The wives of two cyclist mowed down by a company director on his way home from work have revealed the scale of their devastating loss – as the driver responsible yesterday walked free from court.
Andy Coles, 56, and Damien Natale, 52, were struck and killed as they cycled on the A40 in Oxfordshire on June 1 last year.
Yesterday, the driver, Clifford Rennie, 61, left court having been given a suspended sentence, a driving ban and a £475 fine. He had earlier admitted two counts of careless driving.
The sentence was handed down after the court had heard statements from the partners of the two cyclists, one of whom described the situation as ‘beyond a tragedy’.
Mr Coles’ partner, Helen Atherton, said June 1, 2020, was a date seared in her memory as ‘beyond tragedy, beyond awful, beyond anything I can imagine’.
‘I lost my world,’ she said in her statement.
Mr Natale’s wife and childhood sweetheart, Tracey, said she felt like she was serving a ‘life sentence’.
Clifford Rennie, pictured outside High Wycombe Magistrates’ Court in Buckinghamshire, killed two cyclists while driving home from his office but he has walked free from court
Andy Coles (left), 56, and Damien Natale (right), 52, were struck by Rennie as he drove from his office in High Wycombe on the A40 between Studley Green and Piddington in Oxfordshire
The court heard how Mr Coles and Mr Natale were struck by Rennie’s vehicle as he drove it from his office in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
What is the law around causing death by careless driving?
Death by careless driving is the act of causing a death while driving and where the standard of your driving has fallen below the reasonable standards expected of a competent driver.
It is a less serious offence than causing death by dangerous driving, where the standard of driving must fall far below that of a competent and careful driver.
Causing death by careless driving and the penalties is an emotive topic, because while the consequences of causing a death are devastating for the victim and their family, the penalties appear relatively low.
The maximum sentence is five years, but this is for the most serious of offences, where careless or inconsiderate driving falls not far short of dangerous driving.
Aggravating factors included by the Sentencing Council include if more than one person was killed as a result of the offence.
When the careless or inconsiderate driving arises from a momentary inattention with no aggravating factors, the starting point for a judge to begin considering a sentence is a community order – which is not a custodial sentence.
Even when an offence is more serious, the judge will be asked to take into consideration mitigating factors, such as whether the drive remained at the scene and helped, their previous convictions and driving record, and signs of genuine remorse. A guilty plea will also be a factor.
Then, even if the judge decides the offence is serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, they will be asked to consider if it is appropriate to suspend the sentence.
Factors for this include whether there is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation, strong personal mitigation, and whether an immediate custodial sentence will impact harmfully on others – particularly if the defendant has younger children.
It is only if these criteria are not met, and the defendant is not deemed a risk to the public, that a driver convicted of causing death by careless driving will have to serve an immediate custodial sentence.
Driving in his Volkswagen Golf and travelling in the same direction, Rennie collided with Mr Natale and Mr Coles from behind.
Mr Coles, 56, was thrown over the crash barrier and down the hill, with his shattered bicycle found wedged in a tree.
Mr Natale, 52, was sent into the opposite carriageway and found over 50 metres from where the crash happened.
Both men, who had been cycling behind one another close to the side of the road, were killed instantly, Oxford Crow Court heard.
Another driver saw Rennie’s 2019-plate VW Golf swerve and hit the two cyclists on the crest of the hill.
He said Rennie, who stopped at the scene, had been holding his head in his hands and saying ”there’s two of them.’
The evening had been sunny and, although overhanging trees had created patches of sunlight and shade on the road, a police crash investigator concluded that Rennie should have been able to see the cyclists.
Rennie answered ‘no comment’ to questions in his first police interview.
In his second interview he provided a prepared statement expressing his ‘heartfelt sympathy to the families of the cyclists.’
Rennie, who claimed he was a cyclist himself, could not explain why he had not seen the two men.
In a letter to the Judge, the defendant repeated his apologies and ‘sorrow’ for what had happened.
He said: ‘I sincerely hope that the justice that will be rightly served can offer some sort of closure to the families of Mr Coles and Mr Natale and they can begin to heal.’
Christopher Martin, in mitigation, said his client was ‘haunted’ by the fact he could not give his victims’ families answers about why he had not seen the two cyclists.
Mr Natale’s son, Brady, told the court: ‘In that moment you didn’t look, you took our family’s small bit of calm.
‘You took our family’s stability, you took a loving husband, you took a dedicated father, you took a caring son, you took any excited grandfather.’
‘You don’t deserve for me to go through the pain of writing it, especially when your answer would be ‘no comment’.’
Rennie was seen in the dock clutching at his beard as Brady’s sister, Coral, told the court: ‘This tragedy has knocked the life out of me.’
Derek Coles said the evening of his brother’s death had been ‘nothing short of horrendous’.
He described the feeling of euphoria when he learned his brother had died instantly, adding: ‘It seems terrible to feel such intense relief, but we were overjoyed that he hadn’t suffered.
‘It is the only thing I have held onto, that he was not in pain or fear as far as we know.’
Clifford Rennie outside Oxford Crown Court after being handed a two-year suspended prison sentence
The family members expressed their frustration that Rennie had not been charged with manslaughter and the delays in the case reaching court.
Rennie was a company director and an industrial chemical engineer and who had won a Queen’s Award for innovation.
Judge Michael Gledhill QC sentenced Rennie to two years’ imprisonment suspended for two years, banned him from driving for five years, and ordered he pay £475 in costs.
This means that unless he commits further offences, Rennie will not have to serve the jail term.
Rennie will also be required to take an extended re-test when his disqualification concludes.
Judge Gledhill told the victims’ families: ‘No words of mine are going to bring these men back.
‘Nobody could be anything but deeply moved at hearing the impact and the effect of their loved ones’ deaths.
‘The consequences for them, their families and friends of the deceased is truly appalling.
‘Some or all of the people I have just heard from feel their lives have been destroyed.
‘But I hope that these proceedings, now that they are about to come to an end will bring some degree of closure.
‘If I could make it better for everybody concerned I would. I regret to say I can’t.
The 61-year-old company director, who ploughed into the back of cyclists Andy Coles and Damien Natale killing them instantly, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment suspended for two years
‘I can only express my deep condolences and sympathy for each and every one of you.’
Last month, Rennie, of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, pleaded guilty to two counts of causing death by careless driving at High Wycombe Magistrates’ Court.
Senior investigating officer Sergeant Darren Brown, of Thames Valley Police’s Serious Collision Investigation Unit, said: ‘This was an absolute tragedy that needn’t have happened.
‘Due to the manner of Mr Rennie’s driving on that early summer’s afternoon last year, two men, who were simply out for a cycle ride, did not return home to their loved ones.
‘We were able to prove that the careless nature of Mr Rennie’s driving was the causative factor in the deaths of Andy and Damien, and given the evidence put to him, Mr Rennie pleaded guilty to both offences.
‘This, at least, spared the family and friends of Andy and Damien the further ordeal of a trial.’
He added: ‘Whatever the reason for Mr Rennie’s careless driving that evening, it is abundantly clear that neither Andy nor Damien contributed in any way to this incident.
‘This tragic case underlines the fact that motorists need to be fully aware of their surroundings and be aware of other, more vulnerable road users, especially when driving within national speed limits.
‘I know that no sentence would have served as any solace to Andy and Damien’s family and friends, but I would like to pay tribute to them all.
‘They have showed tremendous resolve and patience while this case was being investigated, and on behalf of Thames Valley Police, I would like to extend my condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.’