Writes Molly O’Rourke – Deputy Features Editor
The Road Safety Authority invests significant funding into running television and radio campaigns every year. One such campaign is ‘Crashed Lives’, a road safety campaign featuring true life case studies in which people speak about the consequences of a crash or about the loss of loved ones in road collisions and how it has changed their lives forever. These advertisements feature a number of different road safety issues, including drunk driving, speeding and more recently, unaccompanied learner drivers.
In 2018, the laws surrounding unaccompanied learner drivers changed. The ‘Clancy Amendment’ states that unaccompanied learners who are caught by the Gardai will have their vehicle seized. If they do not own the vehicle, the car is liable to be seized, and the owner is also subject to a fine of up to €1,000. These new laws exist alongside the previous legislation, whereby unaccompanied learners face a fine and penalty points. According to the RSA website, in 2017 there were a total of 3,951 penalty point notices given to unaccompanied learner drivers. The RSA is working alongside An Garda Síochana to reduce the number of accompanied learners on our roads; and to make sure that no unaccompanied learner can create an unaccompanied hole in someone else’s life. Three months after the amendment passed (on December 22nd 2018), the Department of Justice claimed over 700 cars had been seized from learner drivers. The new laws were put into place to combat the widespread disregard for rules around learner drivers. At the time, the Irish Times published a report that estimated more than 125,000 learner drivers, who obtained a learner permit between 1984 and 2016, have never taken a driving test. The RSA have been aware of the number of drivers ‘rolling’ their licenses, whereby they renew their permit each year to avoid passing the driving test.
In the current Road Safety Strategy 2013-2020 there is an action stating the need to “reduce long-term reliance on multiple learner permits by introducing measures to ensure that learners sit a driving test before they can obtain a subsequent permit”. According to statistics, 35 of the 47 fatal crashes involving learner drivers between 2014 and 2017 involved unaccompanied drivers. That is a shockingly high statistic. These laws will act as a strong deterrent and force those who might consider lending their car irresponsibly to an unaccompanied learner to think more seriously about the consequences.
The amendment to the legislation is named after Geraldine and Louise Clancy, a mother and daughter who were tragically killed in December 2015 when their car was struck by an unaccompanied driver in County Cork. Noel Clancy, husband and father to the victims, was left behind to pick up the pieces of his broken family. The RSA worked alongside Mr. Clancy to produce a new television and radio campaign highlighting the dangers of learners driving unaccompanied. The advert first aired in December 2018 and continued into 2019, however the RSA received numerous complaints about the campaign from members of the general public. The advert features Noel Clancy remembering the aftermath of the collision, against the backdrop of his home in Kilworth, Co. Cork. His poignant words spoken over the image of the L-plated car speeding towards the camera, are a hard-hitting combination. The ad certainly doesn’t underplay the devastating loss endured by Mr. Clancy; shots of the river the car fell into are shown as Noel describes his wife and daughter’s bodies being ‘blue and purple’.
Airing numerous times over the Christmas period, the ad prompted debate from Kilworth locals and others, who felt it was too harsh on the driver, a Ms. Gleeson who pleaded guilty to dangerous driving. Some people took to social media to describe the ad as being ‘in extremely bad taste’, while the RSA confirmed that they received 10 emails complaining about the advertisement. The main cause for complaint was that the ad was ‘inappropriate and unfair on the other driver’. The ad became a topical issue at the time and was debated on RTE’s Liveline Programme for several days. Responding to the criticisms, the RSA stated that they were “very conscious of the need to be aware of the impact of the tragic incident on the immediate families, the community and all whose lives are touched by incidents on our roads. Therefore, in developing the campaign, the RSA consulted with all parties concerned.” Despite pleas from the Gleeson family to stop airing the ad, the RSA told the Irish Examiner that it would be failing in its public service remit to now pull back from plans to run the campaign again. Prior to running the advert, the RSA had consulted with Ms Gleeson and her family, along with their solicitor.
I personally remember seeing the ad on television at the time, thinking how awful the situation was and I felt overwhelmingly sorry for Noel Clancy. It hit home that this father had lost his child and his wife at the same time. The image of him sitting alone at the kitchen table was heart-breaking: this once noisy, bustling family home now empty of laughter. Watching the advertisement, not once did I think of Ms Gleeson and her involvement in the incident. The scenes of the car speeding towards the camera show only the L-plate on the windscreen, an ominous warning that it could be anyone behind the wheel of the car. Most of us would have driven unaccompanied on our learner permits, whether you were popping to the shop for a loaf of bread or collecting your parents from a night out; we all did it once. We were just the lucky ones who got away with it. I never considered the weight of my actions as I drove unaccompanied, not once did I think about the risks involved. After seeing the Crashed Lives campaign however, I can safely say that if I were to learn to drive again, I would not get behind the wheel unaccompanied.
This campaign has raised a lot of questions about the ethics of using real-life case studies for marketing purposes. Despite the negative commentary and criticisms, the RSA stated that there has been a significant amount of positive support for the new campaign. I personally think that real-life examples are extremely effective. We were all warned about the penalty points and the potential fines, yet we still broke the rules. The consequences seemed so foreign, so distant, so insignificant, that we decided they didn’t really matter. Statistics and reports do little to quell our determination to drive. Yet now, with this new wave of campaigns from the RSA, we see the real, human consequences of our actions. Previous campaigns show the death of 4-year old Ciarán Treacy, who was killed in a collision with a drunk driver. These poignant advertisements serve as important reminders of the power we have over other people’s lives when we get behind the wheel. Surely reminding people of these risks is more important, more productive, then giving simple warnings of the legal consequences. The ‘Crashed Lives’ campaigns do not highlight the aftermath of the accident for the driver; we do not see Ms. Gleeson appearing in court, nor do we hear about her sentence. No, instead we see the devastating effect of the accident on those who are left behind, those whose loved ones were taken from them. As Noel Clancy said in his victim statement, “Whatever sentence the defendant is given … will pale into insignificance compared to the life sentence we are living”.
These campaigns are not issued to target the driver, as some people argue. They are not intended to cause further stress and damage to the life of the person behind the wheel. They are used to prevent another driver from getting into a similar situation, to prevent another family from being torn apart by loss. The personification of tragedy serves to provoke an emotional response in viewers, to remind learner drivers and their parents of the consequences; that they are still only learners, that anything could happen. Noel Clancy was willing to work alongside the RSA to highlight the damage caused to his family, to showcase how his life and the lives of his other children have changed forever. I doubt that the ad will still be seen ‘in bad taste’ if it has the intended result; saving lives and minimising the number of unaccompanied learner drivers on our roads, drivers who pose a risk to other road users. So, while some may have been offended by the latest RSA campaign, the authority had good intentions and were serving a greater good; thus, we must endeavor to support them in their mission to save lives on Irish roads.