A lorry driver who killed two men when his truck ploughed into their vehicles on a stretch of smart motorway has told an inquest he believes he would have avoided them if there had been a hard shoulder.

Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died when a lorry driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba crashed into their vehicles after they stopped on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield, an inquest into their deaths was told.

Szuba, 40, from Hull, was jailed for 10 months in October last year after admitting causing the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu by careless driving.

Answering questions over the phone from prison, Szuba told the hearing he accepted he was driving without paying proper attention, telling a coroner: “I have already accepted that at my trial.”

But he told the inquest: “If there had been a hard shoulder on this bit of motorway, the collision would have been avoidable.

“I would have driven past these two cars as it would be safer and they would have been able to come home safely and I would be able to come back home.”

Szuba told the inquest at Sheffield Town Hall he had only three to five seconds to react, and asked if he would have avoided the crash if he had been paying attention, he said: “It’s difficult to say after everything now.”

He also confirmed that he had no specific training in driving on a smart motorway.

Sergeant Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the hearing: “Had there been a hard shoulder, had Jason and Alexandru pulled on to the hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them.”

But Sgt Brady accepted that the primary cause of the crash was Szuba’s inattention to the road.

The hearing heard how the tragedy happened on June 7 2019 after a slight collision between a Ford Focus driven by Mr Mercer, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and a Ford Transit driven by Mr Murgeanu, who was living in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but was originally from Romania.

The two vehicles stopped in lane one of the four-lane motorway just north of junction 34, on the northbound carriageway, and both men had got out of their vehicles.

Widow Claire Mercer arrives at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest into the deaths of her husband, Jason Mercer, and Alexandru Murgeanu
Widow Claire Mercer arrives at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest (Danny Lawson/PA)

Coroner David Urpeth was told the vehicles had been stationary for about six minutes when they were hit by Szuba’s Mercedes lorry, which was travelling at a speed-regulated 56mph.

Mr Mercer’s wife Claire, who has been a prominent campaigner against smart motorways since her husband’s death, watched proceedings in court with her legal team.

Max Brown, the head of road design for Highways England, told the inquest that data showed smart motorways had reduced casualty rates by 18% by one measure and 23% by another.

Mr Brown accepted that the removal of the hard shoulder was an added hazard but said this was “offset” by a range of other safety measures which come with all lane running motorways.

Asked by the coroner whether he thought this collision would have been avoided if there was a hard shoulder, he said: “My honest opinion is that it is too close to call. I can’t say it’s more likely than not.”

Pressed by Jason Pitter QC, representing Ms Mercer, Mr Brown admitted it was likely, “on the balance of probability”, that the crash would have been avoided if the lorry had continued on the path it was travelling and the stationary vehicles were on a hard shoulder.

Mr Brown said smart motorways were introduced to ease congestion without the environmental impact of road widening but said they were designed “without compromising safety”.

He stressed that congestion was a key hazard on the motorway due to the number of incidents in which vehicles collide with queuing traffic.

Mr Brown accepted that, on this stretch of the M1, the casualty rate measure had increased since the smart motorway was introduced in March 2017 but stressed there was only one year of data available.

He also talked about further planned safety measures, including the introduction of automatic systems to detect stationary vehicles, which are due to be introduced to the M1 in South Yorkshire next month.

Mr Brown said Highways England has also contributed to a forthcoming update to the Highway Code to cover smart motorways.