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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Ride along gives glimpse of life keeping region's roads safe

It's not easy retrieving stray pillows from the carriageway of the M5 as four lanes of traffic hurtle by.

But that is the scenario facing National Highways traffic officers as they embark on another routine patrol in the West Midlands.

The report of the pillows, including one covered in Pokemon characters, had come from an alarmed passing motorist close to the motorway's junction with the M6. Luckily they had blown out of harm's way, but the potential for an accident is always in the mind of Sian Plant and Tony Phipps.

It is typical of the kind of tasks that come in. From stray horses to rogue branches and flying litter, most can be dealt with quickly. But Sian and Tony are also often among the first on the scene when serious accidents happen. They point out that their on-board defibrillator has been used several times.

Everyone is familiar with the distinctive Highways England cars that patrol our motorways. Many motorists mistake them for the police, but they are instead emblazoned with the words Traffic Officer. And while they work alongside the emergency services, their main objective is to maintain safety and help keep our motorway and major road network flowing.

Through the control centre at Ridgeway Business Park in Quinton, just off junction 3 of the M5, and a fleet of vehicles patrolling the roads and motorways, the National Highways West Midlands team work to maintain, develop and manage the strategic road network.

To see how the team works, I was invited to go on a ride-along with the officers to see how they monitor the roads, what they do in case of being called to a job, their experiences of doing the job and how they came to become traffic officers.

Sian and Tony aren't there to enforce the law, but they are focused on making travel on motorways and main routes safer. And that can mean offering blunt advice to motorists. Given the opportunity, they will check tyres for lack of tread and will check fluid levels.

One particular bugbear is drivers who end up stranded on the hard shoulder – or worse a live lane – after running out of fuel.

Tony said: "We do remind them that it's actually illegal for the car to run completely out of fuel as it can cause issues to drivers and other road users."

Sian added that she had seen several occasions when people had gone out without sufficient fuel and she had been called out to assist them.

She said: "I had one guy who had tried to drive a long distance with his kids in the car and ran out of petrol and when I got there, he said he couldn't believe it when the car stopped.

"I asked him how far he was going, which turned out to be further than the range on the car, and asked him why he hadn't fuelled up. He simply thought he could make it."

Both Sian and Tony have come to the job from other careers and admit they love it. The role of the Traffic Officer is varied and there is plenty of interaction with the public, although there is always the possibility of a shift having to deal with a serious incident.

Sian says the most extreme incident she had encountered actually came on her very first day of active duty.

She said: "It was on my first day of doing anything, having had four weeks of training, then having a coach in the back of the car with me and three days of observations, sitting in the back and watching what was going on.

"My first role was to help set up a road block with the police for a major incident where there was three HGVs that were sandwiched together.

"Air Ambulance arrived and I was having to do rear-ward relief, which was releasing the traffic. It was the biggest challenge I have faced and I had only just started."

Sian, 26, who lives in Rowley Regis, had previously worked in purchasing for a small medical company and had been preparing to work at a summer camp in America in 2020 when Covid-19 changed her plans.

She said: "I used to work in an office, but I was meant to go to the summer camp in America in 2020, but obviously, that didn't work out because of the pandemic and I was then meant to go the next year, but it just didn't work out.

"I was looking for a career because I'd left my job and I saw this role advertised. My boyfriend is in the police and his mum works in the control room and always said I should try highways, so I applied and I've been here for about 18 months."

Tony, who lives in Halesowen, said his previous life had been in road haulage as both a lorry driver and a transport manager, but the 58-year-old said being made redundant and having no pension and no income had led him to look at other options for work.

He said: "I was in my mid-40s and I saw the role of control room operator advertised and decided to go for it, then I decided to go for a role as on-road team manager, having done a few things upstairs.

"I think I'm the first person to go from control room to operations and since 2015, I've been an operations manager."

Before heading out on the road, Tony gave a safety briefing, detailing what to do if we pulled over on a job, including not turning my back to traffic, always wearing a florescent jacket and strictly following directions of traffic officers.

I also learned about marker posts, which traffic officers used to determine where they are on the road network and also help stricken motorists to know where they are if they are calling into the control centre, such as saying "I'm at 176 over 3".

The vehicle is an impressive BMW X5 plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, decked out in navy blue and lime green checks and adorned with National Highways livery, including a siren and lights.

It comes equipped with a range of safety equipment, including traffic cones, portable stop and safety signs, towing equipment, absorbent material for clearing up spillages and the defibrillator.

With checks done and the vehicle loaded up, we hit the road and took in a wide route around the motorway network as Whisky Sierra Tango 2, with the radio constantly crackling with messages from across the region, which stretches from the Welsh border to Warwickshire and northern Staffordshire.

Sian and Tony kept up the conversation throughout the ride, telling me about road projects in the area, such as the building of two new bridges and a brand new junction on the M42 for Birmingham Airport, a project which saw that section closed for just two days for the work.

Sian said: "No two days, realistically, are the same as you might have a couple of jobs one day, nothing on other days and you could have rolling roadblocks on some days. I can go weeks without anything happening, then having five incidents with debris on the carriageway on another day."

Tony said: "It can be a bit different for me as I'm normally upstairs running the out station, so I take a more strategic view of things, making sure that the guys have got what they need on a day-to-day basis."

Our route took us down the M5, onto the M42 at junction 4A, then along the M42 to a turning point at Coleshill which then took us along the M6 and into Birmingham at Spaghetti Junction.

It felt, for a while, like it would be a nice and quiet drive around, with very little happening, but the call-sign of Whiskey Sierra Tango 2 finally came up for reports of debris in the form of the pillows on the M5 near junction 1.

I was even enlisted into service as, going down the M5 southbound from the M6 slip road, Tony and Sian asked me to keep an eye out for pillows in the road, with a Pokemon pillow believed to be among them.

Eventually, after going up and down from junction 2, we found three pillows wedged in the Armco barriers in the central reservation which, following procedure, Sian and Tony were able to leave as they didn't pose a risk to traffic and could be picked up later.

Just as we were scheduled to head back to the control centre, heading up the northbound carriageway, we came across a Jeep people carrier parked up on the hard shoulder with its hazards lights on and a woman taking things out of the back of the car.

Owing to the location of the car and the sight of at least one child in the car, we pulled over and got out of the vehicle, with Sian walking up to the car to see what was happening and Tony watching the road, which was moving slowly due to congestion on the link road to the M6.

Reporting back, Sian let us know that the car had suffered a flat offside tyre, possibly a puncture, and the driver hadn't got any recovery or breakdown coverage, so was trying to change the tyre while also looking after her two children, so was advised to move the car further up onto the grass verge to give her more space.

From this, Sian said the driver realised she couldn't loosen the wheel nuts due to them being too tight and had contacted a friend who, while unable to help her due to being at work, had arranged another friend to come and help her, which ended with Sian offering safety advice to the driver.

This included leaving the vehicle if possible but, as the children didn't want to leave, putting on seatbelts as the traffic was moving slowly enough.

Sian said she would go by later on patrol to check if the car was still there or had been able to move off.

It was a typical interaction with a motorist in a spot of bother and Sian and Tony say most are relieved and thankful to be offered a spot of help or advice.

Tony said: "It is a great job. There is plenty of satisfaction in ensuring people are safe. We find that very few people actually leave and I think there's a real family feeling and it doesn't matter if you're in operations or control room, everyone looks after each other and checks on each other after things like serious incidents, so if you can get past the medical and basic training, you'll find it's a really enjoyable place to work."

Sian said: "I'm on a really good team where we all help each other out, so if one of us gets called out to a job, all of the crews will back you up and will just be there, so you're never alone."

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