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Fatal-crash driver says she was blinded by sun


Westport woman contests careless driving causing death charge

A Westport woman had pleaded not guilty to a charge of careless driving causing the death of a 67-year-old cyclist in January 2015.
Nicola O’Rourke (44) of 3, The Harbour, The Quay, Westport pleaded not guilty to the charge and was tried before a jury at Castlebar Circuit Criminal Court last week.
Closing arguments concluded on Friday morning and the jury deliberated for the rest of the day. Having failed to reach a verdict on Friday, Judge Rory McCabe released them for the weekend and they will resume deliberations again this morning (Tuesday).
Matt Walsh of Knockrooskey, Westport, was killed when the car Ms O’Rourke was driving went into the back of a bicycle Mr Walsh was cycling at Gurteen, Aughagower, Westport on the morning of January 10, 2015.
The court heard Mr Walsh died at the scene as a result of serious spinal cord injuries.
Ms O’Rourke told the court she was ‘blinded’ by the glare of the low sun that morning just before she hit Mr Walsh.
The prosecution contended Ms O’Rourke could have taken evasive action rather than kept driving after being blinded by the sun. There were no brake marks at the scene and Ms O’Rourke said she was driving when she suddenly ‘felt a thud’ and looked in her rear view mirror to see Mr Walsh’s body lying on the road.
The court heard that the road in question, the L1816, the main road to Aughagower village, was a road Mr Walsh cycled daily and that he was wearing a high visibility jacket and a helmet.
The court also heard Ms O’Rourke knows the road well as she had lived in Aughagower for 12 years. She did not know Mr Walsh.
The time of the accident was 11.25am and both Ms O’Rourke and Mr Walsh were heading due south, in the direction of Aughagower and facing the sun.
The first person on the scene after the accident was Audrey Ní Fearghail. She told the court she had to wear sunglasses as the sun was ‘particularly glaring that morning’. Other witnesses gave similar evidence about the glare of the sun.

‘Spiritual effect’
Michael Conlon, an advanced paramedic with the HSE, attended at the scene.
He gave evidence of what he described as ‘nearly a spiritual effect’ when the sun came out while they were at the scene of the accident.
“Maybe it was something to do with Matt departing ... [the sun] suddenly became bright. It was amazing how it just came up on top of the crest of a hill,” he said.
Garda Denis Egan was the first garda on the scene. He said Ms O’Rourke told him ‘the sun was shining in my eyes’ and that ‘I didn’t see him’. He added that at 12.05pm he noticed his view was ‘caught by the strong glare’ of the sun.
Two days later Garda Egan went back to the scene at the same time of the accident to examine the area in similar weather conditions. He said his view was ‘immediately caught by the glare of the sun’. He said he found it ‘hard to see’ his garda colleague Darran Conlon due south from him due to the glare from the sun, even though Garda Conlon was wearing a high visibility jacket.
Garda Egan took a statement from Ms O’Rourke two days after the accident. She told him she was ‘completely blinded’ as she took the right-hand bend before the point of impact. She said she did not think she took evasive action.
She said there was a glare from the sun and from the road. Ms O’Rourke said she was driving at ‘about 40mph’.
Garda Egan said the file on the case was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions who instructed Ms O’Rourke be charged with careless driving causing death.
Nicola O’Rourke told the court that she was working at the time in a coffee shop in Westport but had to change jobs as she ‘found it too difficult dealing with the public after the accident’.
She said she had never been in an accident as a driver but, in what defending counsel Eoin Garavan, instructed by Dermot Morahan, described as a ‘sad irony’, she had been hit by a car whilst on a bike as a teenager. As a result her femur was broken and she was in hospital for nine weeks. She had not cycled since.
On the day in question she said the sun was appearing ‘intermittently’ and she had put down the sun visor earlier on the journey but was not wearing sunglasses.  
She said the sun suddenly appeared after she turned a corner just before the accident and ‘it frightened the life out of me’. She added that she ‘completely panicked’ and could not ‘get my bearings’ as she was ‘so blinded’ by the glare.
As she continued on the road she said she ‘heard and felt a thud’ and when she looked in the rear view mirror she realised she had hit a person. She said it was ‘two to three seconds’ from when she was blinded by the sun to when she hit Mr Walsh.
She said she ‘wished it didn’t happen’ but that ‘I don’t know what I could have done differently’.
“The sun frightened the life out of me. I just didn’t know how to react,” she said.
In evidence Ms O’Rourke said the ‘blinding’ from the sun was closer to the point of impact than she had said in her statement to gardaí two days after the accident.
The prosecution argued this showed Ms O’Rourke initially indicated she drove a longer distance while blinded and that she should have stopped. Under cross-examination from Pat Reynolds, prosecuting counsel, Ms O’Rourke said it had been ‘very difficult’ to give the statement two days after the accident and on the same day as Mr Walsh’s wake, which she attended.
Mr Reynolds argued that if Ms O’Rourke was not blinded when she turned the corner, she should have seen Mr Walsh in front of her and slowed down. Ms O’Rourke said she did not know why she did not see him but that she was paying attention to the road.
Ms O’Rourke’s son Oisín, aged 17, also gave evidence. He said his mother was driving slow on the day and that, generally, ‘she drives annoyingly slow’. He said he was forced to look down by the glare of the sun and then heard a ‘big thud’, looked up and saw the windscreen was smashed.
In closing, prosecution counsel Pat Reynolds said this was a ‘tragedy’. He said ‘Matthew Walsh did nothing wrong’ and that ‘Matthew Walsh did not go home’ that day.
He contended ‘the driving [of Ms O’Rourke] was not up to the standard required’.
Eoin Garavan, for Ms O’Rourke, said it was a situation any driver could find themselves in and braking hard in such situations may not be the safest thing to do either.
The deliberations of the jury of six men and six women resume today.