Wednesday 18 September 2019

Road-crash blackspot reputation: How these kids are taking on a new class to change the county's driving culture

A new initiative aimed at cutting road deaths will begin in a Donegal school next week. Kathy Donaghy reports on a programme which it’s hoped will change the county’s driving culture

Tragedy: The Volkswagen Passat, in which seven friends were killed, is removed from the crash scene on July 12, 2010, in Donegal. It is the worst single road-traffic crash in Ireland’s history. Photo: Paul Faith/ Inset Photos: North West Newspix
Tragedy: The Volkswagen Passat, in which seven friends were killed, is removed from the crash scene on July 12, 2010, in Donegal. It is the worst single road-traffic crash in Ireland’s history. Photo: Paul Faith/ Inset Photos: North West Newspix

In the heart of the Inishowen Peninsula, pupils at Carndonagh Community School (CCS) are preparing to take on a new module in their education. This one has the power to save their lives.

It’s no accident that Donegal is the first place where the new initiative has begun. The county has a reputation as being a road-crash blackspot. And while the figures show it hasn’t been the county with the most road deaths in recent years, it certainly has seen crashes where there have been multiple fatalities. Several of these have been in Inishowen, the country’s most northerly region.

Pro Social Ireland, a voluntary organisation and a member of the Donegal’s road-safety working group, is spearheading the new education project which will now be delivered to Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) students at CCS. And it’s hoped that the project will be rolled out to schools around Donegal in the coming months.

At the school, 12 fifth-year LCA students, aged 16 and 17, will be the first group to undertake the course. Most of them can drive but say they’re not allowed on the roads. All want a car and are enthusiastic about the type of car they would drive.

The ‘Boy racer’ ­stereotype

But they are also sick of the prevailing attitude that just because they are young men coming of age that they will be reckless behind the wheel; that all young men in Donegal are “boy racers”. They are conscious of the fact that because they live in a rural part of the country where public transport is limited, the car will have to be a big part of their lives, but they feel they are discriminated against because they are young and male.

Adam Doherty (16, pictured top) from Culdaff says people should have “a wee bit of faith” in the future generations of drivers and says premiums where young drivers starting off have to pay upwards of €4,000 to get insured is too much. And he says he’d be willing to have a driver camera on the dash of his car to monitor his behaviour if it would make a difference.

Adam believes it’s always young people getting tarred with the brush of being reckless, but he says if more speed cameras were in place, it would have the effect of catching out anyone engaged in careless or reckless behaviour. Asked what would change the statistics around road deaths in Donegal, Adam says “experience and practice” are the answers, but sometimes young people are caught in a vicious cycle of not being able to get either because they can’t get insurance.

Reese Crossan (16, middle), also from Culdaff, says he hopes the course will make him “smarter” when it comes to his driving. Speed, he believes, is the biggest reason for crashes — and when asked why young people speed, he says some people do it to impress others.

The speed factor

Even if there was better public transport, he says he’d still want to drive so not to be stuck to a timetable and have the freedom to come and go.

For 16-year-old Gareth McCandless (bottom) from Carndonagh, the recent road-safety roadshow that many students in Donegal attended was “depressing”. He says the big problem on the roads is people showing off, and the behaviour some people engage in by “diffing”, or driving the car in circles to make tracks known as doughnuts on the road.

And while he says the Donegal International Rally brings people to the county, it does have the effect of making some people act “stupid”. However, he says it’s not just young people acting recklessly. “There would be 40-year-olds doing it as well,” he says.

Andrew Murphy (16) from Carndonagh says for him the only way to change things on Donegal’s roads is to ensure that there’s a maximum speed limit on a car. “The cars should be governed down. I would be happy with that — once you go above a certain speed, the car would cut out.”

Andrew says he’s witnessed reckless driving on the roads but says young people get a bad name. “If I was driving, I would respect other people on the road. There’s lots of road users who take a very dim view of people speeding. My father is a very careful driver. He never goes above 60. I think if there were more speed cameras, it would help — if people got a fine they’d know all about it,” he says.

LCA co-ordinator at the school Martin Cavanagh says while the programme is in its infancy, parents have been hugely enthusiastic about it. And he says the school, as a big part of the community, is happy to take on the programme because changing behaviour is in everyone’s interest.

“We are trying to buy into the kids’ love of cars and driving. It’s saying you respect your car and that driving is a good thing. Sometimes the message is that having a car is a bad thing. Building on that, we’re trying to educate them and change behaviour. We can’t say this is going to definitely make a change but we have to take that step,” says Mr Cavanagh.

For Paul McCusker, a member of Pro Social Ireland — the voluntary body which is delivering the school’s project, changing the culture of driving in Donegal will be a slow process but one on which huge work has already been done.

An act of rebellion

While he says the Donegal Road Safety Working Group, which is made up of gardaí, the Road Safety Authority, the county council and Pro Social Ireland among others, is getting its message across to many, other groups are trickier to communicate with.

He gives the example of young men “diffing” outside a graveyard when the coffin of a young man who died in a road crash was lowered into the ground and others doing the same outside the house where a young man was being waked as examples of the extreme car culture in parts of Donegal.

“It’s almost like a tribal ritual and it’s ingrained in the culture. Sometimes young men get sucked into a mindset like it’s almost an act of rebellion to buzz around the town in a car on a Saturday night. They see themselves as modern outlaws,” says McCusker.

“What we want to do is start engaging young people in a conversation. Nobody is finger wagging. The course will have five pillars including emotional control, which is about understanding what the triggers are when you act a certain way when driving. Another pillar is driving under the influence. Immediately you would think of drink and drugs, but there are so many influences like your mates egging you on or people in the back seat,” he says.

“Part of it is learning how to say no. You don’t have to get in a car if you’re not comfortable. It’s about building those skills and getting people to think ‘I have more power here’ before they get into a car. It’s really about saying to people ‘you are worth more than this’,” says McCusker.

Respecting your car

Another pillar of the course is entitled ‘The power and the passion’ where the Pro Social group has asked a car industry insider and “complete petrol head” Hugh Myles to talk to the kids about respecting their car and respecting how they drive it. “We want to take the kids on a journey from where they are now and bring about attitude change. When we’re finished, we hope they will have discussions among themselves about all this. It’s about getting people to look into their own heart and soul about these things,” he says.

Last year, the Road Safety Authority (RSA) awarded its leading lights road safety award to Pro Social Ireland for its work in rehabilitating dangerous drivers in Donegal. That work in trying to change behaviour in Donegal fits in with what the RSA is doing nationally.

Spokesman Brian Farrell says while Donegal has been seen as an accident blackspot, the statistics show it’s not the worst county. While 10 people were killed on the roads in Donegal last year, there were 13 road fatalities in Tipperary, 17 in Limerick and 10 in Galway.

However, Farrell says the rally culture is unique to Donegal and that this seems to play its part in what’s happening on the roads. “Unfortunately for some, the car is seen as a source of entertainment and not transport,” he says.

Every year, the RSA works with Motor Sport Ireland on a road-safety campaign around the time of the Donegal Rally. This year that campaign was called ‘Keep the Race in its Place’. In its own bid to talk to young drivers who do not heed the road-safety warnings, the RSA is currently working on a new campaign which features international rally driver Craig Breen (27) from Co Wexford.

Farrell says it’s hoped the campaign will target those young men who are keen rally fans. “It’s important for us to get into that space and for young men to hear the safety message from a man they look up to,” he says.

The head of the traffic corps in Donegal, Inspector Michael Harrison, says he hopes that things are changing on the county’s roads.

He says making drivers more socially aware on the roads is the key to continued improvement. And he says there’s a huge appetite among people in Donegal for the new driver education initiative that’s being pioneered at Carndonagh Community School.

“I can’t believe this has all come from just an idea at a meeting. At the launch of it so many parents were coming up to me in support of it, I was genuinely stunned. I am quite optimistic about it. It’s a different type of road-safety education. Others will watch us to see if this makes a difference and hopefully roll it out for themselves,” says Inspector Harrison.

Donegal's roads: a tragic history

The worst car crash in the history of the State took place on the roads of Inishowen when eight people lost their lives in a two-car collision on the road between Clonmay and Buncrana on July 11, 2010.

A Volkswagen Passat, driven by Shaun Kelly of Ballymagan, Buncrana, collided with a car driven in the opposite direction by 66-year-old Hugh Friel, who was on his way home from bingo.

Mr Friel and seven young men travelling in the car with Kelly were all killed as a result of the accident.

They were: Eamonn McDaid (22), of Ballymagan, Buncrana; Mark McLaughlin (21), of Ballinahone, Fahan; Paul Doherty (19), of Ardagh, Ballyliffin; Ciaran Sweeney (19), of Ballyliffin; PJ McLaughlin (21), of Rockstown, Burnfoot; James McEleney (23), of Meenaduff, Clonmany and Damien McLaughlin (21), of Umricam, Buncrana.

In December 2015, the court of appeal doubled the amount of time Kelly was to spend in jail. After pleading guilty in 2014 to dangerous driving causing the deaths of eight people, Kelly was sentenced to four years in jail with the last two years suspended.

But the appeal court ruled the sentenced was unduly lenient and ruled the appropriate sentence was eight years with the final four suspended.

In another multi-fatality car crash, five young people - four from Buncrana and one from Quigley's Point - were killed when a drunk driver hit their car in October 2005 at Cross outside the village of Quigley's Point in Inishowen.

In May 2009, 50-year-old Brendan Henderson of Seven Oaks, Waterside, in Derry was sentenced to four years in jail for dangerous driving causing the deaths of David Steele (23), Rochelle Peoples (22), Gavin Duffy (21), Charlene O'Connor (21) and Darren Quinn (21) on October 8, 2005.

In the early hours of April 30 this year, two teenage boys were killed in a single-car crash near Quigley's Point. Three other young men in the car were rushed to hospital. The deceased were named as Nathan Fullerton (17) and Nathan Farrell (18), both from Buncrana.

Kathy Donaghy

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