Widow demands police probe into Highways England over smart motorway death

Claire Mercer’s husband Jason was one of two people who died in a collision in June 2019.

Claire Mercer
Claire Mercer

The wife of a man who died on a smart motorway has paraded his image on giant screen outside a police headquarters as she demanded an investigation into Highways England over his death.

Claire Mercer unveiled the picture of her late husband, Jason Mercer, outside the gates of South Yorkshire Police’s HQ building in Sheffield on what would have been his 46th birthday.

The message on the giant screen read: “Why are South Yorkshire Police not prosecuting Highways England for corporate manslaughter?”

Claire Mercer
Claire Mercer (Danny Lawson/PA)

The force has issued a statement saying it has appointed a senior officer to review evidence relating to the collision in which Mr Mercer died, along with another man, Alexandru Murgeanu, on the M1 close to the Meadowhall shopping centre, in Sheffield.

But it said it is still waiting for the files from Sheffield coroner David Urpeth, who told an inquest in January that “a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy” and that smart motorways “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

Speaking outside the police HQ on Tuesday, Mrs Mercer, 44, told the PA news agency: “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.

Claire Mercer
Mrs Mercer has called for an investigation into Highways England (Danny Lawson/PA)

“And, in that month, there have been five serious accidents on smart motorways.

“People are getting hurt and people are dying and they’re waiting for the post.”

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.

She said she wanted the hard shoulder to be reintroduced on all smart motorways.

“Even when Jason and Alexandru were dead on the road and the whole motorway was stopped, even then their technology didn’t pick it up because they died in the wrong place,” Mrs Mercer said.

“Even the most basic technology doesn’t work.”

Smart motorway
Three people have died after stopping on smart motorways (Andrew Matthews/PA)

She said: “They can have all their lights, gantries and cameras but we need the hard shoulder back in every single instance.”

Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu died when a lorry ploughed into them after they stopped in lane one following a minor collision in June 2019.

Mrs Mercer said the wrong person had been jailed when lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba was given a 10-month sentence last year.

A month after Mr Urpeth made his comments at the inquest in Sheffield, 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 solicitor, Neil 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 said: “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.”

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.

Highways England is proposing to amend The Highway Code in an attempt to boost smart motorway safety. This includes new and additional guidance on red “X” lane closure signs, the availability of emergency areas and what to do in the event of a breakdown.

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.”

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