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'Talking about our daughter's crash death for TV ad was so difficult...but we hoped some good would come from it'

In the first of two articles, Laurence White talks to the parents who have lost a child in road accidents here, and who have also featured in graphic road safety advertisements

It is often said that time is a great healer, but that sentiment finds no favour with north Antrim couple Paul and Diane McCracken. More than six years ago their only daughter Shannan, just a month away from her 18th birthday, died when her car left the road near their Aghadowey home, killing her instantly.

It is often said that time is a great healer, but that sentiment finds no favour with north Antrim couple Paul and Diane McCracken. More than six years ago their only daughter Shannan, just a month away from her 18th birthday, died when her car left the road near their Aghadowey home, killing her instantly.

The couple’s grief is still as raw as it was on that fateful July night in 2009 when tragedy struck.

Indeed, during the past year they decided not to attend a safe driving initiative set up in their daughter’s name at her school. It has been running for a number of years and the family donated a cut glass trophy as one of the prizes.

Paul says: “We attended every previous year, as we thought this initiative by Ballymoney Road Safety Committee was a great idea, working with sixth and upper sixth year pupils at Dalriada Grammar School in the town who were learning to drive.

“But we didn’t attend the latest event because Diane and I had got to a point where we had to draw a line at some stage. Every time we went to talk to young people about the issue it was very difficult for me.

“It was getting harder and harder as time went on. If the opportunity comes up again we will consider it, but we have to try to move on.”

The couple are well known to thousands of viewers across Northern Ireland as they — along with other parents whose lives have been irreversibly changed through traffic accidents — feature in the moving and graphic Crashed Lives series of road safety advertisements shown on television in the province.

Paul, a 50-year-old police inspector, says he and Diane (51) decided to take part in the advertisements, first screened in 2012 and recently shown again, for a number of reasons.

“Through my work I had been at the scene of fatal road accidents. You hear news of such accidents all the time but it never means that much to people unless you know those involved.

“I was one of those people who thought it would never come to our door. When it did, I had a whole new perspective on it. My motivation was to do something to get the message across to young drivers about the need to drive safely and hopefully make a difference, perhaps save a life and stop another family going through what we went through. We hoped that some good would come out of Shannan’s death.

“I also felt I had to do it because I am a police officer and part of my job is to make our roads safer. It was the right thing to do at that time, even though it was very difficult taking part in the filming.”

He adds: “Young people don’t think of the consequences of their actions. Many young drivers may have a little scrape while driving. Unfortunately Shannan had one mishap that cost her her life. That could happen to anyone at any time and that was the message we were trying to get across.” On the night of the accident, Shannan, who had passed her driving test only six months earlier, had been at the cinema with friends. She had given several of them a lift home, and it was around midnight when she decided to return to her own home.

On the way, her car left the road and hit a tree. In the advertisement, Paul and Diane are heard saying that she was going too fast and that there was a lot of activity on her mobile phone right up until the moment of the crash.

Paul says: “We never really found out what exactly happened. We can speculate.” The couple were at home when one of Shannan’s friends, who had been with her earlier, came to the house. He had heard there was an accident involving a black Renault Clio and he called to see if Shannan had come home.

When he didn’t see the car in the driveway he tried to phone her but there was no answer. “He rang the doorbell and told us there had been an accident. We jumped in our car and drove out to the scene,” Paul recalls.

“As we drove through the police cordon I heard a policewoman speaking into her radio — ‘the parents have arrived’. At the scene I met colleagues I worked with. I asked one if she was dead and he replied that she was.

“Up to that point I couldn’t believe that it was Shannan. From then on it felt unreal, that we were in a dream. It didn’t seem to make sense.

“My colleagues had been getting ready to call to our house when we arrived at the scene. It reminded me of calls I had to make in the past and it made me realise what families go through in those circumstances.”

Shannan was a bright pupil at Dalriada who had hoped to become a primary school teacher.

Diane recalls: "She just had a way with kids and kids loved her. She was great with my nephews. It is tough knowing that she is never going to fulfil her ambition or get married.

"Her friends are getting on with their lives but they still keep in touch and that is great, it means an awful lot to us that she made such an impact on so many other people in her short life.

"She just had a way with people."

Shannan worked part-time after school, along with her younger brother Ross, at the Brown Trout Inn near her home.

Owner Jane O'Hara described her at the time as a "breath of fresh air" adding: "I know it may seem like a cliche but she really was a very special girl."

She was also a talented musician and at the time was learning to play the bagpipes with a local band.

In a poignant message posted on her online page shortly before her death Shannan had written: "Life is about laughing and living and good and bad, getting through whatever comes your way and looking back with a smile".

That is a message which her grieving parents still find difficult to live up to.

Paul says: "We had what people call a gentleman's family, a boy and a girl.

"We had it all as far as you can have. We had no worries and we thought we had a normal family like everyone else.

"But that can get taken away from you in a split second."

Every day they ponder on what might have been.

"She would have been 24 now. I think of things like never being able to walk her down the aisle as a new bride.

"I was married at 24. Some of her school friends are now getting engaged and thinking of getting married. That makes it very difficult for us.

"When something like this happens your whole life and your outlook on life changes. Life isn't the same any more, it is a whole new life and you have to learn to live with it.

"There is not a day goes by when something doesn't come along to remind us of Shannan."

Since making the advertisement there have been some surreal moments for Paul and Diane.

He recalls talking to one group of young people aged 17 and 18 who had come along to a road safety talk.

"When they saw the advertisement you could see them looking at the screen and then at us and then back at the screen and then back to us," Paul says.

"It suddenly dawned on them that we were the people in the advertisement. They thought they were just actors. It made them realise that this sort of thing can happen to real people, that it is real life."

Colleagues have also used the advertisement to warn their own children about the need for care on the roads and a friend, who is a policeman in Scotland, uses the film clip on his mobile phone to show to young people he has stopped for speeding.

"He makes them watch it and tells them that he knows the people in the film and that what they are saying is real, it did happen," says Paul.

When the Crashed Lives advertisements were first shown the families were alerted to the scheduling so that they and other relatives would be prepared and could avoid them if they so desired.

But Diane says it was something of a shock when the adverts were shown again recently. "We were just watching a show on television when the advert came on. But I hope that I save another mother from feeling the way that I do. I lost my only daughter," she says.

Paul adds: "We hope that it helps but you only have to drive on our roads and you will see young people racing along every day.

"They think they are invincible but it could be anyone at any time who loses their life. I know that only too well. It seems young people have to reach their mid-20s before they realise the dangers. For a lot of young people that is too late."

The team getting the message out

Julie Anne Bailie is executive creative director with agency Lyle Bailie International which created the Crashed Lives advertisements. She says:

We work very closely with victims’ families and it never fails to astound me how totally selfless and giving they can be.

They bare their souls for all to see despite it being incredibly difficult for them to do so and consistently say that if their family’s story and their pain helps save just one life on the road then it is worth it for them.

These Crashed Lives true story are part of the DoE’s broad portfolio of adverts. The fact that they are so chillingly understated, so searingly honest and real, can be every bit as shocking as the big, dramatic car crash scenes. These campaigns all score very highly on effectiveness. The case study evidence is very compelling.”

Visit crashedlives.com to view the advertisements

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