SMART MOTORWAYS

Calls for urgent review of smart motorways as coroner rules they present ‘risk of future deaths’

It was found that the lack of hard shoulder on M1 contributed to ‘unlawful killings’ of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu

By Steve Bird18 January 2021 • 6:23pm

A coroner has called for an urgent review into the safety of smart motorways after finding that scrapping hard shoulders “presents an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

David Urpeth, South Yorkshire’s senior coroner, found the lack of a hard shoulder on the M1 contributed to the “unlawful killings” of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22.

The motorists had tucked their vehicles in on the inside live lane near Sheffield to exchange insurance details following a minor shunt between their cars on June 7, 2019.

Five minutes later, Prezemyslaw Szuba’s lorry ploughed into them at 56mph, killing the pair outright after the driver failed to take evasive action in the five seconds he had to spot them.

After holding the inquest into the men’s death, Mr Urpeth said he will write to Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, calling for a national “review or inquiry” to assess the threat smart motorways pose.

The coroner also rounded on Highways England and the Department for Transport for failing to educate motorists about how to use smart motorways. He said concerns over informing the public about how the network was being transformed were exacerbated by the “confusion” caused by a “hybrid” system of motorways, some with hard shoulders, and some without.

Referring to the 2019 crash in which Highways England failed to spot the stationary vehicles to close the lane to traffic, Mr 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 smart motorways, as they currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths. Accordingly, I propose to write to Highways England and the Secretary of State for Transport to raise the following points.

“Firstly, the obvious and foreseeable risk posed by the absence of a hard shoulder on smart motorways.

“Secondly, the confusion caused to motorists posed by having a mixture of smart motorways and traditional motorways.

“Thirdly, the need for better driver awareness on the use of smart motorways. 

“Fourthly, the need for Highways England to be able to identify stationary vehicles. The need for better driver awareness to, where possible, get over the crash barrier.”

He said such an inquiry could be given the powers to offer guidance to ministers and could then “have the opportunities of saving lives”.

The crash happened a mile from an emergency refuge area on a stretch of motorway where the hard shoulder had been turned into a fourth lane in 2017. 

The coroner said that while it was “unwise” it was also “understandable” the two men chose to stop to swap insurance details after a minor bump in the live lane.

He said it was “abundantly clear” motorists face a “hybrid” motorway system where the traditional three lanes with a hard shoulder can suddenly change to four lanes because the hard shoulder has been scrapped and emergency refuge areas built every mile so.

“I think many drivers do not understand the distinction between them both and how they should operate. To me that is not surprising because I don’t think we’ve seen enough education around their use. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything about how to use a smart motorway and that is a sad indictment on those who are meant to provide the training.”

However, the coroner added the “primary cause” of the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu was the dangerous driving of Szuba. The 40-year-old Polish lorry driver from Hull was jailed for 10 months in October for causing the deaths driving without due care and attention. 

Mr Urpth concluded both men, who died from multiple catastrophic injuries, were unlawfully killed. 

Since 2015, more than 40 people have died on smart motorways, a Freedom of Information request established. The Telegraph has repeatedly identified cases where motorists have broken down on live lanes of smart motorways but Highways England fails to spot them on its network of CCTV cameras or with a radar in time to prevent a vehicle ploughing into the back of them at high speed. 

Mrs Mercer, 44, and from Rotherham, was the first relative to speak to The Telegraph after losing her husband in this way. She is bringing a judicial review against the continued roll out of smart motorways, and is also urging South Yorkshire Police to consider prosecuting Highways England for corporate manslaughter.

She wept as the coroner delivered his ruling after a day-long hearing. 

Outside court she said: “It just reiterates what we’ve been saying for months – just how dangerous these roads are.

“It was not the result we were expecting but it’s very welcome and it’s going to help the campaign along.”

She added: “It was a shock. We always knew we were right but to hear someone else say it and in this setting and with this power behind them.

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