A Mother’s Love and Campaign for Justice

Christina Donnelly with a picture of her son Brendan who was killed in a road crash in October 2009. Photo: Noel Browne.

Christina Donnelly with a picture of her son Brendan who was killed in a road crash in October 2009. Photo: Noel Browne.

Sunday November 15th marks World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, when bereaved families come together in solidarity and support

Sunday November 15th is World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims and, as part of this annual global initiative, a local event has been held in Waterford for the past number of years.

Local woman Christina Donnelly is centrally involved in this Waterford event each year.

Christina, who is well-known for her admirable road safety campaigning, described last year’s event which took place at The Granville Hotel as being “filled with sadness and emotion” but also “beautiful”.

She spoke during that 2019 event and joined other bereaved families in remembering loved ones who have died on our roads. Christina is glad that the Waterford event has grown so much in recent years as she believes it offers an important support network to bereaved families and generates huge comfort.

“We may never have met before, but we all know what others are going through. We all have that same understanding,” she says.

On the day, in what is designed to be a celebration of the lives of the deceased, families light candles and place the names of their loved ones on a special memorial tree.

“We should be getting ready to write their name on a Christmas card, but instead we are writing their name on a memoriam card for a remembrance tree,” says Christina. “It’s heartbreaking for all of the families but there is also strength and hope. Families have always appreciated having that opportunity to come together.”

As with so many events this year, activities have moved online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Christina says the day will still serve an important purpose for grieving families and for further highlighting messages associated with road safety.

It’s 25 years since a day dedicated to remembering road traffic victims began to be observed internationally. For the first ten years, this was observed by the European Federation of Road Traffic Victims (FEVR) and its many member organisations.

With strong support from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Road Safety Collaboration (UNRSC) members, UN Member States adopted UN General Assembly Resolution 60/5 on 26th October 2005, calling for an annual World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims as an “appropriate acknowledgement for victims of road traffic crashes and their families”.

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims 2020 is aimed at providing a platform for road traffic victims and their families to remember all people killed and seriously injured on the roads; to acknowledge the crucial work of the emergency services; to draw attention to the legal responses to culpable road deaths and injuries; to advocate for better support for road traffic victims and victim families; and to promote evidence-based actions to prevent and eventually stop further road traffic deaths and injuries.

Brendan’s Law

Christina Donnelly knows only too well of the devastation which a road fatality causes.

On October 26th 2009, her son Brendan (24) and his friend Lee Salkeld (26) were killed in a road crash caused by a drunk driver outside Castlemartyr as they travelled with their partners to Cork Airport for a city break to Amsterdam.

In November 2010, Anthony Long (then aged 29) was given a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death, but he was freed after serving three years and seven months.

It emerged that he had consumed 11 cans and bottles of beer, seven pints of beer, two vodkas, three After-Shocks and a line of cocaine before attempting to drive home. The court was told he was driving “like a bat out of hell” when the fatal collision occurred. He fled the scene on foot.

Shocked by the circumstances surrounding Brendan’s death, Christina went on to campaign for a change in the laws in relation to drink driving. She was baffled when she realised that a drunk driver, regardless of how far over the limit they had been, could leave a Garda Station and get into a motor vehicle and drive until such time as they appeared before a judge.

Her campaigning resulted in the introduction of ‘Brendan’s Law’ – a condition whereby drunk drivers involved in fatal crashes would not be permitted to drive while awaiting trial. After many hurdles, her efforts finally came to fruition at midnight on October 26th 2018 (Brendan’s ninth anniversary) when new drink driving provisions of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2018 came into effect.

Unfortunately, Christina has become accustomed to hearing arguments against the imposition of stricter penalties in relation to drink driving. The debate surrounding this contentious issue rears its head every so often and is often raised by politicians representing rural areas.

Buoyed by her unconditional love for son Brendan and her quest for justice, Christina has refused to back down whenever she has been challenged. She has repeatedly clashed with the Healy-Rae brothers from Kerry who have consistently called for a more lenient approach to drink driving.

Christina believes the argument such proponents often forward in support of rural Ireland is a “cop out” and says politicians should come up with other initiatives if they are truly serious about addressing rural issues.

“Nobody wants isolation, and I wouldn’t wish isolation on anyone, particularly the elderly, but you can’t have one rule for one group and one rule for another,” she says.

Ongoing struggle

Christina has spoken to many school groups throughout Ireland on the importance of road safety and has featured prominently in national media discussions with her articulate and passionate contributions. She says her campaigning has helped in some way to deal with her grief but states that she never imagined she would end up in such a situation.

She admits she still struggles to come to terms with Brendan’s untimely death and says 2020 has been one of the toughest years so far due to an accumulation of factors but not necessarily because of Covid-19.

“The loss, grief, anxiety, and anger can hit you like a tsunami,” she says.

“You might look normal as you go around doing your shopping, but you are never the same. Something will always remind you of the person you lost and the fact that they are never coming back. Small things can set you off – I might be watching television and my eyes will veer towards a photo of Brendan or I’m standing in the kitchen when suddenly the grief and anger hit.”

Christina says there are times when it can feel “exhausting and emotionally draining”.

“It’s like wearing lead boots when you want to walk in a stride,” she explains.

She says the Christmas period is particularly difficult for her personally and for others who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

“There’s an empty chair at the table,” she says. “When you’re buying food for Christmas, you think about what they would have liked. When you’re buying a card, you see cards saying ‘Happy Christmas to a dear son’. It can leave you feeling empty.”

Nonetheless, she always strives to mark each milestone and resiliently declares that “life has to go on”.

“Brendan is always with me – but he should be here physically,” she says.

Christina is keen to keep Brendan’s memory alive and is particularly moved whenever her six-year-old grandson Sean Brendan poignantly speaks about his uncle.

She explains: “He knows Uncle Brendan was killed by a man who drank too much and then drove. He’s always talking about his Uncle Brendan and asking to light a candle for him.”

Personal responsibility

Despite a significant decline in activity on our roads earlier this year due to the country’s first Covid-19 lockdown, the number of road fatalities in Ireland has remained high throughout 2020. By the end of last month, 118 people had been killed on our roads so far this year compared to 111 for the same period in 2019.

The AA said it was “a major shock to those working in road safety” that road deaths increased during the last lockdown.

Christina describes this situation as “horrific”.  Along with drink driving, she says driving under the influence of drugs, speeding, and mobile phone usage all continue to be contributory factors.

She acknowledges that a lot of hard work is being done in attempting to improve road safety, for example through roadside testing and the penalty points system. However, despite all the publicity surrounding drink driving, Christina believes some drivers are still not heeding the messages.

She feels hugely frustrated with people who continue to drink and drive and has hit out at their “shameful and disgraceful” actions, adding that she cannot understand the mentality of such people.

“They have no comprehension of what they are doing,” she says. “I plead with those who continue to take a chance to stop and think about what it does to families. They just have to stop. They have no idea of the heartbreak they can cause families. Each individual must be responsible for their own actions.”

It’s this personal responsibility which Christina feels needs to be continually highlighted.

“It’s very simple,” she says. “With Covid-19, we are asked to wear a mask, wash our hands, practice social distancing, all of these things. The majority of people are complying, so why is it so difficult when we ask people to never drink and drive? It’s a small responsibility.”

She reiterates her belief that possessing a driving licence needs to be viewed as a “privilege”.

“When you abuse that privilege you lose the right to have it,” she says.

Christina hopes to see an increased Garda presence on the country’s roads throughout the upcoming Christmas period.

“People will take chances if they think they won’t get caught,” she says. “It’s not about being miserable. You can still enjoy Christmas. Have a drink at home and, if you’re going out, have a designated driver.”

Looking ahead to the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims this Sunday, Christina is certain that the day will prove special once again. Although families won’t be gathered in person, she says there will be ongoing communication throughout the day.

“We will ring each other and my message to all families will be filled with love and best wishes, asking them to stay strong,” she explains. “We have become members of a club that we didn’t ask to join. This is a life membership and we cannot leave.”

Waterford is certainly fortunate to have a campaigner of the calibre of Christina Donnelly who, despite having been in the depths of despair, has managed to channel her experiences and summon the energy to campaign for the protection of all of us who use the country’s roads.

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