Claire Mercer spoke out as the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner branded them ‘endemically dangerous’.
Decision not to bring corporate manslaughter charges
Her husband Jason died on a stretch of ‘smart motorway’ on the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019, and she has been campaigning for them to be scrapped ever since.
The stretch of road on which Jason lost his life aged 44 has no hard shoulder, because what was the hard shoulder is used as an active lane as part of the conversion into a smart motorway.
In February this year, South Yorkshire Police said National Highways, which was called Highways England until a name change in September last year, would not be charged with corporate manslaughter over the crash that killed both Jason and 22-year-old Alexandru Murgeanu.
The force also made the same decision in the case of Sheffield grandmother Nargis Begum, who died on a stretch of the M1 without a hard shoulder in South Yorkshire in September 2018.
National Highways do not owe road users a ‘relevant duty of care,’ rule police
SYP concluded, after Crown Prosecution Service advice, that the organisation did not owe road users a ‘relevant duty of care’ under the terms set out in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
Following February’s announcement, Claire said she has met with South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings and DCI Philip Etheridge, but has now vowed to continue with her bid for a judicial review to be held into the decision not to bring corporate manslaughter charges.
“I’m not going to stop if it takes 10 years, if it takes 20 years,” said Claire.
She added: “It’s been three years and I feel like I haven’t grieved properly because I’ve been fighting.”
‘They introduced something endemically dangerous’
In response to Claire’s comments, Mr Billings described smart motorways as ‘endemically dangerous’ and called for the smart motorway near Meadowhall to be turned back into a ‘conventional motorway’.
“I don’t know whether her judicial review will succeed but it is my view that when Highways England/National Highways turned the M1 in South Yorkshire into a smart motorway they introduced something that was endemically dangerous,” he said.
"Smart motorways of the kind we have in South Yorkshire – where the hard shoulder is a live lane - near Meadowhall should be turned back to conventional motorway. This is what people want.”
Mr Billings continued: “I have every sympathy with Claire and I support her cause. The meeting I had with her was not to reach any decisions but to bring her and the police together so that she could hear directly from the police what their position was – which is what happened.”
In addition to calling for a judicial review, both on SYP’s decision not to pursue corporate manslaughter charges and on the basis that the decision made is ‘ableist’ because those with disabilities cannot be expected to climb over a barrier to safety if they break down on a smart motorway, Claire is also campaigning for a change in the wording of the law.
Claire is being represented by Sheffield law firm Irwin Mitchell and believes a change in the wording of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 could result in corporate manslaughter charges being brought against National Highways.
She said she is concerned that more people will die on smart motorways, while discussions around how safe they are continue.
Independent report ‘highlighted grave concerns,’ warns smart motorways lawyer
Helen Smith, a specialist smart motorways lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing Claire Mercer, said: “Claire as well as many others continue to have serious concerns about smart motorways and their safety.
“We keep on hearing worrying first-hand stories of how people are being seriously injured or killed on smart motorways, while the independent report we commissioned through road safety experts also highlighted grave concerns.
“We’re continuing to support families we represent, including Claire, and are determined to provide them with the answers they deserve through the civil courts.”
A coroner who examined the deaths of Jason and Mr Murgeanu concluded that smart motorways ‘present an ongoing risk of future deaths’.
Sheffield coroner David Urpeth recorded a conclusion of unlawful killing at their inquests and said: "I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy."
‘Safety is our top priority’
During a pre-inquest review into Nargis’ death at Doncaster Coroners’ Court on April 4, senior coroner Nicola Mundy was told by National Highways barrister Prashant Popat QC that National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris will be one of two witnesses from National Highways giving evidence at the inquest.
Mr Popat suggested this was indicative of how ‘seriously’ the firm was taking Nargis’ inquest.
Speaking after the pre-inquest review, Mr Harris, National Highways chief executive, said: “We have the deepest sympathy for the families of Jason Mercer, Alexandru Murgeanu and Nargis Begum. We hear, and understand, the strength of feeling around these tragic incidents.
“Safety is our top priority, and we are committed to continuing to make our network as safe as it can possibly be.
“We participated fully with South Yorkshire Police throughout their investigation, which has now been closed. We will continue to fully participate in the coronial inquest.”
‘Those who died have been at the heart of the whole process’
Detective Chief Inspector Phil Etheridge, senior investigating officer, added: "Our deepest sympathies continue to be with Claire and all of the families who have lost loved ones on the smart motorway in South Yorkshire.
"Over the last 12 months, a dedicated team of investigators has carried out a thorough and extensive scoping exercise focusing on the incidents which led to the tragic deaths of Nargis Begum, Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu. Throughout this period I have personally kept Claire and other family members updated with regular email correspondence, and we have met in person on a number of occasions at key points during the investigative process.
"I have truly valued Claire's engagement in our work. Those who died, and their loved ones, have been at the heart of the whole process and have been at the forefront of our minds.
"It would be inappropriate for me to comment further as legal and coronial proceedings are underway. However, I can confirm the comprehensive report into all of our findings throughout this investigation has now been completed and is due to be provided to senior coroner Nicola Mundy before the inquest into Mrs Begum's death resumes later this year."