Highways chiefs warned over ‘life threatening’ risks on smart motorways before 8 deaths

Highway chiefs were warned about “life threatening” risks on a smart motorway more than four years before the deaths of eight motorists.

Police and fire services raised fears about converting a 35-mile stretch of the M1 in 2013, a road safety forum document reveals. It concluded the section did not have proper surveillance technology to quickly spot stranded vehicles.

But Highways England went ahead with the scheme between junctions 28 and 35a, which was fully opened in 2017.

Since then eight people have died in nearly 200 accidents on the stretch, Department of Transport figures show.

Now widow Claire Mercer, 45, is seeking a judicial review over smart M-ways despite transport secretary Grant Schapps’ vow that no more would open without advanced technology.

Widow Claire Mercer outside Sheffield Crown Court
Widow Claire Mercer outside Sheffield Crown Court, after lorry driver Prezemyslaw Zbigniew Szuba was jailed for causing the deaths of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on a smart motorway

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Claire’s husband Jason was killed on the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire M1 stretch with driver Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, in 2019. They were hit by a lorry after getting out to swap details.

Claire said: “The highways authority led people to believe proper protection was in place when the hard shoulder went. But they knew they hadn’t the technology.”

Alexandru Murgeanu died on the M1 on June 7, 2019
Alexandru Murgeanu died on the M1

South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership had already warned the shoulder removal was “excessively radical” and would expose “any stranded driver to a life-threatening situation”.

It said the Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling system could not quickly identify stranded cars and wouldn’t alert drivers.

Rotherham Borough Council also warned of “potentially fatal consequences” without Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) equipment installed.

A Highways England report in 2016 found it took on average more than 17 minutes to detect a stranded vehicle without this advanced system.

Jason Mercer, 44,
Jason Mercer, 44, died when a lorry ploughed into their stationary vehicles on the M1 near Sheffield on June 7 2019

But Highways England only planned to install it from 2021-22.

And figures reveal more than 6,000 drivers have been stranded in “live” lanes on the stretch.

Deaths include Sheffield gran Nargis Begum, 62, knocked down after getting out of a broken-down car near Woodall services in 2018.

She died in the 22 minutes it took for her Nissan to be detected and warning signs switched on.

Nargis Begum who died on a smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018.
Nargis Begum who died on a smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018.

The Doncaster coroner at her inquest referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service in February to consider corporate manslaughter charges.

The South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership made no comment.

Jack Cousens of the AA said: “This document shows Highways England were told of the risk of opening this stretch without sufficient radar technology.”

The Department for Transport vowed from now on “every All Lane Running Motorway will open with SVD technology in place”.

Highways England said: “We do not believe we have committed any offence.”

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