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Liz O'Donnell: To lose a loved one so suddenly is an irreversible assault


Young people console each other earlier this week at a memorial for those who lost their lives after the balcony gave way in Berkeley, California

Young people console each other earlier this week at a memorial for those who lost their lives after the balcony gave way in Berkeley, California

AFP/Getty Images

Young people console each other earlier this week at a memorial for those who lost their lives after the balcony gave way in Berkeley, California

To lose a loved one suddenly in an accident is an irreversible assault on a family. This reality came home to several Dublin families this week arising from the Berkeley tragedy in the United States, when six young Irish students were killed in a balcony collapse and seven more were seriously injured.

The whole country held its breath while the details and ultimately the names unfolded. There followed an outpouring of empathy and support from thousands of Irish people for the victims and their families. The airwaves were laden with stories of loss, bereavement and grief. Parents who had lost children as long as 20 years ago called in, often in tears, to testify of the pain and inconsolable grief for young lives stolen in similar tragedies.

In my role as Chairman of the Road Safety Authority, I have become more conscious of the visceral grief which follows road crashes involving a fatality. An average of 16 people die on our roads each month. Hundreds of people are therefore affected. It is the combination of shock, loss and violent death, which escalates the level of trauma for those left behind after road crashes.

Similarly, and often overlooked, is the life-altering impact of serious injuries caused in road crashes both for the victims and their wider families. The toll of death on the roads means that there is a significant cohort of Irish people with direct experience of this trauma. That is why the Road Safety Authority's mandate to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on Irish roads enjoys high levels of support. There is a constituency for road safety.

Since the formation of the Road Safety Authority, which works in close collaboration with other stake holders like the gardaí, emergency services, local authorities and the national roads authority, road crashes are greatly reduced. Last year, there were 195 fatalities on our roads compared to 427 in 1997 a drop of 58.5pc. While there is a welcome reduction in driver deaths, fatalities among vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, are up. Last year, four out of 10 people killed were pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists. Sixteen children died. So a new focus is now in place to raise awareness of and reduce these avoidable deaths.

Our once car-dependent country has really embraced cycling as an efficient and healthy mode of transport. While this is a welcome development, many motorists are nervous about sharing the roads with them. Most cyclists are cautious road users, but a sizable number continue to take risks, breaking red lights or the rules of the road, weaving in and out of traffic or not wearing proper gear and high-vis clothing.

This week was National Bike Week and the idea was to highlight the dangers posed to cyclists by trucks in particular. Launching a campaign highlighting the "Blind Spots" campaign this week, it was shocking to note that between 2007 and May of this year 54 vulnerable road users were killed in collisions involving trucks. So a high profile campaign is now in train including a video demonstrating the fact that if you cannot see the truck driver, he cannot see you.

Consideration is now being given to introducing fixed penalty fines for errant cyclists. And with ten thousand cyclists now cycling in and out of Dublin on a daily basis, and many more using the city bike scheme, it is inevitable that some controls now need to be introduced to improve safety for both cyclists and other road users.

Dublin City Council's controversial plans for the traffic management of the city are all part of a realisation by local and national government that proper planning and traffic management can make a huge difference to quality of life for citizens. With increasing numbers of people taking to the bike for health and exercise reasons, road space must accommodate their needs and safety.

Car users, so used to dominance on the roads, need to accept that they must share the road space safely with other slow modes.

As societal norms and behaviour change, the law adapts accordingly. We have significantly changed human behaviour in relation to drunk driving, by tough penalties and enforcement. Drug-impaired driving is finally to be tackled in similar fashion by medical kit testing for drugs in the system. This will build on the initiative started this year to detect drug-impaired drivers by roadside tests by the gardaí.

The unlawful use of mobile phone use while driving is proving more difficult to enforce but the message is getting across to the public that this is dangerous driving and punishable with a fixed charge fine and penalty points. Using a mobile phone, either hand-held or hands-free, is a distraction for a driver. One is four times more likely to have a crash when using a mobile device.

Similarly, our research in the RSA is now focusing on other distractions in a car. We all do our utmost to protect our children. But, the most dangerous place one can place a child is in a car, which is why there is a renewed focus on ensuring that the car seats we use are fit for purpose and properly installed.

Yet child passengers are very distracting for parents when driving. Studies have shown that parents can spend up to 20pc of a journey being distracted by a child. Parents admit to being conflicted between being a good parent and a good driver. But in a split second when distracted by a child's needs, a vehicle can veer into the path of another with calamitous consequences.

Young male drivers with their propensity for speed, risk and recklessness remain a high risk cohort. Hundreds of parents have had the brutal experience of responding to that knock on the door with the bad news. Many more are caring for seriously injured youngsters with disabling and life-altering injuries. The burden of pain and loss they carry needs to be acknowledged.

Ironically, the national response of solidarity with the Berkeley tragedy this week has given voice to and recognition for so many other grieving families who have collided with similar tragedy.

Irish Independent