An inquest into the death of a man killed when an elderly dementia sufferer drove his car the wrong way along motorways has highlighted a ‘deeply worrying’ lack of policies or procedures at police forces for dealing with the life-threatening situation.
That is the view of legal specialist Vicky Richardson, who represented the family of Michael Luciw, 27, at a recent inquest into his death.
Mr Luciw was killed when 87-year-old Albert Newman, who had dementia, drove 30 miles the wrong way along motorways without being stopped by police. He crashed head on with the van Mr Luciw was travelling in, and both men were killed as a result.
Now, three years on, Hudgell Solicitors say an inquest has highlighted worrying failings both in the weeks prior to, and on the night of the crash, with numerous opportunities missed to prevent Mr Newman driving.
Mr Newman’s licence had been revoked by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in December 2013, and his car had no MOT.
However, it was claimed the DVLA only wrote to the Mr Newman asking him to surrender his licence, and had not contacted the police or other family members to ensure they were aware too.
The inquest heard there are no set national procedures in place for police to deal with vehicles travelling the wrong way on motorways.
Added to this, Warwickshire Police, the first force alerted to the danger on the night, failed to notify Leicestershire Police of the impending danger heading their way, as they wrongly recorded Mr Newman as travelling in the other direction
Leicestershire Police also admitted failing to pass on details from seven concerned drivers, who identified Mr Newman’s location on the wrong side of the motorway, to Highways England, who do have set procedures in place.
The details which were passed on to Highways England were incorrect, meaning steps taken to assist the police were ineffective.
Prior to the accident, Nottinghamshire Police had also twice been alerted to Mr Newman driving by concerned members of the public.
A ‘marker’ was placed on his car, but as it was only an information marker, and not an alert marker, it meant the force were not automatically alerted to his driving. This tracker was switched off after 12 weeks.
Also, an officer who was specifically sent to check whether Mr Newman was driving when he shouldn’t be failed to do so when visiting him, simply carrying out a welfare check. This officer has since been dismissed in relation to this failing.
Legal cases may be brought against police forces
Civil Liberties specialist Vicky Richardson, says civil cases are now being considered against all three forces involved.
She says the case has highlighted the need for a ‘thorough investigation’ into the responsibilities of all organisations and professionals involved.
“What we have here is a tragic case of a young father losing his life because there have been numerous failings to prevent a confused, elderly gentleman with dementia from getting behind the wheel,” she said.
“Mr Newman was not in a fit mental state to know he shouldn’t be driving, or the danger he was putting himself and others in, but to say this accident was entirely unpreventable is wholly wrong.
“The DVLA knew he had dementia and revoked his licence, but police say they were not informed.
“Nottinghamshire Police were, however, informed twice that he was driving and visited him twice, but still failed to stop him from driving. We feel there were clear failings here with the regards the duty of police officers to fully investigate and ensure he was off the roads.
“Then, on the night itself, two police forces were completely unprepared to deal with the situation, leading to a lack of decisive action and a number of errors which affected the emergency response.
“With the amount of collective information coming from drivers and witnesses, questions have to be asked as to why they were not able to warn other drivers and get to Mr Newman themselves – 30 miles is a significant distance.
“Had warning messages been put on the right signs, the driver of the vehicle Mr Luciw had been travelling in may have been made aware of the oncoming danger and been better prepared to take evasive action. He was in the outside lane at the time.
“Why was a police helicopter not deployed to follow him and potentially to warn other drivers? Why was there a lack of traffic officers available and most of all, why was there not a process in place to handle such a situation?
“This case has opened up so many areas of concern. We’d like assurances from other police forces that they have full policies and procedures in place for this scenario also. It will happen regularly and as this case sadly showed, it is life-threatening. It cannot be handled off the cuff.
“Surely there should be policies to reduce risk, such as taking action to close off motorway entrances in the direction a vehicle is heading to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. To have no plan is appalling. They were effectively hoping it ended safely.”
The inquest heard that whilst the police forces involved had no set procedures in place, Highways England adopt a number of agreed approaches to react to a vehicle travelling the wrong way on a motorway.
These include dropping the speed limit on both sides of the motorway to 20mph and displaying the lower limit on all roadside and overhead signs on both sides, as this could lead to a driver seeing the signs even when travelling the wrong way.
Family say Michael died as a result of failure of people to ‘do their jobs’
Michael’s mother, Andrea Shelton, says her son lost his life because ‘people failed to do their jobs’ and meet their ‘duty of care’.
She said: “Michael died because people failed to do their jobs properly, it is as simple as that, and that is very hard to accept. It leaves us all so angry.
“There is no way that Mr Newman should have been behind the wheel of a car. We were shocked to hear the police had been so see Mr Newman twice and had a marker on his car, yet still failed to do the basic thing and take his car from him, or at least take his car keys. It is not hard.
“The reality is we lost Michael and his little girl Elise, who is three now and was just a baby when he died, has never known her daddy all because so many people, particularly the police, failed to take action to prevent this situation happening.
“We couldn’t believe what we were hearing at the inquest. To have no policy in place to handle such a situation is unbelievable. As one of my sons said, what if it was a criminal going the wrong way on a motorway, what would they do then?
“We feel what happened to Michael highlights the need for all to take responsibility, and his inquest has suggested that more people could be in danger.”
Police respond to BBC East Midlands report on tragedy
In responses provided to BBC East Midlands, Nottinghamshire Police said it had since ‘amended its policy when dealing with procedure for seizing unlicensed and uninsured vehicles’.
Leicestershire Police were quoted as saying ‘We recognise we could have responded more efficiently, learning has been taken from this incident and fully implemented.’
The BBC reported that Warwickshire Police said, “Changes have been made to improve information sharing with a Highways Agency staff member working in the control room between 7am and 11pm.”