Wednesday 19 September 2018

'The system failed' - Parents of boy (6) killed in hit-and-run question why driver was granted licence

Edmond Walsh suffered two previous traumatic brain injuries and was on 18 tablets a day when he was driving

Jo and Stephen O'Donovan, parents of Luke O'Donovan (inset)
Jo and Stephen O'Donovan, parents of Luke O'Donovan (inset)
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

THE parents of a "Super-Hero" six year old boy who died after a hit and run collision have pleaded for tougher driver licensing controls after it emerged the motorist involved had suffered two previous traumatic brain injuries and was on 18 tablets daily.

Stephen and Josephine O'Donovan, who lost their only child, Luke (6), in the 2014 collision issued the appeal as they said they didn't want any other Irish family to suffer the devastation of their loss.

Luke O'Donovan
Luke O'Donovan

After their son died in the hit and run, the heartbroken parents agreed to donate his organs - and four people underwent successful life-saving surgery as a result in Ireland and the UK.

"He was our Super-Hero - we always taught Luke that caring is sharing or sharing is caring. I suppose this was the ultimate example of that," Mr O'Donovan said.

"He is our little Super Hero now and he would have loved that. It (the organ donations) is a spark of light - it is a comfort."

The motorist involved, Edmond Walsh (51) of Ballyherode, Ballymacoda, Co Cork received a two year suspended prison sentence and was banned from driving for 10 years arising from the incident in Ballymacoda on April 16 2014

Mr Walsh pleaded guilty before Cork Circuit Criminal Court last May to failing to remain at the scene of an accident and failing to offer assistance to someone who had been hurt in an accident.

After the collision, Mr Walsh failed to remain at the scene and drove home to tell his elderly father what had happened.

He has since vowed never to drive again.

Luke's father was fixing his car's radio at his home when he heard the sound of what he thought was a car door being loudly banged shut at 1pm that day.

Jo and Stephen O'Donovan, parents of Luke O'Donovan who was killed in a traffic accident.
Pic from Provision
Jo and Stephen O'Donovan, parents of Luke O'Donovan who was killed in a traffic accident. Pic from Provision

"I looked left and I saw something falling from the sky," he told the inquest.

"It hit the footpath and rolled over twice. I realised that it was Luke."

As Mr O'Donovan desperately tried to aid his son, the car involved - a silver 2002 Ford Focus - drove off despite the anguished father shouting for it to stop.

Luke had apparently stopped playing computer games in his family home to cross the road, stand on a fence and see if a local friend had arrived back to his house.

The collision occurred as Luke was re-crossing the road to his own home.

In a statement to Gardaí, Mr Walsh insisted he was driving under the speed limit and could not avoid the collision.

"He ran out in front (of me) - there was nothing I could do."

Another passing motorist, John O'Brien, said he saw Mr Walsh brake and swerve while driving through Ballymacoda village.

He saw smoke coming from the wheels of Mr Walsh's car.

"I saw something on the ground and I thought it was only a football."

Later, he was shocked to hear a child had been involved in a serious collision and guessed, from the time specified, it had involved Mr Walsh's car.

Coroner Philip Comyn heard that Mr Walsh, a farm labourer, had suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of two serious falls in the 1980s and in 2006.

He was left unable to work as a farm labourer and did part-time work collecting glasses in a local hotel.

The inquest also heard from a Garda that he had speech and responses which were "pedantic and child-like."

Mr Walsh had restricted movement to one arm and one leg, requiring him to drive a specially adapted vehicle which was automatic and had steering wheel mounted controls.

Despite this, he had a driving licence first issued in 1989 and which was valid until 2016.

It was reissued in 2010 without Mr Walsh having to re-sit his driving test or without having to undergo any specialist medical assessment for his cognitive responses.

"We don't want any other family in our situation - yes, what happened on the day happened on the day," Mr O'Donovan said.

"But you can roll the clock back and ask was this person even fit to be on the road? If he had been flagged earlier he might not even have been driving that day at that place."

"The system failed - something failed somewhere down the line and we dealt with a driver who obviously didn't have the capability of driving responsibly or being responsible for their actions like the rest of us are when we get behind the wheel."

The O'Donovan family now want tighter controls on the driving of all those who suffer traumatic brain injuries or who may have a health condition which impacts on their cognitive functions behind the wheel.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and issued a recommendation that details of the Luke O'Donovan case be brought to the attention of the Road Safety Authority, National Driver License Service, Insurance Ireland and the Irish Medical Organisation.

Luke's parents appealed to anyone - from family members to neighbours and medical professions - to use the Garda Traffic Alert system to raise concerns about anyone whose fitness to drive they may have concerns about.

Such worries can be raised on an anonymous basis.

"Raising concerns about that person and their driving might end up saving the life of someone," Mrs O'Donovan said.

The couple want re-testing of all those who have suffered injuries or health issues which could impact on their driving capabilities.

Mr Walsh had his license renewed in 2010 with just two notifications listed - that he was fit to drive a specially adapted vehicle and that his license renewal be subject to a valid medical report.

Solicitor Ken Murray, for Mr Walsh, told the inquest he had been deemed fit to drive by a GP.

After the accidental collision with the youngster, Mr Walsh drove home and asked his elderly father what he should do.

Mrs O'Donovan said it was clear the driver's cognitive functions were impaired.

"This man, I would say, has the mentality of a child. He ran home to tell his Dad, he got home to tell his Dad. But Luke didn't get home to tell his."

During the collision, the front license plate of Mr Walsh's Ford Focus car became detached and fell onto the roadside.

Mr Walsh admitted everything that had happened when Gardaí arrived at his home a short time later.

Mrs O'Donovan said she was "very concerned" that after the fatal collision Gardaí had no legal mechanism to stop Mr Walsh from driving had he not voluntarily agreed to do so.

A post mortem examination by State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy found that Luke died from a brain injury sustained due to the acute acceleration and then deceleration of his head and body following a road traffic collision.

"There was a severe and unrecoverable damage to the brain. He would have been unconscious from the moment of the impact."

In a harrowing victim impact statement, Mrs O'Donovan described her son as "an absolute joy" whose loss had left them devastated and heartbroken.

“We had Luke late in life. We were both in our 40s. We had given up on ever having children when we discovered Luke was on the way," she said.

"The absolute joy he brought us was the most beautiful we had ever experienced in our lives.

“Nothing we have experienced would compare to the absolute joy of becoming Luke’s mum and dad.

“Luke developed a charming personality. When asked to sing he would make up his own song. He would dance at the sound of anything that remotely sounded like music with absolutely no inhibitions and sometimes no music at all."

"He talked for Ireland. Every occasion became so exciting. He was a popular child, loved school, and had to make friends everywhere he went.

“To have Luke taken from us so cruelly is beyond devastatingly painful. How do you describe a pain that is so intense, for which there is no pain relief, and a sadness that is so immense that it touches every occasion, joyous or sad? It is difficult to find words that adequately describe it."

“Our world has ended but we continued to live. No parent should have to say goodbye to their child or have to organise their funeral when they should be organising their birthday party."

“I am now sentenced to life being a mother without her child and my husband a father without his child."

"Living through all the occasions without Luke that would have been so nice and beautiful if he was alive."

"Losing an only child means that this branch of the family tree has been brutally cut off and will never grow again."

“When Luke was alive our days revolved around all the things that kids do."

"Now we have to avoid it as it is too painful. So now we will have to journey on without Luke and do our best to live our lives in honour of him.”

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News