Sunday, 19 December 2010

Public essentially foolhardy on 'essential' journeys

It was perhaps instructive to listen to John Swinney addressing Holyrood's transport committee last week on the recent weather-related roads chaos, since this provided some insight into why such problems arise in the first place.

His otherworldliness was ably demonstrated by a couple of remarks in relation to the public's contribution to avoiding these things in the first place, when Mr Swinney suggested that employers could be a bit more accommodating as regards requiring people to turn up to work (aye, right!) and that HGV drivers could heed calls by police to make only essential journeys. "It's no' worth the candle," he said.

The latter point in particular seemed particularly out of touch. Such warnings seem to be issued several times each year, and probably only the most circumspect of people pay much heed to them. One problem is that many people are foolhardy; an essential journey amounts to driving a few hundred yard to buy a packet of fags or a takeaway pizza. Another is that most of the time the warnings regarding essential journeys are not really necessary unless an ultra-cautious 'elf and safety' approach is deemed appropriate. This may well be appropriate for those officiating over such matters, but in the real world life has to go on other than in the most extreme circumstances. Hauliers won't just suspend their operations due to a warning, which indeed may well become more common in future in the hope that gridlock can be avoided - the industry is highly competitive, economic conditions are tough, thus truckers are already blasé about usually unnecessary warnings.

Granted, Mr Swinney did allude to the difficulties in this regard, but fine words are one thing, the practical realities another. But the more generally futile nature of his comments were ably demonstrated this weekend when parts of England experienced a near-carbon copy of Scotland's events of a few days earlier - heavy snow, jack-knifed lorries, gridlocked roads, stranded motorists etc. (But no obvious clamour for Westminster transport secretary Phillip Hammond's head!)

But warnings had been issued, and the Scottish experience should still be fresh in people's minds, even south of the border. However, it seems that little heed was paid to such warnings, thus the same problems arose. On a radio news item last night an official said he had never seen so many cars out on a Saturday evening, hence resultant traffic chaos. Ah, that would be the essential Christmas shopping traffic then.

The fact is that weather-related problems have to be extremely immediate and obvious before the public pay heed to warnings to undertake only essential journeys, even as regards leisure activities, never mind getting to and from work or running a business. Indeed, by that time it's probably too late for most people anyway; only the fact of the chaos existing deters and prevents it from getting any worse.

Likewise, the official plan to stack lorries to prevent problems seems unrealistic - truckers are unlikely to be readily amenable to such requests until traffic is at a standstill anyway. As for other elements of the Scottish Government's six point plan - such as grit at key points and traffic diversions as appropriate - this begs the question why such obvious measures aren't in place already, and of course actually implementing them is slightly different to politicians and civil servants promulgating them, as even a desk-bound senior police officer pointed out.

However, perhaps Mr Swinney made the most commonsense point of the session when he said that at times the weather can simply overwhelm the road network and any measures taken by the authorities in response; essentially, any expectation that a repeat performance can be prevented is unrealistic.

Meanwhile, it's probably just as well for new transport secretary Keith Brown that Scotland seems to have avoided the forecasted repeat of the weather of a fortnight ago in the last few days, since his gimmick of spending the night at the coal face would have misfired spectacularly, because it's difficult to see what he could have contributed to preventing a repeat performance of the traffic chaos; officialdom has had years of experience of cocking these things up, so what realistically could Mr Brown's presence have done to prevent this?

Indeed, the forecasts of significant amounts of new snow last week demonstrate why the public pay little heed to such warnings. Dundee was confidently predicted to have perhaps another foot of snow by now. As it is, we've had little more than a light dusting.

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