South Yorkshire M1 crash which killed two men could have been avoided as coroner calls for review into smart motorways

A crash which killed two men who had pulled over on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire could have been avoided had there been a hard shoulder, it has been heard, as a coroner has called for a review into their safety.

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu died from “catastrophic” injuries when a heavy goods vehicle ploughed into their vehicles in the live lane of a smart motorway section of the M1 near Sheffield on June 7, 2019.

Both men had pulled over to exchange insurance details after Mr Mercer, 44, caused a minor collision with 22-year-old van driver Mr Murgeanu shortly after 8am that morning.

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Instead of driving on to the next refuge spot, the men stopped on the hard shoulder which was, at the time, open as a live lane as part of the smart motorway scheme to ease congestion.

Jason Mercer, pictured with wife Claire Mercer, who was killed in a collision on the M1 near Sheffield in 2019.

Lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba was not paying sufficient attention to the road at the time and careered into the parked vehicles. Szuba, 40, from Hull, later admitted to causing their deaths due to his careless driving and is currently serving a ten-month prison sentence.

But a coroner today called for a review into the safety of smart motorways after it was heard that numerous factors, including the absence of a hard shoulder, may have contributed to the collision.

Coroner David Urpeth said he planned to write to Highways England, the Government body which operates motorways, and Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps over the issue.

He said the primary cause for the fatal collision was Szuba’s careless driving and the fact both deceased gentlemen had not waited to pull over into the next refuge area, which was only one mile away.

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu were killed on a smart motorway section of the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019

Mr Urpeth added: “However, I think that many drivers feel they have to stop immediately after a collision, therefore although not wise, I think their decision was an understandable one.”

Earlier in the hearing at Sheffield Town Hall yesterday, Szuba said: “If there had been a hard shoulder on this bit of motorway, the collision would have been avoidable.”

He also confirmed that he had no specific training in driving on a smart motorway.

Sergeant Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the hearing: “Had there been a hard shoulder, had Jason and Alexandru pulled on to the hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them.”

Claire Mercer, pictured before today's inquest where it was heard a collision which killed her husband Jason "could have been avoided"

But Sgt Brady accepted that the primary cause of the crash was Szuba’s inattention to the road.

Representatives from Highways England were also questioned in the inquest, telling the hearing that smart motorways, overall, remained statistically safer than traditional highways.

Max Brown, Head of Road Design, conceded that the presence of a hard shoulder in this instance, however, would have made the collision significantly less likely.

Ruling a verdict of unlawful killing, the coroner listed five factors which contributed to the collision, including the absence of a hard shoulder, Highways England not yet having stationary vehicle detection and insufficient driver training into how smart motorways work.

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu were killed on a smart motorway section of the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019

Mr Urpeth added that motorways were known to interchange between smart and traditional stretches of motorway, and that “many drivers do not understand fully the difference between them both".

"I don’t think we have seen enough education around their use.”

Speaking after the hearing, Claire Mercer - widow of Jason Mercer who has spearheaded the Smart Motorways Kill campaign - said she hoped the verdict would be the catalyst for an investigation into possible corporate manslaughter charges.

She said: “I have been passed off as an ‘hysterical widow’ for 18 months now, so I’m glad I’m now finally being listened to.

“Today’s verdict obviously shows how much of a concern smart motorways are and the coroner obviously felt strongly about that.”

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