DRIVE FOR JUSTICE: '˜I was given a life sentence by death crash drivers'
A woman whose husband and daughter were killed in separate road crashes says change is needed to deal with motorists who cause death and destruction ... read Catherine Smith's heart-wrenching story as we launch our Drive For Justice campaign to call for changes in the law to make sentencing fit the crime for those who kill or seriously injure people on our roads
“Half my family has been wiped out because of someone else’s reckless behaviour on the roads.
“It is a life sentence for me, but not for the culprits.”
People say lightning doesn’t strike twice but Catherine lost both her husband and daughter in two entirely separate incidents on the road.
Catherine says her grief was compounded by the unduly lenient sentences given to the culprits.
Catherine, who lives in Wrea Green, a grandmother-of-four, explains: “When someone dies of an illness, that is bad enough but to think their death could have been avoided is really difficult.
“If someone was shot dead on the streets, there would be a public outcry and rightly so.
“But a death on the road does not seem to be viewed in the same way as other crimes.
“I always say my husband and daughter were killed. They did not die - they were killed. It was not an accident, it was a crash. Road deaths can be just as violent as murder.”
Catherine had been married to Peter for 30 years at the time of his sudden death at the age of 54 on December 1 1992. Dad-of-two Peter, a former bank manager, had recently taken early retirement.
Remembering that fateful day, Catherine, then a civil servant working as a tax officer, recalls: “Peter was coming to my workplace in Preston to pick me up.
“I usually drove myself. But we had been to Yorkshire the night before and were late home so Peter suggested I got the train into work and said he’d pick me up.”
Peter was meant to collect Catherine at 4:15pm but he didn’t turn up.
“At first I thought maybe traffic was busy, but when it got to 4:45pm, I was worried.
“I rang a neighbour to ask her to check if Peter had set off. I thought he might just have forgotten. She called back and told me Peter must have set off as the lights were out and the car had gone.
“Then the man on the desk at our offices who was a retired policeman said there’d been an accident and traffic was at a standstill so Peter was probably stuck in that. I felt a deep sense of foreboding.”
Catherine’s friend called to say she would collect her from work as Peter was likely to have been caught in the traffic caused by the accident.
As they drove home, her friend tried to reassure her that it wouldn’t be Peter.
But as they approached the scene of the collision on Blackpool Road, Preston, Catherine suddenly saw the back of Peter’s car in a hedge.
Catherine says: “The policeman at the scene shouted at us to drive on – of course he didn’t know it was my husband’s car.
“I said to my friend: ‘That’s Peter’s car’ and she was crying and asking what she should do. I said: ‘Take me home.’”
When they arrived home, a policeman was waiting for Catherine. Catherine pleaded: “I want you to tell me he’s not dead” to which the policeman replied: “Mrs Smith, I only wish I could.”
Catherine faced the ordeal of telling her daughters the news.
She recalls: “It was awful having to tell them. What can you say?
“I had spoken to Peter half-an-hour before he was due to pick me up. The next moment, I was told he’d been killed.”
Catherine was told the court case would start on the anniversary of the day Peter was killed. However, after she objected, it was changed. She says: “I felt it was quite callous.”
The crash was caused by a Frenchman driving a 32 tonne lorry to the Springfields site in Salwick, near Preston.
Catherine says: “He had never driven in England before and didn’t speak any English.
“He had been into a garage asking where Springfields was and then must have seen the sign and turned across three lanes of traffic.
“I was told Peter’s car had actually set on fire and another motorist had tackled it with an extinguisher.
“The police said my husband had done nothing wrong and this Frenchman had just turned across three lanes of traffic.
“They said if it had been an eighth of a second either way, Peter would not have been killed. It was so sudden and awful. All our plans for life after retirement vanished in that split second.”
Catherine could not face attending the trial but her younger daughter went. Catherine explains: “I hated the person who had done this, but I did not want to know what he looked like and be haunted by that face.
“All the trial was about the lorry driver and things like finding him a translator. It was not about our family.”
The lorry driver was cleared of causing death by dangerous driving. He admitted driving without due care and attention and was fined £250 and banned from driving for three years - but only from England.
Catherine says: “His boss came over from France and said: ‘It does not matter, he can still drive in France.’ He got away with it.
“Many people say if you want to get rid of someone, it’s easier to kill them on the road as you get such a light sentence and time off for good behaviour or like this lorry driver, no sentence at all.”
Catherine says Peter’s death affected the family deeply and she had counselling.
She says: “I used to wake up feeling like I had a brick in my stomach and drag myself through the day. It was the first thing that hit me in the morning and the last thing when I couldn’t sleep at night.
“Peter’s mum had Alzheimer’s Disease and every time I saw her, she’d ask: ‘Where’s Peter?’ Each time I told her about his death, she’d react like it was the first time she’d heard it and burst into tears.
“In the end, I began telling her he couldn’t come that day. I couldn’t have her grieving again and again.”
Then on April 2 2006, Catherine’s world was thrown into turmoil once again when her daughter Janet O’Toole, a mum-of-three was killed after being hit by a car.
Janet, 41 who lived in Scarisbrick near Southport, had been out for a meal with her partner and they were walking home.
Janet, who had worked as a nurse looking after terminally ill children at Derian House Children’s Hospice, was hit by an oncoming car driven by a drunk driver.
Catherine says: “There were two young men in the car and they’d been drinking all day as it was the driver’s birthday.
“It was a hit and run and they ran to the nearest pub planning to ring a taxi.
But an off duty policeman heard the commotion and suspected they’d been up to no good and detained them. Otherwise the police said they might never have caught them.
This time Catherine went to the court case and the 23-year-old driver was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for causing death by dangerous driving, driving without insurance and driving without a licence.
Catherine says: “I felt anger because even 10 years ago, everyone knew you don’t drink and drive.
“Janet’s children were 17, 15 and six at the time. It was horrific for them to have their mother snatched away.
“Janet was very caring and loved children. We got on really well and she was more like a friend than a daughter.
“I couldn’t believe it had happened again. I felt life was really unfair.
“I had already lost my husband and then my daughter. Half my family has been wiped out by other people’s bad behaviour on the roads. I felt the sentence did not fit the crime in either case.
“In my opinion, judges are not using the powers they have and not giving the sentences they should.
“You never get over it - we suffer the life sentence, not the culprits.
“I feel those responsible for causing deaths on the road should get a sentence that fits the crime. It will never bring back your loved one, but at least you’d feel you had some sort of justice.”
What we are lobbying for
Drive For Justice is seeking to give families affected by the anguish of road deaths as a result of reckless and criminal driving a voice to bring about change and better justice.
Our campaign aims to:
Call on the Government to re-work sentencing guidelines and give judges specialist training so they can use the full powers that are available to them when deciding sentences for offenders
To have tougher sentences for the worst offenders
Have all culpable deaths treated as manslaughter
See more driving bans and longer driving bans handed out to those who kill or seriously injure on the roads or risk injury and death
Close the loopholes that exist such as with hit and runs where failure to stop carries a maximum of six months in prison while drink driving penalties are tougher meaning those who have been drink driving can get a lesser sentence if they flee the scene
Look at the charges of Dangerous Driving and Careless Driving. Bereaved families feel “careless” undermines the severity of the offence when someone is killed or seriously injured by illegal and risky behaviour.