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Helping road users stuck in tailbacks: learning from the M1 and M3 jams

Most of you will have seen coverage of Tuesday’s traffic jam on the M1 northbound between junctions 14 and 15 and Saturday’s closure of the M3 near Winchester. Both caused by the discovery of a suspicious packages and treated as a potential terrorist incidents.

The delays were bad. Reports of people stuck in traffic for up to 11 hours. The surrounding roads were clogged as well. Little information, no help, no water and no-one offering to help make mobile calls. No checks to see if medical attention was required. Local people rallied around helping out with water and snacks, but basically road users were left to it. Some walked along the hard shoulder wheeling bags, presumably desperate to catch flights – no sign of anyone helping.

As potential terrorist incidents of course these had to be taken seriously. However, Highways England and the police have some questions to answer about how these and previous events (remember the M6 tailback in February 2016?) have been handled:

  • How soon after an incident does Highways England expect, working with the police, to help road users avoid the disruption by physically preventing more vehicles passing the last junction?
  • How soon after the start of an incident does Highways England expect to start evacuating stranded road users, whether through a managed return to the previous junction, access to the opposite carriageway or some other method?
  • What are the arrangements for distribution of welfare-related essentials like food and drink when road users are stranded for long periods? Had this incident happened in sub-zero temperatures, or during a heat-wave, what would Highways England have done differently?
  • How does Highways England safeguard the welfare of disabled road users and those with time-critical medical conditions?

Highways England has a duty of care to those trapped on their network. Highways England must do more and be seen to be doing more, to offer information and help to those trapped people. With the heightened state of security and the onset of winter answering these questions seems even more important. We are taking up these questions with Highways England as a matter of urgency.

This builds on work we have already done in the area of disruption information – our research shows users clearly want more and better information.

The relationship and communication between Highways England and the police is clearly vital in these sorts of incidents. I wonder if there is anything that can be learned from the experiences of British Transport Police over the last few years? We will take the matter up with the Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on road policing who we are meeting soon. We will also discuss this matter with the Home Office.

Watch this space. We can all do better than this.


  • Debbie Whitcombe

    I was stuck on the M3 for 5 hours and find it incredible that this was allowed to happen. It seems like the emergency service focus is on the incident and they give no attention to the problems the closure is going to cause. Surely, some sort of emergency planning exercise could be undertaken so that systems can quickly be put in place to control traffic whenever a junction is closed. I got on at junction 4 at 8.15 and there was no information given at any point before we hit the blockage – what happened to the smart motorway they have spent the last few years putting in place? Radio stations were saying diversions were in place – they were not – apart from being diverted off of the motorway. We helped one lady who was in utter despair trying to find her way to Southampton. I have seen pictures of police handing out water – I never saw anyone doing this.

    Whilst the photo’s captured on social media show everyone making the most of the situation, getting out of their cars, walking dogs etc, motorbikes were still making their way through the traffic so an accident was very possible. Then there was the idiot we saw pull onto the hard shoulder and drove along the queue.

    I am glad questions are being asked.I appreciate the incident needed the response that was put in place but in this day and age with smart motorways and some forward planning, these events do not need to cause the major disruption we saw on Saturday. I think these questions should be asked in Parliament.

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