Who’s more culpable for the M1 truck crash?

A picture of a tractor unit with the Fedex logo being picked up by a winch attached to a blue mechanical arm with the word "COW" printed on it in white. The truck's front is very badly damaged, although the driver door is intact.Last August there was a three-vehicle crash on the M1 outside Milton Keynes in which eight people were killed, all of them in a minibus which was crushed when a moving truck from behind crashed into a stationary truck in front. Today, the British driver of the truck from behind, David Wagstaff, was cleared of eight counts of causing death by careless driving, having already pled guilty to the lesser charge of causing death by careless driving. The driver of the stationary truck, Ryszard Masierak from Evesham, was this week convicted of the more serious charge. He stopped his truck in the inside lane of the motorway when a hard shoulder was available, was drunk behind the wheel and his professional driving licence had been revoked (something his boss should be answering questions about, as they have a duty to make sure their drivers are legal). What the media was reporting today was just that Wagstaff had been ‘cleared’, but he has already admitted eight counts of a less serious offence which could easily mean he goes to prison. The question is: is Masierak really more culpable for this accident than the other two drivers?

Usually, when a moving vehicle strikes a stationary one, the driver of the moving one is at fault, because the driver is meant to be watching the road and not distracted or tired. If the driver in front stops suddenly, he is meant to have been keeping a safe enough distance behind that he could have stopped in time — this is why, on many motorways, there are stretches where there are guide marks and signs telling drivers to put two of these between them and the vehicle in front. Tailgating (sitting on the tail of the vehicle in front) is dangerous and illegal, although some truck drivers insist on doing it because it cuts down wind resistance (and thus increases fuel efficiency a bit). The only exception is where a vehicle turns across the path of another motorist who has no opportunity to stop; this is why a driver was found guilty for turning right across the path of a motorbike whose rider was too close to stop in time, and hit the vehicle that turned right and was killed.

However, Masierak’s truck was stationary on a motorway, with its hazard lights on, and had been in that position for more than ten minutes. The minibus driven by Cyriac Joseph pulled up behind and indicated to pull out, but was hit by Wagstaff’s truck before it could do so. The sad fact is that Cyriac Joseph should have seen Masierak’s truck in plenty of time and pulled out; why wasn’t he looking at the road? Although that stretch is not streetlit, CCTV footage shows that the road was fairly busy and that other vehicles’ headlights would have illuminated the stationary truck. But he cannot answer these questions as he’s dead. Wagstaff should also have been paying attention; he had been on a hands-free call for about an hour, talking to a colleague, which is itself legal as long as it’s not taking the driver’s eyes off the road. Pictures of the scene show a curve shortly before the location of the crash, on the southbound carriageway at junction 14 for Milton Keynes, but a look at a map shows that the curve is a good 500m back from the junction. At 70mph, the stopping distance is roughly 96 metres (314 feet) or 24 car lengths.

All that is not to say that Masierak has no share of the blame in this. He was drunk, disqualified and had parked where he should not have done. But parking where he did would not have caused this accident if the two other drivers involved had been paying attention and this includes Cyriac Joseph. His role is not equivalent to, say, the Polish driver who killed four people on the A34 when he drove his truck into the back a stationary car (at the back of a queue) while using his mobile phone to choose what music to listen to. I’ve had a few near misses while driving myself, particularly with vehicles stopped in lane 1 of so-called smart motorways (which have no hard shoulder, or one that can be used as a lane or not, depending on traffic conditions) including the bit of the M1 at Luton (which is narrow and has poor visibility), and some drivers prefer not to use the hard shoulder when it’s opened as lane 1. I’m not in favour of sending drivers to jail when they cause a crash when momentarily distracted. But I’m also not in favour of attaching undue blame to someone who behaved irresponsibly but did not cause the resulting carnage, a huge temptation when the driver primarily responsible is dead (and all the more so for a foreign driver from a nationality widely blamed for “stealing jobs”).

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