Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 11:52 UK

What use are traffic reports?

Van driver in traffic jam
If only he had listened to the traffic reports

By Oliver Hawkins

What are the chances of getting a radio traffic report that is actually relevant to your current car journey?

A holiday weekend gives the nation a chance to take to the open road and spend more time with the family. Unfortunately this quality time is more than often spent in the car stuck in a traffic jam.

More or Less is on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 1330 BST
Listen to the programme here

In theory, we should be able to avoid this congestion by listening to the travel bulletins on the radio but do they really help? Can they ever give you information you can use?

One listener to the BBC's More or Less programme, Andrew Leith, said he had never used information from a traffic report and asked what the likelihood was of any report actually relating to roads you were using or about to use.

To come up with such a figure you need to make some pretty heroic assumptions. The right answer would depend on where you are, where you are going, how often you go there, which roads you take and, perhaps most importantly, which bulletin you are listening to.

So the first assumption might be the bulletin. Britain's most popular "drive-time" bulletin is Sally Boazman's traffic report on BBC Radio 2.

The Highways Agency monitors traffic on all of England's motorways and A-roads, so they could find out how many drivers were affected by the incidents listed in a Radio 2 traffic report.

traffic jam in both directions
The Highways Agency knows if you are stuck on a major English road

The sample bulletin was Sally's 1715 BST report from the Chris Evans show. The Highways Agency were asked to find out how many drivers were travelling on stretches of road that were affected by the incidents she mentioned.

This was divided by the total number of cars on the Highways Agency road network.

On the day in question there were eight incidents mentioned in the bulletin that took place on the Highways Agency's network, affecting 46,816 drivers out of a total of 301,325. That means the report was relevant to roughly 16% of the drivers in our sample that day.

It is important to understand that there are all sorts of things wrong with this calculation from a statistical point of view. It does not take into account any of those people driving on roads other than major roads in England, which is probably the majority of road users at that time.

It does not consider local traffic reports, which are bound to be more relevant to your location. And it does not match the coverage of the bulletin to the sample - the traffic report is for the whole of the UK.

There's a lot of ifs. If Sally's broadcast was representative, and if you're a representative driver, and if you're driving on a motorway or a road in England, and if you listen to a national traffic broadcast in the rush hour, there's a 15-16% chance that you're going to hear something that's relevant to you.

And, of course, if you are already stuck in the jam, it is too late.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Actually, it happened yesterday. Driving home to South East London down the M11, the traffic report said the Blackwall Tunnel was slow. I thought - oh well, can't be that bad. I then had a good 45 minutes of inching along to contemplate alternative routes and the value of listening to the traffic report.
Marcus, London

If I am travelling anywhere I always have the radio on and listen to the traffic reports - and glad that I do, as I have avoided a traffic jam when returning to Lincoln as a direct result of Sally Traffic. Luckily I was far enough away to be able to make an adjustment and come into the city from a slightly different direction.
Lynne Holmes, Lincoln

I listen to Traffic radio before setting out on motorway journeys and it really helps. I can re route before I set out with the information received. Thanks for the Highways Agency service which I receive on dab radio or on my computer.
Lillian Croston, Blackburn, Lancs

We don't need a radio readout of traffic congestion so much as an accurate update on the sat-nav. I've had two occasions where I was able to divert around hold-ups on the A1 while travelling to visit my parents in the North East and found the sat-nav updates to be both timely and extremely useful.
Frank Bowron, Hatfield

As is often the case with statistics, the essential truth is in what they don't say rather than what they do. If I am southbound on the A34 in Oxfordshire, hearing that there are problems on the M6, M74, M1 etc is comforting to me. I deduce there are no problems on the A34, A303 and A354, my intended route. On the other hand, if I am headed northbound and hear that there is a problem on the M1, I will decide to use the M40, M42 and A38 to reach my destination. I am not involved in the M1 incident, but the information has enabled an informed judgement. Traffic information is one of the best things the Beeb does (and Sally Traffic does it best).
David France, Blandford Forum

I drive 160 miles a day on motorways (M55, M6, M56 & M53)and the traffic reports are ALWAYS out of date. An accident or hold is is often transmitted for the first time up to an hour after you have become stuck or passed the incident.
DGN, Blackpool, UK

I wish that traffic reports were in a consistent order, for example, listed from north to south. You could start paying more attention when the report edges closer to your area, and would know if you have missed a report relating to you if you switch on halfway through and it's south of where you are.
Danny Rosenbaum, London

A friend of mine is a lorry driver who was involved in an accident on the M62. He was listening to Radio 2 whilst awaiting recovery and heard Sally talking about "his" delay. He was very proud.
Mike, Warrington

I have been a long time listener to Radio 2 travel reports and am a big fan of Sally Traffic. On many occasions I have been pleased to hear a report that has either given me a heads up to change route, or at least has explained the reasons for being stuck in a jam.
Simon Bailey, Edinburgh

Traffic reports are almost as useful as the overhead gantry signs on the A1 that instruct you to take an alternative route due to an accident on the southbound carriageway, only to discover that the accident is on the northbound one.
K Walker, Edinburgh, UK

My most striking recollection is driving over Putney Bridge almost devoid of traffic while listening, at exactly that moment, to a traffic report saying it was snarled up.
Adam, London, UK

It is not how many people find it relevant but how many people find it useful. The biggest frustration is that too often a driver receives the information too late to avoid the delay, or makes an unnecessary detour because the delay has actually cleared. The delay arises from the time it takes for the Highways Agency to find out about an incident, the time it takes them to put it into their information system, the time it takes for the broadcaster to put it into their information system and the time delay before the next traffic bulletin - and vice versa.
Barry, Essex

I vaguely remember many years ago, they did a survey to find out how many drivers heard a bulletin, by asking listeners to the Tony Blackburn Show on Radio 1 (that dates it!!) to turn on their headlights. Observers counted the number of drivers who responded. I don't know what the results were, but it might be interesting to repeat the experiment.
Chris, Oitti, Finland (ex London)

On one journey I managed to get caught in three separate incidents that were being reported on Radio 2. That, however, was the exception to the rule. In general I find that you hit trouble long before it's reported, and most reports are out of date, and the trouble has already cleared when you get there. For example, I saw a serious crash as it happened on the M4 and it was not reported for well over an hour.
Nicholas Elmslie, New Milton, UK


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