Coroner says smart motorways pose ‘ongoing’ risk of deaths and says lack of hard shoulder contributed to double-fatal crash

Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died after a lorry collided with their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one of the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019

Smart motorways pose ‘ongoing’ risk of deaths, coroner says

A coroner has decided a lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the deaths of two men on a smart motorway.

David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba, who collided with their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one.

But, recording a conclusion of unlawful killing on Monday, he added: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”

The coroner said he would be writing to Highways England and the secretary of state for transport asking for a review, adding: “I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.”

The inquest at Sheffield Town Hall heard how on 7 June 2019 there was a slight collision between a Ford Focus driven by Mr Mercer, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and a Ford Transit driven by Mr Murgeanu, who was living in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but was originally from Romania.

The two vehicles had stopped in lane one of the four-lane motorway just north of junction 34, on the northbound carriageway near Sheffield, and both men had got out of their vehicles.

Coroner Mr Urpeth was told the vehicles had been stationary for about six minutes when they were hit by Szuba's Mercedes lorry, which was travelling at a speed-regulated 56mph.

Szuba, 40, from Hull, was jailed for 10 months in October 2020 after admitting causing the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu by careless driving.

Lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba who was jailed over the deaths of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on a smart motorway near Sheffield

Answering questions over the phone from prison on Monday, Szuba told the hearing he accepted he was driving without paying proper attention, telling a coroner: “I have already accepted that at my trial.”

But he told the inquest: “If there had been a hard shoulder on this bit of motorway, the collision would have been avoidable.

“I would have driven past these two cars as it would be safer and they would have been able to come home safely and I would be able to come back home.”

Szuba told the inquest he had only three to five seconds to react, and asked if he would have avoided the crash if he had been paying attention, he said: "It's difficult to say after everything now."

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."

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

Mr Mercer's wife Claire, who has been a prominent campaigner against smart motorways since her husband's death, watched proceedings in court with her legal team.

Additional reporting by PA

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