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Gay won our hearts but not our minds

At the very beginning of the two-part documentary Impact: Tragedy on Irish Roads, presenter Gay Byrne, in his role as chairman of the National Road Safety Authority (NRSA), warned us: "This is not a happy programme."

He wasn't understating the case -- it was a miserable programme, full of pain and sadness and distressing images.

The remains of a car, for instance, crumpled and blackened like tinfoil left in an oven for too long, in which five young Donegal friends died following a two-vehicle collision on their way home from a nightclub.

The coroner's report revealed that the driver, Gavin Duffy, had been "as sober as a judge". The driver of the other car involved, however, was anything but.

Brendan Henderson, who initially pleaded not guilty but later changed his plea, had been drinking at a function from 6pm to 2am before he climbed behind the wheel.

Aside from the images, there was also the raw testimony of some of the parents, including Rose-Marie and Terry Peoples, whose daughter Rochelle and her boyfriend were among the victims, and taxi driver Patrick Quinn, who lost his youngest son Darren in the same crash.

It was Darren's older brother who broke the news to Patrick.

Kathleen Kirby lost her two sons in a separate crash. It appears their car had been travelling too fast.

While identifying her boys' bodies at the morgue, Kathleen recalled, she took her anger out on a picture of the Sacred Heart hanging on the wall, calling the image of Jesus Christ "a f***ing bastard".

In the rural corner of the country I live in, I've met a worryingly large number of people who have lost a loved one -- and sometimes more than one -- to road carnage.

When they can bring themselves to talk about it, they say it's the worst pain they've ever experienced.

It's something I, as a parent, hope I never have to cope with. Nobody can feel anything but sympathy for these people's suffering.

Yet the problem with Impact -- and it does constitute a problem when you're attempting to objectively review a documentary solely on its merits as an effective piece of television -- was that it never moved beyond the suffering.

As one harrowing tale of tragedy and loss followed another, they began to blur together.

Impact gradually lost its impact and started to feel like an extended version of the NRSA's adverts -- an impression reinforced by the presence of Micilin Feeney, a young man who appears in one of them.

Micilin had drunk "at least 12 pints" when he drove his car into a ditch; he was in a coma for five months and suffered irreparable brain injury.

Speeding is endemic on our roads -- as Gay Byrne pointed out here, it's a factor in one out of three fatal collisions.

Yet there was no attempt to put this into a wider context; no attempt to probe what kind of deeper cultural malaise compels young men (and it's usually young men) to drive so fast, so needlessly.

Nor was there any analysis of which areas of the country are worst affected by road fatalities. Impact appealed to heart and the emotions, but never to the head.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews Arts Lives: Of Blood and Lost Things (RTE1), a profile of thriller writer John Connolly

Stacey's Stars

Impact: Tragedy on Irish Roads **