Fleet News

Guest Opinion

TWO recently reported decisions in the criminal courts show how marked the difference can be when dealing with fatal road traffic accidents.

The first involved Russell Ellis, who had been driving a 17-tonne lorry in November 2002 between Frome and Shepton Mallet when he was involved in an accident.

The court was told that Ellis, who admitted causing death by dangerous driving, had been driving at 46mph in a 40mph limit and had been out drinking the night before. It was also said his sleep had been interrupted by text messages on his mobile phone from his girlfriend.

At the time of the accident his lorry had driven across the road at a 45 degree angle and took no evasive action. It was assumed he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Despite there being a number of factors which under the recent judges guidelines would be deemed aggravating factors to an offence, such as speed and fatigue, the court displayed remarkable leniency in sentencing Ellis to only 18 months imprisonment.

With aggravating factors present it is now not uncommon to see a sentence these days of between five and 10 years.

Contrast this with the case of Keymark Services. Steven Law was driving an articulated lorry for Keymark Services in February 2002.

Law fell asleep at the wheel while driving along the M1 in Northamptonshire. The court was advised that the lorry drivers had been shown how to falsify records to enable them to work longer hours.

As a consequence, two directors Lorraine Marsh and Melvyn Spree together with the company secretary Clare Miller faced charges.

The driver, Law, was part way through an 18-hour stint and was killed in the accident along with two other fleet drivers, one driving an Iveco truck, the other a Renault van.

Spree admitted manslaughter and unlawful killing and was jailed for seven years. Marsh was jailed for 16 months for conspiracy to falsify driving records.

Miller was given 160 hours of community service also for conspiracy to falsify driving records.

The company also faced a corporate manslaughter prosecution and investigation by the Vehicle and Operators Services Agency (VOSA).

As a consequence, the Vehicle Operator’s Licence was revoked and both Spree and Marsh were banned for life from holding a licence. The company was fined £50,000.

Following a police investigation, 10 full-time drivers were prosecuted and fined for over 400 different offences for breaching driving regulations and falsifying vehicle records. Three part-time drivers received official cautions.

The judge hearing the case said: ‘The sheer scale is shocking. Every driver was involved – encouraged by the incentive of a profit-sharing initiative.’

These two cases are at the opposite ends of the spectrum as to the way in which fleets will be dealt with after a serious accident. In the case of Ellis, the fatigue was established as being unrelated to his employment.

In the Keymark case however, the fatigue was part and parcel of a company, in collusion with its drivers, bending the rules for financial gain. The courts therefore took differing approaches in sentencing.

The warning for fleet managers is clear: any perceived collusion on a company’s behalf, either by deliberate act or by ignoring breaches of safe driving practice, are likely to weigh very heavily against the fleet manager and company in the event of a serious accident.

David Faithful
Clarke Wilmott Solicitors

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