Belfast Telegraph

Mum crushed to death by runaway bus because driver wanted to keep it warm, court told

By Staff Reporter

A mother-of-four was crushed to death by a runaway bus because the driver wanted to keep the vehicle warm for passengers, a court heard yesterday.

Craigavon Crown Court heard that seconds after 35-year-old James Johnston got off his bus at Lisburn bus station it shot forward over the kerb, pinning Charlotte Linda Stewart between the vehicle and a wall.

Prosecuting QC Charles MacCreanor told the court that as a result of the injuries the 48-year-old sustained, "unconsciousness would have happened rapidly and death shortly thereafter".

He also said that Johnston had tried to cover up how he caused the accident.

On the morning that his trial was due to start last month, Johnston, a father-of-one from Killowen Grange in Lisburn, pleaded guilty to Mrs Stewart's manslaughter on December 29, 2014.

In court yesterday Johnston appeared extremely emotional, continually wiping away tears throughout the 90-minute hearing.

Mr MacCreanor told the court that at about 10.20am Johnston had parked his bus in bay one at the station, letting his passengers off before getting off himself, but that "within seconds", Mrs Stewart had been killed.

He said that there was "extensive CCTV footage" in the case, which was viewed privately in the judge's chambers and showed Johnston using what he called a "third foot" to keep the accelerator pedal wedged down.

The third foot, said the lawyer, was used by drivers as part of their daily safety checks so that they could turn the ignition on, but not the engine, to check if their brake lights were working.

The court also heard that buses had a safety feature which meant that if they are left idling, they automatically switch off within four minutes, and when the doors are open a "halt brake" is automatically engaged and the accelerator disconnected.

When the doors are closed, however, that halt brake is automatically disengaged and the accelerator reconnected.

Mr MacCreanor said that from the CCTV footage, Johnston's bus could be heard "revving" before it shot forward, adding that "the operation of wedging down the accelerator pedal overcame that automatic shut-off" so when Johnston closed the doors behind him, the bus "overcame the hand brake and the bus propelled forward".

The lawyer said Johnston had left the engine running, "left the bus in gear and he had actually wedged down the accelerator pedal and he did that to keep his bus warm".

Turning back to the footage, he said that in the "immediate aftermath" Johnston ran back to the bus, got into the driver's seat and "removed the third foot".

"We say at that stage it does become important because that is the defendant removing the third foot from where he placed it, in appreciating the consequences of that and we asked the court to reflect that," submitted the senior QC.

Interviewed a few weeks later, Johnston "made no admissions" and instead denied placing the third foot on the accelerator, but this was contradicted by an examination of the bus's tachograph.

Defence lawyer Arthur Harvey QC said a considerable number of circumstances combined to produce "an appalling tragedy".

He said that Johnston, who had been a bus driver for 10 years, "had already paid a heavy penalty" in that he now suffered from depression and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr Harvey also highlighted evidence that as the stricken Mrs Stewart was being attended to, Johnston was "literally lying on the ground convulsed and crying".

Two character witnesses gave evidence.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler said he held Johnston "in high esteem", and a fellow driver recalled how Johnston had once gone to the aid of a woman who was being savagely beaten.

Freeing Johnston on continuing bail, Judge Lynch adjourned passing sentence to next Friday.

Belfast Telegraph

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