Highways England could be taken to court for corporate manslaughter following the death of a grandmother on a smart motorway.
The dramatic development comes less than a month after the notorious roads were condemned by a coroner as death traps.
Yesterday another coroner referred Highways England to prosecutors after it was revealed no one had the responsibility to check cameras monitoring the smart motorways for breakdowns.
Highways England – the government-owned company charged with operating major roads – admitted that there was no ‘policy’ for ‘constant or routine monitoring’ of the cameras.
It also admitted incidents may not even be visible to control room staff because cameras may not be correctly positioned.
Nargis Begum, 62, was killed while waiting near the family’s Nissan Qashqai which had broken down on the inside lane of a motorway with no hard shoulder.
Nargis Begum (pictured with her husband), from Sheffield, died on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire, near Woodhall Services, in September 2018 after her Nissan Qashqai broke down
Another vehicle hit the car, sending it ploughing into the mother of five.
The accident happened 16 minutes after the breakdown on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018.
No one had reported the stranded car and no road signs had been illuminated to warn motorists of the danger ahead.
Coroner Nicola Mundy told a pre-inquest review in Doncaster she was referring the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service to consider a charge of corporate manslaughter. A full inquest will be held later.
She said there was insufficient evidence to also refer a case for gross negligence manslaughter against a control room operator, but this would be reviewed.
Outlining her reasons for the referral, coroner Miss Mundy highlighted the ‘amount of time the Nissan lay in the lane’ without any warning signs being displayed or lane closures, and the fact that ‘nobody has responsibility for monitoring cameras’ relaying footage of smart motorways.
She added that there was also a ‘distinct lack of knowledge and education of drivers’ about how the ‘onus is on them’ to report incidents.
The regional control centre monitoring the North East and Yorkshire was manned by ‘seven or eight’ staff with access to 450 CCTV cameras – including 287 for smart motorways, the hearing was told.
However, Highways England said there was no ‘policy’ for ‘constant or routine monitoring’ to spot breakdowns.
Nicholas Chapman, for the company, said staff would ‘occasionally look’ at CCTV but the need to monitor cameras was not part of safety procedures.
The grandmother had exited the car and was waiting for help when another vehicle collided with the Nissan which crashed into her. Pictured: A stretch of smart motorway in Surrey
He also said there was no guarantee a breakdown would be visible because the camera operators needed to pan, tilt and zoom them to focus on incidents.
Mr Chapman said there was ‘no legal basis’ to prosecute Highways England and the decision to build smart motorways was a ‘matter of public policy’.
Increased traffic meant a ‘stark choice’ between a road-widening programme or converting roads to smart motorways at a ‘low cost’.
Ellen Robertson, representing Mrs Begum’s family, said her husband Mohammed Bashir, 67, saw his wife die and was struggling to cope.
After the hearing, Mrs Begum’s daughter Saima Aktar welcomed the coroner’s decision but added: ‘The feeling of grief and loss we feel doesn’t disappear.’
Edmund King, AA president, said it was ‘a significant moment for smart motorways and highlights many failings’.
Last month another coroner David Urpeth told a Sheffield inquest that the roads presented an ‘ongoing risk of future deaths’.
After ruling that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to two motorists being killed on the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019, he said he would write to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps calling for a ‘wider review or inquiry’.
It is estimated that nearly 40 motorists have been killed on smart roads in five years.
Following crisis talks with Mr Shapps, Highways England has pledged to accelerate the rollout of technology to detect marooned vehicles.