Widow mounting smart motorway protest urges prosecution of Highways England
A widow who believes Highways England should be prosecuted over the death of her husband on a smart motorway is staging a protest outside the headquarters of South Yorkshire Police.
Claire Mercer said future smart motorway deaths “will be blood on the hands of the people running our roads” as she prepared to mark what would have been Jason Mercer’s 46th birthday by placing a giant screen outside force HQ on Tuesday (March 2).
The move was inspired by the 2017 film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in which a woman rents billboards to call attention to the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter.
Mr Mercer died on part of the M1 which has no hard shoulder – along with another motorist, Alexandru Murgeanu – when a lorry ploughed into them little more than a mile from the HQ building in Sheffield, in June 2019.
At an inquest in January, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy. I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.”
A month later, Doncaster coroner Nicola Mundy referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate in relation to the death of grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, who died on a different stretch of the M1 in September 2018.
Mrs Mercer’s lawyers have written to South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable Stephen Watson demanding the same happens in her husband’s case.
Ms Mercer said: “The message has been sent loud and clear, these roads are death traps in the way they are operated and managed. Two coroners have now highlighted the dangers within the past couple of months.
“Now statistics are further proving the case but now we need action. Every future death involving stationary vehicles on roads which were previously hard shoulders will be blood on the hands of the people running our roads.”
Ms Mercer, 44, from Rotherham, said the wrong person had been jailed when lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba was given a ten-month sentence last year after ploughing into her husband and Mr Murgeanu.
“It rocks a boat that they don’t want rocking but there are people dying. It’s taken a month to get the paperwork from the coroner’s court in Sheffield to the headquarters in Sheffield and it’s still not here. And, in that month, there have been five serious accidents on smart motorways. People are getting hurt and people are dying.”
Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, said she was pleased the force has committed resources to a review but she said she wanted a full investigation.
“They’re investigating investigating it,” she said. “I’d like a bit more commitment than that before I cancel bookings for digital screens.”
Mrs Mercer said she was not impressed by talk of introducing smarter technology to detect breakdowns and educating drivers on the use of smart motorways – including a proposed update of The Highway Code.
Her solicitor, Neil Hudgell, said: “Our client feels strongly that there is a case to answer for the offence of corporate manslaughter in relation to Jason’s death and we have written to the chief constable stating just that.”
Mr Hudgell said: “The fact is that Highways England has been aware of the obvious risk of removing hard shoulders on motorways, yet has continued to expand this network.”
He added: “Highways England can’t be allowed to simply see the deaths of Jason, Mrs Begum and so many others as statistics. It can’t be right for people to die in the future on these roads only to become a statistic too.
“Our client strongly believes that hard shoulders must be reintroduced on these motorways until evidence proves they can be operated safely when incidents occur and drivers need to take refuge in a safe space.”
Last month, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings said he would “strongly urge” Highways England and the Department for Transport to think again about smart motorways following another serious injury collision on the M1 in the county.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps published a smart motorways action plan in March 2020.
At the time, he said evidence shows “in most ways smart motorways are as safe as or safer than conventional ones” but accepted “there is more we can do to raise the bar” on safety.
South Yorkshire Police (SYP) said in a statement: “As previously reported, South Yorkshire Police is in the process of obtaining all evidence the coroners had reference to at the inquests into the deaths of Mr Jason Mercer, Mr Alexandru Murgeanu and Mrs Nargis Begum.
“A senior investigating officer has been assigned to this matter, and will be overseeing the review of all the materials obtained. At this time, we have not yet received the evidence from Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu’s inquest.
“This activity will allow SYP to ascertain whether a crime has been committed, with a view to the possible commencement of criminal proceedings. SYP remains in close consultation with the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Services.”
A Highways England spokesman said: “It would be inappropriate for Highways England to provide comment on the activity of South Yorkshire Police.”