My devastated family are calling for immediate changes to the trucking industry, and legislation on drugs and driving, after our grandparents Nancy and Ern died in 2012 when a truck load of steel pipes fell off, slamming into their vehicle.
Led by my parents, Warren and Pauline, who spoke to the Taranaki Daily News on behalf of our family to help promote and drive a campaign for change after Nancy and Ern, Warren’s parents, were killed in the crash. As I write this we’re all still gutted and totally rung-out as it’s taken almost two years for the truck driver to admit any responsibility after his load of steel pipes fell off. He was found with cannabis in his system on the day of the accident, but the drugs charge was withdrawn – something we’ve struggled to understand. When did it become legal to drive in New Zealand with any amount of an illegal substance in you, especially when you’re in control of such a dangerous machine on public roads?
However, we believe others, not just the truck driver, are also responsible for what happened – so far he’s just the only one who’s been blamed and that’s unfair.
Warren and Pauline decided to speak to journalist Lyn Humphreys from the Taranaki Daily News after the truck driver’s sentencing, determined to share with the public what they believe went wrong and put it right.
Read what they said, and why trucking industry leaders came out in support, – here – or below is a summary.
Taranaki Daily News 15/02/14:
The Sutton family, who are bereft at the loss of the community and family focused 83-year-olds, are incensed that Tawhai had smoked a joint while working, yet that charge was dropped by police.
The initial charges of dangerous driving causing death and drugged driving were changed to two of manslaughter, but these were dropped shortly before trial.
The trucking industry was quick this week to point the finger at cowboys working outside the Road Transport Forum and trying to make a fast buck.
They too are angered the more serious charges against Tawhai were dropped.
Who’s to blame
Police and Crown prosecutors responded saying there was no choice but to lessen the charges because the legalities came down to issues of operation – loading the truck – not driver error.
However, Warren and Pauline believe Tawhai, the only person who faced any charges, was the scapegoat for the disaster. The Sutton’s were horrified to learn that his blood test revealed he had smoked the equivalent of a joint within four hours before the crash at 2.30pm.
He had started work at Palmerston North at 6am before leaving for the Bell Block-based loading depot, Pipes New Zealand.
While a coroner’s inquest into the deaths is still to come, the family wants urgent public debate “before someone else gets killed by another load of pipes”, Warren says.
Dangerous load on our road
Experts have said the way the pipes were loaded that day was not acceptable practice.
“Pipes within pipes is a no-no and there were no bolsters to support them,” he says.
The way they were loaded meant a domino effect would kick in should any of the ties break.
“If one went bang the whole lot would go bang.”
And this was what the investigators found did in fact happen.
That domino effect continued for the family when the more serious charges were withdrawn.
“We think manslaughter fairly reflected the loss of mum and dad’s life.
“We are in total disagreement to drop these charges before the jury even gets to hear it.”
They believe the charges against Tawhai were reduced because of other parties’ share of the responsibility for what occurred.
Drugs in the trucking industry
They are aware the trucking industry does not condone drugs in the workplace and some employ specialists to carry out random testing.
And the truckie industry is right behind that call.
The Road Transport Forum’s chief executive Ken Shirley is disgusted at the poor loading of the pipes, which he describes as a gross breach of the New Zealand Trucking Code.
He accuses “bottom-feeding” trucking and loading companies operating outside the rules and intent on making a buck.
They offered the cheapest price and cut corners to do it.
The truck should never have been allowed to leave the yard, he says.
The industry had a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol.
“We take that very seriously,” Mr Shirley says. “We have zero tolerance for alcohol and other drugs and recommend to our members they carry out random testing.
Statistics showed that of all fatal road crashes, 30 per cent were alcohol related and of that 30 per cent, truckies were only involved in 3 per cent.
He disagrees with the criticism of the current trucking code, which he believes is fully suited to this country’s conditions.
If those involved in loading the truck had followed the code the load would never have come off, he says.
And neither does he believe there are still insecure loads on the roads.
The police officer in charge of the case, Detective Paul Barron, says he was the one responsible for dropping the two initial charges – dangerous driving and drugged driving – after New Zealand’s top legal minds advised that the charges could fail to hold up under the scrutiny of a trial.
Tawhai’s driving was not at fault, he says. He did not drive dangerously, he was not speeding, nor found to have broken the law while driving northwards.
Rather, his unlawful act was operational, Mr Barron explains, in that he had failed to put sufficient ties around the load.
“There was still an argument to be had but not one we were prepared to argue in court because there was a chance to lose it.”
Tawhai was then charged with the manslaughter of Ern and Nancy Sutton.
He points out the matter of the Suttons’ death is still to go to the Coroners Court “and it may be worked out there. It will be complex”.
“We will continue with that process now the criminal charges have proceeded through the court.”
Just who else might be deemed responsible and any recommendations which might stem from the deaths were likely to be tabled at the inquest.
Judicial review of road code
Road Transport Association western branch spokesman Tom Cloke, of New Plymouth, says their membership is keen to support any move for a judicial review of the case.
“Our major gripe is the use of any sort of drug impairing the driver’s ability both to drive and load goods.
“Unfortunately the Suttons paid the penalty. We totally sympathise with them and we will support them in any way.”
- Family carries a heavy load – Stuff
- Family call for tighter truck load code – Taranaki Daily News
- Manslaughter charges against truckie dropped – Taranaki Daily News
- Community work penalty for deaths – Taranaki Daily News
RIP Nan and Porky – we will always remember and honour you xm.