses GPS to record the speed and location of vehicles insured under the policy every 15 seconds. A digital grid of roads and speed zones enables O'Reilly Cullen to identify speed transgressions and issue warnings where appropriate. Drivers found to be habitual speeders will be returned to a full insurance policy and will incur the corresponding insurance premium.

Traksure is available to young male drivers, Ireland's most dangerous motorists. According to the RSS, a 17-year-old male is seven times more likely to be involved in a car accident than a middle-aged man. Almost half of all fatal or serious injury road accidents from 1997-2000 were caused by 18-34-year-old male drivers.

The National Safety Council (NSC) says that over 40 per cent of fatal accidents are caused by excessive or inappropriate speed. Since Traksure's launch in September 2001, only 13 of the 2,700 policy holders have been identified as habitual speeders. This corresponds to a speed compliance of 99.5 per cent and contrasts starkly with statistics reported in the latest RSS – 99 per cent non-compliance in 30mph limits, 82 per cent non-compliance in 40mph urban arterials, and 44 per cent non-compliance on all national single-lane roads, the most hazardous road category in Ireland, on which over 80 per cent of fatal collisions occur.

Mr Dermot Cullen of O'Reilly Cullen Insurers said that, in his opinion, GPS-based speed capturing would result in a "dramatic reduction" in road accidents. Mr Cullen said that although the Department of Transport knows about the use of GPS, it intends to continue using its existing systems.

Traksure is underwritten by AXA Insurance, a sponsor of the road safety campaign by the NSC, the Government's safety awareness body. Why would the NSC ignore the positive results gained by its associate in safety awareness?

GPS was investigated by the National Road Authority (NRA) as part a workshop on Streetwise, one of several projects to deploy pan-European traffic control and traffic information facilities. However, the NRA's website says that the Streetwise initiative will "synchronise existing investments rather than form new initiatives", citing "insufficient funding" as the reason for this.

David Laoide Kemp of the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) division confirmed the NRA's position regarding GPS. Mr. Laoide Kemp said that despite GPS being "one of the best sources of information… no project is in place that involves GPS". Mr Laoide Kemp said that the NRA must be "careful not to invest too heavily in an untried technology".

A cost-benefit analysis on road safety, conducted by economist Peter Bacon, estimates that, apart from the human suffering caused by road accidents, the cost to the Exchequer of each road death is €1 million. That's almost €1.9 billion since January 2000.

Traffic accidents also impact on our health and emergency services. The Economic and Social Research Institute reported that from 1993-1997, traffic accidents accounted for 32,351 hospital admissions.

In addition to speed regulation, GPS provides benefits that the existing road safety system does not. Take secondary roads for example. A Garda spokesman said in an interview that black spots and secondary roads warrant greater policing but are often, by their very nature, too dangerous to police. GPS was traditionally used as a military tool to navigate unfamiliar terrain such as the Iraqi desert. It is unlikely that monitoring the wilds of Limerick or Cork will pose too much of a challenge.

GPS has also been useful in recovering stolen vehicles. Traksure records are not normally accessible by the Garda, but on occasion they have been provided, enabling the Garda to intercept stolen cars and make arrests.

Last weekend a further four people died in fatal accidents on Irish roads, devastating families and communities across the country. Road fatalities increased sharply in 2004 following an initial decrease after the introduction of penalty points in October 2001. Since January, 324 people have died in road accidents, 30 more than in the same period last year. (Figures are to 8 November).

The present road-safety system is fraught with inadequacies, and penalty points are not being enforced. The caution observed by motorists at the introduction of the points system has gradually waned.

The Bacon analysis says that road safety will yield an 800 per cent return on investment for the Government. The onus is on Martin Cullen to take a serious approach to road safety and dig deep into Brian Cowen's purse.