A VAN driver may have been distracted or fallen asleep at the wheel moments before ploughing into a broken down lorry, an inquest has heard.

Julian Tinker was killed when his Vauxhall Combo hit the back of the lorry on the A66 near Bowes, County Durham, in February 2011.

An inquest in Chester-le-Street heard today (Thursday November 15) that his vehicle was split in half and that he was thrown onto the carriageway because he was not wearing a seatbelt.

His Spaniel gun dog Echo was also killed in the accident, which happened in darkness, wind and rain at about 6.45am.

Pathologist Nigel Cooper told the hearing that Mr Tinker, 41, of Retford, Nottinghamshire, would have died almost immediately.

Lorry driver Gary Smith, from Huntley, Aberdeenshire, was carrying a load of old batteries to Derbyshire when a component failure in his braking system caused the truck’s wheels to lock while it was in the nearside lane of the eastbound carriageway.

He was awaiting recovery with his hazard lights on, but had not put up a warning triangle as he thought it would be blown away in the strong wind.

The inquest heard that another van hit part of the debris, but was able to stop and its driver helped out at the scene.

The stricken lorry’s lights were also visible up to half-a-mile away and police logged more than 200 vehicles passing the wreckage safely before the accident thanks to number plate recognition cameras.

Police accident investigator, PC Michael Bell, said that Mr Tinker may have reacted too late to avoid the lorry or fallen asleep at the wheel.

“Unfortunately, the driver is not here to explore these circumstances, so we can only assume,” he said. 

Inspector Edward Turner, the senior investigating officer, said Mr Tinker may have been distracted – possibly by his dog or something outside the van – or was suffering fatigue.

Durham Coroner, Andrew Tweddle, recorded a verdict of accidental death, saying: “What actually happened we just don’t know.” 

He commended the dead man’s mother Dorothy Tinker for her efforts to gather evidence after she issued a public appeal for witnesses through The Northern Echo.

Through her efforts it emerged that, at the time, lorry driver Mr Smith had not been trained in the regulations for carrying hazardous loads, though he has had training since.

But Mr Tweddle said this had not been a contributory factor in Mr Tinker’s death.