Gridlocked nation

One thing is sure as we approach the big Bank Holiday weekend. Today, tomorrow and especially during the weekend, thousands of people will be stuck in traffic jams caused by accidents. “There must have been a crash” we always say as the cars ahead come to a complete standstill. Why, we ask ourselves, does this happen again and again?

While we are all used to the occasional hold-up, there have been some recent big delays that have been far longer than usual. Twice this month a section of the M25 has been closed for several hours in the aftermath of crashes and in south west London on Tuesday there was gridlock following an accident. And the A1 Holloway Road in north London was closed for seven hours in early August, causing the whole area to grind to a halt, when a pensioner was killed by a lorry one lunchtime.

In fact, all these incidents had one thing in common: they followed fatal accidents and it is now taking far longer to clear the roads after these incidents. The reason is advice given to police forces in a booklet called the ‘Road Death Investigation Manual’ published in the mid 1990s by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It was published because of growing complaints by families that deaths on the road of their loved ones were not properly investigated and that relatives of victims were not kept properly informed, sometimes not even being told when an inquest was taking place until the night before. The police reckon that many deaths were never investigated and some drivers got away with serious offences for which they were never prosecuted.

While no one would quibble with these improvements, the booklet starts from the premise that a death on the road has to be treated like any other suspicious death and the immediate task of the first police to arrive on the scene is to close off the area with tape, ensuring nothing can come in or out. Then it can only be reopened by a senior investigating officer, who may take hours to reach the scene.

This is a blunderbuss approach that leaves no room for initiative by local police officers. According to one disgruntled ex policeman, ‘if you tell the police to do something, they will follow that advice blindly. So they will close the road even if it is perfectly obvious what happened, and they will wait for a senior investigating officer to come along.’ In the meantime, the roads for miles around grind to a halt.

Moreover, under health and safety legislation, the road is likely to be closed in both directions. Previously, traffic on the other side would be allowed to proceed cautiously but now that is reckoned to be too dangerous and this causes extra delays because the area being gridlocked is much greater if no traffic can get through.

There are, on average, nine deaths on the roads every day, and there tend to be more at bank holidays, so delays caused by these new procedures are inevitable. The good news is that delays caused by non-fatal accidents are being reduced. The Highways Agency now employs a team of 1,500 traffic officers who are responsible for clearing up after accidents with the remit that they should try to get the traffic going as quickly as possible. They have the power to remove vehicles and to order repairs of the road but if there has been a death or injury, then the police have to be involved. The team has only just been brought up to full strength but according to the motoring organisations the benefits are already been seen in a reduction of the delay between an incident and the road being cleared.

In London, too, things are set to improve as Transport for London is about to set up a similar unit that can respond to accidents more quickly than the police and clear the roads faster. The problem at the moment is that every police division and London borough seem to have different policies about how to clear accident sites and TfL is hoping this will change in the future.

About a quarter of road congestion is due to what the experts called “unplanned incidents” or accidents to you or me. The second biggest cause, apart from sheer volume of traffic, is road works and here there has been virtually no progress despite government promises and legislation stretching back to the early 1990s.

For years successive governments have promised that road works could be coordinated and the utilities and cable companies made to pay to take over roads which would be a big incentive to ensuring that holes were not left for months on end and that the same street was not dug up several times in the same year. First there was the Public Utilities and Street Works Act 1991 which proved to be totally useless, and a couple of years later the New Roads & Street Works Act under which councils were supposed to create a computerised system to monitor street works.

But it never happened. The company appointed to provide the computer system, EDS, fell out with the local authorities and somehow, despite the waste of tens of millions of taxpayers’ money, no system was ever introduced. Now there is a third piece of legislation, the Traffic Management Act 2004 But Kevin Delaney, head of traffic and road safety at the RAC Foundation is sceptical about whether things will get better: ‘We’ve heard all this before. The councils have not been given the resources to set up management systems, and the utilities have the money to employ top dollar clever consultants to show why they need their holes in the road and they tend to run rings round the local authorities.’

One of the problems is the reduction in the number of traffic police, now called “roads policing specialists” (as opposed to non-specialists which is any other policeman who happens to be on the road!). They have been largely replaced by speed and traffic light cameras but while those are efficient at reducing injuries and deaths at blackspots, they are no good at spotting and preventing bad driving. And it is these bad drivers, a small minority of road users, who are most likely to be the cause of major accidents that cause disruption.

However, while it would be a good idea to bring back traffic police to patrol the roads, they are worse than useless at trying to control traffic when things go wrong which is why you never see them at broken down traffic lights. Traffic lights are now controlled by sophisticated computers that cannot be replaced by a few bobbies waving their arms: ‘Essentially, they make things worse” says Delaney.” They are likely to send too many people through too quickly to the next traffic lights, causing a bottleneck there and so on. It is best just to leave motorists to sort it out themselves.’

Overall, therefore, even the RAC has only one solution to avoid the congestion. According to Delaney, “the roads in London and many other parts of the country are full. The only way to get a reduction in congestion is for more people to use public transport.” So when the motoring organisations are telling us not to use our cars so much, it is clear that drivers are going to be fuming in traffic jams for a long time to come.

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