M1 fatal smash puts spotlight back on Northamptonshire's smart motorway

Police say absence of hard should contributed to 19-year-old's death near Luton

Wednesday, 10th March 2021, 12:52 pm

Police and a coroner have raised more concerns about the safety of smart motorways after an HGV ploughed into the back of a broken-down people carrier on the M1, killing a 19-year-old.

The smash happened near Luton on a section of motorway where the hard shoulder was being used as 'live lane' by speeding traffic.

A similar section of smart motorway has been in operation for the last two years between Northampton and junction 19.

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A stretch of the M1 between Northampton and junction 19 has already been turned into a smart motorway way with no hard shoulder. Photo: Getty Images
A stretch of the M1 between Northampton and junction 19 has already been turned into a smart motorway way with no hard shoulder. Photo: Getty Images

Work on a £373million upgrade on another stretch south from Northampton to Milton Keynes is due to finish next year.

Bedfordshire Police told an inquest into the death of Zahid Ahmed this week: "The absence of a hard shoulder contributed to the collision.

"Had the [deceased’s] vehicle been able to stop in a location other than that of a live lane, the offending HGV would not have driven into the back of it."

Work to convert the M1 into a smart motorway between Northampton and Milton Keynes is due to be finished next year

Mr Ahmed was in a rear passenger seat of a Kia Sedona which stopped near junction 11A.

Three vehicles managed to swerve past the stranded vehicle, which had its hazard lights on, before a HGV which failed to brake hit it at nearly 60mph.

Lorry driver Wojciech Bukowski, 65, was later charged with causing death by dangerous driving and jailed for more than four years.

The crash in December 2019 was on a stretch of the M1 with an 'actively managed hard shoulder' where the emergency lane can be used by traffic following advice from overhead signs to ease congestion.

Both the current and planned upgrades in Northamptonshire will be 'all lane running' with no hard shoulder at any time.

Both types of smart motorway are controlled by matrix signs operated remotely using traffic cameras and have refuges at regular intervals for emergencies.

Following Mr Ahmed's inquest, Bedfordshire coroner Tom Stoate issued a Prevention of Future Deaths report to Highways England, raising concerns about the absence of a hard shoulder on the motorway.

Mr Stoate wrote: "The collision occurred primarily due to the failure of the lorry driver to perceive and respond to the presence of the Kia in enough time to avoid a collision, and also due to the presence of the Kia in a running lane of the motorway as no alternative was available to the driver.

"The vehicle in which the deceased was a passenger suffered a mechanical defect which caused it to lose power.

"It is not clear where the vehicle could have pulled to a halt in a safe place in these circumstances, given that there was no hard shoulder and all lanes were live. I consider that could create a risk of future deaths."

In January, MPs asked for evidence from Northamptonshire's M1 users after launching an inquiry into controversial traffic management systems on smart motorways.

Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons Transport Select committee said: "The public's confidence in smart motorways has been dented by increasing fatalities on these roads."

A investigation by BBC's Panorama last year revealed 38 people died on Britain’s 200 miles of smart motorways in the previous five years, compared to 90 a year over the whole 2,300-mile network.

But the Government's own stock-take report which followed pointed to lower fatal casualty rates for smart motorways.

At least two other coroners have expressed public concerns following deaths on the M1 in Yorkshire.

One went so far as to refer Highways England, which manages the country's motorway network, to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider if corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate.