There are calls to halt plans for more ‘smart motorways’ on UK roads after a coroner ruled they pose a risk of future deaths following a horror smash that killed two.
Sheffield coroner David Urpeth gave the stark warning at an inquest into the deaths of two men on a stretch of the M1 that had no hard shoulder.
He said the primary cause of the deaths of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba, who ploughed into their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one following a minor shunt.
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.”
Mr Urpeth said it was clear with hindsight 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.
But he said: “Although unwise, I think their decision was an understandable one.”
Mr Urpeth said he cannot recall seeing any form of education for the public on how to use smart motorways, saying this was a “sad indictment” of those charged with providing this information.
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.
The coroner was told the 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 causi
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.
The widow of one of the motorists, Claire Mercer, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, said later: “After more than a year and a half of campaigning I today feel that somebody has listened and finally taken steps to address the use of these death trap roads.
“Ever since Jason died I have been determined to bring about change to ensure more families don’t go through the heartbreak of losing a loved one by the completely nonsensical removal of hard shoulders on busy motorways, without adequate safeguards being in place.
“These are not smart roads, they are death traps.”
Mrs Mercer’s solicitor, Neil Hudgell, has now called for a public inquiry.
He said: “It is time to act now and we believe that all plans for more ‘smart motorways’ need to be put on hold until a public inquiry is concluded.
“The ones currently in use should return to having hard shoulders also.
“If ‘smart motorways’ continue in their present format to be allowed to operate, there will be continued deaths, and no doubt at some point an accident catastrophic in the number of people either seriously injured or killed in a single incident.”
A Highways England spokesperson said: “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer. We recognise this continues to be an incredibly difficult time for them.
“Every road death is a tragic loss of life.
“We are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible and are already addressing many of the points raised today by the coroner as published in the Government’s Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan of March 2020.
“We will carefully consider any further comments raised by the coroner once we receive the report.”