Most drivers will have aimed a few choice grumbles at whoever was responsible for setting the overhead warning signs on a motorway, usually after obeying their warnings of problems ahead, only to find the road completely clear!
I certainly have, at least until a visit to the Highways England Control Centre at Godstone in Surrey arranged by a car club of which I am a member. Highways England, it turns out, are the folk who are responsible for those messages on the overhead signs, and what we discovered on our Godstone visit made us see the signs, and the organisation, in a new light altogether.
Crucially, we discovered that Highways England Control Centres have the sole responsibility for keeping the motorways open – not the Police as many of us had believed. And their key purpose in life is to get a motorway obstruction safely cleared and the road reopened as quickly as possible.
The team inside the innocuous-looking Godstone Centre, tucked away on a small industrial estate just off the M25, is responsible for the motorway network covering most of the south-east.
One tool in their work is the array of overhead cameras which you may have spotted perched on lofty poles at the side of the motorway. Surprising many people, we were advised that these are not speed cameras, they exist purely to monitor the free flow of traffic, or otherwise. However, those of a less than law-abiding disposition should note that the footage they record is stored, so could well be used as evidence of particularly foolhardy driving.
The camera outputs are monitored on a huge “video wall” by a small team at Godstone twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes, therefore, the team can spot an incident on the cameras as it happens, and quickly alert the necessary organisations to deal with it.
Given the limited number of operators and the large number of cameras across the motorway network, the main initial source of information about an incident for the team is however from a phone call, either from a member of the public or occasionally the police, fire or ambulance service. All calls from the emergency phones at the side of the motorway go through to either the Godstone Control Room or one of its counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
The level of manning in the Control Room varies according to expected traffic density – a Bank Holiday weekend, for example, will see more operators on duty than say a quiet overnight midweek. Each operator has a bank of screens and controls in front of him or her, allowing them to control the relevant cameras, switch overhead sign information as required, and communicate with the Traffic Officers on the motorway network. On the increasing number of “Smart Motorways”, the Control Room team also operate the speed limit and lane closure signs above each carriageway.
Trials are also underway of live monitoring of systems to monitor traffic speeds and automatically alert the Control Room to any sudden traffic reduction, and such systems will doubtless be introduced on a wider basis as the technology develops. Other operators handle communications both into and out of the Control Room, for example, to alert local radio and TV stations of incidents as they develop. Indeed, BBC Radio Surrey and Sussex’s very own traffic reporter, Sylvie Blackmore, works from a mini radio studio in one corner of the Control Room.
The Operator has only seconds to decide……
Once an incident is reported, the Control Room operator is allowed only seconds to decide how to alert traffic heading towards a reported incident. And guess what the biggest problem they face in responding to a caller’s message is: us, the road users!
Why? Because usually, the caller has no real idea of exactly where they are on the motorway, or in some instances, even what motorway they are on, particularly when they use a mobile phone to call. If it’s safe to do so, it’s better to use one of the emergency phones at the side of the motorway, which are numbered so the operator can easily identify the location. If you have to use a mobile phone, try to give the operator the number of the closest marker post – these are located around 100 metres apart on every motorway.
Even if, and when, the operator then locates the incident using the cameras – which can all pan and zoom to improve viewing – it can still be unclear what action is needed to deal with it. In the meantime, the risk of several lanes of traffic rapidly approaching a possible incident means that an overhead sign warning must be set within those first few seconds. If at that stage the incident is still unclear, or indeed unverified (yes, people do sadly raise false alarm calls), these messages will include the word “reported”, for example “report of accident ahead”.
As soon as the incident has been positively located and its severity identified, the appropriate action can then be taken, and the overhead sign message will be amended to give more information or any important instructions. So if you see an overhead sign which does not include the word “reported”, be especially wary – they are warning that a real incident has taken place.
In most cases, the incident relates to a breakdown, and Highways England (not the Police) are solely responsible for dealing with these, via the black and yellow chequered 4×4’s often visible on the motorways.
No speeding allowed!
Despite the Traffic Officers in these 4×4’s being the first-response crews at an incident and so acting almost as a fourth emergency service, they are – amazingly – not allowed to drive using blue lights or sirens, indeed are not allowed – under pain of the loss of their driving licences – to exceed the speed limit. This often results in a crew rushing at their best-permitted speed to an incident whilst traffic hurtles past them merrily ignoring the speed limit – and the overhead warning signs!
Once at an incident, the crew must quickly set out cones to protect the area, assess the situation, and update Control with any need for other emergency services. Once this is completed, the crew’s duty is solely to get that motorway fully open again as soon as possible. In the case of, for example, a breakdown in one of the “live lanes”, this entails dragging the affected vehicle out of the live lanes to a place of safety. If you’ve ever wondered enviously why the Traffic Officers drive around in those big 4×4’s, the reason is here – those 4×4’s are entirely capable of dragging a fully laden 44-tonne articulated vehicle out of the way!
How to close a motorway
Quite often the crew need to make a temporary motorway closure to protect an incident site, allowing a vehicle or debris to be removed from the carriageway, and this is carried out routinely by just one two-man crew. This impressive “Rolling Road Block” feat is performed by the crew driving the 4×4 being driven towards the incident site. Whilst still a considerable distance away, the 4×4 is driven, at motorway speed, into the middle lane and the “Do Not Pass” warning signs illuminated. The 4×4 then gradually slows all lanes of traffic to a halt a safe distance from the incident. One crew member then runs forward and begins to deal with the incident whilst the other speaks to the lead drivers in the stationary traffic lanes to ensure that they do not drive off until given the all-clear.
With more information passed back to the Control Room about the incident, the Control Room operators will then set the overhead signs as appropriate, for example, closing lanes, particularly on a Smart Motorway, to protect the site and those involved in the incident. They will also alert Police, Fire and Ambulance services as necessary. The Control Room operators will also update local radio etc. about the incident.
As soon as any vehicles and debris have been cleared from the motorway, the Traffic Officers restart the traffic flowing, and finally update the Control Room to advise that the incident is resolved. Not until then can the Control Room switch the overhead signs off.
Damage-only incidents are dealt with entirely by the Traffic Officers. Only in the case of a major incident, perhaps where injuries have taken place, will the Police, Ambulance and Fire Service attend as needed. They will then take over responsibility for the incident site until the risks to life and limb have been addressed, with the Traffic Officers on standby to direct traffic as necessary. Only once the hazards have been addressed and any necessary post-incident forensic investigations completed, can the site be handed back to the Traffic Officers, whose duty is then to get the motorway reopened as quickly as possible.
A real-life demonstration……
One of the 4×4’s and its crew had been arranged to be present at the Godstone site for our inspection. However, by pure chance, as we were being shown around the Control Centre a broken-down car was spotted in a “live lane” of the M25, and the crew were urgently dispatched to deal with the incident. We were privileged, and somewhat awed, to watch the incident unfold on the video screens as the crew averted what could have been a very nasty accident: first performing a textbook rolling roadblock, then dragging the breakdown clear of the motorway before reopening the road, all in minutes, before returning to Godstone to demonstrate their vehicle and its equipment to us.
The work of the Traffic Officers can be incredibly dangerous: close proximity to a busy motorway is a very dangerous place to be, and sadly more than one of them has lost their life whilst performing their duties.
So next time you see the overhead warning signs operating, drive accordingly, but spare a thought for all the work going on behind the scenes to keep us all safe, and moving, on our motorway network.
Interested? Find out more about the work of Highways England on their website: https://highwaysengland.co.uk/