A BUS driver veered into the path of an oncoming skip lorry while rummaging in his rucksack on the floor for change, killing its ‘utterly blameless’ driver.
Despite accepting responsibility for lorry driver Jamie Foster’s death, Martin Clarke asserted his driving of the bus had been careless rather than dangerous.
But just over two weeks before his trial at Warwick Crown Court on a charge of causing Mr Foster’s death on Warwick Road, Stratford, by dangerous driving, the 48-year-old changed his plea to guilty.
Clarke, of Eckington Close, Redditch, was jailed for three years and two months and banned from driving for four years and seven months.
Prosecutor Michael Shaw said at 1.45pm on January 17 last year Clarke was driving a bus, which had no passenger because it was out of service, towards Stratford on the A439 Warwick Road.
At the same time 31-year-old Mr Foster was driving a skip lorry along the road away from the town.
But as Clarke’s bus came to a slight right-hand bend, it crossed into the oncoming carriageway into the path of the skip lorry, giving Mr Foster no time to react.
There was a collision between the front off-side of each vehicle, hurling debris into the path of other traffic and leaving Mr Foster with injuries from which he died at the scene.
A woman who was behind the lorry called the emergency services, and when they arrived they found Clarke trapped with a serious injury to his leg, and a rucksack on the floor of the bus.
Clarke told police officers: “I was coming into Stratford and I leaned down to the side to where my bag was to get some change, and I think I pulled the steering wheel to the wrong side and went across the road.”
When he was later interviewed, he claimed that as he had been leaning down to get 20p coins from his rucksack to put into the bus’s coin holder, the door to the driver’s compartment had come open, causing him to fall off his seat.
But Mr Shaw pointed out that when it was examined, no defect was found to the door.
Clarke, who had been a bus driver for 28 years, accepted ‘with hindsight’ that his action was dangerous, and the collision would not have happened if he had not been searching for change.
Judge Peter Cooke commented: “Doing what he did amounts to a gross avoidable distraction. He was prioritising rummaging in his bag for change over keeping control of the vehicle.”
Mark Laprell, defending, said: “In the pre-sentence report the author spells out the circumstances and the motivation he has in pleading guilty, not least that he wants to do the best he can to enable the relatives of the deceased to move forward, and to acknowledge his culpability in the only way he can.”
Mr Laprell pointed out Clarke had been asking about other people even while he was trapped and in pain in the bus, from which it took 45 minutes to release him.
Jailing Clarke, Judge Cooke said: “We are dealing here with two decent men, one now sadly deceased, and one facing the consequence of that.
“Sentencing for cases of causing death by dangerous driving is one of the hardest tasks faced by judges in the crown court, because a life has been snuffed out and the families left behind have to come with the loss.
“Prison is inevitable. But coming to a just sentence involves very careful analysis of how serious the offence is, how bad was the conduct and how bad was the result.
“The answer to the second question is that a life was lost, which is as bad as it can be.
“The conduct of driving dangerously, while ordinarily it’s not an act of wickedness, it does represent a gross departure from the standards of care we should all show.
“Jamie was utterly blameless in this collision, and he had his still young life snuffed out in an instant by a stranger’s gross negligence at the wheel of a vehicle.
“He was clearly a very engaging and warm-hearted man who will be sorely missed. His last moments alive must have been the experience of seeing a vehicle heading towards him and giving him no time to react.
“Michael Clarke was a very experienced driver of cars and buses. I do not doubt the genuineness of his remorse. I accept that the change of plea was motivated at least in part by a desire to spare the deceased’s family any additional anguish.
“He fell prey to an avoidable distraction. I can only characterise it as a gross one, since seeking to sort the change in his rucksack was such a seriously foolish thing to do.
“It did not just take his attention from the task of driving, it actually caused him effectively to abandon control of the vehicle altogether, leaning down to rummage in his rucksack to the point where he actually fell from his driver’s seat.
“He was prioritising the wholly unnecessary act of rummaging for change over driving the bus. The accident was entirely of his making.”