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Highways England facing prosecution over smart motorway death

Written by: Emma Lunn
A coroner investigating a smart motorways death has referred the government-owned company to the Crown Prosecution Service for investigation over corporate manslaughter charges.

A Doncaster coroner held a pre-inquest review hearing for Nargis Begum who was killed on a stretch of smart motorway.

Nicola Mundy sent a file to the director of public prosecutions, after she highlighted a series of failings at the “heart of the effective management” of motorways where hard shoulders were turned into live lanes.

Begum was killed after the car her husband was driving broke down near Woodhall Services, South Yorkshire, in September 2018. She got out of the car to get behind the safety barrier but was struck when another vehicle hit the couple’s car.

The Crown Prosecution Service concluded the driver of the other vehicle was not criminally culpable.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

These methods include using the hard shoulder as a lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

Highways England developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

Failings of smart motorways

Edmund King, AA president, said: “This is a significant moment for ‘smart’ motorways and highlights many failings, previously raised by the AA, that should have been spotted before the first fatalities, and clearly need urgent action.

“The coroner feels there are significant concerns in this case which require further investigation. The key one raised in court, from the AA’s point of view, is the risk of having only eight people watching 450 cameras within the Yorkshire and North East region. We feel the risk of death would be reduced with more emergency laybys and the extensive use of radar to help pinpoint incidents.

“We will await the CPS conclusions in due course, but this decision will once again raise serious questions regarding the permanent removal of the hard shoulder.”

Labour has repeatedly urged the government to take action on smart motorways to prevent more deaths.

During transport questions in the House of Commons last month, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, was called on by Labour’s Jim McMahon to “commit, the minute this session finishes, to pick up the phone and to issue the instruction to re-instate the hard shoulder on smart motorways because god forbid we’ll be here again reviewing more deaths if action isn’t taken”.

It followed a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on a smart motorway in 2019.

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