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January 18th 2021

Inquests

Widow of man killed on smart motorway welcomes Coroner’s call for wider investigation into their safety

Dr Neil Hudgell

Dr Neil Hudgell

Executive Chairman

Widow of man killed on smart motorway welcomes Coroner’s call for wider investigation into their safety

The widow of a man killed on a ‘smart motorway’ today thanked a Coroner for calling for a review into their safety.

The widow of a man killed on a ‘smart motorway’ today thanked a Coroner for calling for a review into their safety.

It follows the inquest into the death of Jason Mercer, 44, and 22 year-old Alexandru Murgeanu, who were killed when a lorry ploughed into their stationary vehicles on the M1 near Sheffield, on June 7 2019.

Building contracts manager Mr Mercer had been driving to work when he was involved in a minor collision with Mr Murgeanu. They pulled to the side of the motorway to exchange details and check their vehicles, but that stretch of the road had become a ‘smart motorway’, with the former hard shoulder turned into an active lane.

The inquest, at Sheffield Town Hall, heard that the crash which killed both men would likely have been avoided had the road been a regular motorway with a hard shoulder still in place.

In the last five years, 44 people have died on similar ‘smart motorways’. They operate by either opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion (dynamic motorways), or have the hard shoulder permanently removed and used by traffic (all lanes running motorways).

When accidents occur CCTV cameras and technology are meant to detect slowing traffic quickly, allowing speed limits to be changed and one or more lanes closed by using overhead or verge-mounted ‘X’ signs.

Drivers in difficulty are expected to use ‘emergency refuge areas’ (ERAs) at the side of the carriageway which are spaced around one-and-a-half miles apart.

However, the AA has published data from Highways England in 2019 which said that on average it took 17 minutes and one second for a stationary vehicle in a live lane to be spotted.

Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu had been stopped for six minutes when they were hit.

Coroner David Urpeth concluded that the two men had been unlawfully killed, and said that the operation of the smart motorway system had been a contributing factor.

“After more than a year-and-a-half campaigning I today feel that somebody has listened and finally taken steps to address the use of these death trap roads,” said Mrs Mercer, of Rotherham, afterwards.

“Ever since Jason died I have been determined to bring about change to ensure more families don’t go through the heartbreak of losing a loved one by the completely nonsensical removal of hard shoulders on busy motorways.

“I am grateful to the Coroner for finally calling for a wider review of the use of ‘smart motorways’ and for his conclusion that the way they operate was a contributory factor in Jason’s death.

“He also, quite rightly, highlighted how many members of the public have no knowledge or understanding of ‘smart motorways’ and how they work, and this makes them all the more dangerous for everybody using them.

“I am certain that Jason himself, who was a very careful and conscientious driver, had no idea what a smart motorway was. Ask 100 people today and 90 are likely to not have heard anything about them.

“That means that if people break down on one of these motorways, like Jason, they’ll have no idea where to go. There is no escape. These are not smart roads, they are death traps.

“Jason would not have known what to do when discovering the hard shoulder was not there, or the true scale of danger he was in until he was in the live lane stranded. Not only are these roads dangerous but we have also heard that the technology just simply isn’t up to standard to make them safe.

“Can you imagine the absolute horror of being on a motorway having broken down with no dedicated safe area to pull into and with vehicles hurtling towards you? Equally, can you imagine being a driver, who like the man driving the lorry which crashed into Jason and Alexandru, suddenly sees a stranded vehicle in their path? Imagine living with the thought of killing somebody. It’s horrendous.

“We are humans. We make mistakes on the roads and we need somewhere to get safe.

“I want to thank my legal team, Neil Hudgell at Hudgell Solicitors, and Jason Pitter QC, of New Park Court Chambers, for supporting me in ensuring this matter has not been brushed under the carpet.

“It should never be about reports on traffic flows and congestion reduction, but focussed on the lives and safety of all who drive on these motorways. We have taken a first step today to protecting the lives of others. For that I am delighted.”

Lawyer says use of current smart motorways must now be reviewed, with no more opened

Mr Hudgell says the Government must now immediately consider the use of smart motorways currently in operation.

“We are very grateful to the Coroner for the recommendations he has made and certainly for his call for a wider review into the safety of smart motorways. This is something we feel must be conducted through a Public Inquiry where all reviews of such roads, and the life-costing accidents which have taken place, can be considered,” he said.

“This inquest highlighted many areas of concern over smart motorways which, until now, have been blindly ignored by the authorities. Even today the Coroner felt compelled to comment on the evidence given by Highways England’s head of design as being “defensive” and “not compelling”.

“Perhaps most telling of all was the opinion of expert witnesses that on the balance of probabilities, had there been a hard shoulder in place, this accident would have been prevented. Indeed, the changes on this stretch of motorway have increased the risk to vehicles which experience problems and are left stationary, rather than make it safer.

“Highways England has previously admitted that the dangers of removing hard shoulders were not fully investigated when these motorways started to be introduced and despite the Government pledging to improve their safety, the fact is they are not doing enough, quickly enough.

“It is time to act now and we believe that all plans for more ‘smart motorways’ need to be put on hold until a Public Inquiry is concluded.

“If ‘smart motorways’ continue in their present format to be allowed to operate, there will be continued deaths, and no doubt at some point an accident catastrophic in the number of people either seriously injured or killed in a single incident.

“At the very minimum, there needs to be an immediate public awareness campaign launched to make sure everybody is aware of smart motorways and how they operate, and the use of systems to ensure automatic detection of stationary vehicles can’t come soon enough.

“As the coroner commented the lack of awareness of the operation of smart motorways is a “sad indictment on those providing training”.

South Yorkshire Coroner recently warned Highways England of potential criminal case

Last month, South Yorkshire Coroner Nicola Mundy said she was considering referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in connection with the death of Nargis Begum, 62, who was also killed on the M1.

At a pre-inquest review the coroner heard more than 16 minutes elapsed between her husband’s car breaking down and another vehicle crashing into them, plus a further six minutes before warning signs were activated.

Following Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu’s death, lorry driver Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba, 40, was jailed after being prosecuted for causing death by driving without due care and attention.

At the sentencing, Judge Jeremy Richardson QC even questioned the removal of hard shoulders, saying he viewed them in a similar way to emergency doors on aeroplanes or lifeboats on ships.

Mrs Mercer has always said she felt that it wrong to prosecute the lorry driver.

“I saw him at court the day he was sentenced and I told him he wasn’t to blame,” she said.

“It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t a smart motorway. He didn’t get up that morning intending to kill two people. He just didn’t react in time. He told me he had been more scared of seeing me face to face than whatever sentence the court could give him because he considered himself a murderer. He wasn’t, and I told him he wasn’t, but that’s how he felt.

“Jason was my world and we had 13 wonderful years together. I am angry at how he was taken from me. He was a truly wonderful, multi-dimensional, loving, entertaining and strong character, a real punk with his shaved head and spiked hair, but he was responsible at the wheel and that’s why he stopped to do the right thing.

“I won’t accept anything other than the hard shoulder being reintroduced on every single motorway.”

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