Highways England referred to Crown Prosecution Service over smart motorway death

'We're determined to do everything we can to campaign for change,' daughter says

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 11 February 2021 21:31
Nargis Begum died on a stretch of smart motorway in 2018
Nargis Begum died on a stretch of smart motorway in 2018

Highways England has been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate following a smart motorway death.

A coroner made the referral for the case of Nargis Bergum, who died on a stretch of smart motorway – where the hard shoulder is converted to an active lane– on the M1 in South Yorkshire more than two years ago.

The 62-year-old grandmother from Sheffield was waiting for help outside a broken down Nissan Qashqai car which another vehicle crashed into, causing the Nissan to hit her.

At a pre-inquest review hearing at Doncaster Coroner's Court on Thursday, senior coroner Nicola Mundy said the length of time the stationary vehicle went undetected was among the reasons for her decision.

Ms Mundy was told at a previous hearing that 16 minutes elapsed between the Nissan breaking down and the collision.

It took a further six minutes before warning signs were activated.

Outlining other factors in her referral of the case to the CPS, Ms Mundy described how "nobody has responsibility for monitoring cameras" relaying footage of smart motorways.

She added that there is a "distinct lack of knowledge and education of drivers in the region" in relation to how the "onus is on them" to report incidents.

Companies found guilty of corporate manslaughter face unlimited fines, according to the Sentencing Council.

A spokesperson for Highways England said: "Our deepest sympathies are with the family of Mrs Begum, and all those affected by this tragic incident.

"Although we do not believe Highways England has committed any offence we will of course cooperate fully in any investigation."

Speaking after the hearing, Ms Bergum's daughter Saima Aktar said "the feeling of grief and loss we feel over mum's death doesn't disappear".

She explained how the last two years have been "incredibly difficult" for the family, and the crash has "taken its toll" on her father, 67-year-old Mohammed Bashir, who was driving the Nissan when it broke down.

"We're pleased that the coroner has taken our concerns seriously and has referred our mum's death to the CPS," Ms Aktar said.

Nargis Begum and her husband Mohammed Bashir

"We're determined to do everything we can to campaign for change and for action to be taken around the use of smart motorways."

Highways England is a government-owned company responsible for managing England's motorways and major A-roads.

Nicholas Chapman, representing the firm, told the hearing there was "no policy for the constant monitoring of motorways".

He said footage from a CCTV camera covering the scene of the crash was relayed to a "busy" regional control centre staffed by "seven or eight" people.

Footage from around 450 roadside cameras – including 287 on smart motorways – across the Yorkshire and northeast England region was sent to that site, Mr Chapman said.

"Operators may occasionally look at CCTV images when they're not engaged in responding to other incidents, but there is no constant or routine monitoring," he said. "It's simply not part of the safety standard."

He added that there is no evidence that any of the operators were "aware of the stationary vehicle and decided to ignore it" or did "anything else other than conscientiously go about their duties".

Last month, a landmark crash inquest was held into the deaths of two men who died along a stretch of smart motorway on the M1 in 2019.

A Sheffield coroner said the primary cause of 44-year-old Jason Mercer and 22-year-old Alexandru Murgeanu’s deaths was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba, who ploughed into their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one following a minor shunt.

However, coroner David Urpeth said the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to their deaths. 

He told an inquest at Sheffield town hall: "I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths."

Mr Mercer's widow, Claire, has been campaigning against smart motorway's following her husband's death.

Additonal reporting by Press Association

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