Here’s why roads are closed for so long after a serious incident or fatality – the real life truth
Motorway closures cause huge delays and frustrations for motorists caught up in the tailbacks.
But police are keen to stress that motorways are closed for a very good reason and motorists need to know that lives can be at stake.
Here, Avon and Somerset Police explain why motorways can be shut for so long in a bid to show motorists the bigger, more important picture.
Superintendent Andy Williams, lead for road safety, said: “We understand the frustration that drivers will feel when they’re stuck on a road following a full carriageway closure and we appreciate drivers’ patience and understanding in these incidents.
“Decisions to close a motorway way or dual-carriageway are never taken lightly.
“We’ve been working really hard with our partner agencies, which include Highways England and other emergency services, to make sure we’re working together in the most efficient way.
“Our newly updated protocol is one of many examples of how we’re working together as ‘one team’. It plays an important part in managing and clearing the carriageways after major or minor incidents.”
Why does a motorway or dual-carriageway close?
There are a range of reasons why a motorway or dual-carriage way closure may need to be put in place. In the first instance emergency services and Highways England need to establish quickly what’s going on so that the appropriate lead agency can take control of the scene, in order to get things cleared and moving as quickly as possible.
Some examples of reasons why a motorway or dual-carriageway may close are due to a road traffic collision, fire, chemical spillage, damage to barriers or the road;the list goes on.
Case study 1
Between J14 and J15 of the M5 (Northbound) a van went through the central reservation, colliding with two cars.
There are four fatalities and due to the severity of the crash a major incident has been declared, with police leading the resolution of the scene.
- 1436 – Numerous calls received in Police Control Room about an incident on the M5. Some are differing; some reporting the incident is on the Northbound carriageway, some on the Southbound.
- 1438 – Roads Policing Units are dispatched to scene immediately
- 1439 – Further calls received stating that all lanes are blocked, people are trapped in cars and fuel is leaking onto the carriageway
- 1440 – Ambulance and Fire Control Rooms notified, and confirm they’re sending units to attend the scene
- 1441 – First calls received reporting possible fatalities at the scene
- 1445 – Assistance requested from Gloucester Police to close Southbound carriageway
- 1446 – Force Duty officer and Roads Policing Inspector notified of incident
- 1447 – Four fatalities confirmed at scene
- 1448 – ‘Major Incident’ declared due to the number of deaths and subsequent impact on the motorway and surrounding areas
- 1449 – Police helicopter requested to assist in search of surrounding area to ensure no vehicles or injured parties have left the carriageway
- 1455 – Multi-agency meeting set up at Police HQ, led by the Force Duty Officer
- 1500 – Specialist Collision Investigation officers attend the scene
- 1510 – On call Duty Superintendent advised
- 1522 – Press Officer and the on Duty Gold Commander notified
- 1526 – Road Policing Senior Investigating officer attend the scene
- 1549 – First Ambulance leaves the scene with an injured party
- 1558 – Portable screens requested to shield scene from public
- 1614 – Traffic now building up 3-4 miles
- 1622 – Northbound traffic diverted onto M4, with stationary traffic turned round and taken back off slip road
- 1733 – Vehicle Recovery units arrive at the scene to assess recovery of the vehicles involved
- 1752 – Lighting equipment arrives to illuminate the scene for forensics
- 1817 – Fire and Ambulance units complete their roles at the scene
- 1832 – Lane 3 (Northbound) re-opened to assist in clearing stationary traffic. Lanes 2 and 3 remain closed until all those who are deceased are recovered
- 1850 – CSI arrive at the scene
- 1910 – Highways England Inspector arrives at the scene to assess damage to the barriers and comes to the conclusion repairs are needed
- 2023 – Southbound traffic backlog finally cleared but remains closed so that repairs to the barriers can be made (significant damage was made to the middle of the M5)
- 0411 – Central barrier replaced
- 0552 – Southbound carriageway fully re-opened
- 1037 – All vehicles involved removed from the scene for examination
- 1041 – Specialist officers attend the scene to assist in the recovery of the deceased
- 1939 – Lanes 2 and 3 Northbound re-opened
- 1533 – Recovery of deceased complete, motorway fully re-opened
Do Police always lead on these kinds of incidents?
People think we lead in all instances where a road closure has been implemented however that is not the case. More often than not Highways England will lead on each road closure operation in the first instance as they have the final decision on whether a motorway or carriageway is ready to be re-opened.
Police lead operations where a major incident has been declared or fatalities have occurred, in instances where a road traffic collision has taken place, the scene of a crash will become a possible crime scene where our investigators must gather as much information as possible to establish what happened and whether any criminal charges need to be brought.
Case study 2
Two lorries collide near J21 of the M5 (Northbound) fuel is leaking from one of the vehicles, Highways England take the lead on this operation.
- 0632 – Report received of 2 lorries having crashed on the Northbound carriageway of the M5, near J21 (Weston-super- Mare)
- 0633 – Highways England notified, as ‘owners’ of the motorway
- 0634 – Reports confirm that no one was injured or trapped in the crash
- 0636 – First Traffic unit dispatched to the scene
- 0639 – Notification received that there had been a spillage of diesel
- 0644 – Highways England unit dispatched to assess the damage caused and establish whether diversions need to be considered
- 0648 – Local Police unit assist fire and Highways England by stopping more cars joining the M5 at J21, to minimise further congestion
- 0651 – Ambulance are at the scene, they also report a fuel leak – around 300 litres of diesel is pouring out onto Lane 1 and the Hard Shoulder
- 0659 – Lanes 2 and 3 re-opened
- 0819 – Even with two lanes open, the tailback is now going back to Sedgemoor Services
- 0841 – Rain threatening to wash the diesel into Lane 2 and 3 – Highways England consider fully closing this section of the motorway
- 1106 – Highways England confirm that 200-300m of the tarmac across all 3 lanes and the hard shoulder needs to be replaced following damage from the diesel. To minimise the disruption, Lanes 2 and 3 will remain open while Lane 1 and the Hard Shoulder are re-surfaced. Once this has been done, the Hard Shoulder and Lane 1 will be re-opened, and Lanes 2 and 3 will be closed for re-surfacing. During this time, the Northbound slip road will need to remain closed.
- 1408 – Congestion caused by partial closure this is having a knock on effect on all surrounding roads across North Somerset, with A303 and A358 at a crawling pace.
- 1435 – Delays of up to 3 hours being experienced on M5. Highways England leading with media and communications updates to the public
- 1544 – Delays of up to 3 hours being experienced on M5. Highways England continue to lead on media and communications updates for the public
- 1952 – Re-surfacing of Hard Shoulder and Lane 1 completed, but awaiting tarmac to cool sufficiently to re-open to vehicles.
- 2050 – Northbound slip road re-opened
- 2055 – All lanes re-opened, with reduced speed limit of 30mph due to re-surfacing not being fully cooled. Still 15 miles of tailbacks
- 0212 – Lanes 2 and 3 closed re re-surfacing
- 0520 – White lines are re-painted
- 0626 – All lanes now re-opened and running normally
Why does it take so long for a motorway or dual-carriageway to re-open following a full closure?
We work hard to minimise disruption on the road network but as the timeline below shows, it’s important for us and the families of those injured to understand exactly what happened.
Where a fatality (or multiple fatalities) have occurred, a road closure could be in place for many hours or even days.
Our investigating teams must be thorough and need to gather as much evidence as possible before clearing the scene.
Where multiple fatalities have happened it can take a long time to recover the remains of the deceased, if someone has left the vehicle or the impact of the collision was severe, the recovery process is a lot more complicated.
Case study 3
Reports of a lorry on fire on the Hard Shoulder of the M5 Northbound just after J19, Fire take the lead on this operation and Highways England lead on the
- 0856 – Numerous reports of a lorry on fire on the Hard Shoulder of the M5 Northbound, just after J19
- 0857 – Police notify local Fire Brigade, who are already aware and on route
- 0900 – Police liaise with Highways England who are already aware and attending the scene
- 0905 – Fire request the closure of Lanes 1 and 2 as the cab of the lorry is now well alight. ‘50’ speed limit advised
- 0913 – Highways England tweet on social media about possible disruption and delays to drivers
- 0916 – Slip road on to motorway from J19 closed
- 0922– Fire reporting cab fire has successfully been put out
- 0927 – Highways England assess likely damage suffered to the carriageway
- 0930 – Recovery company contacted regarding recovery of cab and trailer
- 1003 – Fire recalled to scene as battery from damaged lorry ‘arcing’, giving rise to fears the fire will re-ignited. Fire arrive and disconnect the battery
- 1123 – Total carriageway closure put in place to allow Highways England to clear debris off all lanes and hard shoulder
- 1151 – Confirmation that 8.5m of hard shoulder and Lane 1 will need to be re-surfaced, to a depth of 40mm
- 1430 – Damaged lorry is recovered
- 0133 – Hard shoulder and Lane 1 and 2 closed to allow re-surfacing to be carried out
- 0601 – Repairs complete, motorway fully re-opened
What are emergency services and Highways England doing to make the process of reopening a road easier?
We work closely with Highways England, Avon Fire & Rescue Service, Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue, and South Western Ambulance service to maintain safety and keep strategic road networks safe – in our force area these include the M4, M5, M48, M32, and M49.
During holiday periods traffic volumes rise on the South West’s roads and can lead to an increase in incidents, particularly along the major M4 and M5 routes.