A MINIBUS driver from Bradford has been jailed for more than six years after a crash that left a young woman dead and many of her friends injured as they travelled to a hen party.
Bethany Jones, 18, was on her way to Liverpool with a group of friends when the bus they were in was hit from behind by a lorry on the M62 in West Yorkshire.
Minibus driver James Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty to causing Miss Jones’s death by dangerous driving at an earlier hearing at Leeds Crown Court.
The court heard that the 24-seater coach driven by Johnson had mechanical problems and was travelling extremely slowly along the motorway when the crash happened.
Johnson failed to take any action to avoid the collision, ignoring warnings from passengers and other road users, who were sounding their horns, and failing to leave the motorway at the exit, pull on to the hard shoulder or use his hazard lights.
Trainee nurse Miss Jones was pronounced dead at the scene after suffering multiple injuries.
The other 19 passengers on the coach, who were from the Pontefract area, were all seriously injured in the crash.
Sentencing him to six years and eight months in prison today, Judge Guy Kearl QC said: “Your passengers were 20 females aged between 18 and 59 years. They were going on a night out, a hen night.
“They were mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Each of them had put themselves in your hands to carry them safely to their destination.
“They trusted you with their lives.”
The court heard the crash happened just 23 minutes and 12 miles after the coach left South Elmsall, near Pontefract, at 11.06am on April 26 last year.
The group of 20 women were travelling to Liverpool for a hen do ahead of the wedding of Stefanie Firth.
The passengers on the bus quickly became aware of signs of mechanical failure, including a smell of burning, and asked Johnson, of Whytecote End, Wyke, Bradford, to stop the vehicle.
He did stop the bus, which was later found to have a badly burnt-out clutch, and made a brief “cursory” examination but said he could not find a problem and continued the journey.
The speed of the coach gradually slowed to a crawl until it was travelling at just 5.5mph in the nearside westbound lane of the M62, just after junction 32, near Pontefract.
The bus had come to a “near standstill” in the inside lane when lorry driver Kevin Ollerhead, 45, crashed into the back of the vehicle, shunting it 50 yards along the road and into a barrier, leaving it lying on its side across an exit slip road.
Mr Ollerhead, of Lincoln Crescent, St Helens, Merseyside, was found not guilty of causing the death of Miss Jones by dangerous driving after a trial at Leeds Crown Court last month.
He told the court he was a professional driver and there was nothing he could have done to avoid the collision.
Judge Kearl said the collision was “an accident waiting to happen”.
He said to Johnson: “Had your coach not been struck by the heavy goods vehicle driven by Mr Ollerhead, it would have been by someone else, if there had not been an intervening miracle.
“This was, quite literally, an accident waiting to happen.”
He continued: “You were, in effect, together with the passengers on your coach, a sitting duck.”
The judge said Johnson, who has been driving coaches since 1976, had shown a flagrant disregard for the rules of the road and the safety of other road users by failing to take action to avoid the collision.
He said: “It would have been obvious to anyone, and particularly an experienced coach driver, that travelling at those speeds was dangerous on any motorway, let alone the A1M and M62 - two of the busiest motorways in the country.
“There was an apparent disregard to the great danger posed to others, both on the road and in your coach. You had flagrantly disregarded the rules of the road by driving so slowly.”
The court heard that Johnson had suffered two mini-strokes - in 2009 and 2011 - and had an IQ of 71, with poor concentration and memory, when he was assessed after the crash.
He suffered the second stroke while he was driving 16 stroke nurses in a minibus on the M62. A collision was avoided on that occasion when one of the nurses applied the handbrake and stopped the bus.
He was granted a new three-year licence in 2011 and did not inform the DVLA about his medical conditions.
Sam Green, mitigating, said Johnson’s mental impairment meant he did not realise he should not have been driving.
But Judge Kearl said: “You ought not to have been driving.”
Mr Green said Johnson, who had one previous conviction in February 2012 for using a mobile phone while driving, had an “overwhelming sense of guilt” about his role in the collision.
Victim impact statements read to the court said the lives of the families of all the bus passengers had been affected by the crash.
“The speed of the impact was devastating to all in the coach, yourself included,” Judge Kearl told Johnson.
“Every person on the coach sustained serious injuries.”
The judge continued: “This event has devastated their lives and those of their husbands, partners, their parents and their boyfriends. It has devastated their lives physically, emotionally and, in some cases, financially.”
Sarah Johnson, who was on the bus at the time of the collision and was a friend of Miss Jones, read a statement outside the court on behalf of all those affected by the crash.
She said: “Today’s court result will never ease the pain and suffering caused to so many by the actions of James Johnson.
“On that day, as the ladies got on to James Johnson’s minibus for what was to be the start of a fun-packed weekend, nobody could have imagined the devastation that lay ahead.
“The lives of so many have been changed for evermore due to the lack of action resulting in the collision.
“The loss of Bethany is deeply felt by not only her loving family, Paul, Diane, Amy and Ryan, but all those who knew and loved her.
“We now ask that all those involved be allowed to grieve and continue to recover from their injuries in private.’’
Sergeant Ann Drury, of West Yorkshire Police, described the crash as a “truly appalling incident”.
She said: ‘’The 26 April 2013 will be a date forever etched into memories of the close-knit community of South Elmsall and it saw the commencement of a long and intricate investigation.
‘’James Johnson was employed as a professional driver to take a group of ladies to Liverpool for what should have been a happy and enjoyable weekend. He failed in his duty that day.
“He also failed to act when his passengers made him aware that there was a problem with the vehicle.
‘’The subsequent collision the bus was involved in resulted in the death of Bethany Jones and, for many, significant life-changing injuries as well as the traumatic memory of that day’s events.
‘’I am pleased the court process has come to an end today with the sentencing of Johnson for his part in a truly appalling incident.
“Our thoughts remain with Beth’s parents, wider family and all those affected by what happened on the M62 that day.’’