Major incidents

What happens when there's a major problem that closes a motorway? Who decides what to do, and how do you resolve things so the road can reopen? And perhaps most importantly for the driver stuck in traffic - why does it take so long?

This article describes the events that might take place following a major incident on a busy motorway. It is loosely based on a real situation, where a tanker carrying gloss paint overturned and spilled its load on the southbound M6 close to Keele Services. It was written for by "GH", who has extensive experience of dealing with similar events on behalf of the Highways Agency, and gives an idea of what highway maintenance staff must deal with when a serious accident like this one takes place.

The Incident Occurs

An incident can be notified to the Highway Authority by a number of means. It is usually by the Police, it could be by a passing member of the Client or contractor, it could be heard by one of these members of staff on local radio and notified that way. Either way, the first notification goes to the Network Control Centre for that area. Let's assume the call comes from the Police. The Police will call at the earliest opportunity they can find. Police controllers have numerous people to call and deal with, the highway authority are not at the top of the list but are close to the top of it. So, by the time the Network Control Centre are notified the incident could be 20 minutes old.

In that time, queues could be considerable depending on the location and time of day. Initial information from the Police will give the approximate location (it could be that they are still en-route), circumstances, reference number and, if known, what immediate response is required from the highway authority (such as closures, diversions etc). If initial information is lacking in detail, the Network Control Centre will chase up the Police for further information so that they are best equipped to deal with the incident. This can take time, as the Police control room will be stretched at this time to say the least.

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The small print

While this document refers to a real scenario and is written by someone with extensive experience in this field, it does not claim to accurately represent the working practices of the Highways Agency or those working on its behalf. It is largely hypothetical and is intended as a non-technical introduction to the work that takes place after a major incident, and as such may not be a complete or accurate representation. The views contained in this document are those of GH and do not represent the views of the Highways Agency or its contractors.

Picture credits

  • The images of this incident appear with thanks to Dave Gill.

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Published1 January 2005

Last updated3 February 2020