Highways England has been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider a charge of corporate manslaughter.
The referral follows the death of Nargis Begum on a stretch of smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire.
Today a Doncaster coroner held a pre-inquest review hearing for Mrs Begum’s case, during which she decided that there was “more than sufficient evidence” for the charge to have “proper scrutiny by the CPS,” as quoted by Civil Engineer magazine.
Begum was killed in September 2018 after her car broke down near Woodall Services on the M1. She exited the vehicle after calling for help and was hit by her own car after it was impacted by another vehicle.
Coroner Nicola Mundy made her decision on the basis of how long the stationary vehicle went undetected. She noted that Begum’s car was hit 16 minutes after it broke down and that it took six minutes for warning lights to be lit above the carriageway.
Another key factor was reports of previous near accidents on smart motorways, where 38 people, including Begum, have been killed in the last five years.
Munday said: "I will invite the CPS to review this matter and undertake any investigations they deem necessary to enable them to take the decision as to whether or not criminal charges are appropriate in this case."
In defence of Highways England, lawyer Nicholas Chapman said: "The fact that Highways England once placed a hard shoulder on the road does not mean they are under a general common law duty to do so.
“There can be no assumption that Highways England irrevocably assumes responsibility to provide hard shoulders on all motorways for all time. There is no duty of care so the case for corporate manslaughter falls at the first hurdle."
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “This is a significant moment for ‘smart’ motorways and highlights many failings, previously raised by the AA, that should have been spotted before the first fatalities, and clearly need urgent action.
“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.”
The news of the CPS referral follows months of high-profile scrutiny of smart motorways. Last month, a YouGov poll found that most British people opposed the roads, with 64% considering them less safe than conventional motorways with hard shoulders.
This culminated in the admission by transport secretary Grant Shapps in February that smart motorways are “anything but”. Despite this, however, he has ruled out their removal.