Wednesday 23 August 2017

'Dangerous drivers need to face a real fear factor'

As the road death toll continues to spiral, what can be done to stop drivers taking ­chances with other people's lives?
Raw pain: Patricia Gibbons and her sons Connor (15) and David (8) with a picture of James, at their home in Rahan, Co Offaly. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Raw pain: Patricia Gibbons and her sons Connor (15) and David (8) with a picture of James, at their home in Rahan, Co Offaly. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Road tragedy victims Gary Kelly and Delia Keary, both 18, from Clare

Graham Clifford

The screech of brakes, the thud of collision, flashing blue lights, a knock on the door, the news bulletins confirming the tragedy, mourning communities, heartbroken families - the impact of road traffic accidents on those involved and those left behind has become all too familiar on our island.

And what's more, the numbers are growing again - more deaths, more roadside monuments and floral tributes, more heartbreak.

But why? Why, after years of bringing down the death rates - 2015 had the lowest number of fatalities on Irish roads ever - are the statistics heading in the wrong direction again?

Last year, road deaths were up a shocking 15pc on the previous 12 months. In total, 188 people lost their lives on the country's roads compared to 162 a year earlier. The number of road deaths has risen in three of the last four years.

Road tragedy victims Gary Kelly and Delia Keary, both 18, from Clare
Road tragedy victims Gary Kelly and Delia Keary, both 18, from Clare

Gary Kelly and Delia Keary from Clare never thought for one second that they would be included on the list of the lost.

The teenagers were on their way to Killarney for a weekend away and died after being involved in a car accident with a truck in Limerick. Laminated cards with a photo of the couple on their graduation night were made available at their funeral Mass last week with the words 'Together Forever - Gary and Delia' - more tears, more heartbreak and incredulity.

"There is no one factor to explain why road deaths have increased as they have," says Brian Farrell of the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

"It is accurate to say that since the economy has improved again there are more people employed and therefore more drivers and vehicles on our roads. Inevitably because of that, there's a greater risk."

But the standard of cars has improved and roads are better - meaning it's the behaviour of drivers which is the main contributory factor in road traffic accidents.

"Alarmingly when we look at pre-crash reports and the forensic garda files we found that between 2008 and 2012, alcohol was a factor in 38pc of road deaths. When we exclude pedestrian fatalities from those figures, the rate was 29pc. That's a huge figure and so very worrying. In the UK, for example, that figure is nearer 15pc, in Sweden 5pc," said Farrell.

Transport Minister Shane Ross wanted to lower the drink-driving limit to zero units - but backtracked.

His plans to automatically disqualify drivers who are stopped and found to be over the alcohol limit has already drawn disapproval from rural TDs and Fianna Fáil.

The reality, though, is that without adequate and robust enforcement, any change to the drink-driving limit may not have the intended consequence.

"Over the last couple of weeks, families of loved ones who died in road-traffic accidents have been contacting us in dismay after learning the gardaí did not actually carry out almost one million breathalyser tests that they claimed they had," says Brian Farrell.

"They are very hurt, we are very frustrated. The families think if the level of enforcement the gardaí claimed was taking place around the country actually was, maybe their husband, wife, son, daughter, mother or father might still be alive. There's been a lot of pain after those inaccurate figures were revealed."

It was also disclosed that more than 14,500 people who were convicted for road-traffic offences are to have their convictions quashed because they were prosecuted incorrectly without a fixed-charge notice first being issued.

Moyagh Murdock, chief executive of the RSA, says there is a direct link between the levels of drink-driving enforcement conducted and compliance with drink-driving laws.

"The absence of credible and reliable enforcement metrics such as the numbers of drivers being breath-tested, makes it almost impossible to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of road safety interventions," she says. "This is especially valid in the context of the rise in road deaths over recent years."

In a nutshell, some drivers will take their chances on the roads after drinking in the strong assumption that they won't encounter a garda on their route. The revelation that gardaí, knowingly or otherwise, exaggerated drink-driving breath tests by almost 100pc appears to validate their misguided assumptions.

"From now on these figures need to be independently audited," says Brian Farrell. "The key is perception. If someone believes there's a good chance they will be stopped and tested, they are less likely to drink and drive. It's about introducing a real 'fear factor'. We've seen how that has worked in other countries where behaviours have been changed quickly through enforcement."

In 2012, Donna Price, from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, founded the Irish Road Victims' Association (IRVA), following the death of her son, Darren (18), in a car accident in March 2006.

She has stressed the intrinsic importance of enforcement if we are to 'Close the Gap' (the title of the RSA's current strategy) with the 'Sunflower' countries where road safety is highest: Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

"If we need more resources, then we have to put them in place because this is much too serious an issue. We're talking about real lives and real families here. If there is no enforcement, then we'll continue to have the dangerous drivers. We'll continue to have people taking chances with their lives and other people's lives. They'll drink and drive, they'll text and drive because there's little likelihood of being caught," she says.

Still, the highest number of fatalities on our roads were among those aged between 16 and 25. On average, around 75pc of fatalities on Irish roads in any given year are males.

"We do our best to put up notices and information, to target campaigns, events and places where we know there will be a high volume of young men," Brian Farrell tells Review. "So that could be at a big football international or in the local pub. We stress the dangers of speeding, or drink-driving, of being reckless on the road - but as we've repeatedly said, the need for enforcement is key if we're to close the gap with our European neighbours."

'I had to tell my six-year-old that his daddy was dead'

It's David's Holy Communion in May. He has his suit already and the bouncy castle is booked. But his daddy won't be there to high-five him outside the church.

James Gibbons died instantly on January 17, 2008, when the lorry he was driving for an agricultural contractor and haulage company collided with another truck outside Roscrea in Tipperary.

"I was working in a shop near our home in Rahan, outside Tullamore, when someone came in and said there'd been a terrible accident in Roscrea. I don't know what it was but I just got an eerie feeling," explains James' wife Patricia.

"I tried ringing James' phone but it kept ringing out. I eventually got hold of his brother who was working on the same job as him but he told me 'someone would be with me shortly'. My father and a neighbour came up to the shop to me. It didn't feel real."

The couple already had a son Conor who was six at the time. Patricia was 12 weeks pregnant with David.

"We'd just been for the first scan a week earlier and obviously were delighted that all was good with our baby. After the scan, James insisted on buying a buggy even-though I kept saying it was too early. I never used it but it's kept in a safe place."

Patricia and James met in Meath, she on a farm placement in Trim, he a local who loved his farming, his machinery, the GAA and his family. He was just 28 years old when he died.

Not a day goes by that Patricia doesn't cherish the memories of James.

"Sometimes David will get the DVD from our wedding day and stick it on. He watches it a lot even though he never met his dad. I try to fight back the tears when I see it but it's very hard. He tells me 'Mammy, don't cry'," says Patricia.

She recalls telling Conor that his daddy wouldn't be coming home that evening.

"I just brought him into the bedroom and said 'Conor I've some terrible news, Daddy is dead'. He was only six, I don't know what he thought. He went off watching television and couldn't understand what was happening or why so many people were in the house."

Conor is studying for his Junior Certificate this year. But while life moves on, time doesn't always heal, according to Patricia.

"It hasn't got easier. The pain is as raw and difficult as ever. Those left behind after a traffic accident have to pick up the pieces but everything is so utterly broken and shattered that it's impossible. Meeting other families in a similar situation helps, I suppose we can share each other's grief."

And everyday brings reminders.

"God, when I turn on the radio and hear that there's been an accident somewhere and people are dead I think 'the loved ones of that poor person will get the knock on the door that we got'. It's all so final. I just wish those behind the wheel could realise how easily things can happen. I see drivers flying by on the road and wonder if they even know how dangerous their actions can be. Life is precious, I hope they know that and take care."

Graham Clifford

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