What3Words, 999 and faulty geography

A screenshot of What3Words on an iPhone showing junction 4 of the M4 (a motorway running east to west above a roundabout from which dual carriageways enter from north and south, with fields in each corner) with the W3W code "decay.friday.birds" near the top.
Junction 4 of the M4 with its What3Words code

Earlier this week it was reported that the mobile app What3Words, used to generate ‘unique’ three-word codes for any location so as to direct rescuers or the emergency services and is used by some 85% of British emergency services, had in fact generated useless or misleading codes which, when looked up, turned out to be in other countries including Canada, China and Australia. One explanation was that words were being misheard or that different regional accents were to blame, but other research suggested that the blame often lay with similar words that referenced places that were nearby. The app was suggested to me when I complained on Twitter about the difficulties of reporting hazards such as stranded cars to 999 operators and it would have been no use as I was driving on all the occasions I would have needed to use the app. I have tweeted about these difficulties a few times but they need to be more widely known.

Quite simply, a lot of 999 operators do not know the basic geography of the areas they serve and frequently are not able to ascertain where I am talking about when I report a hazard which needs to be removed or guarded against very quickly. On occasions I have to repeat details again and again; I have had multiple phone calls to go over the same details; I have been asked irrelevant details. Calls have taken several minutes, often when there is a vehicle stranded on a running lane of a “smart motorway”, a motorway with no hard shoulder to pull into because it was removed to cheaply make way for an extra lane.

On one occasion, I called Derbyshire police to report that there was a car partially obstructing the former hard shoulder on a ‘smart’ stretch of the M1 in their county which had not been warned about. I gave them a mile post reference and was then told “oh, we can’t use those; Highways (the maintenance body) use them”. They wanted a rough distance from the nearest junction (which would have been a rough estimate rather than a nearly exact location) but I told the person on the phone, “I took the mile post reference because I thought they were there for a reason”. On another, the operator asked me a number of details about the car such as its make, model and colour; the salient detail was its location, not its colour. “It’s the car that’s stationary in lane 1 of the motorway; I didn’t look for the make and model because I was doing 56mph,” I responded.

On other occasions, operators could not make sense of unique references to locations such as “junction 4 of the M4” and “the junction of the A38 and the A5”. In the former case, they asked me where that was; I replied that it was near Heathrow airport, but they could not find that junction in the “Heathrow airport” area. I suggested maybe Sipson or West Drayton, but really the junction number and motorway should be enough. On another, when reporting a manhole cover that had been left propped up on the kerb rather than placed over the manhole (this could have injured a cyclist or motorcyclist if they had ridden over it), I gave them the road number and the names of the two roads that met it at the roundabouts either side of this location (for historical reasons, the road changes names twice in a stretch about a mile long. Yet the operator kept asking me which of those two roads the open manhole was on even when I told them more than once that it was neither, and called me back twice after I placed the initial call to ask this question.

Calling 999 is the officially advised means to report hazards which are a clear and present threat to life. Operators should be taught the geography of the area they serve and should be able to identify the names of major roads, road numbers and the details of major junctions and, as a backup, a computer system should exist which can be used to look them up. That way, people calling to report hazards can do so quickly and easily, without the need for an extended mobile phone call, and the police can despatch a team to remove the stranded car or make it safe before someone goes into the back of it. Finally, at least one of these calls would not have had to be made if the broken-down car could have been driven into a hard shoulder, and these ‘smart’ motorways are death traps. A separate issue, but when the government has created hazards on the motorway that were previously not there, they should be ensuring that people can report them quickly and efficiently and without using an unreliable app or having to answer irrelevant questions.

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