90 days' jail for motorist who killed three in hunt for a mint

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A university lecturer who killed three people and an unborn baby after he reached for a mint while driving in the fast lane of a motorway was jailed for 90 days yesterday. The judge told 52-year-old Dr Thomas Munch-Petersen he had escaped a longer sentence because the mother of one of his victims had written asking that he should not be jailed.

The academic, who teaches Scandinavian studies at University College, London, was travelling from London to Leeds on the M1 when the crash happened near junction 28 in April last year, Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court was told.

Judge Granville Styler said Valerie Kempton, whose 32-year-old son Darren died with his 25-year-old girlfriend, Jenny Lancaster, had pleaded for him to be lenient. Part of the letter, which the judge read out, said: "My family and I feel that to send Mr Petersen to prison would serve no purpose at all. This man and his family have suffered enough. Lives have been broken without further adding to the tally. Throughout life, we all make mistakes. Most pass without future incident. A few have tragic results."

Judge Styler said it had taken great courage for Mrs Kempton to write the letter but despite that, and Munch-Petersen's character, reputation and remorse, he had no option but to jail him. "Because your dangerous driving resulted in the deaths of three people, in my judgment it is so serious that no other sentence is appropriate." He accepted that Munch-Petersen, of Twickenham, south-west London, made a "tragic mistake".

His G-registration Volvo had veered from the fast lane at 70mph into the slow lane as he stopped looking at the road for 1.96 seconds while he searched for sweets. His car collided with a lorry and both vehicles swerved across the central reservation into the path of oncoming traffic. They struck an Alfa Romeo, killing Mr Kempton and Ms Lancaster, who was five months pregnant. They were heading home to Milton Keynes. Martin Parker, 44, of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, a former wing-commander, also died as his Audi A4 hit the wreckage. His wife and daughter, 15, escaped serious injury.