Parents of child killed in hit-and-run call for stricter licence controls in brain injury cases

The parents of a little boy who was killed in a hit and run accident have called for tighter driving licence controls after it emerged the motorist’s licence was renewed after he had suffered two significant brain injuries which left him with the mentality of a child, writes Eoin English.

Stephen and Josephine O’Donovan, from Ballymacoda, Co Cork, pleaded for change yesterday after an inquest into the death of their only child, Luke, aged six, outside their home on April 16, 2014.

The inquest at Cork City Coroner’s Court was told that the driver involved, Edmund Walsh, 51, of Ballyherode, Ballymacoda, was first issued with a driver's licence in 1989.

Luke O'Donovan was killed in a traffic accident in Ballymacoda, Co Cork. Picture: Provision

But he was reissued with a licence in 2010 without having to resit a driving test despite having suffered two traumatic brain injuries which left him with severe physical and mental impairments and on 18 tablets a day.

Luke’s parents said they hoped the Transport Minister and other agencies, including the Road Safety Authority, the National Driver Licence Service, Insurance Ireland, and the Irish Medical Organisation, would take note of the case.

“Maybe we can do something to make other people aware. Anything is better than what there is now,” Mr O’Donovan said.

Cork City Coroner Philip Comyn heard how Mr O’Donovan was fixing a car radio in the drive outside his home while Luke was playing a computer game inside during the Easter Holidays on April 14, 2014.

Luke left the house and crossed the road to see if a friend had arrived home. He suffered fatal injuries when he was struck by a specially-adapted automatic Ford Focus driven by Mr Walsh as he crossed the road to return home.

He died in Cork University Hospital two days later from head injuries due to vehicular impact. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death yesterday.

Mr O’Donovan said: “I heard a bang, like a heavy car door slamming, and got a start. I looked left and saw something fall from the sky, and roll twice on the ground. It was only then I realised it was Luke.”

A garda wept as the inquest heard moving evidence about how Mr O’Donovan, neighbours and friends tried to help the critically injured child in the moments after the crash.

The Ford Focus left the scene. Mr Walsh drove home to ask his elderly father, now deceased, what he should do. When gardaí arrived at the house, Walsh admitted he had been involved in a crash.

Following a lengthy pre-trial process to establish if Mr Walsh would be mentally fit to plead, it was ruled that he was fit to plead, and he pleaded guilty to charges of failing to remain at the scene of an accident and failing to offer assistance to someone injured in the accident.

Last May, Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin imposed a two-year suspended jail sentence and a 10-year driving ban, but Walsh, vowed through his legal team, never to drive again.

Jo and Stephen O'Donovan. Picture: Provision

The coroner’s court was told yesterday that RSA Medical Fitness to Drive guidelines state that motorists should make the licensing authorities aware of any impairments which could affect their driving. There is also a responsibility on family members and GPs to flag such issues.

Garda Sergeant John Sharkey said Walsh’s family were quite open about his medical condition.

He said Walsh had suffered significant traumatic brain injury after two falls from a height - one in the 1980s and again in 2006.

But the inquest was told that he was deemed medically fit to drive, and that there were two qualifications on his licence when it was renewed in 2010.

“The system failed. Something failed somewhere down the line and we dealt with a driver who obviously wasn’t capable of driving responsibly or of being responsible for their actions like the rest of us are when we get behind the wheel,” Mr O’Donovan said.

Ms O'Donovan said given the extent of Walsh’s brain injuries, she and her husband believe people who suffer a traumatic brain injury should have to re-sit their driving test.

“Because you are different, through no fault of your own, but you are different once you have a brain injury or physical injury. You do change,” Mr O’Donovan said.

“You could roll the clock back and say was this person even fit to be on the road?

“If it had been flagged earlier, he may not have been driving at that moment, at that very second, at that very place.

“We’ll do whatever we can because ultimately, we don’t want another family to be in our situation.”

They said the Walsh family has apologised to them and that Walsh himself apologised through his legal team.

But Ms O’Donovan said Walsh has not apologised personally.

“He has no attachment to the accident. He’s not able,” she said.

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