Moment’s inattention by driver causes carnage

A “safe and cautious” driver’s moment of inattention killed a woman and left four people injured in a head-on smash on the highway near Waikouaiti.

The 33-year-old Christchurch driver, Gary George Fox, momentarily took his eyes off the road to show his passenger where the power button was on a dash-cam.

Judge Tom Gilbert today detailed the carnage that happened in the following seconds when he sentenced Fox in the Christchurch District Court, on a charge of careless driving causing the death of Janis Rosina Byrne, and three charges of careless driving causing injury.

The fourth person injured was Fox himself, who had a fractured chest bone, and broken ankles. He spent seven weeks recovering in hospitals in Dunedin, Ashburton, and Christchurch.

Fox, a supermarket worker, had admitted all the charges and had been remanded for a pre-sentence report and a possible restorative justice meeting with the victim’s family.

Fox was keen for the meeting but it was not able to take place ahead of the sentencing. Defence counsel Elizabeth Bulger said she still hoped the meeting could be arranged.

Fox and his family were keen to pay reparations, including the cost of items that would not normally be covered by reparation. She said: “The Fox family have taken the view that it is the least they can do for the Byrne family, so they are not out of pocket for the expenses referred to in the victim impact statement.”

Judge Gilbert said he would not fine Fox because he wanted all the money to go to the Byrne family as reparations, rather than be paid to the government’s consolidated fund.

The accident happened on June 23, 2017, when Fox was driving from Christchurch to a wedding in Dunedin with two friends in the car. The friends had no licences and often travelled with Fox. They described him as a “safe and cautious driver”.

Fox has no driving convictions and no current demerit points. His only driving offence was a speeding infringement when he got a ticket near Geraldine in 2014.

The travellers stopped for lunch in Oamaru and when they resumed, Fox unplugged the dash cam that was recording the trip, to plug his cellphone in to recharge.

The video camera continued on its batteries but south of Waikouaiti, Fox realised it had stopped recording. His passenger then plugged the video camera back in but was struggling to turn it back on.

With the car travelling at about 100km an hour, Fox took his eyes off the road for what the police described as a “fleeting look” to show her where the power button was.

His car drifted left, crossed the rumble strip onto the shoulder of the road where it hit a marker stake, and then swerved back right across the road and head-on into the car driven by Mrs Byrne.

Mrs Byrne, who lived in Karitane, was aged 60 and was in the vehicle with her autistic daughter.

Mrs Byrne died at the scene and her daughter received a fractured hip, cuts and bruises.

Fox’s passengers received cuts, bruises, and broken bones and spent time in hospital.

Mrs Byrne’s husband Graeme has had to give up work to care for the daughter. The victim impact statement said the family was struggling to cope with the loss of the mother, and was under financial strain.

Fox’s injured friends spoke of highly of him and said they bore him no malice. Fox himself was described as “gutted” and devastated by the consequences of his driving error.

Judge Gilbert told him: “You are generally speaking a good driver and this was a nasty accident with horrific consequences as a result of a momentary lapse of attention on your part.”

He disqualified Fox for a year and ordered him to pay $8340 reparations to the Byrne family, plus $10,000 emotional harm reparations.

Fox’s father said in court that he would make the payment immediately, and arrangements would be made for his son to repay the amount over time.

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