Crash course in road safety

SUFFOLK roads have claimed 22 lives so far this year, and many others have been seriously injured.Meanwhile the rest of us have been caught up in the tailbacks.

SUFFOLK roads have claimed 22 lives so far this year, and many others have been seriously injured.

Meanwhile the rest of us have been caught up in the tailbacks.

Crime reporter KATE BOXELL went on shift with the traffic police, and found out why roads are closed for so long after an accident.

A Renault Megane has hit the crash barrier, leaving a mangled trail of damage.

With rush hour fast approaching, police must work quickly to avoid major tailbacks at this busy junction of the A12 at Copdock.

The elderly driver in his 70s, is taken to Ipswich Hospital as a precaution, but is not seriously injured in the collision. Meanwhile traffic police close one lane of the road, while waiting for his car to be removed.

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They face an unenviable task, often blighted by careless or even dangerous drivers, as they try to keep the roads safe and reduce anti-social driving. In the course of a day, officers can see collisions of unimaginable horror, face high-speed pursuits along the county's roads or respond to non-traffic 999 calls.

Gulf War veteran Pc Paul Fletcher is based at Martlesham police headquarters but spends much of his time alone in his car - on the lookout for people committing traffic offences, and poised to respond to an emergency call. He joined the force after a career in the army which included working in bomb disposal, and he has transferred some of his diplomatic skills to his life as a police officer.

On a quiet weekday evening, he spends much of his time looking for work rather than responding to it - and finds it on almost every road.

With his colleagues, including sergeant John Hawkes, he helps at the scene of the A12 crash, which causes about £15,000 of damage to the crash barrier and leaves one lane of the dual carriageway closed for nearly two hours.

Sgt Hawkes said motorists are often reluctant to move out of the way of recovering vehicles, and even gritters, which can lead to major delays.

If an accident is fatal, or potentially fatal, the collision is treated as a crime scene and specialist officers are called in to gather evidence.

Often a whole road is closed to protect the safety of those working at the scene but even in those situations cars can sometimes drive through endangering the lives of officers.

High speed pursuits or responses are another dangerous element of the job.

Pc Fletcher said: “We are not infallible. Any officer can have an accident and if you think are you are infallible you are more likely too.

“We are advanced driver trained and know how to handle the car at speed.”

Though officers sometime drive at speeds in excess of 120mph they reduce their speed considerably in built-up areas and ensure they never put their own or others lives in danger.

One frustrating element of the job is the number of drivers who fail to move out of the away for police cars when they have their lights and sirens going. In some cases officers have to slow down considerably while waiting for motorists to move into the slow lane, and can lose considerable ground.

Pc Fletcher drives within the speed limit, except when responding to emergency calls or when trying to clock speeding motorists. This is a huge part of his job but, he insists, is about increasing safety on the roads rather than generating cash.

Traffic officers carry a hand held camera each car has Police Pilot fitted- a device which calculates the speed of other motorists. These are calibrated regularly and Pc Fletcher checks them before and after each shift to make sure they are accurate.

During his shift he patrols the A14, to witness a motorcyclist undertaking, and apparently speeding.

Despite a brief pursuit he is unable to record the rider's speed and therefore unable to issue a ticket. Instead, he pulls him over to offer advice, and checks his vehicle and licence details.

Pc Fletcher believes education is as important as enforcement, and gives the motorcyclist information on bike safety courses, warning him of the dangers of driving too fast.

He said: “The best drivers are those in front or behind a police car. If everyone drove like that we would be okay.”

At quiet times Pc Fletcher also carries out speed checks at speeding hotspots across the county.

We stop off in Woodbridge, but are called to Ipswich after reports that youngsters are setting fire to furniture in Landseer Road.

A high speed response ensues - but after taking just under five minutes to arrive in Ipswich we are promptly stood down.

Pc Fletcher decides to set up a speed trap in Landseer Road instead. Coming down the hill approaching town he clocks one motorist going slightly over the limit and another travelling at 42mph in a 30mph limit.

Despite his pleas, the 26-year-old driver is issued with a £60 fixed penalty notice with three points to be put on his licence.

Pc Fletcher informs the man that Association of Chief Police Officer guidelines suggest anyone travelling above 36mph should be penalised. He says the equivalent speed breach on a trunk road or motorway would be in excess of 100mph and he has no option but to issue a ticket.

Issuing speeding tickets and enforcing the law on the wearing of seatbelts are two of the major jobs of traffic police and according to Pc Fletcher are two of the least adhered to pieces of legislation.

He said in about half of fatal accidents the casualties are not wearing belts, and it is something which the public still struggle to understand.

While driving through Ipswich Pc Fletcher notices a child on its mother's laps in the front passenger seat of a car. The toddler is not strapped in, and the officer feels he has no option but to turn his car and stop the offending vehicle.

The driver is the boy's grandfather who realises what he has done is wrong.

A fixed penalty notice is given to the driver and relevant information is given.

Pc Fletcher said: “I asked him what would happen if there was an accident and he said he would no longer have a grandson - that summed it up.

“The mum tried to make excuses about the child being ill, but that makes no difference if another car runs into it.”

Other calls in the midst of the shift include a roundabout prang which looks to have written off an M registration car and a seemingly inexplicable accident where a car has left the road on the A140 roundabout at Coddenham.

Amazingly the driver escaped unscathed despite the car going off the road, down a verge and hitting a tree.

The driver was found walking in the road with a warning triangle by a passing member of the public.

Police interview him and decide to send him on a driving improvement course.