A judge has warned about the potential for “death and destruction” on our roads when drivers allow themselves to be distracted whilst behind the wheel.
His Honour Judge Geoffery Miller QC was speaking during the sentencing of two young motorists, who appeared in court on charges arising from a head-on collision in Whitehead which resulted in a teenage girl sustaining “catastrophic and life-changing injuries”.
John McAuley, 19, from Dunkeld Gardens and 21-year old Samuel Graham Russell, from Broadlands in Carrickfergus, appeared at Belfast Crown Court on offences related to the collision on the Slaughterford Road on the evening of August 11, 2014.
The severely injured woman, who was a passenger in McAuley’s car and who sustained brain trauma, attended the hearing assisted by the use of a rollator walking aid.
McAuley – whose Renault Clio collided head-on with another vehicle close to a hump-back bridge – admitted a charge of causing grievous bodily injury by careless driving. He had only been driving for two months when the collision occurred, and had to be cut from his vehicle.
Russell, who was not directly involved in the collision but whose careless driving prior to the crash contributed to events, admitted driving with no insurance and driving without due care and attention.
The court heard that Russell had been driving his Vauxhall Corsa along the road when a car pulled out of a housing estate and into the road. Instead of slowing down to allow the driver to pull out, Russell overtook the car and for a short period was driving on the wrong side of the road.
McAuley was driving in the opposite direction, and as he was coming over the bridge, he manoeuvred his vehicle to avoid colliding with Russell. This in turn led to his Clio crashing head-on into a Hyundai Santa Fe coming in the opposite direction.
The court heard that while it was accepted that McAuley was observing the 30mph speed limit, he was “unable to react in time and deal with the presence of Russell’s vehicle overtaking the Santa Fe”.
Crown prosecutor Kate McKay said that while a number of people sustained injuries, McAuley’s 16-year-old passenger – who was not wearing a seatbelt – was flung from the back seat and hit the dashboard head-first.
She was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, sustained significant brain damage and remained critically ill for several months. The court heard that as a result of what happened, her life has “changed dramatically”.
Mrs McKay said that after seeing photographs of the vehicles following the collision, it was “amazing that anyone got out alive”. She also revealed that those in the Hyundai thankfully didn’t sustain serious injuries.
The prosecutor also said that due to there being a solid wall on that section of the road due to the bridge, McAuley was left with no option but to collide with one of the vehicles coming towards him. Mrs McKay said that following an examination of the road which bore brake marks, these marks suggested McAuley was on his own side of the road when he hit his brakes.
Defence barrister Sean O’Hare, acting for Russell, said that in August 2015 his client was just off his R plates but “still a new driver” and was only 18.
Revealing the insurance in his car was no longer valid as Russell had made a series of modifications to the Corsa which rendered his insurance invalid, Mr O’Hare said his client later referred to the collision as “like something from a DoE advertisement”.
The barrister also said the incident has been “something of a salutary lesson” to the student.
Taylor Campbell, the barrister representing father-of-one McAuley, spoke of the remorse his client feels over the injuries sustained to his young passenger.
Pointing out that McAuley himself sustained horrendous wounds, Mr Taylor said that while his client was not speeding, he has since accepted “had he been driving a bit slower, things may have turned out a bit different ... he was not speeding but should have slowed down coming up to the bridge”.
Mr Campbell also revealed that in August 2015 McAuley was only 17, had only passed his driving test a few months before and was therefore a relatively inexperienced driver.
The barrister also issued an apology to the injured passenger, saying “he is not asking for forgiveness but wants the victim in this case to accept that the apology is a genuine apology”.
After listening to submissions from both the Crown and defence, Judge Miller QC spoke of the “devastating injuries” caused to the female passenger. He also warned of the potential for death and destruction by those who allow themselves to be distracted when driving.
The judge fined Russell £250 on each of the two counts he pleaded guilty to, and banned him from driving for six months.
McAuley was ordered to complete 240 hours community service and was disqualified from driving for a year.