The Thirteen-Pint Killer

From the Observer, 11 March 2001:

This man sank 13 pints, then got in his car and killed six people...Why did no one stop him?

His reckless behaviour shocked Britain and the community he lived in. Paul Harris reports from Peter Noble's home village

Peter Noble had already drunk more than 10 pints of beer by the time he got to the Leeds Arms pub. It was just another all-day Sunday drinking session and one of Noble's boozing partners introduced him to a young woman at the bar. 'I am the beast,' he shouted as he sipped a pint. Noble and his friends were extremely drunk, loud and aggressive. No one dared ask them to leave.

Onlookers in the popular pub in the Yorkshire village of South Anston were shocked. They would have been more so if they had known Noble was the group's designated driver. Several hours later, just after 8pm on 2 July last year, six people lay dead or dying in a road just a few miles away from the Leeds Arms. Noble had carried on drinking, eventually downing 13 pints and two Bacardi Breezers. He then got into his vehicle.

Heading for another pub, Noble drove his powerful Toyota Land Cruiser straight into an oncoming Daewoo, killing three members of a family returning home from a barbecue and three of his own drinking partners. The Land Cruiser had been so crammed full of Noble's drinking posse that several people had been sitting on its floor. Noble himself was miraculously unharmed.

For Noble, it was only a matter of time before tragedy would strike. As far as drinking and driving was concerned, the 39-year-old ex-miner was a time bomb waiting to go off. He had already been banned twice for driving while over the limit and was barred from driving at the time of the crash.

But Noble was not the sort of man to let mere laws stand in the way of a good drinking session. The 'motorised pub crawls' had been a regular part of his life for years. Most weekends he and his friends would gather in the pubs around his home in the village of Thorpe Salvin for a session. Noble would often drive.

There was little anyone could do to stop him. The police do not have the manpower or desire to constantly monitor people suspected of drinking and driving. It is estimated that a drink driver only has a one in 250 chance of being breathalysed. Noble liked those odds.

Local people were content to turn a blind eye to his obvious abuse. Noble was a common sight in the pubs and most people knew that when he had a few drinks inside him and was with like-minded friends, it was better to steer clear. Violence always felt like it was around the corner and trying to take away his keys would have been risky. 'When he was drinking with his friends there was just this air of loutishness about it. You would not want to be in the same pub as them,' said one drinker at a pub where Noble was a regular. 'I am glad that he is off the streets,' said another.

Deputy Superintendent Bob Varey of the South Yorkshire Police was more succinct: 'He was a total bastard.'

A broad and burly man, Noble was known as 'bison' or 'slab head'. His haunts ranged from modern family-style village pubs to spit-and-sawdust drinking dens in the towns surrounding nearby Rotherham. One was described by police as 'a real vipers' nest' where fights were common and the clientele had a criminal element. Noble was welcomed there as a regular. It was the last pub he drank at before the crash.

That alcohol was a focus of Noble's life was no secret. He worked on demolition jobs during the week, saving his energies for the weekend binges. He boasted to friends of sessions where he would drink 20 pints. Before his infamous Sunday binge, Noble had drunk 10 pints the night before. He was probably still over the limit when he arrived at the Saxon pub at midday to start all over again.

Alcohol had led Noble to his driving bans and two charges of assault. He also had a record of other petty criminal offences, including burglary. But despite this, his determination to drink was legendary. He was a diabetic but ignored his condition when it came to alcohol, even though several years ago it had caused him to collapse in the Saxon's toilets, where he was revived by bar staff.

Certainly there was no stopping him that tragic Sunday last July. After the seventh pub, several of Noble's friends had decided to call it quits. But Noble insisted that they drive to another pub about five miles away. It was a decision that cost six lives.

The Holmes family coming the opposite way along a busy stretch of the A57 known locally as the 'killer mile' never stood a chance. Noble's Toyota veered across the road into their path. The crash left a tangled mess of wreckage. Ray Holmes, 79, his wife Audrey, 69, and their daughter-in-law Diane, 47, were all killed. They had been coming back from a party to celebrate a relative's 21st birthday. Three of Noble's friends also died, including his occasional boss in the construction industry, Tony Haywood, who owned the Toyota. Almost immediately, Noble began to cover his tracks.

After he was cut free from the vehicle, Noble fled the scene. Having picked up a mobile phone from one of his dead friends, he called an ex-girlfriend and demanded that she pick him up. He spent the night at his sister's house before calling the police the next morning to tell them that Haywood, whose corpse was barely cold, had been driving.

'He never thought to help. Right from the start, he just thought of self-preservation,' said Varey.

If Noble's reckless disregard for others was appalling before the crash, it was his behaviour afterwards that really shocked the police. They became so determined to nail him that they treated the case with the manpower of a murder enquiry.

His story quickly collapsed under the weight of evidence from witnesses and the emergency services. Eventually he was persuaded to confess by his son, Carl, 19. But even then he accepted no responsibility. Instead, he said the vehicle had 'aquaplaned' on a pool of water.

He stuck to the story in court, blithely saying that he 'didn't feel a danger to anyone inside the vehicle or anyone else on the road'. He told friends that he was convinced he would not be jailed. It was a view he maintained right up until he received 15 years, the longest-ever sentence in Britain for a drink driver.

The hard line adopted by Judge Alan Goldsack pleased the police. 'It was a fantastic sentence,' said Chief Investigating Officer Sergeant Andy Hodgkinson.

But it was left to the relatives of the dead to voice the futility of it all and the realisation that 15 years in jail will not bring their loved ones back to life. 'I am glad he has got the amount of years he has, but it doesn't bring any of the victims back,' said Heather Rodgers, Diane Holmes' niece.

'We have all got life sentences as a result of what he has done,' said Jamie Holmes, 21, grieving the loss of his mother and two grandparents.

The weight of Noble's sentence has been hailed as a breakthrough by anti-drink-driving campaigners. As they see it, it means the law has recognised the massive shift in opinion on drink-driving, which is now thought of as unacceptable - whereas 30 years ago it was commonplace.

For Maria Cape, an activist with the Campaign Against Drink Driving, it goes a tiny way towards helping her cope with the loss of her 16-year-old daughter Helen, knocked over and killed by a drink driver as she was out jogging near Newcastle. 'It is what we have been fighting for. Too many others have just got off with seven or eight years,' Cape said.

Yet the frightening thing about Noble's case is that he is not unusual. Men like him - and serious drink drivers are usually men - can be found in pubs and bars across the country. Noble represents a small but persistent group of people who are seemingly immune to all the information on drink-driving that has swamped the nation for the last three decades. They form a dangerous subculture with little regard for life.

Most of them are between the age of 35 and 55. They have never left behind the time when having a lot to drink and then driving home was part of normal life. They are particularly prevalent in rural or semi-rural areas where public transport is limited and many houses are several miles' walk from the nearest pub.

As the drink-driving statistics fall year after year it is these hard-core drinkers that will persist and be hardest to tackle. 'There is no reason to think that a heavy sentence like this will deter these people. What would deter them would not be the size of the penalty, it would be a big increase in the chance of them getting caught,' said Andrew McNeill, co-director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

To this end, police are asking for greater powers. The Home Office is reviewing the law on traffic offences and police want the ability to be able to breathalyse people at random, without the need for prior suspicion that a driver is drunk. They also want the alcohol limit brought down from 80 milligrams to 50 milligrams, in line with all other European countries except Ireland, Italy and Luxembourg.

Without such measures, men like Noble will continue to escape the net. The annual British drink driving death toll of 420 victims will not fall much further.

One drinker in the Saxon pub where Noble and a few friends had begun their marathon drinking session, put it brutally. 'People of that generation and mindset will never change. They simply do not care about the law,' he said.

The original article can still be read on the Observer website here.

This is undoubtedly a dreadful and shocking case. The pattern of behaviour exhibited by Noble is one of those examined in Who are the High Risk Offenders? But it is hard to see what difference a lower legal limit would make, when Noble was clearly way over the current limit, and that was obvious to all his companions, and many of the bar staff in the pubs he had been visiting. An extension of police powers is similarly irrelevant when the limiting factor on breath tests is manpower, not legal restrictions. Given his high-profile behaviour, it is also hard to believe that the police were not aware that Noble was a regular drink-driver.

While Noble exhibited one recognised pattern of high-risk offending, the recent regrettable risk in drink-drive deaths is largely attributed to a younger, drug-taking, anti-authority group whose motivation is very different - as would be the tactics needed to detect and apprehend them.

In June 2002, the Court of Appeal reduced Noble's sentence from fifteen years to ten. See here for more details.

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