A BUS driver who ploughed into three shoppers – killing an 82-year-old great-grandmother – has been given a suspended jail sentence for his careless driving that “changed a number of lives forever”.

Michael Gilbert was behind the wheel of an Arriva bus that lurched violently away from a Darlington town centre bus stop before careering into three women and coming to rest in the front of a bank.

The horrific crash on Northgate claimed the life of Eileen Brennan on July 7, 2016, however a court heard yesterday that her family have recently reconciled with the bus driver in an emotional meeting overseen by police officers.

Mrs Brennan’s family had been in the final stages of moving from Australia to North-East to be closer to their elderly relative, but were instead holding her funeral on the date they were due to move.

They are now urging Arriva to accept some responsibility for the tragedy that also left pedestrian Tracy Naisbitt with serious injuries and her mother, Trudy Bowe, who “miraculously” escaped relatively unharmed.

Witnesses described how Gilbert, of New Row, in Middleton St George, near Darlington, appeared “broken” in the moments after the crash and said he “tried to stop [the bus], but it wouldn’t stop”.

Gilbert, the 52-year-old bus driver, pleaded not guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and serious injury by dangerous driving and went on trial last month.

A jury sitting at Teesside Crown Court were shown CCTV of the tragic incident and were told that Gilbert had taken a safety “shortcut” by not putting his vehicle into neutral at the bus stop.

However, on the second day of the trial, a key witness from Arriva stated that having a bus in gear but with the handbrake on while waiting at a stand is not what drivers are formally trained to do, however it is common practice.

Following the revelation, Judge Howard Crowson directed the jury to find the former bus driver guilty of the lesser offences of causing death and serious injury by careless driving.

The court heard yesterday from defence barrister Rod Hunt that Gilbert had received counselling following the crash and it was found he had been so traumatised by the incident that his memory of the crash was “incorrect”.

Mr Hunt added that Gilbert, who now works at a supermarket, had made a “tragic error” and had truly believed he was pressing the brake pedal when he in fact had his foot on the accelerator.

Brief witness accounts read out in court described how many shoppers that day heard the crash and screaming from outside the Halifax bank at 10.50am, with many rushing to the scene to help.

Several people held the hands of Mrs Brennan and Ms Naisbitt who had her leg crushed underneath the bus for around one hour before fire crews could lift the wreckage.

A victim personal statement read on behalf of Ms Naisbitt by prosecution barrister Simon Reevell said: “My life was changed forever. During the early months, the pain and suffering was awful.”

She added: “All I’ve ever wanted is for the driver to accept his responsibility. It was the thought that he blamed the bus for so long that angered me, but now he’s accepted this we can all try to move on.”

Gilbert stood still in the dock as Judge Crowson sentenced him to a 14 months in prison, suspended for one year, and banned him from driving for three years.

Judge Crowson said: “It is in my view that the appropriate approach in sentencing is to consider count one [death by careless driving] that it was made worse or aggravated by three people being struck.

“In your favour, I treat you as a man of good character and I read a medical report that describes the effect on you and it seems to me that you will live with this guilt for the rest of your life.”

Defence barrister Mr Hunt said that the family of Mrs Brennan had a face-to-face meeting with Gilbert following the final day of the trial in March and that police officers overseeing it had been “moved to tears” by the reconciliation.

Following the ruling, PC Alison Fawcett, a family liaison officer with Cleveland Police, read a statement on behalf of Julie Wakeford, Mrs Brennan’s daughter, outside the court.

The statement said: “We, the family, hope that Arriva will take note and make some positive changes to their driver training regime.

“It is all well and good training the drivers to a standard above the recognised Government standards, but if this training is not enforced, then it’s pretty pointless.

“We, the family, feel Arriva must accept some responsibility for the events of July 7, 2016. Now is the time to make changes and make bus transport safer for all.”

The statement ended in a plea to Arriva: “Please take heed, make changes for the better and do not allow something like this to happen again.”

The bus operator has confirmed it is "constantly reviewing" its training policies and also offers refresher sessions for drivers employed by the company.

Nick Knox, area managing director for Arriva North East said: “First and foremost, our thoughts remain with Eileen Brennan’s family, and all the other families affected by the incident which took place in Darlington’s Northgate on 7 July 2016.

“The safety of staff and passengers is our top priority. We operate best practice driver training that is compliant with legal and DVSA training standards.

“They receive regular training which includes specially tailored refresher sessions and industry-approved Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training.

“In addition we also offer additional practical training should we deem it necessary or appropriate.

“As a responsible business we are constantly reviewing our policies and training to ensure they are updated and cover all key requirements.”