Hopes raised for prosecution over smart motorways as South Yorkshire Police review death crash evidence

Campaigners fighting for smart motorways to be scrapped hope a police review of death crashes near Sheffield will result in Highways England being prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.

Monday, 17th May 2021, 6:09 am

South Yorkshire Police confirmed today that an official review has started into two fatal crashes on stretches of the M1 near Sheffield.

Officers are reviewing evidence surrounding the crashes and reports which were presented and referred to at inquests into the deaths of those killed in the collisions.

Claire Mercer, who set up the Smart Motorways Kill campaign group after her husband Jason was killed in a collision, wants Highways England to be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter for allowing smart motorways to be introduced and allowing them to continue to operate despite safety concerns.

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Traffic on the M1 smart motorway near Sheffield

There are no hard shoulders on smart motorways to reduce traffic congestion, resulting in broken down vehicles often having to be abandoned in a live lane if they are unable to pull over into refuge areas dotted along the side of the road.

Jason Mercer, 44, from Rotherham and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, from Mansfield, were killed when a lorry crashed into them after they stopped to exchange details following a minor collision where there is no hard shoulder near Sheffield in June 2019.

After an inquest into the deaths, Coroner David Urpeth vowed to write to Highways England and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps asking for a review of smart motorways after ruling that the lack of a hard shoulder ‘contributed’ to the deaths.

Mrs Mercer’s lawyers wrote to South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable, Stephen Watson, demanding an investigation.

Nargis Begum, a 62-year-old grandmother from Sheffield, died on a stretch of the M1 without a hard shoulder near Woodall services in September 2018.

The mother-of-five, who had nine grandchildren, had got out of her husband’s broken-down Nissan Qashqai and was waiting for help to arrive when another vehicle collided with the Nissan, sending it crashing into her.

At a pre-inquest hearing, Coroner Nicola Mundy referred Highways England, the Government-owned company responsible for maintaining the nation’s motorways, to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate.

She said the length of time the stationary vehicle went undetected by cameras was among the reasons for her decision.

South Yorkshire Police said: “South Yorkshire Police has now obtained 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 is overseeing the review of all the materials obtained.

“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 Crown Prosecution Services and the Health and Safety Executive.”

Jason Mercer’s wife, Claire, said: “This could be a long road but at least we are now on it.

“Setting up a police team to investigate is a very important step and the possible prosecution of Highways England would be unprecedented.

“The police will have to prove that Highways England knew the extent of the danger of smart motorways and persisted with them regardless.

“This is about saving lives so that no other families have to suffer like we have.”

Highways England said: “Our deepest sympathies remain with the friends and families of those who have lost their lives on our roads.

“We will of course cooperate fully in any investigation. Every road death is a tragic loss of life and we are absolutely committed to making our roads as safe as possible.”

Highways England said it was informed of the police investigation into the death of Mrs Begum on May 12 but has not yet heard from the force regarding the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu.

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