M1 Fatal Sentencing and the Dangers of Autonomous Control

On the 26th August 2017 a scene of carnage erupted on the M1 near Newport Pagnell.

8 people lost their lives.

An account of some of the basic facts of the case are outlined in this article.

The two drivers involved were sentenced at Aylesbury Crown Court yesterday (23.3.18).

Masierak was found guilty on 8 counts of causing death by dangerous driving. He was also found guilty of 4 counts of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.

Sentence; 14yrs in jail. Banned from driving for 17 years. Faces deportation on completion of sentence.

Wagstaff was found guilty of 8 counts of causing death by careless driving and 4 counts of causing serious injury by careless driving.

Sentence; 40 months in jail. Banned from driving for 3 years.

More info on the case here from the BBC.

There are really no words for such awful circumstances. Masierak has been given the maximum sentence for the s1 offence of 14 years. There will be many that will feel that a life sentence was the only logical outcome. However, the courts are limited to the powers available to them and in this case, which is rare, he got the absolute maximum. The UK government have committed to introduce life sentences for this offence.

The bigger and wider issue in this case is that of Wagstaff. His case throws into the arena a fact that has been well known and evidenced for some time. Hands free phone calls are not safe, cause distraction and can increase reaction times more than a driver at the drink drive limit. He had 11 seconds to react to the situation. He did nothing. No loss of speed. No deviation of path. He just ploughed into stationary traffic much like Kroker did.  His attention was totally in another place and not focussed on his driving. Something that his legal team chose to call ‘inattentional blindness’. He didn’t react because he wasn’t paying attention. Not even a little bit.

The truck itself was on cruise control and maintaining 56mph. So he had no immediate involvement in the speed control of the truck. All he had to do was steer and maintain observations. He failed.

He was engaged in a hands free call that had been ongoing for some considerable time. Not an offence in itself but this case does highlight something I’ve argued for a long time. It’s distracted driving and wholly and completely dangerous.

But cars are getting increasingly safer? Cruise control maintains speed. Lane control systems can now maintain position. Adaptive cruise control systems manage the speed up and down depending on the conditions. Autonomous emergency braking. All such features are very clever but not infallible. They are sold to us on the basis that it makes driving safer. The theory being that the computer never tires, the computer is never drunk, the computer is never distracted. The next logical assumption, it would seem, is that the more in car technology that takes over matters that the driver should be doing, means they can concentrate even more on safety matters. An all round win for road safety? Sadly I’m convinced it means the total opposite. With increased autonomous functionality a driver is more inclined to sit back and pay even less attention to the road.

In the recent fatal case in the USA involving a self driving Uber vehicle, we can see from the video , that whilst the ‘minder’ ( the driver to you and I ) was supposed to be watching the road and actions the car was taking, they were doing nothing of the sort. The driver was granted more time to be, if you like, ‘uber attentive’, by having no driving responsibilities at all, but was in fact totally distracted and relying on that automation to keep them safe. That automation failed and so did the driver. The tragic outcome cost someone their life.

Maybe, before we run headlong into the exciting world of autonomous vehicles we should hit the pause button and really look at how effective they are and what reaction that autonomy has on the driver behind the wheel.

I remain utterly convinced that the use of mobile phones by drivers of vehicles for any purpose needs to be banned. I further believe that the legislation, notwithstanding the penalty increases last year, is out of step with the danger it causes.

A drink driver is arrested, taken to custody, charged, sent to court and on conviction faces a mandatory 12m ban, a fine and court costs. The mobile phone user, when the evidence shows it to be just as, if not more dangerous, faces a £200 fine and 6 points. This is a change that needs to be made and in my view the mobile phone legislation needs to mirror the drink drive penalty at the very least.

Such a change will take time and a lot of campaigning by people far more important than I. In the meantime drivers themselves can make a commitment to road safety and just stop using phones in their cars. Hand held or hands free. Businesses who have a mobile workforce need to embed ‘non-use’ policies to ensure their drivers operate safely on the road.

Had such a policy been in place for Wagstaff he may have seen the minibus. He may have been able to take evasive action. He may have been able to significantly reduce his speed. He may not have killed anyone at all.


3 thoughts on “M1 Fatal Sentencing and the Dangers of Autonomous Control

  1. Alan Boulter says:

    I started driving class 1 trucks in 73. Thirty plus years driving all over Europe, all my friends and I agreed that speed limiters and cruise control would lead to inatention and laziness. Thus leading to carnage, sadly no one listened to us dinosaurs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Neil Dewson-Smyth says:

      I think you’re absolutely right. The new technology really can bring benefits when it works in conjunction with the driver. Sadly what actually happens is people seem to naturally relinquish that responsibility to autonomous functions and then concentrate on additional non-essential tasks. Essentially taking them further away from the business of driving.


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