What roadside information do you need when travelling on motorways and major ‘A’ roads in England? Traffic delays, safety signs, weather information, estimated times to a certain junction, debris in the road and warnings for fog are some of the regularly used legends on Highways England’s variable message sign, or VMS for short.

Do road  users find these signs useful in helping make decisions about delayed meetings, picking children up from school or meeting delivery slots for customers? Our forthcoming research will tell us more but in our role as watchdog we have been pressing Highways England to ensure that VMS is not only accurate, but provides useful information in the first place.

Last week a colleague in Manchester was heading south for a meeting and spotted some helpful information on a VMS gantry – a sign on the M56 saying ‘M6 junctions 11-10, 30 minute delays’. This is a key piece of driver information, predicting a delay that may affect journey times and allows drivers to make an informed decision on what to do next. In this case the delays could be swallowed up in some planned contingency time to get to Birmingham and lead to a better feeling of being in control of the journey.

The example above is good if you know where junction 11-10 relates to on the M6 – not so good if you don’t. VMS has a limited amount of characters per sign so some thought is needed on how to make best use of what is available.

These signs giving you the time estimates to the next junction are reassuring, accurate and clear – assuming you know your junctions! So the estimate of 14 minutes to junction 5 on the M25 which I used recently proved spot on. Had I checked the traffic in advance? Of course not, so this was genuinely reassuring!

The message from Transport Focus? Great to see better and more useful driver information being used on variable message signs. We will continue to push for more improvements that will ensure better, helpful information for road users in this area.

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