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The Highways Agency, as part of its Making Better Use programme to bring quick relief from road congestion on England’s motorways and trunk roads, is taking steps to improve the information it gives to motorists and to strengthen its ability to deal with incidents and accidents. According to today’s report by the National Audit Office, however, with congestion levels a pressing problem, the Highways Agency has been too cautious in introducing or testing out measures more readily used abroad and is behind some of its overseas counterparts in adopting technologies to tackle congestion. The Agency has managed its trials of some measures poorly and has not installed the most appropriate technology on the most congested motorways. It also needs to be better prepared for events that cause congestion, including major sporting and entertainment events.

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During the 1990s, the government’s emphasis was on building new roads, maintaining existing ones and improving road safety. It was not until 2000 that the Agency had a target to reduce congestion. Since then, the Agency has continued to concentrate much of its technology projects on improving road safety and the management of incidents.

Today’s report points out that the Agency has been slow to introduce new measures to relieve road traffic congestion. Despite their widespread adoption and reported beneficial impacts in some other countries, Tidal Flow, Dedicated Lanes, Ramp Metering and Variable Speed Limits are being used to only a very limited extent in England, while the Agency does not use Hard Shoulder Running anywhere on the network. It considers that measures used in other countries would operate differently in England and has not been convinced about the assessments of measures used abroad.

The Agency told the NAO that there have for many years been safety concerns that, if Hard Shoulder Running were adopted, emergency vehicles might have difficulties in reaching accident sites. Overseas experience suggests, however, that there have been no insurmountable obstacles to addressing safety concerns associated with Hard Shoulder Running. The Agency has recently embarked on a trial of the measure.

The Agency has run a small number of trials of various congestion-reducing measures to make a business case for adopting the measures elsewhere. But it has managed its trials poorly and the very small number of trials has limited its ability to find trial sites with the right characteristics and conditions for success.

Motorists have been dissatisfied with the quality of on-road information that they receive. They often want information before they join motorways, to enable them to consider alternatives to congested routes, but only a few sections of trunk roads are served by message signs. The Agency has installed its most sophisticated signs on congested motorways in the North and Midlands, but has not installed them on equally congested motorways in the South East. In 2001, it started to install additional signs in the South East, but these were not the most appropriate for the traffic volumes involved. It subsequently changed its mind, and now plans to implement the most appropriate technology instead. The disparity in the provision of technology between regions will, however, take several years to address. In the meantime, the Agency expects its new National Traffic Control Centre in Birmingham to improve the quality of information provided to drivers. The Centre is expected to be fully operational in 2005.

Major sporting and entertainment events and accidents can cause significant congestion. The Agency has not been aware of some planned events and has therefore not been well prepared to deal with them. The NAO recommends that the Agency should become a body which has to be consulted in the licensing of major events so it can better prepare for them.

The Agency is taking over from the police many of their responsibilities for clearing motorways after incidents and accidents, establishing a uniformed motorway patrol service of its own. It is carefully managing the associated risks, taking over responsibilities in stages, and expects to have the service available on the whole of the motorway network by September 2006.

Today’s report recommends that the Agency carry out more trials of congestion-reducing measures at more sites to increase their chances of success, and also improve the design, management and delivery of its trials. The Agency needs to address the lack of appropriate technology in the South East and should also provide motorists with the information they need as they approach motorways, to allow them to consider other routes, as well as on the motorways themselves

"Road traffic congestion on our motorways and trunk roads is an enduring problem. I welcome the Highways Agency’s efforts to attack the problem by making better use of our existing roads. In particular, it is aiming to improve roadside information to motorists and to deal more effectively with incidents and accidents.

"I am looking, however, for the Agency to adopt a less risk averse approach. It must not only carry out more effective trials of proposed congestion-reducing measures; but also, if the trials are successful, follow the lead of its overseas counterparts in implementing these technologies more widely on the network."

Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office


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