Restorative Youth Programme to Prevent and Respond to Road Related Harms

An Garda Síochána and Local Authorities

Restorative Youth Programme to Prevent and Respond to Road Related Harms

This case concerns the Garda response when a young child was killed in a road traffic collision in a rural part of Ireland. As always happens in such incidents, An Garda Síochána investigated the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. A local Garda manager, who had been trained in restorative practices, was familiar with the area and had met local groups several times prior to the incident in relation to a range of quality-of-life issues, including roads infrastructure.

It is commonplace, in the aftermath of a fatal road traffic collision, for Gardaí to perform high-visibility checkpoints in the weeks and months following the incident at the accident location to speak with as many people as possible who may have travelled that stretch of road at the time. This is premised on preventative and incident-reduction rationales: the presence of the Gardaí at the location reminds motorists about the incident and encourages conformity with road traffic legislation. This time, however, the local Garda manager was convinced, based on their knowledge of the local community and the specifics of this incident, that this would be insensitive and risked jeopardising the relationship between Gardaí and the local community. The Garda manager observed the community rallying to support each other in the aftermath of the accident, practically and emotionally.

The Garda manager sought to organise a programme that involved a youth-led discussion on the prevention of road related harms. Given the circumstances of the incident in question, the goal was to facilitate sharing and learning among young people to enable them to process their feelings about the incident and reflect on how to prevent further harms. This involved working with residents’ groups, families, local Gardaí (some of whom were well known in the area because of sporting achievements), and the local authority’s road safety staff. The Garda manager wanted the programme design to be informed by restorative principles, such as the participation of those who have a stake in an incident in responding to its aftermath, and the facilitation of dialogue to address, repair and prevent harm.

To deliver a bespoke programme that met the needs of local young people, it was important to gain insights into their interactions with those who enforce road traffic legislation. Having been trained in restorative practices, the Garda manager wanted to adopt a holistic approach that focused on responsibility, the importance of relationships and positive decision-making. They felt that young people would be unlikely to respond to a senior Garda ‘lecturing’ them, and that taking such an approach risked being experienced as belittling, especially given that most people in the area had limited interactions with Gardaí. Working with the local Juvenile Liaison Officer, who was also experienced in using restorative practices, the Garda manager developed a response that avoided being perceived to be blaming, judging or lecturing young people about youthful risk taking – a key component in growing and maturing. Instead, the programme allowed young people and the wider community to reflect on how to minimise the chances of serious harm, the ‘ripple effects’ of such harms, and the importance of young people recognising and sharing their feelings. From a restorative perspective, this was crucial given the reverberations of the tragedy across the younger community members. Restorative practices teach us that we must create a space for those who experience loss to express their feelings and have their voice heard, if they so wish, in a safe and structured environment.

The programme took place over two days, with a range of local stakeholders (including people who were native to the area, but had since moved) participating throughout. It involved the use of various restorative methods, including circle processes. This meant that the organisers facilitated, rather than led, the conversation. One at a time, participants were invited to speak freely in response to pre-prepared and open questions. Care was taken to ensure participants were comfortable, especially younger members. The topics covered included identifying the harms caused from the trauma of learning about and dealing with the tragedy, and the needs and wishes of the community in addressing this harm. This helped adults empathise with the young people’s feelings and involved young people in the healing process.

In addition, the local Gardaí who were known for their sporting achievements gave first-hand experiences of the challenges and tough circumstances they had personally faced, telling the group how they had managed to persist through testing times. They spoke about the benefits of positive decision-making in terms of the ‘natural high’ of succeeding in the long-term. After this, they gave young people present the opportunity to express themselves about issues that were important to them in relation to traffic, cycling, walking, quadbikes, motorcycles, using farm machinery on public roads, and other topics. The rest of the audience also had a chance to contribute: parents, local professionals and other members of the community described their views on the subjects discussed, including their experiences and feelings around young people being harmed on the roads, or coming to the attention of the Gardaí.

Throughout, the Gardaí involved sought to build relationships with the young people and took opportunities to speak about the impact that different decisions made when young, can have on their lives in the long-term. Crucially, the programme also included a visit by young people to their local sports pitch for a training session, aiming to promote greater team building and provide a positive element to the programme. This was noted as a highlight of the project.

The project was informed by restorative principles in several ways. Firstly, it was community-based and –focused, with a large group of stakeholders – including Gardaí, young people and families, sporting teams, local authorities and residents’ groups – participating actively in the design and delivery of the programme. This meant that the programmes reflected the unique conditions of the local area. Second, the discussions were designed to give all present an equal opportunity to share their feelings. Thirdly, it was all framed as positively as possible around preventing harm (rather than focusing on blame, shame or negativity) with positive decision-making embodied by the sporting role models. Finally, it focused on relationship building: the relationship between Gardaí and young people, and among the people – including the young people – who lived in a community that had been devastated by the tragedy.