Dangerous driving in Donegal: ‘It is a long-standing culture’

The county is experiencing an epidemic of road safety issues, with tragic results

They are impossible to ignore once over the border into Co Donegal: aggressive and fresh black tyre marks on roads – evidence of anti-social driving. At junctions and crossroads, there are large circles, spiralling tightly around each other. These are the result of serial dangerous spins made at high speed in manoeuvres known as donuts, and they frequently also appear at random on the open road too. The other tyre marks most commonly seen are distinctive double wavy lines crossing both sides of the road, the result of a practice known as drifting.

I saw these marks not just on quiet minor roads, but also on the main streets of towns, and on many key roads too: the N15 between Donegal town and Ballybofey; the N13 from Letterkenny to the Inishowen peninsula; the N56 that runs from Gortahork to Killybegs, via Dungloe and Ardara.

Co Donegal has consistently had road fatality statistics that are in the highest percentile per population in the country. The last comprehensive study on the issue by the Road Safety Authority, in 2013, showed that Donegal had the third-highest fatality rate in the country, in proportion to its population. That year, 13 people died on Donegal's roads. In 2010, the number was 19. Last year, it was six. This year, six road fatalities have already been recorded.

In five days driving around Donegal county, this is some of the daytime behaviour I witnessed on the road:

– Being overtaken several times on the inside hard shoulder when I was not turning right;

– Quad bikes – meant for off-road, private use – out on public roads;

– Speeding as an utterly routine practice;

– Overtaking a string of cars when on a solid white line;

– Overtaking very close to corners and brows of hills, and

– Cars routinely failing to indicate when overtaking.

On July 4th, I witnessed the aftermath of a fatal crash between a car and a motorcyclist, on the R238 between Burnfoot and Buncrana, on the Inishowen peninsula. Motorcyclist Eddie McIntyre (56) was later pronounced dead in hospital, becoming the sixth person to die this year on the county's roads.

On June 8th, Jamie Doherty (14) died when the car he was driving crashed near his hometown of Moville on the east of the Inishowen peninsula. He was the car's sole passenger.

Paul Fiorentini has been the principal of the Inishowen peninsula's biggest school, the Carndonagh Community School, for 18 years. His school has lost several students to road fatalities over the years. He lives in Moville, a community still in mourning for Jamie Doherty.

How would Fiorentini define the relationship young people in Co Donegal have with cars?

“We are very remote up here,” he says. “I think it’s important to understand the context of where Inishowen is geographically and economically. There is a huge fishing tradition here. It’s very normal for boys to follow their fathers into fishing and farming and those industries have implicit requirements of mechanic and engineering skills. Farming families in particular have younger children helping them out and that spills over into children driving machinery: boys can strip down an engine and rebuild it by 16.”

Traumatic deaths

The legal age of driving a car in the State is 17. How does a community deal with the traumatic death of a young person such as Jamie Doherty and others who have died in similar circumstances, while simultaneously also acknowledging that underage driving is illegal? Is this possible without seeming to apportion blame, particularly at such a vulnerable time for bereaved families and the community they live in?

Fiorentini chooses his words carefully. “The immediate effect is always with the family. A school and a community will move on, but it is the loss to the family that is devastating.” He agrees that such situations are always complex. As he puts it: “Tragedy takes over and sometimes the logic gets pushed back in the heat of the emotion.”

He feels his own responsibility as the head of a school keenly. “All schools are charged with enormous responsibility that they can change young people’s behaviour. Schools can do what they can do between 9am and 4pm. We know where our students are then, but we don’t know where they are up to midnight and beyond.” Then he adds: “Parenting is hard work too.”

Dangerous driving in Co Donegal is not confined to its back roads

From his teaching colleagues, he is aware that “there is a percentage of young males who don’t seem to have any problems sourcing old cars and driving them on back roads. There is a trade in these old cars; they sell for €100, or €150. At that price, I don’t think the person selling would have an expectation that the buyer would look after the car very well.”

He acknowledges that there is a long-standing culture of anti-social driving in Donegal; “bad behaviour by a small minority”. He believes that that culture can be changed over time. “We shouldn’t think we can’t change behaviour. We did it with plastic bags and the smoking ban,” he points out.

I have come to Moville to interview Fiorentini. Moville has one main street, and it is impossible to ignore the fresh tyre marks from donuts in the middle of it. I count the tight circles within a big black spiral and there are 10 of them. The message could not be clearer: dangerous driving in Co Donegal is not confined to its back roads or beaches, it also blatantly takes place in the middle of main streets of towns.

In Letterkenny, I meet Brian O’Donnell, who is the road safety officer for Donegal. “Car culture in Donegal is an inherited culture,” he believes. Somewhere along the way, it appears that some parents started turning a blind eye to the actions of their children, because everyone I talk to accepts that the inherited car culture goes back much further than one generation.

“For example, how do young people get access to cars before they are legally allowed to drive?” asks O’Donnell. “We can’t put our finger on that. It’s not normal that young people get a car, and can take it out on the road when they are not qualified to drive.”

‘Company car’

Talking to O’Donnell, I hear the expression “company car”. This is not a car that comes as a perk with a high-profile job. It’s the practice of a few young people clubbing together with €40 or €50 each to buy a car between them. “Then they drive it illegally for whatever length of time it lasts; it might just be a weekend. There are so many back roads in Donegal, the gardaí can’t keep up.”

Donegal lost five stations in the Garda District and Station Consolidation Programme in 2013: Annagry, Brockagh, Churchill, Malin and Glencolmcille. However, it still retains 37 stations about the county.

Who does O’Donnell think is selling cars that might only last a weekend to drivers who are clearly underage? “There is an underground car-selling system. They have to be coming from so-called breakers’ yards, and sold on somewhere along the way, because these are cars that have already been condemned. There has to be an onus on that person, because the person who receives a condemned car should not be selling it on. Some of these cars don’t even have brakes, or tyre tread.”

Speeding and drink-driving are common. We are fully aware many people are driving too fast on our roads.

Like Fiorentini, O’Donnell is careful not to seem to suggest that parents should be at least partly responsible for the actions of their teenage children, but he does comment: “Someone has to know that young person has a car, once they buy it.”

Do people in garages not notice when drivers filling up their cars look underage? “Most filling stations now are self-service. That is no problem.”

There is another expression he’s heard: the “blackmail” car. “That’s when a young person decides he is going to go away and leave home after school unless they are given a car. It’s a threat that is used to the parents.”

O’Donnell says he is “fairly keyed in” to the dangerous practices of some young drivers. He explains there is a practice of buying an illegal device to insert into the buckle of a seatbelt. The device tricks the mechanism into thinking the passenger is wearing the seatbelt, thus bypassing the beeping sound you usually hear when a seatbelt is not fastened while the car is in motion.

“It’s not considered cool to wear a seatbelt,” he says.

It is a known fact that wearing a seatbelt, which is mandatory under law in Ireland, helps prevent injury and fatality in the event of a crash.

O’Donnell explains why so many donuts are located at junctions and crossroads. “They [the drivers] turn the lights off coming up to a junction, so they can see if other cars are coming. Then they speed up to the junction.”

He points out it is not only young people who drive dangerously in Donegal. “Speeding and drink-driving are common. We are fully aware many people are driving too fast on our roads.”

‘No motivation’

I talk to one man in Letterkenny who was apprehended in the recent past by gardaí when he was doing 160km/h in a 100km/h zone. He subsequently appeared in court.

What motivates people to drive so fast?

“To be honest, there was no reason at all,” he says. “It was after midnight, there were no cars on the roads, and I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to get home fast.”

He admits he routinely breaks the speed limit. “It’s not something I ever thought about,” he says bluntly.

Donegal County Council, as the local authority, has a road safety plan in place. The 2016-2021 plan, designed by the Donegal Road Safety Working Group, is the fourth in a series – the first dates from 1997. In the early 2000s, Donegal had a number of years of horrifying road death. In 2003, there were 23 fatalities. In 2004, the figure was 29, and 27 the following year. Nobody wants to see anything like those death tolls again.

The plan focuses on five key elements it wishes to implement: education, engineering, enforcement, evaluation and empowerment. It acknowledges the innate existing car culture within the county, and addresses it, tasking all members of the community with responsibility for changing it: “Empowerment is extremely important as it underpins the cultural shift, which will be required to effectively achieve road safety within the county.

“That means that all of us as road users, in all of our various roles within our communities, such as [as] family members, education providers, community leaders, volunteers, care-givers and employees, have to take personal responsibility for both our own safety and the safety of others.”

Among the organisations the working group works with are the Garda, the Road Safety Authority, and the Pro Social Ireland programme.

The Pro Social Ireland programme is an initiative set up in Donegal in 2012 specifically to address the number of fatalities and injuries occurring on the county’s roads.

Its work includes offering a 12-hour module on road safety, to be taken over four sessions. The sessions are focused on social responsibility, emotional control, driving under the influence, and the consequences of anti-social driving.

Community service

These courses are especially for people who have come before the court for driving offences; they are a type of community service. Successful completion of the course, plus feedback from both trainer and participant to the judge at a later date, can result in a licence being retained, or, in some cases, prevent a jail sentence. Participants pay €200 for their places on the course.

Mick Quinlivan is the chairman, and Kieran McGuire is a board member of the organisation. In common with Brian O'Donnell, they are also fully aware of the county's culture of "company cars" and "blackmail cars".

“When kids leave school, and they are giving their father a hand on the land, they say: ‘If I don’t get a car, I’ll leave.’ Parents want to keep them at home, and so they get a car,” says Quinlivan. “There has always been a car culture in Donegal. I think because it is such a rural county, and there is a very poor bus service and no trains, people tend to learn to drive very young. If someone wants to go to a disco or to work, they have to have a car.”

“You have kids driving tractors from a young age,” says McGuire.

While on Inishowen, I was told that after Jamie Doherty’s death, there was much discussion of it on social media among his 14-year-old peers. “The general message was that the boys were saying it could have been any of us, which would lead me to believe there are very many of them driving at that age,” the person talking to me said.

Quinlivan and McGuire tell me of a young man they know of who died in a car crash. After his funeral, his friend performed a series of donuts outside the graveyard. “They saw it as a tribute to him, even though he’d died because of the way he was driving,” Quinlivan says, shaking his head. “Everyone knows someone who has died in a road crash. They’re seen as heroes.”

The attitude to speed is: I'm a good driver, I'm not doing any harm to anyone

John Reid (24), who died in 2015 after a car crash, was one such well-known boy racer. A YouTube video of him "diffing" (driving donuts) outside Letterkenny Courthouse in daylight the previous year has recorded more than 134,400 views.

“The attitude to speed is: I’m a good driver, I’m not doing any harm to anyone,” says McGuire. “They forget there are other people on the road too. In Donegal, you sometimes mightn’t meet another car for an hour, and speeding is a thrill.”

They are also aware that sometimes “company cars” are driven across the county’s border and then abandoned, either due to drivers being pursued by gardaí, or simply to get rid of the vehicle.

The most common feedback from those who have completed the Pro Social Ireland programme, mostly young men in their 20s, is of a new awareness of other drivers on the roads. “They literally thought they had the roads to themselves,” Quinlivan says. “The biggest thing is a change in attitude and a realisation that what they do on the roads affects other people too.”

Participants are also asked to write a script of a garda coming to a house to break the news of a road death. “I think that resonated with them,” he says. The programme is now also in place in counties Cavan and Monaghan. There are plans to bring it to Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo.

‘Speed merchant’

Manus Kelly (40) is a three-time winner of the Donegal International Rally, which takes place legally on closed roads. He won the title again this summer. "I was a farmer's son, driving from about eight," he says. He drove tractors and quad bikes. "When I was a younger lad, I was a speed merchant myself," he says.

“Speed is an adrenaline rush,” he says simply, when asked why he thinks so many young Donegal men drive so fast.

Kelly himself was caught speeding on a public road by gardaí some years ago, and subsequently went through the Pro Social Ireland course, for which he has great praise. “It was very embarrassing, to be honest,” he says in relation to being a public figure found to be speeding. “At the end of the day, I was an offender, and I found the course very useful.”

Kelly is conscious of the fact he is now a role model to young boys enthralled by speed, and gives talks in schools about the dangers of speeding. “Young people will always be testing their limits,” he says.

He is fully aware that young people are buying and driving cars that are not legally fit for purpose, or safe. “You’d nearly buy a car cheaper in Donegal than a bicycle,” as he puts it, citing cars that have failed their NCT as an example of what is on sale.

Kelly is also reluctant to be seen to attach responsibility for learned behaviour to parents. “Every house is different, and they all bring up their children in different ways,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to comment on that.”

He does say, however, that when he is talking about road safety in schools, “I say that if you see Mammy or Daddy driving too fast, ask them to slow down”.