Some fatal crashes could be disguised suicides rather than road accidents, a leading psychologist has claimed. Daniel Attwood reports.
Dr John Connolly, consultant psychologist at the Western Health Board and secretary of the Irish Association of Suicidology, claims that as many as six per cent of fatal single-vehicle crashes in Ireland could be suicides.
His claims are backed up by an international study last year by the accident research centre at Australia's Monash University. "Six per cent of fatal single-vehicle accidents certainly is consistent with the findings of other studies," says the study's co-author, Virginia Routley.
Her own international study found that the figure could be even higher: "Between one and seven per cent of driver fatalities have been noted as possible suicides," says the study. "It has been suggested, however, that current statistics may underestimate the incidence of these deaths."
The Monash study points to researchers in Britain who looked into single-vehicle fatal crashes in which the coroner had returned an open verdict. One British study re-examined 330 open verdicts and found that 213 were likely suicides. Another found that 86 per cent of open verdict cases were probable suicides. "This suggests that most open verdict cases are actually unidentified suicide cases," says the Monash report.
Single-vehicle crashes are the most common form of fatal accident in Ireland. In 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available, such accidents accounted for 30 per cent of road fatalities.
Dr Connolly looked at several single-vehicle crashes in Co Mayo from 1978 to 1992. He found there was a suspicion of suicide in six - or 4.5 per cent - of the 134 fatalities. However, he believes that the national incidence could be as high as six per cent.
In Ireland, 102 people died in single-vehicle accidents in 2002. "If we were to speculate, then possibly six or seven of those might well have been suicides," says Connolly. Closer inspection of the figures reveals that 49 people died in single-car crashes where they were the only occupant.
Paul O'Hare, spokesperson in Ireland for the Samaritans, confirmed that calls have been made to the charity's helpline from suicidal people outlining their intentions to crash their cars. "Wedo need to raise awareness that this is a way people are taking their lives," he says.
Last year, 444 people took their own lives in Ireland. The vast majority were male between the ages of 15 and 44 years. The Samaritans say that, for every one woman who takes her own life, 11 men do so. However, if young men are killing themselves by using their vehicles, the figure could be even higher.
Traditionally, suicidal men choose certain methods. Generally these are violent and more likely to succeed. Car accidents fit into this male category. The international study found that almost 90 per cent of suicides through crashes are by young men.
By disguising their deaths as car accidents, O'Hare believes those who have died may be trying to save people close to them extra pain. "In Ireland there is a massive stigma surrounding suicide," he explains. "There is a belief that suicide is extremely shameful and a car accident always leaves a major doubt."
The Monash study also found that it extremely difficult to identify such suicides, and not just because of the complexities of determining intent and psychological motivation. "Previous research . . . has identified a reluctance to classify cause of death as suicide without concrete evidence, such as a suicide note, and this piece of evidence is rarely found in single-vehicle crashes," says the report. "Classification of a death as 'accidental' rather than 'suicide' saves the family from any stigma, shame, guilt and anger of suicide, and allows them the financial security of insurance."
In addition, Irish statistics on seatbelt wearing are extremely unreliable. In 75 per cent of fatal accidents in 2002, there is no record on seatbelt use. This, explains the National Roads Authority, is because victims may already have been removed from their vehicles before the Gardai, who fill out the report forms, arrive at crash scenes.
In an attempt to improve suicide reporting, the World Health Organisation's latest International Classification of Diseases system now includes a code for death by "deliberate crashing of a motor vehicle".
Dr Connolly and his international colleagues are calling for more research and better recording of fatal, single-vehicle, single-occupant accidents to try to determine the extent of the problem.
Until then, many disguised suicides will continue to be recorded as road accidents.