The widow of a driver who was killed on a “smart motorway” after a lorry crashed into his car is to sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter.
Speaking of her decision to take legal action against the Government-owned organisation, Claire Mercer predicted more deaths would occur if drivers continue to be “robbed” of safe places to pull over on the motorway.
Her husband, Jason Mercer, 44, and another driver, Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, both died in June this year following a minor collision on the northbound M1 near Sheffield. There was no nearby lay-by and the drivers had pulled over by a barrier to exchange insurance details when the lorry hit their vehicles.
The hard shoulder had been transformed into a live lane, leaving the men stranded and exposed to oncoming traffic.
What are smart motorways?
So-called “smart motorways” were introduced by Highways England to help relieve congestion by making the hard shoulder available for use by traffic. On some roads the hard shoulder is opened at busy times while on others it is permanently converted into a traffic lane. Technology is used on these stretches of road to monitor traffic levels, change the speed limit, activate warning signs to alert motorists to congestion and hazards, and close lanes.
‘Anything but smart’
But Ms Mercer has accused Highways England of neglecting to provide her husband and Mr Murgeanu with a safe place to stop and failing to implement adequate systems to detect a stationary vehicle to close a lane off from fast-moving traffic.
“Jason and Alexandru’s deaths proves these motorways are anything but smart,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.
“Two people died that day. Two families have been utterly devastated because the hard shoulder had been turned into a live lane. It’s that simple.”
Creating more is ‘madness’
Ms Mercer is now seeking a judicial review to prove Highway England’s decision to remove the hard shoulder without providing adequate protection was a breach of the company’s duty to make motorways safer.
She also claimed Highways England and the Government were in the grip of “collective madness” after they announced their intention to nearly double the smart motorway network from 416 to 788 miles by 2025.
Highways England said it would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Mr Mercer’s death because a police investigation was still underway.
Villages and towns across have been afflicted by unwieldy lorries trying and failing to squeeze through narrow spaces after their drivers followed routes intended for smaller vehicles dictated by their sat nav, the Local Government Association (LGA) says.
Ely in Cambridgeshire has Britain’s “most bashed bridge”. Stuntney Bridge has been struck more than 120 times by lorries and other large vehicles, “often due to drivers using sat navs”, according to the LGA. The last reported collision took place in June and occurred despite the large fluorescent yellow warnings displayed on the bridge.
In Upper Hopton, West Yorkshire, a historic cottage was hit in May for what was believed to be the 11th time after the driver followed sat nav directions. A sign next to the home warns drivers of heavy-goods vehicles of the risk of collision.
Some councils are attempting to tackle the problem through measures such as setting up “lorry-watch schemes” and working with freight and haulage companies to ensure that their drives follow suitable routes.
But, the LGA says it could do “much more” if it had the power to fine motorists who flout weight-restriction limits.
“Giving councils the power to enforce moving traffic offences… would help them act on community concerns, improve road safety, tackle congestion and reduce pollution,” it said.
The LGA also believes that lorry drivers should be obliged to use dedicated HGV sat navs that include information on bridge heights and narrow roads and guide motorists along suitable routes.
Edinburgh & Dalkeith officers assisted this HGV driver after his lorry became stuck in a field. The driver decided to follow his sat nav directions which took him along a mud track and into a field. Remember sat navs are not always right and a common sense approach may be better pic.twitter.com/VkQnMWXzik
Residents of a Kent village were left fuming in March after lorries blocked a local road twice in as many days.
“It’s a nightmare. We get a blockage every other week,” Anthony Harris, chair of Goudhurst Parish Council, told the news site Kent Live at the time.
“We have a continuous problem with traffic and HGVs ignoring all the signs that Goudhurst is unsuitable for long vehicles.”
Another local, Scott Smith, said: “It happens all the time… It’s really difficult. We don’t want to lose the volume of traffic on the road, especially for the local shops, as it’s valuable passing trade.”
That line is by Roger McGough and it comes from a poem about a very old couple. It has haunted me for the past few weeks because I have been thinking of getting rid of my car. That would, of course, be good for the planet and for everyone who would rather not breathe in traffic fumes. However, my principal motive is less altruistic. For the past seven months I have suffered from a back problem that is exacerbated by driving. My husband has never learned to drive. The car has been sitting outside our house, taxed, insured, MOTed and doing nothing, like a greedy and idle pet.
Even before the back trouble, I hadn’t been driving very much. In 2007, when I judged the Booker prize, I realised that travelling by train would allow me some much-needed reading time. With a senior railcard it worked out cheaper, too, and it was less tiring. The main snag was luggage.
Day trips were fine but anything involving a suitcase could be problematic. There are still far too many stations you can’t get out of without climbing up and down a lot of stairs. I could manage with difficulty but I became acutely aware of the obstacles disabled people face when they are travelling.
Since then, I’ve mainly used the car for short journeys near my home. Recently, we’ve had to take taxis instead. Leaving aside the expense, I have found that life is a whole lot better with taxis than with driving myself.
A taxi comes to your house and drops you where you want to go. You don’t have to think in advance about where you’re going to park or worry about finding a space. It won’t matter if it rains because you’re not going to be out in the open for more than half a minute. You don’t have the responsibility of driving a lethal weapon, knowing that a stupid mistake could have terrible consequences for you or for someone else. You don’t have to worry about breaking down.
If I didn’t have a car at all, I wouldn’t have to pay for repairs. And I could afford lots of taxis. So I’ve fantasised about selling the car. I got valuations from a couple of websites and discovered it is worth slightly more than I expected. One website, when it didn’t hear from me, raised its offer. But I haven’t been able to make the drastic decision.
The dog dead and the car sold.
The couple in the poem are waiting for the end. It feels too final. My back might get better. I might even begin to enjoy driving again. After more than 50 years as a car owner, I am afraid I might feel as if I’ve lost a limb.
The deadline was in July, when my insurance was due to be renewed. As a loyal customer, I knew I was being ripped off but I’ve mostly been too busy to do anything about it. I have occasionally tried comparison websites but you have to choose from a list of occupations on a drop-down menu and mine is never there.
Obviously I wouldn’t expect “poet” and I wouldn’t think it a good idea to own up to that anyway. “Author” isn’t available and even “writer” is problematic. You get offered “copywriter” or “screenwriter” but not plain “writer”. Sometimes they also want to know the nature of your business. “Literature” isn’t an option. Nor is “books”. “Publishing” is on offer, as is “bookselling”, but that’s not what I do. If you lie to an insurance company, your insurance isn’t valid. So I end up remembering that my time is worth something and stick with the company that is ripping me off.
This time I tried Direct Line, which, as you’ll know if you watch enough television, is not on comparison websites. Its drop-down menu allowed me to say I’m a writer. It even allowed me to say I’m an author. Hallelujah. And the quote was half of what I’ve been paying. I’ve decided to keep the car for another year and spend less money on it.
One good result of the months of taxis is that I’m now less afraid of losing my licence. I’ve reached the age when you have to fill in a form every three years with details of your health. This is sensible but it is also a source of considerable anxiety to some of my contemporaries. Last year I had to admit I fainted on one occasion in 2016, which meant filling in a long form and waiting while DVLA wrote to my doctor.
Sooner or later, DVLA may make the decision for me. Or the next expensive deadline – the big service, the road licence – may cause me to reconsider. There’s a part of me that really wants to sell the car. There’s another part of me that doesn’t want to be like McGough’s old couple.
WH Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen but it seems it is helping to make something not happen.