Highways England could face manslaughter charges over Sheffield woman's smart motorway death

Criminal charges could be brought over a Sheffield woman’s death on a section of smart motorway.

Thursday, 11th February 2021, 6:54 pm

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 left a broken-down Nissan Qashqai and was waiting for help when another vehicle collided with the Nissan, sending it crashing into her.

A coroner investigating the tragedy has now referred Highways England, the Government-owned company responsible for maintaining the nation’s motorways, to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate.

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Sheffield grandmother Nargis Begum, who died on a stretch of smart motorway in South Yorkshire, with her husband Mohammed Bashir

At a pre-inquest review hearing at Doncaster Coroner’s Court on Thursday, senior coroner Nicola Mundy said the length of time the stationary vehicle went undetected was among the reasons for her decision.

She was told at a previous hearing that 16 minutes elapsed between the Nissan breaking down and the collision.

It took a further six minutes before warning signs were activated.

Outlining other factors in her referral of the case to the CPS, Ms Mundy described how ‘nobody has responsibility for monitoring cameras’ relaying footage of smart motorways.

She added that there is a ‘distinct lack of knowledge and education of drivers in the region’ in relation to how the ‘onus is on them’ to report incidents.

Companies found guilty of corporate manslaughter face unlimited fines, according to the Sentencing Council.

A spokesman for Highways England said it did not believe the company had committed any offence but that it would ‘cooperate fully in any investigation.”

The Nissan was being driven by Mrs Begum’s husband, Mohammed Bashir, 67, when it broke down.

Their daughter Saima Aktar said the last two years had been ‘incredibly difficult’ and the family would continue to campaign for ‘action to be taken around the use of smart motorways’.

“We’re pleased that the coroner has taken our concerns seriously and has referred our Mum’s death to the CPS,” she added.

Nicholas Chapman, representing Highways England, told the hearing there was ‘no policy for the constant monitoring of motorways’.

He said footage from a CCTV camera covering the scene of the crash was relayed to a ‘busy’ regional control centre staffed by ‘seven or eight’ people.

He added that there is no evidence that any of the operators were ‘aware of the stationary vehicle and decided to ignore it’ or did ‘anything else other than conscientiously go about their duties’.

Speaking after the hearing, Christopher Kardajhi, representing Mrs Begum’s family, said they had a ‘number of concerns’ about the use of smart motorways.

“All the family want is for no stone to be left unturned and the most thorough and transparent investigation to be held examining all of the facts so all possible lessons can be learned,” he added.

AA president Edmund King called the ruling a ‘significant moment’ for smart motorways which ‘highlighted many failings previously raised’ by the organisation.

Last month, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth concluded that the lack of a hard shoulder had contributed to the deaths of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019.

Following that inquest, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps calling for smart motorways to be scrapped.