Legal Team Write To MPs After Undercover Probe Highlights “Incredibly Worrying Discrepancies”
A widow whose husband was killed on a smart motorway is calling for the findings of an undercover investigation to be included in an official inquiry by MPs into the controversial roads.
Claire Mercer’s husband, Jason, and Alexandru Murgreanu were killed when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on an all-lanes running (ALR) motorway – roads which have no hard shoulder – on the M1 near Sheffield.
Claire instructs lawyers over potential smart motorways legal challenge
Claire, of Rotherham, has instructed specialist lawyers at Irwin Mitchell who have written to the Government - including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps - and senior leaders at Highways England, now National Highways, calling for ALRs to be stopped or face legal action.
With legal preparations continuing, Claire’s legal team has written to the Transport Select Committee, urging it to consider the findings of a newspaper investigation into the safety of smart motorways.
Concern over 'worrying discrepancies' after undercover investigation
Claire believes findings uncovered by the Daily Mail “show incredibly worrying discrepancies” in the evidence that key highways bosses and the Minister for Transport gave orally to the Parliamentary Select Committee’s inquiry.
In June Baroness Vere, Minister for Roads at the Department for Transport and Nick Harris, acting chief executive of Highways England, stated that once an alert was triggered, control room staff used CCTV to identify a vehicle that had stopped and that they were able to do so immediately. Mr Harris described Highways England’s performance on locating stopped vehicles as “very good” and that about 99 per cent of cameras were normally in operation.
A recent investigation by the Daily Mail said it had uncovered evidence of a number of issues relating to control rooms including:
• One in four cameras on junction 34 of the M1 near Sheffield, where there has been a spate of fatalities, were broken or facing the wrong way on September 17;
• One in four cameras were broken or obscured on the smart motorway section of the M3 in Surrey the same day;
• On a busy stretch of the M25 where three people have died eight out of 19 cameras were broken, obscured by condensation or facing the wrong way.
• The broken devices left control room staff unable to check a report of a stranded car on the M25 – leaving the vehicle stranded for vital minutes before action could be taken.
• A systems failure during the reporter’s first shift saw staff unable to implement vital lane closures or change mandatory speed limits until more than 30 minutes had passed;
• At one control room concerned operators flagged failures 218 times in a year, including 29 in just one month.
• The software used to close lanes went down several times in the six weeks the reporter worked at one of six regional control rooms;
• In one control room staff reported an average of almost two CCTV and technological failures every day for 2020;
• An audit of more than 800 cameras – carried out by the undercover reporter who had access to the system when working at the South Mimms control room in Hertfordshire– showed 112 CCTV cameras were faulty, unusable or pointing in the wrong direction.
Smart motorways report finds roads have 'lowest level of intrinsic safety'
Earlier this year an independent expert report commissioned by Irwin Mitchell into smart motorways found ALRs “had the lowest level of intrinsic safety” when compared to any other form of motorway. It also stated that the risk of being involved in a live lane breakdown on an ALR was 216 per cent higher than on a standard motorway, as there was no hard shoulder for drivers’ refuge in the event of a collision or breakdown.
A lack of previous public consultation around the introduction of the roads was identified in the 220 page report which took transport planning specialists at Royal HaskoningDHV more than a year to research.
Lawyers also supporting family of Nargis Begum
Irwin Mitchell also represents the family of Nargis Begum in a separate civil case involving Highways England.
Expert Opinion“Claire and her family are understandably concerned and shocked at the significant difference between what the Committee has been told in oral evidence and the accounts recently published.
“They are particularly concerned by the representations which were made regarding the availability and use of CCTV on ALRs smart motorways.
“Claire is anxious for the Transport Committee’s report to represent a comprehensive review of all of the relevant evidence regarding ALRs motorways.
“We have now written to the Committee calling on it to consider carefully the most recently published media reports, against the evidence provided by Mr Harris and Baroness Vere to the Committee. Any review into the safety of ALRs smart motorways ought to take into account all relevant information so that it can be transparent.
“Claire and many other families affected by incidents on smart motorways remain extremely concerned about their dangers and the alarming findings of this undercover investigation have only intensified those concerns.” Helen Smith - Associate Solicitor
Smart motorways: Claire and Jason Mercer's story
Jason, 44, and Alexandru Murgreanu, 22, of Mansfield, were killed on 7 June, 2019, when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on the M1 near Meadowhall in South Yorkshire. The pair had pulled over to the roadside as far as possible – and yet the lane was not closed to traffic until after the second, fatal collision.
At an inquest into their deaths, coroner David Urpeth said ALRs carried "an ongoing risk of future deaths". Jason was found not to have been at fault and was placed at risk of serious injury or death when he broke down on an ALR smart motorway.
The coroner heard evidence from representatives from Highways England. The inquest was told that Jason’s and Alexandru’s death may have been avoided had there been a hard shoulder.
Widow's crowdfunding appeal
Claire is running a crowdfunding appeal at www.crowdjustice.com/case/smart-motorway-jr/ as part of her campaign and to support her legal challenge.
Claire, 44, said: “Jason and Alexandru are not alone in what happened to them; people continue to be killed or injured on smart motorways and will continue to be until action is taken to stop the use of these death trap roads.
“The figures and statistics around smart motorways are shocking. However, what is more shocking is that behind every statistic is a human tragedy of how lives and families have been torn apart.
“I’m devastated by the latest findings into smart motorways safety which show incredibly worrying discrepancies to what key people have previously presented to the Parliamentary inquiry.
“My family and a lot of others are determined to do everything they can to end smart motorways. They may be labelled as smart but they’re not smart.
“What happened to Jason and Alexandru could happen to anyone else. The Committee really need to sit up and take notice of the investigation’s findings so the most thorough and transparent examination of the use of smart motorways is held.”
Nargis, of Darnall, Sheffield, a mum-of-five and grandmother-of-nine, died in September 2018 on the M1. The Nissan Qashqai she was a passenger in broke down close to Woodall services near Sheffield. Nargis, 62, and her husband Mohammed Bashir, 67, who had been driving, had exited their vehicle. They were waiting for help to arrive when another vehicle collided with their Nissan, which then ploughed into Nargis.
The stranded Nissan had had its hazard lights on for 17 minutes before the collision. The lane had not been closed to traffic.
Find out more about our expertise in supporting those affected by collisions on smart motorways at our dedicated serious injury section.