Killed for the sake of a text

The Sunday Times is leading a new campaign calling for tough penalties on drivers caught using phones

George Arbuthnott and Audrey Ward

The summer of 2010 was drawing to a close as Jemma O’Sullivan rearranged her bedroom in Newcastle upon Tyne to make space on the shelves and in the drawers. Her boyfriend, Alan Godfrey, was leaving his flat in Reading to move in with her after a year-and-a-half of a long-distance relationship.

“It came to the point that couples reach — what’s the next stage? We wanted to be able to do things couples do on a whim rather than plan things out every fortnight,” said Godfrey, who had secured a lecturing position at Newcastle University.

On September 3 O’Sullivan helped him to load his possessions into their rental van and they set off mid-morning in buoyant mood. “I knew she was the girl for me and we were at the beginning of our new life,” he said.

They were just north of Sheffield when Godfrey pulled onto a slip road on the M18 and joined a queue of traffic. They chatted as music played on the radio. Godfrey’s last recollection of O’Sullivan is of her basking in the sunshine that was streaming through the window.

Suddenly a lorry slammed into the back of their van, pushing it under a truck in front. O’Sullivan, a 22- year- old pharmacy student, was killed instantly. Godfrey, then 27, was knocked unconscious. Both had to be cut from the wreckage and he suffered serious head injuries.

Godfrey has no recollection of the accident itself, only regaining consciousness at the hospital. “I remember flashes — the doctor holding my hand, the police coming in to tell me Jem had been killed, me squeezing the doctor’s hand,” he said softly.

He passed out from the shock and was devastated when he learnt later that O’Sullivan’s body was so badly injured that he could not even see her one last time.

Police found Christopher Kane, 67, the driver of the lorry that hit them, had been composing a text message while travelling at 55mph. He was jailed for five years after admitting causing death by dangerous driving. Godfrey fought a catch in his throat as he recounted coming face to face with Kane in court.

“He was no more than 6ft away from me — the person who had stolen someone so special from myself and Jemma’s family. It was a very surreal experience, because you know that you can’t jump over the dock and you can’t do anything to hurt this guy. There was a lot of anger but I suppose there is a level of restraint that you just have to show.”

More than 500 people a year are killed or seriously injured because drivers have been distracted. Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, announced he was considering doubling the punishment for those caught using a handheld mobile phone while driving to six penalty points.

“The amount of casualties has been absolutely appalling. We’ve got to change this,” McLoughlin said. If the proposals become law, convicted motorists who have been qualified for less than two years would be banned from driving, because for them the threshold is six penalty points rather than 12. Any driver who has used a handheld phone at the wheel could also be fined up to £4,000 by magistrates. Godfrey said he wanted something positive to come out of O’Sullivan’s death.

“There’s a certain stigma around drink-driving. The same stigma needs to be attached to the use of mobile phones while driving,” he said.

“You are impairing your senses when you drink and drive, and equally you impair your senses when you use a mobile phone. If you’re driving a car and texting, you need to be aware that you are not only putting your own life at risk but you are putting the people around you at risk as well.”

The Sunday Times revealed last month that tougher penalties were being considered by the government after the newspaper presented Robert Goodwill, the road safety minister, with research showing that mobile phone use slowed reactions more than cannabis or alcohol.

This newspaper is now launching a campaign calling not only for the penalties to be increased, but also for the government to begin a public awareness campaign on the issue and for the police to make routine checks on drivers’ phone records at crash scenes.

The government has done little to address the problem. Its last public awareness campaign to highlight the dangers, Dying to Take the Call, was dropped in 2009. It warned drivers they were four times more likely to crash if they used a mobile phone.

That same year the government also halted its research on the prevalence of the offence. Its 2009 figures, obtained from surveys in southeast England, showed that the number of drivers using a phone at the wheel had almost doubled in a year, from 1.5% to 2.9%.

Last August fines were increased to £100 from £60, which had been the punishment since 2007. Edmund King, president of the AA, called for a police crackdown followed by a potential move to a six-month ban.

The Magistrates’ Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said that the government should look at toughening the penalties further.

FOR the parents of Gary Livingstone, the government procrastination over the past few years is a source of great frustration. Their son, a 42-year-old prison officer who cycled to work every day, was also killed by a driver using his mobile phone in 2008.

“It was the week before Christmas,” said Noel Livingstone, his father. “Gary often used the cycle path but it was covered in moss and because it was December it was icy. He had come off his bike a couple of times, so he decided he would put more flashing lights on his bike, use his safety helmet and take the main carriageway. As he cycled along a lorry driver mowed him down.”

Steven Welsh, the driver, had been writing and receiving texts for 15 minutes before hitting Gary on the A50 near Doveridge in Derbyshire as the cyclist headed back to the home he shared with his parents in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.

“I remember thinking he was late coming home,” said Joanna Livingstone, Gary’s mother. “He should have been back at about 9.30pm. At about 10.50pm there was a knock on the door and it was the police. They’d come to say there’d been an accident and that Gary was involved.

“I immediately asked, ‘Is he hurt?’ The policeman said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s worse than that.’” Gary’s mother could not take in what he was saying. “You don’t mean to tell me he’s been killed?” she said. She had to break the news to her two other sons on the phone.

She was incensed when she heard that the driver had been texting: “I just couldn’t believe that someone could be so reckless.”

Her voice softened as she spoke of her son. “It’s been six years and I think about it every day and I visit his grave every week. Unless you’ve been through it, it’s very hard to explain. People are very kind and say, ‘I know how you feel.’ They don’t really.”

She could hardly look at Welsh in court, although he did express remorse. He was sentenced to almost three years and released after serving half that time.

NICK FREEMAN, a lawyer nicknamed “Mr Loophole” for his ability to help defendants escape punishment for driving offences, is among the biggest critics of police efforts to deal with the problem of phone use at the wheel. He accuses them of failing to check drivers’ phones after accidents unless they have resulted in death or serious injury.

Suzette Davenport, the head of roads policing at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said cuts had led chief constables to make some “really difficult decisions” about delivering services. However, she insisted the issue was being taken seriously along with speeding, seatbelts and drink or drug-driving.

The Sunday Times asked Davenport to talk to Freeman about his recommendations and after their discussion she has issued advice to officers to check phones at the roadside. “It would assist the interests of justice if officers could use those checks as part of the process of ascertaining whether or not an offence has been committed,” she said.

There was a time when Paul Carvin, a teacher, would beep his horn if he saw someone using their phone at the wheel. Now, eight years after the death of his wife, Zoë, who was killed by a driver on the phone, he still bristles at the sight but no longer intervenes.

“I can feel the blood boil in me,” he said. “Most people don’t see using a mobile phone at the wheel as a bad thing. They think, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I am perfectly able to manage the car.’”

It was a crisp February afternoon when he got a call from his brother-in-law to say there had been a car accident involving his wife and her mother. He rushed home to await details and let their children Emily, then 11, and Ben, then 13, into the house after school. As he got to the front door, two police cars pulled up outside. “I knew then that something dreadful had happened,” he said.

The police explained that Zoë, 42, had died instantly and her mother, Veronica, was in hospital. “You cannot believe how physically your body can change when you hear that. I literally could not stand up.”

Paul Carvin had to compose himself to tell his children. “From where our house is, you can see them coming up the road home. I remember Emily walking up the road, laughing and joking with her friends; I knew that I was going to have to tell her what had happened and her world would never be the same. And then an hour later, when Ben came home after football practice, I had to do the same again.”

The accident had been caused by Andrew Crisp, a 26-year-old lorry driver who had been so distracted on his phone that he failed to see a set of temporary traffic lights on the A1 near Denwick in Northumberland, or the snaking queue of cars ahead of him.

“That first night we all slept in the bed together,” said Paul Carvin, his voice choking. “Up until that moment, our children couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. Zoë was always thinking about making things special — she liked to buy nice clothes for Emily or organise lovely birthday parties for the children.”

Paul Carvin is desperately hoping for tougher penalties that would deter drivers from using their phone at the wheel, but for now he is consoled by his memory of the last moments he had with his wife.

“I had seen her in the morning before I went to work, given her a kiss, said goodbye, said I love you . . . which made it better in a way.”

Apps to help drivers keep their eyes on the road
Otter
Free, Android, BlackBerry
Helps drivers resist the temptation to take a call by silencing mobile phones when travelling at more than 10mph.

Safely Go
Free, Android
Allows calls and texts from three “VIP” contacts and tells everyone else you’re on the road through automatic text.

Jarvis — Texting Robot
Free, Android
Offers to read out and answer driver’s text messages through a Siri- style personal assistant.

No Texting and Driving
£2.55, Android
Reads text messages aloud and sends auto-response while on the road.

iRezQ
Free, iPhone, Android
Kicks into action during an accident, alerting emergency services and other drivers.