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road tragedy Motorist who knocked down and killed schoolgirl (14) while texting at the wheel is jailed for two years

"She would be here today if it wasn't for my stupidity. I can honestly say I did not see her and there is not a day or night that I don't think of her."

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Aoife Doyle (14). Eric Dunne was jailed for two years for dangerous driving causing her death.

Aoife Doyle (14). Eric Dunne was jailed for two years for dangerous driving causing her death.

Aoife Doyle (14). Eric Dunne was jailed for two years for dangerous driving causing her death.

A man who fatally struck a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Co Offaly last year while texting at the wheel has been jailed for two years.

Eric Dunne (26), Belair, Ballycumber, Co Offaly, was found to have been sending text messages from his mobile phone seconds before his car fatally struck Aoife Doyle as she and her best friend Cara Cronly walked along the R436 Clara to Ballycumber road at Erry, Clara, Co Offaly on March 20 last.

Mr Dunne pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death ahead of today's sentencing hearing before Judge Keenan Johnson.

Dunne told gardaí he had been out shopping with his girlfriend in Tullamore earlier that day.

He said he was not able to remember seeing the two schoolgirls out walking along the side of the road or if the lights to the car he had purchased from his father just over a week previously were switched on.

"All I remember was the bang," he said, adding he could not recall texting from his phone in the minutes leading up to the tragedy.

In a letter penned by Mr Dunne and read out on his behalf by defence counsel Des Dockery SC, the former courier supervisor expressed his remorse.

"I wish it was me instead of Aoife," he said.

"She would be here today if it wasn't for my stupidity. I can honestly say I did not see her and there is not a day or night that I don't think of her."

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Eric Dunne

Eric Dunne

Eric Dunne

The court was told that Dunne was also a learner driver and was unaccompanied at the time of the incident.

The soon to be father, who had been suffering from a "crippling anxiety condition" prior to the tragedy, had previously been driving for eight years and sat his driving test on three separate occasions, failing each time.

"I would gladly take her (Aoife's) place," he told the court.

"I have to live with this for the rest of my life. I know you must hate me, maybe some day you will forgive me. I am sorry and I always will be."

Victim impact statements were also read out by Cara Cronly and by Aoife’s aunt Emer Doyle, both of whom relayed the daily anguish which has been left by the sudden departure of the talented Taylor Swift fan.

"We thought we would grow old together," said Cara.

"We knew everything about each other. We had so many secrets together. I just miss her and I find it hard to see a future without her."

Ms Doyle said the void left by Aoife's tragic passing had brought untold personal hardship to her parents, Oonagh and Damien, as well as the wider family.

"One of the hardest days in all of this was her 15th birthday on September 20, six months to the day she was killed," said Ms Doyle.

"Instead of giving her cake, we were laying flowers on her grave. We are broken behind repair. The impact of Aoife's death has been truly life changing and no words will ever capture that."

Judge Johnson described the circumstances surrounding the case as "horrific" and "heartbreaking", describing Aoife as being a child who was "full of vitality, ability and talent."

In determining sentence, he said the case centred on two "primary aggravating factors", being the fact the accused was texting and using a mobile phone at the time of the incident, something which was compounded by the revelation the accused was on a learner permit and unaccompanied.

He referenced a 2015 road safety campaign by the Road Safety Authority which showed how texting while driving makes the possibility of a crash 23 times more likely.

In light of those statistics, Judge Johnson urged car manufacturers to follow the lead set by the US in adopting phone apps which prevent drivers from texting when driving.

"Consideration should also be given to lobbying phone manufacturers and car manufacturers about the mandatory installation of technology that prevents drivers from texting," he said.

He sentenced Dunne to three years and six months in prison, suspending the final 18 months for five years subject to a number of conditions.

They included that the accused enter into a peace bond, engage with probation services for 18 months post release and to liaise with mental health services and psychology services.

He also disqualified Dunne from driving for a period of 10 years.

"Some may feel that given the tragic consequences of the offending, the sentence is too lenient," he said, adding he would be thinking of Aoife's family on Saturday at what will be the first anniversary of her death.

"However, I believe the sanction is measured, just and fair.

"The sentence is structured not so much to punish the accused, but rather to deter others who might be tempted to text while driving and to emphasise the fatal dangers that such activity attracts."

On foot of an application by State prosecutor Kevin White BL on behalf of Aoife Doyle's family for her to be named, Judge Johnson had little hesitation in acceding to the request.

He said the move was one which was befitting of such a tragic case and in keeping with ensuring transparency in the delivery of justice.

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