Mercy Shawn Mendes
7 December 2015, 13:04
A bin lorry crash which killed six people in Glasgow might have been avoided if the driver had "told the truth'' about his history of blackouts, a fatal accident inquiry has found.
A further 15 people were injured when the council truck veered out of control in the city centre on December 22 last year.
The vehicle travelled along the pavement in Queen Street before crashing into the side of the Millennium Hotel in George Square after driver Harry Clarke blacked out behind the wheel.
The inquiry into the tragedy found that the 58-year-old "repeatedly lied in order to gain and retain jobs and licences'' and "deliberately concealed relevant information from the DVLA''.
Sheriff John Beckett stated in the inquiry report: "It may well be that the single most useful outcome of this inquiry would be to raise awareness of the dangers involved in driving if subject to a medical condition which could cause the driver to lose control of a vehicle.''
He found eight "reasonable precautions'' whereby the accident might have been avoided and has made 19 recommendations which could reduce the chance of another such tragedy from happening.
The inquiry heard evidence over five weeks at Glasgow Sheriff Court in July and August this year.
During the hearing, emergency service workers, council staff, doctors, crash experts and those who were inside the bin lorry - including Mr Clarke - gave evidence.
The probe heard that it took just 19 seconds for the tragedy to unfold.
During the course of the incident, numerous members of the public saw Mr Clarke unconscious, slumped forward in the driver's seat.
The inquiry also heard he had a history of health issues dating back to the 1970s - including a previous blackout in 2010 when at the wheel of a stationary bus - but had not disclosed his medical background to his employers or the DVLA.
When he gave evidence towards the end of the hearing, Mr Clarke was warned by the sheriff he did not have to answer questions which could incriminate him as the families of some of the victims had signalled their intention to raise a private prosecution against him.
It is understood that papers could be lodged before Christmas.
Erin McQuade, 18, and her grandparents Jack Sweeney, 68, and Lorraine Sweeney, 69, from Dumbarton; Stephenie Tait, 29, and Jacqueline Morton, 51, both from Glasgow; and Gillian Ewing, 52, from Edinburgh lost their lives in the crash.
In his written determination, Sheriff Beckett QC recorded his expression of sympathy for the family and friends of the victims.
He stated: "The whole country was deeply shocked by what happened on December 22 2014, but for the families of six people who died, the consequences extend beyond shock to the pain of permanent loss.
"As it neared its conclusion, the inquiry heard some detail of just how important and valuable those six people were to their families, their friends and the wider community.
"It cannot have been easy to listen to the evidence but many relatives of those who died steadfastly attended the inquiry demonstrating their love, loyalty and commitment for those they have lost.
"I am aware that others chose to keep in touch with the progress of the inquiry in other ways and I can understand why they would do that.
"Relatives in court managed to maintain composure, dignity and respect in circumstances which must at times have been very difficult indeed.
"I pay tribute to the way that they conducted themselves throughout the inquiry.''
Sheriff Beckett made a total of 19 recommendations following the inquiry, including calling on Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to hold a consultation on whether doctors should be given more freedom to report fitness to drive concerns directly to the DVLA.
A consultation should also consider how best to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the information that is available to the licensing agency when it is making fitness to drive decisions, the sheriff said.
This should include increasing the penalties for drivers who fail to notify the authorities about medical problems.
Sheriff Beckett also recommended that doctors, and in particular GPs, should ensure patient notes are "kept in such a way as to maximise their ability to identify repeated episodes of loss of consciousness, loss of or altered awareness, in the case of patients who are or may become drivers''.
Meanwhile the DVLA should consider if its at a glance'' guide for doctors on medical standards for fitness to drive give sufficient weight to a medical incident which occurs at the wheel.
The sheriff also called on the licensing agency to "redouble its efforts to raise awareness of the implications of medical conditions for fitness to drive amongst the medical profession'' and said it should change its policy on investigating concerns from others about a person's fitness to drive so these can be probed regardless of whether the matter has been raised in writing.
Glasgow City Council has been urged to carry out an internal review of employment processes to see if improvements could be made when checking medical information and details of sickness absences.
Sheriff Beckett recommended that the council, when employing a driver, should not allow them to start work before references have been received.
He went on to suggest that the authority provide refuse collectors with "some basic training to familiarise them with the steering and braking mechanisms of the vehicles in which they work''.
Mr Beckett also called on the DVLA and the Department for Transport to "consider how best to increase public awareness of the impact of medical conditions on fitness to drive'' and obligation to notify the authorities about these.
He also said the DVLA, the Crown Prosecution Service and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service should review if there are policies in place which prevent or discourage prosecutions under sections of the Road Traffic Act 1988 which deal with failure to notify the authorities about medical conditions and those who make false statements to obtain a licence.
He said: "If there are such policies, consideration should be given by DVLA and the prosecuting authorities to whether they are appropriate where the current fitness to drive regime is a self-reporting system which is vulnerable to the withholding and concealing of relevant information by applicants.''
He pointed out guidance on this, including a list of relevant conditions, could be found on the DVLA website.