Memorials on Co Wicklow road reminder of high death toll

33 dead, dozens injured on one of State’s most dangerous roads

The ghostly reminders emerge from the verges of the tree-dappled road.

A simple stone cross, draped with rosary beads, beside a container of plastic flowers.

Farther along lies a granite headstone with an oval-shaped photograph of a beaming young man dressed in a black-tie suit. He was 19 years of age.

Not far away there are withered chrysanthemums attached to a telegraph pole, marking another fatal collision.


Past another bend is a neatly kept headstone. There’s a picture of a woman in her early 30s when she died. Fresh flowers lie alongside it. “Much loved, much missed,” it says.

In all, 33 people have lost their lives and dozens have been injured along a 16km stretch of single carriageway road in Co Wicklow, making it one of the worst blackspots in the country. The most notorious section is the Ballinameedsa bends, a series of eight winding bends in the road, on what was the main Dublin-Wexford road.

Teresa Kelly makes a regular pilgrimage to a spot close by, which marks one of the worst individual collisions.

At about 8.15am on September 14th, 1998, a minivan on its way to St Catherine's school for special needs children in Newcastle was hit by a truck. Her brother-in-law, Jackie Kavanagh (49), a father of two, was killed instantly. Sisters Sharon Sheehan Byrne (23) and Fionnuala Byrne (21), care workers, were killed along with Robert Cullen (11) and Kevin O'Leary (10), who both had special needs.

The Antrim-based truck driver was charged with dangerous driving, but was acquitted in court following a conflict in evidence.

“It’s like someone took a piece out of our family jigsaw. There’s a piece missing and it always will be,” says Teresa.

“Before Jackie died, it wasn’t something we worried about. Now, every time we hear of an accident on the road, its brings us back to that morning and the moment it happened.”

“I can’t pass it without thinking of it. Some of the family find it hard to go away anywhere.”

Farther along, set in from the main road, is a cross on a wall beside a farmhouse. It marks the spot of another fatal collision just a few months later.

This is where Breda Clancy (40), a mother of three, died on her way to work at the local health board.

She was travelling northbound to work when her car went out of control and hit two trucks. Her husband, Jimmy, an ambulance driver, who was on duty that morning, was radioed to the scene of a crash.

“En route we got a call to say there was a fatality,” Jimmy says. “A car appeared to have lost control, spun around 360 degrees, and hit a truck. There had been a report of an oil spill on the stretch of road earlier that morning.

“When we arrived, I saw her car. I knew, then, she had died. Her car was under the front of the lorry.”

He knew well the danger of the road. He had been on the scene of other fatal collisions over the years: a French couple; three youngsters killed in their early 20s.

“Nothing prepares you for when it’s a loved one,” he says.

It took months of support and counselling before he was able to return to work.

‘Multifactor events’

Last year, there were 6,000 collisions on Irish roads. In the dry and detached language of road safety engineers they are defined as rare, random and “multifactor events” preceded by a situation in which one or more road users have failed to cope with their environment.

To families of those left behind, they are simply life-changing events which have wreaked havoc and trauma.

After years of success in making our roads safer, the number of people losing loved ones to traffic-related deaths is on the rise again.

Some 196 people died last year and thousands were injured, a 20 per cent rise in just two years.

Why the increase? It depends on who you ask. Hauliers point to falling road maintenance budgets and deteriorating roads during the downturn. Safety campaigners point to cuts in staffing for Garda checkpoints. Others say flaws in the penalty points system means the fear-factor associated with speeding is greatly diminished.

One thing is certain: a disproportionate number of incidents take place in "high collision zones" that have been identified by the National Roads Authority (NRA) as well as gardaí.

The concentration of collisions in an area can occur for a variety of reasons, such as sharp corners, poor visibility, hidden junctions or poor warning signs. But it can also occur due to a sudden shift in population, such as a new housing estate using a stretch of road.

About 180 high-collision zones have been identified on the national road network, though the NRA is reluctant to release details of them publicly for fear of being dragged into “emotional” debates on what it says are often complex issues.

“Detailed analysis of the collision data assists greatly in validating the proposed solutions,”says Forbes Vigors, project manager of road safety with the NRA.

“As emotional as these matters can be, the analysis of the facts allows for non-emotional solutions.”

Engineers and safety experts say it is an over-simplification to state that one single factor is the sole cause of a road incident.

The cause is normally a combination of factors identified in the circumstances leading up to the incident such as the condition of the road, the weather and the roadworthiness of a vehicle.

But human factors –ranging from a moment’s hesitation to lack of concentration or criminal behaviour – are the most dominant features of collisions. Studies suggest that some human factor is an element of up to 95 per cent of incidents .

In order to identify the common factors in a group of incidents, authorities study each one in depth, gathering additional information such as traffic flows or speed.

Common factors

In the case of the Ballinameesda bends, for example, speed, the bends in the road and visibility were some of the issues highlighted.

The NRA introduced a range of measures in 2007-2008 such as realigning a 500-metre stretch of road to take out a particularly hazardous section; installing crash barriers, with close-boarded fencing behind, to give a greater definition of some of the bends; erecting driver feedback signs, which display the speed of a passing vehicles.

While it’s difficult to say which measures were most effective, the collision rate fell significantly in the following years.

Ultimately, there is one solution which is most effective, if prohibitively expensive in many cases: significantly upgrading roads.

Motorways, for example, are by far the safest type of road to travel on. Statistically, a collision occurs twice on this standard of road in Ireland for every 100 kilometres of travel.

A collision on a rural single-carriageway national road is three times more likely, while on a dual-carriageway in an urban area it is five times more likely. The chances of a collision are seven times more likely on an urban single carriageway, based on figures compiled by the National Roads Authority.

Just last month – after 15 years of campaigning by residents and local politicians – the Arklow/Rathnew motorway opened.

It formed part of a €282 million public-private partnership project – the first since the downturn – which included the upgrading of Newlands Cross in Dublin.

"It's been a long struggle to get it to this stage," says Cllr Joe Behan, who cited the lack of action on the road as one of the reasons he resigned from Fianna Fáil in 2008.

“It wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been. But it’s a tribute to campaigners and politicians locally that we have a road which will save lives into the future.”

For bereaved family members such as Teresa Kelly, there is relief that others may be spared the trauma of a road death.

“To this day, I can’t pass by the spot without thinking of what happened. Some of the family find it hard if a loved one leaves on a trip. They worry about what might happen.”

Cost, she feels, shouldn’t be an obstacle to making dangerous roads safer. But all drivers have a role to play in ensuring they behave responsibly on the road.

“To this day, I never get stressed if I’m stuck in traffic. There’s no point rushing anywhere. You will get there in the end.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent