Getting out of gridlock

WHEN Suffolk's main roads grind to a standstill after an accident, an 'Incident Support Unit' races to the scene as well as the emergency services. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING went on the road to find out how they will get traffic flowing again this winter.

By Tracey Sparling

WHEN Suffolk's main roads grind to a standstill after an accident, an 'Incident Support Unit' races to the scene as well as the emergency services. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING went on the road to find out how they will get traffic flowing again this winter.

A LORRY thunders past, in a relentless stream of traffic which turns the A14 in to a grey fog of spray.

Bob Kent smiles ruefully as another truck speeds past, the tonnes of metal just inches away from his shoulder as he stands on the side of the road.

His colleague Carl Dipper helps keeps a wary lookout, but there's no doubting the danger these men face every day on Suffolk's roads.

Bob and Carl are part of a secret army hundreds strong, which looks after motorists in all weathers.

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They don't have the glamour of the blue lights, or the heartwarming reward of saving lives, but the work of Suffolk's seven Incident Support Units keeps our roads running as smoothly as possible.

There are on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help get the road reopened when a crash happens, and remove hazards like illegal signs and dead animals from the carriageway.

Each ISU covers 2,000 to 4,000 miles a month, depending on where it is based.

Atkins is the managing agent, alongside Amey Mouchel running the maintenance contract, and they all work from the Highways Agency depot at Great Blakenham.

I ventured out with the crew, on a day in the bleak midwinter. A severe weather warning was urging people to avoid the roads. With the conditions switching from bright sunshine one minute, to strong winds and driving rain the next, it was a day when accidents were on the cards.

From the depot we headed to Beacon Hill, to remove a pallet discarded in a lay-by which Bob had spotted on his way in to work, but it had disappeared - presumably a passing motorist had already grabbed it.

Bob's voice was all but drowned out by the traffic, as he laughed at our fool's errand - at least there was plenty of other work to do on today's eight-hour shift.

He retired from being a traffic cop of 32 years, working on the M25 and M1, only to go back on the roads for his second career as an ISU supervisor.

He said: “You would have though I'd had enough of this weather! I like being out there assisting the police, and getting traffic flowing again. A major part of our job is also looking for problems and carrying out safety inspections on a weekly basis to see if anything needs to be done. We are actually just as proactive as we are reactive.”

His training included how to behave at an accident scene, barrier works and maintenance, and most importantly lessons in health and safety.

Dragan Stomatov who is local area manager for Atkins said: “If they work on the roads for the length of their career, one in 30 road workers will lose their life. That is a frightening statistic - it is a dangerous place to work.”

Bob said: “We may be working on the central reservation or the edge of the carriageway on a dark night, and drivers need to be aware. All I ask is for motorists to pay particular care and to slow down.

“In our job you are not in control of the situation - someone else can lose control of their car and that's the problem. We have to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. Thankfully I have never seen a colleague injured, but I have frequently had to jump out of the way of a car coming too close. It happens all too often.”

Bob said 'rubbernecking' at the scene of an accident, is one of the biggest dangers - and cause of tailbacks: “It's very difficult to concentrate on your driving and look at the incident at the same time - you can't do two things at once and you need to be focused on your driving for our safety.”

Brian Pitkin, Highways Agency route manager for the A12 said Incident Support Units have attended

14,500 incidents since they were introduced four years ago.

The meet their contract's target of getting to 99per cent of incidents within an hour. Bob added proudly: “I've never missed that target in my four years of working here.”

When staff in the Network Response Centre at Great Blakenham, receive a call from police, they send the appropriate response, which can include specialist contractors if necessary. A myriad of options are available, depending on the incident.

“They have to do quite a lot of detective work to get the information that's needed to make the right decisions, and get the right resources to the scene,” said Brian.

Mike Thompson, contracts manager at Atkins said they also alert the National Institute Liaison Office in Birmingham so it can alert the press office which contacts radio stations to update their traffic reports about the incident.

They can also arrange for warning signs to be fixed in other parts of the country to dissuade drivers from heading for a troublespot in our region.

Out on the road, it can be challenging to reach a crash scene amid heavy traffic, without the aid of blue lights and sirens.

Bob said: “We are not allowed to use yellow lights but the majority of drivers do tend to know what we're about. We have this big gaily coloured vehicle so they do generally inch out of the way. Just like them, all we want is to get to our destination fast, and get the job done to get the traffic flowing again - we're all after the same result.”

But many people simply associate the workmens' yellow jackets with traffic delays, despite the fact they are there to help.

“You get the odd few, who get frustrated and abusive,” Bob said.

“On the A14 a few months ago, a lorry driver wound his window down and shouted that it would have been nice to have had some notice of the road being closed. I replied that if the driver who had just overturned his lorry had let us know what he was planning, we would certainly have been delighted to alert everyone!”

When they arrive at the scene, ISU staff ask police what's needed, and do a risk assessment.

If police have closed the road, either to clear wrecked vehicles or collect evidence an investigation, a diversion may be needed.

The Highways Agency uses pre-planned diversion routes, which the ISU operators start putting out signs up for. Each time a diversion is used, staff in the Network Response Centre have to check there are no roadworks happening on that route which could create fresh tailbacks. Traffic lights on the diversion can also be altered to accommodate the influx of traffic.

The team also has 11 of the large electronic signs you may have seen placed at strategic points to warn of trouble ahead. Another six are currently on order, costing £30,000 to £50,000 a time.

Sometimes temporary repairs to the road can be done immediately, so ISUs carry a repair kit of instant concrete, and tarmac to fill potholes, and bags of special granules to absorb spillages.

Their van is also packed with flashing cats' eyes, saws - including one to cut broken metal barriers to get them out of the road, even tree loppers, snow shovels, signs, 40 traffic cones, with even a handwashing station in the back.

Hauliers have the right to clear recover their vehicle and its load, but if they wish the police call in a contractor to clear the road. Brian said the Highways Agency hopes to be able to remove vehicles in future. He also hopes to employ more ISU operators and supervisors, so the team can get to incidents even quicker.

Weblinks: or call 08457 504030 to be aware of the weather


What do you think could be done to help keep roads flowing? Write to Your Letters, thee Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1AN or e-mail

Across Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, the Highways Agency has:

8 dedicated winter service depots

12 ice prediction stations - including by the Orwell Bridge on the A14

13,400 tons of salt in stock

36 vehicles on standby

803 miles of road to cover.

Suffolk has:

340 miles of road

66 miles of trunk road

150 Amey Mouchel staff

100 Atkins staff

14 Highways staff

Stay safe by following this advice:

If storms are predicted don't travel unless your journey is essential, and remember the weather can change quickly in winter.

Plan your journey, by checking the radio for route delays and the weather forecast.

Keep warm clothes, food and water and boots in your car in case you get stuck. Plus an ice scraper, de-icer, torch, first aid kit, car battery jump leads and a spade.

Take care around gritters and vehicles which clear snow. Only overtake if you can do safely, and without going on to uncleared snow.

It can take ten times longer to stop when it's icy, so allow more room to slow down and stop.

To avoid losing control of your car because of wheel spin, use the highest gear that you can. Avoid sudden braking, acceleration and sharp turns.

Source: Government News Network South East