Lorry driver tells inquest he would have avoided killing two if there had been a hard shoulder

Smart motorways ‘present an ongoing risk of future deaths’, a coroner has concluded, following an inquest into the deaths of two men on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death 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.

Szuba, 40, 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.’

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire (pictured, the aftermath of the scene) in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba

Jason Mercer and his wife Claire

Jason Mercer and his wife Claire

Alexandru Murgeanu

Alexandru Murgeanu

Jason Mercer (left, with his wife Claire), 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu (right), 22, died when a lorry ploughed into their stationary vehicles on the M1 near Sheffield on June 7, 2019

Eight-year-old Dev Naran (pictured with his mother Meera Naran) was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family's car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane

Eight-year-old Dev Naran (pictured with his mother Meera Naran) was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family's car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane

Eight-year-old Dev Naran (pictured with his mother Meera Naran) was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family’s car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane

Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba, 40, admitted two counts of causing death by driving without due care and attention over the incident near Sheffield on June 7, 2019

Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba, 40, admitted two counts of causing death by driving without due care and attention over the incident near Sheffield on June 7, 2019

Jason Mercer

Jason Mercer

Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba, 40, (left) admitted two counts of causing death by driving without due care and attention over the incident near Sheffield on June 7, 2019. Right: Mr Mercer

Others who have been killed include grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, (pictured) who died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018

Others who have been killed include grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, (pictured) who died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018

Others who have been killed include grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, (pictured) who died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018

Mr Mercer’s widow Claire, who is a vocal campaigner against smart motorways, cried when the coroner gave his decision.

‘Somebody has listened and finally taken steps to address the use of these death trap roads,’ said the 43-year-old after the inquest.

‘We have taken a first step today to protecting the lives of others.’

Thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways over a five-year period, the BBC reported last year.  

Others who have been killed include grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, who died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018. 

Mrs Begum was being driven by husband Mohammed Bashir, 67. They left their Nissan Qashqai to wait for help but another car hit the vehicle, sending it into her. 

Eight-year-old Dev Naran was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family’s car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane.

At the inquest into the youngster’s death, coroner Emma Brown expressed concerns about the ‘risk to life from the loss of the hard shoulder’.

Following yesterday’s inquest into Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu’s deaths, Mrs Mercer’s solicitor called for plans for any more of the roads – which lack hard shoulders – to be put on hold until a public inquiry is held.

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.’ 

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

Mr Mercer, a contracts manager from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, had just joined the northbound carriageway at junction 34 at around 8.15am when he caused a minor collision with Mr Murgeanu’s delivery van.

Instead of driving to the nearest ‘refuge’ area a mile on, both drivers stopped on the inside lane. This decision was described as ‘unwise but understandable’ by the coroner at Sheffield Town Hall. 

The van was parked behind the car with its hazard lights on. 

The pair exchanged details and were standing between the two vehicles – rather than safely behind the crash barrier – when a lorry smashed into the van, killing both men instantly. 

Awful toll of roads where drivers who break down have no escape 

NARGIS BEGUM

The grandmother, 62, died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018.

Mrs Begum was being driven by husband Mohammed Bashir, 67. They left their Nissan Qashqai to wait for help but another car hit the vehicle, sending it into her.

A pre-inquest review hearing in December was told that warning signs on the motorway had not been activated in time to stop drivers entering the lane where the couple had broken down.

A coroner is considering referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service in what would be a landmark case.

DEV NARAN

The eight-year-old was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family’s car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane.

At the inquest into the youngster’s death, coroner Emma Brown expressed concerns about the ‘risk to life from the loss of the hard shoulder’.

After the inquest his mother Meera, from Leicester, said that without changes, she believes smart motorways ‘still continue to pose threats to lives on a daily basis’.

SEVIM AND AYSE USTUN

Sevim Ustun, 49, and mother-in-law Ayse Ustun, 68, died after their family car broke down on the M25 in Essex in 2018 and was struck by a lorry.

Overhead gantry signs did not close the lane or warn of a broken down vehicle. A ten-year-old girl also suffered life-changing injuries. Police were urged to prosecute Highways England for corporate manslaughter.

DEREK JACOBS

The retired engineer, 83, was killed after pulling up when his car had tyre problems on the M1 in north Derbyshire in 2019.

His Volkswagen Crafter van came to a halt in the first lane of the motorway, formerly the hard shoulder. It was hit by a Ford Ka, which was then struck by a coach.

His widow Sally said: ‘If there had been a hard shoulder, my husband would still be alive.’

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Answering questions over the phone from prison yesterday, 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.’

Almost six minutes passed from the two cars parking on the inside lane to the HGV hitting them at 56mph.

During that time dozens of vehicles went by the blockage safely but no warning signs were displayed on overhead gantries because Highways England was not aware of the accident. 

Szuba told the inquest at Sheffield Town Hall he had only three to five seconds to react, and asked if he would have avoided the crash if he had been paying attention, he said: ‘It’s difficult to say after everything now.’

He also confirmed that he had no specific training in driving on a smart motorway. 

The inquest looked at safety failures on the day of the tragedy. A sensor system to detect traffic problems, known as Midas, would not have worked because passing vehicles did not slow down. 

There was also a flaw in the system for human monitoring of cameras in a regional control centre. 

Max Brown, head of road design for Highways England, said operators monitored a bank of screens but this was ‘not their primary purpose’. 

He also said the point of impact was out of shot of the nearest camera.

No one passing the two cars phoned the police or rang 999 and Highways England found out only when called by the fire brigade. 

Smart motorways are controversial because cars that break down can be marooned in fast-moving traffic. They have refuge areas where drivers can stop every mile or so. 

There are around 500 miles of them in England, including sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62.

Mr Brown said analysis of nine smart motorway schemes revealed there had been an 18 per cent improvement in the ‘casualty rate’ – although the stretch of the M1 where the tragedy happened was one of two hotspots where safety had deteriorated.

He said an improved, radar-based, stopped-vehicle detection system, designed to identify stationary vehicles, was being rolled out but was ‘not 100 per cent guaranteed’ to spot problems.

In his ruling, the coroner said there had not been enough education around the use of smart motorways. He said he would send a ‘preventing future deaths report’ to Highways England and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

‘I believe that smart motorways as things currently stand present an ongoing risk of future deaths,’ he told the inquest.

He said his report would highlight the ‘obvious’ risk posed by the lack of a hard shoulder, the importance of better driver awareness and the need to identify stationary vehicles.

He also said ‘a wider review or inquiry into smart motorways would be beneficial’.

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. 

Mr Mercer’s wife Claire, who has been a prominent campaigner against smart motorways since her husband’s death, watched proceedings in court with her legal team.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer (pictured with his wife Claire), 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer (pictured with his wife Claire), 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer (pictured with his wife Claire), 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba

There are currently more than 20 sections of 'smart motorways' on seven different motorways

There are currently more than 20 sections of 'smart motorways' on seven different motorways

There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways 

Nicholas Lyes, the RAC’s head of roads policy, said ‘precious little progress’ had been made in fitting stopped-vehicle detection technology and urged Highways England to build more refuge areas.

A spokesman for the agency said it was already considering many of the points raised at the inquest in a plan published in March last year. The spokesman added: ‘We are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible.

‘We will carefully consider any further comments raised by the coroner once we receive the report.’

Smart motorway Q&A 

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways involve a range of methods to manage traffic flow, most controversially using the hard shoulder as a live running lane. Refuges where drivers can stop are placed every mile or so. Variable speed limits are also used.

How many are there?

Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62. The smart network stretches to around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.

What are the benefits?

Smart motorways are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.

But are they safe?

Concerns have been raised about incidents where stopped vehicles are hit from behind. Highways England has insisted smart motorways are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’. But a survey of drivers by the RAC found 70 per cent felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromised safety.

How many have died?

BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over the previous five years.

What do officials say?

An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last March stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways. But the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was found to be higher when the hard shoulder was removed. An 18-point action plan included more refuges for emergencies and faster rollout of a radar-based system to spot stranded vehicles.

Are smart motorways used in other European countries?

The vast majority of motorway-style roads in Europe have a permanent emergency lane.

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