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Two men died in head-on crash after 30th birthday party, inquest hears - as coroner highlights 'stark warning' on dangers of drink and drug driving

By Lyell Tweed

Two friends died after one of them drove at speed on the wrong side of a busy road before a head-on crash, an inquest heard. Tom Ashley, 31, was behind the wheel of a white Renault Megane taxi which belonged to his friend and front seat passenger John Hughes, 42, before the smash just before 7am on July 12, 2020.

Bolton Coroners' Court heard that in the build-up to the incident, joiner Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes, a taxi driver - who had been at a 30th birthday party - travelled at speeds of up to 75mph on Bolton Road in Pendlebury. That led to Mr Ashley, from Clifton, driving on the wrong side of the road and crashing into another vehicle, driven by Mark Taylor, who was left with serious injuries.

Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes, from Swinton, both sustained 'unsurvivable' injuries in the smash, with police believing neither were wearing a seatbelt. Both were nearly four times the legal drink drive limit and had taken cocaine, the court heard.

READ MORE: Two women arrested over death of baby girl after 'medical episode' at nursery

Area coroner Rachel Syed spoke about the men's 'poor judgement' and said she hoped the case would be 'stark warning to others on the very real dangers' of drink and drug driving at 'excessive' speed. She said she hoped the bereaved families could 'focus on the wonderful memories [they] had of them'.

Post-mortem evidence from pathologist Dr Neil Papworth detailed that Mr Ashley had 220mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in his system at the time of his death - as well as cocaine and cannabis. The drink driving limit is 80mg per 100ml. His cause of death was given as 'traumatic brain injury sustained in a road traffic collision'.

Tom Ashley (Family handout)

Mr Hughes' cause of of death was given as 'multiple injuries' resulting from a high speed collision. Mr Hughes' blood alcohol level was 200mg per 100ml, according to pathologist Dr Mayuri Basnet. He had cocaine of a 'recreational level' in his system, however, he was not driving the car at the time of the crash.

Zoe Bray, whose 30th birthday they were celebrating, gave evidence. She had been dating Mr Hughes.

The party had originally been in Ms Bray's grandmothers garden, but Mr Hughes drove the 15 in attendance to Ms Bray's own home around 2am, having only had one drink. After that, people 'let their hair down', with Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes both continuing to drink.

A few hours later, Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes became involved in an argument with another man at the party, Ms Bray told the court, and her mother asked everyone to leave. Ms Bray saw Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes leave the house and believed they had started walking home, before she went to bed.

A few hours later, she was told about a crash on Bolton Road in Pendlebury by a friend. The friend recognised Mr Hughes' Megane.

Annalise Mitchell - Mr Ashley's partner - had also been at the first bit of the party. She told the court that when Mr Hughes took her home around 2am, he had not been drinking - and that Mr Ashley had been having a 'very good time'.

Ms Mitchell spoke to Ms Bray around 7am, who said Mr Ashley shouldn't have been long getting home as he had already started walking. She tried to call him, but he did not answer.

Ms Mitchell got a taxi to work around 8am, with the driver telling her there had been a bad crash on Bolton Road and he had to take a diversion. After spending a few hours at work, she went to another job as a carer. That job was near the crash scene.

The scene of the crash on July 12 2020 (Heidi Hilton)

Coroner Ms Syed said on her behalf: "I saw the taxi was involved in the crash and knew straight away it was them. I told a police officer who was there I knew who was in the car. The police took me to the hospital, where I identified his body."

Sergeant Adrian Pye - a collision reconstruction officer at GMP - told the court CCTV footage showed the car travelling between 70 and 75mph along Bolton Road, towards Station Road. It also showed the car moving into the wrong lane to overtake a car, without moving back.

Not long before the collision, both tyres on the drivers side were seen to deflate for an unknown reason. Sergeant Pye said there was evidence Mr Ashley tried to steer to avoid the collision.

"All the evidence from the car would suggest they were not wearing a seatbelt," he added. Mark Taylor, who Mr Ashley and Mr Hughes crashed into, gave a statement. It read: "The noise of the crash was so loud, I still remember it to this day.

Dad of one Tom Ashley (Family handout)

"I realised the crash was really bad and I needed to get out of the car but my legs collapsed beneath me. A man moved me to a lamp post as there was lots of oil now on the road and I knew I was in a bad way."

Odette Hughes paid tribute to her ex-partner of 15-years - dad-of-two Mr Hughes - at the hearing, saying: "He was a fun and really kind man. Everyone knew him from his taxi driving."

Trisha Hagerty paid tribute to her son - dad-of-one Mr Ashley soon after his death, saying: "Tom was adorable and lovable, everybody loved him. He was a rogue but a lovable rouge.

"He had one brother and three sisters and was very close to his family. He was very close to his friends and loved going for a pint and a dance in a club. He is going to be missed by a lot of people."

Ms Syed, recording a conclusion of 'misadventure', told the court: "Tom and John were good friends. They both went to the party where the were 15 people and John volunteered to be the designated driver and took them all to Zoe's house.

"No one saw Tom and John get into his car and there is a complete gap in the evidence as to what happened inside the vehicle. The only people that can fill in these gaps are John and Tom.

"Around 6.58am on July 12 there was a collision with a Renault Megane which was registered to John but driven by Tom. The CCTV evidence provided showed them travelling around 70 to 75mph. You can see them on the wrong side of the road when they crashed.

"It is more likely than not that they were not wearing seatbelts and both suffered unsurvivable injuries. I come to a short form verdict of misadventure.

"There is no doubt that John and Tom exercised poor judgement which led to the devastating fatal consequences for these young gentlemen. This could serve as a stark warning to others of the very real dangers of drinking and taking drugs and driving at excessive speed.

"I very much hope that both these young gentlemen can be remembered for the good memories not for a bad decision they made on the worst day of their lives. Both of these men were deeply loved by family and friends, I hope they can focus on the wonderful memories they have of them."

For more of today's top stories click here.

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Dive Deeper:
Police cleared in teen's fatal car crash
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Drink-driver who killed Salford student, 19, after 10 pints has prison sentence CUT
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Coleen Rooney opens up on marriage trouble and how she 'cried every night' over US move
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
The town being made to move at 20mph now living with chaos, congestion and abuse
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Get all your news in one place