I spend a lot of time on the roads. More than I thought I’d be doing at this stage in my life, but as a driver who still enjoys himself behind the wheel, when the opportunity arises, I’m okay with that. There are lots of annoyances with driving in modern Britain, and I won’t bore you with those – but, ultimately, you can’t change those, so why get annoyed by them?
Well, I ask that as a rhetorical question because whatever the answer, people will always:
- Be far too passive-aggressive
- Always park inconsiderately
- Speed through 30mph limits
- Tailgate or drive too close
- Annoyingly crash into each other
- Refuse to signal their intentions
- Distracted by their phones while driving
- Show no aptitude for using their lights correctly
As I say, you can’t control others, so there’s no point getting worked up about it. Besides, as we all know, getting stressed to no end can be extremely unhealthy – the brain produces cortisone, and too much of that over a sustained period leads to all manner of medical problems. So, less stress is a very healthy thing.
…as I say, I drive a lot. And I like driving. No, in fact, I love driving. And one of my best pleasures is a long, quiet overnight drive. It’s a time to cover distances
quickly efficiently, and avoid the worst of the above list. The roads are quietest, and generally those drivers you encounter are there for a reason, and very good at what they do.
However, over the past five or six years, the enjoyment of the night drive has been massively eroded. There’s been a huge swing towards major road building and rectification work taking place exclusively overnight in order to lessen inconvenience during the busy periods. That, I can handle, as it’s for the greater good and all that. But there are aspects of this policy I am really struggling to accept.
For one, although it’s good to lessen the impact of road works, why is it that Highways England chooses to close roads and motorways in their entirety instead of narrowing them down and keeping the traffic flowing? Other countries seem to manage to avoid this situation. Night after night, week-in, week-out, our main arteries are being closed, causing untold (and illness-inducing) stress for drivers.
As you’ll see if you’ve clicked the link above, the Traffic England website is designed to keep drivers in the know about closures and major road works, allowing them to plan their journeys and avoid those nasty delays and diversions. It’s all part of the communication piece, isn’t it? Well, actually no.
The art of communications is where Highways England falls down massively. For one, the information on that website isn’t to be trusted. I’ve repeatedly checked it before planning a journey, only to find that half way in, I’ve hit a closure, diversion or some other hold up that looks planned and far from unintended. Perhaps there’s been an issue, and the police have closed the road. But so many times?
Secondly, when there are closures, if you’re relying simply on the advanced warnings from the overhead matrix signs, forget that. If you’re on a long journey, they might tell you there’s a closure, but you’ll be presented with that information in the form of the Da Vinci Code – or junction numbers. And, if you live in Surrey, it’s hardly likely you’re going to know the junction numbers in Northumberland.
Even if you’re lucky you might even know the junction number and understand where the closure is, and then find that you’re too close to make a meaningful diversion. And that’s when you’ll end up routing through our country’s delightful B-roads and villages in the dead of night, with just a convoy of lost HGVs to keep you company. Or worse: stuck on a road with grass growing up the middle.
‘It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’ – Brian Stimpson, Clockwise
Thirdly, the diversions themselves. So, because you had no idea they were coming, you’ve arrived at a closure and have been diverted off the motorway or main road. You’re likely to be in a part of the country you’re not familiar with and equipped with a navigation system that’s hellbent on getting you back on the road you’ve been diverted off.
And that’s when you end up relying on those yellow diversion signs. Bad move… Up in Cumbria, on one particularly unsavoury closure, if you’d followed those, you’d have ended up taking a 73-mile diversion. More often than not, those diversion signs are wrong anyway. I remember one night on the A1, the diversion sign led me into a truck stop near Scotch Corner.
Or how about the time they closed the M6 near Coventry (again without warning), and diverted the contents of the motorway onto the city ring road. Bad move, as there were closures there due to major works, which led to stationary traffic stretching into hours.
Another diversion sign near some highly disruptive closures on the northbound A1 in Cambridgeshire simply advised drivers to do a U-turn (with no subsequent southbound diversion to follow it up). Presumably the idea was you’d drive all the way down to the M25 and go north up the M1 instead, a 100-mile diversion. Of course, you could divert around the local back lanes, but that leads you into the villages discussed five paragraphs ago.
Sorry, I’m getting carried away. The point being, with road works and closures, I’ll give Highways England the benefit of the doubt and assume that every single one of these is essential. But where I think we could improve things is by spending more time to communicate this work properly. Because at the moment, this situation is a shambles, and stress-inducing.
I’m happy to volunteer my services to Highways England, if it helps. I am sure I could advise about decent sign placement, early warnings, and expectation management. I never like to moan about a problem without offering a solution. And as we all know, communicating successfully is half the battle – and, done properly, we’re all going to be happier, healthier and a whole lot more productive.
Photography: Ödül Bozkurt