October 2, 2017

We need to talk about roadside workers

Recently there have been some high-profile and very tragic, incidents where people have been killed or seriously injured travelling on Britain’s motorway. Perhaps less well publicised have been the recent incidents involving roadside repair and recovery personnel.

This month alone you might have heard about the recovery driver near Worcester who suffered a serious leg injury when trapped between his van and the broken down car he was attending by a 4x4. Or perhaps the recovery driver who was killed on the M25 when his truck was hit by an articulated lorry as he worked on the hard shoulder. Both lives, and those of their families, changed in an instant. Many more of these incidents and “near misses” go unreported.

Each year more accidents happen, and yet there is still no public outcry. At fault are motorists who either fail to pay attention when driving past the scene of an accident, broken down vehicle or roadside works, or who make no attempt to reduce their speed despite advance warning that someone is working close to the roadside.

Roadside workers don’t get the visibility they need

Roadside workers need room to carry out their work. This isn’t exclusive to the Emergency Services whose flashing blue and red warning lights generally have an instant effect on many who see them.

Recovery drivers, telephone/cable engineers, road repair operatives need space too, yet these workers can only rely on flashing amber lights that don’t appear to be taken as seriously by many people. How many people would admit to speeding up through an amber traffic light? Interestingly, the Government declined the recovery industry’s request for magenta lights, something that could help set them apart – as proven by a study by Loughborough University way back in 2000.

They don’t just suffer from a lack of visibility on the road either. Despite increases in serious injuries to roadside workers over the last few years, the public isn’t being engaged in the conversation. In fact, the last petition by workers to get some much needed changes to the law was 4 years ago and fell a fair way short of the required number of signatures, even after the Highways Agency tried to highlight the dangers to people just trying to do their job.

What are the dangers of working at the roadside?

Recovery drivers accept that their job often puts them at increased risk. Therefore they work quickly to either fix or load vehicles, doing what they can to minimise that risk, but there’s only so much they can do to protect themselves in such a situation. All roadside workers rely heavily on other drivers’ common sense and awareness.

Standard procedure is for a recovery vehicle to pull up a distance behind the broken down vehicle with beacons lit, using their vehicle as a barrier, but loading another vehicle means having to be positioned in front of it.

However, if someone veers off onto the hard shoulder of a motorway and hits either the broken down vehicle or the recovery truck then at motorway speeds there’s a strong likelihood those vehicles are going to be shunted into each other. Anyone working on or around them could then end up trapped between or underneath the vehicles.

Whilst working at the roadside doesn’t generally involve motorway speeds, it can still involve being at close proximity to drivers reaching up to 60mph and lanes/roads are narrower.

Hopefully you’ve never had to stand at the roadside close to traffic, or exit your vehicle on a busy motorway with cars and lorries flying past, but imagine the drag caused by traffic passing at high speed. Now put yourself in the position of someone out in all weathers, and often at night, with limited visibility but an important job to do.

Recovery drivers usually work alone, aside from any occupants of the vehicle they are attending, and often vehicles they are picking up are unattended because occupants have been taken to hospital.

If it’s in response to an accident, they are frequently left to deal with removal of vehicles after the emergency services have left the scene, so no longer have the added protection of blue lights. Otherwise, if they are simply responding to a call out for a broken down vehicle, they alone are responsible for their own safety and that of any customers whilst carrying out the repair or recovery.

The injuries when things go wrong at the roadside

Injuries caused from such incidents can be catastrophic, e.g. crush injuries and traumatic or subsequent amputations (elective or otherwise). In some cases the injuries prove fatal.

Similarly, “near misses” may not cause physical injury but can cause psychological trauma, although many roadside workers are robust in nature and keep on going as they pride themselves on their service to the public. Imagine being the worker who witnessed the below crash, after a car miscalculated an overtaking manoeuvre at 60mph:

RTA with roadside recovery vehicle

Even the simplest call-out can end up putting a life and job at risk when it’s at the roadside.

What can be done to make roadside workers safer?

We should all be vigilant when we see amber lights flashing at the roadside or on the hard shoulder; the simplest response is to anticipate and slow down.

If you’re on a dual carriageway or motorway and it is safe to do so, move into the adjacent lane when you approach any emergency or works vehicle parked at the roadside to give those working there extra room, but above all reduce your speed.

Along with others, the UK recovery industry is trying to bring about change through a proposed "Slow Down, Move Over" law. This is vitally important to protect everyone working on the UK’s roads, and is something that is already in place in other countries. For example, the US:

But, the most important thing is for people to actually think about roadside workers when they’re driving. Put yourself in their shoes for a day, and next time you pass someone working at the roadside give them the space and respect they deserve.

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  • Vikki jones says:

    This is spot on. My partner is a roadside technician. Every time he leaves our home I worry if he will return. The risk involved is so high. If people would just pay attention and slow down and move over then us wives and the children of these men would not spend so much time worried about the lives of these men. They work tirelessly day and night to keep the roads moving for you! Please please give them a slight bit of your thoughts while passing.

    • Rachel Jones says:

      Thank you for your comment and support Vikki. I have personal experience so it is an issue I am keen to bring awareness to, and I hope we can widen the audience.

  • Tim Hay says:

    Thank you Rachel for highlighting this. I worry about all our drivers every time they leave the yard on a job. All they are doing is helping other people , but they risk thier own life every time they go out. As an Ex roadside technician, I am only too aware of the dangers they face and this point needs to be made public

    • Rachel Jones says:

      Thank you for your comment Tim, as you say it’s not just the individuals on the scene putting their lives on the line but those many people behind the scenes worrying about them. If this blog can help raise more awareness then it will have served its purpose.

  • Rachel Jones says:

    A timely but unfortunate reminder of just what can happen due to a moment’s inattention. Imagine you or a loved one being sat in the lorry cab when something like this happens. There is a new petition up and running as the frequency of these incidents increases, please sign it if you can.



  • Matthew scott says:

    Thank you so much, this thread has given me hope that i might not die roadside, common sense has become un common. Mobile phones, complex dash/radios and ignorance are but a few catalysts for incidents roadside.
    When public are instructed and made aware of the risks involved roadside- we often are met with laughter or belittlement, which quickly escalates and hinder a scene roadside.
    Vehicles have also started to honk in jest to frighten roadside workers, which is absolutely unacceptable.
    Uk public roads are deathtraps, roadside workers are at high risk of physical and mental harm, abuse and assault from vehicle operators, with death by ignorance and indifference a constant threat.

    Any and all improvement to the safety conditions for recovery operators roadside will be received with great relief.

    • Rachel Jones says:

      Thank you for your comment Matthew, and for reading this blog/thread. Despite increased traffic on the roads, sadly many motorists still seem oblivious to the risks faced by roadside workers. It’s a shame it sometimes takes a member of the public to actually be put in a roadside worker’s position (e.g. breaking down on a smart motorway without a hard shoulder) before they can appreciate the danger people like you find yourselves in on a daily basis. It does, as you say, very much come down to common sense a lot of the time, and anyone holding a driving licence should have no excuse not to be aware of their responsibilities whilst out on the road.