A widow who believes Highways England should be prosecuted over the death of her husband on a smart motorway is today staging a protest outside a police headquarters.
Claire Mercer, 44, said future deaths ‘will be blood on the hands of the people running our roads’ as she prepared to mark what would have been her husband Jason’s 46th birthday by placing a giant screen outside South Yorkshire Police’s HQ.
Mr Mercer died on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder – along with another motorist, Alexandru Murgeanu – when a lorry ploughed into them in June 2019.
At an inquest in January, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said: ‘I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.’
He added: ‘I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.’
A month later, Doncaster coroner Nicola Mundy referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate in relation to the death of grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, who died on a different stretch of the M1 in September 2018.
Mrs Mercer’s lawyers have now written to South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable, Stephen Watson, demanding the same happens in her husband’s case.
Claire Mercer, 44, whose husband Jason was killed on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder in June 2019
She will today mark what would have been her husband’s 46th birthday by placing a giant screen outside South Yorkshire Police’s HQ
She said: ‘The message has been sent loud and clear, these roads are death traps in the way they are operated and managed.
‘Two coroners have now highlighted the dangers within the past couple of months.
‘Now statistics are further proving the case but now we need action. Every future death involving stationary vehicles on roads which were previously hard shoulders will be blood on the hands of the people running our roads.’
Last week, the Commons transport committee began an inquiry into the safety of smart motorways after it emerged that deaths rose to a record 14 in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and five in 2017.
Smart motorways are controversial because their hard shoulder is either scrapped permanently – known as ‘all-lane running’ – or operates as an additional part-time lane of traffic during peak hours – a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’.
As a result, broken down vehicles can become stranded in a live lane of traffic.
Highways England suggested yesterday the problem was that drivers did not understand how the roads work.
Mr Mercer (left with Claire) died alongside another motorist, Alexandru Murgeanu (right), when a lorry ploughed into their stationary vehicles on the M1 near Sheffield on June 7, 2019
Last week, the Commons transport committee began an inquiry into the safety of smart motorways after it emerged that deaths rose to a record 14 in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and five in 2017. Pictured: The scene after the crash in June 2019
Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, said the wrong person had been jailed when lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba was given a 10-month sentence last year after crashing into her husband and Mr Murgeanu.
Her solicitor, Neil Hudgell, said: ‘Our client feels strongly that there is a case to answer for the offence of corporate manslaughter in relation to Jason’s death and we have written to the chief constable stating just that.
‘The fact is that Highways England has been aware of the obvious risk of removing hard shoulders on motorways, yet has continued to expand this network.
‘Highways England can’t be allowed to simply see the deaths of Jason, Mrs Begum and so many others as statistics. It can’t be right for people to die in the future on these roads only to become a statistic too.
‘Our client strongly believes that hard shoulders must be reintroduced on these motorways until evidence proves they can be operated safely when incidents occur and drivers need to take refuge in a safe space.’
Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, said the wrong person had been jailed when lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba was given a 10-month sentence last year after crashing into her husband and Mr Murgeanu
It was a move ordered by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (pictured) last year after a review ordered reported back on how to make them safer
Last month, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings said he would ‘strongly urge’ Highways England and the Department for Transport to think again about smart motorways following another serious injury collision on the M1.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps published a smart motorways action plan in March last year.
At the time, he said evidence shows ‘in most ways smart motorways are as safe as or safer than conventional ones’ but accepted ‘there is more we can do to raise the bar’ on safety.
Awful toll of roads where drivers who break down have no escape
The grandmother, 62, died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018.
Mrs Begum was being driven by husband Mohammed Bashir, 67. They left their Nissan Qashqai to wait for help but another car hit the vehicle, sending it into her.
A pre-inquest review hearing in December was told that warning signs on the motorway had not been activated in time to stop drivers entering the lane where the couple had broken down.
A coroner is considering referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service in what would be a landmark case.
The eight-year-old was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family’s car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane.
At the inquest into the youngster’s death, coroner Emma Brown expressed concerns about the ‘risk to life from the loss of the hard shoulder’.
After the inquest his mother Meera, from Leicester, said that without changes, she believes smart motorways ‘still continue to pose threats to lives on a daily basis’.
SEVIM AND AYSE USTUN
Sevim Ustun, 49, and mother-in-law Ayse Ustun, 68, died after their family car broke down on the M25 in Essex in 2018 and was struck by a lorry.
Overhead gantry signs did not close the lane or warn of a broken down vehicle. A ten-year-old girl also suffered life-changing injuries. Police were urged to prosecute Highways England for corporate manslaughter.
The retired engineer, 83, was killed after pulling up when his car had tyre problems on the M1 in north Derbyshire in 2019.
His Volkswagen Crafter van came to a halt in the first lane of the motorway, formerly the hard shoulder. It was hit by a Ford Ka, which was then struck by a coach.
His widow Sally said: ‘If there had been a hard shoulder, my husband would still be alive.’
South Yorkshire Police (SYP) said in a statement: ‘As previously reported, South Yorkshire Police is in the process of obtaining all evidence the coroners had reference to at the inquests into the deaths of Mr Jason Mercer, Mr Alexandru Murgeanu and Mrs Nargis Begum.
‘A Senior Investigating Officer has been assigned to this matter, and will be overseeing the review of all the materials obtained. At this time, we have not yet received the evidence from Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu’s inquest.
‘This activity will allow SYP to ascertain whether a crime has been committed, with a view to the possible commencement of criminal proceedings.
‘SYP remains in close consultation with the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Services.’
A Highways England spokesman said: ‘It would be inappropriate for Highways England to provide comment on the activity of South Yorkshire Police.’
It comes as road bosses yesterday announced plans to include smart motorways in the Highway Code – a year after the Transport Secretary told them to.
The Government-owned company responsible for England’s motorways said it was starting a four-week consultation for motorists to submit ideas about what information should be included.
Jeremy Phillips, head of road safety, said the update was about helping ‘motorists understand exactly how modern motorways and high-speed roads operate’, adding: ‘The updated edition will help inform the next generation of road users, as well as giving important updates to those with many miles under their belt, to help us all stay safer.’
However, Mrs Mercer branded the development ‘insulting’.
The widow, who is campaigning for all hard shoulders to be restored, said: ‘They keep referring to “educating users”, but how do you educate someone who’s broken down in a car in a live lane of traffic with lorries zooming past? We need action that will result in tangible change. Everyone keeps saying, “It’s not my responsibility”.
‘Apparently, even the Secretary of State for Transport can’t do anything. He always says he inherited smart motorways.
‘Scrapping them never seems to be on the agenda.
‘This change to the Highway Code is just too little, too late. There’s 44 people dead already. The fact it’s taken them a year is even more ridiculous.’
Proposed changes to the code include advice on what to do if you break down in a live lane, explaining smart motorway signs such as the red X to warn of broken-down vehicles ahead, and how to safely use emergency refuge areas where drivers in trouble can pull.
But these are up to 1.5 miles apart, which campaigners say is too far and means motorists cannot always reach them.
A review ordered by Mr Shapps reported back last March on how to make them safer. One of the 18 recommendations called for ‘an update of the Highway Code to provide more guidance’.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: ‘The safety of drivers and passengers using these routes remains the Transport Secretary’s personal priority.
‘He will press Highways England to deliver improvements as soon as possible.’
Smart motorways have claimed at least 38 lives over five years: Here’s what you need to know
What is a smart motorway?
Smart motorways involve a range of methods to manage traffic flow, most controversially using the hard shoulder as a live running lane.
Refuges where drivers can stop are placed every mile or so. Variable speed limits are also used.
How many are there?
Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62. The smart network stretches to around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.
There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways
What are the benefits?
Smart motorways are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.
But are they safe?
Concerns have been raised about incidents where stopped vehicles are hit from behind. Highways England has insisted smart motorways are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’.
But a survey of drivers by the RAC found 70 per cent felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromised safety.
How many have died?
BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over the previous five years.
What do officials say?
An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last March stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways.
But the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was found to be higher when the hard shoulder was removed.
An 18-point action plan included more refuges for emergencies and faster rollout of a radar-based system to spot stranded vehicles.
Are smart motorways used in other European countries?
The vast majority of motorway-style roads in Europe have a permanent emergency lane.