THE TEACHER who died along with 12 children when the minibus she was driving crashed into the back of a maintenance lorry on the M40 almost certainly dozed off just before the accident, an inquest jury was told yesterday.
An expert in sleep research said that all the evidence surrounding the tragedy, which happened just after midnight on a monotonous, unlit section of the motorway, pointed towards a 'classic case of falling asleep at the wheel'.
After Professor Jim Horne had learnt that the music teacher, Eleanor Fry, had risen just after 6am, and that the air in the bus was extremely warm and dry, he said: 'I could not see how she could have stayed awake in the circumstances.' His opinion appeared to conflict with earlier evidence which suggested that Miss Fry, 40, was putting on or taking off her glasses after a pathologist found a fragment of the frame clutched in her right hand.
But Professor Horne said that one sign of sleepiness was that the eyes become dry and itchy and that she might have been rubbing them or was resting her head in her right hand as she drove the bus and the 14 children back from the Schools Proms in London.
A police accident investigator, Const Philip Moore, backed Professor Horne's view that sleepiness was the likely cause of the tragedy on 18 November last year when the minibus from Hagley Roman Catholic High School, Hereford and Worcester, ploughed into a motorway maintenance vehicle parked on the hard shoulder.
But he could not rule out the possibility that she might have taken off her glasses to rest or rub her eyes and was unable to see the lorry which was parked there as the driver used the emergency telephone to tell motorway control staff that his crew had finished working in that section.
Miss Fry's optician, Shahid Parvez, told the jury that she would have been unable to make out objects which were more than a few inches from her face without her glasses. PC Moore's calculations estimated that the minibus's speed could have been between 73mph and 84mph when it hit the lorry.
A statement by one of the road maintenance crew, Paul Adams, was read to the jury explaining what he saw in the final seconds before the crash: 'I saw a dark coloured van come under the bridge. It was in the outside lane travelling fast. I think about 60mph. It went from the outside lane to the nearside lane and kept going to the hard shoulder. It was not a sudden veering, it was a gradual movement across. When I saw the van it had its lights on, but it did not have its brake lights on and never made any attempt to slow down.'
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