A PENSIONER who drove the wrong way on the M40 before a fatal crash last year had brain cancer and was likely to have been confused, an inquest has heard.

Three people died in the horrific head-on collision in October, when a car towing a caravan travelled four miles the wrong way down the motorway on Monday, October 15. 

John Norton, 80, from High Wycombe, had been acting strangely in the days before the crash and been involved in another collision, Oxford Coroner’s Court heard today. 

Dr Moniker Hofer, who provided a brain report, said Mr Norton’s brain was ‘significantly swollen’ and had cancerous lesions. 

Dr Nicholas Hunt, who carried out the post mortem report, confirmed that “lesions on the brain” were likely to be “deposits from primary (bladder) cancer.”

He added that such deposits “would be able to impair brain function and cognitive function to a significant degree.”

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The bladder cancer, which Mr Norton was being treated for, is believed to have metastasised in the brain, but neither doctors nor the DVLA were aware of the medical issue before the crash. 

The court heard how the retired foreign exchange banker, who was divorced, drove at 60-70 miles down the northbound carriageway before the collision between junctions 6 and 7. His companion Olive Howard, 87, also from High Wycombe, and the driver of a Ford Mondeo, Stuart Richards, 32, from Stockport, died in the crash, which occurred in the overtaking lane. 

Both cars are thought to have been driving at 60 to 70 mph. 

Oxford Mail:

Numerous witnesses described how Mr Norton appeared oblivious to fact that he was driving the Subaru Forester the wrong way for three to four minutes, despite other drivers using their horns and lights in a desperate attempt to avert the tragedy. 

Stuart Gauld, who was driving alongside Mr Norton's vehicle in the correct carriageway, told the court of how he tried to get the pair's attention 'but they did not appear to notice'. 

Patricia Young, a friend of the elderly couple - who were 'companions' after their former partners died - said she was worried about Mr Norton the day before the crash, when he was 'curt' with her on the phone.

She said Ms Howard had told her Mr Norton 'was not himself', adding: "I found this very strange because I have never heard (Mr Norton) raise his voice. 

"This accident was so unlike him."

Investigating Officer PC Sandra Terry and collision investigator David Watson said the primary cause of the crash was Mr Norton failing to observe no entry signs. They also said he had failed to recognise that he was driving the wrong way and added that Mr Richards’ reaction time was perhaps slower than might have been expected.

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However, Mr Richards’ family told the court that he was a highly trained driver who had driven for the army. It was suggested that he may have looked for other cars before manoeuvring to avoid Mr Norton, slowing his reaction time. Both cars were braking when they crashed head on. 

The 4 x 4 smashed into Mr Richards’ car near Tetsworth, closing the carriageway for a total of 14 hours.

Coroner Darren Salter said: “There is no doubt that this is a tragic, serious and alarming incident to have occurred.

“It’s not something anyone expects to be confronted with. 

“What was found was the (cancer) from the bladder (spread) to the brain. It’s likely that Mr Norton’s judgement was impaired by the cancer.”

He recorded a conclusion of “road traffic incident in respect of all three deaths.”

Mr Salter added he would be writing to Highways England and Oxfordshire County Council to enquire about the temporary signage at the A40 Wheatley junction where Mr Norton entered (before it becomes the M40) and ask if there is a plan for any further steps to make the junction clearer.

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However, he did add that he felt the junction’s signage was already clear.

Mr Salter said he believed the police could have done little more after being told that Mr Norton had been involved in a damage only collision with a stationary car in the days before the fatal crash. 

The cause of death in the case of Mr Richards, a health and safety inspector, was blunt injuries to the head and chest. 

Ms Howard, a retired retail manager and Mr Norton, also died at the scene, of multiple injuries.