Confessions of a Highways England patrolman
From saving lives on the side of a motorway to the real reason why they drive so slowly, these are the confessions of our tame motorway patrolman...
Q: How are traffic levels measured for real-time monitoring?
SA: Look for inductive loops in every lane, approximately every 500m where the system is installed – look for resin lines about 2x1 metre where the Tarmac has been cut. Or if it’s new all-lane running zones they are installing Radar Midas – look for a white rectangular box on a street lighting pole, again every 500m or so but only one detector is needed for both carriageways.
In hard shoulder-running smart motorways, the cameras mounted every 100m are for monitoring the hard shoulder for breakdowns/obstructions for when it is open to traffic.
There is also a relatively new technology called stopped vehicle detection in place on parts of the M25 that uses radar to detect carriageway obstructions and flag up alarms in the control centres, but is still very much in its infancy.
Q: How long does it take the police to report accidents to HE?
A: There have been a few incidents we have come across on patrol where the police have been in attendance and we haven't been informed. However, those incidents are rare; we normally get informed pretty promptly.
Q: Are there special rules for security vans?
A: Yes. The cash vans have strict rules – no one is allowed to help them unless the police are on scene. I've stopped for a few with punctures – they hold a pre-printed laminated sheet to the glass stating police have been informed and are on the way, and that recovery are also on the way.
Q: What are the rules for potholes on the motorway?
You won't find a pothole of large size on a HE motorway, as we call them in immediately and they get temporarily repaired by our contractors as a priority.
Q: What's the best thing to do should one break down in the outside lane of a motorway?
A: Obviously avoid it if you can possibly do so. If not, you will need to get out of your vehicle. If there is a large enough gap in traffic, or traffic is light, get yourself over to the hard shoulder and to a place of safety.
If you are near an orange emergency phone, inform our control room immediately. Failing that, phone 999 and give what motorway you are on, direction of travel and the nearest marker post number. Even better would be a marker plate as that gives you the motorway, carriageway and marker post number. Marker plates are 500m apart, marker posts are 100m apart.
Q: My understanding is that HETOs don't carry passengers and they are limited to 20mph on the hard shoulder – is that right?
A: We do carry passengers. There's been many an occasion where we have taken a mother and her children to the services to wait in the warm and dry for recovery, while leaving dad to wait with the car. Our procedures dictate that we go no faster than 20mph on the hard shoulder.
Q: Do you have carte blanche to use the hard shoulder to bypass traffic or just to get to an incident? The reason I ask is I have seen HETOs use the hard shoulder to bypass ‘normal’ congestion (ie. the hold-ups in the same place every day that you get very used to when commuting) and then after the congestion they're trundling along in lane one again.
A: We run the hard shoulder all time, as what appears to be 'normal' congestion could be the result of an RTC. So we'll get to the head of the congestion to see what's causing it. If we know why there's congestion, we'll set signals and sit on the nearest observation platform to monitor it.
Want to read more confessions? We recently ran a separate Q&A session with a car salesman, with plenty of tips for consumers as well as juicy stories from the forecourt.