Highways England will not face a corporate manslaughter charge over the death of a 62-year-old woman on a smart motorway because the organisation 'did not owe road users a "relevant duty of care" under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007', South Yorkshire Police has announced.
The decision comes just weeks after the UK government suspended its programme to expand the network of 'all-lane running' smart motorways until it has five years’ worth of safety data available to analyse. Critics have argued that smart motorways have contributed to a series of fatalities and near-misses in recent years.
Nargis Begum was killed in 2018 after her car broke down on a stretch of the M1 motorway with no hard shoulder. Begum’s car went undetected on the motorway for 16 minutes before another car collided with it. It was another six minutes until motorway warning signs were activated.
At a pre-inquest review in February 2021, South Yorkshire coroner Nicola Mundy raised concerns about the length of time Begum’s car had been stranded on the motorway. Mundy said there was 'more than sufficient evidence' for the case for a corporate manslaughter charge against Highways England to have “proper scrutiny” by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Highways England is a government-owned company responsible for operating, maintaining and improving motorways and major A roads.
Explaining the CPS’s decision not to prosecute, South Yorkshire's Temporary Assistant Chief Constable, Sarah Poolman, said that having considered CPS advice, 'we have concluded that in the circumstances, Highways England [now known as National Highways] cannot be held liable for the offence of corporate manslaughter.
'I don’t understand how they can say they don’t have a duty of care to motorists. How do you justify that? They build the roads; they supply the roads'
'This is because, in legal terms, the organisation did not owe road users a "relevant duty of care" under the terms set out in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
'For this reason, I have brought the police investigation into this offence to an end.'
The decision was met with dismay by Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed in June 2019 on another part of the M1 with no hard shoulder while his car was stationary following a minor collision.
'I don’t understand how they can say [National Highways] don’t have a duty of care to motorists. How do you justify that? They build the roads; they supply the roads.'
Smart motorways use technology to regulate traffic flow with the aim of easing congestion. Overhead gantries give drivers information about variable speed limits, lane closures and hazards.
There are three types of smart motorway: controlled motorways, which have variable speed limits but retain a permanent hard shoulder; dynamic motorways, where the hard shoulder is used as a lane at peak times; and all-lane-running (ALR) motorways, where the hard shoulder is converted permanently into an extra lane and drivers must instead use emergency refuge areas found at intervals on the road.
Of the 400 miles of smart motorways already operational, 200 miles have no hard shoulder. Between 2014 and 2019, 38 people were killed on smart motorways.
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