Driver who crashed, killing baby and mum, fell asleep at the wheel

Ethan Collier-Whitewood leaves the Hamilton District Court after admitting all four charges. Photo / Belinda Feek

A man who lost his partner and baby in a “violent” fatal crash says he can still see the vehicle careering straight toward them.

Mark Griggs can still see Ethan Collier-Whitewood’s vehicle crossing the centre line of State Highway 26, at Eureka, on February 1 this year, and the “sound and feeling of a violent impact”.

“I remember everything,” his victim impact statement read in the Hamilton District Court this afternoon.

“The peace and happiness of moments before … the splash of your radiator fluid hitting my face.

“My world completely fell apart.

“Fear sets in at this point. My partner was slumped over the driver’s seat looking at me. Our eyes meeting. Those beautiful eyes seeing straight through me.”

But then panic set in as he realised their young daughter is sitting in the back seat.

“As I’m holding on to Mandi begging her to stay … there was our little girl … you hit us with such force that [daughter died instantly] … this is the point I lose control of my life.

Mandi begins breathing again, he begs her to hold on, but slowly her breathing got further apart and shallow.

“I held her until she passed”

Griggs said he’s now lost, his days are now cold, with him “heavily medicated and full of tears and alcohol”.

“I don’t even know who I am anymore. I left a part of me in that car.”

Griggs told him he hopes that Collier-Whitewood is forever haunted by what he did.

“I hate you.”

Soriah Harper-Griggs, 2 months, and 39-year-old Mandi Chanel Harper, of Silverdale, Hamilton, both died while three others were injured, including Griggs, on that sunny day, shortly before 2pm.

Collier-Whitewood, was today sentenced to three months’ community detention, 200 hours’ community work, and disqualified from driving for 12 months by Judge Philip Crayton on two charges of careless driving causing death and two causing injury.

The 27-year-old Hamilton builder also read out a letter of apology to Griggs and Harper’s mother, Debbie, who was in court.

“I want to say how deeply sorry I am for the pain and the loss that I have caused you all,” he said choking back tears.

“The guilt that I feel will always lay heavy in my heart for the rest of my life.

“You are all in my thoughts almost every day.”

His lawyer Glen Prentice said nothing could be said to mitigate the victims’ anger and Collier-Whitewood had sat down and read their statements, which had left him “deeply saddened and upset”.

Making it harder was that his client did not know why he fell asleep that day, something he knew the victims’ would not appreciate hearing.

“It’s not like he had been up late, he just fell asleep and this ultimate tragedy has occurred.”

Prentice pushed for the combination sentence and said his client had also offered reparations totalling $15,000 to Griggs.

Judge Crayton agreed and said a prison sentence would “be out of step” with other similar cases.

Collier-Whitewood was also a first offender, in a good job, and had shown genuine remorse.

Judge Crayton said there was no doubt the result of the crash had been life-changing for those left behind.

“It is clear that they are left not only bereft by their loss, but also being unable, really, to come to terms with what occurred and understandably their feelings are of anger towards you.”

Judge Crayton said there needed to be more education for drivers around fatigue.

“Drivers not only just fall asleep at the wheel at night or early hours of the morning. There can be many cases and understandably for those people experienced on the road we all know that there are varying signs which we must not ignore.”

The fact two lives were lost in this crash elevated Collier-Whitewood’s sentence and electronic monitoring was required to reflect the serious consequences, he said.

The maximum term for careless driving causing death is three months’ prison.

Sending Collier-Whitewood from the dock, he also urged that he look after his own mental health.

“It’s important that you do not ignore the enormity of what has occurred.

“You need to make sure for your family and your wellbeing that you get the support that you need also.”

Fatigue – the main killer on Waikato roads

Outside court, sergeant Steven Jones, of the Waikato road policing unit, said vehicles crossing the centre line was the cause in six of the last seven crashes on the district’s roads.

“The fact is, it’s a massive issue and we’d just like motorists to heed the signs and make sure that they drive refreshed, focused, and aware of their surroundings and to avoid driving while tired.”

If fatigue was combined with police impairment statistics, the figure was even bigger.

“It’s probably around 20 per cent of our crashes. We know that because there’s no steering input or breaking prior to impact.”

Asked if he felt Collier-Whitewood’s case was unusual as he said he wasn’t tired and remained unsure why he fell asleep, Jones said February 1 was a hot day in the Waikato.

“Not really … it was a hot sunny day for us. It’s just that we have three inches of white paint separating oncoming traffic, and people make mistakes.”

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