A COACH driver who took 34 passengers on a terrifying 70 mile journey was drunk.
Mold Crown Court heard yesterday how Lewis Robert McDonald, 68, drove slowly in the middle lane of a dual-carriageway, but then sped around corners, on the wrong side of the road, forcing other drivers off the road.
The passengers, members of a primary school Parent Teachers Association returning home to Penley, near Wrexham, from a shopping trip at Liverpool One, were screaming at him to get back onto the right side of the road.
Other drivers hooted their horns at him and as the coach went over the River Dee passengers feared he would not negotiate the bends and were terrified the vehicle would end up in the river.
When the coach eventually stopped, a motorist who had followed for 15 miles and whose wife had contacted the police, jumped on board and seized the coach ignition keys to prevent him driving any further.
McDonald, a coach driver for 40 years, admitted dangerous driving and drink driving after a breathtest three hours after he set off from Liverpool showed he had 58 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath compared to the legal limit of 35mgs.
Oliver King, defending, said McDonald would never get behind the wheel again.
McDonald, of Windlehall Drive, St Helens, Lancashire, was jailed for nine months and banned from driving for two years.
He was ordered to take an extended re-test before he drives again.
Judge Rhys Rowlands said it was clearly dangerous for anyone to drink to excess and drive a car.
“But it beggars belief that you started drinking knowing that you were taking a coach with passengers back from Liverpool to Penley,” he said.
“Passengers became more and more concerned with people shouting at you during the latter part of the journey to get back onto the correct side of the road.”
Judge Rowlands said he had put ‘passengers lives at risk and those of other road users’.
He added: “You had far too much to drink and then to drive a coach is the height of irresponsibility.”
It had been ‘an accident waiting to happen’ but by the greatest good fortune there was no injury or damage.
“You were responsible for your 34 passengers, most of them parents of young children. You put them at risk of injury or worse.”
The judge said that worryingly, McDonald had told a probation officer he did not consider his driving had been affected by his drinking or that he had placed anyone at risk by his behaviour.
The court heard how the 49-seat coach had been booked by the PTA of Madras Primary School at Penley to take 30 adults and four teenagers on a shopping trip to Liverpool One on Saturday, November 10 last year.
He was an hour late arriving at Penley in the morning because he could not find the village but there was no concern about his driving to Liverpool.
Prosecuting barrister Caroline Harris said he was 15 minutes late collecting them in the evening.
There were concerns as they made their way home.
Headmistress Lynda Houston later told how on the M53 he drove in the middle lane at about 20 mph.
On the M56 the coach started swinging from side to side in a rocking motion and those on board began to get very worried.
Then on the A483 other cars had to take evasive action and sounded their horns as McDonald changed lanes a number of times for no apparent reason.
A passenger told how he turned off the dual-carriageway and drove the wrong way around a roundabout “as if he was not aware that the road was there”.
Passenger Sue Chadwick was so scared that she put her mobile phone in her bag in case it got lost if the coach turned over.
Motorist Michael Clarke followed the car for 15 miles because he was so concerned at the erratic driving, his wife rang the police, and when the coach stopped at Penley he seized the ignition keys.
At Overton passengers had been worried at how he would take tight bends at a bridge over the Dee and passengers were shouting at him, scared that they would end up in the river.
Passenger Sybil Edge told how she was left shaking like a leaf.
Police arrived and arrested him, and McDonald said: “That’s me finished.”
He said he had not touched a drop for weeks but had a relapse.
McDonald later told how he had returned home and had a couple of tumblers of whisky and coke.
“You have one and then you have two don’t you,” he told police.
Mr King said McDonald had a strong work ethic, was a professional coach driver for 40 years, and was a devoted family man.
“He will never get behind the wheel again,” he said. “He is sorry and ashamed for what happened.”
A prison sentence at his time of life would be very difficult to serve, said Mr King.
He had never been to custody before and his grandson, aged 22, who suffered from MS, had died of a heart attack and his funeral was due next week.
Mr King said it was clearly a very serious matter but suggested a suspended sentence.
A number of references showed a different side to his character and the standard of his driving had never been questioned before during a long coach driving career.