Life at the sharp end of dealing with problems on our motorways
REMOVING a staircase from a motorway and being the first on scene to a serious car crash can be a typical day for The Highways Agency’s traffic officers.
Reporter Miranda Newey spent the morning shadowing two of the agency’s traffic officers responsible for keeping traffic running smoothly in the region.
FORMED 10 years ago, The Highways Agency was created to operate, maintain and improve the road network in England.
Nationally, employees of the government body work around the clock to keep traffic on 4,300 miles of roads including motorways and major A roads moving.
There was no time to waste after meeting traffic officers Rick Bateman and Chris Billingsley, who have both been doing the job for eight years, at 7am at a Highways Agency depot in Milnrow, Rochdale as reports had been received of a collision on the M60.
As we got near to it a broken down vehicle was brought to the attention of officers.
It was in the middle lane near to junction 14 at Worsley in the anti-clockwise direction.
The broken down vehicle causing tailbacks.
As we got closer it became clear the car had a young baby on board.
With the Highways Agency’s vehicle lights flashing Mr Billingsley jumped out and stopped traffic to allow people in the broken down car to get to safety on the hard shoulder.
The family of two grandparents, their daughter and their six-month-old grandson were travelling to a hospital appointment from Lytham, Blackpool, when the blue Rover 200 broke down.
Before being able to leave the scene the traffic officers needed to ensure the family had arranged for recovery — they had no policy had to make numerous calls to transfer money between accounts before activating a breakdown service.
A short time later we spotted cars swerving into the hard shoulder.
When we saw the first car swerve we put it down to a distracted driver but traffic officer Billingsley stopped traffic in lane one by directing an HGV to stop then stepped into the carriageway and removed a large piece of plastic, which appeared to have come from a car.
The traffic officers said people sometimes think motorways are being shut “for the sake of it” but causing delays is the Highways Agency’s last intention as staff would rather the roads were free from tailbacks.
Traffic officer Bateman said: “We are most likely to get abuse when there is a road block in place and people don’t want to stop for whatever reason. Some people don’t understand what we are there for and what we have to do. We get a little bit of abuse when we close carriageways.
“If somebody has broken down people will no doubt go past and shout or beep their horns because they think they are funny.
“We understand people will get frustrated and it’s our aim to alleviate that as soon as possible. When there’s a police incident it about police to gather evidence they need then get the motorway back open.”
Louise Boothman, a Highways Agency team manager based the regional control room, added: “Evidence is lost if it is not retrieved there and then. We put pressure on the police and ask if they can be a bit quicker but it never escapes us that police are there because somebody needs help.
“If was someone in your family involved in the incident you would want it investigated properly, not rushed. We do open closures as quickly and promptly as we can.”
The traffic officers said their job can involve being the first at the scene of serious crashes, involving fatalities.
Other incidents they respond to can range from broken down cars to animals on the road.
Some of the more unusual call-outs have been a full wooden staircase in the carriageway, a Premiership footballer wearing shorts and flip-flops in the cold weather after breaking down and reports of a naked woman driving alongside lorries on the motorway.
They also responded to a crash involving a suspected drink driver, which transpired to be a diabetic driver who had taken ill behind the wheel.
While shadowing the men they also removed a dead cat from a motorway slip road, which was causing drivers to swerve.
Traffic officer Bateman, a former police officer, said: “My brain must be controlled that it just switches off when I finish the shift. We are there to do the job and I just cope in that way. It is not until after incidents that you think about what you have just done and what you are dealing with.
“We get quite a lot of police enquiries from people who assume we have taken the police’s place. There’s certain times when you think people need to look at their lives when they aren’t prepared for example people run out of fuel, have got no mobile phone battery or credit to make a call but if people didn’t do those things we wouldn’t have a job. Some people just need help. People will say “it says I have 12 miles left of petrol” but what they don’t realise is that they are about to climb to the top of the motorway.”