With young people continuing to occupy a leading position in Irish road fatality statistics, Peter Molloy talks to students to just how safe we are on the roads
Rewind just over a month or so, and UCD’s newly-formulated Emergency Response Plan is announced to considerable notice on campus. Particular attention is given, not least by this newspaper, to the point that the plan aims to provide a framework for responding to university emergencies up to and including “a hostage situation involving multiple students”.
Quizzical interest over that last contingency perhaps served to miss one very important point. The likelihood of any UCD student meeting a violent death in the near future as the result of a Columbine or Virginia Tech style firearms incident is – gratifyingly – extremely low.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a future sudden, brutal end to some of the lives on this campus is impossible. In actual fact, it’s statistically almost inevitable. The only difference is that the instrument of most of those deaths won’t be anything quite as dramatic as the weapon of an unhinged classmate. Want to see what’s overwhelmingly likely to take the life of at least one of the people that you’ve studied, worked or played beside during your time in UCD? Drop the paper, walk out to the car park and take your pick.
It might be the green hatchback with the furry dice mounted front and centre. The Nissan with the dented flank. Or the Golf with the muddied rims. Better still, in fact, stroll back inside and take a good look at yourself in a bathroom mirror. Forget any television nonsense about the one with the seatbelt doing the damage – in reality it could be just about anyone who closes a car door behind them, seatbelt or not.
Florid stuff so far, isn’t it? Depressingly, though, it’s also quite true. In 2008, 279 people lost their lives on Irish roads. 13.9 per cent of all car passengers who died during that period were in the 18-20 age bracket, with 12.9 per cent aged between 21 and 24. And that’s before we even get to the drivers. 9.7 per cent of driver fatalities in 2008 were aged between 18 and 20; just eclipsed by 11.4 per cent fatality rate recorded for those aged between 21 and 24.
I’m not making this stuff up. In fact, being an unreconstructed non-driver, I didn’t even know much about any of this prior to last week. If you don’t believe me, simply have a look at the relevant section of the Road Safety Authority’s website. Just don’t do it if you’re looking for information to put you in a cheerful mood on a March Tuesday.
Still, I don’t drive, so it won’t be me that ends up skidding across the tarmac of the N11 late some dark night. Won’t it?
And you? I’m sure you’re telling yourself precisely the same thing as you read. Driver or passenger, you know you won’t make the mistakes that some young people make on the roads, because you’re much too together for any of that.
I don’t really buy any of that, though. Enough of us must do the wrong thing on the roads, at the wrong time, or else the statistics wouldn’t be there to prove the lie. I talked to two students who have made precisely those mistakes, to see if there was anything worth learning from their experiences.
Matthew* is a 21 year-old Arts student in UCD – the acquaintance of a mutual friend. Usually in an article like this, we’d call him “Matthew” because that’s the name that had been selected to discreetly disguise his identity. In this case, however, “Matthew” himself has suggested the pseudonym – I really don’t know his actual name. All I have to work on are his outline details and the mobile number passed on to me. As we chat, I begin to understand why exactly preserving that anonymity is just so important to Matthew.
Slightly over a year ago, Matthew, then a young driver who’d just passed his test on the first attempt, got in his car after an evening at a friend’s house, started the engine, and set off down the road towards his home. As it transpired, he only made it just over five hundred metres. What should have been a five minute drive home ended up in an overnight stay in Dun Laoghaire Garda station – only the beginning of the inconvenience to come. Because before getting into his car for that journey home, Matthew had – by his own estimation – downed “… maybe seven or eight cans [of lager]”.
“It was stupid – very, very stupid. I’d been there for most of the evening… [I] had the car because I’d come straight out from work. I wasn’t planning on drinking at all, definitely not.”
But drink he did. Like any drunk driver in the country, Matthew took a very conscious gamble when he walked out to his vehicle later that evening; it simply didn’t work out for him.
“I wasn’t steaming drunk, but I definitely wasn’t myself. I… honestly don’t know why I decided to do it; it wasn’t as if it was a very, very long journey. I think I just reckoned I’d chance it, there and then.”
Less then a minute into his trip, Matthew turned out on to a main road, only to run straight into a Garda checkpoint.
“I admitted it straight away, even before the breathalyser came out or anything like that. My stomach absolutely dropped. I just remember thinking to myself ‘Oh no, you’re joking’.”
The end result for Matthew was a court appearance and a driving ban. He’s unwilling to elaborate on just how long the ban was, but I get the impression that he’s not back behind the wheel just yet.
“The embarrassment is absolutely the worst thing of it, no question. Even now, a fair bit on, I’m still very, very cautious about telling people about it or even really talking about the topic [of drink-driving] too much – I just don’t like to go near it. I do regret it hugely.”
Sean* was readily able to sympathise with that sentiment. Also 21, but not a current UCD student, he has had his own fill of driving difficulties. During his first semester in college, aged 18, he and three friends were involved in a serious car accident. On the surface of it, he was almost a stereotypical young driver.
“We were, I suppose you could say still are, maybe, kind of petrol-heads. Not boy racers, no, but definitely into cars and F1 and that sort of thing.”
In the early hours of an October morning, while travelling at speed down a Dublin road, a freak error saw the vehicle Sean and his friends were travelling in up-ended, before skidding on for nearly twenty metres on its roof. Although one member of the party was taken to hospital for overnight observation, astonishingly, no one was seriously hurt or killed.
“We were very lucky – that was probably what struck us most back then. [The next day], my mate gave me a lift down to where it had happened and you could actually see a trail of broken glass and bits of paint where it [the car] had flipped. We just thought it was amazing, and I suppose, a bit of an amazing story to tell to people.”
As time went on, however, the rose-tinted spectacles began to slip somewhat as Sean reflected on what had happened.
“I started getting panic attacks – very badly. I hadn’t any idea what it was at first, until eventually I went to my GP about it. For a while, it was absolutely dreadful. [I think] a lot of it was realising what could have happened that night, and having it come to the surface. It was very frightening.”
I’m keen to know if either young driver has any regrets having acted in the manner they did behind the wheel. Matthew is instantly contrite.
“Absolutely. I know you hear it an awful lot, but I really would do anything to wipe away what happened that night. I’m so grateful that nobody was hurt, that is what’s most important, but I do really wish that I’d never done it – full stop.”
I feel like I’m twisting the knife, but I still have to ask him. Would he still regret things if he hadn’t been caught?
“That’s fair enough, I suppose. I honestly think I would. Obviously, if I’d gotten home grand and there hadn’t been any bother, it probably wouldn’t be as quick to hit you, but I think I still would [regret it] now. It’s just stupid, that really is it.”
Sean takes more coaxing. When he initially tells me about the accident itself, he’s notably cagey when describing just how fast he was driving. Eventually, he elaborates.
“It was quite a… fast speed, yeah. I suppose you’ll always get a bit of that with young guys, egging each other on and all the rest. It’s a few years on, now, so I can obviously be a little bit more mature about it, so in that sense, my opinions have changed to a big degree. I wish we never had, there’s no two ways about that.”
Amidst the eventual remorse, however, there’s a flash of cold reality.
“I honestly really don’t know if you’ll ever be able to stop it completely. I think you always will have a bit of stupidity with young people our age.”
It might be nice to end things on a positive note. In this case, however, it’s somewhat hard to disagree with Sean’s gloomy assessment. It seems it could be some time yet before stories like those above become exceptions to the driving rule.
*Names changed on request