Written evidence submitted by Mr Roger Parker (RSM0024)
I am Roger Alan Parker, aged 68, a retired West Midlands Police officer having retired in July 2001. From 1979 to 2001 my role was a Motorway Patrol officer, firstly with the West Midlands Police Motorway Unit to 1990 then from 1990 to 2001 with the Central Motorway Police Group (CMPG)
I was highly qualified vehicle examiner, had basic accident investigation training and from 1987 developed from scratch vehicle mounted video systems integrated with date, time and speed check information, and then in the mid 1990’s further developing the systems to incorporate ANPR to provide patrol cars with instant vehicle alerts of vehicles of interest/stolen, etc. This development saw me drawn onto a national ACPO working party in respect to ANPR development that finished when I retired.
A38M Aston Expressway
My patrol area was specifically the motorways around the West Midlands conurbation, the M6, M5, M42 and the unusual A38M primarily linking the M6 from Gravelly Hill (Spaghetti junction) into Birmingham City centre. The A38M Aston Expressway is unusual as it was originally built as a seven lane single carriageway for two way traffic and no hard shoulder. It was built with comprehensive overhead signalling system and the main section of single carriageway between the M6 and the Birmingham inner ring road junction was always intended to operate what is known as tidal flow traffic management. This would involve changing lane control to provide more capacity for into Birmingham traffic in the morning rush hour and the opposite in the evening.
What lanes were open was always signalled by the many overhead signals above each lane with a downward green arrow for an open lane or a red X for a closed lane. The additional pallet of standard motorway signals for unscheduled lane closures to cater for broken down vehicles etc. was also available. Whilst my first years on Motorway patrol did not see the intended tidal traffic flow in operation drivers were very used to the actual signals. The default operation was to have three lanes into and three lanes out of Birmingham operating with the seventh lane in the middle acting as a safety buffer lane, that was also indicated by a distinctive red tarmac and the road has always been covered by a mandatory 50mph speed limit and has excellent overhead street lighting.
Certainly from a point in the early 1980’s active tidal flow was introduced using the overhead signalling system to add an extra open lane into Birmingham in the morning rush hour and close one outer lane to maintain a buffer lane between traffic flows to reduce traffic build up on the into City carriageways feeding in from suburbs and M6 traffic joining the A38M. This tidal flow was reversed to cater for the afternoon rush hour.
Of note is that the A38M has no provision for a hard shoulder as half is elevated and the other half is in a steep cutting, with just a couple of built in refuge lay-byes on each side. Broken down vehicles were a constant daily problem as most traffic was local commuter traffic and we used our Range Rovers to very quickly remove these obstructions to avoid lengthy traffic build ups. It is noteworthy that I recall few serious collisions on this road because I feel that the motoring public was predominately local and was very familiar with the road layout and this generated a very high level of signal compliance. In other words the driving public was ‘conditioned’ to use this special road correctly from the start; something I feel has relevance to Smart Motorways that I shall return to later.
Some years ago I calculated that during my twenty five year traffic and motorway service I attended several thousand collisions, and that specifically involved over 150 fatalities (ranging between one and six deaths per incident). There were of course a larger number of injury and even more damage only collisions that I attended, but that overall this significant experience provided the opportunity to note various common aspects from which some reasonable conclusions can be drawn.
Most of the UK’s motorway has been built with a standard two or three live running lanes, (four or more lanes in more recent decades), then almost all have a hard shoulder to the left (nearside) of the running lanes to provide a continuous refuge for vehicles breaking down or for other emergency situations. This format has formed the basic layout for the British driver since the arrival of motorways and this is the format in their metal picture of a UK motorway.
There is the effort made to raise the profile of motorways as ‘Special roads’ with the provision of specific legislation governing their use and the highly visible blue signing to separate them from all other UK roads. This has indeed raised their profile to something different to any other mostly two lane, occasionally three lane non-motorway dual carriageways. Placing motorways on this visible plinth has generated a different mindset with most drivers.
One aspect of placing motorways on a plinth seen though my Police service, and since from my less frequent observation as a simple motorway user following retirement, is that whilst the motorways have been ‘Special Roads’ a significantly high proportion of users are not regular users in the same way as the commuters in and out of Birmingham on the A38M. This has always led to more drivers failing to understand or simply ignoring the dedicated motorway signalling system, even though the overhead signals provide up to nearly two miles of advance warning of a lane closure, together with signing on the carriageway for roadworks. The frequency of seeing the non-observing driver literally driving up to or ‘climbing the cones’ before an often sudden and sometimes dangerous move into an adjacent lane, or the frightening stopping in the carriageway was always troubling!
When I used to see this whilst on patrol in a fully liveried Police patrol Range Rover in daylight and superb driving conditions, I would later safely stop the vehicle and speak with its errant driver and ask why did you not conform to the signals and signs and change lane? A somewhat worrying replay was often, ‘I didn’t see them’, or an even more worrying reply, ‘there were no cones here yesterday’! This starts to allude to the state of mind of those driver and they are not alone.
Driver’s lack of observation
That reference to a fully liveried Range Rover highlights what we used to say generated a ‘law abiding bubble’ within the visual zone around the Police car where drivers would drive in an unnatural manner to their normal style with the intent to avoid any unwanted attention from us. However we would still have drivers blindly continue in contravention of signing, both the overhead signals and the physical signing prior to lane closures and when stopped the drivers would often be completely unaware they had been committing offences.
It may be a surprise to those who haven’t had the Police patrol experience I and other officers have had, but the surprisingly high number of drivers who with full sight of the liveried patrol car, when approaching from behind at significantly above the speed limit, simply fail to respond to the Police cars presence as most drivers do, and continue at their unlawful speeds right past the Police car. When later stopped and confronted with the question of why you didn’t slow down when you came upon and passed the Police car, a considerable number of drivers responded by saying, ‘I didn’t see you’, or ‘I don’t believe you as of course I would have seen you’. With the advent of on board video able to fully replay the errant driver’s actions many were completely dumbfounded at the now irrefutable facts. My response to these drivers was to ask them if you can’t see a bright yellow and blue liveried Police patrol Range Rover with a huge blue light bar on the roof what else do you miss?
Aside from these examples with fortunately minor or no consequences there were others with completely the opposite consequences that involved fatalities. Around one in six of all incidents we dealt with involved something or someone on the hard shoulder. Overnight in both lit and unlit straight sections of motorway it was not that uncommon to have apparently illogical two vehicle collisions, when one vehicle was stationary on the hard shoulder and the other vehicle was travelling apparently normally in a running lane before moving across onto the hard shoulder and striking the stationary vehicle
Drivers of the vehicle that hit the stationary vehicle I have spoken with said that they could not explain why they had strayed onto the hard shoulder and hit the stationary vehicle, but the fact that this type of collision was not unknown to us and I can recall several attracting press attention and quite wide coverage displayed something of a pattern. I can recall dealing with two very similar night time collisions on the M6 between Junctions 5 and 6 (Castle Bromwich to Gravelly Hill), a very well-lit section and both on straighter parts of that section. One was a single broken down vehicle with its weak hazard lights on, sitting fully on the hard shoulder, whilst the other was similar aside from a brightly painted and illuminated recovery truck, with amber flashing and hazard lights on. In both cases traffic flow was very light, dry weather with excellent visibility.
I have no doubt that many studies have looked into the background and causation of this type of collision, but the fact this was a repeating scenario with many common factors mentioned, plus importantly this was usually well into a longer journey for the driver of the moving vehicle. This led me to believe that the driver of the moving vehicle had entered into a state of ‘mental autopilot’ where he was capable of progressing along a continuing relatively featureless motorway until the attraction of something visually different tended to see the driver perhaps unconsciously steering at what his eyes were looking at. Importantly as these were common at night during low density traffic flows means that tiredness was probably a contributory factor, but to say it was the totally cause I feel would be inaccurate.
I also have examples of being at the scene of a collision where there are lane closures signalled by overhead gantries and temporary signing placed well prior to the start of the coned off section. Traffic continued flowing well with no actual traffic queuing as the flow was still accommodated by the remaining open lanes. Worryingly there were too many situations of drivers who would drive in the closed lane all the way to our tapered cones then often stop and have to be sternly told to move. Indeed there were times when dealing with an incident the sound of squealing or sliding tyres would see a vehicle having to take avoiding action to miss the cones, although hitting them was not that unusual!
One specific incident sticks clearly in mind when on a misty night on the lit section of the M42 near the NEC dealing with a multiple collision following a hay lorry losing part of its load. Advance signals, signing and cones were in place as previously described. Then there was the loud sound of a large vehicle sliding and out of the gloom came a jack knifing artic that scattered our cones like ninepins and saw us scattering to find a safer position. Where I was at that time left me with the only option to jump over the central barrier as a poor substitute for a safer place! Fortunately the driver caught the slide and drove on past the incident but colleagues stopped him a couple of miles further on. His excuse; 'I didn’t see any signs or signals’. This prompted a check of the overhead signalling that was still displaying as intended.
Individual assessment of this excuse aside, this repeated theme of drivers who have failed to respond to the prevailing conditions, even though the very obvious warnings of an incident are present shows a pattern. Theirs is a simple failing to exercise the required degree of concentration in their driving and have failed to respond to the prevailing conditions. They are normal people and their failing is something that can and does affect many normal drivers.
It is pertinent to this enquiry that a length of the M42 between the M6 and M40 was chosen for testing the principle of what has become known as Smart Motorway, but what was at the time described as controlled hard shoulder running. At the time the proposal was announced the opinion of both me and pretty much every fellow motorway patrol officer was significantly negative as we envisaged more serious issues from turning the hard shoulder into a running lane on a variable basis. The circumstances of the previous incidents indicated why we had this focussed negative opinions, so the relatively low reported incident/collision/casualty rates on Smart Motorways when the hard shoulder is being used as a running lane has been a surprise.
Clearly the main danger of collisions on a hard shoulder running as a live lane is much greater when a vehicle breaks down away from one of the provided refuges in what is now a live lane. Oddly as it may seem to some but there is less chance of a collision when the traffic is heavy and builds up to form a queue as significantly slowed traffic doesn’t have the speed to lead to collisions and if there are any they are minor. No, the bigger issue is when the traffic flows are lighter and consequently the individual average speed of the moving vehicles is greater. Speed differentials are always the major element of the seriousness of collisions and in conditions where drivers alert levels may not be as good as is expected then reaction to a stationary vehicle can often come too late.
It is also the case that the conditions affecting the drivers I have mentioned will always affect a small proportion of drivers and so there will always remain a risk of collisions due to an inattentive driver passing through a hard shoulder running section when there also happens to be a stationary or very slow moving vehicle. As I have indicated the provision of advanced signals to close that lane will also not get through to a small proportion of drivers, so even if there is advanced and effective stationary vehicle monitoring and automatic signal activation, the collision risk will always remain higher than if there is a hard shoulder for the slow or stationary vehicle to use.
That aspect of slow moving vehicles is of vehicles that haven’t fully broken down and are still able to move and the driver hopes to make it to a refuge, or off at the next junction, although very slowly, be that from a mechanical failing, or perhaps a puncture where the driver is trying to progress to a refuge on a deflated tyre doesn’t allow progress at more than just a few MPH. This vehicle then becomes a ‘moving target’ and overhead signals can become inaccurate as the vehicle moves from its first detected position.
My penultimate observation relates to the road markings that have to be created for a Smart Motorway. In normal conditions the hard shoulder is separated from the running lanes by a solid unbroken white line that has legal standing and crossing that line except for a defined reason constitutes an offence (or did do in my patrol time). In more recent years this strip has been laid in a castle ramparts format to create what is commonly called the ‘rumble strip’ to alert drivers when their tyres come into contact with it, something that was not present for any of the collisions I refer too above. Where there are junctions or other defined exits or accesses to the motorway the white line either terminates to the left kerb line or turns into a broken white line and the meaning is much the same as similar solid and unbroken white lines on other roads.
Another problem with a Smart Motorway is that the junctions have now to cater for two conflicting sets of road markings that inevitably ends up in a confusing mess and there doesn’t appear to be any obvious way these inert markings can be improved. This I see on the M42 section when driving always sees one driver failing to observe the signal control and driving on the hard shoulder when hard shoulder running is inactive. Again this illustrating the small element of drivers whose actions or inactions will always poses an additional risk. Lastly I would point out that some hard shoulders are narrower than the normal hard shoulder width, usually elevated sections where widening is impossible without reconstruction of the whole elevated motorway, but driving on them demands greater driver concentration to stay in that narrowed lane.
My conclusion is that roads are essentially inert and it is how drivers use them that create situations that lead to collisions, injury and death, except in very rare situations. With there being an inherent risk involved with the use of any road what we have to face with Smart Motorways is whether that risk has been raised significantly above the general risk for that section of motorway when there is a normal hard shoulder available for breakdowns. I can certainly see operation of the hard shoulder as a running lane creates different risks or increased previous risk and the question is whether we are prepared to accept these as we accept the risks for driving anywhere else.