Blog : I can handle the despair, it’s the hope…

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.

And yet…

…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

Keith Adams


  1. The problem is in my view insoluble , for the simple reason that there is no activity carried out by central or local government which is not incompetently performed . Let us face it : no one …no one at all who has any degree of competence will work for a government organisation

    • Except that very often this work is planned and executed by private sector contractors on an outsourced basis. This is stupidly ignorant comment from someone with little life experience I would wager. I have spent time during my career in both the public and private sector (currently private) I have met absolutely great people and absolute duffers in both sectors. People are people I tend to find and can never be characterised by simple stereotypes. A good example of the private sector getting it horrendously wrong is of course the Railway industry.

      • I may be stupidly ignorant , Paul, but I am 73 years old , and hold 3 professional qualifications, and have held senior positions both in the private sector and later in a sector which, although not government controlled, was government funded. I have, therefore, after working for 52 years , just a modicum of life experience. Should you disbelieve me, I suggest you look me up in Who’s Who

  2. This has been particularly common around Greater Manchester for the last few weeks. I took some very scenic tours of Trafford Park by night as a result..

    • I’ve had the scenic tour of Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Bredbury on several occasions in the past 12 months. Diversion route signs are utterly hopeless and even though i have a 25 year old memory of the area, I still ended up somewhere near Marple when I wanted to get to South Warrington!

  3. I think we need the Japanese to sort it out with their highly efficient night time roadworks. Round here the council have started to close roads for weeks rather than even try two way working – on one set of roadworks they retarmaced the wrong section and came back shortly afterwards to do the right length. Then they put roadsigns too close to the road so agricultural machinery promptly clout them, not to mention putting the wrong signs up (not knowing the difference between a slippery surface and series of bends ahead sign) at random in the wrong places.
    Then there’s traffic jams on motorways where trapped vehicles are not directed through the central reservation to go back in the opposite direction and left to fend for themselves for hours on end…

  4. I really wish in Cumbria we’d get advance warning of roadworks, and also try to use temporary traffic lights sparingly. There’s nothing more annoying than a pair of these lights springing up without warning and adding ten minutes or more to your daily commute. Sometimes these infuriating lights can be up for weeks on end, while in the roadworks nothing seems to be done.

  5. Alastair above has it very understated–the “intelligent M60 motorway” being reconstructed around the west of Manchester has been a nightmare (well mostly at night) of lane closures and randomly and nightly complete closures of whole sections with some very odd –and frequently no–signposted diversions leading, as he says to some very interesting tours around west Manchester. Needless to say the work is MONTHS overdue for completion and shows little sign of being completed. Did I mention I use it a couple of night a week????

  6. Stockport MBC has a nasty habit of closing roads with no warning, one causing me to make a long diversion to get round.

    St Peter’s Way in Bolton was periodically closed a few years, with a diversion route that used the urban street it originally bypassed, which just happens to have most of the pubs & clubs on it. On a Saturday night it was tricky to drive along while looking out for diversion signs.

  7. Whatever happened to the good old fashioned contraflow?

    I understand that central reservation gaps have all closed now due to safety, but surely it is still possible to unscrew some armco or lift a section of concrete barrier?

    A 40/50mph contraflow isn’t any less dangerous than a 40/50mph single carriageway road surely?

    And the diversions – I remember years ago when I didn’t know my way around central Scotland they closed the M8 to M9 sliproad, the diversion sign pointed straight ahead up the M8, then nothing. Ended up in the middle of Edinburgh trying to get directions for the forth road bridge.

    Though these days we all have smartphones, most of which have a maps app built in which can be used as a satnav, as well as traffic reporting navigation apps like Waze.

    Driving as a whole is not enjoyable anymore, I’ve only been driving for 15 or so years and have noticed it.
    I can’t put my finger on it, but everyone seems to be in a hurry and overly aggressive.
    Is it because cars have gotten faster, more Germanic sporting suspension, the seating posture is more sporting (the comfort of a Rover 75 vs an ‘angry’ A4?), and cars are generally bigger as everyone flocks to crossovers/SUVs making the driver feel more confident (would you rather take chances in a Metro or an Audi Q7?….)?

    I can see self-driving cars being popular amongst others who are sick of the madness of the daily commute, leaving ‘proper’ driving for a nighttime / early morning weekend treat.

    • Only on ARonline could an article about road closures lead to a thinly-veiled dig at German cars in the comments 🙂

  8. As an aside, I reckon many traffic lights could turn into give way lights late at night, which would save having to sit at red lights when you’re the only car in sight..

    • That’s very common in the US in the evenings and at weekends. You’re often allowed to turn right on a red light as well – our equivalent would be turning left on a red light. Having lived there for some years, it does work.

    • A step further would be to turn the traffic lights on roundabouts completely off at night. My peregrinations around Trafford Park were interrupted several times by red lights where I could have safely continued.

      • Lights on roundabouts really seem to defeat the object of the roundabout. They turn it into a series of tee junctions.

  9. Italy has it too – flashing amber means “take care, traffic lights not in use at this time of night”.

    I work for a council and sometimes have to take these sorts of decision. The difficulty is it usually costs a lot less to do work on a road if you can close it completely because traffic management and associated gubbins (barriers, cones, lights etc) is surprisingly expensive. It also has the advantage that (often) you can reopen the road at 6 the next morning, having done all the work, and it can function as normal rather than having a partial closure or operation under lights or a contraflow etc for a lot longer (ie you can do as much work in an 8 hour complete closure as you could do in (say) a 20 hour partial closure). Of course, this doesn’t excuse councils or Highways England/ Scotland/ Cymru from designing diversionary routes which take you miles out of the way or don’t work – that’s a separate issue – but it does explain why the decision is often made to do a complete closure. I think there’s also a need to distinguish between planned closures, where you can work out diversionary routes etc in advance, and emergency closures (e.g. for a burst water main or RTA) where you might have to put in a diversionary route on the hoof – though I appreciate that it’s not easy to tell the difference between a planned and emergency closure when you just happen upon it. A further issue is that some of the utilities companies are better than others at seeking permission for work on the highway. Some councils have permit systems now to control this. We fine utilities companies for digging stuff up without telling us – but unexpected works in the wrong place can really foul things up!.

  10. While you’re telling Highways England to communicate road closures more clearly, Keith, please could you also tell them that most of their road network is disgustingly littered?

    It’s Highways England’s duty under the law to ensure that its verges and central reservations are kept free of litter but it just doesn’t bother anymore. The littered roads in this country are quite frankly an embarrassment compared to those in other countries in western Europe.

    The ‘Clean Highways’ campaign seems to be the only one that is highlighting how Highways England and some councils are flouting the law with regard to litter so please add your voice to the ‘Have Your Say’ section if you too are sick of driving through this fly-tip of a national road network:

  11. Driving down the A1(M) a couple of Sundays ago, the road was closed around the A14 works north of St Neots, presumably as they were dropping a new bridge into position or some such. That’s fine, needs must, so we left the motorway only to find closure signs on every single local road due to a cycle race taking place! Almost had to resort to a Clockwise drive through a field (though not in an ADO16) to get across to Oundle and down to the M1. Pah!

  12. Fully with you on this, Keith. Whatever the name of the organisation that organises road works and puts information on to the signs, they’re not competent. As well as the problems mentioned, in most occasions when I travel on motorways there are messages on the signs warning about non-existent problems. Here are some examples from the last week:

    – Friday, M40 on a warm sunny evening. “Standing water between J15 and J16”. Of course there was nothing.
    – M6 south near J22 – 50 mph advisory and a message “Report of accident”. Nothing.

    Then as Keith says there are warnings that are incomprehensible :
    – A14 west on Sunday evening near Newmarket. “Queue on A14 after A14 spur” (or something like that) What’s that supposed to mean ? Spur to where ?

    Then there are miles of roadworks with nothing happening.
    M6 northbound in Cheshire. Miles and miles of roadworks with a 50 limit and nothing is being done.
    M40 southbound near Thame at 11pm. Miles of cones freshly put out narrowing the road to one open carriageway and vehicles almost stationary. No work going on anywhere.

    Another motorway that I’ve forgotten which had the third lane closed and coned off and a 50mph limit – over head sign said “speed limit to protect workforce”. Nobody working.

    The organisation is broken and needs to be fixed.

  13. Highways England seem to like to portray themselves as an unfunny joke to the motoring public.
    But then why should they care anyway? Although supposedly a public service, they don’t seem to be effectively accountable to anyone.
    The perception is they are given a budget and are trusted to do what they like, how they like and never mind what us plebs have to deal with, suffering their mostly iffy road ‘improvement’ schemes and frequent diversion c*ck-ups.

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