The motorist who caused three deaths by driving the wrong way down the motorway had a deadly brain cancer that can cause confusion, an inquest heard today.
John Norton, 80, had been receiving chemotherapy for the cancer, which had spread up from the bladder, when he took the wrong exit for the M40, near Oxford, and drove at 60 to 70mph down the fast lane.
He died along with his 87-year-old partner, Olive Howard, and former soldier Stuart Richards, 32, when their Subaru and caravan collided with Mr Richards’ Ford Mondeo in the afternoon on October 15 last year.
Mr Richards, who lived in Stockport, Manchester, had served in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming a health and safety officer with The Emerson Group.
The retired foreign exchange banker and his partner left their home in High Wycombe that day to visit friends in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
Three people died in the horror crash near junction six of the M40 in Oxfordshire last year
Stuart Richards, 32, was killed when the subaru travelling in the wrong direction on the M40 hit his Ford mondeo
The inquest held at Oxford coroners’ court heard that before the crash Norton had been acting strangely.
Patricia Young, who met the couple 20 years ago at Companions Caravaning Club, said that the day before the crash Ms Howard had told her that Norton was ‘not himself’.
‘She couldn’t do anything right,’ Ms Young told the inquest in a statement. ‘The crumpets were not cooked right, the coffee was not hot enough, even the marmalade tasted funny.’
‘I heard her ask him if she had upset him and I heard him shout, ‘No! I told you, it is nothing to do with you.’ I’d never heard him raise his voice to anyone.
‘I had a conversation with John who told me he’d been to the eye hospital and was pleased with his new glasses. He was quite curt, quite sharp. Unlike John.’
Dr Nicholas Hunt found evidence of the brain cancer during a post-mortem, which had moved from the bladder to other parts of the body.
‘With symptoms including effect on behaviour and hazard appreciation, is clearly, albeit indirectly, of great significance in terms of his own death and others involved in this collision.’
The car in the middle can be seen driving the wrong way on the M40 in Oxfordshire last year
Other motorists were forced to swerve out of the way as the car and caravan approached them
Dash cam footage shows the shocking moment the subaru, with caravan attached, thundered down the motorway’s fast lane causing other cars to swerve onto the central reservation and honk their horns to avoid it.
Norton had ignored no-entry signs at junction 8 of the northbound carriageway, near Wheatley, Oxfordshire, when he entered the wrong side of the busy road.
He continued travelling down the road at between 60 and 70mph until he crashed into a Ford mondeo.
Alistair McFarlane, who was driving a directly behind Mr Richards, said: ‘The car towing the caravan went across in front of the Mondeo’.
Collision investigator David Watson said: ‘There was no sign of deceleration or steering left or right. I just see a constant speed and a constant direction. Mr Richards’ reaction time was far greater than the normal.
‘His reaction was possibly delayed because of the unusual nature of the hazard which presented itself to him – something he did not expect to see and something he had probably never encountered before on a motorway.
‘Based on this, his reactions were not unusual.’
The 4×4 driver (pictured) was seen towing the caravan on the wrong side of the M40
Five days before the crash Norton hit a parked car, which was reported to Thames Valley police.
Police Constable Sandra Terry, ‘Details were exchanged at the time and the driver reported the crash to the police, who said it was an insurance matter.
‘Two days later, on October 12, the driver took the trouble to make an online report in which he said he did not think Mr Norton was fit to drive and reported he did not seem to realise what he’d done during the crash.’
Maureen Adryanski, Ms Howard’s goddaughter, told the inquest that when she asked about it Norton became ‘very quiet’.
‘I heard him making a little noise, like ‘um’ for a few moments. Then he said he was fine and carried on as normal.’
The car was involved in a crash (pictured) just minutes after police were alerted to the danger
Coroner Darren Slater said he would be writing to the council and Highways Agency asking for the ‘no entry’ signs at the motorway entrance to be improved, although he admitted they were already clear.
Recording the three deaths as the result of a road traffic collision, the coroner said: ‘Mr Norton’s failure to observe the no-entry signs resulted in him travelling in the wrong way on the motorway. That is the cause of the collision.
‘There is some evidence in this case about the potential for a confused state on the part of Mr Norton. What the experts found was the metastoses from the bladder cancer metastasised to the brain.
‘There are still issues which are unclear. For example, why Mrs Howard was not in a position to alert Mr Norton. We do not know – she might have been trying to alert him. We simply do not know what might have been happening inside the vehicle while other vehicles were flashing, sounding their horns and swerving out of the way.
‘I am going to write to Highways England and Oxfordshire County Council. I am going to inquire about the temporary signing that is in place but also if there is a plan for anything more permanent and in particular if there are any further steps that can be taken at that location to make it clearer.
‘To be fair, it is reasonably clear – you have two no entry signs – and I have made a ruling that Mr Norton was probably impaired by his brain cancer. However, if we can do anything to reduce the chance of something like this happening again, that is worth exploring.
‘My conclusion in respect of all three deaths is road traffic collision.’
Mr Norton, originally from Lewisham in south London, was a divorcee and retired foreign exchange banker.