Hervey Bay's Donald Gayler leaves the courthouse in Maryborough, after being sentenced for driving without due care and attention.
Hervey Bay's Donald Gayler leaves the courthouse in Maryborough, after being sentenced for driving without due care and attention.

OPINION: In the courtroom with a fatal crash driver

WHEN I walked into the courtroom on August 31 last year, my heart was full of sympathy not only for the mother who had lost two of her children, but also for Donald Gayler, the man who had caused the fatal crash.

The Hervey Bay solicitor and his wife were badly injured in the Easter Monday crash that claimed the lives of Brisbane siblings Daniel and Sarah Walker and I imagined his internal turmoil must be even worse than his physical injuries.

But after reading his online tirade describing the people who call for mandatory jail for driving offences "agitators", I feel like I need to speak out on the side of the victims - Sarah and Daniel, not Mr Gayler.

I have said this before - for the average, law abiding citizen, it is behind the wheel of a car that we are most likely to inadvertently cause someone's death.

It is my greatest fear when I get behind the wheel - a moment of inattention, fatigue, or lack of concentration can be the difference between making it home safely or causing a catastrophic crash, especially when travelling at high speeds.

Over the years, I've reported on several cases like Mr Gayler's.

A young man who fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a woman on the Maryborough-Hervey Bay Rd, causing her death; a truck driver who was following too closely and had a split decision to decide whether to run into the vehicles in front of him or cross to the wrong side of the road.

He crossed to the wrong side of the road and two women coming home from a business meeting were killed.

An elderly woman in a Hervey Bay car park ran over an elderly man several years ago.

His daughter held him in her arms while he lay dying.

Each time I've been struck by how one bad decision or mistake had destroyed countless lives.

I've felt real sorrow not only for the family, but also each defendant who must go on with a heavy heart, knowing the pain they have caused.

While the punishments handed down by the court, often just fines and a few months without a licence, often did not seem tough enough, the hardest part, at least to me, would be living with the knowledge you had unintentionally caused another's death.

But the moment I walked into the court room last year, it all felt wrong.

Mr Gayler pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention.

Police prosecutor Michael Quirk told the court when police informed Mr Gayler the crash he had caused claimed the lives of two people, he replied there was "not much he could do about that".

After returning from an overseas trip, Mr Gayler and his wife had been on a plane from England to Hong Kong and then Adelaide before flying to Brisbane then driving back to Hervey Bay.

He told police he was not fatigued and a "moment of inattention" had caused the crash.

During his court appearance, Mr Gayler's lawyer said his client, after 49 years of driving, had committed a mistake in a matter of a few seconds that he was ashamed of.

He said his client felt remorse, but in the next breath argued Mr Gayler should not lose his licence or have a conviction recorded against him.

With Kerri Walker, the mother of Daniel and Sarah, sobbing in the courtroom after hearing her children had been incinerated in their vehicle, I'll admit that I was taken aback by this request for leniency.

In the end, Mr Gayler lost his licence for three months and was fined $3000.

In the aftermath of the court case, Kerri and her friend Trisha Mabley, whose son Peter was also seriously injured in the crash, joined forces to try to increase the penalties for careless driving that results in death.

They were successful, with tougher penalties being passed through the Queensland Parliament earlier this year.

Then last month, for reasons unknown, Mr Gayler wrote this in his Don's Dynamite newsletter: "So think of it like this - you have a sound reputation, both in the community and in business.

"You might even have an unblemished driving record - but if there is a mandatory term of imprisonment set for your offence, then it doesn't matter what a jury might think, it doesn't even matter what the presiding judge might think.

"You get the mandatory sentence and you go to gaol for the mandatory period.

"Agitators in the community seek mandatory gaol sentences for all types of offences."

Why would someone who has - completely unintentionally - inflicted so much hurt upon a family think it was a good idea to share an opinion on this subject?

Especially an opinion so self-serving, so one-sided.

In my heart I know Mr Gayler, who has himself lost a child, must feel the significance of what happened on Easter Monday last year.

I wonder if this is his way of trying to rationalise what happened, or downplay his role in the crash.

If so, he would have been better served keeping his opinion to himself rather than broadcasting it online for the world, including the victims' families, to see.

Mr Gayler's own defence said a momentary lapse of attention on his behalf caused the crash.

Maybe by increasing penalties for all drivers who cause fatal crashes, we might see more drivers concentrating on our roads and fewer of these momentary lapses.

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