The most unenviable distinction of all must be the distinction accorded to Donegal: the fatal crash capital of Ireland. Weekend after weekend, the sad stories repeat themselves. Young people thrown to their deaths when speeding drivers lose control and a vehicle ends up as tangled mess of steel, embedded in a concrete wall.
One of the most striking sights of a drive through that northern county is the roads studded with black, spiral tyre marks, evidence of anti-social driving on a wide scale. It is an accepted fact that there is a long-standing culture of anti-social driving in Donegal, to the extent that visitors are beginning to realise that a drive through the Inishowen peninsula is to take a needless risk on one’s life.
But how or why should Donegal be so different from anywhere else? One theory is that the isolation and remoteness of the place means that people take more chances and are less attentive to personal safety when public transport is as deficient as it is. Groups of friends are far more likely – as has been borne out by recent research – to cram into small, unsuitable cars following a night of socialising.
The worst single crash in the history of the State took place in 2010, when eight people were killed in a two-car crash on Inishowen. Seven passengers had piled into a car for a journey home – only the driver survived; the other death was that of a pensioner who was driving in the opposite direction. Two weeks ago, two young people were killed when a car carrying six crashed into a wall. None of the passengers, thrown from the rear of the car, were wearing a seatbelt.
There is an accepted culture of reckless driving around back roads in Donegal, made all the easier because young teenagers are able to source old scrap cars, from breakers’ yards, for as little as €100. These are vehicles consigned for scrap, often with defective brakes and steering, but with unscrupulous traders ever ready to sell on to a group of youngsters for a weekend of wild driving. Sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘company cars’, they get their name from the practice of youngsters chipping in €40 or €50 each to acquire one of these vehicles and to drive it for as long as it lasts.
And there is also a macho phenomenon whereby young drivers buy an illegal device to insert into the buckle of a seatbelt to ‘fool’ the vehicle into thinking the seatbelt is secured, and so bypass the beeping alert which normally sounds. In Donegal, some consider it chicken to wear a seatbelt.
In a desperate attempt to curb the rising number of fatalities on Donegal roads, the local authority has introduced a Pro Social Ireland programme. Designed for people who have come before the courts for driving offences, the initiative is a type of community service. The 12-hour module on road safety, over four sessions, can result in a licence being retained, or may prevent a jail sentence, if a judge is satisfied that an errant driver has fully complied with the course. And there are plans to extend the programme to Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim.
But one of the most intractable problems for road-safety officers is the mindless tendency among young, reckless drivers’ peers to glorify road crash victims as heroes. The not-uncommon spectacle of acquaintances performing donuts outside a graveyard as some sort of tribute to the deceased is a chilling indicator of how deeply embedded is the culture of anti-social driving.