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Monday, December 4, 2023

‘People tell you that time heals but it doesn’t’ — The suffering of families of road traffic victims

‘She left the house at 6.30pm to go to the shop and within five minutes, all of a sudden she was dead’: Margaret Kavanagh, who lost her daughter Janice

Janice Kavanagh was only 10 years old when she was killed by a drunk driver just three weeks before Christmas in 1991.

Although it’s been almost 32 years, her mother Margaret said the pain is everlasting.

“The pain just doesn’t go away. People say time heals; time heals on the outside but not your inside, your heart is just broken,” she said. “There is no point in me saying that time heals.” 

Janice was on the way to a local shop with her friends to buy sweets that evening and although her friends ran across the road, Janice waited for the pedestrian light.

“I knew when they said that she was knocked down that she didn’t go against the lights, because she was that type of child,” she said.

She said Janice was “a dream”, easy-going, and cared deeply for her siblings and her parents. “A van came along and just took her off her feet and took her up 60 yards from the lights.”

Ms Kavanagh’s husband was at work that evening and once Janice’s friends knocked at her door to tell her about the incident, she said “not for one minute” did she think that she might have been killed.

“When I ran down I looked at the lights and I just couldn’t believe that she was up the other end of the street,” she said.

Janice died instantly.

Ms Kavanagh said the aftermath was “turmoil” and their lives were turned “upside down”.

She said:

And that was on the 5th of December so we had to look to Christmas because we had a 13-year-old and a four-year-old. That was just horrendous.

Ms Kavanagh said she experienced a breakdown five years later, after trying to be strong and going “on and on”, which took its toll.

“I just couldn’t cope anymore then,” she said.

She still wakes up every morning and remembers that Janice is missing, and has never parted with any of her belongings.

For Janice’s 40th birthday, her mother recycled her clothes to make teddy bears and hearts for Janice’s friends, who still live in the area and have their own children now.

The drunk driver fled the scene but was caught soon after by a friend of the Kavanaghs who witnessed the collision.

After being found, he told them: “I didn’t do anything.” Ms Kavanagh said he was caught drunk driving again just four months after Janice died.

He was sentenced to five years in prison.

‘Our lives were just starting’: Patricia Gibbons, who lost her husband James

Patricia Gibbons from Offaly had been married to her husband James for just eight months when he was killed on the morning of January 17, 2008.

Ms Gibbons was five weeks pregnant with their second child at the time.

While at work and after not being able to get through to James, Ms Gibbons said she had “an eerie feeling”.

When her father came to her workplace, she knew something was wrong.

Patricia Gibbons with her sons Conor and David. “Having to tell Conor was so hard.” Picture: Ger Rogers
Patricia Gibbons with her sons Conor and David. “Having to tell Conor was so hard.” Picture: Ger Rogers

“It was life-changing because our lives were just starting, we were eight months married and we were expecting our second baby, and we were in our house but in a split second everything just changed,” she said.

James, who was just 28, was driving his lorry to work when another lorry veered into his path and hit him head-on, killing him instantly.

The collision happened in Tipperary, on the Roscrea to Templemore road at Ashmere.

James’ lorry was in working order, Ms Gibbons said, however, the other lorry was not roadworthy, and had bald tyres.

She said James was hardworking and made time for everyone, always offering to help, while having a deep love for his son Conor.

“Having to tell Conor was so hard,” she said. “Things will never be the same again. We know that James is never coming back and we just have to learn to get on with it but it’s not easy.”

Ms Gibbons said she has received immense support from the Irish Road Victims Association (IRVA). ”We’re all part of a group that we don’t want to be part of.” 

Patricia Gibbons with her sons Conor and David at their family home. “It was life-changing because our lives were just starting." Picture: Ger Rogers
Patricia Gibbons with her sons Conor and David at their family home. “It was life-changing because our lives were just starting.” Picture: Ger Rogers

IRVA hosts an annual day of remembrance for those who have lost loved ones on Irish roads.

“Every year we have to get more tables to put frames on because there’s so many people killed on the roads, so many people’s lives altered and changed forever,” she said.

‘Not just statistics’: Karen Newman, who lost her brother Richard

“Our loved ones that have passed should never be viewed as statistics. They were a person with goals, dreams, and aspirations,” said Karen Newman from Mullingar, who lost her brother Richard on August 6, 2004.

Richard was the youngest of three siblings and, at just 20 years of age, was left on life support after he was hit from behind by a speeding driver.

Ms Newman said it was “surreal” that just a few weeks before his death, Richard signed the back of his driver’s licence to say that he was willing to donate his organs if anything should happen.

“A lot of people now have lived through him,” she said.

The family were sitting in their kitchen at 10pm on a Friday when Richard’s sister Michelle received a phone call from his best friend.

“We went from a state of just sheer disbelief and shock. It was news that you don’t ever expect,” she said. “It’s life-altering in a catastrophic way.” 

After a brief period in hospital, it was found that he had a serious brain injury.

“He was never really going to kind of come out of it. And if he did, I don’t think he’d be too happy because Richard was a very beautiful soul, lively and reliable. He was the rock of our family,” she said.

It’s very cruel because it’s every milestone and every life event and it’s like this massive void that’s left in your life. That little spark in all of us dims and dies to some degree.

Ms Newman said there was “no proper justice” for her brother.

The driver “only served five months”, she said. “I don’t feel what was handed down to that person justified a life being taken.” 

She said a proper judicial review and reform are required.

‘No excuse’: Leo Lieghio, who lost his daughter Marsia

“There’s no punishment out there,” said Leo Lieghio. “There is no excuse, we all know the rules of the road, we all know what the laws and speed limits are.

“If you hit someone and kill them you should be held for premeditated murder because you know you’re speeding, you know you’re drinking or taking drugs and driving.” 

Leo Lieghio, father of road victim Marsia, at a commemorative event for the global ‘World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims’ last year.
Leo Lieghio, father of road victim Marsia, at a commemorative event for the global ‘World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims’ last year.

Mr Lieghio, who lives in Wicklow, lost his daughter Marsia in 2005 when she was just 16.

“When I’m around the kids, I put on a brave face and pretend nothing has happened. But then when I come home on my own I can’t help but remember,” he said.

He described his daughter, who wanted to become a midwife, as a “prankster” with an infectious laugh, who would have her friends in stitches.

She was on the way home from a birthday party and was crossing at pedestrian lights when she was struck by a driver who fled the scene.

Marsia was in hospital for a few days when they got the news that there was no blood flowing to her brain. Her mother got physically sick when she heard.

Leo Lieghio: “She’s gone longer now than we had her with us.” Picture: Keith Arkins Media
Leo Lieghio: “She’s gone longer now than we had her with us.” Picture: Keith Arkins Media

“It was like someone reaching into your stomach and trying to rip out your guts,” he said.

Nurses gave them a lock of her hair and a palm print before turning off Marsia’s life-support machine on her sister Leah’s birthday, while some of her favourite songs were playing.

“She’s gone longer now than we had her with us,” he said.

“People will tell you that time heals but it doesn’t heal at all.

Every day is a struggle and then when you hear the number of people getting killed every day on the roads, everything just keeps coming back.

Mr Lieghio believes those in power are at fault, saying there is “so much that can be done”.

Despite campaigning since Marcia’s death, people will not listen, he said.

“They have to be pushed and they have to be forced to listen and again the Government and the law and the courts have to push it down people’s throats,” he said.

“Doubling the fines didn’t work. You have to double the penalty points.” Two weeks after Marsia was killed, the same driver hit another girl, aged 18, in Belfast.

The driver was already serving a driving ban when Marsia was killed and received a sentence of 10 months for careless driving.

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