The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been asked to consider a charge of corporate manslaughter for Highways England following the death of a 62-year-old woman on a stretch of smart motorway.

It is the latest call following a sustained number of concerns over the safety of smart motorways.

This time, the Doncaster coroner made the decision to refer the case to the CPS at a pre-inquest review hearing for Nargis Begum.

Technological breakdown

Begum, who was from Sheffield, was killed on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018. Her Nissan Qashqai had broken down and was stranded in a ‘live lane’ when it was hit by another vehicle .

Begum had exited the Nissan and was waiting for help when the incident happened. The smart motorway section had no hard shoulder.

More than 16 minutes elapsed between the Nissan breaking down and the collision. It was another six minutes still before warning signs were activated to tell other drivers not to use the lane because of a broken down vehicle.

The CPS had previously decided against prosecuting the driver who hit the Nissan.

Previous history

In March last year, the transport secretary Grant Shapps commissioned a new analysis of the modern road systems. It concluded that “in most ways”, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional ones.

There was an admission that some risks are higher than on conventional motorways. One example was the risk of a collision between a moving and stationary vehicle.

In the last five years, smart motorway failings have been blamed for 38 additional road deaths.

Failure to act

Edmund King, AA president described the latest move as “a significant moment for smart motorways”. He says that many failings “should have been spotted before the first fatalities, and clearly need urgent action”.

In this case, there were only eight people watching 450 cameras within the Yorkshire and North East region.

“We feel the risk of death would be reduced with more emergency lay-bys and the extensive use of radar to help pinpoint incidents.

“We will await the CPS conclusions in due course, but this decision will once again raise serious questions regarding the permanent removal of the hard shoulder.”

Of today’s 500 miles of smart motorway, only 37 miles have the radar technology. The rest rely on less effective CCTV.

Public support

RAC research suggests that more than two-thirds of drivers believe that permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown.

According to a YouGov poll in January, 57% of motorists oppose the schemes, with 64% perceiving them as ‘less safe’ than conventional motorways.