Road deaths in 2021 dropped to a record low, but a local road safety campaigner who is appearing in a new TV series says there is still work to be done
Provisional road collision statistics show that the number of road deaths in Ireland in 2021 dropped to a record low, making it the safest year since road deaths were first recorded in 1959.
A total of 134 people died in 121 fatal road collisions in 2021 compared to 146 deaths in 135 fatal road collisions in 2020. This represents 12 fewer deaths or an eight per cent drop in road fatalities compared to last year. The figures were published by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) on New Year’s Day, following an analysis of provisional fatal collision reports by An Garda Síochána.
However, behind each road fatality is a grieving family and lives irrevocably changed.
Christina Donnelly knows this only too well.
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.
Reflecting on 2021, Christina is glad that there has been a reduction in road fatalities.
“A reduction in road deaths is something we all want to see but you still have to be so focused,” she says. “Throughout 2022, we can’t take our eyes off the ball.”
Despite the overall reduction in deaths during 2021, there were some horrific road fatalities in the closing weeks of the year.
“I felt such sadness – I’d say the whole of the country felt it,” says Christina. “The number of fatalities between Christmas and the New Year was catastrophic. My heart broke for the families involved as I know what they are going through. We don’t know the causes, and I’m not for one moment saying that these deaths were drink related, but they are all lives which have been lost on our roads.”
“Brendan is always with me – but he should be here physically,” says Christina Donnelly. Photo: Noel Browne.
Living with grief
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.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t catch my breath,” she says. “I still cannot come to terms with the way Brendan died. Every single day I kiss his picture beside my bed, and I think of the dreadful waste of a life.”
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 is keen to keep Brendan’s memory alive and always strives to mark each milestone.
“Brendan is always with me – but he should be here physically,” she says.
Christina is particularly moved whenever her beloved seven-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.”
She says Brendan’s anniversary is emotional each year.
Christina marking Brendan’s birthday with her grandson Sean Brendan.
“I go straight back to the time of the crash,” she explains. “Not just the exact date but all of the events around it. It’s pure hell. I go back to the funeral Mass and the time spent standing in the funeral home picking out a coffin. I was so angry. I should not have been standing in a funeral home picking out a coffin for my son – I should have been picking out a Christmas present.”
On the day prior to our most recent chat, Christina had travelled from her home in Faithlegg with her family to the majestic Comeragh Mountains on what was a beautiful January day. They explored the beauty of the Mahon Falls and experienced the thrill of travelling along the ‘Magic Road’. The visit was special as Brendan loved the great outdoors of County Waterford.
“I felt emotional, but I felt very much at peace after being out there,” says Christina. “When I came home, I was delighted I had gone. I felt a little sad going, but when I got there, I felt Brendan was with me.”
Another location where Christina experiences great comfort and solace is beautiful Bonmahon, which was another location adored by Brendan.
“The people of Bonmahon very kindly allowed me to commemorate a seat to him and plant a beautiful tree which I called ‘the tree of life’,” explains Christina.
She regularly visits Bonmahon and enjoys moments of contemplation on Brendan’s bench and says she is eternally grateful to all involved who assisted with the project.
The memorial bench dedicated to Brendan in Bonmahon.
Christina has been an active participant in the 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 each November but did not take place in 2021 due to Covid-19.
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.
“But it’s not a club we want to be part of,” she says.
Christina has summoned strength and courage to continue in her role as a respected and high-profile national campaigner for road safety.
In November 2010, Anthony Long (then aged 29) was given a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing the deaths of Brendan and Lee, 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.
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 Christina has often been challenged over her views.
Buoyed by her unconditional love for Brendan and her quest for justice, Christina has refused to back down whenever she has been challenged.
“I’ve been pulled up many times,” she says. “In the beginning it hurt me, but not anymore.”
Christina believes arguments put forward in defence of rural Ireland are 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.
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.”
She believes this personal responsibility 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.”
Christina 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.
Having achieved so much already, Christina is once again turning her attention to what she believes are far too lenient sentences for drink driving. From reading court reports in relation to drink driving offences, she is shocked at some of the outcomes.
“I still cannot understand the sentencing and the slap on the wrists that many who are convicted of drink driving, and have caused catastrophic injuries and death, continue to receive.”
She continues: “Many don’t serve their full sentence, and for me that really doesn’t sit well. If you’re given five years, you should serve all of that, and when you come out it has to be mandatory that you attend some sort of rehabilitation course, report to a Garda station, and comply with everything in relation to road safety to show that you are not a danger to society.”
Christina believes some judges are “living in a bubble”.
“They don’t have a clue,” she says. “During court proceedings, many families feel all the attention is on the defendant and how they got things wrong. The family are often like second class citizens. Hundreds of families will tell you this. Adding insult to injury is the sentencing.”
Christina is determined that this issue will form her focus for 2022.
“It’s been on my mind a lot,” she says. “I’ve thought about it and talked about it, and it just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m disgusted when I see some of the sentences which are handed down to people caught drink driving.”
At a political level, Christina still feels there can often be a blasé attitude about addressing the issue.
“We follow suit with other countries when it comes to other issues, and we have our politicians spouting about different issues and saying Ireland is following suit. We want to be the best boys and girls in the class in so many ways and with so many issues, so why can’t we take the lead with drink driving?”
‘Crash Scene Investigates’
Christina will appear in a new Virgin Media series entitled ‘Crash Scene Investigates’ which begins next week. The programme reconstructs and re-tells the stories of fatal Irish road traffic accidents with contributions from bereaved families, first-responders, Garda and forensic investigators.
Christina describes the series as “very hard hitting”.
“It shows what happens if you drink and drive, the destruction caused to families, and the life that is left behind for us to pick up,” she explains. “Some people may find it difficult to watch but it’s absolutely essential viewing.”
She adds: “It sounds like a cliché but, as a mother, the reason I committed to the production is to save lives. The vast majority of people will not drink and drive, and hats off to them, but there are still people drinking and driving and a small minority can do an awful lot of damage.”
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.
‘Crash Scene Investigates’ airs on Virgin Media One on Tuesday January 18th at 9pm