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Wrong way traffic?

Getting home in one piece, or at all, is pretty important from a consumer point of view so safety is something Transport Focus keeps a close eye on.

Highways England has a tough target to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on its roads by 2020 and I know, with their airline industry backgrounds, that Jim O’Sullivan and Colin Matthews take it very seriously.  Clearly, human behaviours and human error is involved in a huge proportion of fatal and serious injury accidents.  But we’ve been asking ourselves, and Highways England, what more could be done to prevent drivers making mistakes.  Or to put it another way, help them use the road correctly.

We were prompted to ask after a nasty crash last autumn where somebody had driven for some distance on the wrong side of a dual-carriageway, eventually being hit – fatally – by somebody coming the other (correct) way.  It seems that this is quite a common problem – the Germans even have a word for it “Geisterfahrer”. Knowing the sort of forensic analysis that goes on with any collision on the railway we wanted to understand what is done on the roads.  Is there anything similar to the rail accident investigation process that looks at the facts, entirely separately from the legal processes? It seems that the road had been inspected at the point the motorist is believed to have got onto the wrong carriageway and nothing was found to be wrong. That was interesting as a member of our staff had had a look, purely from a road user perspective, and could see immediately a couple of things – signage and road markings – that might have stopped somebody making a fatal mistake at that particular location.  Can Highways England do more to develop a culture that asks “OK, it meets the standards but …”?

wrong way must attribute sept 2016

Image courtesy of Ian Britton

So if this is a world-wide problem with dual carriageways, what do other countries do to try to prevent it?  A bit of internet searching produced some interesting examples of much more ‘in your face’ signage designed to alert drivers that they are about to – or already have – made a serious error.  But in Britain, if there are any signs at all at the top of a sliproad, they are conventional ‘no entry’ red circles.  As far as I know we don’t try to grab the attention of anybody who has made a mistake and is heading into imminent danger.  Here’s one in English, and here are a couple of links – possibly Slovenia and possibly Austria.

And I was interested to read about higher-tech solutions in the United States.  The Rhode Island road authority has installed technology which detects vehicles heading down a slip road the wrong way and LED signs start flashing at them.  If they don’t stop, the police are notified and electronic messages warn drivers coming in the correct direction that there is a ‘wrong way’ vehicle ahead.

I think there are two questions here. Can Highways England do more after a ‘wrong way’ crash to make it more difficult for somebody else to make the same mistake? And should more be done to alert drivers who have made a mistake, to get them to stop before they cause an accident?


  • avlowe

    The whole process is fundamentally flawed and the PACTS report on March 2015 nailed it – we need the operation and regulation of roads to align with that for Air Marine and, post Cullen in 2000, Rail. A Highways Accident Investigation Branch which 1) has total control of the crash site and powers to seize documentation and other evidence before it can be changed, or transient decay sets in 2) provides a statement of acts and their intention to investigate, or issue a safety bulletin within 2 weeks 3) produces an objective and non judgemental report which is published, for all to learn from, and which cannot be used in court for a prosecution 4) in addition to learning points make recommendations to the appropriate regulator to enforce change on the providers of infrastructure and operators of ‘vehicles’ with that regulator effectively empowered to deliver.
    To provide the backstop and parity check the clearly separated Investigation and Regulation functions need a confidential reporting system which is freely accessible and genuinely confidential – Rail as CIRAS Air & Marine have CHIRPS, and slowly CIRAS is being extended to Road operations.
    Some idea of the failures for roads can be drawn from RAIB reports where there have been recommendations to the bodies that stand in place of an independent and effective roads regulator. I will cite 3 key ones but it does not take much to find more. One is a Bulletin as the crash was deemed to be a road accident but the clarity of the final paragraph is indisputable – the bus passenger died through being ejected through the upper deck window, and DfT, TfL and bus operators received a formal letter from RAIB to ask what was being done to review the measures in place to prevent passenger ejection through upper deck windows (I’ve yet to notice any interventions for this on many vehicles currently operating) For Oxshott 4 or the 5 recommendations were directed to DfT and Surrey CC on assessing the risks for an overbridge on a bend and managing the hazards of impact and damage. I believe at least one of these has yet to be resolved. Then we have Froxfield, where a 90mph collision could have been averted if the correct procedures had been followed, by stopping the train some 15 miles before it reached the crash site.
    We see the massively flawed Section 39 (RTA1988) where the roads authority ‘investigates’ and then tells itself what to do to prevent future crashes as the Roman satirist Juvenal observed – and it still holds 2000 years later quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Section 39 detail is not published on-line but FoI requests reveal a widely varying quality of reporting and action to remedy a problem.
    A key recent example for which we await a Rule 28 Coroner’s report, was the fatal crash on the North Greenwich Busway, the second fatal bus-pedestrian crash in the same context – and these the fatal outcomes of at least 8 other similar collisions in only 10 years of the busway being in use. Even more damning is the fact that just 8 weeks prior to the fatal crash an identical sequence at exactly the same location left the victim seriously injured under the bus, behind the front axle. Yet no investigation to review the site and causal factors. Only after the fatal crash was a traffic order rushed through to restore a reduced speed limit (20mph throughout – where the original busway had a 10mph limit at key locations). At the same time another traffic order provided for enforcement and completion of the zebra crossings, work that had started in 2008 and then been abandoned and eradicated – work that now provides a route that both victims would have used for the journey they were making. SOME of the signage has been fixed but beyond the immediate vicinity signs remain broken, or smothered by the crowns of nearby trees. I’ll be interested to see what is delivered to the coroner.

    • Transport Focus

      Sorry to take a little while to get back to you. We think the benefits to road users of an independent, non-judicial body to consider the causes of fatal road accidents and what could be done to prevent a repetition should probably not be underestimated. Not least to avoid three things:
      one, that the road operator marks their own homework with the risks that inevitably involves, including how it looks from the outside
      two, to avoid ‘if only people would use the road properly’ thinking and hard-wire ‘how could road users be helped to do the right thing’ questions into the process
      three, even if the road met all the relevant standards, to bring an enquiring mind to whether the standards are right in the first place.

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