Dedicated to saving lives
by Matt Britton
For many, encountering a Garda checkpoint on the road can be a nerve-wrecking experience or even being pursued by a car with blue flashing lights an equally intimidating feeling. But in one man's opinion, these options are indeed much more preferable than dimly seeing the flashing lights of the ambulance or the firebrigade as you struggle to catch your breath on the side of one of the county's roads.
Donegal has experienced a large number of road fatalities and serious accidents in recent years and this week the Democrat/DPP spoke to one of the men charged with ensuring safety on our roads and consequently saving lives.
Sgt. Iggy Larkin is probably best known in the south and west of the county as the man behind enforcing road safety in the area and insists that his mission in life is to reduce the number of traffic and fatal incidents on the roads of Donegal.
"I am not out there to gather revenue for the Government by imposing fines for no tax, bald tires, speeding, dangerous driving etc - many of these are indeed integral components of a car accident but my main job is to try and avert tragic incidents and as a result save lives," says Sgt Larkin.
"As a member of the Traffic Corps, I have encountered too many tragedies, I have seen many of my colleagues returning from making that heartbreaking knock on the door in the middle of the night delivering the bad news, I have seen the empty chairs at the family table and I can assure you it is a gut-wrenching experience and one that leaves a lasting imprint.
"Our job in the Traffic Corps is to try and stop these tragedies happening," he adds.
The eldest of a family of twelve, Larkin grew up on a farm in Eyrecourt in Galway and attended national and secondary school in Portumna. He was one of his county's best athletes, focusing on long distance and cross country running where he competed on a national level.
"Being the eldest in a large family - I have six brothers and five sisters - there was almost an onus on me to be like a second father - it's funny when I think of it now but my youngest sister and my daughter are just about the same age.
"Given the large size of the family university was not really an option, but in the early seventies there just wasn't the same range of options as there is today day. In Portumna in those days it was either the guards or a psychiatric nurse,
"There was no talk of marketing, IT. PR or the wide range of opportunities available today. It made life more simple and the Guards was my first choice and one that to this very day, I am delighted that I made," he says.
His training period in Templemore provided many happy memories for the popular sergeant. "It was a whole new life where I met many new friends from every part of the country and it also allowed my to develop my athletic skills.
"They had a swimming pool and I can assure you there weren't too many of them around Portumna and good facilities for running. I felt the whole experience was great in building one's overall character.
"I have spent all my working life in Donegal and indeed can remember the very first day I arrived in the county.
"It was the 5th of January in 1978 and 32 of us were put on a bus and sent off to Donegal. I was being posted to the outpost that is Buncrana along with two others and of course we were the last off the bus - the first drop was Ballyshannon and so on. By the end of the day we had received a right tour of the county.
"It was very different from Galway then - I had difficulty with the accent and then, every place was just so far away. It was a good 6/7 hours car journey home and within a week on the job in Inishowen I realised that getting a car was my first priority.
"I soon got to love the county and indeed met my wife Moya who hails from Stranorlar. We have three children, not kids anymore - two daughters and one son, none of whom I must add have followed in my footsteps."
Has he witnessed many changes in driving patterns over the years?
"It is quite strange, but even with fewer and slower cars on the roads in the seventies and eighties the incidence of accidents and fatalities was very much higher. In 1972, there were nearly 800 people killed on the roads of this country - that was the worst year in the history of the country.
"The drink driving culture was totally rampant - it was acceptable by the general public and every loophole in the law was used to get people off.
"The limit was much higher and we had not got the sophisticated equipment that we have today. People were asked to walk along a straight line if a suspicion existed and an officer had to make up his mind on the physical state of the person. It was a very hit and miss situation but probably the worst element was that it was regarded as totally acceptable to go out and have five or six pints and get into the car and drive.
"The ‘90's saw a seed change in attitudes and I would credit the various media campaigns, the education in the schools and the increased vigilance with sporadic checkpoints. The clock has turned the full circle - road deaths are falling year on year but we still have more to do.
"People today know that drink driving is just not socially acceptable - there has just been too much carnage, too many broken people. It is taboo.
"Speed has also contributed to many tragedies and in Donegal there has been a culture of speed especially in the younger generation but perhaps we are seeing one indirect benefit of the recession. Young people have less money to spend on souping up their cars and indeed less money for petrol with the result that we have witnessed a decrease.
"I think CARE is the most important factor in safe driving at the moment.
"The roads are so much better but also more dangerous. There is much more traffic, speedier and more comfortable cars but also so much more distractions. We have mobile phones, surround sound CD players, even the simple act of lighting a cigarette -all combine to distract the driver.
"The thing to remember is that it only takes one second to lose control and it just could be one second too much."
Is there any one aspect that particularly that frustrates Larkin ?
Poor guidance by parents is something that frustrates Sgt Larkin hugely.
"The fact that many parents do not bother to ensure that their children are wearing seatbelts in the back of the car is very hard to accept. This is pure negligence and indeed life threatening. It is just pure luck that we don't have more fatalities - I simply cannot understand the mentality.
"If a child develops the slightest sniffle at home or a temperature, it is off to the doctor - the same care should be exercised on the road. School buses is another issue - the driver of these vehicles are totally responsible for the safety of the children on board yet I have seen on numerous occasions I have seen very poor maintenance with seatbelts jammed and broken and simply not working.
"This is a major tragedy waiting to happen - children's lives are at stake and as far as I am concerned, the driver is responsible and I am quite determined to enforce this law.
"Finally I suppose I see our duty as safety enforcers, but also safety educators to the public. We are not there out simply to catch people. We are there in the hope that we can save lives and prevent some of the heartbreak that many families in this county have experienced over the years."