A dead badger on a road led to the death of a Bedford father-of-two whose lorry careered into the back of another truck while police were clearing the animal from the carriageway, an inquest heard today, (Tuesday, February 3).
HGV driver Jose Castro-Gonzalez, of Old Ford End Road, was driving in the early hours of the morning when he crashed into the rear of another lorry when police slowed traffic to remove the dead animal.
One of the officers was in the road when her colleague screamed at her to get out of the way after they heard screeching tyres and the smell of burning rubber, followed by a loud bang.
The 61-year-old driver was trapped in the wreckage of his Budgens lorry cab and had to be cut free by firefighters. He was taken to hospital but died from multiple injuries minutes after arriving.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was called in to investigate after the rolling road block sparked the tragic crash.
The Spanish national had arrived for his shift at 10pm on February 21 last year after leaving his home in Bedford, which he shared with wife Diedre and his two daughters.
The inquest heard that off-duty PC Davina Gotch left her shift at Abingdon Police Station just before 3am and was travelling home along the A34 near Oxford when she spotted a dead badger in the road.
A statement by her and read out to the inquest in Oxford said: “I quickly steered back into the other lane. My immediate concern was that another vehicle would collide with the badger. I was worried if a motorcyclist hit it, they could be seriously injured or killed due to its size.”
PC Gotch reported the badger to colleagues and patrolling police were sent to clear it.
HGV driver Lee Colclough was driving along the southbound A34 carriageway, near the Marcham interchange, when he saw a car with red lights on its roof slowing down in front of him.
His statement read: “The car came to a stop across both lanes. I put my hazards on and stopped. The police got out of the car and I heard a loud bang behind me. I thought someone had gone into the back of me.
“I saw the wagon behind me and behind that, a badly damaged wagon across both lanes. I spoke to the driver behind me and we could not believe what had happened.”
Mr Colclough saw the dead badger in the road when he got out of his cab but said that stretch of road was very dark with no street lights.
Kenneth Kirtland, who was driving the lorry behind Mr Colclough, told the inquest: “I saw a police car coming up the sliproad with red flashing lights. I assumed something was going on up ahead, so I started to slow down.
“The truck in front of me was braking and I slowed right down. The police car put on hazard lights and stopped across both carriageways.
“I put my hazards on as I slowed down. I checked the mirrors and could see headlights in the distance.
“All of a sudden as I was rolling by, I heard a loud bang and I started to speed up. I tried to steer and brake but nothing appeared to be happening. I thought I would end up sandwiched with the truck in front. I had no idea what was going on. My mirrors had folded in and I couldn’t see behind.
“I finally came to a stop and jumped out. I saw the lorry had gone into the back of me and then into the central reservation.
“I have no idea how far it pushed me. It seemed like I was out of control for ages but it was probably only a few seconds. The truck was smoking and mangled.
“The weather was fine and visibility was clear. I don’t see why the collision occurred.”
Mr Kirtland told the inquest he went to sit on the verge in shock after police told him help was on its way.
He added: “I braked. You assume the guy behind you has seen you and is taking the same action.”
Paramedic Jason Butler said in a statement that an ambulance was called at around 3.15am and when emergency services arrived, the trucker was trapped in the wreckage by his legs. His condition deteriorated as firefighters cut him free and he was rushed to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, but pronounced dead minutes after arriving.
Police constables Lisa Brennan and Richard Farnell were the uniformed response officers called to deal with the dead badger. Pc Brennan told the inquest the pair put the blue lights on to get to the scene, before switching them off and keeping red flashiing lights and hazards on as they slowed the traffic down gradually in a rolling road block.
She said: “We were looking for the badger and we saw it. It was massive, big enough that had it been hit, it would have damaged the car.
“The lorry behind us stopped and we started a discussion about how to remove the badger due to its size. It was huge.
“I started walking up the carriageway towards the badger when I heard a loud noise. I knew straightaway it was a crash of some sort but I could not see what had happened.
“I heard the screech of brakes and could smell burning rubber and I knew it had to be a heavy goods vehicle as it was so loud.
“Pc Farnell shouted at me to get out of the way and I jumped onto the verge. I ran back down the carriageway and the back of the lorry was across both lanes. The front was wedged in the central barrier.”
Pc Farnell spoke to the driver and reassured him help was on the way.
Both officers had up-to-date fast roads training.
Pc Farnell, who had been an officer for six years, told the inquest: “Our plan was to do a rolling road block to remove the dead badger. When we joined the slip-road, I turned off the blue lights.”
When questioned about why he had turned them off, Pc Farnell replied: “I didn’t want to dazzle other vehicles, especially when it is so dark.
“It is not unusual for other units to attend when needed if roads policing is not available.”
Collision investigator, Pc James Henderson, told the inquest Mr Castro-Gonzalez was travelling at around 53mph on the road, which is limited to 60mph for HGVs, when he braked sharply for two seconds before the crash, reducing the lorry to 40mph.
He told the inquest: “The badger was unlikely to cause serious injury to a driver, but the risk is a driver overreacting. It was clearly an obstruction that needed to be removed.”
Jackie Lovell, Thames Valley Police senior manager, stressed it was a challenging situation for the officers. She told the coroner: “Had there been a hard shoulder, they could have stopped there and run into the road, though that is a very hazardous thing to do.
“A temporary closure could have been used to close off one lane, but the difficulty was that the badger was in the middle of the road. The other option that is possible is to decide not to pick it up and drive on, but you have to assess whether you can leave it where it is.”
She added: “A great deal of work has gone on over the past few months with Hampshire Constabulary to improve things, invest in better e-learning systems and add rolling road blocks practice to training. We want to make sure any lessons we can think of can be put into training, going forward.”
Recording an accidental death verdict, Oxfordshire Coroner Darren Salter said; “The evidence indicates the lighting of the police vehicle included flashing reds but not blue lights. It is fair to say that if the blue lights had been on, the blue lights are likely to be more noticeable, but having said that, there were red lights and flashing warning lights.
“The police car could have been something that Mr Castro-Gonzalez could not see due to the two HGVs on the carriageway. The two vehicles were slowing or stopped and Mr Kirkland’s vehicle displayed hazards. Very sadly, Mr Castro-Gonzalez failed to appreciate what was going on up ahead despite the lights displayed.
“I am satisfied the officers had received the appropriate training and we have heard the reason for not using the blue lights on this occasion because of concerns about potentially dazzling other traffic.
“I am also satisfied the badger could potentially be a hazard, not least to motorcyclists and maybe not directly to vehicles in terms of injury, but the main problem would be car drivers taking avoiding action.
“It had to be removed. Mr Castro-Gonzalez unfortunately failed to see the police vehicle or the two HGVs which were stopped or slowing in lane one and drove into the rear of the second HGV in lane one.”
Mr Castro-Gonzalez’s family were too upset to speak after the inquest.