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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Fatal Error

Thomas Munch-Petersen

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Fatal Error

Title: Fatal Error
Author: Thomas Munch-Petersen
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 2003
Length: 188 pages
Availability: Fatal Error - UK
Fatal Error - Canada
  • Confessions of an Accidental Killer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-presented personal account, but limited perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator . 14/6/2003 Patrick Skene Catling
The Times . 26/7/2003 Christina Koning

  From the Reviews:
  • "The melodramatic subtitle of his book is misleading, for there is nothing confessional in the authorís manner. Profoundly regretful that his accident caused injury and fatalities, he insists, however, that an accident is an accident, not a crime. (...) The decent calm of Munch-Petersenís style gives way to angry indignation as he describes his experiences in custody." - Patrick Skene Catling, The Spectator

  • "The author's account of the months between his arrest on a charge of dangerous driving and his trial in July 2001 makes compelling reading. (...) . Unfortunately, the effect of this is to make the author seem more concerned with demonstrating his innocence than with expressing remorse for the fatalities that resulted from the accident." - Christina Koning, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On 10 April 2000 Thomas Munch-Petersen killed three people (one of whom was pregnant; the foetus also did not survive) and seriously injured a fourth -- a tally one suspects only a handful of others British citizens exceeded that year. For his actions he eventually served forty-five days in jail -- just over two weeks per life snuffed out. Fatal Error is his account of these events, from the fatal day through the trial and then his brief stint of incarceration.
       Munch-Petersen is not a murderer -- he did not set out to kill these people. Nevertheless, he managed to wipe out more people than most murderers do. He calls himself an "accidental killer", but he was certainly responsible for what occurred (though a good measure of very bad luck led to the horrific carnage). While driving (at 70 mph) on the M1 he reached for his jacket lying on the passenger seat, so as to then get a mint from the pocket. Reaching over he was inattentive for 1.96 seconds and, overcompensating for the car drifting in one direction, corrected too hard first in one then the other direction. End result: wham, bam, multi-car smash-up, three dead. Astonishingly, Munch-Petersen was able to step out of his car practically uninjured.
       In Fatal Error Munch-Petersen carefully describes the accident and its aftermath -- especially the aftermath: his daze in the days after, and then the legal issues which arose. (Interestingly, the only legal issue he focusses on is the criminal trial -- where his lawyers apparently were provided by his insurance company. All other legal issues -- such as financial restitution (if only for the banged-up cars) are not addressed; presumably (and quite surprisingly -- since Munch-Petersen was adjudged to be criminally liable for the accident) his insurance company took care of all that.)
       A few days after the accident Munch-Petersen received a 'Notice of intended prosecution', meaning that the local constabulary was considering pressing legal charges. Before he was officially interviewed by the police he and his lawyers also learnt that, by an amazing coincidence, the entire accident had been captured on tape by a Highways Agency car travelling right behind Munch-Petersen when it happened. (It is this tape that also clearly shows that Munch-Petersen had not been paying attention to the road for exactly 1.96 seconds.) The tape was obviously quite damning -- and the police had actually not intended to inform Munch-Petersen of its existence until after he had told his story (those sneaky fellows) -- but Munch-Petersen says that he was certain "only the truth would serve me", and that he was going to tell the truth as he remembered it in any case.
       Eventually there is a trial -- though it's quite some time before they manage to get around to that. Here Munch-Petersen must decide between pleading guilty (and hoping for some sentencing-leniency because of that) or risking what is likely to be a longer sentence if he doesn't win at trial. He's willing to plead guilty to careless driving, but not to causing death by dangerous driving; the prosecution thinks they can get him on the tougher charge and don't accept the offer -- but the jury learns of it. After the shortest of trials he is found guilty. A few weeks later he is sentenced: a letter from one of the victim's families saying they did not think a prison term would serve any purpose (and presumably the fact that the prosecution barrister couldn't even bothered to say a word as to why Munch-Petersen should be sent away for a good, long time) helped win him what was barely a token sentence: ninety days -- which, in the bizarre parlance of the British legal system, meant he "would be automatically released after forty-five". (He is also barred from driving -- but, despite having demonstrated that he is clearly a completely unfit driver, only for three years (one per person he killed ?). He does write that he plans never to drive again; one certainly hopes this is true.)
       Munch-Petersen also describes his prison-experiences. They apparently weren't very pleasant, but on the whole they certainly read as though they were harmless. No one got knifed, he didn't become anyone's sex-toy (not that one wishes that upon anyone, but compared to the prison horror-stories one usually hears his experiences certainly paint a very different picture). Indeed, except for not having his liberty, he lived in conditions of greater comfort than the majority of the world's population (not an entirely fair comparison, but when somebody has a television in his own private prison cell it's hard to feel too bad for him -- hell, he even walked out with a "£ 56 discharge grant").
       Throughout, Munch-Petersen describes how people react to him, what he did, and what he is going through. Many are supportive, though he isn't thrilled by how his university-employers act. He also suggests that he has been terribly shaken by the events, and tries to convey his overwhelming guilt and remorse. Most people are, apparently, ready and eager to believe him -- but then it's hard to imagine that he would (publicly) dare express anything else. (Killing innocent people and saying you don't feel bad about it generally does not go over well.)
       Much of Fatal Error is also devoted to his analysis and criticism of what he went through -- the police, the legal system, the prison system, and the British motor vehicle laws. He says he tamed down what he wrote from his first drafts, but he still has nasty things to say about all these -- many justified, some less so.
       Fatal Error is a solidly written account of some terrible (and some -- the prison term -- less terrible) events. It does make for an interesting read -- though often of the voyeuristic sort -- and Munch-Petersen does raise many important and significant issues (such as the delays in cases being brought to trial, or prison conditions). But .....

       The main problem with Fatal Error is the author's conviction -- not the legal conviction he was subject to, but rather his position on various matters. They are debatable, of course, but Munch-Petersen doesn't offer much room for debate -- and his fairly clever presentation obscures some of the issues.
       Among the jarring moments: when he is on his way to jail a letter summoning him for jury service arrives at his home. Obviously he can't serve -- but he then mentions: "I hope the disqualification stands for life". His explanation is that: "Having been on the receiving end of a jury verdict, I would hate to hold anyone else's fate in my hands." After all his griping about how slow the judicial process is it's disturbing to find that he doesn't even want to do the tiny part he as a citizen could. (We don't even want to imagine how he would respond to higher taxes being imposed on him to pay for an improved judicial and penal system.)
       Far worse, however, is his cavalier attitude towards the responsibility of operators of motor vehicles. He has no problem seeing his actions as an "accident", despite acknowledging some wrong-doing on his part, and he believes nothing is served by punishing the likes of him by imprisonment. He mentions that some people do believe he got off lightly, but doesn't wonder all too much about the arguments for harsher penalties against drivers who cause damage on the scale he has. He believes that because of his otherwise exemplary conduct (he wasn't intoxicated, wasn't speeding, had never been charged with a driving offence before or been in an accident) jailing him wasn't an appropriate punishment. He is convinced there is no deterrent effect to jailing drivers like him:

It is possible that harsh sentences have a deterrent effect in relation to drink-driving, but no motorist will drive more carefully himself because he reads of imprisonment for momentary misjudgement or inattention.
       Indeed, a common theme returns throughout the book -- printed in bold letters on the back cover, for example: "IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE...". Similarly, his barrister's final appeal to the jury at his trial is described as: "visceral -- this could be you in the dock."
       This is, perhaps, the most contentious point. Munch-Petersen makes much of the mere 1.96 seconds he wasn't paying attention. It sounds like it is just an instant, barely the blink of an eye. Surprisingly (or not) he never describes it in other terms: travelling at 70 mph he would have covered over 200 feet (over 60 metres) in that time -- an enormous distance to drive blindly.
       There are accidents and there are accidents. An astonishing number of people do die in household or workplace accidents -- slipping in the shower, falling off a ladder, and the like. But these can be put in a different category from motor vehicle "accidents" -- specifically because most of them only cause direct physical harm to the person having the accident. In the case of motor vehicle "accidents" the victims are usually innocent bystanders (and passengers, etc. -- though drivers often also cause themselves grave injury).
       Nevertheless, society gives a special dispensation to motor vehicles. Despite the fact that these are inherently dangerous devices -- projectiles weighing a ton and more that can move at extremely high speeds -- there are very lax licensing requirements to operate them, and there is even laxer enforcement of traffic laws. To cite only the most obvious example: as we understand it the basic and easiest to comprehend traffic law (even we get it !) is that one stops at a red light (and goes at a green light); nevertheless, most jurisdictions will not suspend the license of drivers who "run" a red light (much less make them take a remedial driving course) -- despite the fact that their actions clearly show them to be unfit to operate a motor vehicle. (The example is not trivial: a 1 September 2002 article in The New York Times cites a study by the New York City Comptroller's Office that found that in 2001: "drivers run red lights in New York some 1.2 million times each weekday" (emphasis added). The worst intersection was found to be that of 79th Street and Madison Avenue, where, during rush hour, there were an average of 56 violations per hour (i.e. practically one a minute). Need any more be said ?)
       Drivers of motor vehicles kill and injure a phenomenal number of people -- a fact Munch-Petersen never mentions (perhaps because it is indeed so widely taken for granted and accepted). Some of these do involve genuine accidents (a properly maintained tire nevertheless blowing, a child running after a ball darting into traffic etc.), but most occur because of at least some driver fault. Motor vehicle accidents dwarf almost all other non-disease-related causes of death. Nowhere near as many people are murdered as are killed by and in motor vehicles; even the far more popular (in most countries) suicide doesn't claim as many lives -- and neither do all other sorts of accidents combined. No, the car is by far the most popular modern instrument of death.
       The numbers are absolutely astonishing: the USDOT reported 2002 Highway Fatality Statistics of 42,815 (we're a bit unclear on the "highway" definition here, and hope dearly that that includes absolutely all roads and not just the federal highway system) -- "the highest level since 1990". Injuries numbered a mere 2.92 million. In Britain, in 2001, there were apparently 313,046 casualties of all types on Britain's roads, including 37,094 serious injuries and 3443 fatalities. And both the US and the UK actually have (relatively) miniscule rates of deaths per mile travelled or similar measures (rates that in much of the so-called developing world are often several orders of magnitude greater).
       Munch-Petersen thinks tough sentences might have a deterrent effect on drivers who drive while intoxicated, but one wonders: in the US, despite (supposedly) tough driving-under-the-influence laws one finds that: "Alcohol-related fatalities remained at 41 percent of the total with 17,419 deaths in 2002". This doesn't mean that the deterrent-effect isn't there -- if laws weren't so tough alcohol-related fatalities might be several times worse. What it suggests instead is that there's a fundamental problem of lax laws and lax enforcement. (The US is, of course, particularly nutty regarding its love of the automobile -- there are still a few states where it is legal to drink while you drive (as long as your blood-alcohol level remains below the legal limit).)
       The basic problem, as we see it, is that the standard for operating a motor vehicle is far too low. Operating a machine that is so easily capable of mass-slaughter is -- or should be -- an enormous responsibility, but instead citizens take it as a god-given right. The motor vehicle is clearly something the operation of which requires strict government control, in particular as it is a device that so readily (and incredibly frequently) causes serious damage to those other than the driver. If it were just motor vehicle operators getting themselves killed there might be a case for allowing such personal assumption of risk, but since so-called motor vehicle accidents tend to cause more harm to other property and persons the state has both an interest and a duty to protect its citizens; it has obviously failed in this regard.
       People appear to believe that easy access to driving privileges (and lax laws and enforcement allowing driver to remain licensed even if and when they fail to obey the most basic traffic laws) is a right they deserve. This seems a highly questionable assumption - but certainly those behind the wheel want to keep their hold on it, if for no other reason than they (probably correctly) feel safest there.
       Much of the problem stems from the fact that traffic laws are considered essentially unobeyable: almost no driver doesn't speed on occasion, and a few minutes of observation at any city intersection are almost guaranteed to yield several drivers who don't signal properly, don't yield properly (as well as probably drivers who exceed city speed limits (our favourites are the ones who floor the accelerator when the light turns yellow) and run lights). Almost no one drives according to the letter of the law, considering it almost impossible to do so -- a disconnect costing, worldwide, hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in economic losses. These people obviously should not be permitted to operate motor vehicles -- and yet no one seriously argues for such a position. In addition a vast number of drivers are simply unfit to drive -- the staggering number of cases of drivers (generally of a more advanced age) who mistake the accelerator for the brake (or at least who claim to) and plow through pedestrians and the like suggests something is very wrong -- but most simply accept these incidents as accidents -- oops ! another dozen dead, oh well.
       Airplane pilots are held to much higher standards; not surprisingly airplane-related fatalities are much lower (no matter how one calculates them, whether my passenger-mile travelled or otherwise). The argument is perhaps that planes can cause much greater damage and affect more people, and the pilot has a duty to his passengers, but most of this applies to motor vehicles as well. Admittedly the per-vehicle possibility of carnage is greater with commercial airplanes (though not small private planes, which generally cause no more damage to passengers and on the ground when they crash than many motor vehicle accidents), but given the total destruction motor vehicles wreak (and how little, in fact, airplanes do) there is no reasonable explanation why regulations governing the operation of motor vehicle aren't brought into line with the much tougher standards for airplane-operation.

       Another factor at play is that while society generally claims to value the preservation of life above almost all else this is clearly not true. For the greater good of being able to drive cars as one pleases society is willing to sacrifice a huge percentage of its own. The comparisons to homicide are illuminating. Murder, it is generally agreed, is a very bad thing. There's little debate about that, and punishments are appropriately severe for those who commit this act (whether for deterrent effect or otherwise). But murder is the cause of far, far fewer deaths than motor vehicle "accidents" (the majority of which are far from true accidents, involving considerable driver contribution -- whether through drink or carelessness or other actions). So clearly it's not life that's valued above all else -- and not even the right to avoid having your life taken by another (since that's usually what happens in motor vehicle "accidents"). (Munch-Petersen killed more people than most murderers; he did not do so on purpose, but those were the results and, since his crash was not truly accidental (there's no doubt he caused it -- and did so by behaving incredibly foolishly) it isn't clear why he should not be punished like anyone else who takes three innocent lives.)
       Surely, one of society's great ambitions should be to insure the safety and welfare of it's citizens. Allowing people to kill other people -- by any means -- is something that should be thwarted by any means possible. A different attitude towards those who drive carelessly, negligently, or in a manner that is not within the bounds prescribed by the law is called for -- and they should be punished appropriately. (There have, admittedly, been great strides in punishing those who drive while intoxicated or under the influence (of something they shouldn't be), but obviously these drivers are just the tip of the iceberg -- and equally obviously an astonishing number haven't been dissuaded of pursuing such activity despite the rather harsh penalties involved.)
       Munch-Petersen argues that there's little point to jailing someone guilty of an offence like his. Possibly so. But it's an argument that applies to many interred criminals.
       Munch-Petersen believes that there would be no deterrent effect if the likes of him were jailed for greater lengths of time. This seems unlikely. There continue to be a very large number of people who commit murder -- and who drive while intoxicated -- despite the relatively severe punishments they face if caught. Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that the punishments do have a deterrent effect, and that larger numbers of people would murder and drive drunk if the punishments were of the slap-on-the-wrist sort Munch-Petersen received (in addition to which it gets those who have proven themselves capable of these actions off the street, preventing them from committing these acts (at least among the general population -- murderers can still murder behind bars)).
       If Munch-Petersen got a token stiff penalty, to set an example, it probably would have little deterrent effect; but if the law cracked down on drivers who "accidentally" kill (with mandatory jail sentences of say at least a year (i.e. at least two years in Britain, where one apparently gets out at half-time)) that would surely begin to weigh on some drivers' minds.
       Munch-Petersen makes a good deal of his clean driving record -- but that hardly seems worth much when he was still willing to act in such an incredibly irresponsible manner while behind the wheel. It was bad luck that he took out so many people -- and incredibly good luck that he did so little harm to himself -- but certainly the final body tally seems a good point at which to start deciding how severely to punish him. It bears repeating: he killed three people, which is more than all but a handful of people manage to (on purpose or not) in any given year -- indeed, it's a pretty impressive tally for a lifetime.
       Maneuvering a one or several ton object at speeds of 70 mph is not something to take lightly -- though, of course, most drivers do. Punishing the likes of Munch-Petersen severely -- removing them from society for a considerable portion of their remaining natural lives -- seems an excellent first step to sending a message that driving a car (in practically any manner one pleases) is not a near-automatic right of every citizen, but rather that it involves incredible responsibility, and that failure to live up to that responsibility will be appropriately harshly judged.
       In some ways it would be a waste to send Munch-Petersen to prison for say a decade or two -- but it would be the same waste were he sentenced for the same term after having gone out and strangled three strangers, just for the hell of it (or, say, for a mint). (Funnily, far fewer people would protest a long sentence in the latter case than the former.) The point is he did something so terrible and literally wrecked so many lives that he is worth being made an example and sacrifice of. He did not set out to kill -- which does make him considerably better than a murderer -- but he acted with such callous indifference to life and so recklessly in a situation where catastrophic consequences were at the very least foreseeable and, in fact, likely (try closing your eyes as you drive 200 feet on a crowded highway at 70 mph while leaning over to one side and see what happens). To put him in prison is a waste, but that's part of the point of the legal system too. And it doesn't compare to all that he wasted, due to his actions.

       In the so-called developing world it is not unusual for crowds to attack cars and pull drivers from them after fatal motor vehicle "accidents" (which, on a per-mile-travelled and per-vehicle basis are far more frequent occurrences there than in the US and Europe), and for the crowds to lynch the drivers. This is, of course, entirely unacceptable, but it is a demonstration of the citizens' frustration with the local legal systems that they know will not provide any sort of justice under these circumstances otherwise. (In the so-called developing world, as everywhere, the car is holy and the law bends over backward to protect it and its operators.)
       In the so-called developed world almost of society has become so beholden to the personal motor vehicle that the imposition of any sort of real punishment for even the most heinous motor vehicle-related "accidents" doesn't even seem to occur to anyone (an exception being driving while intoxicated -- though even here definitions are fuzzy (driving while a bit intoxicated is generally still considered okay and, as we mentioned, in the US there are still states where it is legal to drive while you drink alcohol)). A slap on the wrist is the most that citizens expect to be handed out for even the most egregious mass-killings such as that for which Munch-Petersen was responsible. Part of that may very well be due to the very fear that Munch-Petersen expresses throughout Fatal Error, the notion that: it could have happened to you. It's an outrageous attempt to absolve himself of his guilt (and to push some on his readers). It could happen to you -- if you drive in an irresponsible manner and take your eyes off the road for 1.96 seconds at a time while travelling at 70 mph -- but anyone willing to do that has no business being behind the wheel of a car in the first place.

       Far too many people who shouldn't drive are allowed to, and far too many people take driving far too lightly. In addition, law enforcement of even the traffic laws that are on the books is a joke. Munch-Petersen doesn't appear to see any of that -- and neither, one fears, do most of his readers, who quite possibly really will just think (and who will, sadly, be correct in thinking that): it could have been me.
       Maybe Fatal Error will give readers enough pause to think twice before they take their eyes off the road next time they're on the M1 (or I-95, or wherever). On the other hand, given how lightly Munch-Petersen got off, maybe they'll just think: what the hell ? and lean over to go through the pockets of the jacket lying on the passenger side (or on the backseat) at a leisurely pace, not worried about the accidents they might cause and the people they might kill.

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Fatal Error:
  • Report on the case at the BBC

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About the Author:

       Thomas Munch-Petersen taught at University College, London. He passed away in 2016.

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