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Tragic loss 'Aoife would still be here if the driver wasn't texting at the time'

Aoife Doyle (14) died after she was knocked down by a learner driver who was texting while behind the wheel.

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Cara and Aoife were best friends

Cara and Aoife were best friends

Aoife Doyle

Aoife Doyle

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Cara and Aoife were best friends

Fourteen-year-old Aoife Doyle smiles happily as her best friend Cara Cronly takes her picture in the sunset - neither girl knowing that within minutes Aoife will be dead.

Knocked down on a quiet country road by an unaccompanied driver who, while texting on his mobile phone, was 23 times more likely to crash.

That driver, Eric Dunne from Belair, Ballycumber, Co Offaly, recently told Tullamore Circuit Court that he wished it was him who died instead of Aoife and that he will live with her death for the rest of his life.

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Eric Dunne didn't have a full driver's licence.

Eric Dunne didn't have a full driver's licence.

Eric Dunne didn't have a full driver's licence.

The 26-year-old was sentenced to just two years in prison.

Sinead Cronly, whose daughter Cara was walking with Aoife when the crash occurred, told the Sunday World her family are disappointed with the sentence and emphasised that a message must go out and be heard clearly by the public.

"Aoife would still be here if the driver was not texting at the time," she told this newspaper.

"We're disappointed at the sentence and don't think it went far enough.

"But no sentence was ever going to be enough. We are left devastated and heartbroken - missing Aoife every single day. A very strong and clear message needs to be learned from this and that is, Aoife would still be here if the driver had not been texting at the time.

"In Aoife's honour, the message that you should not text and drive needs to go out, not only to younger drivers but to all drivers.

"Our hearts have been truly shattered by Aoife's tragic death.

"We are all devastated to think her life ended because of a text message.

"Eric Dunne chose to text while driving and took a beautiful, clever, happy little girl away from her family and destroyed all our lives.

"A piece of Cara also died that night and she will never be the same little girl. The sparkle is gone from her eyes.

"In memory of our beautiful Aoife, we all want a message sent out, as the judge said loud and clear - do not text and drive. We miss her every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Forever."

At this week's sentencing hearing, Judge Keenan Johnson heard how mobile phone records showed that Dunne was texting in the seconds before his car fatally struck Aoife as she and Cara walked along the R436 Clara to Ballycumber road at Erry, Clara, Co. Offaly, on March 20 last.

Eric Dunne had pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death ahead of the sentencing hearing.

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.

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Aoife Doyle

Aoife Doyle

Aoife Doyle

In a letter penned by 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."

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 and by Aoife's aunt Emer O'Neill, both of whom relayed the daily anguish which has been left by the sudden departure of the 14-year-old.

"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 O'Neill 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 O'Neill.

"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 he 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 the first anniversary of her death, last Saturday.

"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."

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


Sunday World


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