Guardians of our roads
THEY are not police officers and have no enforcement powers, but Highways Agency traffic officers (also known as Hatos) now perform up to 90 per cent of tasks previously undertaken by the police on the region's motorway network. NEIL MEARNS looks at how these guardians of the road are keeping traffic moving and helping motorists to stay safe.
IT'S 9.30am on a blustery late winter morning as Highways Agency Toyota Land Cruiser, call sign November Echo 22, sweeps on to Carrville interchange towards the A1(M).
Crewed by traffic officers Dave Gaut, 36, and Carl Young, 33, the yellow-and-black Battenburg-liveried 4x4 quickly arrives at the scene of the day's second accident on their patch.
Two cars have been involved in a shunt in the outside lane of the southbound carriageway north of Bowburn.
Although the second car's airbag has deployed, no one has been hurt and both vehicles have been moved on to the hard shoulder.
With amber strobe lights flashing to warn other drivers, Dave and Carl reassure the two drivers, one of whom is badly shaken up.
They ensure that everyone stays safe and does not wander on to the carriageway, check that both parties have exchanged particulars and offer assistance in arranging recovery of the damaged vehicles.
Dave, from Seaham and a former heavy goods driver, said: "Before our introduction last December, the police would have been called to deal with this collision.
"But now, as it is non-injury, it becomes our responsibility. Police will still investigate collisions involving injury or if a crime may have been committed and Hatos will assist at the scene."
This is one example of how traffic officers are freeing up police resources and allowing them to focus on their core responsibilities of crime prevention, incident management and law enforcement.
For road users, this means a greater chance of being caught if they break the law! As he resumes patrol, Carl, who previously worked in the timber and construction industry, said: "We have pretty good relationships with the police and we are finding that our presence has a positive effect on driver behaviour. "One concern is that drivers don't leave enough stopping distance."
November Echo 22's next call is to help a pick-up driver whose load has shifted due to strong cross-winds. His boss arrives shortly afterwards and discusses the situation on the hard shoulder. Simultaneously, Dave and Carl see the two men standing on the offside of the pick-up, placing themselves in danger from passing traffic and quickly usher them to the verge. "You've got to have eyes in the back of your head in this job," said Dave. "People don't realise how dangerous motorways can be."
By the end of their shift, Dave and Carl have responded to about a dozen incidents – mainly of a routine nature involving vehicles stopped on the hard shoulder. Dave said: "Although this was a relatively quiet shift, we're often extremely busy with one incident after another. We are usually first on scene at serious and fatal collisions and have to put our training to the test. "Our first priority is always to prevent further accidents by protecting the scene, before rendering first aid to casualties."
Traffic officers receive intensive training in motorway procedures, driving techniques and first aid prior to taking to the road. Before becoming accredited to handle incidents other than on hard shoulders (known as "live lane working"), they must pass a stringent "on the job" assessment.
Amusing or unusual events at times add humour to a Hato's day. Carl recalled that while protecting a broken-down van, its driver had remarked: "By the way, I've got 60 coffins in the back. If anything happens, just throw me into one of them!"
Dave added: "Although it wasn't funny at the time, we were called to a young boy who had chased his dog on to the A1 at Lobley Hill. Fortunately, he was quickly taken into police care but the dog didn't give in so easily.
"With traffic at a standstill, the small terrier gave us the run-around. Every time we got near it, the dog would run in the opposite direction.
"Drivers were in fits of laughter as they watched us becoming more and more exhausted. Eventually we ushered it off the network, but it took two more calls that day before it was captured."
Traffic officers were created under the Traffic Management Act of 2004 to carry out certain traffic management tasks previously undertaken by the police.
These include stopping, diverting and directing traffic; closing roads, lanes and carriageways; placing and operating traffic signs and managing traffic at surveys. Soon, powers to remove abandoned or broken down vehicles from the network will be added.
Failure to comply with a Highways Agency traffic officer's directions or sign can lead to a fine of up to £1,000 and a licence endorsement or disqualification.
First introduced on England's motorways in Spring 2004, when they began working alongside police on West Midlands motorways, traffic officers now patrol the entire motorway network and some trunk roads.
England is divided into seven regions; each with its own regional control centre (RCC). Here, Highways Agency operators, assisted by police liaison officers, monitor road conditions, plan roadworks, allocate resources to incidents, manage diversions and key in data for regional variable message signs (VMS).
Based in the West Midlands, the National Traffic Control Centre (NTCC) collates information from the seven RCCs and relays this via traffic news media, the internet, telephone help lines and strategic VMS.
The North East Region covers Yorkshire, Humberside, Durham and Tyne and Wear, with a regional control centre (RCC) at Calder Park, Wakefield. At Carrville, Durham – one of the region's five outstations – 20 traffic officers and four supervisors provide 24/7 cover on the A1(M) between Junction 58 (Burtree) and Junction 65 (Blackfell), the A194(M) and the A1 trunk road from Blackfell to Seaton Burn in North Tyneside.
Three high visibility patrol vehicles – a Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Shogun and Toyota Land Cruiser – are well equipped with a range of emergency equipment.
This includes assorted traffic signs, 20 road cones, nine amber LED warning lights, a large first aid kit, chemical spill kit, fire extinguisher, search lamp, crowbar and tow strap.
A brush and shovel for clearing up debris and a pole for catching stray animals are even carried. The welfare of stranded motorists is catered for with a supply of rain capes and thermal blankets.
Vehicles and officers are connected to the RCC by the latest digital radio technology which allows direct communication with police personnel.
The northern section of Carrville base's area includes the A1 Gateshead and Newcastle Western by-pass, where heavy congestion and absence of hard shoulders present unique challenges.
Dave urges motorists to allow patrols displaying flashing warning lights make progress through slow moving and stationary traffic: "The sooner we get to an accident or incident, the sooner the obstruction will be cleared and traffic will start moving again," he said.
Road users may sometimes see Hatos deploying rolling road closures to gradually slow down following traffic, before bringing it to a temporary halt to allow maintenance work or clearance of debris or an incident in safety.
Vehicles causing a hazard or danger to the network or travelling public may also be requested to pull over at a safe spot to rectify a fault, before continuing their journey, as in the case of an insecure load.
14 March 2007 view traffic news view the article
Posted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 9:56 pm Post subject: Keeping the Network Moving
Following the recent thread on here about Highways Agency Traffic Officers I received a PM asking if I would be interested in riding along on a shift with one of the supervisors based at Toddington to learn more about their work. I replied that I would be very interested and as a result, it was arranged that I would ride along on the evening shift last Sunday; this is normally a busy shift due to the volume of traffic at the end of the weekend.
I arrived at the out-station on the northbound side of Toddington services just before two o’clock and met up with Mark, who had sent me the invite a couple of weeks previously. I waited while Mark completed some paperwork and sorted out the three crews who work this shift then he gave me a tour of the out-station and explained the area they cover, which is mainly the M1 from the bottom end up to between junction 14 and 15. After I had signed an indemnity form, we ventured outside to our vehicle for the shift, a Mitsubishi Grandis, and as in our job the first task was the daily checks. As well as all the normal vehicle checks the equipment was checked to make sure it was all present and correct. Packed into the load space were 20 traffic cones, 9 amber flashing lights, 2 brooms, a high power torch, various signs, foil survival blankets and waterproofs that can be handed to stranded motorists. There was also a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher but these are only supposed to be used for the officers and their vehicle and are not used to treat members of the public or tackle other fires.
With the checks complete, we used the service road to cross over to the southbound side of the services and out onto the motorway so Mark could take me down to South Mimms to visit the Regional Control Centre (RCC). We cruised along at 50 mph and kept very near to the rumble slip, Mark explained that this made it easier to spot and react to vehicles on the hard shoulder. Yes, some motorists mistook us for a police vehicle and pretended they always drove at 51 mph as they crawled past us but it is not fair to blame the HATO’s for the stupidity of some motorists. The roadwork section past Luton was running freely and we continued south accompanied by the chatter of the radio. It seemed as if I was listening to an alphabet soup of messages with acronyms such as RTC, BDV, BBS, RRB and VMS issuing from the speaker.
As we entered the slip road from the M1 to the M25, we spotted a Peugeot on the hard shoulder. Mark flicked on the amber flashing lights on the roof of the Grandis and we pulled up a short distance behind the stricken vehicle. As we approached the car, four people climbed out and Mark went to speak to them. They explained the AA had been called and they had been told that a patrol would be with them in about 15-minutes. Mark explained that they should not wait in the vehicle but instead should stay on the verge, behind the crash barrier. We returned to the Mitsubishi and Mark called the details through to the control centre. As well as the vehicle details, he had taken the drivers name and mobile number, which he passed to the RCC. The mobile number would be used to check on the peoples welfare should their wait be a long one. He also asked if it would be possible to get a camera onto the car so a check could be kept on it.
We arrived at the RCC without encountering any more vehicles requiring assistance on our side of the carriageway although Mark did call in the location of a horsebox parked on the opposite shoulder, the driver of which had waved across at us as we went past. Control dispatched another vehicle to go and check if he needed assistance and it turned out the vehicle had ran out of diesel. I was given a tour of the RCC and we ended up in the control room where I was introduced to the shift supervisor who explained some of the work that goes on in there.
The centre is staffed 24/7 by the Highways Agency and there is a police liaison officer also present. Each operative has several screens on their desk. One is used for answering telephone calls and other communications while another shows all the current situations that are being dealt with. Others show CCTV pictures or maps and yet another shows the location of the various matrix signs and their current state. I was shown how these work and the various pre-set messages they can display. I did ask about that old favourite; why we need a sign saying fog when we can see that it is foggy.
Apparently, if the FOG signs are not illuminated when it is foggy they get complaints from members of the public, unbelievable but true. At the front of the control room, is a wall the size of a house and this has video screens on it showing various parts of the network. On one screen I could see the Peugeot we had stopped at on the way down and despite it now being almost an hour since we talked to the driver the AA had still not arrived, so much for 15-minutes. On another screen, we witnessed a very near miss as a truck swerved at the last minute to avoid hitting a Fiat Punto that was stranded on the hard shoulder.
We left the RCC and started back northbound on the M1. We heard over the radio that one of the crews from Toddington had spotted a car being driven round and round a field beside the motorway just before junction 11. The crew had called this information into the police and it turned out to be a stolen car they were looking for. The crew were asked to stay there and try to assist the police helicopter in locating it. We were just approaching junction 10 when the previously free flowing southbound carriageway started to slow up, then stop. A few moments later a message came over the radio saying there was a five car RTC (Road Traffic Collision) in the contraflow lane. By this time, we were approaching junction 11 so Mark took the exit and we turned back southbound.
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One of the other Toddington teams had arrived at the scene and they reported causalities, thankfully not serious, and ahead we could see an ambulance fighting its way through the stationary traffic. The ambulance left at junction 10 and stopped at the top of the slip road, Mark did the same and pulled alongside and asked if they were heading for the RTC. “Yes,” came the reply “but we can’t find it, we were told it was between 11 and 10.”
Mark explained that it was in fact between 10 and 9. This drew a colourful response from the female driver and was one I cannot repeat here, as the word censor would be working overtime. We cut back down onto the motorway by going through the road works and started to fight our way through the traffic to the scene of the RTC.
The HATO vehicles do not have sirens or blue lights but Mark had the amber lights going and they helped to clear a path. I have to say that the truck and coach drivers responded much quicker, and with a lot more awareness than the majority of the car drivers. We were going between the two lanes of traffic because due to the road works there was no hard shoulder on this section. While some cars in lane one pulled left, and some of those in lane 2 pulled right, most seemed oblivious to our presence at first. One or two were talking on mobile phones, which meant it took even more effort to attract their attention and get them to move over. It was funny to see them pretend they were not on the phone when they spotted us, obviously thinking we were a police vehicle. The trucks and coaches did not have the option to move over due to the barriers protecting the road works but they tended to stop and leave gaps into which we could zigzag
We finally arrived at the scene to find the RTC was the other side of the crash barrier blocking lane three and lane two was now blocked by us and the other HATO vehicle. The other crew were laying cones out to filter the traffic into lane one, and protect the ambulance crew who had now also arrived in lane two. The first priority for the HATO’s was to protect those working the scene and as soon as that was done, discussions took place on getting the traffic moving and releasing the vehicles trapped behind the RTC in the single contra flow lane. It was decided we should turn back north, using the coned off road work area, and head to the first gap in the barrier which would then be opened to release the traffic stuck in lane three. After locating the escape gap, we turned and stopped in the road works just beyond it.
Mark had radioed the RCC to ask for permission to release the trapped traffic, he cannot just go ahead and do it without receiving permission first. There was a delay while we waited for the RCC to get back to us and during this time, we suddenly became aware of someone standing a little further down the road works. Mark drove down toward him and as we got closer, we could see he was urinating. He explained that he had been in dire need and had been unable to hang on. Mark asked him were his vehicle was and he told us it was in lane three, which meant he had crossed two lanes of live traffic to use the road works as a toilet. Thankfully, the traffic was only moving slowly but it was still a risk, a motorbike could have come along between the two lines of slow moving vehicles at speed for instance.
Other people were now getting out of their cars in lane three and either wandering about, or sitting on the crash barrier as the northbound traffic went past inches from them at 40 - 50 mph. This prompted Mark to get back onto control and suggest that in the light of this it would be a good idea if they could give permission for the gap to be opened, which they did. Another HATO crew had already closed off the entry to the contra flow lane where it started just north of junction 10. We moved through the traffic once more and came to a halt just before the gap. We got out and as I was not allowed to help, due to safety reasons, I could only stand and watch as Mark laid out cones to filter the traffic into lane one. With the Grandis acting as protection for the traffic that would filter out of lane three, Mark removed the cones in the gap and the trapped cars started to make their escape.
We heard on the radio the front two of the five cars involved in the RTC were drivable and they had now left the scene, however the other three would need recovering. The only way this could be achieved was for a recovery truck to reverse up the contra flow lane and remove a car, before driving back down and clearing it for the next truck to repeat the process. We were then asked to close the gap temporarily as this would speed up the progress of the recovery trucks to the scene and after they had past us we could reopen it. Mark stopped the traffic and moved a few of the cones back, before moving down lane three to point out to a couple of drivers the dangers of sitting on the crash barrier between lane three and the northbound traffic. As he moved away the woman driving the first car that Mark had stopped came out of her vehicle and headed for me. I was standing there in a Don’t Knock Me Down Coat next to the HATO vehicle so she must have assumed I was a traffic officer.
To say she was not a happy woman would be putting it mildly. I was subjected to a rant during which she said she had kids waiting at home for her, and she was stuck, and she had been here an hour and it was stupid to stop her, and, and, and…. I think she paused for breath during this tirade but I really cannot be sure. Resisting the urge to point out that the incident hadn’t been going for an hour and that she wasn’t the only one stuck, I told her the gap would be reopening shortly, at which point she stomped off back to her car and I could hear her muttering about my parentage, or in her opinion lack thereof. By this time, Mark was talking to driver of a police traffic car that had just arrived and I heard a woman’s voice calling me from the car behind me. I turned and she was most apologetic, saying she did not want to know what had happened but only how long they were likely to be stuck for. She explained that her son was diabetic and if the delay would be no more than an hour it would not be a problem, any longer and it might be. I explained that I wasn’t a traffic officer but I would pass her concerns onto Mark, I also told her that as the recovery vehicles had now passed the gap would be opened again and with the scene of the RTC only a quarter of a mile ahead she should be through quite quickly. This seemed to put her mind a rest and her attitude was the exact opposite of the woman from the car in front, who was still glaring at me through her window.
Mark reopened the gap and the traffic started to move again. The vehicles in lane two were filtering into lane one quite steadily until one woman decided she had to get in front of an artic at all costs, she missed him by inches and that was only because he leapt on his brakes. He gave her a blast on the horn and Mark moved to the front of our vehicle to see what was going on. It was funny to watch the woman as she went past; she stared fixedly ahead and would not catch his eye, and she could not have looked more guilty if she tried. The truck driver came past shaking his head and laughing and exchanged a bit of good-natured banter with Mark. One thing that did strike me was the number of car drivers who wanted to stop and chat. A lot slowed and asked what the problem was and where was it, this despite the fact you could see the blue lights from the police car and ambulance a few hundred metres ahead.One guy slowed right down and after asking what the problem was and where was it, then explained to us it was probably rubber-neckers slowing down that was causing the hold up. While he was explaining this to us, a large gap opened up between him and the car in front, while the traffic behind him was forced to slow down and brake. The irony of this seemed to pass him by. A truck driver slowed long enough to tell Mark that some car drivers had moved the cones from the gap before the one we were at and were now pushing through into lane two. Without the benefit of cones and protection from a HATO vehicle, this was a dangerous situation but thankfully there were no collisions. He radioed the crew who had closed lane three and asked them to drive through a replace the cones once the incident was clear and the traffic started flowing again.
One woman slowed down to tell us it would be a good idea to move the cones so people could escape from lane three, now why didn’t we think of that? Oh, hang we did and it was happening. Finally, the message came that the vehicles had been recovered and lane three was open again. Mark re-closed the gap and retrieved his cones from behind the Mitsubishi and we left the scene. A simple five-vehicle shunt had resulted in delays of well over an hour. I have to say, contrary to popular belief, the HATO’s main concern after ensuring the safety of those involved in, and working, the RTC was to keep the closures to a minimum and to get the traffic flowing again as quickly as possible. With two of his crews working the RTC, one at the scene and one closing the entry to the contra flow, and the other still assisting the police with the stolen car in the field, the northern section of the Toddington out-station’s area hadn’t been patrolled for a while. Because of this Mark decided we should take a run up to their turn round point between junction 14 and 15 to see if anyone needed assistance.
A mile from junction 13 Mark was about to move out to overtake a truck when I spotted a vehicle on the shoulder, the person sitting in the passenger seat will often spot a vehicle before the driver as their view is obstructed less by large vehicles. I told him what I had seen and he moved onto the shoulder and turned on the amber roof lights.
We got out and the driver of the car got out of his vehicle. He had a loose exhaust pipe and he had called the RAC. As we were only a mile from the exit, Mark decided to escort him from the motorway and take him into Guise Motors who are situated beside the truck stop, just off the junction. The RAC were advised so they could reroute their patrol and we stayed behind the car as it made its way along the hard shoulder to the exit.
After Mark called in the details of this incident to the RCC, we continued north before reaching the turn round point, a tunnel under the motorway, and heading south again before exiting at junction 14 and calling into the 24-hour café in the coach stop for a meal break and a coffee. While taking our break we heard over the radio of another RTC in the exact same place as the one we had attended earlier. This time it was only two vehicles involved, and both were drivable so the HATO crew on the scene escorted them to the hard shoulder at the end of the road works where they could exchange details without holding up the traffic.
I couldn’t believe another accident had happened so soon at the same spot but Mark explained it was a common occurrence there. It seems that as vehicles crest the small rise between junctions 10 and 9 and start to drop toward junction 9 they encounter traffic moving more slowly because of the climb beyond the junction. Someone brakes a bit too hard as they come up behind the slower traffic and a little further down the line vehicles run into each other.
Suitably refreshed we continued to patrol south and we came across two Polish registered cars on the shoulder. One had lost all power and his mate was going to tow him. Mark told them he was happy for them to do this but only as far as junction 13 a couple of miles ahead. He also told them he would stay behind them with the amber beacons going to protect them. We escorted them up the slip road at exit 13 and when they turned left we continued back down the other slip road to rejoin the motorway. Between Junction 12 and the services we come across another vehicle on the shoulder, Mark says that he had heard about this one over the radio earlier and another crew had already spoken to the driver but he pulls over to check they are still OK as they have been there a while.
Two men get out of the vehicle and approach us as we pull up. They are still waiting for the AA to get to them so Mark gets control to chase them up. He also asks the two men if the other crew had explained about staying out of the vehicle and behind the crash barrier. The men say they had been told this but were cold. Mark gives them a little lecture on safety and explains that while cold may be uncomfortable it is probably a better option than dead. They get behind the barrier and we return to our vehicle. The two men watch us drive away and we just know that as soon as we are out of sight they will be back in their car. Mark passes the details of our stop to control and informs them that although he has passed on the personal safety information he thinks they will ignore it. He tells me that is the most the HATO’s can do, they cannot force people to stay out of their vehicles, they can only advise them how dangerous it is and point out a lot of people get killed every year when something runs into a broken down vehicle.
The rest of the shift passes without incident and I take the opportunity to ask questions. One question that is often raised on TruckNet is what their powers are when it comes to stopping vehicles. While out of their vehicles and dealing with an incident they of course can direct traffic and stop it if necessary, it is an offence not to obey the signals of a HATO. While they can put a rolling road block in place in order to make it safe for another crew to retrieve debris from the carriageway, they do not have the power to pull over and stop a vehicle in the same way that the police or VOSA do. They can however, stop a vehicle on safety grounds, something is loose on the vehicle and may become a hazard for instance or a load is insecure. They do have to contact the RCC for permission before carrying out the stop though. Mark also tells me about some of the incidents he and his crews have attended, some of which are very unpleasant and the majority of us would not wish to encounter.
Posted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 9:56 pm Post subject: Keeping the Network Moving
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