A DRIVER who was over the alcohol limit the day after a heavy drinking session killed his girlfriend when his car careered off a road and crashed into a tree.

Graham Atkinson, 39, was jailed for three-and-a-half years yesterday after he admitted causing the death of 25-year-old Susannah Hinnigan -only weeks before he planned to propose to her.

Ms Hinnigan, described in court as conscientious, friendly and well-liked, died of a head injury when Atkinson's car crashed.

Teesside Crown Court heard how Atkinson was driving to work the morning after he had drunk at least seven pints of lager, and his partner was in the passenger seat.

Ms Hinnigan was planning to take the car to visit her parents after Atkinson arrived at work in Spennymoor, County Durham, on Saturday, October 2, last year.

The accident took place on a notorious stretch of road between their home in Darlington and the depot where Atkinson worked -on the A167 near the Gretna Green pub, near Newton Aycliffe.

Peter Makepeace, prosecuting, said roadworks were being carried out and a 40mph limit was in force on the coned-off single carriageway.

An accident reconstruction suggested Atkinson was driving at 50mph to 57mph when he hit a concrete safety barrier, lost control and veered down a grass verge and hit a tree.

Atkinson told police an animal or a plastic bag had startled him and he braked, but Ms Hinnigan, who had been dozing, grabbed the steering wheel and caused him to lose control.

A blood test taken 90 minutes after the accident showed Atkinson had 83mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood, but a back-calculation revealed a level of 100mg to 120mg at the time of the crash. The legal limit is 80mg.

Mr Makepeace said: "The defendant must have been travelling too fast to safely negotiate these barriers and his judgement must have been impaired by the alcohol remaining in his blood."

Aisha Wadoodi, in mitigation, told the court: "Mr Atkinson is well aware that he has destroyed a young life and has devastated the lives of Miss Hinnigan's family, who are unlikely to ever recover from this tragedy.

"There are two burdens he is going to bear for the rest of his life. He has lost the woman he intended to marry and he has shattered the lives of Miss Hinnigan's family and close friends. No prison sentence is going to reconcile the family of their loss or cure their anguish.

"He is anxious to acknowledge that whatever he may be feeling, and he wants to convey this in no uncertain terms to the family, has to take second place to what the family feel and his deepest sympathy and sorrow goes out to them.

"He will never forgive himself for what took place and he knows that prison is something that he must face.

"He said to the probation officer that he did not think it would be any way enough of a penalty for what the family have gone through and for what he has lost."

Atkinson, of Stocksmoor Close, Firthmoor, Darlington, was also banned from driving for five years.