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Thursday, 23 October 2014

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Coroner's call after fatal crash on Cumbrian bridge

A coroner is calling for action after hearing how a tragic road crash which claimed the life of a devoted father might have been avoided had the bridge involved been properly repaired.

Russell Long photo
Russell Long

Russell Long, 37, died after his Audi car crashed into a bridge parapet and landed upside down in the River Wampool near Kirkbride last September.

Though probably travelling at only a little over 20mph, his car “slid over” a broken and low section of damaged wall, and became airborne before landing on its roof in a river.

At an inquest, Mr Long’s brother Allister suggested the tragedy would not have happened had the bridge’s missing cornerstone been in place.

Coroner David Roberts said he would write to Cumbria County Council highways chiefs urging them to repair the bridge to prevent a similar tragedy.

The accident, on September 3 last year, was not discovered until the following day after Mr Long, an Innovia worker and part-time firefighter, failed to return to his Wigton home.

He had spent the evening at a clay pigeon shoot.

Giving evidence, Allister Long said there was a history of cars going off the bridge, on the B5307 near Kirkbride. He told how on the day after the accident he had visited the crash scene and found that a cornerstone, dislodged from the bridge parapet in an earlier accident, lying in the field beside the bridge.

Describing his brother as a “sensible driver”, he said his Audi would have hit the cornerstone of the bridge had it been in place.

He said: “I could not understand why there was no cornerstone to the bridge and when I got down into the field the cornerstone was there. It’s a big, round bollard, overgrown, and left in the field, overgrown with moss. The wall tops were there. It had never been repaired [after] previous accidents years ago. If it had been there we probably wouldn’t be here today.”

On the night of his death, Russell Long was in good spirits, socialising with friends and his family at a clay pigeon shoot at Newton Arlosh. They were all laughing and joking.

Cumbria police collision investigation PC Richard Wiejak said the evidence from the scene showed Mr Long was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash, but Mr Roberts accepted that this probably made no difference to his survival chances.

He said had he been wearing his seatbelt, he would have been locked into his seat with his head submerged.

PC Wiejak said Mr Long lost control as he drove towards Carlisle along the B5037 on a right-hand bend.

His Audi’s nearside tyres had strayed on to the grass verge approaching the bridge but there was no evidence of skidding or harsh braking.

The car then made contact with the bridge parapet before striking its centre and rotating as it slid over the “broken end” of the bridge and down the embankment into the river.

PC Wiejak said: “A Cumbria police mechanical examiner found no mechanical defects or faults that could have contributed to the accident.”

He said at the time of the impact, the car’s speedometer froze at 22mph – in all likelihood about the speed he was travelling when he crashed, which was not sufficient to activate the car’s airbags.

The officer added: “It was dark at the time and there was evidence of thick, patchy fog though the road surface conditions were good and had no defects. But I can’t rule out the possibility that the weather – the poor visibility – may have contributed to the collision.

“There’s no evidence to suggest this was a deliberate act by driver and no evidence to suggest he was exceeding the speed limit.”

Mr Long’s mother, Pauline Smith, described visiting the scene with her husband Harry and taking measurements because she was so shocked that the height of the wall where the car left the road was only four or five inches above the surface of the road.

“We hadn’t set out to investigate anything. This is just something we came across and we were shocked by what we saw,” she said.

Concluding that Russell Long had died as a result of an accident, Mr Roberts said: “He knew the road well and he had driven fire engines, HGVs, and all manner of plant.

“It seems highly unlikely that there was anything wrong with the manner of his driving on the night of his accident.”

He said Mr Long’s car probably ran into a patch of fog, and having collided with the bridge parapet then rode over the “ramp”at the broken end of the bridge and became airborne.

Mr Roberts said he would use his powers under the Coroners Regulations to write to Cumbria County Council Highways Department to urge that it takes action to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

“If another vehicle hits the same spot,” he said, “the same thing could happen.”

After the hearing, Mr and Mrs Smith welcomed the coroner’s decision to write to the county council.

Mr Smith said: “Nothing will bring Russell back but if this helps prevent another tragic accident then that’s the best we can hope for. That bridge needs sorted.”

Mrs Smith added that the missing bridge cornerstone was still unrepaired, as it had been for many years.

A spokesman for Cumbria County Council said the authority could not comment on a specific case until it had seen the details of any concerns expressed by the coroner.

He added: “In the meantime, we will review the maintenance history of the bridge so that we have all the necessary information for the coroner in due course.”

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