Judge in Sheffield smart motorway death trial says 'hard shoulders are like lifeboats' as he jails lorry driver for 10 months

Jason and Claire Mercer, from RotherhamJason and Claire Mercer, from Rotherham
Jason and Claire Mercer, from Rotherham
The judge presiding over the sentencing of a lorry driver who collided with two men on the M1 near Sheffield has called for hard shoulders to be retained under controversial new 'smart motorway' schemes.

Jeremy Richardson QC said hard shoulder lanes were 'like lifeboats on ships' and jailed Prezemyslaw Szuba, 40, from Hull, for just 10 months. He was also given a four-year driving ban today at Sheffield Crown Court.

Jason Mercer, 44, from Rotherham, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, were struck by Szuba's HGV and killed after they had pulled over to exchange details following a minor prang.

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Judge Richardson said it was not his role to conduct a public inquiry into the controversial Highways England smart motorways project, but said: “A hard shoulder strikes me as analogous to the emergency doors on an aeroplane or lifeboats on ships.

“One never hopes ever to use them, and most of the time you never do. But they’re there.”

Judge Richardson heard how the two men died when a lorry driven by Szuba ploughed into their stationary vehicles on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield after they had been involved in a “minor shunt” in the summer of 2019.

Mr Mercer’s widow Claire has mounted a campaign against smart motorways since her husband’s death, and told Sheffield Crown Court on Monday: “The events of June 7 2019 would not have taken place if England’s highways were different to how they are.

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“My hope in this devastation is that no more lives are ruined needlessly.”

She has also said that she does not hold the lorry driver responsible. Szuba was driving within the speed limit at the time and was not under the influence of drink or drugs, and said he had only a few seconds to react after seeing the victims and their cars. Mrs Mercer has argued that Szuba should be spared jail.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of causing death by driving without due care and attention at an earlier hearing last month.

Nicola Hale, defending, said her client had only just joined the motorway at junction 34 and "it was only for a matter of seconds that the (stationary) vehicles were visible".

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She said the evidence in the case showed Szuba was driving 'normally' before the crash.

Speaking outside court today, widow Mrs Mercer said: “We don’t believe the correct person is taking responsibility for this massive detrimental effect on ours and so many other people’s lives.

“The events of June 7, 2019 would not have taken place if there had been a hard shoulder and Highways England was run with the correct priorities in mind - not concentrating on who wins the next big contract.

“An agenda genuinely concerned with avoiding future deaths is not served by a pretend review and 18 compromises that wouldn’t have saved any of 40-plus people killed by smart motorways or by jailing the wrong person.”

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The section of the M1 where the fatal crash took place had been converted from a hard shoulder into a full-time running lane in 2017.

With no emergency refuge in sight, the two men were forced to stop in a live lane to exchange details.

A steep bank immediately behind the safety barrier meant there was nowhere to move off the road.