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Staffordshire Police understands the frustration drivers feel when their plans are delayed by a road traffic collision (RTC).
But behind the cordon, there is a lot going on and officers are working as quickly as possible to establish what happened.
The final instalment in a series of features going behind the cordon when a collision has occurred looks at the decision process utilised before shutting a stretch of motorway following a road traffic collision by the Central Motorway Police Group (CMPG).
CMPG is a co-operative operation between Staffordshire Police and West Midlands Police – providing a dedicated policing service on several hundred miles of the motorway network including busy stretches of the M5, M6, M6 Toll, M42 and M54. They operate from two bases, one of which is based in Doxey, near Stafford.
Nobody wants to shut a motorway. The costs in terms of delays to members of the public and businesses transporting goods can be vast.
But as with collisions on the smaller roads network, the dedication to carrying out a thorough collision investigation in the name of justice for all involved trumps any other factor.
“Are we faced with a life-changing injury? Are we faced with a potential fatality?” said Sergeant Rob Powell of CMPG, who has trained as a Senior Investigating Officer for RTCs. “I make a decision at the scene in relation to do we need to preserve evidence by way of shutting the whole network down?”
Once that decision is made the training kicks in for the officers involved. They have a lot of investigating to do, and not always a lot of time to carry out a thorough and professional job.
CMPG Sgt. Rob Powell receiving a citation for helping a person in need from Supt. Richard Agar, Head of Central Motorway Police Group and West Midlands Police Roads Policing
“We need to preserve the scene, so we would normally have an inner cordon and an outer cordon,” Rob added. “The inner cordon will be where the collision site is. The outer cordon will be where other emergency service vehicles arrive and we liaise with them.
“Obviously fire officers and ambulance crews will enter the inner cordon. But we don’t just want lots of police officers arriving and walking all over the scene if they can remain in the outer cordon.
“In the inner cordon the priority is first aid and saving lives. Secondary is the collection of evidence. We call that first hour the ‘golden hour’ for collecting that evidence. Is there any dash cam footage in the vehicle? Is there any other recording equipment in the vehicle? Mobile phones, are they going to be a factor in the collision – was anybody on their phone for example?”
Perhaps more-so than with collisions on the rest of the roads network, the time pressures related to motorway collision scenes are greater. The desire to open the road again will far outweigh that of a B road, for example.
“We work in partnership with Highways England and in our Regional Control Centre we have both police and Highways England staff,” Rob said. “However, Highways England will ask ‘how long will this road be closed?’ Because for every hour a motorway is closed it has a financial impact on the economy. So we’ve got to balance that out.
“If we can minimise the disruption and contain the evidence in lanes one and two, for example, or if it’s a Smart Motorway and we can keep lane four running we will always aim to do that. But sometimes, because of the speed involved the evidence is across the whole carriageway. We can’t just sweep debris into lanes one and two as we might be waiting for forensic investigators to arrive.
“The Senior Investigating Officer controls the scene and will make a decision as to whether the Collision Investigation Unit (CIU) will turn out or not.”
There may be members of the public within the inner cordon who need help as well. They might not have picked up serious injuries in the collision but have vacated vehicles where a friend or loved one is needing urgent medical attention. Or perhaps they were driving another vehicle involved.
“Sometimes a single-crew patrol can arrive at the scene first and they’ve got a lot to think about,” Rob continued. “They’ve got to consider the safety of the scene, the safety of the witnesses, and also the safety of themselves because some drivers can be impatient about getting to where they need to go.
“If there’s more than one then one officer in the car then one can see to the road closure while the second officer can go and assess who needs to be prioritised for first aid if the ambulance crew isn’t there yet.”
And Rob also had a plea for drivers to remain calm if the road closure blocks off their progress that day.
“Just think if it was yourself or a family member, would you want the police to do a thorough investigation? To enable us to do that we need to collate the evidence. A lot of that evidence will be in the carriageway.
“So when people see a damaged vehicle in, say, lane two, and we have lanes three and four blocked off also, it is frustrating but the scene is across all lanes.
“We are aware of keeping road closures to a minimum. And if we can open a lane we always will. We don’t block them off for the sake of it, there’s always a reason why. We are under scrutiny and the question is asked maybe every half an hour as to when it will reopen. We have to justify every minute the motorway is closed.”
So next time you find a police cordon in place at the scene of a collision, please spare a thought for those involved on the other side and be assured all is being done to get you on your way as soon as it is safe to do so.