SEVEN years ago, I had a car accident. Nobody died, thankfully, but one person was badly injured. Not life-threatening injuries, but as he lay motionless on a dark road, with blood coming from his head, and I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I didn’t know that. All I could think of, as I stood there waiting, was of him dying and my life changing forever.
I was taken home, he was taken to hospital. I lay awake all night, shivering, waiting for a call to say he was dead. It never came. Thank God, he didn’t die. Had he, my life would probably be very different now.
It wasn’t my fault, so the guards confirmed. I wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t driving dangerously, the car was in perfect working order. Had he died, this would have been scant consolation. I know that, and that chastening knowledge has never left me.
Before the accident, I wasn’t a reckless driver, but I was confident, sure that risks could be taken while invincibility remained. Still, I am no more invincible on the road now than I was during my brief fling with speed. It only takes a split-second lapse in concentration to end up in the ditch or spinning out of control. Just a split second. But if you’re speeding the safety barrier of that split second is not there, that difference between life and death is removed.
Speed is killing hundreds of people on our roads every year. Many of them are young men; that’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. And too many young men like them are hiding behind a veneer of indignance at the suggestion that their dead friends were speeding. Do not dare speak ill of the dead, their angry looks say. Do not deign to question his driving habits, their reasoned explanations of their comrade’s fatal accident tells you.
In the aftermath of road tragedies in which a young person dies – sometimes several young people – it is left up to the local priest to warn of the dangers of speed on the road. And in doing so, he has to be mindful of the raw and excruciating pain of parents faced with the most unnatural task imaginable – burying a child. But why is it left up to the priest to be the conscience of road users? Why is he the one who must walk the delicate line between comforter and pontificator?
Acknowledging that someone died because they were speeding is not a reproof of the dead, it is a warning to the living. But it’s a warning that is not being given by the right people: the friends of the young deceased person. Why? Because issuing a warning might mean having to heed it too. It might mean having to reduce speed and accept responsibility as a road user. It might mean berating friends who speed.
Thousands of young people’s hearts are broken because of the deaths of beloved friends. Their heartbreak is genuine, as genuine as their love was. That is not in question. But wanting to avoid the same fate as your friend is not a betrayal of him or her. Wanting to spare your own friends, your own parents, your own little children the same heartbreak that your friend’s death caused you is not cowardly. It is courageous. It is the finest tribute you can pay to the dead.
Last week, Ann Moran of Westport addressed 1,000 second level pupils from all over Mayo, telling them about the tragedy that befell her family when her teenage daughter Regina was killed in a road accident. For her to go up there and speak about the most traumatic experience of her life took courage. And though she will never know how many, it is certain that her words will save lives. Her words will make some of those young people who heard them think twice about speeding or drink driving or being reckless behind the wheel. It will not bring her beautiful daughter back, but it will mean that her death was not entirely in vain.
If only more young people showed that same courage.