Widow whose husband was killed on Yorkshire smart motorway receiving up to 20 messages a week about near misses or fears on the roads

A Yorkshire widow whose husband was killed on a so-called smart motorway has warned she receives 20 messages a week from people who have experienced near misses or actively avoid the roads as she feared it was just a matter of time before someone else loses their life.

Claire Mercer’s husband Jason was killed along with another man, Alexandru Murgeanu, on the M1 close to the Meadowhall shopping centre, in Sheffield in June 2019.

The stretch of road has no hard shoulder, which is now used as an active lane as part of the conversion into a smart motorway.

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And at an inquest in January, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the lack of a hard shoulder had contributed to the tragedy.

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed along with Alexandru Murgeanu when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry, protests outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, where she is calling on the chief constable to prosecute Highways England over her husband's death. Photo: PA
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed along with Alexandru Murgeanu when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry, protests outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, where she is calling on the chief constable to prosecute Highways England over her husband's death. Photo: PA

Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, has since been demanding a judicial review into the roll out of smart motorways, as a Yorkshire MP suggested the stretches of road in the North - where many of the high profile deaths have occured - may be even more dangerous than in the South.

In a meeting with shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion this week, Mrs Mercer said still did not know how the scheme came “from the drawing board into existence”.

The Government has said steps will be taken to make the roads safer.

An “evidence stocktake” published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in March 2020 said that “in most ways” they were as safe or safer than conventional motorways, but the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was higher when the hard shoulder was removed.

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed along with Alexandru Murgeanu when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry, protests outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, where she is calling on the chief constable to prosecute Highways England over her husband's death. Photo: PA

An 18-point action plan included installing more places to stop in an emergency and faster rollout of a radar-based system to detect broken-down vehicles.

But Ms Champion, who has been supporting the families in writing letters to ministers and raising the issue, said in the interim, action must be forthcoming now.

“The thing that I'm pushing for is until we have all of those safety features in place, then there's that the hard shoulder should be reinstated until then, because they know that there is a problem,” she said.

And she added: “Because of lockdown and Covid I've been driving down to London more, and it's very notable to me the closer to London you get the more cameras there are, the more refuges there are, the more gantries there are.

Undated Family Handout photo of Mohammed Bashir and his wife Nargis Begum who died on a smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018. Photo: PA

“And I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly feels true as a driver when you're going down there.”

Mrs Mercer said lives were at risk every day on the road, and that Mr Shapps could make the decision now to reinstate the hard shoulder.

She said: “We had a family in Sheffield, five members of the family in one car, and it stopped in the third lane. And it was the husband that actually contacted us because he was the one that wasn’t in the car, he couldn’t deal with nearly losing every single member of his family in one go.”

She added: “We get 10 messages a week telling us that, we get 20 messages a week - and this is just the ones that go out of their way to contact us - saying ‘I drive miles out of my way to avoid smart motorways’.

Undated family handout photo of Nargis Begum who died on a smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018. Photo: PA

“So they’re not improving congestion, they’re filling up the roads, and we get people that are absolutely terrified.

“I got a lot of people telling me heartbreaking stories about this before Covid about how they can’t visit their grandchildren anymore because there’s a smart motorway [on the route].”

Smart motorways involve various methods to manage the flow of traffic, including variable speed limits and using the hard shoulder as a live running lane.

Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62.

This covers around 500 miles, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025, and they are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.

And Mrs Mercer added: “They can keep their smart motorways. They can have their gadgets and their lights, but we have a hard shoulder as well.”

Labour’s Mr McMahon, who has taken up the cause but insists it is not a political point but one of safety, said: “There’s one thing I was told in politics very early on, which is perception is truth. If people believe something to be true, then whether you like it or not, it is.

“A poll of the general public on smart motorways found 64 per cent didn’t perceive them to be safe, so that’s where the public are, and that’s really important that the Transport Secretary sees that.”

The Commons Transport Committee has launched an inquiry on the motorways.

While Mr 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.

But Sally Jacobs, whose husband Derek was killed on the M1 south of Sheffield in March 2019, when problems with a tyre forced him to stop his van, she said even that was not enough to save him.

“In Derek's case, they didn't have time to get it [the red X] up,” she said.

“[For] 66 years I loved that man. He walked out of the door in the morning, and I never saw him again.”

Mrs Mercer said in just the month that has passed between paperwork being sent from a coroner to police on her husband’s death, and now, there had been a further five serious accidents on smart motorways.

Niaz Shazad, whose mother Nargis Begum, 62 and from Sheffield, was killed on the inside lane of the M1 in 2018, was also at the meeting along with his sister Saima Aktar.

Mr Shazad said: “I feel as though we're at a stage where there's too much shirking responsibility. No one's taking accountability of actually what's going on here.”

He said: “The only thing that's going to put it right is getting into place that hard shoulder and that's the only thing that's going to bring this to some sort of conclusion.”

Mrs Aktar added: ”We obviously as families don't want any other people, any other families,” experiencing what we've experienced, and still are experiencing because we still got no answers.”

Mr McMahon said: “I am so grateful to Claire, Niaz, Saima and Sally for meeting me to talk about the devastation they have faced and their campaigns and I would urge the Transport Secretary to meet them all too.

“He promised he would return to the Commons ‘soon’ to report on the progress of his safety review of smart motorways. That was nearly six weeks ago and every day of inaction is gambling with people’s lives.

“We need to hear what progress has been made on the recommended safety measures as a matter of urgency. In the meantime, the Government must do what Labour has asked and reinstate the hard shoulder, before yet another family is left grieving.”

The Department for Transport was contacted for comment.