A coroner investigating a smart motorway death has referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate.
Grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, from Sheffield, died on a stretch of the M1 without a hard shoulder in South Yorkshire, near Woodhall Services, in September 2018.
She had exited a broken down Nissan Qashqai car and was waiting for help when another vehicle collided with the Nissan, causing it to plough into 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 spokesman 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.”
The Nissan was being driven by Mrs Begum’s husband, Mohammed Bashir, 67, when it broke down.
Speaking after the hearing, their 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, Mr Bashir.
She added: “We’re pleased that the coroner has taken our concerns seriously and has referred our mum’s death to the CPS.
“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 North East 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.
“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”.
AA president Edmund King said the ruling was a “significant moment” for smart motorways and “highlighted many failings previously raised” by the organisation.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps published a smart motorways action plan in March 2020.
At the time, he said evidence shows “in most ways smart motorways are as safe as or safer than conventional ones” but accepted “there is more we can do to raise the bar” on safety.
Smart motorway safety was in the spotlight last month when a coroner concluded the roads “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”.
Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 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.
Recording a conclusion of unlawful killing, Mr Urpeth said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”