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Former police officer whose job meant telling families their loved ones had died in a crash, is still working to save lives as Road Safety week begins

Published 23/11/2015

Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Belfast , UK - NOVEMBER 21, Pictured is Tracey Doherty Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 21 (Photo by Kevin Scott / Presseye)
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Belfast , UK - NOVEMBER 21, Pictured is Tracey Doherty Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 21 (Photo by Kevin Scott / Presseye)
Terror trip: Ivan Little found the simulator experience frightening and disturbing
Terror trip: Ivan Little found the simulator experience frightening and disturbing

Ex-police officer Tracey Doherty's job often meant telling parents their children had lost their lives in a car crash. As Road Safety week starts, she tells Ivan Little about the trauma she witnessed and how she's still working to prevent carnage.

Retired policewoman Tracey Doherty always preferred to see solid front doors rather than glass-panelled ones on the houses she had to visit to break the awful news of road deaths in Northern Ireland.

If it was a glass door the former Traffic Branch family liaison officer who was invariably in plain clothes had to watch the last heartbreaking steps of normality for unsuspecting mothers and fathers as they walked down the hall towards her.

Tracey says: "I could almost hear my own heart beating because I knew I was about to destroy the lives of these people once they opened the door to hear me telling them their relatives weren't coming home."

Wooden doors briefly delayed the inevitable for Tracey, who is now spearheading a new independent road safety campaign in Northern Ireland where it's estimated that 200 young people are killed or seriously injured in accidents every year.

Tracey has never counted up the number of families whose lives she changed for ever in those agonising years as a liaison officer but she can still see the faces of the relatives who listened to her devastating doorstep revelations.

She says "I never left a family home without at some point shedding a tear. A family photograph always came out and when you had a mother sitting beside you, breaking her heart, it was very difficult not to get emotionally involved.

"And when I was training police officers, I told them that if someone needed a hug or an arm around them then that's what they should do. My view was that we were human beings first and foremost and police officers second. As long as we were doing our jobs professionally it was alright to cry."

The terrible task never got any easier for Tracey throughout her seven years in the liaison role that saw her called out at all hours of the day and night.

And Tracey's work didn't end with that first contact. "We were the link between the investigating police officers and the families to keep them in touch with the progress of the inquiry and to maybe track down a cherished bit of jewellery or another possession for the loved ones."

And now Tracey, who helped develop award-winning road safety roadshows for the RUC and PSNI, is using her hard-wrought experience again to help tackle the scourge of road deaths in Northern Ireland.

She says: "On my visits to schools, I tell the young drivers they cannot turn the clocks back. Life is not a PlayStation or an Xbox where you can push a re-set button after a car flips over."

In her time as a family liaison officer with Traffic Branch, Tracey called what she had to do the long journey because "that's exactly what it was when we set out to inform families their loved ones were gone".

She adds: "I would usually go to the scene of the accident before calling at the house because only that way could I answer the questions that the families always asked about where their relatives were in the car and what had happened."

The long journey always got just a little bit longer on the way from the crash scenes to the family homes and Tracey remembers the silence in the police car where officers never talked, knowing what was coming next.

Tracey says she believed in sharing the dreadful news immediately. She saw fathers sinking to their knees in despair or mothers slamming the door in a vain bid to shut out the nightmare while others begged her to make the truth go away.

But she says: "I was always completely honest no matter how difficult that was. There was no point trying to hold anything back because the families would eventually find out the truth at inquests.

"I sat with the relatives as long as they needed me to be there and the shoulder of whatever I was wearing would often be soaked right through from a mother's tears."

Tracey, from Comber, was an RUC cadet at 16 and became a fully-fledged police officer in 1980 staying with the force until her retirement in 2009 with most of her time spent in Traffic Branch, first collating statistics and then progressing into road safety education.

But like so many of her fellow officers she lost colleagues to the Troubles. One particular incident from her pre-Traffic Branch days in Cookstown still haunts her.

Tracey says: "It was a shooting and I don't want to go any further than that but it will never leave me.

"When I drive that road even now I still see what I saw that day at first hand. I was only in my teens and I don't think I was mature enough to deal with it.

"There was no counselling and I was told to get on with it." The demands of policing the violence meant that the RUC simply didn't have the resources they needed to devote sufficient time to tackling deaths on the road.

But Tracey says: "The stark reality was that the number of people who were dying on our roads exceeded the casualties from the Troubles. But terrorism had to be the main focus of police work."

However, Tracey was passionate in her quest to increase awareness of road safety through education especially after seeing the physical and emotional consequences of the carnage on the roads.

She was part of an initiative which was designed to spread the safety message to children and senior citizens, and though at first the Troubles dictated that the RUC weren't able to visit every school here, as time went on, the police road-safe roadshow became more and more accessible to young people, sometimes up to 2,000 at a time.

At the Savoy Hotel in London, the roadshow won the overall award in the Education and Training Section of the Prince Michael International road safety award scheme.

Yet despite her enthusiasm for her job, the idea of training to be a family liaison officer to help loved ones cope with their losses in accidents didn't initially appeal to Tracey, even though she knew there was a huge need for better communication.

Tracey explains: "Some officers were going to family homes and they weren't able to break the news as sympathetically as they could have."

So why did she say no at the outset?

She says: "I didn't think I wanted to have to take on the role of bad news bearer on a more permanent basis.

"But a week or two later, I changed my mind and I was among the first group of family liaison officers to start their work."

The FLOs were later central to another new police initiative to deal with potential plane, train or shipping disasters here.

"It had become obvious that in the event of a full-scale emergency, we didn't have anyone trained to deal with it. The tsunami and 7/7 in London made the authorities realise that death in large numbers created pandemonium and I was tasked to set up a disaster victim identification course here in Northern Ireland

"We trained all our family liaison officers in how to handle tragedies on a mass scale," says Tracey, who retired from the PSNI at the age of 47 on the same day as her husband George, who was also involved in road policing. But the couple weren't ready to bow out of road safety. And they now organise 2 Young 2 Die workshops - mainly in schools - for young drivers with the road safety charity BRAKE and the Autoline insurance firm.

Tracey says that education is imperative and that speed is the biggest killer of young drivers.

"It's not drink, as some people think. In the main we find through our contacts with young people in schools that drink driving is not acceptable.

"The main problem is young drivers taking chances with speed.

"They think they're invincible and that is the angle we are taking with our workshops.

"We go in to schools with a presentation which takes pupils through the all-too-real consequences of road accidents and I tell them about my former role as a family liaison officer.

"Statistics don't mean an awful lot to young people of 17 and 18, but once you tell them about someone like me coming to the door to inform their mothers and fathers about road deaths and about what happens in mortuaries, you see attitudes starting to change.

"We stress that the cars they're driving are lethal weapons, in much the same way as guns and knives."

Pupils also get a chance to experience a simulated car crash in a Ford Focus car specially adapted by Autoline, which has also introduced new technology in a smartphone app called Chilli Drive, which links in with GPS satellites to assess young people's motoring skills and offers lower premiums for better drivers.

Tracey says her road safety crusade is motivated by a deep desire to reduce the need for PSNI family liaison officers to follow in her footsteps up to those front doors.

She says: "As a mother of two young girls myself, I want to try as much as is humanly possible to make sure that fewer families have to suffer what my visits put them through."

Our man Ivan Little discovers that even a simulated crash can be terrifying

It really was too close for comfort, as the horror of a mass casualty road accident was unleashed all around me in Tracey Doherty's car crash simulator.

The sights, the sounds, the smells and the jolting of the specially adapted Ford Focus ST were an assault on all the senses, as a real tragedy in which four people died in Wales was recreated in a six minute nightmare.

Hundreds of young drivers are getting the chance to experience the virtual crash as Tracey tours the car around schools in Northern Ireland in a bid to make pupils take fewer chances behind the wheel.

And she says the programme is working.

Which is no surprise. Once I was settled into the car I was plunged into total darkness, until a monitor in the dashboard lit up to show a video of three actors playing the roles of carefree teenage girls on a day out. Suddenly, the 17-year-old driver starts to text a friend and she loses control, smashing into another car coming in the other direction.

Which is the cue for all hell to break loose in the simulator. There's a cacophony of screaming brakes and blaring horns as another car hits the girls' vehicle side-on.

And at that, an operator outside the simulator triggers a state-of-the art hydraulics system which appears to throw the car - and me - about in a terrifying tailspin of confusion.

From the video, it's clear two of the girls in the car are dead and in one of the other vehicles a child can be heard plaintively begging his parents to wake up. Which they don't.

Against a soundtrack of sirens, the emergency services cut the dead and the injured from the tangled wreckage and the action moves to the homes of the casualties, where police arrive to tell their parents that they're not coming back.

There are distressing scenes in mortuaries and graveyards before a graphic is flashed up on the screen to say that the girl who survived was jailed for seven years for dangerous driving - one year for every second she was texting.

At the end of the distressing and depressing drive it was a relief to step out of the simulator and to get into my own car to go home.

I can assure you, it was not an easy journey ...

Belfast Telegraph

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