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Unaccompanied learner driver who was texting at time of fatal crash gets two year prison term

A judge said the tragic death of Aoife Doyle (14) highlighted the catastrophic consequences of using a phone while driving.

Image: Sam Boal

AN UNACCOMPANIED LEARNER driver who was sending text messages on his phone at the time of a collision which killed a young Offaly schoolgirl has been sentenced to two years in prison.

Judge Keenan Johnson said the tragic death of Aoife Doyle (14) almost a year ago highlighted the catastrophic consequences of motorists who recklessly use their mobile phone while driving.

At a sitting of Tullamore Circuit Criminal Court today, Judge Johnson sentenced the driver, Eric Dunne, to three and a half years in prison with the final 18 months suspended in what he described as “a classic case of bad things happening to good people.”

Dunne (26) of Bellair, Ballycumber had pleaded guilty at Tullamore Circuit Criminal Court to a charge of dangerous driving causing the death of Aoife on 20 March, 2020 at Erry, Clara, Co Offaly.

A second offence of driving unaccompanied while holding a learner permit was taken into consideration.

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

Phone records obtained by gardaí showed that Dunne, an unemployed single man who had failed his driving test on three occasions, was using his mobile phone to send text messages at the time of the fatal collision.

Sentencing Dunne, Judge Johnson said he had failed to keep a proper lookout on the road while driving because of his use of a mobile phone.

The judge said it was interesting that a probation officer had noted that Dunne was in a habit of texting while driving and did not think it was such a reckless activity.

Judge Johnson cited studies published by the Road Safety Authority which showed texting while driving increased the risk of an accident by 23 times, while it resulted in a 400% increase in the amount of time a driver took their eyes off the road.

He said a victim impact statement provided by Aoife’s best friend, Cara Cronly, who was walking with her at the time of the fatal crash on the Clara-Ballycumer road, recounted how a happy evening taking photographs of a beautiful sunset had turned into a nightmare.

The judge said it was hard to imagine a more horrific, heartbreaking experience.

A separate victim impact assessment by Aoife’s aunt, Emer Doyle had recounted how Aoife, an only child, was idolised by her family, the judge said.

He described the schoolgirl as someone who was “full of vitality, ability and talent” who had lived “a fulfilled, happy and beautiful life.”

The court heard Aoife of Kilbride, Clara, Co Offaly had lived in Abu Dhabi for several years and was fluent in Arabic.

Doyle also claimed Aoife’s grandmother, Kay Doyle, who passed away shortly after her grand-daughter, had died of a broken heart.

The judge also praised other witnesses who had arrived at the scene of the fatal collision who had provided CPR to Aoife, although she died from her injuries a short time later.

In framing Dunne’s sentence, Judge Johnson said it was important that it served the interests of society and reflected the gravity of the offence.

He said the use of a mobile phone while driving as well as driving unaccompanied were aggravating factors.

“There is little doubt if he was accompanied by a qualified driver, he would not have been able to use his mobile phone,” the judge remarked.

He also called for phone and car manufacturers to provide for the mandatory installation of technology which prevents motorists from sending texting messages on their phone while driving.

Judge Johnson acknowledged Dunne’s early guilty plea and co-operation to gardaí and said it was exceptional that a case of this kind was concluded within 12 months of the offence.

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Character references were provided which described Dunne as well-liked, thoughtful and caring, while a former employer said the accused was “a shadow of his former self” since the fatal crash.

The judge also recognised that the accused was “hugely remorseful” and noted he had shaken uncontrollably “from head to toe” during his appearance in court.

Judge Johnson said Dunne’s imprisonment which would result in him missing the birth of his first child in June was a huge punishment in itself.

He also urged Dunne to address his use of cannabis which he use to help with the anxiety from which he suffers.

“He is not inherently a bad person but he made a very bad decision that has had fatal, tragic and catastrophic consequences,” the judge remarked.

He claimed the burden carried by Dunne would be greater than any prison sentence.

The judge suspended the final 18 months of the sentence for a period of five years on condition he keeps the peace and submits himself to the supervision of the Probation Service for a period of 18 months after release.

Judge Johnson directed that Aoife’s name should be published in the interest of justice, while acknowledging a recent legal issue around the identification of dead children who are the victims of crime.

He said his thoughts would be with her family this Saturday which marked the first anniversary of her death.

Aoife’s family declined to comment on the outcome of the case outside the courtroom.

About the author:

Seán McCárthaigh

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