The 16th of December 2000 is a date which Aileen Tester will never forget. It was on that day, as he walked from home an end of term party in Nottingham, that her brother Robert was killed by drunken driver Gursharan Singh Panesar at the age of just 20.
His companion, 21 year old Alexandra Vedeer, was also killed after Panesar drove at 50mph the wrong way down a one way street crashing into the two students. Panesar, who was estimated to have had about three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood stream, received a seven and a half year jail term, later cut to just 6 years, for his role in the death of the two young students.
It was at Robert’s wake - as Aileen, who was just 25, struggled to come to terms with the loss of her beloved brother - that she decided she would do what she could to highlight road safety issues.
“I remember someone talking to me at the wake, quoting road safety statistics and the number of deaths and it really upset me. Robert was not just a statistic. The people who have died are so much more than statistics.
“Someone else then told me of the email Robert had circulated to his friends shortly before his death asking them to sign a petition against drink driving. It was as if he was directing me - thatthis is what I should do.”
Aileen said her campaigning on road safety issues did mean in some ways that she “played her grief out in public”.
“It was how I grieved for him. It was how I coped. I got to talk to people about him - to let them know who he was.
“The people I met along the way allowed me to do that and helped me to heal to an extent.
“I will always be grateful to them for that. I want to thank everyone who helped.
“But more than that I suppose the work allowed me to put a face to the statistics.
“I hope now that when people think of those who are killed by drunk drivers or in car accidents they have can put a face to it - they can think beyond cold, hard statistics. Statistics don’t show the full picture.”
Aileen admits when she became involved in road safety campaigning, both as an individual and as part of the Foyle and District Road Safety Committee, she did not realise just how much of her life it would take up.
As well as attending committee meetings, Aileen worked alongside bereaved families. Many times she was the person theyturned to when their lives had been turned upside down and they were unsure of what would happen next.
“There were times when it was hard,” she said, “to walk into a room and see a family in so much pain and to have to sit down and explain to them that no, there was no support out there for road accident victims and their families and that there would be horrible things that they would still have to go through.
“When someone dies in a tragic accident like a road accident, it’s not a matter of getting through the funeral and getting on with the grieving process. In many cases families will have to attend inquests. They may hear graphic accounts of how their loved one died - graphic details of their injuries.
“The whole experience can be devastating and while sometimes there may be a court liason officer present, many times families are left to feel their way through this process on their own.”
Throughout her years campaigning Aileen repeatedly called for the remit for the Minister for Victims to be extended beyond solely looking at victims of the Troubles.
“We are supposed to be in a new era - at the end stages of a peace process - so the world needs to move on. Victims - be they of road accidents, of crime, or whatever - need to be recognised and the support needs to be put in place for them.
“To see a family’s face crumple when you tell them there is nothing there for them - no help to be had - that was heartbreaking.”
Aileen said at any time of the day or night she would have been on call to talk to bereaved families or those who had been injured. At times people would call her crying inconsolably - while she never turned anyone away she said other structures should be in place to support such people.
“You didn’t know what you would answer the phone to. I’d been there myself - through that grieving process - and it is a long road.”
The 35 year old travelled throughout Ireland and over to England campaigning for tighter road safety laws and tougher penalties for those convicted of serious driving offences. She firmly believes that anyone who kills someone through their driving should never drive again.
She has campaigned, tirelessly, at local and national level - often at the expense of her own health or time spent with her young family.
“Politicians are very good at listening,” she said, “We never had any bother getting politicians to listen to what we said. They are also very good at offering their sympathy and saying the right thing when a tragedy occurs - but in terms of changing legislation, pushing the agenda or providing funding for support services we just seemed to hit brick walls time and time again.
“And there are only so many times you can hit a brick wall before you get a sore head!” the campaigner said.
There is, she says, a continued lack of understanding among the general public about the potential dangers of driving. “There has to be a sea change in people’s attitudes towards driving. We take it for granted. It seems to be we take a lot for granted - including just how fragile life can be.”
Her frustration at the lack of support for road safety issues in real terms was one of the main reasons Aileen decided to step back from her campaigning role.
She also found herself needing more time to grieve for her brother and wanted to move on with her life in a more positive way. “Working in road safety can be depressing at times - by its very nature. You are constantly dealing with death and hurt and grief, and that can be hard to deal with. To be honest, I found I was starting to struggle with it. Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Robert’s death. It also marked what should have been his 30th birthday.
“When he died I didn’t think I would still find things so hard ten years after his death - but last year was extremely difficult for me.”
A health scare also forced Aileen to re-evaluate what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“I want to focus on something more positive - perhaps on something motivational. But I also wanted to spend more time with family and just enjoy being a mammy for a while.”
Now a proud mother to two young boys Ronan (4) and Callum (3), Aileen said she is cherishing being able to devote all her time to her husband and children. “Just the other day I was in the car driving and for the first time in years I realised that I didn’t have anything to do but be with my children.
“I had no phonecalls to make, no emails to follow up... nothing. I felt at peace that day. I realised it was the first time in years that I had really felt at peace.”