‘Momentary lapse in concentration with catastrophic consequences’ - Cyclist killed by motorist distracted by children in backseat

Donal O'Brien.

A cyclist who did everything right was killed by a motorist who turned around momentarily to tell one of her children to remove a tag from a toy they had just bought.

Sergeant Pat Lyons who investigated the case described it at a momentary lapse in concentration which had catastrophic consequences.

Maria Harkin, 38, of 92 Weston View, Carrigaline, Co Cork, got a one-year suspended jail term and was banned from driving for five years by Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

Harkin pleaded guilty to a charge which stated that on May 14, 2017, at the N40 South Ring Road, Curraheen, Cork, she drove a 07-registered car without due care and attention thereby causing the death of another person, namely Donal O’Brien.

The late Mr O’Brien’s wife Sandra and daughter Nicole gave evidence of the devastating loss for them, magnified by the fact that they pass the scene of the fatal accident every day.

The 46-year-old cyclist, Donal O’Brien, was on the N40 South Ring Road cycling west towards Ballincollig when the incident occurred. The defendant was driving in the same direction. Both deceased and defendant were passing junction one, for traffic heading to Carrigrohane, and they both intended to travel straight.

Sgt Lyons said the motorist recalled seeing the cyclist in the distance ahead of her. He was wearing all of the protective and high- visibility clothing and was an experienced cyclist. On this Sunday around 12pm the weather was clear.

Maria Harkin and her two children had been to Smyth’s toyshop and were on their way to Tesco in Ballincollig to meet friends.

By her own admission she saw the pedal cyclist in the distance. There are various accounts of what happened. In her initial account she says that as she was driving she turned around to address one of her children to take the tag off one of the new toys they had purchased in Smyth’s. In this momentary lapse she may have veered left. She was not travelling at any excess speed.

“There was no question of any issue of dangerous driving. It was a momentary lapse in concentration with catastrophic consequences,” Sgt Lyons said.

The sergeant said Mr O’Brien was taken to hospital but in effect died instantly at the scene.

Maria Harkin.
Maria Harkin.

Judge Ó Donnabháin said: “I may be the only judge in the country who believes there is a fundamental duty to keep a proper lookout. It is at the higher level of carelessness.

“I do not accept it as momentary, I think it is higher than that. My interpretation of the evidence is that it is carelessness of a very high order.

This is a harrowing case. Undoubtedly, it is hugely traumatic for the family. The victim-impact statements speak for themselves. It is heartbreaking to think of the trauma and ongoing loss the family have to go through. It magnifies it for them because they drive past the spot every day.

“This man [Mr O’Brien] was doing everything right, going out keeping himself fit and healthy on a clear Sunday morning. He had the gear on him and was fully equipped. [Such cyclists] shine out like a lighthouse in a fog.

“There is a fundamental duty when driving a car to keep a look-out. There was a fundamental breach by this lady. She allowed herself to become distracted by children in the backseat. It has probably happened to all of us but it should be avoided. It cannot be countenanced.”

The defendant expressed her remorse to the O’Brien family through her barrister Dermot Sheehan having done so through Sgt Lyons immediately after the fatal accident.

The five-year driving disqualification will begin on July 1.

Sandra O’Brien said she lost not only her husband but her best friend and soulmate of 27 years. She said they even worked together in his car sales and repair business.

“He was a fantastic, loving and caring person and our lives will never be the same without him. I know she did not set out deliberately to kill him but that is what she did. She can go home to her family and talk to them but Donal can never come home to us,” Mrs O’Brien said.

Nicole O’Brien said her father was the strongest person she knew and she still had so many questions that only he could answer. She got her love of car rallying from her father.

“I will never be the same without my dad,” she said.

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