Smart motorways present ‘ongoing risk of future deaths’

Smart motorways “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”, a coroner has concluded, following the death of two men on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, deaths was the careless driving of lorry driver, Prezemyslaw Szuba.

An inquest was told the lorry driver ploughed into their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one following a minor shunt.

But, recording a conclusion of unlawful killing, Mr Urpeth said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”

The coroner said he will be writing to Highways England and Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps recommending a review of smart motorways.

He told an inquest at Sheffield town hall: “I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.”

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smart motorways present ongoing risk of future deaths - Smart motorways present 'ongoing risk of future deaths'
A smart motorway red X sign in operation
(Image: Highways England)

Mr Urpeth said it was not his role to conduct a public inquiry into smart motorways, but outlined a number of areas he believed should be considered by the Government and Highways England.

With hindsight it was clear that Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu should have continued to a refuge on the motorway, which was about a mile further north, rather than exchange details at the side of the live lane, said Mr Urpeth.

But he added: “Although unwise, I think their decision was an understandable one.”

Mr Mercer’s wife Claire, who has become a vocal campaigner against smart motorways, cried in court when the coroner said the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to her husband’s death.

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Campaign

Outside the town hall she said: “It just reiterates what we’ve been saying for months – just how dangerous these roads are.

“It was not the result we were expecting but it’s very welcome and it’s going to help the campaign along.”

She said later: “It was shock. We always knew we were right but to hear someone else say it and in this setting and with this power behind them.”

The day-long hearing heard how the tragedy happened on June 7 2019 after a slight collision between a Ford Focus driven by Mr Mercer, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and a Ford Transit driven by Mr Murgeanu, who was living in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but was originally from Romania.

The two vehicles stopped in lane one of the four-lane motorway just north of junction 34, on the northbound carriageway, and both men had got out of their vehicles.

Both vehicles had been stationary for about six minutes when they were hit by Szuba’s Mercedes lorry, which was travelling at a speed-regulated 56mph.

Szuba, 40, from Hull, East Yorkshire, was jailed for 10 months in October last year after admitting causing the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu by careless driving.

‘They would have been able to come home safely ‘

Answering questions over the phone from prison, Szuba told the hearing he accepted he was driving without paying proper attention, telling a coroner: “I have already accepted that at my trial.”

But he told the inquest: “If there had been a hard shoulder on this bit of motorway, the collision would have been avoidable.

“I would have driven past these two cars as it would be safer and they would have been able to come home safely and I would be able to come back home.”

Szuba told the inquest he had no specific training in driving on a smart motorway.

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Sergeant Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the hearing: “Had there been a hard shoulder, had Jason and Alexandru pulled on to the hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them.”

But Sgt Brady accepted that the primary cause of the crash was Szuba’s inattention to the road.

Max Brown, the head of road design for Highways England, told the inquest that data showed smart motorways had reduced casualty rates by 18% by one measure and 23% by another.

Mr Brown accepted that the removal of the hard shoulder was an added hazard but said this was “offset” by a range of other safety measures which come with all lane-running motorways.

He said smart motorways were introduced to ease congestion without the environmental impact of road widening, but said they were designed “without compromising safety”.

Mr Brown also described further planned safety measures, including the introduction of automatic systems to detect stationary vehicles, which are due to be introduced to the M1 in South Yorkshire next month.

Smart motorways locally

Smart motorways are planned for the eight-mile stretch of the M4 between junction 19 for Bristol M32 and junction 18 for Bath.

There are also plans to introduce it on the 20-mile stretch of motorway on the M5 between junction 17 Cribbs Causeway and the new junction 21a planned just past the Weston-super-Mare junction near Banwell.

The two schemes would “complement” the new junctions which are planned at J18a on the M4 and J21a on the M5.

It would essentially be an extension of the existing ‘smart’ section of the M5 – around the Almondsbury Interchange at Junctions 17 and 18, which has been in place since 2014.

Led by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), the plan says the authority would “work with Highways England to implement Smart Motorway schemes” on the two sections of the motorway in order to “actively manage the flow of traffic”.

Investigation

Last year, an investigation by BBC Panorama revealed the rising number of near-misses and deaths on smart motorways.

Researchers found 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years.

The Department for Transport has said a review into smart motorways announced in October is still ongoing.

But the BBC said it believed the Government is planning to overhaul the network, fitting radar across the smart motorway system in the next three years.

The car detection system – which is currently only fitted on two sections of the M25 – can spot stranded vehicles as soon as drivers break down.

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