Selby crash driver 'fell asleep in car after talking through night to internet woman'

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A motorist who has been accused of causing the death of 10 people in the Selby rail disaster had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car after talking through the night to a girlfriend he had made contact with through an internet dating agency, a court heard yesterday.

Gary Hart finished talking to the woman at 2.30am and then browsed the internet until 3.58am. At 4.40am, without having slept, he set off on the 145-mile journey from his home in Lincolnshire to work in the Lancashire town of Wigan, it was alleged on the first day of his trial.

Mr Hart succumbed to sleep at 6.10am. His Land Rover Defender and its trailer drifted off the slow lane of the westbound carriageway of the M62, plummeting towards the main east coast railway line where the 4.45am Newcastle to London express hit the trailer at 117mph.

"He must have been aware of his sleepiness and fought it for a time before succumbing and drifting off," said James Goss, QC, prosecuting at Leeds Combined Court. "Although the circumstances were highly unusual and the consequences exceptional in their magnitude, any motorist who falls asleep on the highway endangers others. It was dangerous driving."

Mr Hart, 36, who has four daughters, denies 10 counts of causing death by dangerous driving, one for each of the victims of the disaster.

The courtroom was packed full with 57 bereaved relatives and friends, some dabbing at their eyes as the 10 charges, which included the names of the dead, were individually put to Mr Hart. The process took five painful minutes. The bereaved strained to hear as Mr Hart uttered the nearly inaudible words "not guilty" to each count.

Mr Hart's sleep deprivation was the only conceivable cause of the crash, Mr Goss said. Tracks left by his L-registered vehicle demonstrated that he left the motorway gradually, but had made no attempt to correct his path or to keep his vehicle on the carriageway.

Though he told police he "heard a loud bang" from the back of the Land Rover before he lost control and thought it might have been a puncture, no faults had been found after the vehicle was reconstructed.

Mr Hart, a self-employed groundwork contractor, had separated from his wife, Elaine, who lived with his children nine miles from his home at Stubby, Lincs. On 20 February, eight days before the disaster, he had placed an advertisement with an internet dating agency, to which he had received a reply from Kristeen Panter, a woman who had recently separated from her husband. The frequency of his subsequent contact with Ms Panter was one of the factors that had made his schedule for the two days before the crash particularly hectic.

Mr Hart had travelled to Wigan on 26 February and slept there that night in a works caravan before returning east at 10.30am on February 27. He saw his wife and children in the early evening, then made 10 calls to Ms Panter between 4pm and 4am, the longest of which had lasted for two hours and 48 minutes.

Mr Hart had initially told police that he had slept for up to three hours on 27 February, only later admitting that he had not been able to because he was "buzzing with excitement" at the prospect of meeting Ms Panter on the day of the crash.

He had also said he was not in a hurry on the morning of the crash. But evidence shows that he covered 63 miles in 70 minutes before reaching the accident spot at Great Heck.

"His truthfulness in the account of why he crashed ... goes to the very heart of this case," Mr Goss said.

The trial continues today.