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...

Highways England on the road
Highways England on the road

The job

Q: Are you allowed to break the speed limit to get to incidents faster?

A: We're not allowed to exceed the speed limit; our vehicles are tracked in real time, so the control centre knows our every move.

Q: That is what I expected as the response. Do you ever do 70mph, though? Most of the time I see you guys, you're in lane one at around 60mph or so?

A: Yes, we do respond at 70mph – we still have key performance indicators [KPIs] to achieve.

Q: Are you permitted to assist a motorist (eg. a mother with a screaming child) who is struggling to change a tyre?

A: We are not allowed to assist. However, we would occupy the child and give verbal advice on how to change the tyre.

Q: Why are you not allowed to help with the tyre? Is it a liability issue?

A: It's down to health and safety. Plus, we have a set of procedures called overarching rules; basically, our 10 commandments. We're not allowed to do stuff we've not been officially trained to do.

One of our guys had the book thrown at him just for carrying a spider wheel brace. The amount of times they turned up at someone with a puncture who didn't have a wheel brace was unreal.

It's not that we won't help, though. Believe me, after losing a good friend and colleague on the hard shoulder, I don't want anyone to spend longer there than needs be. If it comes down to it, if someone physically can't change a wheel, I will stay with them and let them sit in their vehicle in the warm and dry, I'll put a hard shoulder closure on and stand in the rain monitoring the traffic until recovery arrives. I won't leave until the wheel is changed and the vehicle is on its way. I take my job seriously and the safety of the travelling public on my patch is of the utmost importance to me, as it is to my colleagues, too.

Q: You can't help a young woman with three kids change a tyre in the rain on the hard shoulder in rush hour?

A: I know; colleagues have received words of advice from management for doing it. I have helped to the point of doing it myself, but always making it look like the motorist has done it themselves.

Q: That is crazy. Let's face it, it's just not your job to do it, even though you have the perfect vehicle (could be very easy to carry some very basic tools) to help and let's be honest, most of you have ample experience.

A: To be honest, if I could change them, I would. The powers that be have removed all tools from our vehicles to stop us from doing it. We're not even allowed to change our own tyres!

Q: What happens if one of your vehicles gets a puncture or some damage, then – do you just leave it there and walk off up the hard shoulder?

A: We phone for a tyre fitter and they come and replace the tyre.

Q: How does one identify a HETO vehicle from a normal police car, who have powers to take action on all motoring offences? Is the livery different?

A: We have exemptions to use flashing alternating headlights and flashing rear reds (only the police and ourselves are legally allowed to use these). As with vehicles used by the DVSA [Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency], we have the same colour ‘battenburg’ as that's the colour that was allocated to the Department for Transport. You see all kinds of strange battenburg on the roads, the design is meant to be the most visible on fast roads, hence the reason why our cars are marked the way they are.

To work on the motorways, the vehicle has to have a certain percentage of the visible area in high-visibility reflective covering.

Highways England on the road

Q: Why do your managers send you out on your own, then say you can't attend any incidents because you're on your own? Why do you always say you can't attend incidents 'because we're on changeover', then expect police officers to attend who are also on changeover?

AS: I don't know what area you are in. In the north west, we respond at any time, regardless of changeover. We are not here to replace the police; why tie down a highly trained traffic police officer with mundane minor things when we can do it and leave them to deal with crime?

Q: I always thought that these guys were just police helpers, really; now I know they have even fewer roles. All credit for people helping on the roads but there has to be a better way than paying a task force of people with little responsibility? I'd rather pay for more traffic police.

A: Little responsibility? Minor non-injury road traffic collision (RTCs), live lane debris, breakdowns, abandoned vehicles, pedestrians, carriageway defects, infrastructure damage, traffic management for serious/fatal RTCs fuel spills, rolling road blocks for carriageway repairs, lane closures for offside wagon tyre changes, vehicle fires, etc.

Carriageway clearance to reopen lanes after RTCs, rolling blocks for attempted suicides, sitting with damaged vehicles waiting for recovery, arranging recovery for people without any. We do this on a daily basis.

One of our own was killed by a speeding motorist while waiting for recovery of RTC-damaged vehicles. The list of what we do is extensive. The majority of which doesn't require a police officer; they can put their skills to better use.

Highways England on the road

Q: I used to be on the network a lot in in previous job incarnation and I saw a number of patrols parked up hiding somewhere on service roads.

A: We don't park up and hide; we have designated park up points where we wait to respond to incidents.

Q: Do you administer CPR/first aid in life or death matters? Has there been a situation where you’ve saved someone’s life when the emergency services couldn’t get there in time?

A: We are trained in first aid; I'm also a first aid trainer. There has been an instance where a motorist was having a heart attack on the hard shoulder, no ambulance, police or fire service available, so the patrol went against procedures and took him to hospital, saving his life.

Q: You don't know that.

A: Yes I do – I was the officer that took him. The doctor that treated the casualty said without our quick thinking, the patient wouldn't have survived.

Q: I'm very glad that you did, but another team could have 'followed procedures' and someone wouldn't have survived as a result. This to me would be enough to pull the plug and give the money to the police.

A: As I've previously stated, these are two different budgets; if you get rid of us, the police will still be short-staffed due to budget cuts. Highways England are tasked with the job of running the motorway network; we work for them.

AS: I think this is one which people who are unaware of public spending processes can't grasp or just simply aren't aware of. If we go back far enough, a police traffic officer would have helped fix a car by the roadside. My dad told me about a time in the 1960s when his fanbelt went and the policeman who stopped not only had a fanbelt and tools but put it on for him and wouldn't accept any payment for the belt.

Even in the 80s when my dad’s water pump went, it was a police Range Rover which took me and my mum to the services. Very nice to look back at those days but is that how we'd want public money spent now? I suspect that it would be easy to criticise the management policies but not the people out on the road doing the job.

Highways England on the road

Q: Would you like the authority to deal (or 'pull and chat') with moving traffic violations such as lane hogging, rear fog-lights on, illegal number plates, overtaking on the inside etc?

A: We already have the authority to stop vehicles for defects/safety reasons. As for violations, our management wouldn't go for it as we could spend a lot of time in court instead of patrolling. We have enough staff to do the job, but we would be left short if we were in court all the time.

Q: What are your views on the national speed limits on the roads you patrol? Too high, too low, spot-on correct? If the limit for cars was set at 60mph, do you think there would be more or fewer accidents ? What about if it was set at 80mph? Or maybe you'd favour the German approach?

A: I've patrolled the autobahn. In my opinion, it's not the speed limit that’s the problem, it's incompetent drivers who don't drive to the conditions. I've seen RTCs on all manner of roads with varying speed limits. All I will say is they're out there and they drive among us.

Q: Why do you wear police-like uniforms, including in control centres?

AS: First and foremost, uniform saves a hell of a lot of money on clothes, and apart from socks and shoes is all provided free to the staff. News organisations are constantly wanting to film in the control rooms any time there is anything approaching any kind of weather or other similar disruption and MPs have a bad habit of turning up with the CEO, so it just looks more ‘professional’.

The Traffic Management Act that grants traffic officers their powers stipulates a uniformed officer so turning up in plain clothes would undoubtedly get questioned by any half-intelligent lawyer on occasions.

Q: Why all the temporary speed limits? Why all the motorway closures?

AS: The biggest frustration with the job is people assuming staff set speed limits and closures for the pure joy of annoying people. There are KPIs that govern everything, right down to how fast a log is created on the system and a patrol deployed. These KPIs directly influence the yearly pay awards and performance 'bonuses' so there is zero incentive for staff to leave signs on longer than the absolute minimum required.

A full motorway closure is really not taken lightly. These decisions can be made in the first instance by staff on the ground. However, ultimately full closures are usually only set for a small amount of things; potential suicide, RTC or spillage etc blocking all lanes that can’t be towed or mopped up, police investigating a serious/life changing/fatal RTC etc.

The scrutiny on the justification for full road closures all the way to the top and beyond is unbelievable.

Q: Do you get expenses for the motorway service station priced coffees etc?

We don't get expenses to buy coffee; the company provides free hot drinks at the station. We do get discounted food and drink at some services on production of a union card. This is something the union has negotiated with the services, and not HE.

Next: more confessions from our tame motorway patrolman >

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