A family whose lives were "shattered" by the loss of their loved ones in an "avoidable collision" have made an emotional plea to the community not to use mobile phones while driving.
"The terrible toll on lives caused by those who choose to drive while being distracted by mobile phones - whether it be phone calls, sms or mobile maps - needs to continue to be brought to the attention of all drivers," Ken and Christine Shearer said in a statement released after the conclusion of the case against the man whose driving caused the death of their daughter and grandson.
"We don't want other families to suffer as we have, due to a driver choosing to look at a map on a phone rather than the road on which he is driving."
Michael Brent Knowler, 60, appeared via video link from custody at the County Court on Wednesday morning for sentencing over the double fatality crash almost two years ago.
He had previously pleaded guilty to three charges - two counts of dangerous driving causing death and one count of dangerous driving causing serious injury.
On what was a clear, sunny day on December 29, 2019, Knowler had been driving a Kenworth prime mover on Church Parade at Kingston.
The court heard Knowler was unfamiliar with the area and had been using his phone's GPS to navigate the trip to his friend's house at Broomfield.
As he approached the Allendale-Kingston Road intersection he saw a sign advising it was ahead yet diverted his attention to his phone - placed flat on the dashboard - to obtain directions and confirm he needed to continue straight through it.
The West family, including parents Anthony and Jess, their children Deighton, five, and Oakley, nine, and the family dog, had been travelling towards Ballarat to visit family and approached the intersection at the same time, around 12.15pm.
Mr West was driving the family's white Toyota Rav4, with his wife in the front passenger seat and their children buckled into booster seats in the back.
The court heard Knowler was trying to slow down when he realised he had to give way but with his view to the right obstructed by trees, it was not until he had moved past them that he saw the car approaching the intersection and "jumped on the brakes".
He later conceded to police that he was "probably travelling too fast" when he first saw the give way sign and did not realise until that point he had to stop.
The court heard Mr West had said he was within 100-metres of the intersection when he saw the truck to his left but did not have time to think and chose what he "felt was his only option" - veering to the right.
"He next heard the sound of the impact between the prime mover and his car. His car began to roll three to five times before it eventually came to a stop, resting on its roof," Judge George Georgiou said.
"He called out to members of his family but did not receive a response. He was trapped in the car until he was eventually removed with the help of a person who stopped to assist.
"That person tried to shield him from moving to the passenger side of the car but was unable to prevent him from doing so.
"It soon became apparent to Mr West that his wife and son, Deighton, had not survived the accident."
Oakley, who "could be heard crying", was trapped in the car until he was freed by emergency services.
He was treated at the scene before he was flown by air ambulance to the Royal Children's Hospital, while Mr West was taken to Ballarat Base Hospital with minor injuries.
The court heard Knowler had remained at the scene where he spoke with police before he was arrested and taken to hospital for a blood sample to be collected. This was negative for drugs or alcohol.
Judge Georgiou said the case against Knowler was on the basis his driving was dangerous as he had "paid insufficient attention to the road, become distracted and looked to the GPS for assistance".
Secondly, he was driving in an "inappropriate manner or speed given [his] unfamiliarity and uncertainty with the road and area in the type of vehicle being driven".
The court heard the speed limit on both roads leading into the intersection was 80km/h.
After the collision, Detective Leading Senior Constable Michael Hardiman from the Major Collisions Investigation Unit concluded Knowler had failed to give way at the intersection, leading to the collision.
Tyre skid marks on Church Parade, beginning about 50m from where the crash occurred, showed the truck had been travelling at a minimum of 68km/h but had slowed to a minimum of 30km/h when it collided with the car.
The car had been travelling about 86km/h at the time of the collision, he'd said.
Further, the truck later failed braking efficiency tests. While the second and third axles passed the test, the steer axle failed meaning it would take longer for the vehicle to brake.
The prosecution did not rely on this evidence in its case.
Judge Georgiou said the offending had "serious and tragic consequences" and had impacted the lives of many.
Seven victim impact statements were tendered to the court earlier in the case and spoke of the tragic, profound and lasting impacts.
Summarising some of the victim impact statements for the court, the judge described how Mr West had said it was "near impossible" to describe how the "horrific collision" had impacted his life.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened. I can never change those last memories I have of my family, when my beautiful family of four was tragically cut in half," the court heard.
He described the haunting sound of his wife screaming in the moments before the crash and that the sound lived with him everyday.
His mind is plagued by the distressing images of his family in the mangled car and of needing to tell his son, Oakley, that his mum and brother had died.
To cope with the tragedy, he and Oakley moved out of the former family home.
"He said whatever the outcome of the hearing, it does not change the fact my family is destroyed and my life has turned upside down," Judge Georgiou said.
Oakley's statement said he missed his mum's bubbly nature and his brother's devilish smile, and that it was sad to only have a dad.
As a result of the collision Oakley sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, spinal injury, fracture and a dental injury.
He was in post traumatic amnesia for eight days and was discharged from hospital a couple of weeks later.
Knowler could be seen wiping tears from his eyes or sitting with his head in his hands as Judge Georgiou described his personal circumstances.
Born in New Zealand, Knowler has been an Australian resident since 2008 and had been living in Western Australia since 2010.
A biological father to four children, Knowler lost one of his youngest children in a car accident when he was only eight and a half months old.
Knowler had struggled to come to terms with the collision and had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress and struggled with feelings of guilt and the protracted court process.
He wrote a letter of apology to Mr West last year.
Defence barrister Christopher Pearson had previously submitted multiple reasons, including that the intersection was "defective", to argue Knowler's moral culpability was low.
But crown prosecutor Sharn Coombes said Knowler's 40 years of experience as a professional driver should have alerted him to the risk of driving a truck in an unfamiliar area at the speed he was while distracted by a phone.
She said the seriousness of offending was in the mid to high range while his moral culpability fell in the mid range.
The court heard the maximum penalty for dangerous driving causing death was 10 years in prison, while the maximum for dangerous driving causing serious injury was five years. Judge Georgiou said this reflected the seriousness of the offending to which he had pleaded guilty.
He took into account the circumstances of the collision, including his inattention to the road despite seeing the advisory sign situated some 200-metres ahead of the intersection.
"The time period of which you were inattentive is not clear but I do not consider this to have been an instance where you were only momentarily inattentive," he said.
As an experienced driver, he said he should have understood the "inherent risks" associated with doing so.
"Rather than stop to obtain directions, you took your eyes off the road to look at your phone, which was in a position where the screen was not in easy view, while continuing to travel in a prime mover at a speed of 60km/h on an unfamiliar road in the knowledge there was an unfamiliar intersection ahead."
Rather than stop to obtain directions, you took your eyes off the road to look at your phone, which was in a position where the screen was not in easy view, while continuing to travel in a prime mover at a speed of 60km/h on an unfamiliar road in the knowledge there was an unfamiliar intersection ahead.- Judge Georgiou
He took the fact Knowler was not impaired by drugs or alcohol and was not travelling at a high speed into consideration, as well as the poor design of the intersection - despite there only being one other collision at the intersection in the preceding six years.
He also took into account Knowler's guilty plea, that he had no criminal record and that he was not aware of the issue with the truck's brakes.
But he said his moral culpability and the seriousness of offending fell within the mid-range.
"Driving in that manner involved a serious breach of the proper management and control of your vehicle.
"It was behaviour that subjected the public to some risk over and above that ordinarily associated with the driving of a motor vehicle and was a substantial cause in the death of two persons and serious injury to a third."
He accepted Knowler was "genuinely remorseful" and a person of "otherwise good character", that he had been cooperative with the police investigation and had accepted full responsibility for his conduct.
He said jail was a difficult experience for him, as was the anxiety of not knowing if he would be deported from Australia when he is released.
Though he said general deterrence and denunciation of the conduct was a significant sentencing consideration.
Others in the community need to understand the use of phones which result in dangerous driving causing death or serious injury will be met by stern punishment and must be denounced by the courts.- Judge Georgiou
"Others in the community need to understand the use of phones which result in dangerous driving causing death or serious injury will be met by stern punishment and must be denounced by the courts.
"Whatever sentence passed upon you will not make up for loss of two lives, serious injury to Oakley and the profound emotional impact on Mr West and many others."
Knowler was sentenced to 31 months in prison, with a non-parole period of 14 months.
He has been in custody on remand for 316 days, which was deemed as time served and means he could be released early next year.
If he had not pleaded guilty he would have received 3 years and 8 months in prison with a non-parole period of 26 months.
His licence was cancelled and he was disqualified from driving for 18 months.
Mr and Mrs Shearer said they were "devastated" with the minimum of 14-months, as they had received a life sentence.
"We will now move on with our lives and where that takes us. As will our extended family, friends and colleagues who have been remarkably supportive of us since we lost Jess and D."
They thanked their employers and all who had supported them - from emergency services to hospital staff.
"Their care of us and Oakley in his two weeks stay, when we were all at sea, over whether he would survive and make a full recovery was compassionate and extraordinary.
"Happily, those prospects are good now for our boy.
"Like this state in the last two years, we are broken, but in such different ways. We hope to gain strength and learn to love life again.
"What remains with us now, in our hearts and minds, are our memories of Jessica and Deighton. Jess and D."
This story originally appeared on the Ballarat Courier.
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