March 1st 2021

Inquests

Further calls to investigate Highways England over Smart Motorways deaths as widow says each future loss of life will be ‘blood on hands’

Dr Neil Hudgell

Dr Neil Hudgell

Executive Chairman

Further calls to investigate Highways England over Smart Motorways deaths as widow says each future loss of life will be ‘blood on hands’

Hudgell Solicitors have written to South Yorkshire Police saying the force must consider investigating Highways England in another case relating to deaths on a smart motorway stretch of the M1.

Hudgell Solicitors have written to South Yorkshire Police saying the force must consider investigating Highways England in another case relating to deaths on a smart motorway stretch of the M1.

Coroner Nicola Mundy last month referred the case relating to the death of 62-year-old grandmother Nargis Begum to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges against the Government body are appropriate.

It came after she heard at a pre-inquest review how Mrs Begum died on a stretch of the M1 without a hard shoulder in September 2018, having waited for help for more than 16 minutes and 21 seconds without the lane being closed to make it safe.

Now, the solicitor acting on behalf of Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason, 44, died on the same motorway in June 2019 when he was hit by a lorry in a former hard shoulder which had been converted into a live lane, says he has also written to South Yorkshire Police Chief Constable Stephen Watson demanding the same.

It comes as the Government faces increasing calls to scrap the network of motorways – which it has plans to expand – as latest statistics have shown that the number of fatalities has risen to a record high.

Last year’s Stats-19 accident database, which provides statistics on road accidents that are reported to the police, has shown there were 14 deaths on the controversial highways in 2019 and 11 deaths in 2018.

The data, which was collected by the Department for Transport (DfT) also revealed that five people died on the new stretches of motorway in 2017, and that the number of people who have died on them has surged from one every 43 miles in 2016 to one every 17 miles in 2019.

Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, said: “Claire previously sought to initiate a complaint to the police about Highways England not having being investigated in relation to Jason’s death and it was not actioned without reason.

“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 coroner stopped short of referring the case to the CPS at the inquest into Jason’s death, but he recorded a verdict that it was unlawful killing and said the operation of the smart motorway system had been a contributing factor. He also made it clear that there was a risk of future deaths unless the way the roads are operated, and understood by drivers, is improved.

“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.

“It is has been demonstrated by statistics that the risks presented by stationary vehicles have increased by the use of smart motorways.

“All of these facts ought to have been known before the death of Jason. On this particular stretch of motorway since inception the dangers to life and limb have increased, and this is a fact acknowledged by Highways England representatives.

“Future risk to drivers is indisputable too.”

Widow says future deaths will be ‘blood on hands’ of Government

Mr Mercer’s widow, Claire, who objected to the driver of the lorry which crashed into her husband and killed him being blamed and prosecuted, has called for the smart motorways to be scrapped and says each future death now be ‘blood on the hands’ of the Government.

She will mark what would have been Jason’s 46th birthday tomorrow (Tuesday, March 2) by arranging for a giant mobile screen outside South Yorkshire Police’s headquarters in Sheffield, calling on them to prosecute Highways England over his death.

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,” she said.

“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.”

Following a review last year the Government committed to delivering an 18 point improvement programme across the smart motorways network, including substantially speeding up the deployment of “stopped vehicle detection” – a radar-based system which spots stationary vehicles and allows for lane closures.

However, Mr Hudgell added: “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.”

Last week, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings called upon Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Highways England to ‘abandon this type of smart motorway before we have more serious injuries or fatalities.”

Referring to the particular stretch of the M1, he added: “I do not believe there is anyone who uses this stretch of the motorway, as I do, who does not feel anxious when driving along it.”

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