999 (is no joke)

An iPhone screenshot of What3Words, showing a stretch of the M1 running north to south outside the grounds of Hardwick Hall. There is a dark blue dot with a square showing three slashes, and near the top is a box showing the words "neater, begun, reporting".
What3Words’ three words for roughly where I saw the pick-up truck. Though “outside Hardwick Hall” would have been more useful.

Last Saturday I was driving an articulated lorry down the M1 in Derbyshire, on the way back from delivering a trailer load of Mars bars to a depot outside Chesterfield, and I saw a broken down pick-up truck partly obstructing the inside lane (as it was a “smart motorway”, which was installed in two to three years of roadworks a few years ago, there was no hard shoulder he could have pulled over onto). About a hundred yards further on was an overhead matrix sign showing a reduced speed limit because of a “report of obstruction”. I immediately called 999, as this is what you are supposed to do to report a hazard to life and limb (not just an ongoing crime or accident just happened). I got through straight away and when I asked for the police, I got through to them without delay. I then told the operator the issue and he asked me exactly where. I told him the number of the mile post it was nearest to; he told me that “Highways [England] use those; we don’t” and wanted an approximate distance between one junction and another, which I could not give him. Before ending the call, he wanted to know my full address and date of birth.

I must say, it was very surprising to me that the police did not have any way of identifying a location on a motorway from a mile post, as these are found along every British motorway and a fair proportion of A-roads, and in the early 2000s, when mobile phones started to be used routinely to report accidents, larger signs were installed every 500m so that drivers could see them more easily. If the police do not know where a given mile point is, they should — it should be easy enough for a computer to pinpoint a location from a milepost on any given motorway (and there is actually only one motorway in Derbyshire) and they should have a list of which point each junction is at. While I was trying to explain where the broken-down vehicle was, any number of cars and trucks were passing it, quite possibly narrowly avoiding it because the driver will have seen the matrix sign above before they saw the vehicle itself. And why the need for my address and date of birth? He could have just asked my name; he had my phone number as I have been called back by the police after reporting things in the past. 999 is for reporting emergencies, and time is of the essence; it is not for carrying out surveys.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, someone suggested I use the app What3Words on my phone. I was unaware of this at the time; it assigns a unique set of three words to every location in the UK which you can relay to the call handler in any participating emergency service so as to identify the location. Derbyshire police indicated on Twitter last September that they do use the app. However, reading out three random words on what might be a bad phone line (especially on a hands-free in a noisy truck cab) is not the most reliable way of doing this as there is a danger of the word being misheard or the operator misspelling it, even if they have taken trouble to eliminate homophones from the database. I have installed it; it works, and you can use Siri on an iPhone to bring the app up, but it does take a couple of seconds, and if you are doing 56mph (let alone 70mph), your location will have changed by the time it starts looking for the three words; Siri will not open it if you just say “hey Siri, which three words?” and if the environment is noisy, it might not understand you anyway. Quite apart from that, why should I have to install a third-party app when there are marker posts by the side of the road? Why is the police not availing itself of readily-available information?

Of course, I would likely not have had to make the call and distract myself from driving if there had been a hard shoulder and the pick-up truck driver had had somewhere to pull in rather than park halfway onto the inside running lane of a motorway with traffic doing 70mph. Yes, these motorways allow the ‘management’ to put lanes out of action and reduce speed limits when there’s a “report of an obstruction” but if they do not know where you are talking about when you give a specific milepost reference then they cannot do it very accurately, though it may well explain why speed limits are reduced over whole sections rather than the mile or so before the obstruction. It only takes a driver to be distracted for a second to hit a stationary vehicle and if you’re reading a sign that’s just above and beyond a hazard, you might not see the hazard until it’s too late. This is why I’m not convinced by ‘studies’ that show that hard shoulders do not in fact increase safety and removing them is quite safe; it’s very convenient that this discovery was only made when they needed to increase road capacity and did not have the money to actually widen the road. (If they are not necessary, why is the hard shoulder not used as a running lane all the time in places where it can be, such as Luton?) There should be no more of these; road safety should not be sacrificed for the sake of cheap extra capacity and if traffic is flowing at 60 or 70mph most of the time, there must be a hard shoulder or, as on most A-road dual carriageways, frequent stopping places.

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