A DRIVER who ploughed into three schoolgirls as they walked along a residential street - and left one in a coma - wept after being told he had ruined the lives of his victims and their families.

Jeffrey Rowntree is starting a three-year prison sentence after a judge told him how at one moment his victims had been going about their daily lives and in the next moment their lives were utterly transformed by the horror crash in Hartlepool.

Rowntree’s Ford Focus had a bald tyre and loose battery, and the 47-year-old had traces of cannabis in his system at the time, Teesside Crown Court was told.

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He could not explain how he lost control of the 13-year-old hatchback, and a police investigation concluded he was not speeding in the 30mph zone.

Two of the injured girls later said they thought he was “driving fast”, said prosecutor Rachel Masters, and one told her friends to hurry up to get out of the way.

Miss Masters said the car was “swerving from side to side and taking up, in effect, the whole of the road” in Skelton Street on May 15 last year. Rowntree mounted the kerb and hit the youngsters, knocking down a garden wall which collapsed over them, leaving them in “a pile of rubble and blood”.

The most seriously hurt was airlifted to hospital, where doctors put the 11-year-old in an induced coma in intensive care after a CT scan showed she had a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain as well as a fractured leg below the knee.

She was in hospital for nine days, and almost nine months on, is still seeing a psychologist and an occupational therapist among other specialists. There are fears that the damage to her leg might have implications for her growth.

Her 12-year-old friend suffered a fractured shin-bone and swelling and bruising to her face and right knee after she was also knocked over the wall.

Another 12-year-old escaped serious injury with a bruised right elbow after being clipped by the wing mirror - but all three are suffering enormous psychological damage, the court heard.

Jailing him and banning him from the roads for five-and-a-half years, Judge Simon Bourne-Arton, QC, told Rowntree: “They were young girls going about their normal way of life, and you, essentially, wiped them out, that’s the impact of what you did. No one knows why he lost control of that vehicle, but the result of what you did was devastating and what you have done is, essentially, ruin the lives of three families.”

Rowntree, of Stockton Road, Hartlepool, admitted causing serious injury by dangerous driving, and using a vehicle in a condition likely to cause a danger of injury. The court heard that he had 98 offences on his criminal record, and has twice been banned from the roads for driving with excess alcohol.

His barrister, Phillipa Hildyard, said if Rowntree was sent to prison his teenage son would have to go into care.

The parents of the girls gave moving - and sometimes tearful - accounts of how the crash had torn their lives apart.

All three youngsters are suffering severe trauma and their behaviours and attitudes have changed, the court heard.

The mother of the 11-year-old most seriously hurt pupil sobbed as she read her victim personal statement.

She told how the once-energetic girl who loved going to dance classes, the gym and trampolining now struggles to get out of bed.

“She is completely different now,” she said. She is anxious and moody. This has torn the family apart.

“Her older brother and sister find it difficult to deal with her. I feel like I am having to get to know her again.

“She has lost that spark out of her eye for no reason. She is not the same kid we sent to school that day. Our lives have been turned upside down by the collision.”

The mother of the the girl who escaped with the least injury also read her impact statement to Judge Simon Bourne-Arton, QC, and told how she suffers nightmares.

She has woken up crying with her arms outstretched, not knowing which of her friends to help first, and having to choose.

The mother said: “She would explain these nightmares were lifelike and vivid.”

The third mother said her daughter also suffered nightmares and screams out her friend’s name, and tries to reach out to help.