Doctor may have had 'microsleep' before head-on Desert Road crash

Court gavel
Court gavel. Photo credit: Getty

A court has heard a doctor's medical condition may have contributed to a head-on crash on the Desert Road last March.

Sydney physician Dr John Beattie has faced a judge-alone trial in Taupo District Court on careless driving charges after he and five others were left seriously injured.

The 71-year-old, who holds an Order of Australia medal for services to medicine, denies inattention was to blame for the accident.

He told the court he was an ultra-cautious driver and that in his 54 years of holding a licence, he had never had as much as a speeding ticket.

"My wife and I make sure we're both well rested, that we're well hydrated and that we allow adequate time to get to our destination."

In the days before the crash, the couple were in Wellington for a medical conference.

When asked how he spent the night of March 4, he said he'd been out for dinner, had no more than two-and-a-half standard drinks and was in bed by 11pm.

The following day, the couple picked up a RAV4 rental and were on their way to Taupo when they collided head-on with another vehicle on State Highway One, near Turangi.

They'd been looking for somewhere to make a bathroom stop when the crash happened on a mild bend.

Beattie’s lawyer, Bill Lawson, asked his client if there was any indication of tiredness or fatigue before the accident.

“No, there honestly wasn't." 

The court heard Beattie suffered from sleep apnoea and that he may have had a microsleep in the moments beforehand.

He agreed this was possible and thought it was the most likely explanation.

Records of Beattie’s CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device, which is used to treat the condition, showed he’d been compliant in using it.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Martin McGahey pressed Beattie about whether other factors may have caused him to cross the centre line.

"I'll put it to you that it wasn't just your bladder," he said. "You were feeling drowsy or tired, and you were looking for somewhere to stop."

Beattie denied this. "I was not feeling drowsy."

Sergeant McGahey also questioned whether Beattie should've been driving at all, given his condition.

Judge Marie McKenzie reserved her decision.