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Lack of hard shoulder contributed to woman’s smart motorway death, coroner says

·5-min read
Undated family handout photo issued by Irwin Mitchell of Nargis Begum, 62, from Sheffield (Family Handout/PA) (PA Media)
Undated family handout photo issued by Irwin Mitchell of Nargis Begum, 62, from Sheffield (Family Handout/PA) (PA Media)

The lack of a hard shoulder on a stretch of smart motorway contributed to the death of a grandmother after the car she was travelling in broke down and was hit by another vehicle, a coroner has ruled.

Mother-of-five Nargis Begum, 62, had got out of the passenger seat of a Nissan Qashqai on the M1 in South Yorkshire when a Mercedes car, which appeared to take no avoiding action, collided with the stationary car, causing her fatal injuries.

On Friday, exactly four years after the crash, senior coroner Nicola Mundy told Doncaster Coroner’s Court the fact none of drivers of the 153 vehicles which passed the stranded car before the collision alerted National Highways to its presence also contributed to Mrs Begum’s death.

Undated Family Handout photo of Nargis Begum and her husband (Family/PA) (PA Media)
Undated Family Handout photo of Nargis Begum and her husband (Family/PA) (PA Media)

Recording a conclusion of “road traffic collision”, Ms Mundy said: “The absence of a hard shoulder and the absence of any report to National Highways to notify them of the stationary vehicle so that lane closures could be put in place both contributed to Mrs Begum’s death.”

An inquest which lasted four days heard how the Nissan had driven past an emergency refuge on September 9 2022, by about 250 yards and was stranded on the live lane one undetected for 16 minutes and 21 seconds before the fatal crash.

Ms Mundy expressed concern that many members of the public appear to wrongly believe that the dozens of cameras which are in place on smart motorways were being constantly monitored by control room staff.

She said one witness told the inquest how he did not report the stationary Nissan because he believe it would be picked up by the cameras.

A number of National Highways directors and employees, including chief executive Nick Harris, told the coroner that this was not practicable and the coroner asked whether more could be done to educate the public about this fact.

She said she would be writing to National Highways about this matter of public education.

(The coroner) concluded that a lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the death. There's not really much else to say. If there had been a hard shoulder, Nargis Begum would not be dead

Campaigner Claire Mercer

Mr Harris told the inquest how technology which can detect more than 80% of stranded stationary vehicles within 20 seconds was being rolled out on all so-called All Lane Running motorways and this would be completed by the end of this month.

Mrs Begum had been travelling in the car with her husband, who was driving the vehicle, from Derby back to their home in Sheffield when they suffered some kind of mechanical failure and stopped close to Woodall services.

In a statement read to the inquest earlier this week, Mrs Begum’s daughter, Saima Aktar, said: “We all believe the smart motorway system is dangerous and flawed – if there had been a hard shoulder, my dad would have ended up there.”

The inquest heard the driver of the Mercedes, Kantrimas Zukauskas, was initially arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving but never prosecuted. He refused to give evidence at the hearing.

Last year, Ms Mundy asked South Yorkshire Police to consider whether Highways England should face corporate manslaughter charges over Mrs Begum’s death.

In February, the force said the organisation, now renamed National Highways, would not be charged after Crown Prosecution Service advice that it did not owe road users a “relevant duty of care” under the terms set out in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Roads should not be designed with the lives of drivers dependent on other drivers reporting a breakdown in a live lane

AA president Edmund King

Campaigner Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer also died after stopping on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire, told the PA news agency on Friday: “She (the coroner) concluded that a lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the death. There’s not really much else to say.

“If there had been a hard shoulder, Nargis Begum would not be dead.”

AA president Edmund King said: “The conclusion that the absence of a hard shoulder and the absence of any drivers telling National Highways about the stationary vehicle both contributed to Mrs Begum’s death surely calls into question the whole concept of ‘smart’ motorways.

“Roads should not be designed with the lives of drivers dependent on other drivers reporting a breakdown in a live lane.”

Mr King said the AA had written to the new Transport Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, requesting that she followed up on comments made by Prime Minister Liz Truss during the Tory leadership hustings.

In August, Ms Truss said she would stop smart motorways, telling a questioner: “I absolutely think that we need to review them and stop them, if they’re not working, as soon as possible, and all the evidence I have agrees with the point you’re making on smart motorways.”

Every road death is a devastating loss of life and we are absolutely committed to making our roads as safe as possible

National Highways

She said: “I can’t give you a precise answer on the points, but I do believe that the smart motorways experiment hasn’t worked.”

Asked to clarify if she would stop them, Ms Truss replied: “Yes.”

Mr Harris told the inquest that, although it was acknowledged All Lane Running smart motorways increased the risks associated with cars becoming stranded in live lanes, the balance of risks meant they were safer overall than conventional motorways.

After the inquest, a National Highways spokesman said: “Our deepest sympathies remain with the family of Mrs Begum, and all those affected by this tragic incident.

“Every road death is a devastating loss of life and we are absolutely committed to making our roads as safe as possible.

“National Highways has an ongoing programme of road safety campaign activity. This is intended to provide important guidance to drivers to make journeys safer, easier and more reliable.”