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Police to examine smart motorway deaths

A coroner’s dossier has been demanded by police to establish whether Highways England is criminally responsible for two smart motorways deaths after scrapping the hard shoulder.

South Yorkshire Police (SYP) have requested to examine files about Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer, who were killed on the M1, to “determine if a crime has been committed” and whether a “further criminal investigation” should be launched.

In January Sheffield coroner David Urpeth ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the deaths of Mr Mercer, 44, and Mr Murgeanu, 22, in 2019. He wrote to Highways England and to the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to ask for a review into the continued rollout of the motorways, warning they presented “an ongoing risk of deaths”. Mr Mercer’s widow, Claire Mercer, wants SYP to prosecute Highways England for corporate manslaughter because she claims bosses knew that eliminating the hard shoulder without adequate systems to detect stationary cars would be fatal.

The 44-year-old Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, said, “I hope the police do decide to investigate because two coroners in just a few weeks have highlighted the obvious and foreseeable dangers Highways England introduced. That is pretty concrete and I will continue with legal action if SYP does not do its duty.” 

The force has already secured the conviction of 40-year-old Prezemyslaw Szuba, a Hull lorry driver, for the deaths, and he was sentenced to 10 months in prison following a conviction for dangerous driving. It stated: “SYP will be requesting full disclosure from HM Coroner of all documents and evidence that led to his conclusions that the evidence showed that there was an obvious and foreseeable risk posed by the absence of a hard shoulder on smart motorways. This review of any additional material from the inquest will allow SYP to determine if a crime has been committed and as a consequence whether any further criminal investigations should take place, in close consultation with the Health and Safety Executive.”

The move came only days after a senior coroner referred the government-owned company to the Crown Prosecution Service, and it was told it faced possible corporate manslaughter charges. Nicola Mundy highlighted failings at the “heart of the effective management” of smart motorways. She adjourned her inquest into the death of 62-year-old Nargis Begum on the M1, after concluding there was “sufficient evidence” for Highways England to be considered for corporate manslaughter.  Mrs Begum, a mother of five was killed in 2018 after the Nissan Qashqai her husband was driving broke down in South Yorks. She got out to get behind the safety barrier but the Nissan was struck by another vehicle and ploughed into her. The coroner, in Doncaster, said her referral was because the car was stranded so long without Highways England spotting it on CCTV, closing the lane, or using signs to warn motorists of the danger. The CPS concluded the driver of the other vehicle was not culpable.