United Kingdom

Lorry driver jailed for eight months after killing cyclist while on hands-free call

A lorry driver who killed a cyclist while on a hands-free call has been jailed for eight months.      

Marek Witluski, 40, was speaking to his wife on loudspeaker when he hit Hilary Cox, 59, on the A141 near Chatteris, Cambridgeshire on December 3, 2018. 

The collision took place as Ms Cox, a mother and a wife, was cycling back home down her normal route after finishing work at a cafe in Chatteris.

Hilary Cox, 59, (pictured) a mother and a wife, was cycling back home after finishing work at a cafe in Chatteris, Lincolnshire when she was hit by Witluski's HGV on December 3, 2018

She had gone around half a mile when Witluski's HGV came from behind and hit her bicycle handlebars causing her to fall and suffer a significant head injury.

Witluski, from Spalding, Lincolnshire, meanwhile, stopped further up the road after he 'heard a noise'.

Mrs Cox was rushed to Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridgeshire where, despite the best efforts of the medical staff, she died a day later.

Witluski pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He was last Thursday jailed for eight months and disqualified from driving for two years and four months at Peterborough Crown Court.

THE LAW ON USING A HANDS-FREE PHONE WHILE DRIVING 

It has been a criminal offence to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving since 2003.

Motorists can be punished for making phone calls, browsing the internet, or sending text messages with their mobiles in their hands.

The offence is currently subject to a fixed penalty notice of £200 and six penalty points. However, it does not apply if drivers are using their phone in hands-free mode, for example with a bluetooth headset or a speakerphone that is built into the car.

Police have the power to stop and fine a motorist if they believe they have been distracted by using a hands-free mobile and so are not in control of their vehicle.

Using a phone at the wheel can be a contributory factor in other offences subject to much higher penalties, such as causing death by careless or dangerous driving.

In August last year the Transport Select Committee issued a report calling on the Government to explore options ‘for extending the ban on hand-held devices to hands-free phones’.

According to road experts, using a hands-free phone is as distracting as using a hand-held one. The committee wants to make mobile phone use while driving ‘as socially unacceptable as drink-driving’. 

The Committee acknowledged that there would be ‘practical challenges’ to criminalising hands-free devices, as well as enforcing any new legislation. 

After her death, Mrs Cox's family called her 'a loving wife, mother, sister and friend'.

They added: 'She gave to so many throughout her life, and asked for nothing in return. She will be sorely missed by everyone who knows her.'

An investigation into what happened found Witluski had been speaking to his wife on a hands-free phone at the time.

In addition, he admitted in interview the sun bouncing off the wet road had impaired his vision but he had made no attempt to rectify the situation, continuing to drive while dazzled.

Sergeant Mark Dollard said: 'This case highlights the dangers of driving while distracted, particularly when the weather conditions are not favourable.

'Witluski was driving his HGV on a particularly sunny day, causing him to be dazzled. Instead of taking additional precautions he continued to drive as he would normally.

'He failed to see Mrs Cox on her bicycle, hitting her, which tragically resulted in her death. This was compounded by the fact he was on his phone.

'It is accepted his phone was on loudspeaker and was being used hands-free, but he is going to have to spend the rest of his life wondering if this distraction caused him to not see Mrs Cox.

'I urge all drivers to ensure they pay careful attention to driving, and be particularly aware of vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians.'

It is currently legal to drive while using a hands-free device.

However, some MPs are calling for change after it was argued it carries the same level of distraction as physically holding the phone in your hand.  

The issue was thrust into the spotlight when motorcyclist David Kirk was killed after a crash with a Ford Fiesta on November 7, 2016 in Lincolnshire.    

Samantha Ayres, 34, was on the wrong side of the road when she collided with the 26-year-old.

A court heard she had been talking on a hands-free phone for 20 minutes before the crash and was still in mid-conversation with her friend Marc Lunn when she struck the oncoming motorcycle.

The issue of hands-free calls was thrust into the spotlight when motorcyclist David Kirk (pictured) was killed after a crash with a Ford Fiesta on November 7, 2016 in Lincolnshire

Speaking during her case to the jury, police collision investigator PC Godfrey Barlow argued hands-free was a likely distraction that influenced the cause of the collision.

He said: 'The research shows less time is spent looking at the road. It is going to lower your situational awareness.'

After Ayres was sentenced for three years, Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership John Siddle added: 'Samantha Ayres was so distracted that she was on the wrong side of the road.

'She was driving the vehicle and looking out of the windscreen but because she was on the telephone she was not aware of her position in the road and she hit the motorcyclist - it's crazy.

'People believe they are safe using a hands-free phone while driving but we say that is not the case.

'Any telephone call is a distraction to the driver whether hands-free or hand-held.

'There's only one thing to be doing behind the wheel and that's driving.'