Woman who never passed driving test and caused death of friend in crash avoids jail
A Co Down woman who never held a full licence or passed a driving test was spared prison for causing the death of a close friend by careless driving.
Judge Sandra Crawford told Linda Green that there were "exceptional circumstances'' which allowed her to suspend a six month prison term for a period of 18 months.
Green (59), of Kestrel Link, Ballyhalbert, outside Newtownards, had pleaded guilty in December 2016 to causing the death of Roberta Hamilton almost two years ago by careless driving.
The court had previously heard that Green had been insured as a driver with a full licence for 13 years even though she had never sat a test. She admitted to having signed a false declaration on an insurance form in 2002.
At the time of the crash two years ago she was a learner driver but had failed to display 'L' plates on the vehicle.
Judge Crawford, on Thursday, told Downpatrick Crown Court, sitting in Newtownards, that on February 10, 2015, Green was driving her Peugeot car on the Springvale Road in the direction of Ballyhalbert.
When she attempted to turn right onto the Nursery Road, she was struck by an oncoming Volkswagen Golf travelling in the opposite direction towards Ballywalter.
"Tragically, your friend and passenger Mrs Roberta Hamilton, sustained fatal injuries. The emergency services arrived quickly on the scene and Mrs Hamilton was taken to hospital,'' said Judge Crawford.
The 75-year-old victim had sustained multiple injuries including fractures of her ribs and fractures to her spine as a result of the crash.
"However, despite medical intervention, Mrs Hamilton died later that evening from her injuries.
"A driver executing a manoeuvre, turning right across an oncoming vehicle, bears a heavy responsibility and duty to ensure that the roads is clear.
"You failed in this duty and although he was travelling at a very considerable speed the driver of the oncoming vehicle had no opportunity to take evasive action."
The judge added: "The court received a moving and poignant statement from her husband Roy. Roberta and Roy Hamilton had been married for 56 years, had four children and eight grand children.
"Mr Hamilton describes his devastation as a result of his wife's death. He describes the suffering not only caused to him, his children and grand children but also the loss to the wider community.
"The late Mrs Hamilton was well known and well liked, giving up her time to others, particularly those in the Ballyhalbert community. She is missed terribly by all those who knew her.
"I want to convey the sympathies of this court to Roy Hamilton and his family for the immeasurable loss suffered as a result of this tragic act.''
At an earlier hearing, prosecution lawyer Laura Ivers said the driver of the silver Volkswagen Golf told police he noticed Green's Peugeot indicating to turn right and then started to move across onto his side of the the road and gave him "limited time to react''.
The vehicles collided and the Golf hit a grass bank and rolled onto its roof.
The driver of the Golf told police that he was travelling at around 60 mph at the time of the collision.
Forensic engineers who examined the scene estimated the Golf had been travelling at a speed of between 58 and 81 mph at the time of impact.
Green told police at interview she had a provisional licence for two years and Mrs Hamilton supervised her and on the day of the accident she had forgot to display her 'L' plates.
She also admitted that she had driven the same day unaccompanied when she had collected Mrs Hamilton.
The defendant said that when she reached the dip on the road at Nursery Junction she saw a couple of cars in the distance and the car that struck her Peugeot "must have been going faster than I thought''.
Green said she was familiar with the road and said "cars fly along it''. She also admitted that she had never taken driving lessons and had never sat a driving test.
The defendant also accepted that she had signed a false declaration on an insurance form back in 2002 that she was the holder of a full driving licence.
The police spoke to Green's ex-husband who said that he always believed she held a full driving licence.
The prosecution lawyer said that although it may have been a case of momentary inattention by the defendant, she had also shown a "disregard for other road users by not being a regulated driver at the time of the collision and was not regulated to be on the road".'
Defence barrister Chris Holmes said Green wanted to apologise to Mr Hamilton and his family for Mrs Hamilton's death and accepts that the time of the collision she was a learner driver but had not displayed her 'L' plates on the vehicle.
"This is a bad piece of road with people driving like eejits along it. It could be any one of us today or tomorrow. She does not intend to drive ever again."
Passing sentence, Judge Crawford told the defendant: "The single aggravating feature is that your were driving at the time without a valid licence. You admitted to police that you were driving on a provisional licence and you had never sat a driving test.
"You indicated that Mrs Hamilton was a qualified driver but you admitted driving unsupervised when you went to collect Mrs Hamilton on the day of the collision.''
Judge Crawford said a pre-sentence report noted that Green was suffering from mobility problems, had suffered insomnia since the crash, was currently under the care of a community mental health team and had attended bereavement counselling.
"You have expressed your deep regret for the accident, both to the probation officer and through your counsel. You had been close friends with Mrs Hamilton. You have not driven the vehicle since the accident and you do not believe you will drive again.''
A report from a consultant psychiatrist said in the weeks after the accident Green had been suffering from "poor mental health and post traumatic stress reaction''.
The psychiatrist stated that defendant had lost a child at the age of four and the "tragic loss of Mrs Hamilton had brought back memories of the past''.
Judge Crawford said the report also said the tragic accident had "caused a substantial psychological impact of a debilitating nature which requires ongoing treatment from the mental health services. He considers that in light of your prior mental health problems and those which you suffer at present your mental health wellbeing would deteriorate in the event of an immediate custodial sentence''.
The judge said Green's mitigating factors were her previous clear criminal record, her plea of guilty, her "genuine remorse'', her relationship with the victim who was a close friend, the psychological impact on her from the crash which left her suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, her physical health problems and her stable family background.
Judge Crawford said: "The fact that you were and had been driving without a provisional licence for some time and driving unsupervised demonstrates a general lack of regard for the rules of the road and an irresponsible attitude to road safety and regulation must be treated as an aggravating factor.''
The judge told Green that the starting point for sentence was nine months in custody, but said she was reducing that to six months as a result of her guilty plea and her mitigating factors.
"The issue now arises as to whether the interests of justice require the immediate imposition of this sentence.
"I take account that you are assessed as a low likelihood of re-offending, your genuine remorse, the profound and ongoing effect on your mental health and your clear record.
"Taken together I consider these factors do constitute exceptional circumstances and it is appropriate that I suspend that sentence. I therefore sentence you six months in prison suspended for 18 months.''
But Judge Crawford warned the defendant: "As this is a direct alternative to a term of immediate custody, should you commit any further offences during this 18 month period you are liable to face imprisonment for the sentence for which I have sentenced you today in addition to any further sentence imposed.''
Green was also disqualified from driving for a period two-and-a-half years.