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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 March 2006, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Sight set on cutting traffic jams
By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Traffic jam
Traffic updates on roadside signs can help keep jams to a minimum
Matt Kirby seems to enjoy his work overseeing a bank of traffic cameras at the newly opened National Traffic Control Centre near Birmingham.

"We had an odd one the other day," he says, "200 starlings fell out of the sky, dead, onto the M65. We thought it was bird flu but they'd just flown too near a power line or something. Luckily the delays weren't that bad."

Sighs of relief all round. Aside from the feathery carnage, the smallest incidents can mean big delays on Britain's snarled-up motorways.

So the new control centre, officially opened on Thursday after two years getting up to steam, is vital.

From here they can see across England, using hundreds of cameras and thousands of sensing loops embedded in the road surface. Matt can click on a map and instantly see how fast the traffic is moving at any point.

This morning there is an overturned lorry on an M11 slip road, so he can tap out warning messages for motorists to be displayed on the growing number of huge roadside Variable Message Signs.

The National Traffic Control Centre is in some ways an admission of failure
Tom Symonds

It is a big responsibility. Saying 'hello to Mum' for a laugh would result in an instant P45, he assures me.

The company that constructed the centre, Serco, says it is the "most advanced traffic control in the world".

The facility is designed to co-ordinate the work of regional traffic control centres which decide exactly how to clear the jams and where to put the cones. But most important is its role in keeping drivers informed about what is going on.

This national approach enables information to be sent out to drivers far in advance of a hold-up. After the Buncefield explosion the M1 was closed and the centre was able to warn motorists as far away as Scotland.

But the National Traffic Control Centre is in some ways an admission of failure.

The government has accepted there is no way it can reduce the levels of traffic on our roads in the short term, so making it move more smoothly is the next best thing.

Better informed

At the centre they believe if 20 percent of drivers heading towards an accident or breakdown can be warned in time and diverted away, the jams will be noticeably shorter.

So us drivers have a vital role in keeping the roads clear. The problem is we don't seem to have realised. The Highways Agency claims three quarters of motorists are happy to set out on a cross-country trip without even looking at a map, let alone clicking on the real-time internet traffic reports the agency now supplies.

Better informed drivers would have one helpful political side-effect - research suggests travellers of all types are more accepting of delays if they know how long the delay is going to be.

Soon the control centre will be able to flash up journey time predictions, accurate to within five minutes, when there is trouble.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said that when problems occur "at least we can now say what the problem is, and roughly how long it's going to take, and with the new traffic officers on the road system, get it cleared up as quickly as possible."

In other words, the new traffic control centre will help motorists get used to the idea that the steady growth in vehicles on the roads will mean longer journeys at slower speeds.

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